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This Is Why Taslima Nasrin Is Dangerous

February 15, 2008
Religious Extremism and Ethnic Rivalries

A talk given by this well-known writer and champion of human rights in Bangladesh at the recent Humanist World Congress in Mexico City

Taslima NasrinAs Published in Humanist in Canada, Summer, 1988
Wondering whether I should participate in this conference, I decided to for two reasons. First, I was threatened by the religious fundamentalists. They have decreed a fatwa (religious sanction) against me and set a price on my head. Even now you have only to mention my name to provoke their angry reaction. Not only that, I am a criminal according to the government of my country too. The reason is that I have ex-posed the faults and injustices of the society and the government of Bangladesh, particularly their failure to protect the rights of the religious minority. The government there has banned my book and issued an arrest warrant against me for committing blasphemy. I was forced to go underground. I man-aged to keep hiding for sixty long days with the help of my friends. At last the pressure created by the international human rights movement forced our government to grant me bail and let me leave the country. My future remains uncertain. So I thought I had some right to this congress of humanists. Secondly, though I have been far from my country and my own people for more than two years, I still remain true to my own ideas. I still believe in humanism, and not in any religion. I do not pray to any god to end my sufferings. I still have confidence in myself. And I can assure you that my ideological fight against religious fundamentalism will continue.

Taslima I am an atheist. Although I am not a specialist in the study of religion, it is more my personal experience which has made me an atheist. I was born in a Muslim family. When I grew up, I was shocked to learn that some of my neighbours were not the real owners of their houses. The real owners had been forced to leave their homeland by the partition of India in 1947, a partition on the basis of religion. The violent and fratricidal partition forced many Hindu families out of my country to seek refuge in India, on the other side of the border. At the same time, many Muslim families left India, and came over to my country. I heard that it was religion that led to all these disasters. When I was young I could not understand what type of religion that was.

As I grew up I came to know some other “achievements” of religion. True, religion has led to some great aspects of civilization-in the areas of painting, sculpture, literature, etc. But we have seen too many abuses by religion. Can one really forget all those wars and strife and plundering in the name of religion in Asia, Africa or Latin America? It is a fact that a pope tore up the map of the world into pieces and gave a part to each different imperialist group as a licence to colonize and proselytize the new world. Even Europe was not spared from religious strife. Islam was also spread in different parts of the world by fire and sword. To me the dark side of religion was always prominent. For me the greatest philosophy was to love humanity. To shed blood and tears for religion was dreadful for me.

Over time, in the course of my training in science, I began to learn the power of observation, experiment, analysis and reasoning. My power of ) observation may have been limited, but I could not I accept anything without reasoning. I have heard i that there are many statements in the Hindu religious texts that are called Aptabakya, or “received wisdom”. They are supposed to have been received from some superior authority, an authority that cannot be questioned. There are similar unquestionables in all religions. But I could not accept any- thing to be unquestionable. When I began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, I was surprised to see that “the sun revolves around the earth.” I found lots of unreasonable ideas in the Koran. Certainly it was discriminating to women. The women in the Koran are treated as slaves. They are nothing but sexual objects. Naturally I set aside the Koran and looked around me. I found religion equally oppressive in real life. So one day I had to take up my pen and start writing against the various misdeeds in the name of religion, against all the injustice, un- reason and prejudice sanctioned and promoted by religious institutions. I began to try to expose the crimes of religion, particularly the injustice and oppression against women. In my writing I began to speak out against all this. I have already mentioned the result of that.

