Bangladeshi writer dis­cusses Is­lamist threats

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

HAV­ING her­self been the sub­ject of fat­was and forced into ex­ile by fun­da­men­tal­ist crit­ics of her writ­ing, Taslima Nas­reen de­spairs at the wave of as­sas­si­na­tions of sec­u­lar blog­gers in her na­tive Bangladesh.

“You know Is­lami­sa­tion started in Bangladesh in the 1980s and in the 80s I was very wor­ried,” re­calls the prize-win­ning poet and nov­el­ist in an in­ter­view with AFP in New Delhi.

“I wrote about Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists. I said that they should not go unop­posed or they will de­stroy our so­ci­ety. That’s ex­actly what’s hap­pened now.”

It’s 22 years since Nas­reen last set foot in Bangladesh, hav­ing been forced to flee in fear of her life after tens of thou­sands of Is­lamists took to the streets to de­nounce her writ­ing.

Her nov­els and es­says had brought her no shortage of en­e­mies and she up­set the govern­ment by rail­ing against rights abuses and the treat­ment of women. She in­fu­ri­ated Is­lamists with her fiercely pro-sec­u­lar views.

She was feted abroad, win­ning the Euro­pean par­lia­ment’s Sakharov Prize for Free­dom of Thought in 1994, but the govern­ment back home filed a case against her for hurt­ing re­li­gious sen­ti­ment.

After three sep­a­rate fat­was call­ing for her ex­e­cu­tion were is­sued, Nas­reen fled first to Europe be­fore mov­ing to Bangladesh’s gi­ant neigh­bour In­dia.

Her plight is all too fa­mil­iar to a new gen­er­a­tion of sec­u­lar writ­ers whose blogs crit­i­cis­ing fun­da­men­tal­ism have been met with fury by Is­lamist groups.

Dozens have ei­ther been mur­dered with ma­chetes, gone into hid­ing, or fled with their fam­i­lies to Europe and the United States.

No one has been con­victed of any of the at­tacks although some sus­pects have been killed dur­ing raids by the se­cu­rity forces.

Bangladesh, which gained its in­de­pen­dence in 1971 after win­ning a war of se­ces­sion against Pak­istan, is an of­fi­cially sec­u­lar na­tion.

But Nas­reen says Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina’s govern­ment has made the same mis­take as her pre­de­ces­sors by fail­ing to stand firm against hard­lin­ers who want the coun­try to be de­fined by reli­gion.

“I am very wor­ried. Bangladesh was born as a sec­u­lar state but now it’s a kind of fun­da­men­tal­ist state,” she said.

“Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists are very pow­er­ful. They can kill any­one if they want.

“And be­cause those athe­ist blog­gers crit­i­cise Is­lam – they crit­i­cise other re­li­gions too – but be­cause they crit­i­cised Is­lam they were hacked to death and the govern­ment didn’t take any ac­tion against those killers,” she added.

Liv­ing with fear As some­one who lives round-the­clock with pro­tec­tion, Nas­reen says it’s im­por­tant not to al­low one­self to be over­whelmed by fear.

“I think I’ve got used to it. You have to,” she said in­side her small apart­ment, armed guards sta­tioned out­side.

“Of course ev­ery time a fatwa is is­sued I get shocked. I get sad. I get scared and then you know, you have to live your ev­ery­day life.

“You can­not think of death all the time. Then it’s not a liv­ing. If I think of death all the time then I would not have been able to write so many books.”

Since her first col­lec­tion of po­etry came out in 1982, Nas­reen has had more than 40 books pub­lished.

Ar­guably her most fa­mous work was the 1993 novel La­jja (Ben­gali for “shame”) which was about the per­se­cu­tion of a Hindu fam­ily liv­ing in Bangladesh, where more than 90 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Mus­lim.

Nas­reen’s lat­est book Ex­ile is a mem­oir about how she was hounded out of the In­dian state of West Ben­gal a decade ago fol­low­ing protests by Mus­lim groups who tried to force her out of the coun­try for good.

She re­mains ef­fec­tively per­sona non grata in West Ben­gal and her en­mity for her crit­ics is as sharp as ever.

“Who are they to de­cide who can stay in In­dia and who can­not? ... Those peo­ple com­mit­ted a crime but you are pun­ish­ing me for no fault of mine,” she says an­i­mat­edly on her rock­ing chair.

“They is­sued a fatwa, put a price on my head – which is il­le­gal in In­dia – but no­body was pun­ished for that. I was pun­ished for that. The vic­tim was pun­ished.”

Right to of­fend Nas­reen’s home is dot­ted with stick­ers and ban­ners with slo­gans of the causes close to her heart, such as “Proud To Be A Fem­i­nist” and “Athe­ism Cures Re­li­gious Ter­ror­ism”.

A book of car­toons from the French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo is dis­played promi­nently on her cof­fee table.

Twelve peo­ple were shot dead in Char­lie Hebdo’s of­fices in Jan­uary last year by Is­lamist gun­men who had taken of­fence to car­toons de­pict­ing the Prophet Mo­hammed.

Nas­reen ar­gues the right to of­fend is a fun­da­men­tal part of free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

“Many of my books, peo­ple say they hurt their re­li­gious feel­ings,” she said.

“But I think that if we be­lieve in free­dom of ex­pres­sion then we should be­lieve also that ev­ery­body should have the right to ex­press their opin­ions and ev­ery­body has the right to of­fend oth­ers and no­body has the right to live their en­tire life with­out be­ing of­fended.

“Free­dom of ex­pres­sion can­not ex­ist with­out the right to of­fend.”

Photo: AFP

Taslima Nas­reen, an ex­iled Ben­gali writer, has had fat­was de­clared against her by Is­lamists in her home coun­try who take is­sue with her pro­gres­sive, sec­u­lar writ­ings.

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