Wednesday, 30 September 2015

On the Freedom to Offend an Imaginary God

by Sam Harris 

The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.
Our panic and moral confusion were at first sublimated in attacks upon the hapless Governor Romney. I am no fan of Romney’s, and I would find the prospect of his presidency risible if it were not so depressing, but he did accurately detect the first bleats of fear in the Obama administration’s reaction to this crisis. Romney got the timing of events wrong—confusing, as many did, a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for an official government response to the murder of Americans in Libya. But the truth is that the White House struck the same note of apology, disavowing the offending speech while claiming to protect free speech in principle. It may seem a small detail, given the heat of the moment—but so is a quivering lip.
Our government followed the path of appeasement further by attempting to silence the irrepressible crackpot Pastor Terry Jones, who had left off burning copies of the Qur’an just long enough to promote the film. The administration also requested that Google remove “Innocence of Muslims” from its servers. These maneuvers attest to one of two psychological and diplomatic realities: Either our government is unwilling to address the problem at hand, or the problem is so vast and terrifying that we have decided to placate the barbarians at the gate.
The contagion of moral cowardice followed its usual course, wherein liberal journalists and pundits began to reconsider our most basic freedoms in light of the sadomasochistic fury known as “religious sensitivity” among Muslims. Contributors to The New York Times and NPR spoke of the need to find a balance between free speech and freedom of religion—as though the latter could possibly be infringed by a YouTube video. As predictable as Muslim bullying has become, the moral confusion of secular liberals appears to be part of the same clockwork.
Consider what is actually happening: Some percentage of the world’s Muslims—Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear—is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law. And where they do not immediately resort to violence in their protests, they threaten it. Carrying a sign that reads “Behead Those Who Insult the Prophet” may still count as an example of peaceful protest, but it is also an assurance that infidel blood would be shed if the imbecile holding the placard only had more power. This grotesque promise is, of course, fulfilled in nearly every Muslim society. To make a film like “Innocence of Muslims” anywhere in the Middle East would be as sure a method of suicide as the laws of physics allow.
What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book? Questions of this kind are obscene. Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
At moments like this, we inevitably hear—from people who don’t know what it’s like to believe in paradise—that religion is just a way of channeling popular unrest. The true source of the problem can be found in the history of western aggression in the region. It is our policies, rather than our freedoms, that they hate. I believe that the future of liberalism—and much else—depends on our overcoming this ruinous self-deception.  Religion only works as a pretext for political violence because many millions of people actually believe what they say they believe: that imaginary crimes like blasphemy and apostasy are killing offenses.
Most secular liberals think that all religions are the same, and they consider any suggestion to the contrary a sign of bigotry. Somehow, this article of faith survives daily dis-confirmation. Our language is largely to blame for this. As I have pointed out on many occasions, “religion” is a term like “sports”: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing, street luge); some are safer but synonymous with violence (boxing, mixed martial arts); and some entail little more exertion or risk of serious injury than standing in the shower (bowling, badminton). To speak of “sports” as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do, or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common, apart from breathing? Not much. The term “religion” is scarcely more useful.
Consider Mormonism: Many of my fellow liberals would consider it morally indecent to count Romney’s faith against him. In their view, Mormonism must be just like every other religion. The truth, however, is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than its fair share of quirks. For instance, its doctrine was explicitly racist until 1978, at which point God apparently changed his mind about black people (a few years after Archie Bunker did) and recommended that they be granted the full range of sacraments and religious responsibilities. By this time, Romney had been an adult and an exceptionally energetic member of his church for more than a decade.
Unlike the founders of most religions, about whom very little is known, Mormonism is the product of the plagiarisms and confabulations of an obvious con man, Joseph Smith, whose adventures among the credulous were consummated (in every sense) in the full, unsentimental glare of history. Given how much we know about Smith, it is harder to be a Mormon than it is to be a Christian. A firmer embrace of the preposterous is required—and the fact that Romney can manage it says something about him, just as it would if he were a Scientologist proposing to park his E-meter in the Oval Office. The spectrum between rational belief and self-serving delusion has some obvious increments: It is one thing to believe that Jesus existed and was probably a remarkable human being. It is another to accept, as most Christians do, that he was physically resurrected and will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. It is yet another leap of faith too far to imagine, as all good Mormons must, that he will work his cosmic magic from the hallowed ground of Jackson County, Missouri.
That final, provincial detail matters. It makes Mormonism objectively less plausible than run-of-the-mill Christianity—as does the related claim that Jesus visited the “Nephites” in America at some point after his resurrection. The moment one adds seer stones, sacred underpants, the planet Kolob, and a secret handshake required to win admittance into the highest heaven, Mormonism stands revealed for what it is: the religious equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics.
The point, however, is that I can say all these things about Mormonism, and disparage Joseph Smith to my heart’s content, without fearing that I will be murdered for it. Secular liberals ignore this distinction at every opportunity and to everyone’s peril. Take a moment to reflect upon the existence of the musical The Book of Mormon. Now imagine the security precautions that would be required to stage a similar production about Islam. The project is unimaginable—not only in Beirut, Baghdad, or Jerusalem, but in New York City.
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance. And Governor Romney, though he is wrong about almost everything under the sun (including, very likely, the sun), is surely right to believe that it is time our government delivered this message without blinking.

