London, August 4 (2014), Alochonaa: Taslima Nasrin practiced medicine in Bangladesh, world’s fourth largest Muslim majority country, before she was forced out of the country in August 1994 at the age of thirty two. In addition to her medical career she wrote poetry, mainly focusing on the oppression of women in Bangladesh, and a collections of essays and novels. In 1993 she wrote a book called Lajja (shame), which depicted the persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh and she was criticised for exaggerating the negative experiences of the Hindu minority in the country and giving Bangladesh a bad name. She was also criticised for writing critically on Islam and for producing allegedly obscene pornographical style writings. Taslima was interviewed by Kolkata New Statement and its publication in May 1994, according to which, she called for a revision of the Holy Quran, causing outraged, huge public anger, demonstrations and campaigns against her, including a demand for her death penalty. The government of Bangladesh found it prudent to send Taslima off into exile rather than either confront the demonstrators or take legal actions against her. She has lived in Europe and India during the last twenty years, still wanting and making many unsuccessful efforts to return to Bangladesh.
There are many grounds which one can use to support or oppose Taslima Nasrin. Supporters and opponents will have their own reasons for their respective positions. In this short article I shall explore the initial reasons setting her off to exile. I shall also examine those campaigns forcing her out of Bangladesh. Here I am not interested in the contents of her book Lajja, works of poetry or alleged ‘pornographical writings’, which might fuelled public reaction against her.
One can legitimately argue that without taking into account the background it will not be possible to understand the eruption of public anger and the movements generated against her as a result of the interview. This is true but I just want to focus on the issue that set a large fire in 1994 and also because the opinions expressed in the interview was the main reasons why people wanted her punished and killed.
In May 1994 the Kolkata version of the New Statement published an interview with Taslima Nasrin, where it was reported that she wanted the Holy Quran to be revised. When the news went around of this alleged interview position of Taslima, suddenly and perhaps spontaneously, there was a great eruption of public anger among many sections of the people in Bangladesh felt hurt and outraged. The understandable public anger, in the Bangladesh context, was played on by organised groups who orchestrated large demonstrations demanding punishment and death for Taslima. Many such groups thought that this was an opportunity to flex their muscle and achieve some of their political goals, in addition to the genuine hurt and outrage felt by many ordinary people.
Subsequent to the interview and the controversy Taslima clarified her position. She stated that she made no demand for revising the Quran but that she wanted the re-interpretation of Islamic law to fit modern times. The Kolkata New Statement stuck to their original publication position that she did say that the Quran should be revised. Taslima’s clarification had no effects in dampening the outrage, demonstration and the demand for her punishment. It continued day after day until she was sent into exile in August 1994. Rather than religious leaders and scholars considering her clarification, which would have been the right thing to do, particularly as we all know how the media often take things out of context and give wrong impressions of someone’s ideas and actions, they continued to press their campaigns and demands.
I remember participating in debates with friends, colleagues and people in London at that time. I went to a packed meeting at the Davenant Centre in East London where Taslima was denounced by speakers after speakers and one very prominent Islamic leader at that time claimed that she was a Jewish, Christian and Hindu conspiracy. When the meeting finished I asked him how he knew of the conspiracy he replied that he knows about it but did not elaborate. I had many one to one discussion with individuals and some of them started to suspect me and a few friends slowly began to become distanced. Many people would start their criticism of Taslima by saying how could she say such a nonsense and offensive thing that the ‘Quran should be revised’, that her writings lacked literary merits and that she wrote pornography in Bengali, which was going to damage our society.
One Bangladeshi university lecturer visiting London in 1994 during the controversy, whom I picked up from the airport, told me that she was worried that Taslima might be offered a Nobel Prize and also that her writings did not have any real literary merits. I told her that I did not think she will get a Nobel Prize and that the controversy was not about the literary qualities of her writings. I told her I that supported Taslima Nasrin on this controversy due to two main reasons.
