Tarek Fatah and Taslima Nasreen
On my way to Delhi's Indira Gandhi airport Sunday night for a flight back to Canada, I made a detour to pay my respects to someone I consider the bravest woman alive today — exiled Bangladeshi author, Taslima Nasreen. She and her cat "Minu" live alone on the top floor of a four-story apartment complex in the suburbs of India's sprawling capital.
Millions of Indians live in such complexes. Except in this building, she is the only resident. For security reasons, the elevator is disabled. The lights in the stairway leading up to her Spartan flat are as dim as those in a coal mine. Armed Indian security officers guard the complex around the clock. Outside her apartment door stands a towering soldier, bearing an automatic rifle.
Despite the security, this woman of steel, who has braved both physical and verbal assaults over her last 20 years in exile, sounds despondent. She tells me, "The jihadi death squads of Bangladesh, who have killed three secular writers in three months, have now added my name to their list."
The world's bravest feminist has no family, siblings, parents or children, just her conviction and integrity.
Swiping her iPad, Nasreen shows me the threat made on Twitter by someone using the now-deleted handle @JihadForKhilafa, a call to wage jihad to establish an Islamic Caliphate. "@TaslimaNasreen u r also among the 84 who r on the hitlist. Count ur days -;" the message reads.
Nasreen repeats a line from the award-winning Bangla film Nirbashito about freedom of speech, based on her life. "It's the pen and the sword; the sword always wins." Nasreen smiles, as she often does, with a wicked twinkle in her eyes, but I sense an air of despondency in her.
"We will win," I tell her, trying to infuse her with some optimism.
"Kaisa jeeta ga, tumm bhi tho bhag gaya?" she asks me in jest. ("How can we win, when you, too, are running away?") She speaks in a lilting, Urdu accent, reminding me of the 1970s, when both of us were citizens of Pakistan.
"No, I am not running away," I protest. "I will fight the cancer of Islamofascism until it's defeated."
But she isn't convinced. "That's your problem, Tarek," she tells me, "stop fooling yourself, (the problem is) Islam, not Islamofascism."
"I, too, am a European citizen," she lectures me. "I too, can live in Europe, but I choose to fight the extremists here in India. This is where the epic 'Ghazwa-e-Hind' (will occur)." This refers to the end-of-time battle Prophet Mohammed is said to have predicted, where non-Muslims will come under Islamic control, triggering the long-awaited Islamic Armageddon.
Nasreen taunts me, arguing this war will not be waged by jihadis in air-conditioned Canada.
"Come to Canada," I suggest.
"Really?" she responds sarcastically. "I can never forget the mob of Muslim students in Montreal's Concordia University, who successfully disrupted my speech, and I had to be taken away by police. "Even if I go to safety in the West, who will take care of my cat?" she adds. As she speaks, Minu purrs and scratches Nasreen's sari.
We part, knowing we may never meet again.
The woman I consider the world's bravest feminist, who has no family, siblings, parents or children, just her conviction and integrity, beams me a smile. I am teary-eyed as I say "Khuda Hafiz", ("May God be your Protector"), a parting wish banned by Islamists in Bangladesh and Pakistan, but not yet in India.
Tarek Fatah is a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a columnist at the Toronto Sun, and a Robert J. and Abby B. Levine Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of two award-winning books: Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State and The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism.