Don’t call me Muslim, I am an atheist.

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 He started Mukto-Mona to accommodate writings of atheists and humanists, as newspapers do not publish their work.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.



    Now it is finally admitted by her in this interview that she is not a Muslim but an atheist. No matter, it makes no difference to Islam but to herself. You know a few years of your life will be over but a day will come when you will be adjudged for your deeds. Islam worries for that and for every body irrespective of religion and atheism and you abuse such a greatness. You find fault in the Law of Allah. Better repent for past mistake and begin your life afresh in the Service of Allah. You could be an asset of Ummah, if reformed.

  2. says

    I think also I’m not a Muslim but an atheist. No rationalist person can believe in God as it is created by men for their own interest. Religion is nothing but a weapon to oppress women and toiling masses. Believers are blind in their faith having no logic.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Taslima Nasreen: Please don’t call me a Muslim, I am an atheist.

    The Hindu: As a Muslim writer, your work often …

    Was this interviewer particularly stupid, or just trying to shoehorn his(?) interviewee into a corner she had already explicitly rejected?

  4. August Eightysix says

    Please. PLEASE. Don’t just put violent images like that for all to see. I really did not want to see that – it physically upsets me. Please put a warning black panel over the pic and let individuals CHOOSE to remove the panel if they wish to see the violence. This allows readers like me to read without being suddenly assaulted with images as I scroll down to read more. Recognize that there are people who cannot stomach violence and it haunts them. Most news publisher give warnings and simply provide a text link. Posting a picture like that forced me to abandon reading your article. I really really am angry at you for making me see that image. I do not want such images in my head.

  5. says

    Somethings have to be said. We should all be against:

    1) Female genital mutilation
    2) Punishing rape victims
    3) Honor killing
    4) Strapping bombs to children
    5) Sexually enslaving women
    6) Murdering homosexuals
    7) Child marriage
    8) Domestic Violence
    9) Disciplining or Punishing Wives

  6. sarma,V says

    Origin of a new religion
    Suddenly one day in my dream I could hear some voice in low decibels. I felt like I am getting some special powers and that is why I could hear such whispers (low decibel interactions) as divine voice. The whispers told me that I should start a new religion and preach the followings: The whispers said that I should propagate the usage of only dogs as meat and cats are forbidden. Whispers also said that men can have up to eight wives but women only one husband. For women the whispers suggested that they should undergo female genital mutilation so that they don’t stray out of the marriage. The other whispers were that if we kill innocents God will appreciate and provide 100 virgins in heaven after our death. God also said only my whispers should be taken seriously and whispers of others should be negated. If any one does not accept my whispers they should be killed mercilessly. Many other things also I could hear from the whispers. Since the God appeared in the form of whispers it has been considered that God is formless. I shared these subtle messages that I was receiving to many of my friends and disciples. I also went to a team of Doctors and consulted them. They said it is a clear case of Schizophrenia. I came back and started worrying because on one hand I thought I was getting divine messages but doctors tell me that I am a Schizophrenic. But due to information and technology revolution my friends and disciples have already spread what I told them and people started taking it as a new religion. It shocked me when I learnt that one’s whispers could be the basis of a religion. But I was also worried that in the medical dictionary the whispers are considered as Schizophrenia and millions have already started following what a schizophrenic told to a few friends and disciples due to information and technology revolution. That means millions of schizophrenics have already started following it without verifying the veracity of the content. For myself I thought I still had divine powers because I was receiving the whispers which others did not receive. My disciples and friends decided the whispers as masculine God and started the usage of “He” to address the God. They also felt that as a founder of new religion they should construct memorial in honor of discovery and it became an important place throughout the world that people started visiting. The source of whispers was unknown (while majority believe that they are from God a few say that they are from Satan). The followers decided that the place where I reside could be considered as holy and people far away who could not come to visit the place simply turn to the direction of the memorial and conduct prayers. Later on as per the whsipers the followers started hating cats but overzealously started eating only dogs. Without realizing that one man’s whispers could become a nightmare for millions of others my followers strictly started implementing my whispers as a new religion. In fact down the ages instead of fine tuning and filtering my whispers, my friends and disciples added several other things and passed it on from one generation to another generation. The friends and disciples who have spread the new religion named it as “Hissingo Whisperanga”. The religious leader who found the religion based on the whispers has then been called as “Stupida Infinita” by his followers. His followers were called as “Whisperango maniacs”. The city to which the religious leader belonged has been named as “Eccentrica”. One day whispering God appears to one of the ardent believers “Concocta” and punishes him to get scratches on his body from a cat as he was playing with a cat which was forbidden in the religion. When “Concocta” was about to sacrifice for the scratches, God whispers him and tells him I am happy with your greatest sacrifice and hence you need not get scratches on your body and instead you better kill a rat. He further tells that hereafter the particular day should be celebrated as the “greatest sacrifice day” and a rat meat has to be consumed on the particular day. Every year the ‘Whisperango maniacs’ started celebrating the ‘greatest sacrifice day’ by consuming the rats with great fervor and gaiety. Here again the whispering God told that a rat should be eaten after a ‘chase and catch game’ between a cat and rat for half an hour and only when the rat gets tired and cat was about to eat it, the duel should be stopped and then the rat is eaten. It is scientifically good that a rat is eaten after it gets tired is the scientific explanation given by Whisperango maniac followers. With technological revolution the religion is spread by “Lance Khatharnak” throughout the world through the “Our God is Most Merciful TV channel”. When some countries tried to ban eating of dogs one of the Whisperango maniac leader Seewaisi called it as a regressive step and not a progressive step. He however added that banning the eating of meat of cats would be considered as a progressive step. A book titled “Saitan ki bache” was banned by Whisperango maniacs written by “Staurofilmania” as it was critical about the religion. Similarly another book titled “Shame on U” written by “Looksgreeta” was also banned by Whisperango maniacs after they found that the book was critical about the practices of Hissingo Whisperanga. All Rationalists chose selective rationalism to criticize all other religions but not ours due to fear of death through “threatia” that we pass on them. Even thousand Periyars (EVK Ramasamy Naickers) cannot change you was one of the comments indirectly passed but they could not direct it towards the new religion Hissingo Whisperango as they know the consequences. Whisperango maniacs have been asked by its religious leader to tell as many lies as possible to say that ours is the most non-violent, pardoning, merciful religion in the world. They are exactly following it dutifully with a disconnect between what they claim and what they do through their actions.


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