Exiled in 1994 for criticizing Islam in her novel Lajja, controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen is still dauntless and does not mince words when it comes to opposing religious fundamentalism and espousing the cause of freedom of expression.
By Murali Krishnan
Exiled in 1994 for criticizing Islam in her novel Lajja, controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen is still dauntless and does not mince words when it comes to opposing religious fundamentalism and espousing the cause of freedom of expression. Since 2004, she has an Indian visa on a continuous basis. In an interview to Murali Krishnan, Nasreen, 53, shares her worries about the shrinking space for freethinkers in her country and says Islam cannot be exempt from the critical scrutiny other religions go through.
Do you think religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh has become more pronounced, especially in the backdrop of the killings of bloggers, writers and publishers?
I think so, yes. In my time, hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists demanded my execution by hanging because I criticized Islam. Now young writers and bloggers, who are critics of Islam, are being hacked to death by Islamic terrorists.
Islamization started in Bangladesh since the 80s. Huge amounts of money arrived from the Middle East. Numerous mosques and madrasas are being built for indoctrinating young boys. These mosques and madrasas are the breeding ground of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists.
During the 70s and 80s in Bangladesh, I never saw so many girls and women wearing hijab and burqa. Arab Wahhabi culture has invaded Bangladesh. And political Islam is present with its swords and guns. It has replaced the innocent form of Islam practised by my grandparents.
The Awami League is in power. They are considered pro-independence and “secular”. How come fundamentalists are gaining ground in the country?
The Awami League is not secular anymore. It’s more like the Jamaat-e-Islami. This party has an ulema league which was formed by Islamic fundamentalists. They are the people who okay the killing of freethinkers and liberals. Members of Jamaat-e-Islami have been joining Awami League because they have more or less the same ideology.
Sheikh Hasina has not issued any statement so far against the brutal killings of progressive and secular writers. She has rather warned the freethinkers that they must not cross the limit or hurt the religious feelings of people. She created a law which is against freedom of expression. She made atheist writers and bloggers victim of a dangerous provision of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.
Many suggest that the main conflict in Bangladesh today is between pro- and anti-independence forces, that it has escalated with the starting of the war tribunals. Do you agree?
Not really. Many pro-independence forces are also against the atheist bloggers and writers. All pro-independence people are not necessarily freethinkers. Many are believers. They support the punishment of war criminals as well as the atheists. The real conflict is between secularism and fundamentalism. Between rational, logical thinking and irrational blind faith, between humanism and barbarism, between those who value freedom and those who do not.
The rise of fundamentalism can also be seen in India. Is the world changing in a new direction?
I have been witnessing the rise of fundamentalism in India. Rationalists were slain by Hindu fanatics. Four people were killed over beef. Two have been killed in clashes over Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary celebrations. This is a different India. I cannot be proud of this intolerant India. I hope good sense will prevail.
If you hadn’t left Bangladesh, do you believe the fundamentalists would have killed you?
Of course. I live in exile. The Islamic killers are still after me. They have made a new global hit list and my name is on it.
You said a majority of Indian intellectuals are hypocritical as they did not speak up when Muslim fanatics attacked you.
I did not say that Indian intellectuals are hypocritical. I said that pseudo-secular people who speak against Hindu fundamentalists but not against Muslim fundamentalists are hypocritical.
I respect intellectuals in India. They are against all kinds of fundamentalism. It is true that many writers and artists who call themselves secular did not defend me when I was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists. They believe it is their duty to defend Muslims in India as they are a minority. That’s fine, but I don’t understand why they think they should defend minority fundamentalism. There is no difference between minority religious fundamentalism and the religious fundamentalism of the majority community.
You said there is “idiocracy” in Bangladesh, not democracy. Why?
Yes. If they weren’t idiots, they would have created laws based not on misogynistic religion, but on equality and justice. They would have had science-driven education rather than religion-driven education. Now the country is fully of idiocy and theocracy. I have lost all my hopes for that country.