Baying for Taslima's blood

News of the return of the fugitive feminist writer to her native Bangladesh has been enaugh for the renewed fanatic demand for her head

At the turn of this century, Islamic clerics had issued a fatwa that decreed that any Muslim who learnt English would be declared, or automatically become a “non–Muslim”. It was thus that the Muslims of India fell behind all other communities in attaining formal education and therefore got excluded from job opportunities and mainstream politics.

In the 1930s, Allama Iqbal, the famous Urdu poet of Pakistan was also charged for blasphemy when he wrote his poem Shiqwa. He was, however, absolved after the Muslim League put their weight behind the poet! At the end of the last century, a fatwa by the mullahs decreed that women could not be the leaders of any nation. Did they mean that neither Khaleda Zia nor Shiekh Hasina could be prime ministers of this country? Incidentally, both of them did become prime ministers.

After failing to incite the masses, the mullahs have changed their strategy. Their most recent victim is Taslima Nasreen, a feminist writer blamed for her “blasphemous” writings which have “hurt the feelings of the Muslims”. The mullahs have, through their tirade against her, catapulted her to the global centrestage. Fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh have been quick to seize every opportunity to display their intolerance. During the country’s bloody liberation war in 1971, when heinous war crimes were perpetrated by the occupying Pakistani troops, the Bangladeshi mullahs and right–wing groups aided and abetted Pakistan, in the name of saving Islam.

When over 40,000 women were raped and three million innocent people were massacred by the Pakistani army, these mullahs were heard chanting ‘Allah–0–Akbar’ (God is Great). They (the mullahs) are the defeated forces of the glorious liberation war of independence of Bangladesh,” said Dr. Anwar Hossain, a professor of History at Dhaka University and an authority on Islamic revivalism and fanaticism. “The mullahs were in agony under a secular society that has aged through historic evolution.”

In early 1994–95, the mullahs targeted non–governmental organisations (NGOs) working with millions of disadvantaged rural women. They consistently challenged their involvement with NGOs. They accused NGOs for proseletysation and for bringing otherwise conservative village women out from behind their veil. It is of course another matter that poor village women never did wear the veil, as they cannot afford one. “The mullahs are a deterrent to fundamental rights,” remarked Salma Ali, a lawyer and Director of Bangladesh Women’s Lawyers Association.

On September 14, a Bangladesh Biman flight from New York landed in Dhaka early in the morning. A burqa–clad woman walked slowly out of the airport. She was none other than Taslima Nasreen returning to her native land to be with her parents who had gone to New York for medical treatment. The following day a tabloid, quoting responsible passengers on the same flight, splashed news of the feminist writer’s home–coming. Her sudden decision to return to Bangladesh, to meet her ailing mother, triggered the dormant Muslim clerics, Islamic fanatics and right–wing religious groups who vowed afresh not to rest unless she is punished by death. Since her reported return, Islamic groups have again threatened to get tough with Taslima if they find her. About half–a–dozen militant groups with banners full of angry slogans have staged street protests since her return, reiterating calls for her arrest and death. Several more groups have planned further protests in Dhaka.

Leaders of pro–Islamic groups like the Jamaat–e–Islami, Islamic Constitution Movement, Islamic Unity Movement and Inquilabi Ulema Council have, in separate statements, warned the government of serious consequences if it gave her protection. Speakers at protest rallies in the capital and elsewhere said Taslima was a “sinner” and a “renegade” and reminded people that the fatwa of 1994 that put a price on her head still stands.

Taslima is not the first person to flee the country under threat from Muslim fanatics. Daud Haider, a promising young poet and journalist, had to flee the country in 1973 in the face of a violent agitation by the mullahs for his alleged defamatory remarks about prophet Muhammad in one of his poems published in a Bangla daily. For several years, Haider stayed in Calcutta, India. He now lives in exile in Germany, and contributes articles on various national and international issues to some dailies in Dhaka.

In 1993, the government banned Nari (women), a book by Prof. Humayun Azad of Dhaka University, in which he dealt with the subordinate and subservient position of women in Islam, for fear of religious protests. But the book is still sold in the markets.

Surprisingly, literary professionals, teachers at the university, members of the student community, and other sections of civil society including NGOs — all of whom are normally vocal about the rise of right–wing forces and Islamic fanatics — are unusually silent on this occasion. Very few organisations have protested the threat to Taslima. Has Taslima antagonised them in the past? Or are they critical of her work? What about freedom of expression, the right to express oneself, which is constitutionally guaranteed in Bangladesh?

(A news agency reported from Dhaka on September 21 that in an article in Sangbad, a leading Bengali daily, eminent author, Anwara Syed Haq, has mounted an offensive against the fundamentalists. “It is my fervent appeal to all of you to see to it that these fundamentalist groups under no circumstances could snatch away the rights and sovereignty of womenfolk centring on Taslima”, she said).