Friday, 31 July 2015


Apparently today is Guru purnima - messages of how important a Guru is on this full-moon day are flooding us. On TV they are preaching why it is important to lay down our full trust at the feet of a Guru in order to reach salvation. We are being told how obedience to a Guru is an important tradition in India. TV screens are showing statues of Shirdi Sai Baba being showered with milk. They are pouring milk - food produced by an animal they consider holy, food which their holy animal produced for its babies - after taking it away from the animals and instead of feeding their own children with the food produced by another mother, are pouring it on the head of a statue of a man who himself never did this.
This is not how Humanists deal with their teachers. A Humanist 'guru' is valuable but not Holy! A Humanist 'guru' teaches how to ask the questions rather than supply the answers! A Humanist 'guru' is a friend, a philosopher and a guide but never the final authority! They are not 'gurus' at all in the traditional authoritarian mould - they think and they teach how to think independently. and they promote Human values and independent inquiry.
The Carvakas, Ajita Kesakambali, The Buddha, Socrates, down the line to Vemana, Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant, Diderot, Bertrand Russell, Jawaharlal Nehru, Einstein, Karl Popper, John Dewey, Ambedkar, Tarkunde, Indumati Parikh, H. Narasimhaiah ... and a thousand others like them fall in this tradition.
In any case, since every one is remembering a favourite teacher, apart from thinking of parents, and school and college teachers, I take the opportunity to recall the life of - M.N. Roy who was introduced to me in my father's library who gripped my imagination with his extraordinary life story in his autobiography and inspired me with his vision in his writings. Long years ago I wrote the shortish entry about him in the MS Encarta Encyclopaedia. There are so many references that Google throws up - and you will also see that his home in Mexico is today a trending Pub, called M.N. Roy!
Actually, M.N. Roy seems to be gaining new traction - I was asked to speak about him twice in recent days and am receiving several inquiries about him as well. I also had the chance to speak of him in a major TV interview to be aired Sunday night 2 August.
M.N. Roy was called the most consistent political prophet of the 20th century: he was one of the first internal critiques of Marxism, foresaw the fall of the British Empire, showed why the Nazis and the Fascists were even more dangerous than the British colonialists, proposed the first draft Constitution for a future Independent India and issued dire warnings re. cultural nationalism that would lead ultimately to cultural fascism.
Here is something I wrote about him many years ago.
Humanist philosopher and activist with rare intellectual gifts and vast practical experience, M.N. Roy was a leading participant in revolutionary movements in four countries spread-out in three continents.
A school dropout, Roy joined the ranks of the Bengal militants as a teenager, and soon became a leader of the revolutionary movement which aimed to overthrow British colonialism by means of an armed insurrection. Roy's clandestine travels in search of German and Japanese arms to achieve this purpose began in 1915. In the course of the next 15 years, Roy realised that the Japanese and the Germans had their own designs on India, discovered Karl Marx in a New York library, established in Mexico in 1917 the first communist party outside the Soviet Union, disagreed at the Second Communist International in 1920 with Lenin on the National and Colonial Question, was soon elected to the highest decision making bodies of the Communist International, travelled to China as sole emissary of the Communist International with a brief to transform the Right Wing Kuomintang into a revolutionary instrument in the hands of the proletariat, befriended Gramsci and Einstein, inspired and influenced Nehru, earned universal respect for his courage of convictions, and was expelled in 1929 from the Communist International for his heretical and non-doctrinaire views.
Even though much is now known about this phase of Roy's life, one of his biographers despaired that the story of his early life may never be fully told: official documents and his notes relating to China and Russia were suppressed or destroyed because he fell out with Stalin, the manuscript of a magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the British Empire written in 1929 and predicting the fall of the Empire was destroyed by the Nazis, to complicate matters further, Roy wrote in several languages - Bengali, English, Spanish, French, German and Russian - and often in proscribed journals and used over 15 noms de plume Indeed, M.N. Roy is itself the most permanent of the several pseudonyms that Narendranath Bhattacharya (1887 - 1954) adopted in 1917 to escape from the American police when he jumped bail!
