Taslima Nasrin and the Struggle Against Religious Fundamentalism

An Interview with ISIS

Taslima Nasrin is a Bengali physician, writer and poet who has been under continual attack from the religious leaders of her country and throughout the world for her widespread efforts in defense of women's rights. Nasrin is a daring secular feminist whose writings challenge traditional Islamic gender discrimination, and call for the separation of mosque and state.

Taslima Nasrin was born in 1962 in Bangladesh, to a Muslim family. When she was 22 years old she received her medical degree and started a career as a gynecologist in rural Bangladesh. Working among the poor women of her country, Nasrin became painfully aware of the extent to which women are mistreated in traditional Islamic society.

Galvanized by her experience of the oppression of Bengali women, she began to publish articles critical of the Islamic Code. By 1990 her literary activities had enraged the Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh, who proclaimed a "fatwa" and demanded her arrest and execution. In the face of increasingly militant opposition, Nasrin continued her public attacks on political and social Islam. In 1993 her passport was confiscated by the government of Bangladesh.

Soon afterwards, Nasrin published her novel Shame, which describes the plight of a Hindu family under attack by Muslim fundamentalists. The novel was instantly popular, and Islamic fundamentalist leaders in Bangladesh responded to it in the only way they knew how: they put a price on Nasrin's head. With hundreds of thousands demonstrating for her arrest and hanging, and after the Bangladesh government had charged her with "blasphemy," Nasrin went into hiding.

At this point, however, international human rights organizations such as PEN and Amnesty International, as well as the European Union, took up her cause. In August 1994 Nasrin escaped Bangladesh and received asylum from the Swedish Government.

Since then, Nasrim has continued with her writings in defense of human rights, and especially the rights of women. She has published 17 books and numerous articles. Shame has been translated into 22 languages. And she has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Ananda Award in literature in India for her newspaper column called "Niubachita," and the Sakharov prize for The Freedom of Thought, awarded by the Parliament of the European Union.


ISIS: Tell us something of your background?

TN: I was born in a middle class Muslim family, in a small town called Myonenningh in a northern part of Bangladesh in 1962. My father is a qualified physician; my mother is a housewife. I have two elder brothers and one younger sister. All of them received a liberal education in schools and colleges. I studied in a medical college and qualified myself as a medical graduate.

ISIS: When did you start writing?

TN: I have been writing poetry since 1975. My first poetry book was published in 1986. Since 1989 I have written columns in daily newspapers and periodicals as well. I wrote about women who were being unfairly oppressed and other such subjects. I got support from liberal and secular people and hatred from fundamentalists and conservatives for my articles.

ISIS: Could you describe the fundamentalist reaction to your writings in more detail?

TN: The Muslim fundamentalists filed several cases against me in court. They attacked me physically. They demanded my execution by hanging. They declared me an apostate and made frequent demonstrations and processions against me. They broke into newspaper offices where I had written columns and filed cases against my editors and publishers. They demanded the banning of all my books.

Because the fundamentalists are so powerful, the Bengali government banned one of my books, and filed a criminal case against me on charges of hurting the religious feelings of the people. In 1994 when the arrest warrant was issued against me I went into hiding, because prison was not safe for me. Political murder is not rare in Bangladesh prisons.

ISIS: Was your life in danger?

TN: Yes. They called a general strike all over the country for several days to protest my writings. No political party came to my support except one or two small leftist parties. People were afraid of fundamentalists because they can kill people whenever they want in Bangladesh. The fundamentalists came together and made demonstrations of over 300,000 religious people and openly announced that they must kill me.

In desperation I had to leave my country with the help of some democratic governments of Europe and the United States and some PEN women and humanist organizations.

ISIS: Do you still have police protection?

TN: Mainly when I speak to large groups. At Nottingham in England, Islamic students attacked me. At Concordia in Canada I had to stop speaking because of Muslim demonstrations. Police were on hand when I spoke at Michigan and at Harvard. Hundreds of French gendarmes have been on duty when I spoke. When I first was hiding in Sweden, as many as a hundred policemen and policewomen were my guards. Once, when I slipped out of my apartment and bought some flowers from some Bengalis, I was scolded and told never to do that again.

ISIS: Tell us about some of your other experiences in hiding?