On the other hand, many international organisations have issued statements condemning the threat to the feminist writer. Paris–based Rapporteurs Sans Frontières, an independent organisation for the defence of press freedom world–wide, has expressed its concern regarding the threats to Taslima. In a protest letter faxed to Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina, RSF urged the government to use its influence to ensure that the feminist writer can meet her family, in particular her mother, in safety and without fear. “Our organisation calls on you to ask the police forces to protect the author from Muslim fundamentalists, as some of them swore to assassinate her some years ago.”

On September 24, following her reported return to Bangladesh, a magistrate’s court ordered Taslima’s arrest. The Dhaka District Magistrate’s Court has also ordered her property to be seized in a revival of a 1994 case which had lain dormant while she was in forced exile. She left the country in 1994 to escape the wrath of right–wing Islamic fanatics accusing her of blasphemy because of her book, Nirbachito Column (Selected writings), in Bangla. The case originally filed in 1994 by Zainal Abedin Babul, an Islamic fanatic, said Taslima had insulted Islam in her book.

The court had issued an arrest order against her but Taslima managed to get out of the country. Police have been hunting the writer since her reported return, but have not found her. Bangladesh does not have a blasphemy law and police were unable to say what punishment Taslima might be accorded if convicted at the trial.

A criminal case lodged against the writer in 1994 is pending before the Supreme Court. This followed a stay order on the High Court proceedings then attained on a petition filed by the defence lawyers of Taslima. The officer–in–charge of Motijheel police station Mohammed Nurul Alam had filed a case against Taslima with the court of chief metropolitan magistrate on June 4, 1994 following an instruction of the home ministry during the Bangladesh Nationalists Party’s (BNP) regime headed by Begum Khaleda Zia. The complaint said that in an interview in The Statesman, published on May 9, 1994, Taslima had made deliberate and insinuating remarks against the holy Quran and Islamic culture. It hurt the religious sentiment of the Muslims and was therefore blasphemous. Following this case, the chief metropolitan magistrate issued a warrant of arrest against Taslima on June 4, 1994.

In July 1994, there were a series of petitions filed in the High Court for quashing the proceedings of the case pending before the chief metropolitan magistrate court. But the assistant attorney general, Sayed Abu Kowser Mohammad Dabirush-Shan, who appeared for the government in the case against Taslima, told journalists recently that the case was not dismissed. “She is still a fugitive in the eyes of the law,” he said.

According to legal experts, there is no bar on her staying in Bangladesh. But legally, she could stand trial in the 1994 blasphemy case. This is what religious fundamentalists here are demanding.

Forced by the countrywide protests, the government of the BNP had issued an arrest warrant for Taslima on charge of blasphemy against Islam. Realising the risk to her life, the writer went into hiding, surrendering later before the high court where she obtained bail. Within days, on August 9, 1994, she fled Bangladesh, aided by an international organisation “PEN” to escape the wrath of the fiery mullahs. Taslima sought asylum in Sweden, from where she moved to Germany, France, and Norway and travelled to the United States where she has, since, lived with friends.

A medical graduate–turned–columnist, Taslima gradually came in the public eye and influenced public debate for her writing against social injustices, discriminatory laws and practices against women, male chauvinism, and the bigotry of Muslim fanatics. She ruthlessly and deliberately attacked Islamists for suppressing and oppressing women in particular. She drew the attention of Muslim clerics by her outspoken remarks against Islamic laws governing women and for her openly advocating extra–marital sex in her book Lajja (Shame), which has been banned in Bangladesh.

Lajja (shame), written in the aftermath of Muslim–Hindu riots in Bangladesh in 1992–93 following anti–minority riots in India, sparked controversy because the book, written in Bangla, is an account of the travails of a minority Hindu family who are harassed by fundamentalists and forced to migrate to India.

In the book she bashed Indian culture and religion (Hinduism) almost as much as Islam and its related cultural practices. But in Bangladesh we never heard of any death threats by the people in India against her. In fact, she was awarded a literary prize in Calcutta. However in book reviews in both the Time magazine and India Today, reviews that commented on the fact that it was likely that angry Muslims have not bothered to read the book, the literary merit of the book, published by Penguin, has been questioned.

The violent reaction followed Taslima’s comments during an interview in The Statesman in the wake of the publication of Lajja. In this interview she is reported to have said that the Quran, Bible and Vedas were “outdated” and “obsolete”, which snowballed into a crisis in Bangladesh. Taslima was also quoted by the Indian newspaper as having said that the Quran should be revised to ensure that Muslim women had equal rights with men in all social and material respects.

In the face of violent protests and accusation of blasphemy, Taslima first denied having made the comments and then even retracted them. But that did not stop the fundamentalist outcry and the campaign for her head.

(Saleem Samad, is a Bangladeshi journalist writing for social justice)

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