Writer-in-exile Taslima Nasreen calls for reining in religious fundamentalism, saying that criticism of religion is not the domain of non-Muslim intellectuals alone
Writer Taslima Nasreen fled Bangladesh in 1994 when extremists threatened to kill her for criticising Islam, and has been living in exile since. Her country has, in recent times, seen many intellectuals expelled or killed. Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist blogger who wrote under the name Thaba Baba, was hacked to death after the Shahbag protests in 2013. In February this year, atheist blogger Avijit Roy was killed in Dhaka by extremist groups for his writings on the Bangla blog Mukto-Mona (Free Thinker) that he founded. Feminist and secular humanist Ms Nasreen now lives in New Delhi. In an interview with Suvojit Bagchi, she spoke about the shrinking space for free thinkers in Bangladesh and says that Islam cannot be exempt from the critical scrutiny that other religions go through.
Tell us a little bit about Avijit Roy.
I knew Avijit for a long time. He started Mukto-Mona to accommodate writings of atheists and humanists, as newspapers do not publish their work. Avijit was a science blogger and a free thinker, an atheist and a rationalist, who wanted to secure a space to dissect and debate issues. Later, he turned his blogs into books. Mukto-Mona became a window through which people could look at each other and raise questions about all religions, including Islam. In Bangladesh, over a period, the space for free thinkers has been disappearing. Avijit brought it back using a new platform… precisely why his contribution is outstanding.
When and how exactly did this space for free thinkers start shrinking?
The change was noticed at the time of General Hussain Ershad in the mid-1980s. A secular Constitution was given away to make Islam the state religion. I have witnessed the mass movement of 1969, the newly independent country of the 70s… the situations then were different. People could voice their opinion and women hardly wore the hijab or the burqa. But society slowly changed. For instance, whatever I wrote in the 1980s, early 90s — criticising Islam and women’s condition in Islamic societies — was published in newspapers with a wide circulation. But that cannot be imagined now. Freedom of expression is an alien term now.
Why has this change taken place?
The progressive community is partly responsible. When I was expelled in 1994, the whole of society went silent. If this community had objected then, Bangladesh would not have had a society in which an Avijit is hacked to death, a Humayun Azad targeted or an Ahmed Rajib Haider killed for criticising Islam. Perhaps the conflict in Bangladesh is whether to have a country on the basis of language or on the basis of religion.
How can this be resolved?
“We must stop stoning women to death in the name of religion. Laws should be based on equality, not on religion”
Bangladesh was born on the idea of a secular Bengali nation. Since 1952, Bengali Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have wanted their state language to be Bengali, not Urdu. The people who opposed our independence, along with the Pakistani army, killed three million Bengalis in 1971 and are now involved in the Islamisation of Bangladesh. They are killing free thinkers and intellectuals. Pakistan is a country which is based on religion. But the Bangladesh constitution must remain secular, and separate state from religion. We must have secular education rather than education through madrassas. The government must not let the country become a safe haven for religious extremists.
People say your criticism of religion is rather excessive and provocative.
I said religion oppresses women. Laws should be based on equality, not on religion; women should have equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. I said we must stop stoning women to death in the name of religion. Is that provocation? Every civilised state has questioned the relationship of the state with religion, eventually disentangling and distancing the two. Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that other religions have gone through. My opinion is based on my belief in secular humanism. If that is provocative, then it is absolutely necessary to provoke.
But it’s often said that your writings strengthen fundamentalism.
Governments are strengthening fundamentalism, not me. When religious fanatics set a price on my head, instead of taking action against them, the government targeted me. The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party joined hands with these forces and so did the caretaker government. Even in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government expelled me; the Imam Barkati of the Tipu Sultan Mosque, who set a price on my head, was adored by the Marxists. Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee befriended the Imam as soon as she came to power.
Another allegation is that by making statements against Islam, you strengthen the right wing in India.
Absolute nonsense. I criticise all religions, including Hinduism. I opposed Hindu godmen, rituals such as karva chauth and shivaratri, and condemned the oppression of Muslims in Gujarat. I donated Rs.10,000 to poet Shankha Ghosh, who was collecting funds for rehabilitating Gujarat riot victims. I objected to the oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh, objected to Jewish oppression in Nazi Germany, objected to Muslim oppression in Bosnia, Palestine, and Christian oppression in Pakistan. I also wrote in favour of films such as PK, Water and The Last Temptation of Christ. Please don’t call me a Muslim, I am an atheist.
When Indian rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and CPI leader Govind Pansare were killed, you were silent.
Who told you? You need to check my Twitter account to find out about my reactions and how the Hindu right-wing elements abused me for that. However, it is true that I consider Islamic fundamentalism a bigger threat.
As do many western countries…
Only the western world thinks that Islamic fundamentalism is dangerous? Rather, it’s the opposite — the West is keen to side with Islamists.
As a Muslim writer, your work often reflects the West’s paranoia about Islam. Is the West forcing you to say what it wants?
Are you saying Muslims cannot have a mind of their own to criticise their religion? Is criticism of religion the domain of non-Muslim intellectuals? That is an anti-Muslim remark, seriously.
What could be Bangladesh’s future?
The country will be heading for a complete disaster if Islamic terrorists are not brought to justice. However, given the past record, nothing will happen and such incidents will increase in the coming months, as they are intrinsically connected with politics.
Muslim fundamentalists issued fatwa against women’s football match in West Bengal. Now the match is cancelled by the authority. ‘Islam does not permit us to watch women playing in the field wearing short dresses.’ Fundamentalists said.