Roy's clandestine return to India in 1930 after spending 15 years in 17 countries finally led to his arrest, in camera trial and imprisonment by the British. Despite the difficult conditions of his imprisonment as an ordinary criminal and not as a political prisoner, Roy continued with his prolific writing, and produced 9000 pages of writings, some of which have later been published as Fascism; Historical Role of Islam; Heresies of the 20th Century; Nationalism: An Antiquated Cult; Science and Philosophy etc. As a tribute to his sole companion in prison, Roy also wrote an amusing best selling critique of Hinduism: Memoirs of a Cat!
On release from prison in 1936, Roy formally announced his break with Marxism by rejecting historical determinism and class war, and declared that without a cultural and philosophical revolution no social, political and economic revolution was possible. Terming this desired cultural transformation a 20th century renaissance, Roy later founded in 1946, along with his second wife Ellen Gottschalk and other colleagues, the Indian Renaissance Institute for 'spreading the spirit of Enlightenment, Humanism and the Search for Truth'.
Roy formulated his materialistic approach in 22 thesis where he attempted to restore to 19th century Radicalism its humanist essence, and hence called his philosophy Radical Humanism. Roy's approach integrates the scientific attitude and the democratic spirit - democracy is not merely a process, it is a system of values. For the Radical Humanist, the quest for freedom and search for truth constitute the basic urge of human progress. The quest for freedom is the continuation, on a higher level - of intelligence and emotion - of the biological struggle for existence.
The method and programme of a social revolution must therefore be based on a reassertion of the basic principle of social progress. Hence, the programme of the humanist revolution will be based on the principles of freedom, reason and social harmony. In this way, Radicalism gives to freedom a moral-intellectual as well as social content; and it also offers a comprehensive theory of social progress in which both the dialectics of economic determinism and dynamics of ideas find their due recognition; and it deduces from the same a method and programme of social revolution in our time. Radical Humanism provides an approach to the reconstruction of the world as a commonwealth and fraternity of free men, by the collective endeavour of spiritually emancipated moral men.
In 1944 Roy prepared a draft Constitution for India where he proposed an alternative system of political economy emphasising decentralisation and devolution of power, which would be in tune with his humanistic approach of restoring sovereignty to the individual in society. Roy soon rejected political parties themselves as legitimate instruments for the spread of democratic values, and in 1948 dissolved his own Radical Democratic Party which he had founded in 1940 to promote a humanist approach to politics and (most unpopularly) to support Britain's anti-fascist war efforts. Roy's alternative proposal for a humanist society was a party-less but organised democracy with a network of people's committees as its base. His ideas are elaborated in a collection of speeches: People, Power and Parties. After dissolution of the political party, Roy spent the rest of his life working for his cherished Renaissance, and the Radical Humanist Movement joined hands with similar groups in Europe and America to found in 1952 IHEU. Roy was closely involved in the establishment of the IHEU, but could not attend due to an accident to which he finally succumbed. He was elected a founder Vice-President in absentia.
A revolutionary at heart, and fired by the ideal of Human Freedom, Roy finally became a philosopher of the modern renaissance and that of the humanist revolution.
Roy's approach is summarised by Justice Tarkunde: "A humanist revolution, which is designed to achieve the ideal of comprehensive democracy, must necessarily partake of the character of the ideal. A humanist revolution is also a path to be traversed rather than a goal to be achieved. A Radical Humanist who traverses the way to a humanist revolution is, therefore, succeeding all the time".
And Roy's life is summarised in the eloquent tribute paid by the late Prof. G.D. Parikh: "Beginning as a nationalist worshipping geography, he could make any land his own. Appearing to swear by a dogma, he could struggle as a rationalist; seeming to believe in ideologies, he retained an indomitable interest in ideas. Founder of a political party, he never became partisan. A politician universally respected for honesty and integrity, a man of action hailed as a philosopher. He did not strive for greatness, he strove to lead a good life and to bring such living within the reach of all those who live".

