In Defence of Taslima Nasreen
Posted on 1-September-2007
In August this year some Muslim members of the state legislative assembly led a mob to disrupt with violence and vandalism a meeting organised in Hyderabad in India to present Telugu translations of some of the writings of Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer who has lived in exile from her country since 1994 because some people in her country, and now, it seems, elsewhere too, decided that her writings were derogatory to Islam. The trouble makers in Hyderabad roughed up the professor who was presenting her and threatened to manhandle Taslima Nasreen too who had not yet spoken a word at the meeting. Threats were issued that she would be beheaded and a move was made to register a complaint with the local police against her for inciting religious violence. Later a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board said in response to persistent questions by a television anchor that he disapproved of the death threats but Taslima Nasreen should not have written what she had to hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims. So many members of India's parliament or of legislative assemblies of Indian states so often behave loutishly, even criminally, that another instance of such behaviour, as in this case in Hyderabad, causes no more than mild surprise, though one wishes that the law enforcement agencies dealt with such people exactly as they should deal with any hoodlum. But, it is the attitude of the member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board which in the end is more troublesome in that he was ready to give a kind of half justification for those delivering the death threat against the Bangladeshi writer. It would have been so much more satisfactory if he had only said he disapproved of the death threats even if he was not prepared to say that she had a right to say what she wanted.
Because I am personally so imbued with the attitudes of ordinary and educated people in the religious community into which I was born and in which I grew up, I find it difficult to understand how some members of another religious community can feel so incensed when one of their own says or writes something questioning some tenets of their faith or does not accord to their religious books the same respect as they do, that they threaten death, torture or exile. Also because I think some of the most important political gains of the advance of civilisation in our times have been in the area of personal freedoms including freedom of expression, I think individuals have a right not only to express their opinions and beliefs but also to question accepted and conventional beliefs and practices. I have not read any work by Taslima Nasreen and have no opinion about the literary merit of her oeuvre. I have read Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and fail to understand the relationship between the chapters about Mahound and the main story about the fortunes of Gibreel Farishta. I can also see how the chapters about Mahound can offend those Muslims who believe that Mahound is actually a disguise for Prophet Mohammed. Yet in spite of that I do not see how in this age either Taslima Nasreen or Salman Rushdie can be denied through pressure or threats their freedom of thought and expression. But I have not set out to expound my personal beliefs here. Besides, no matter how much understanding for the positions of Taslima Nasreen in the world outside, establishing her right to freedom of belief and expression within Bangladesh is a battle only she or other citizens of Bangladesh can fight.
I find the incident at Hyderabad troubling firstly because the behaviour and reactions of the members of the legislative assembly who were involved in the incident is probably symptomatic of a fairly widespread phenomenon and secondly because a large body of Muslim opinion in India may, in the manner of the member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board whom I have mentioned above, find a half justification for the death threats against Taslima Nasreen because they might believe that by 'denigrating' Islam she had provoked the believers. Those in India who openly or privately hold such views must give serious thought to a few basic principles and at least one fundamental reality.
For a multi-religious society like that of India to function coherently, it is essential that freedom of worship and freedom to practise their religion be guaranteed for all religious communities by the law of the land and that there be secular institutions of the state to uphold and protect those rights. In the same measure it is not only morally desirable but a matter of practical necessity that religious communities accord to the laws of the land and to the institutions meant to uphold those laws supremacy over personal or communal predilections or preferences. Guarantees for different communities of freedom of worship and freedom to practise religion has of necessity to imply freedom to individuals to hold personal beliefs and devise such personal religious practices as do not impinge on the rights of other citizens. In such a scheme, there should be no place for members of any religious community threatening the life and property of their co-religionists for supposed deviations from the 'true path'. Freedoms that different religious communities claim for themselves cannot be complete without the same freedoms being available to individual members of those communities. To put it a little differently, in the matter of freedom of conscience, belief and expression all citizens or non citizens living in the country must be equal irrespective of their membership of this or that religious community. No real or supposed religious leader should have the power to take away such freedoms: the highest right the leadership of a religious community can claim is the right to 'excommunicate' those members of their community who 'stray' on a matter of creed or practice.
It is necessary to understand and fully admit that in the modern world ideas about punishments devised in another age for the 'crimes' of apostasy and blasphemy can have no place--ideas in which the 'death sentence' against Salman Rushdie or the death threat against Taslima Nasreen seem to be rooted. In another age, when the earliest Muslim umma or when often medieval Christendom functioned as both religious and political communities, when the mental horizons of most of the faithful was limited, the leaderships of those communities greatly valued conformity and solidarity. For them the world comprised those who had received and believed in the message of God and those other benighted people, the heathen, the pagans , the kafirs or the heretics among whom it was the duty of the faithful to spread the message. They tried to ensure, more or less successfully, both conformity and solidarity through punishments for blasphemy and apostasy.
In the radically different modern world when the mental horizon of even the simplest peasant in Asia or Africa is so much wider than it was of people in the eighth, ninth or tenth centuries after Christ, it is futile for the leaders of any religious community to claim and behave as if only their faith contains the irrefutable truth about the Divine Being, His nature and His laws and that any criticism of the tenets of that faith is an unpardonable trespass. It should be clear to anyone with even moderate education that the adherents of any religious faith in the entire world are far outnumbered by those who do not accept that faith. Besides anyone who does not accept a given religious faith does by implication say that he does not believe it is true. Moreover when information and ideas flow so rapidly and voluminously, no system of belief can long remain uninfected either by the views and practices of another group or by those of agnostics, atheists, sceptics, rationalists or scientists.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for religious leaders, as the Vatican for example must know, to impose orthodoxy on their followers. In so many countries where not only followers of different religions live together but also where increasingly within each religious community the variety of religious beliefs and practices is bound to increase, it is necessary in the interest of social peace and order to not only accept that there are many different religious faiths but also to be tolerant of criticism of one's faith from within or without. In a country like India with such a variety of religions, with such a long tradition of metaphysical speculation, with such a time-honoured tradition of religio-philosophical disputations, where recent history has heightened suspicions between different communities, greater tolerance of difference as well as dissidence than is witnessed is necessary.
In India, an unpleasant but inescapable reality is that relations between Hindus and Muslims are fraught. Suspicions between the two communities have had an obdurately long life and nerves so raw that even a small provocation starts even now, in spite of all of India's political and economic progress, inter-community killings. In such a situation, bigots, diehards of all kinds and political opportunists do great damage. That the majority Hindu community which never tires of boasting of its tradition of religious tolerance and inclusiveness but does not always keep in check its diehards has the main responsibility for reassuring the religious minorities is obvious. The largest religious minority, the Muslims, also need to do much more than they do to curb their diehards. It is practical common sense for them to do so: assuming that the proportion of foolish, illiterate , or knavish bigots is the same among Muslims and Hindus, in absolute numbers there will likely be more Hindu bigots than Muslim, placing Muslims at a great disadvantage in any 'confrontation'. But Muslim bigotry encourages Hindu bigotry and the other way round. Incidents like the one in Hyderabad are more likely than not going to strengthen those Hindus in India who are only too ready to say that religious fanaticism is a special trait of Muslims. It would have been so encouraging if there was more full-throated condemnation of the incident at Hyderabad by India's Muslim community than has been the case. It would so delight those people in India who like to think of themselves as liberals if a self-confident Muslim community of India, if not of Bangladesh, were able to say:' Let there be a hundred or a thousand more Taslima Nasreens writing and speaking as they please and let those who do not like what they write or speak also write or speak as they please. Let there be no death threats and no exiles'