You have always been very vocal against Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, there are many voices of liberal Muslims saying that terrorism in the name of religion is not Islamic – do you find yourself to be isolated?
There are free thinkers, rationalists and atheists who think like me, so I don’t always feel isolated. For us, it is not important what religion our families may be following, but we believe in humanism. For people like this, there is no need for any religion in society – rational thinking and scientific minds are far more important. So when I say that religion and fundamentalism have no difference and religion is the root cause of religious terrorism Look at ISIS or Boko Haram – Islamic terrorists are always inspired by Islam. They cite the same Quranic texts all Muslims consider sacred.
What about freedom to practise religion?
Of course, we don’t ask people who believe in it to throw away religion. But religious reform is needed for society. And laws should be based on human rights, womens rights, equality, justice and humanism instead of religion. I acknowledge the rights of religious people to believe and practise religion. When temples are broken in Bangladesh, or mosques are destroyed somewhere else, I protest because religious freedom is necessary, but there should also be freedom to not believe in religion or to criticise it and society, education, state etc should be kept outside the domain of religion. The state should should not have a religion but if people like to they can practise a religion but can’t be forced by anyone. This plurarity of thought is important and laws should be based on human rights and not religion. Personally as an atheist and secularist I do not believe in religion. Secularism for me is not the Indian definition – instead it is someone without religion.
You speak a lot about Islamic fundamentalism – but what about religious intolerance in India?
Some people are intolerant – and the cases of torturing Muslims in India, the beef controversy or the recent case of making Muslims eat cow-dung are very disturbing. But so many religions and cultures in India coexist that it is amazing – if India was intolerant there would be many more riots and the state is not intolerant, nothing in the constitution that promotes intolerance – maybe secularism is not being practised properly. The Indian Constitution is not intolerant, but there are individuals who are intolerant and that has to change.
Your thoughts on uniform civil code?
I’m all for an uniform civil code and had campaigned for it in Bangladesh too, where Hindu women really suffer because of ancient Hindu laws and have no right to inherit property from their fathers. They also suffer because their husbands can marry any number of times that they want to. Muslim personal laws based on Islam in Bangladesh also say that women can inherit less property than their brothers. The husband can have four wives. There’s no equality under any religion, so uniform civil code based on equality is the best way possible in India and Bangladesh.
The new face of terrorists in India and Bangladesh is that of educated young men from affluent families. Your views on radicalisation and is this more alarming than before in view of the recent violence in Bangladesh and Kashmir?
Religious leaders are looking at looking at educated youth for Islamisation because they need talented young people as recruits. They have grandiose dreams to control the world, for which they need to recruit bright young educated men with brains. The old stereotypes of poor, underprivileged and frustrated people turning to religion has changed. Educated young people are turning to religion and are being groomed through Islamic education and the Koran within their families. From a young age they are taught to believe in religion and have faith, when they later study science that’s only for jobs and their profession but they already have a strong belief in religion from childhood. This religious identity is created at an early age and provides an easy solution. Science is difficult to learn and understand while religion is attractive because it provides easy solutions. It is also easy to convince and brainwash young people with religion. Islamist leaders often don’t send their children to madrasas but instead to English medium institutions and western countries for their education, but they have been brainwashed with religion from an early age and so turn to terrorism.
What in your view is the solution?
Children should be allowed to grow up in a free thinking environment and should not be under pressure of religious teachings from an early age. Only then will they not be influenced by preachers to turn to violence in the name of religion. What happens now is that they become easy prey since the seeds of religious fundamentalism has been sown at an early age in their fertile minds. There has been a lot of talk about the misinterpretation of the Koran by preachers. But like Koran there are other holy books too which have also doubtlessly been misinterpreted by fundamentalists – but that has not given rise to Christian or Jewish terrorists who slaughter people. Only one religion creates terrorists who kill innocents around the world.
As a writer and a creative person in exile do you have any regrets about not being able to go back?
No I have no regrets, but I have relatives in Bangladesh and would like to go and visit them. But that is Impossible – the government doesn’t renew my passport or issue a visa – I have no valid documents and it is not safe anymore for me to travel to Bangladesh. I feel like I’m a citizen of this world and I don’t believe in national boundaries – the universe is my country, whole world is my village.
What about the ban by the West Bengal government?
I will keep on fighting for my right to go to Bengal, I’m a Bengali writer and I don’t have any rights to live either in Bangladesh or in West Bengal. I will fight for my right to go back to Bengal – I may not live there but I should have the right to go there because of my freedom of expression. I should be able to criticise religion or say whatever I like and still have the right to stay there. Even the Indian government had thrown me out but I came back again and I’m living here – and that is because India is democracy and India should uphold my freedom of expression. That’s why I live in India because India is a democracy and freedom of expression is valuable – I can criticise religion and still stay in India. More than me this is a positive of India as a secular and democratic state. My fight is not only for me, it is also the fight for people who need to have freedom to express their views that are different from others.
Personally, I’m a citizen of Europe and can live in Europe. I also have an American Green Card and permanent resident rights there. But I live here because I love the Indian sub-continent and I don’t feel like they’re different countries. When I’m in India I feel like I’m at home – my books have been published here and I have so many readers, so many people love me that’s why I feel at home here and not because Indians look like me.
There’s a conspiracy to throw me out though – I have been thrown out of Bengal and Bangladesh and there ae so many fatwas and price on my head but still I’m living in the Indian sub-continet because I write in Bengali – one of the Indian languages.
What are you working on – and though you write in different genres which defines you the best?
Some people like my poetry while others love my fiction and essays. I have written seven autobiographies and will write another one. I’m also writing about women’s freedom. I feel there is a poet inside me.