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Good Boy Scouts don't need God

Tom Krattenmaker
Who said people can't be moral without religion?
·    When will the Boy Scout accept the nonreligious?     ·    Undergirding the Boy Scouts' ban is the dubious premise that people cannot be moral without religion. ·    It's the right thing to do.
Depending on what happens at the Boy Scouts' national meeting this month,gay Scouts might soon be accepted into the venerable organisation. Even then, there will remain a large and growing group of Americans still barred by the Boy Scouts.
When will the Boy Scouts accept the non-religious?
The Boy Scouts of America recognizes an impressive range of religious affiliations that qualify one as "reverent" and, thus, eligible to participate. Two dozen varieties of Christianity get the nod, plus Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Bahai'ism and more. However, the non-religious are not welcome, and that poses a problem the Boy Scouts should address in addition to the sexual orientation question drawing so much attention.
Undergirding the Boy Scouts' ban is the dubious premise that people cannot be moral without religious belief. It's an assumption that non-believers are wisely challenging as the public face of atheism moves away from angry anti-religious diatribes, typified by the late Christopher Hitchens, toward a positive expression of non-belief summed up by the pithy phrase "good without god."
Can atheists be good Scouts? Neil Polzin's story suggests a resounding "yes." Polzin, now 29, contributed to a successful life-and-death rescue operation during a Boy Scouts backpacking trip when he was 13. He later became an Eagle Scout and an aquatics program director as an adult. In 2009, as he tells it, a rival who wanted his job made an issue of the fact that Polzin is an atheist. Hoping to clear the air, Polzin notified his regional council of his atheism — and was unceremoniously booted.
One would think that his long track record would have proved his skill and moral worthiness by that point. But all the years of good Scouting and service were erased by a single dreaded word: atheist. 
Margaret Downy, president of the Freethought Society (and the mother of the a young man who was barred from the Scouts as a boy), is leveraging the new focus on Boy Scout inclusion policies to prompt a fresh look at its ban on atheists. Downey welcomes the new momentum for inclusion of gay Scouts. Even so, she asks, why no consideration of non-believing boys, too? "There is no question that people can be good without a god belief," Downey says. The Boy Scouts offer a great program, she adds, "yet their bigoted membership policies are harmful."
Welcoming non-believers might seem a difficult bridge to cross for the Boy Scouts and traditionalists who defend current membership requirements. Wouldn't acceptance of atheists force revisions to the Boy Scout Oath, which pledges duty to god and country? Why should a private, voluntary organization have to do that, particularly when most Scout troops are chartered by churches? 
These and other obstacles can be navigated through nuance, common sense and mutual respect. Let the churches that charter Scout troops adopt the attitude that churches usually adopt when it comes to non-believers: Welcome them in the hope of having a positive influence on them. Require atheist Scouts to respect the religion of their fellow Scouts, leaders and sponsors, with the assurance that their non-belief will be respected in kind. And, as Downey suggests, an additional "o" can go a long way; let the atheist Scout pledge his devotion to "good" rather than "God."
Ultimately, it would be self-defeating for the Boy Scouts to forfeit the chance to spread Scouting skills and values among the population of people who identify as atheist, agnostic, or otherwise not religious. More and more youths are growing up in non-religious homes; why would the organization squander the opportunity to serve and influence these boys?
Yes, as a private association, the Boy Scouts have a right to decide for themselves who's in and who's out. But just because they can exclude atheists doesn't mean they should.
"There are millions of young, secular Americans committed to civic duty, community service and personal improvement," says August Brunsman, executive director of the Secular Student Alliance. "They're looking to serve their country alongside their religious friends, and it's long past time for the Boy Scouts to wake up and let these admirable young men serve."
It's the right thing to do. And here's the bonus: Once the Boy Scouts open up to non-believers, they're going to discover they have a lot to contribute — just as they've been contributing all along.
Tom Krattenmaker is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don't Know.

