Saturday, December 01, 2007

Taslima Nasreen forced into hiding

News reaches me via an article in The Guardian and via a rushed instant message conversation with the author herself, who is in hiding, that the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen has been driven from her home in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, by the violent protests of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind group, claiming that she had insulted Islam in here new book, Dwikhondito (Split in Two).

Readers of this blog and my other writing will recall that, this past August, Ms. Nasreen - a recipient of 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) - was physically attacked at a book release event in Hyderabad, India by members of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) party, including Indian lawmakers.

It is a depressing development of intolerance in a region of India that has always prided itself on being on of the great intellectual bastions of that great nation, birthplace of the poet Rabindranath Tagore and the film director Satyajit Ray, In response, Narseen has consented to delete the controversial passages in her book, something that I am sure any writer is loathe to do under public pressure

The decision must be doubly bitter for an author who, in her home country of Bangladesh, saw her books banned, her passport seized, her life threatened and was eventually forced to seek exile in Europe and the United States before settling in Calcutta. Criticizing the victimization of her country's Hindu minority and of women, and calling for a more moderate, humanistic and less extremist approach to faith in South Asia in general, is evidently not a path not endorsed by all.

Though Maulana Mahmood Madani, general secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, has called on protests against Nasreen to stop if she withdraws the “objectionable” passages, the Milli Ittehad Parishad, an umbrella alliance of 12 Muslim groups including Jamait Ulema-i-Hind, still intends to meet on Sunday to discuss their further plan of action.

Events such as this in India, whether coming from the camps of Hindu extremists or Muslim fundamentalists, make a mockery of the concept of free speech and minority protections, when mob rule and violence become an accepted mode of public discourse and addressing one’s grievances.

The reaction the Indian government to all of this? In a statement, India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the following: "We have never refused shelter to those who seek our protection, and the same applies to Nasreen...(But) those given shelter in India have always undertaken to eschew political activities in India or any actions which may harm India’s relations with friendly countries. It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people."

What kind of a defense of freedom of speech is that? In effect, it tells writers “Say what you want, just nothing too challenging,” when the purpose of writers, if they have any purpose, is to always challenge, push and provoke beyond merely entertaining.

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,“ said the British author George Orwell said in his preface to Animal Farm, a book that got him mercilessly vilified by the British left for its scathing satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Those words ring as true in our polarized world today as they did in 1945.

Hopefully, despite the increasingly shrill minorities on the right and the left; among the Christians, Hindus, Muslims; Americans, Indians, French, Russians et al, the bravery of genuine free thought and the wisdom of moderation will prevail and, I hope, that writers like Taslima Nasreen will continue to challenge and provoke us through these dark and difficult times.

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