Or, so I'm told, "More Shame" in Bangla...
Members of the Muslim fundoo party Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh attacked Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin last Thursday, forcing her to hide in a room while media-people fought them off. Nasrin was in Hyderabad for the release of the Telugu translation of her book, Shodh.
"I was attacked earlier too but it was never like Thursday's attack. There was no police for help because the organisers had not foreseen anything of this kind. 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," Nasreen told IANS in her first interview after the incident at the Hyderabad Press Club on Thursday.
"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. 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," said the 45-year-old writer (Hindustan Times).
The assailants (some of whom, incidentally, were Members of the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly - yes, elected officials) were acting on a fatwa issued in 1994 in Bangladesh for Nasrin's heinous crime of having been misquoted by an Indian daily. On May 9, 1994, the Statesman of Calcutta quoted Nasrin in an interview as saying the Quran ought to be revised. In the following days, Nasrin explained publicly that this was not, in fact, what she had said, and the following rejoinder was published in the Statesman on May 11:
I would like to clarify two comments attributed to me which appeared in the interview I gave to your correspondent. I do not hold the view that "the Koran should be revised thoroughly" because I think it is impossible to revise the Koran. As I said in the interview, "anyone who proposes to bring in changes is a kafir". Why should we try to change a text which is sacred by many (wluml [pdf*])?
Despite these clarifications, her public vilification continued, and on June 10 at a public meeting Maulana Nazrul Islam announced an award of Tk 100,000 for her assassination.
Completely coincidentally (yeah, right), Nasrin's novel Lajja (meaning shame), an account of the persecution Bangladeshi Hindus faced following the destruction of the Babri Masjid in India by Hindu fundoos, had been published earlier that year. The book is a hastily-written patchwork of newspaper clippings and history lessons woven together by the story of a Hindu household of four living in Dhaka; that said, it rips hard into the state, political parties, and liberal Bangladeshi Muslims for their roles in the violence, and condemns communalism and constitutional attacks on secularism.
After the controversy surrounding Nasrin's alleged statement to the Statesman exploded in Bangladesh, the government charged Nasrin with blasphemy (BBC) and, from what I can tell, capitalized on the convenient opportunity to ban Lajja. Nasrin went into exile and has lived in Kolkata (Calcutta) for the past few years.
Now back to the original story:
"We in Hyderabad want to behead this woman according to the fatwa," said Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen MLA Akbaruddin Owaisi (India Daily).
What Owaisi and his ilk have completely missed is the point which Nasrin makes again and again in Lajja: the destruction of the Babri Masjid by kar sevaks was a criminal and fascistic act carried out under the banner of majoritarianism and intended to intimidate and frighten members of a minority religion; these political events spilled over into Bangladesh, and the same thing happened: members of the majority religion attacked members of a minority religion. Bangladeshi Hindus obviously had nothing to do with the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In attempting to enforce this fatwa against Taslima Nasrin, Owaisi might claim to be protecting Islam, but he's really just perpetuating the same politics, and like so many others before him, is getting political mileage out of it. This is especially tragic if Owaisi claims to represent Indian Muslims; one can only imagine for how many Muslims in India the following scene in Lajja played itself out:
Suranjan's mood again swung towards a desire to participate in all that was happening. He wanted to blend with the crowd, he wanted to make a survey of the temples that were destroyed and burnt, he wanted to enquire about the homes and shops that were looted and plundered. He wanted to protest against the recent events. 'These fanatics should be whipped. These fake religionists are imposters who provoke in the name of religion.' But he could not bring himself to do any of these things; and his desire to be a part of everything that was going on around him was further dampened by the pitying looks that those around him gave him. Voicelessly, these people seemed to say to him that he was not fit to participate in the excitement (p. 33).
Owaisi didn't seem too concerned about the fact that he happens to occupy an elected office:
''We are not bothered about our MLA status. We are Muslims first. And its our responsibility to test those who have said anything against Islam in which ever way possible,'' said Akbaruddin Owaisi, MIM MLA (NDTV).
And purported to speak on behalf of all of India's Muslims:
"Everyone seems to be very concerned over the freedom of speech and literary freedom of a person who is not an Indian citizen. But nobody is bothered about the 20 crore Muslims of our country who have been deeply hurt by the provocative writings of this woman" (TOI).
I wonder if he can actually point specifically to any of Nasrin's writings which are so offensive. Nasrin has made blanket statements about Islam, like the following in an interview with Irshad Manji (thanks Dr. A):
IM: Liberal Muslims would say that there are plenty of other verses that treat women with dignity, and fundamentalists ignore those elements to suit their own agenda.
TN: Maybe liberal Muslims are morally decent, but they're not following Islam honestly. Fundamentalists are. They're following the "word of God," and the orders of Prophet Muhammad exactly. So it's not true that Islam is good for humanity. It's not at all good. Islam completely denies human rights and treats women very badly (muslim-refusenik).
While Lajja serves as a critique of fundamentalist Islam in a majoritarian context, statements like the one above feed right into the hands of those who seek to vilify Muslims in contexts where Muslims are at the losing end of majoritarian politics. Saying that fundamentalists are the only ones who follow Islam honestly essentially concedes ownership of the religion to those who, like Owaisi and MIM, most vociferously claim it. It then becomes easy for political parties like the BJP to appropriate her, since her message lacks nuance and can be interpreted in a completely different way where Islam isn't the dominant religion.
For its part, the Hyderabadi police has responded to the incident in pathetic fashion, filing cases against BOTH Nasrin and Owaisi:
Police said on Saturday they had registered a complaint against exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen for creating religious tensions, after she was attacked by Muslim protesters.
But they said they were also seeking permission to arrest the radical Muslim lawmaker who brought the complaint - for saying Nasreen could be killed after the incident (Reuters).
That was reported on August 11, and since by August 13 it hadn't even been established that Nasrin had said anything remotely inflammatory at the meeting (Hindu), one can only surmise that Nasrin is a menace to society (or an anti-social element, to use Indian media parlance) by her very existence in a particular place.
I want to close with a quotation from Lajja which I liked very much, but wasn't able to fit in anywhere in this post:
And they said Bangladesh was a country that believed in communal harmony! Suranjan laughed out loud. He was alone in the room. There was only a cat sitting by the door, and it jumped up in alarm at the sound of Suranjan's laughter. Suranjan's attention was drawn to the animal. Hadn't the cat been to the Dhakeshwari temple today? Which community did the cat belong to? Was it Hindu? Presumably it was Hindu, since it lived in a Hindu home. It was a black and white cat, and there was a softness about its eyes. It seemed to pity him. If it had the ability to pity, the cat must be Muslim! Must be a liberal Muslim! They normally looked at Hindus with a touch of pity. The cat got up and left. Perhaps it was going to the Muslim kitchen next door, since there wasn't much food being cooked in this house. In that case the cat had no communal identity. In fact only human beings had racial and communal differences and only they had temples and mosques. Sunlight flooded the room and Suranjan realized that the day was well advanced. It was the 9th of December, and he longed to become a cat (p. 58).
*Note: The pdf linked above is a report from an organization called Women Living Under Muslim Laws. In the report, they specify that most of the data contained within it is from Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any of ASK's reports on their site.