First, during media interviews people often use words which convey meanings different from what was intended. We all have such experience of regretting using certain words which have conveyed wrong meanings. Whereas a more careful choice of words would have better communicated our positions and thoughts. But as human beings we are not able to always use the best words in all circumstances at all times. I believe Taslima when she said that she was not calling for the Quran to be revised. Unless you are completely mad then how can you argue for revising a holy book, which was written about one and half millennium ago, and being a revelation from God (according to Muslims). If you did want to revise the Quran then who would have the authority do it and what would you change? Nobody can have the authority to change Quranic texts. In a similar way nobody has the authority to change the works of Shakespeare or any other writings of the past. However, interpretations and understanding of religious and secular works of the past can be revised and are often revised by the new generation. In relation to interpreting certain aspects of Islamic law in today’s context nobody would ask Naslima for an opinion, but it does not mean Taslima cannot have an opinion. Reinterpretation of Islamic rules, regulations and laws can only be undertaken by good scholars based on tradition, internal religious reasoning and pressures from the ever changing modern world.
My position was that even if she used the word ‘revise’ she could not have meant it because no one can have the authority to undertake this task. Rational consideration and her clarification should have been sufficient to know that Taslima was not calling for the revision of the Quran. However, Islamic scholars and leaders did not look at the issue rationally and consider Taslima’s clarification with moral consistency. The job of religion, including Islam, is to aim at the truth, rather than use emotion, whip up public feelings and use Tasmila’s interview to gain political or social advantage. I believe wise leaders have the responsibility to arrive at a considered position rather than whip up public feelings for political or other purposes, and guide the public towards truth and justice.
Second, I supported Taslima Nasreen for standing up for the poor oppressed and discriminated women of Bangladesh. Perhaps Taslima was naive to undertake her crusade against female oppression in a way that got her alienated from a large section of the society and attracted the wrath of many. It would have been wiser to think of other ways that do not enrage public feelings or give parties an excuse to launch campaigns and movements. However, we are all different and different people have different temperaments and personalities of their own. Some individuals just cannot keep quite or work out subtle methods, because a fire burns inside them and compel them to speak out without thinking things through the consequences and as a result often pay a heavy price. However, what she was saying and how she was trying to inspire women to go forward and forward and not to turn back is truly inspiring. I know from my personal experience of individuals and households of how badly women were treated within the Bangladeshi community and some of the stories I heard from the media and other sources were just heart breaking. So why should I not defend someone who was standing up for women’s rights. It is about human dignity, justice and our equal rights to pursue happiness in life.
In April 1995 I went to Oxford University where Taslima was invited to speak at a packed audience. Many people waited outside as they could not get a ticket. I set on an isle-seat and as she walked past me to towards the front of the hall she looked a little nervous and later read out from a prepared speech. Her outlook and perspectives were in many ways how Bengali Nationalism sees Bangladesh and its history and culture. There were a few things she said which were only partially true but they form part of the Bengali nationalist narratives. For example, she claimed that ‘they tried to change the Bengali language according middle eastern and Islamic forms’ (my paraphrase), without exploring how the Bengali language was developed during the late 18th and 19th centuries. I realised that some of her anti-Islamic positions originated from, in addition to the bad treatment of women in Bangladesh, the Bengali Nationalists interpretation of the history of Islam and Muslims in India and Bangladesh.
Twenty years on, there is the internet which has all kinds of vile and nasty attacks against Islam and full of pornography. The damage that many angry people thought Taslima would cause our society and our religion, potentially only represents a very very small, tiny and insignificant threat, if compared to the power of globalisation and the internet. On the other hand, the internet also has full of positive sights and videos on Islam and Islamic people are using the internet to defend Islam and Muslims. Taslima does not represent any real threat and it is better to engage with her ideas than exile or kill her, which is something really immoral. It is also better to fight against the oppression and discrimination of women than to immorally silence someone who is enraged at what awful thing we do to our women in Bangladesh. Let her come back to her motherland and enjoy the air, water, greenery, sounds, colours and tastes of our beautiful Bangladesh, just
like us all.
*Muhammad Ahmedullah holds a PhD on the Epistemology and Political Theory from University of Kent, UK. He worked for many years in inner city regeneration programmes in the UK. Between May 2005 and June 2010 he has delivered a unique exhibition on Dhaka City in and around London. He is the secretary of Brick Lane Circle, an organisation based in London that runs academic events to help transform the intellectual landscape of the Bangladeshi community in the UK.
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