Middle East Quarterly
Taslima Nasrin: "They Wanted to Kill Me"
Born into a middle-class Muslim family in the town of Mymensingh in north Bangladesh in 1962, Taslima Nasrin received a liberal education. She studied medicine and received her degree at the age of 23, when she began working as a doctor in the poorer parts of her country. She wrote extensively for periodicals, and continued to do so even after moving to work in public hospitals in the capital city of Dacca. When her books were first published, Nasrin became a best-selling author. She came to the West's attention when Islamists in Bangladesh issued a fatwa against her in 1993, demanding her arrest and execution for blasphemy and insults to religion; indeed, the offer of $7,500 to whomever puts her to death remains in force. With the help of Western governments, she has been living in such Western countries as Sweden, Germany, the United States, and France. Two of her books Lajja (Shame),1 and Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood), the first volume of her autobiography, are banned in Bangladesh. Nasrin has won many awards, including Ananda Puroshkar, an Indian literary award; the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought from the European Parliament; the Kurt Tuckholsky award from Swedish PEN; a human rights prize from the French government; and a humanist award from International Humanist and Ethical Union. This interview took place in France in early 2000.
Middle East Quarterly: What began your problems with fundamentalist Muslims in Bangladesh?
Taslima Nasrin: I started writing a newspaper column in 1989 based on my experiences as a doctor and on my observation generally about the plight of women and their oppression in the male-dominated society of Bangladesh. I defended the rights of women against religion and patriarchy, which I see as the causes of women's suffering. In particular, I wrote about the role of religion in this ill-treatment of women. With more than 80 percent of the country's population Muslim, Islam is the country's most important religion. Many of my countrymen, fundamentalist Muslims and ordinary religious Bengalis alike, did not agree with what I wrote, and started to hate me. The fundamentalists organized demonstrations and processions against me from 1990 on; they attacked and sacked the newspaper office where I used to write my columns, they burnt my books in public, and finally they filed a case against me in the courts.
MEQ: You have written quite a bit?
Nasrin: Yes: six novels, eight collections of poetry (some of which first appeared in newspapers and magazines in Bangladesh), and four volumes of essays (also reprints from newspapers and magazines). Those were burned by religionists, and many cases were filed against me as a writer and the publishers of those books.
MEQ: Then came Lajja.
Nasrin: Yes, it was my fourth novel; it came out in February 1993. It is a documentary novel about the precarious existence of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh especially in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, by Hindu fundamentalists on December 6, 1992. The Muslim mobs in Bangladesh took their revenge on the Hindu minority. I was writing about the oppression of the Hindus by the Muslim majority in the name of religion. They smashed the houses of the Hindus in the name of religion, and looted their shops. Of course, as a result many Hindus left Bangladesh for India. I was protesting the torture of Hindu communities.
My book was banned in 1993 on charges of disturbing communal harmony. In 1994 a newspaper in Calcutta published an interview with me, where I said that the Shari‘a [sacred law of Islam] should be abolished. Unfortunately, the newspaper misquoted me as saying that I thought "the Qur'an should be revised thoroughly." But as I do not believe in the Qur'an, there is no reason for me to say it should be revised. I think the Qur'an is, like all religious scriptures, out of place and out of time, totally irrelevant for our era. Nothing will be gained by reforming the Qur'an; instead, what is needed is a uniform civil code of laws that is not based on religious dogmas, and that is equally applicable to men and women.
MEQ: That interview provoked a strong reaction.
Nasrin: The Muslim fundamentalists became very angry and issued fatwas against me again in 1994, declaring me an apostate, demanded my execution by hanging, and the banning of all my books. They even filed cases against my editors and publishers. The fundamentalists called for a general strike to protest against my writings. They were able to mobilize over 300,000 people in just one demonstration in Dhaka, and they openly called for my execution by hanging, in fact, they put a price on my head. They offered a lot of money to anyone killing me. For weeks, much of the country was on general strike, demanding my death, and Islamists killed some people because they did not want to strike. Not only that, the government filed a case against me.
MEQ: How did the Bangladesh government respond?
Nasrin: Instead of protecting me, it banned my book in June 1993 and filed a criminal case against me in July 1994, charging me with hurting the religious feelings of the people. This situation forced me into hiding for two months, and then to flee Bangladesh.
MEQ: Was your life really in danger, or was that the exaggeration of the media?
Nasrin: Of course there was danger! People are rightly afraid of the fundamentalists, for they can kill people whenever they want and are very powerful. People have been killed in the past. Why should the media be on my side as they too are influenced by religion?
MEQ: How did you manage to escape from Bangladesh?