There are some other reasons why I am against religion. It does not often teach people to love one another. On the contrary, it often teaches them to hate people of a different faith. Religion also leads people to depend on fate, and thus lose self-confidence. It unnecessarily glorifies poverty and sacrifice, and thus serves the vested interests of the wealthy few. In all countries and through all ages, the conscientious people have exposed these un- ethical aspects of religion and educated others to see religion with the eyes of reason and logic. Let me give as an example the philosophers of the Lokayata tradition, the materialists of ancient India. They raised many questions about religion, questions that appear simple but are actually very subtle. These materialists did not believe either in reincarnation or in heaven and hell. They were quite vocal against the dominance of the priests. According to scholars, the organized resistance of the priests did not allow the materialists to make much progress. Even their texts have been almost obliterated. There remain only some fragmentary references to what they preached. But some believe that they had a big influence on the common people. Hence perhaps their name: Lokayata, which re- ally means the common people.

Today we are still carrying on the same fight against unreason and prejudice. The rise of fundamentalism all over the world shows that the battle remains urgently necessary. In a discussion at Harvard University this year on the rise of religious fundamentalism, I said that after the end of the cold war the world faces a new battle between secular- ism and fundamentalism. As I said “I don’t agree with those who think that the conflict is simply between two religions-namely, Christianity and Islam. After all, there are fundamentalists in every religious community. Likewise I do not agree with those people who think that the crusades of the Middle Ages are going to be repeated soon. Nor do I think that this is a conflict between East and West. To me this conflict is basically between irrational, blind faith and rational, logical mind. While some people want to go forward others are trying to go backwards. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.”

I have always discussed the reasons behind the rise of religious fundamentalism as follows. I think that the failure of secular democracy on the one hand and of communism on the other to solve the

Fundamentalism is an ideology that diverts people from the path of natural development of consciousness and undermines their personal rights.

problems of underdevelopment and inequity has facilitated the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Disillusioned and hopeless people are now seeking salvation in the blind forces of faith. Beaten by science, overwhelmed by other civilizations, Islam is now in search of its “roots.” There is an element of fear in its search. Of course the responsibility for in- citing fundamentalism should not be laid fully on the so-called secular leaders of the ex-colonies who have used fundamentalism to serve their own interest. The responsibility should be shared by the democratic and secular states of the developed world. They have also made a lot of compromises with the fundamentalist forces. We have seen how the so-called secular political parties in Bangladesh use the religious sentiments of the people to get votes.

But similar instances of rank opportunism have been seen in India and elsewhere too. We have also seen how the powerful western states have declared protecting human rights to be one of their supreme objectives, and then patronized fundamentalism overtly or covertly. Democratic governments recognize military dictatorships for short- run political interests. Secular states make friends with autocracies as well as theocracies. They tolerate even the completely inhuman behaviour of fundamentalists. Such double standards practised by so called democratic and secular states at home and abroad give the fundamentalists a sort of legitimacy. The governments have to succumb to the fundamentalists’ pressure, proscribe books and make arrangements to send an author to prison.

Some authors in the west are coming forward in support of fundamentalists. They are trying to argue that not all the customs in vogue in the third world countries are harmful for women. They find a sort of stability and social peace in the oriental world. They think that even harems are not necessarily bad for women, because they provide a degree of autonomy and independence! May I humbly observe that all this is plain hoax. For me, there can be no difference in the concept of human rights between the East and the West. If the veil is bad for the western women then it is bad for their oriental sisters as well. If patriarchy is to be fought against in the West, it should be equally fought against in the East. In fact the fight is more urgent there because most of the women have neither any education nor any economic independence. If modern secular education is good for western women, why should the eastern women be deprived of it? The peace that some authors visualize in the east- ern countries is, clearly, the peace of the graveyard.

The point is, the fundamentalists cannot be countered without a relentless and uncompromising fight. The struggle should be both theoretical and tactical. Democracy and secularism should be applied in practice and not remain a mere play of words. Fundamentalism is an ideology that diverts people from the path of natural development of consciousness and undermines their personal rights. I find it impossible to accept fundamental- ism as an alternative to secular ideas. My reasons are: first, the insistence of the fundamentalists on divine justification for human laws; second, the insistence of fundamentalists upon the superior authority of faith, as opposed to reason; third, the insistence of fundamentalists that the individual does not count, that the individual is immaterial. Group loyalty over individual rights and personal achievements is a peculiar feature of fundamental- ism. Fundamentalists believe in a particular way of life; they want to put everybody in their particular strait jacket and dictate what an individual should eat, what an individual should wear, how an individual should live everyday life-everything would be determined by the fundamentalist authority. Fundamentalists do not believe in individualism, liberty of personal choice, or plurality of thought. Moreover, as they are believers in a particular faith, they believe in propagating only their own ideas (as autocrats generally do). They do not encourage or entertain free debate, they deny others the right to express their own views freely and they cannot tolerate anything which they perceive as going against their faith. They do not believe in an open society and though they proclaim them- selves a moral force, their language is hatred and violence. As true believers, they are out to “save the soul” of the people of their country by force of arms. Is it possible for a rationalist and humanist to accept this sort of terrible repression? The fight between obscurantism and enlightenment, between rationality and faith is therefore inevitable. But it is to be fought in the realm of ideology, in the field of education, on political platforms and in all spheres of daily life.

The self-assertion of various ethnic groups is of course of a different nature. There may be religious elements in ethnic struggles. But there can be many other reasons behind struggles against nation states. In the first place we must remember that the ideal of forming a “nation” from different ethnic groups was often imposed by the colonial rulers, particularly in the oriental world. They were motivated in this partly by administrative considerations. But there was also a failure to build the necessary ideological movement for creating a truly nationalist ethos, a movement in which various groups of people could participate with dignity. Naturally, all these groups could not attain adequate representation in the nationalistic whole. I think the attempt to build a “nation” in the former Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia or Soviet Union was, at least to some extent, imposed from above. Their nationalism was consequently faulty. Secessionist movements could spread easily, at the first chance indeed, through these faults in the nationalist structure. And naturally, these movements grew around the aspirations of different ethnic groups. There can be many reasons behind the sense of alienation of these groups, for example the step-motherly behaviour of the centre, the dominance of the main ruling groups, uneven development, continuous neglect, or attempts to impose cultural hegemony. All these, of course, mark a failure of the democratic process.

Again, the rulers commit a grave mistake when they try to bring the defiant ethnic groups back to the mainstream by treating their agitation as “law and order problems” and tackling them as such. These movements can be dealt with only on the basis of equality, justice, equal respect and true in- dependence. It does not mean that the attempt to build nations should be forsaken and the nation states should be broken up into sovereign ethnic units. If we accept the principle of such divisions generally, very few states of the world will remain undivided. Nation states will break up with sub-national and tribal units. The world will go back to the primitive state. This is why the question should be seen sensibly and with consideration and sympathy. The ethnic groups should be given the economic and administrative autonomy they deserve. But also, their cultural identity should be carefully preserved. In this age of the onslaught of the so- called global market and the global village, the question of cultural hegemony has become extremely important in the context of fighting fundamentalism. It is equally important for the dominant culture in a country to be conscious of the cultural rights of others. ‘When fundamentalists loom large the West should be very careful in handling the culture of Asian, African, and Latin American peoples. There is no such thing as a “superior” or “inferior” culture, there are only various cultural patterns which make up this beautiful, multi-coloured mosaic. Those who are trying to form a nation with different ethnic groups should remember this truth as well.

Let me finish with a poem of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever- widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, Let my country awake!

Translated from Bengali into English by the poet himself, this poem is taken from an anthology of poetry “Geetanjali” for which he received the Nobel prize in 1913. This can be a prayer for all the nations of the world. But I shall not join the prayer even though I admire the ideals of the poet. I do not believe in prayers. I believe in work. My work is that of an author. My pen is my weapon.

I view religions that must resort to extortion, threats and murder are too fragile to stand up to the light of reason. Their religious mission has been misdirected toward political agendas, anything less than total compliance must be treated as a threat. Truth, indeed, is THE threat to the tyranny of Totalitarianism. Truth must be the first casualty of an autocratic form of government.

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