Authorities fulfill every demand of Muslim fundamentalists, no matter whether those demands are against laws. It seems fundamentalists are the authorities, and authorities are the slaves. Let me tell you my West Bengal experiences.
1. Authorities banned the book of my memoir in 2003 because Muslim fundamentalists asked authorities to ban that book.
2. Fundamentalists issued fatwas against me, they set prices on my head in 2004-2007. Authorities did not take any action against any of those fundamentalists even though setting price on people’s head was illegal.
3. Authorities wanted to make Muslim fundamentalists happy by throwing me out of West Bengal in 2007.
4. The inauguration of my book in Kolkata book fair 2012 was banned by the authorities, and
5. The telecast of my TV mega serial was cancelled in 2013 in order to appease Muslim fundamentalists.
Quite horrible experiences, indeed.
I was not really surprised when I heard that women’s football match was cancelled in West Bengal. West Bengal is officially not ruled by Muslim fundamentalists, but unofficially it is ruled by them. They take decision which books or serials should not be read or watched by people, who can stay in the state, who should not be allowed to enter the state, what game women should play, what they should wear etc. Fundamentalists claim that whatever is not Islamic hurts their religious sentiments. Politicians are keen to take very good care of people’s fucking bullshit sentiments.
Cow slaughter is getting illegal in India. The state of Maharashtra imposed a 5-year jail term for cow slaughter. Now Haryana government would make cow slaughter punishable by up to 10-year imprisonment.
“We would not allow beef in Haryana as it hurts our religious sentiments.” The Haryana minister said.
“Some people argue in favour of respecting sentiments of beef-eaters. If some community develops a habit of eating human flesh, should we respect that as well?” Another minister said.
State education minister suggested death sentence for cow slaughter.
I have seen cows walking around Delhi. They have no food. They are eating plastic bags from the streets. Cows suffer from intestinal obstruction because of having plastic bags. I do not know why they, who worship cows, do not provide the poor cows grass? I am not a cow worshiper, but seeing cows eating plastic bags makes me feel cry. I collect grass for hungry cows. But it is not possible for me to feed hundreds of cows. I am not against beef farming, but I am against torture and ill treatment of cows and all other animals.
A Kuwaiti Islamist preacher has called for the destruction of Egypt’s pyramids and Sphinx – one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world – claiming that just because early Muslims did not destroy the pharaohs’ legacy “does not mean that we shouldn’t”.
Ibrahim Al Kandari, the Islamist preacher, said, ”The ancient Egyptian monuments should be “destroyed”. The great buildings should be destroyed to put an end to the worship of images. The fact that early Muslims who were among prophet Mohammed’s followers did not destroy the pharaohs’ monuments upon entering the Egyptian soil, does not mean that we shouldn’t do it now.”
The Kuwaiti preacher Al Kandari’s call to erase the incredible legacy of ancient Egypt echoes ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who suggested the demolition of the historic monuments is a ‘religious duty’.
During the Iraq war, ancient libraries and museums were destroyed. Islamic State or ISIS now destroyed Hatra, the ancient Iraqi city, and Assyrian artefacts of Mosul museum. They are probably going to destroy Egypt’s pyramids and sphinx, one of the 7 wonders. It is actually the biggest wonder to me how the world is letting a group of insane people destroy human’s history and heritage, ancient arts and civilization, our culture and pride.
ISIS demolished Hatra, the two thousand years old city. Before demolishing Hatra, they destroyed the ruins at the Assyrian city of Nimrud which was founded in the 13th Century BCE. They also destroyed ancient arts in Mosul museum. ISIS said the statues in the museum are ‘false idols’ that have to be smashed. They smashed all false idols exactly like prophet Muhammad who smashed 360 ‘false idols’ inside Kaaba. Killing infidels and destroying false idols are not something that should make true Muslims unhappy.
I feel sad when I think we will never get our history and heritage back. Treasures are gone forever.
Under Islamic law, you can only prove rape if rapists agree that they rape or you have four male witnesses. But unfortunately men do not say that they rape and they do not rape in front of witnesses. Without witnesses a rape is considered to be adultery.
The Qur’an says,
Qur’an (2:282) – Establishes that a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s in court (there is no “he said/she said” gridlock in Islam).
Qur’an (24:4) – “And those who accuse free women then do not bring four witnesses (to adultery), flog them…” Strictly speaking, this verse addresses adultery (revealed at the very time that Muhammad’s favorite wife was being accused of adultery on the basis of only three witnesses coincidentally enough). However it is a part of the theological underpinning of the Sharia rule on rape, since if there are not four male witnesses, the rape “did not occur”.
Qur’an (24:13) – “Why did they not bring four witnesses of it? But as they have not brought witnesses they are liars before Allah.”
Qur’an (2:223) – “Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will…” There is no such thing as rape in marriage, as a man is permitted unrestricted sexual access to his wives.
And the Hadith says,
Bukhari (5:59:462) – The background for the Qur’anic requirement of four witnesses to adultery. Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, was accused of cheating [on her polygamous husband]. Three witnesses corroborated the event, but Muhammad apparently did not want to believe it, and so established the arbitrary rule that four witnesses are required.
Saudi Arabia is doing exactly what Muhammad wanted to do. We are in the 21st century but we still are following 7th century’s laws! The woman could not find four witnesses, so she was seen as adulterous. She is now punished for adultery.
Egypt took a good decision. Mosques have always been breeding grounds for terrorists. More mosques mean more terrorism.
Other countries should learn from Egypt. Close all mosques. I can assure you Islamic terrorism will be reduced by fifty percent. The rest will be gone after madrasas get closed.
Prove am wrong.