Nasrin: Under pressure from Western countries and from various human rights groups, the Bangladesh government agreed to grant me bail on condition that I leave the country. I got out with the help of some government in Europe, the United States government, the PEN organization, humanist and human rights organizations. I had the Bangladesh police protecting me as far as the airport. It was arranged by the European Union that I should get asylum in Sweden, so Swedish security police and foreign ministry people came to take me from Bangladesh.
MEQ: Do you have police protection now in the West?
Nasrin: When I arrived in Sweden, as many as a hundred policemen and policewomen were guarding me round the clock. On one occasion I slipped out to take a walk in the snow, but was severely told off and told not to do that again. And I had protection in every country I went to. After a few years I just could not stand it anymore, being surrounded by police all the time. I wanted to move freely, for I feel safe here in the West. Now, I only have police protection when I speak to large groups. Most of the time I avoid been protected by police, as it hampers my freedom. But when I recently visited India (the first time in six years), I had tight police protection the whole time. The Muslim fundamentalists demonstrated against my visit in Bombay, and 140 people were arrested. The Indian government has since decided not to allow me visit India anymore.
MEQ: Have you been physically attacked?
Nasrin: On one occasion in Bangladesh, at the national book fair, the fundamentalists attacked me physically; I was knocked to the ground and had my clothes torn. At Nottingham in England some Muslim students tried to attack me physically but the police saved me. In Concordia, Canada, I was forced to stop speaking because of Muslim student demonstrations. On several occasions, Muslim students stopped me from speaking.
MEQ: Surely you realized that you would offend the religious feelings of millions of believers of a great world religion by asking for the abolition of the Shari‘a?
Nasrin: To a certain extent I realized that, but I always want to tell the truth — so I did. When I write and express my ideas I never think of what might happen in the future. But I did know that it is very necessary to tell the truth, to wake people up, because ignorant people believe in religion, and because of religion, women are oppressed; women do not have any freedom as human beings. Also, the religious minorities especially in Bangladesh are oppressed, too, because they are not of the same faith. I knew that I would face a lot of problems but I did not care. I needed to tell the truth.
MEQ: You were surprised by what happened?
Nasrin: Yes. I never realized the fundamentalists would be so angry that they would issue a fatwa, or that my life would be in danger. I never realized that I would have to leave my own country. I thought it would be possible for me to fight them by organizing a strong secular force within the country.
MEQ: Have you received support within Bangladesh? Or within the Muslim world generally?
Nasrin: Yes, several secular intellectuals wrote in my defense and generally supported me very much. I was hiding in Bangladesh for two months, and without the support of these intellectuals, it would have been impossible for me to survive. They literally saved my life. I also had support from many Muslims in other countries who wrote many articles supporting me in their journals. In fact, even Iranian feminists came to my defense.
MEQ: Have you met Salman Rushdie? Does he support you?
Nasrin: No, unfortunately, I have not met him yet, but yes, he has supported me. He wrote a letter defending my cause. He still supports me.
MEQ: Are his and your situations similar?
Nasrin: Not very. Salman Rushdie did not live in Iran, and as he lived in a Western democracy, he got police protection and lots of support. He also got lots of support in the West because (even though he was born in India) he has lived in the West since childhood. Also he writes in English, and so is much closer to Western readers.
My situation is a little different. I was living in a country where fundamentalists issued a fatwa against me — I had to fight them directly while living in the same country. I had to live in a country where most of the people are religious and most of the people were against me, and they wanted to kill me — it was a much more difficult situation for me. The British government was not against him but my government was against me. Rushdie was in a safer situation, but we could both be killed at any time.
Another difference: Rushdie writes for aesthetic reasons, for the sake of writing; I write to change society, about such subjects as women's issues, the role of Islam, and the partition of India. We have very different goals.
MEQ: You had a small falling out with Rushdie. Can you explain what happened?
Nasrin: I once said that Rushdie should never have apologized (as he did at the very end of 1990) for having writing The Satanic Verses. I believe he showed cowardice in declaring his Islamic faith and calling on the publisher of The Satanic Verses neither to issue the book in paperback nor to allow it to be translated. Hearing this criticism, Rushdie became angry with me. That's all – no falling out. It's just that I have this habit of telling what comes to my mind.
MEQ: Do you have anything in common with Nasr Abu Zayd, the Egyptian scholar of Islam who had to flee his homeland because the Islamists managed to get a court to determine that, because of his writings, he was a non-Muslim?
Nasrin: Not much. The main difference between us is that I don't believe in the Qur'an or any religious scripture at all, whereas Abu Zayd does. Yes, he like me wrote about changing the Shari‘a, but he did so from the vantage point of a believer, some one who accepts Islam, the Qur'an. He simply wanted some modifications of the Shari‘a laws, that's all. Even though he believes in religion he still had problems in Egypt, merely for wanting some modifications to the Shari‘a.
I don't agree with him. I don't want modifications of the Shari‘a but I want civil laws that give equality and justice for women. I don't want Muslim law, Hindu law, or Christian law. I don't want any law based on religion.
MEQ: But if ever there is a reformation in Islam, won't it have to come from within — from people like Abu Zayd?
Nasrin: I think it is necessary to fight Islam within Islamic countries. As for Abu Nasr Zayd, I just don't think his piecemeal approach works, and this is shown by the fact he and his wife had to flee Egypt; they are now living in the Netherlands.
Revolution is necessary against all evil forces, against religion, with no compromises. If the secular forces get stronger in Islamic countries, I am sure the changes would happen quickly. But the secular forces don't get as much support from outside as do the fundamentalists.
MEQ: How does Nasr Abu Zayd react to your ideas?
Nasrin: He and I had a discussion. When I said that human rights and Islam were incompatible, he said he does not believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]. He does not think that the UDHR is suitable for many countries, especially Islamic countries but holds that Muslim countries should have their own culture. He believes they should have different types of human rights and an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. I don't agree; I think human rights are truly universal and applicable to all cultures.
MEQ: You call for complete secularism, but is that feasible in Muslim countries?
Nasrin: Certainly. Turkey is a secular country, for example. Also, when Bangladesh was founded in 1971, a secular system was quickly introduced and no one objected to it. No one asked why we had secularism in a Muslim country where the majority religion is Islam; it was just accepted. But in 1984 some political leaders there threw secularism out, and instead established Islam as the state religion. These politicians used religion for their own political gains, for their own interests.
MEQ: Still, you are not going to change the attitude of one billion people overnight. Don't you need people like Nasr Abu Zayd who are sincere believers and who can influence fellow believers?
Nasrin: It is true we need all types of people to change the present conditions, perhaps even those who want to act tactically. But I prefer to talk directly and truthfully without hiding anything. People often tell me it is a question of tactics such as you mention, but I do not believe in tactics. I am not a diplomat or a politician, I just want to say whatever I believe in. That means abolishing religion.
Nasrin: Because religion and freedom of expression, religion and human rights, religion and women's rights, religion and democracy, religion and freedom cannot coexist. That is impossible.
MEQ: Can your methods work?
Nasrin: Using tactics takes too long; it will take too much time to establish secularism this way. It will take too long before women have their rights in Islamic countries. While the rest of the world has advanced in this age of information and technology, the Islamic world has remained fixed. It is really backwards, living in the Middle Ages and darkness. What I want is a revolution — for women's freedom, for humanism, and to throw out unnecessary things like religion.
MEQ: Are you optimistic that secularism, human rights, and the rights of women will eventually prevail in the Muslim world?
Nasrin: I hope so. I believe so. Religion is sooner or later bound to die. You can't always remain in the dark. You have to search for light, meaning education. Development and progress in the world depends on science; you can't live without it. As science and religion are contradictory, you have to accept one of them instead of mixing them forcibly.
MEQ: Why do you reject Islam?
Nasrin: If any religion allows the persecution of people of different faith, if any religion keeps women in slavery, if any religion keeps people in ignorance, then I cannot accept that religion. Religion is a big factor in putting women into their house-cages. Even though many women have an education, they are not allowed to work; they have to be submissive to their husbands because their religion says so. For that reason, I do not accept Islam; so, I criticized it.
MEQ: Why do you attribute the situation of women in Islamic countries to Islam? Has it not more to do with socioeconomic factors, or even cultural and political development?
Nasrin: Yes, women are oppressed by culture, by traditions, and they are victims of socioeconomic conditions. But, they are also suffering because of Islam. Islam says that women should follow the orders of the husband. So if Islam is practiced in society, even good socioeconomic conditions cannot change the condition of women. Look at Saudi Arabia, it's a rich country, but what is the condition of women there? They are just like slaves, just like inferior beings; they are treated as second-class citizens. They do not have any rights. To improve the situation of women, to have equality and justice for women, means getting rid of religion as a source of law. That requires secularism.
MEQ: What do you make of the arguments by some Muslim neo-feminists like Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi (in her later writings) that the problem is not Islam, which they consider to be pro-women, but rather the interpretation of the Qur'an?
Nasrin: Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi are praised by many so-called liberal Muslims and also by Western intellectuals. They try to interpret the Qur'an in a new way, but I can't agree with them. How can one interpret the Qur'an positively on the question of women — when it says that men are superior to women, that men have the right to beat women, and that women should be submissive? In the matter of inheritance, women are not equal with men, and the testimony of women in a court of law is worth half that of men. In the Qur'an, it is written that men can have four wives. It is impossible to think that this is equality. I don't believe any positive interpretation of these verses is possible.