Sunday, 21 June 2015


Sometimes Fishes, sometimes frogs, sometimes tadpoles have been reported as falling from the sky - like rain. Starting from Pliny the Elder in the 1st century in Rome many have reported this phenomenon. The French 'scientist' Ampere who did great research on electricity also investigated the phenomenon. In 1861 there was reportedly a huge rain of fish in Singapore!
The modern understanding has been - for the last 80 years or so - that when a fast moving hurricane passes over a water body it forms a water spout which extends as far high as the clouds, and that this water spout sucks up the water and along with that some of the small aquatic animals. And when the twister loses its force the fish are deposited where ever that spot is where it weakened.
Actually no one has so far seen fish fall down - and this fact is crucial. All people who have reported this have seen the fish on the ground or on the surface. This was also the case of Nandigama of Krishna District, by the river Krishna.
Last night huge quantities of fish were found in paddy fields with knee deep water and in some cases on the roads in Nandigama. As they were not there in the evening and they appeared in the morning in their fields, and since fish cannot come out of their water bodies themselves, many thought that it rained fish. While some believe in the tornado/hurricane theory, others believe that strong winds and hurricanes carry the frogs and fish up into the clouds and at some point they drop from there.
Actually, all these explanations and assumptions are most likely to be wrong. It is not difficult to find out why this explanation is wrong.
The easiest is that no cloud is able to carry the weight of 200 gm frog or a 3 kilo fish - clouds are simply water vapour. Secondly hurricanes are not gentle things - they are violent and destroy - it would be rare for a hurricane to gently pick up aquatic creatures and gently deposit them elsewhere - do note that these fish and frogs are alive when found. This is also why the cloud theory can be dismissed right away. The lowest clouds are somewhere around 2 kilometres above our heads. No frog or fish dropped from there is likely to be left in one piece - or without their insides splattered everywhere. Remember that the fish spotted are alive. Finally the columns seen when a 'water spout' is formed is really a rotating column of air with water vapour and mist.
So what could be the most plausible explanation?
Much depends on the species of fish. We know that some fish can jump / fly as much as 50 meters in one go. We also know that some fish do 'travel;' on land. They can for brief periods breathe air, and using their tail and fins can push themselves forward. Some of the fish, like the cat fish, do travel like that. For the non specialist it looks like the fish is struggling because it is out of water, where as in reality it is inelegantly trying to move forward without legs.
Why would fish want to travel? That is not a strange phenomenon to the animal kingdom. As explained in THE BIG QUESTION WITH BABU GOGINENI (DO ANIMALS HAVE CALENDARS? (pls add www before youtube) we see crores of red crabs migrating annually on the Christmas Islands near Australia - to lay eggs. In Kenya we have the extraordinary spectacle of the crores of wildebeest rushing on for their migration. Fish travel thousands of kilometers in the sea to mate or to lay eggs. Salmon swim against the water current to go and lay eggs. Turtles and their arrival on India's East Coast is well known and much studied,
This is what must have happened with the fish found in Nandigama and none of these explanations involve the sky as the source of the fish!
-The first rains made fish look for ways to move out of their habitat. They probably were in nearby ponds or in the river. They may have been washed out with the flood waters from these natural water bodies.
- The fish tried to migrate on land and are the ones akin to cat fish.
- Some poor fish farmer's tank may have breached releasing the well fed almost uniformly 3 kilo weighted fish into the paddy fields.
The reason there are also many frogs on the ground after the rains is that frogs are amphibeans, they too swarm, and need water to keep their skins moist. Further, frogs and earth worms and other creatures which have been living in the dry land are forced out of their habitation because they are flooded.
So nothing came from the sky, except the rain water!