TN: Well, at one point PEN arranged a peaceful place near the Gulf of Bothnia for me. A great place for privacy and writing! I had a wonderful neighbor, an English lady with many cats, who helped with my pronunciation of English words. But one night when the wind rose and branches touched my roof, I became really alarmed. The police, who had been positioned in a house nearby, were quick to come. One of the policewomen, in fact, kindly spent the night. Only if you have a fatwa on your head and are alone far from home could you possibly understand what I was feeling.

ISIS: What originally prompted you to become so outspoken in your opposition to Islam?

TN: When I began to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, I found many unreasonable ideas. The women in the Koran were treated as slaves. They are nothing but sexual objects.

Naturally I set aside the Koran and looked around me. I found religion equally oppressive in real life. And I realized that religious oppression and injustices are only increasing, especially in Muslim countries. The religious terrorists are everywhere. But if I criticized Muslim fundamentalists and mullahs in particular, it is because I saw them from close quarters. They took advantage of people's ignorance and oppressed them. They considered women as chattel slaves and treated them no better than the slaves of the ancient world.

So one day I had to take up my pen and start writing against the various misdeeds committed by religion, against all the injustice, unreason, and prejudice sanctioned by religious institutions. I began to try to expose the crimes of religion, particularly the injustice and oppression against women. In my writings, I began to speak against all this.

ISIS: But you were harder on fundamentalists?

TN: I criticized fundamentalists as well as religion in general. I don't find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or other fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn't permit democracy, and violates human rights.

And because Islam itself is causing injustices, so it is our duty to make people alert. It is our responsibility to wake people up, to make them understand that religious scriptures come from a particular period in time and a particular place.

ISIS: What are you presently working on? Are there new projects, new perspectives that occurred to you as a result of your experience?

TN: I would like to write about my experience. I already wrote a few articles in European newspapers, such as La Monde in France. I will write more. Though I have been far from my country and my own people for years now, I still remain true to my own ideals. I still have confidence in myself.

ISIS: When and why did you become a secular humanist?

TN: When I was young, I was forced to practice religion. I had to read the Koran in Arabic without knowing the meaning. I said to my mother several times: "I don't have any interest in reading something I don't understand. I want to know the meaning of the verses." My mother said, "We don't need to know the meaning. We should read because these are the verses written by God. If you read these, God will forgive you and send you to heaven."

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I found the Bengali translation of the Koran, and I learned what God says in the verses. I was surprised to read wrong information about the solar system in the Koran -- for example, that the sun is moving around the earth and the earth is not moving and standing still because of the support of the mountains.

The inequalities and injustices against women and the people of different faiths in the Koran made me angry. If any religion allows the persecution of the people of different faiths, if any religion keeps women in slavery and keeps people in ignorance then I cannot accept that religion. As an individual, I wanted to serve people irrespective of religions, race and gender. And instead of having irrational blind faith, I preferred to have a rational logical mind. In short, I became a secular humanist. To me humanity is the ultimate.

ISIS: Do you find religion to be inherently divisive?

TN: It does not often teach people to love one another. On the contrary, it often teaches them to hate people of a different faith. Religion also leads people to depend on fate and thus lose self-confidence. It unnecessarily glorifies poverty and sacrifice and thus serves the vested interests of the wealthy few.

In all countries and through all ages, the conscientious people have exposed these unethical aspects of religion and educated people to see religion with the eyes of reason and logic.

ISIS: The eternal conflict....

TN: Yes. Let me give as an example the philosophers of the Lokayata tradition, the materialists of ancient India. Three thousand years ago, they raised many questions about religion, questions that appear simple but are actually very subtle. These materialists did not believe in reincarnation, did not believe in heaven and hell. They were quite vocal against the dominance of the priests.

According to scholars, the organized resistance of these priests did not allow the materialists to make much progress. Even their texts have been almost obliterated. There remain only some fragmentary references to what they preached. But some believe that they had a big influence on the common people. Hence perhaps their name, Lokayata, which really means the opinion or philosophy of the common people.

Today we are still carrying on the same fight against unreason and prejudice. The rise of fundamentalism all over the world shows that the battle remains urgently necessary. In a discussion at Harvard University on the rise of religious fundamentalism, I said that after the end of the cold war the world faces a new battle, and it is between secularism and fundamentalism.

ISIS: Do you think there is also a clash of civilizations between East and West?