Some Muslim feminists have tried to defend these aspects of the Qur'an by saying that the Qur'an was written 1,400 years ago, and those were the manners at that period. My reply is: In that case, why should we follow the Qur'an at all? It is not suitable or relevant now.
MEQ: How do you reply to the argument that by writing a book like Lajja you are playing into the hands of the Hindu fundamentalists, that you risk being exploited or manipulated by them for their own political purposes?
Nasrin: That is totally false. I am against all types of fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. There is no reason for me to be sympathetic to Hindu fundamentalists. Some people blame me because I criticized the Muslim fundamentalists and defended the Hindus. But I defended the Hindus as human beings, who were being oppressed by the Muslim fundamentalists. I was not defending Hindu fundamentalists.
Of course, in India the Hindu fundamentalists tried to highlight the issue; they championed me because I wrote against the Muslims, but I am not responsible for that. They are as bad as the Muslim fundamentalists — they know I don't support them; I am totally against them. It is not my fault if bad people use my book for their own interest. Writers write whatever they like, and if people use these writings for their own purpose, what can I as a writer do?
MEQ: Do the fundamentalist Hindus still champion you?
Nasrin: Hardly. I recently visited India and I wrote an article defending a film maker who was prevented by fundamentalist Hindus from shooting her film. This piece of mine made those fundamentalists angry with me and they even called for my arrest and my expulsion from the country. At present, in fact, I am having a problem getting a visa for India, as they are in power now.
MEQ: What do you think is the reason for the rise in religious fundamentalism worldwide but particularly in Muslim countries?
Nasrin: I am not sure, but I think it has a lot to do with the failure of the modern state in the Islamic world. The leaders of these states have let their people down. There has been a big rise in the population, and the leaders have not been able to provide jobs, decent housing, health facilities, public transport, and so on. There have also been human rights abuses, like torture and executions of opponents. The fundamentalists have exploited all these failures. They say that all the irreligious Western ideologies have failed—things like communism, socialism, and capitalism—and that now is the time to go back to their own culture, to their own roots, to go back to religion and Islam; that without religion everything will fail. Many frustrated, disillusioned people are looking for salvation in blind faith, among them you will find a good number of ex-communists.
MEQ: How do you assess the government reactions to them?
Nasrin: Weak. For their own political purposes, not only the Middle Eastern leaders but also the Western ones have made compromises with the fundamentalists — to get votes or to fight communism. Both have given the fundamentalists a sort of legitimacy.
MEQ: Do you think the fundamentalists will continue to grow in strength?
Nasrin: Whether they gain power depends on the power of secularism in those countries. If secularists unite and fight, the fundamentalists will not continue to rise.
MEQ: What do you make of their solutions to the problems of modern society?
Nasrin: With the fundamentalists in power, there will be no political stability, no democracy, nor human rights. They rely on blind faith and not reason; they insist on laws which they believe divine. They are against individualism; they prefer to sacrifice the individual in favor of group loyalty and the rights of the Muslim community; and they advocate hatred and violence. They do not want women to work, and if 50 percent of the population is inactive, how can there be development? No developed country will give economic aid if there is no political stability.
Islam and the West
MEQ: What is your reaction to the rise in the number of Muslims in the West, partly due to immigration and partly due to conversions? Do you see this as a positive phenomenon?
Nasrin: I don't believe in any national boundaries, people should have the right to live wherever they want to live. Immigration for political and economic reasons is inevitable. But I don't think it is a positive phenomenon when Westerners convert to Islam – just as it is not positive when they bow their heads to Hinduism and Buddhism or start new religions like the so-called New Ageism.
MEQ: Do you agree with Samuel Huntington's thesis that there is bound to be a clash of civilizations?
Nasrin: No, I don't. It is not a question of a conflict between the West and the East, or between Christianity and Islam. It is, rather, a fight between tradition and innovation, antimodernism and modernity, fundamentalism and secularism, irrational blind faith and the logical inquisitive mind. It is a fight between those who value freedom and those who do not. In this fight, it bears noting, some Muslims defend modern ways and some many Westerners defend Islam, portraying it as an Eastern culture.
MEQ: Defend Islam as an Eastern culture?
Nasrin: It is the Western fashion now to defend different cultures. I have been attacked in Europe for criticizing Islam. They tell me that not all traditions in the Islamic world are harmful to women. Imagine, I have been told that the position of women in Bangladesh is very good. They even consider harems not necessarily bad for women!
MEQ: And your reaction?
Nasrin: That this is nonsense. If customs are bad for Western women, they are also bad for Eastern women. If education is good for Western women, surely it must also be good for Eastern ones. Muslim women urgently need a modern, secular education, as the rate of illiteracy among them is very high; education would give them some kind of economic independence, and finally would help to liberate them.
1 Trans. into English and published as Shame (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1998).
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