Saturday, August 11, 2007

In defense of Taslima Nasreen

Even as I was perusing my friend Dilip D’Souza’s well thought-out and persuasive rational argument on Kashmir, however, the faces of intolerance and intimidation in India were busy revealing themselves a thousand miles to the south of the lily-speckled Dal Lake, when members of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) party, including Indian lawmakers, attacked the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen as she attempted to speak at a book release event in Hyderabad, India.

Nasreen, as some readers may be aware, is the celebrated author whose works such as Lajja (Shame) have attracted the ire of Muslim fundamentalists in her home country, leading this former physician in Bangladesh’s understaffed public hospitals to have her books banned, her passport seized, her life threatened and, eventually, being forced to seek exile in Europe and the United States before settling in Kolkata (née Calcutta), where she now resides. Her crime? Daring to write of the struggles of women in Bangladeshi society, criticizing the victimization of that country’s Hindu minority and calling for a more moderate, humanistic and less extremist approach to faith in South Asia in general. For this, Ms. Nasreen has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thoughts from the European Parliament (1994), the Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch (1994) and the UNESCO Prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence (2004).

As an author of strong political convictions whose own public readings have occasionally been interrupted by largess-bloated, despot-involved lawyers and the like, it's hard not to reflect on how minor my own inconveniences have been in comparison to having tens of thousands of fanatics pouring into the streets demanding that I be killed, as has happened to Ms. Nasreen in her native country in years past.

"I was wondering how they would kill me. Would it be with a knife or a gun? Or would they simply beat me to death.?” Ms. Nasreen is quoted is saying in the Hindustan Times. “They had encircled us. After I escaped from a back door and took shelter in a room, they even broke down one of the doors. I thought I would be dead,…If I have returned alive to Kolkata it is because of mediapersons who fought those men for half an hour and got injured to save me."

The Indian author and lyricist Javed Akhtar, himself a Muslim, has spoken out bravely in Ms. Nasreen’s defense, stating that "the incident was outrageous and shameful. In a civilized society, you have a right to approve or disapprove of anything… What is the difference between (the attackers) and the Hindu fundamentalist organizations.” As someone who has often spoken out against Hindu chauvinism in India, I couldn't' agree more.

Others, however such as Delhi Minorities Commission Chairperson Kamal Farooqui, have called for Nasreen to be expelled from the country and on live television, a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa that someone should “blacken her face,“ for insulting Islam, a euphemism whose suggestions of violence can only be guessed at.

Over a decade ago, another writer who had been the target of murderous religious fanaticism and who at the time was just beginning to emerge from seclusion - Salman Rushdie - was the speaker at my graduation from Bard College in upstate New York. Speaking of the demands for adherence to this or that hierarchy that had been made of him throughout his life, he addressed the issue of fundamentalism and freedom of expression thusly:

It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods, The message of the myths is not the one the gods would have us learn - that we should behave ourselves and know our place - but its exact opposite. It is that we must be guided by our natures. Do not bow your heads. Do not know your place. Defy the gods. You will be astonished how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Be guided, if possible, by your better natures.

Indeed, and be guided, hopefully, to a more just and tolerant world.


Mira Kamdar said...

Thank you for this excellent piece Michael. Violent intolerance with artists as its target is, unfortunately, a dark undercurrent of the India Shining story. As your article alludes quoting Javed Aktar, most of the uglier episodes have been inflicted by Hindu extremist mobs - attacking student artists in Baroda, sacking an art gallery in Surat, sacking archives with irreplaceable manuscripts in Pune - but India's Muslim hardcore is quite as capable of blinkered outrage. And India's government, in the interest of "respecting the sentiments of the people" has often toed the line by, for example, banning the sale of Rushdie's books. India is a relatively free and open society but it actually ranks fairly low on the annual rankings of things like press freedom. Also, India's fanatics are quite capable of harassing artists outside the country, including in the United States, as I have experienced first-hand when we had to call in additional police protection from the City of New York when Hindu extremists threatened the performers of a dramatic reading of an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor's Riot at the New School. Aside from a nasty e-mail and a little demonstration (and much neck-craning to get a glimpse of Indian film star Shabana Azmi), nothing much happened but it was quite unpleasant.

Michael Deibert said...

Alas, as I was saying...

Press Trust Of India
Mumbai, August 14, 2007

Shiv Sena activists ransack Outlook office in Mumbai

A group of Shiv Sena activists on Tuesday ransacked the office in Mumbai of the weekly Outlook to protest an article in the magazine that featured party chief Bal Thackeray in a list of "villains".

The activists barged into the office located in a tower in the business district of Nariman Point at around 1500 hours and asked for the editor. They started ransacking the office on being told that there was no senior person around, police said.

Eyewitnesses said some windows and office stationery were damaged in the incident.

Thackeray was included in the list of "villains" along with Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin in a recent issue of the magazine, which also featured a caricature of the Sena chief with a toothbrush moustache and Hitler-like uniform.