TN: No. I don't agree with those who think that the conflict is simply between two religions, namely Christianity and Islam. Nor do I think that this is a conflict between East and West. To me, the key conflict is between irrational blind faith and rational logical minds. Or between modernity and anti-modernity. While some people want to go forward, others are trying to go backward. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.

ISIS: Why do you think there has been a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East, Asia and Africa?

TN: The question of fundamentalism is a complex and deep one. In short, I should say it is the failure of western democracy and free market economy on the one hand, and the failure of socialist economy on the other that has made the fundamentalists' rapid advance possible in the developing world. They are trying to present a religious substitute to modern western ideologies. Disillusioned and hopeless people are now seeking salvation in the blind forces of faith. Beaten by science, overwhelmed by other civilizations, Islam is now in search of the "roots." And, as always, there is an element of fear in the search.

Of course, the responsibility for inciting fundamentalism should not be laid fully on the so-called secular leaders of the ex-colonies who have used fundamentalism to serve their own interests. The responsibility should be shared by the democratic and secular states of the developed world. They have also made a lot of compromises with the fundamentalist forces.

We have seen how the so-called secular political parties of Bangladesh use the religious sentiments of the people to get votes. But similar instances of rank opportunism have been seen in India and elsewhere.

ISIS: What role have Western governments played in this?

TN: We have also seen how the powerful western states have declared protecting human rights to be one of their supreme objectives and then patronized fundamentalism, overtly or covertly. Democratic governments recognize military dictatorships for short run political interests. Secular states make friends with autocracies as well as theocracies. They tolerate even completely inhuman behavior of fundamentalists. Such double standards practiced by so-called democratic and secular states at home and abroad give the fundamentalists a sort of legitimacy.

ISIS: Have you read the Western intellectuals who defend Islam?

TN: Yes. Some authors in the West are coming forward in support of the fundamentalists. They are trying to argue that not all the customs in vogue in the third world countries are harmful for women. They find a sort of stability and social peace in the oriental world. They think that even the harems are not necessarily bad for women, because they provide a degree of autonomy and independence!

May I humbly observe that all this is a plain hoax. For me, there can be no difference in the concept of human rights between the East and the West. If the veil is bad for the western women, then it is bad for their oriental sisters as well. If the patriarchy is to be fought against in the West, it should be equally fought against in the East.

In fact the fight is more urgent in the East, because most of the women have neither any education nor any economic independence. If modern secular education is good for western women why should the eastern women be deprived of it? The peace that some authors visualize in the Eastern countries is, clearly, the peace of the grave.

ISIS: Do you think the fundamentalists will continue to gain and hold power in these developing areas?

TN: The fundamentalist prescription for all ills of society is severely questionable. Obviously they cannot go far. Even if they assume power here and there they cannot run a state on just religious rules, and I am sure they will also be challenged by the people after some time.

Fundamentalism is an ideology that diverts people from the path of natural development of consciousness and individuality, and undermines their personal rights. I find it impossible to accept fundamentalism as an alternative to secular ideas. My first reason is the insistence of the fundamentalists on divine justification for human laws.

Second, the insistence of fundamentalists upon the superior authority of faith, as opposed to reason.

Third, the insistence of fundamentalists that the individual does not count, that the individual is immaterial. Group loyalty over individual rights and personal achievements is a peculiar feature of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe in a particular way of life; they want to put everybody in their particular straightjacket and dictate what an individual should eat, what an individual should wear, how an individual should live everyday life -- everything would be determined by the fundamentalist authority.

Finally, though they proclaim themselves a moral force, their language is hatred and violence. Is it possible for a rationalist and humanist to accept this sort of terrible repression?

ISIS: What hope is there for secularism and for human rights and women's rights in the Islamic world?

TN: Nothing will be achieved by reforming Muslim scriptural tenets. What is needed is a change of the sharia, the code of laws based on the Koran. I want a uniform civil code which is equally applicable to men and women.

ISIS: How can we protect ourselves against the resurgence of fundamentalism?

TN: To get rid of fundamentalism, people should be educated; especially they should receive secular education. And the secular humanists should unite themselves and fight fundamentalists without any compromise.

ISIS: So you will continue to fight, despite the risk, despite fatwas and alienation?

TN: Yes, I can assure you that my ideological fight against religious fundamentalism will continue. I am an atheist. I do not believe in prayers, I believe in work. And my work is that of an author. My pen is my weapon.