Monday, 27 April 2015


As a poet, Sharmila Seyyid is used to dealing in imagination but even she couldnt have imagined that an innocuous remark in an innocuous BBC interview would trigger a chain of events that would turn her world upside down--ultimately forcing her to go into hiding in a place far away from her home.A Muslim woman journalist, writer and activist, Seyyid is being hounded by fundamentalist groups not in one but two countries--because of her outspoken criticism of certain Islamic practices such as the purdah system, and her warnings against creeping Talibanisation of the Muslim community.A Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan and a single mother with a small child, she finds herself stuck in a safe house in Chennai after being forced to flee her home in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka. This followed a systematic and vicious campaign of intimidation, including death threats and threats to kidnap her young sister with whom she ran an English language school. The school was attacked, and an attempt made to burn it down.But if Seyyid thought that moving to India would buy her peace, she had not reckoned with the long reach of her tormentors. For, far from dying down, the hate campaign against her has grown in recent weeks with Indian Muslim fanatics taking over where their Sri Lankan comrades left off.Yet, surprisingly, Seyyids nightmare has attracted little media attention outside Tamil-speaking circles. Among the national English language newspapers, only The Hindu took note of it courtesy an op-ed (Chronicle of a Death Online, 7 April) by Kannan Sundaram, editor of Kalachuvadu, a Tamil monthly.Meanwhile, vigilantism has gone online with her critics taking their dirty tricks to social media.A few weeks ago, they warned her to remove all of her photographs without purdah from Facebook within 24 hours. When she refused, an audio of a lewd conversation between a high-ranking Tamil Nadu police officer and a female subordinate was posted with a photo of Seyyid tagged to it suggesting that the woman the officer was talking to was her. It was widely shared on the net, and though she was finally able to get it off the web the damage had been done.Emboldened by their success, the bullies attempted another even more obscenestunt. This time, they posted what sounded like a real news item of a woman being raped and murdered attached to a photoshopped picture of Seyyids body.It went viral, and such was its impact that her family and friends thought it was true and landed up at her home. Her father Seyyid Ahmed has made a formal complaint to the police alleging a concerted attempt to incite hatred against his daughter. He says his family is living a nightmare; and fears for their safety.Now back to the BBC interview which triggered Seyyids nightmare.It happened in 2012 when speaking to the BBCs Tamil Service she backed legalising sex work arguing that it would help protect sex-workers. It was not part of any agenda. She was simply answering a specific question about her debut collection of poems Siragu Mulaitha Penn (The women who grew wings) in which one poem was about sex workers.Fundamentalist groups, who already had her in their sights because of her progressive (allegedly anti-Islamic) views, seized on her remarks to launch an all-out attack accusing her of endorsing prostitution, considered haram in Islam.The threatening calls began soon after. By the next morning, Ms. Seyyid had received hundreds of missed calls on her mobile phone. There were news reports that condemned her for supporting sex work and the social media joined in, according to The Hindu article.Threats and intimidation continued even after she apologised for unwittingly hurting anyones sentiments. But she refused to retract her statement under duress. This provoked the mullahs to step up their attacksfinally forcing her to seek refuge in India, only to discover that you can run away from your country but you cant run away from the growing menace of religious fundamentalism.Sayyid has been praised for standing up to the bullies.Horrid as this entire episode is, I think, Sharmilas courage, strength and tenacity will inspire women everywhere to fight oppression, human rights activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote on her blog.Seyyids case comes on the heels of that of Mumbai-based Shirin Dalvi, then editor of an Urdu daily, Avadhnama. She was targeted in a similar fashion for hurting Muslim sentiments. Her crime was that while writing about the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists , she reproduced the magazines cover carrying a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad. And though she was quick to publish an unconditional front page apology, it did not satisfy Islams self-appointed custodians who continued their relentless smear campaign.On their complaint, she was arrested, and multiple cases were registered against her for outraging religious feelings with malicious intent. Things reached a point where she felt so insecure that she took to wearing burqa to escape attention and to move out her family home.Unfortunately, few liberal Muslims stood up for her. In fact, a senior Urdu newspaper editor admitted that elements of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, which represents Urdu journalists and of which she was a member, were party to the cases filed against Dalvi.Understandably, Muslims resent being called upon to condemn every act of Muslim extremism by arguing why the entire community should be held accountable for a few rotten apples. But here was a Muslim woman being harassed by their own lunatic fringe.In Seyyids case, though, some liberal Tamil Muslims have joined an online protest but thats not enough. Contrast this with the strong liberal Hindu response in the Perumal Murugan case. They rushed to support the Tamil writer when he was attacked by Hindutva groups objecting to certain portions in one of his best-known books.What if Dalvi and Sayyid had been victims of Hindu fanatics? Im sure Muslims would have reacted with outrage. And rightly so. But such selective outrage not only weakens the broader fight against religious fanaticism but gives a handle to the Hindu Right to exploit such cases for their own political ends.It is not about defending individuals but about standing up for civilised behaviour when it is under threat irrespective of the source of the threat. For, if allowed to go unchallenged, this lunatic fringe can also turn against us one day.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

‘Don’t call me Muslim, I am an Atheist


Taslima Nasreen. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Taslima Nasreen. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
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, Jews in Nazi Germany, Muslims in Bosnia, Palestine and Christians 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

Monday, 2 March 2015

Bangladeshis protest after atheist writer Avijit Roy hacked to death

Hundreds rally against fundamentalism in Dhaka as Islamists claim responsibility for murder of prominent US-Bangladeshi blogger

Bangladeshi secular activists take part in a torch-lit protest against the murder of Avijit Roy, founder of the <em>Mukto-Mona</em> (Free-mind) blog site. He had received death threats from Islamists before arriving in the country.
 Bangladeshi secular activists take part in a torch-lit protest against the murder of Avijit Roy, founder of theMukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog site. He had received death threats from Islamists before arriving in the country. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty