Monday, August 20, 2007

The Assault on Taslima Nasrin as a Litmus Test of Secularism and Democracy


HAVING observed Mukto-Mona’s statement and concern about the physical attack on feminist author and secular writer Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad , India , a friend asked me, ‘So many pressing issues are out there. Why are you so much worried about attack on a ‘controversial woman?’ I believe my friend is not alone in indulging in such thought; there are many educated, “modern” Muslims who think as my friend does. I consider their question a legitimate one, that also warrants a legitimate explanation. In short, that’s the reason why I am writing this article.

First, let’s not forget, the persons who led the attack on Taslima Nasrin in India are not any ordinary citizen. They are educated Muslims and elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA); and not one but three of them. Hence we cannot dismiss this incident simply as an act of ignorant, uneducated Muslims, or some members of al-Qaeda (BTW, whenever they carried on an attack, al-Qaeda never denied the responsibility, but in this case, attackers didn’t claim any involvement with al-Qaeda). The perpetrators have done it with a cool mind. They uttered furiously but clearly, ”We are Muslims first, only then Indians. We shall not tolerate any insult to Islam.” According to news following attack, the three MLAs and their political organization Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) further issued the threat that if Taslima were to visit Andhra Pradesh (AP) again in future, her life would not be spared as it has been this time. In the meantime, Syed Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati, the Shahi Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque in Kolkata demanded that Taslima be expelled from India or she would be killed. He offered his own Rs 100,000 reward for this in addition to that offered earlier by other undamentalist groups and launched his own slogan, “Taslima hatao, desh bachao.” (Drive Taslima out to save the nation.)

Needless to say, Taslima Nasrin herself is quite accustomed to this kind of threat and not the one who would stop speaking up for what she believes is true and just. Long live Taslima! But what did we observe in world’s largest democracy, so called "secular India" ? The government of India under Congress and its allies including communist CPM performed their duties mainly in verbal condemnation of the act but nothing beyond that. A few activists of MIM were arrested only to be released the next day because MIM is an ally of the ruling Congress party in AP. Prior to the attack, the government has denied Taslima Nasrin’s longtime request for Indian citizenship as she’s been living in exile for many years due to the fatwa and troubles created by the radical Muslim Mullahs in her homeland Bangladesh.

If we analyze the utterances of the three Muslim MLAs who attacked Taslima, we may get a better picture not only about the mindset of probably a large number of Indian Muslims, but also beyond. The MLAs’ admission that they are Muslims first and only then Indians would only facilitate the effort of some sects of Hindu fundamentalists who are desperate to see India merely as a Hindu state. After all, Muslims of India themselves don’t consider India as their homeland, the Hindu fundamentalists might think. I know many Muslims would argue and say, those three MLAs are just isolated examples and don’t represent all Indian Muslims. My answer in that case would be: true that not all Indian Muslims consider their “Indian” identity secondary, yet unfortunately a vast number of them do. If not, how many "moderate" Muslim organizations have condemned attack on Taslima Nasrin? Sadly, only a few. So one is forced to think, the vast majority of Indian Muslims are either not courageous at all, or they are simply sympathetic to those radical MLAs and their extreme views of Islam. Besides, if personal experience was to be taken into account, then what I have observed during my five years stay (1993-1998) in India as a student confirms the latter. During my post-graduate years in South India , I was staying in a Muslim community hostel, detached from university premise. The hostel had Muslim students from all over India , some studying medicine, some engineering and other subjects. Two things that came out of my observations of and conversations with many Indian Muslim students are worth mentioning. Many of them (much like our own Bangalee war collaborators or “rajakars”) sided with Pakistan when we talked of 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh . Secondly, whenever there was an India vs. Pakistan cricket, substantial number of Indian Muslims would rejoice with Pakistan’s victory. One possible explanation was the hostel had a good number of Muslim students from Kashmir who are inclined to see Kashmir emerge as an independent state. Yet I found it simply weird and asked a few close friends who were Muslim themselves and had somewhat liberal views. “Yes, it’s a shame and disgrace that my fellow Indian Muslims don’t consider India as their motherland,” answered one such friend named Suhel who was from Hyderabad (what an irony!) studying medicine.

2. One of the common aftermaths of 9/11 was West’s renewed interest in Muslims and Islam. Many otherwise reluctant Westerners started showing a keen interest in reading the Koran, Hadeeth and other books on Islam. One of the most common topics in any political discussion was Jihad. Hundreds of books, leaflets, flyers written by so called “good Muslims” addressed the issue of Jihad and most of them tried to convince- Jihad is not what Usama bin Laden or al Qaeda tells us. Jihad, instead, is a moral issue: the resolve and fight against the evils inside one’s own self. Many naïve readers (Westerners as well as “modern Muslims”) bought the theory that 9/11 and likewise events were not permitted in Islam and those who did and are doing this are “bad Muslims.” This situation is beautifully explained in following excerpt from “How to debate with a Muslim” written by Ibn Warraq.

Muslim scholars themselves referred to sura VIII.67, VIII.39, and Sura II.216 to justify Holy War. Again the context makes it clear that it is the battle field that is being referred to, and not some absurd moral struggle; these early Muslims were warriors after booty, land and women not some existential heroes from the pages of Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre. Let us take another example: Sura IX. Here I have tried to use where possible translations by Muslims or Arabophone scholars, to avoid the accusation of using infidel translations. However, many Muslim translators have a tendency to soften down the harshness of the original Arabic, particularly in translating the Arabic word jahada, e.g. Sura IX verse 73. Maulana Muhammad Ali, of the Ahmadiyyah sect, translates this passage as: “O Prophet, strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be firm against them. And their abode is hell, and evil is the destination.” In a footnote of an apologetic nature, Muhammad Ali rules out the meaning “fighting” for jahada. However, the Iraqi non-Muslim scholar Dawood in his Penguin translation renders this passage as: “Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home: an evil fate.”

Action speaks louder than the words. So far we were fooled to believe- Jihad is some abstract moral struggle, not any violence and Islam is all about tolerance and peace. The recent attack on Taslima Nasrin by persons of such responsible positions as MLAs and the subsequent silent role of “moderate Muslims” only confirms that notion. Thus the assault on Taslima Nasrin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie is not a trivial issue and there is nothing personal about it. It’s, rather, the litmus test whether we wish to see values such as liberty, freedom, secularism and rationalism to flourish or perish. If we don't make our choice now, I am afraid someday we'll not have any choice at all. #

This article was first published in, New York August 18, 2007

Jahed Ahmed is a humanism activist and writer based in New York. He's co-founder of, a South Asian Humanist organization. He could be reached at