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 He started Mukto-Mona to accommodate writings of atheists and humanists, as newspapers do not publish their work.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 .
Hundreds of people have taken to the streets of Dhaka
in protest at the murder of a prominent secular American blogger of Bangladeshi
origin who was hacked to death with machetes after he allegedly received
threats from Islamists.
Avijit Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked
on a crowded pavement as they were returning from a book fair at Dhaka
University. Ahmed, who is also a blogger, lost a finger and remains under
treatment at the Square hospital in Dhaka.
The attack took place at about 8.45pm on Thursday
evening when a group of men ambushed the couple as they walked toward a
roadside tea stall, with at least two of the attackers hitting them with meat
cleavers. The attackers then ran off into the crowds. Two blood-stained
cleavers were found after the attack, said police.
A tweet from Ansar Bangla 7, a previously
unknown fundamentalist group, said: “Anti-Islamic blogger US-Bengali citizen
Avijit Roy is assassinated in capital #Dhaka due to his crime against #Islam.”
Roy, founder of the Mukto-Mona (Free-mind)
blog, which featured articles on scientific reasoning and religion, had been
receiving threats for some time. A Facebook posting this month said that he
would be killed once he arrived in the capital. The couple arrived in Dhaka on
Police said the murder was being given high priority
and had been referred to the detective branch.
“This is being treated as a highly important and
sensitive case, which is why the case has been handed to the detective branch,”
said Shibly Noman, assistant police commissioner of the Dhaka metropolitan
police. Several hundred people – including teachers, publishers and fellow
writers – joined a rally on Friday near the site of the attack carrying banners
saying: “We want justice” and “Down with fundamentalism”.
Imran Sarker, head of the Bangladesh bloggers’
association, said the protests would not let up unless those responsible for
Roy’s killing were caught. “Avijit’s killing once again proved that there is a
culture of impunity in the country,” Sarker told Agence France-Presse. “The
government must arrest the killers in 24 hours or face non-stop protests.”
Roy, who was 42, had been a target of extremist groups
for at least five years because of his writings on secular and lesbian and gay
issues in his columns and blogs, his father said. “There isn’t one specific
writing I can think of which caused this attack on him,” he added.
Roy, a mechanical engineer, was a regular columnist of
the Bangladeshi news agency bdnews24.com. He wrote about 10 books,
including the best-sellingBiswasher Virus (Virus of Faith), as well
as his blog, which championed liberal secular writing in the Muslim-majority
“His murder only highlights the point, being made
consistently by many, that much more needed to be done to protect these people
and the state has been failing to do its job,” said Toufique Imrose Khalidi,
editor of bdnews24.com.
Roy is the second blogger suspected to have been
killed by fundamentalist groups in the past two years. Ahmed Rajib Haider was
killed in February 2013 for posts antagonising extremist groups. After Haider’s
death, Bangladesh’s hardline Islamist groups started to protest against other
campaigning bloggers, accusing them of blasphemy and calling a series of
nationwide strikes to demand their execution.
The government reacted by arresting some atheist
bloggers. It also blocked about a dozen websites and blogs to stem the furore
over blasphemy, as well as stepping up security for the bloggers. In 2004,
Humayun Azad, a prominent writer and teacher at Dhaka University, was seriously
injured in an attack when he was returning from the same book fair.
The attacks starkly underline an increasing gulf
between secular bloggers and conservative Islamic groups, often covertly
connected with Islamist parties. Secularists have urged authorities to ban
religion-based politics, while Islamists have pressed for blasphemy laws to
prevent criticism of their faith.
Islam is Bangladesh’s state religion but the
country is governed by secular laws based on British common law, and Sheikh
Hasina, the prime minister, has repeatedly said she will not give in to
The latest murder comes against a backdrop of
political violence since the beginning of January. More than 100 people have
been killed in molotov cocktail attacks amid a political deadlock. The
opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party is demanding
a fresh election administered by an independent interim government, which the
ruling Awami League flatly rejects.
Robert Gibson, the British high commissioner, expressed his shock at Roy’s murder and
the recent violence in the country. Baki Billah, a friend of Roy and a blogger,
told Independent TV that Roy had been threatened earlier by people upset at his
“He was a free thinker. He was a Hindu but he was not
only a strong voice against Islamic fanatics but also equally against other
religious fanatics,” Billah said.
Those who challenge religion challenge power. Exercising free speech puts some people in grave danger, and the least we can do is back them up
“No trips to the old country, yeah?” This was the brief message I got from a dear friend who sent me an email with a link to the news that Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger well-known for his secular views, had been hacked to death in the streets of Dhaka.
“The old country”. How romantic that sounds. I was born in Bangladesh and have wonderful memories of being a child there, roaming the countryside, experiencing a sense of freedom and peace I’ve never felt since. It is a land of lush green fields nourished by a brightly burning sun. This is what is depicted on the nation’s flag, a design that rejects the religious symbolism found in those of India and Pakistan – the latter of which Bangladesh fought a bitter war of independence, partly so it could become a secular state. But that early commitment to secularism has been betrayed and instead Bangladesh has become a nation where those promoting secular values can expect to live their lives in fear, be threatened with death, and even brutally killed.
Avijit Roy was an American citizen of Bangladeshi origin who was an engineer by profession and the author of several books on topics including science, atheism and free expression. He founded the Mukto-Mona (“free mind”) blog which supported and nurtured a community of free-thinkers, secularists, atheists and humanists in Bangladesh. Avijit wanted “to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.”
He was a hero to many Bangladeshis, but few if any in the west will be declaring that they are Avijit in the way so many of us announced we were Charlie after theCharlie Hebdo attacks. But there are lots of Avijits outside the west, genuinely brave individuals who put their lives on the line to uphold values and freedoms that we take for granted: Ahmed Rajib Haider, another Bangladeshi atheist who was killed because of what he wrote; Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger who has been flogged in public and is in prison for “insulting Islam”; Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, jailed for three years in Egypt, again for “insulting Islam” by simply declaring he is an atheist; Kacem El Ghazzali, who lives in exile after death threats in his home country of Morocco – the list is long and depressing.
The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen shocked the west, but killing people for expressing their views is almost routine elsewhere. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, “Non-religious people are being targeted by ‘hate campaigns’ in countries around the world.”
After the Charlie Hebdo killings there was much debate about whether the cartoonists had provoked the killers, about the cartoonists “punching down”, about whether there should be limits to giving offence and so on. The brutal, cowardly murder of Avijit Roy shows how dangerous such arguments can be. Challenging religion is challenging those in power, and many pay a heavy price – we betray people like Avijit when we are half-hearted in our commitment to free speech.
Let’s not be mistaken about why Avijit was killed: he said and wrote things some people didn’t like. There will be more such killings. More people will die because they say, write or draw things that other people don’t like. More people will die until we are all united in stating unequivocally that anyone who commits such atrocities is entirely in the wrong, that it is unjustifiable to kill people who “offend” you, that blasphemy is a ridiculous notion and that no one should ever, ever be killed for “insulting” a religion or drawing a cartoon.
I didn’t know Avijit Roy, but I know people who did, and their grief and rage at his murder is far more keenly felt than mine. For that reason I had reservations about writing this piece, but Avijit’s daughter said that: “To say that I’m furious or heartbroken would be an understatement. But as fucked up as the world is, there’s never a reason to stop fighting to make it better … What would help me the most right now is if everyone (even people I’ve never met) could share his story.” So that’s what I’m doing here.