''I was held here and taken to a place which has no roof and they assaulted 4 to 5 times. I shouted and said don’t hit me.
After that they uncovered my face. One Sir said that I was to be handcuffed this way.
They handcuffed not like that, but putting my hands to the back and handcuffed. After that shopping bag contained petrol was held here. I shouted. I felt difficult to breath for about five minutes and struggled.
After that I stood up. When I stood up shopping bag removed and threw aside. After that they assaulted me for 4 to 5 times.'' - Sujith
Writer-in-exile Taslima Nasreen calls for reining in
religious fundamentalism, saying that criticism of religion is not the domain
of non-Muslim intellectuals alone.
Tell us a little bit about Avijit Roy.
I knew Avijit
for a long time. He started Mukto-Mona to accommodate writings of atheists and
humanists, as newspapers do not publish their work. Avijit was a science
blogger and a free thinker, an atheist and a rationalist, who wanted to secure
a space to dissect and debate issues. Later, he turned his blogs into books.
Mukto-Mona became a window through which people could look at each other and
raise questions about all religions, including Islam. In Bangladesh, over a
period, the space for free thinkers has been disappearing. Avijit brought it
back using a new platform… precisely why his contribution is outstanding.
When and how
exactly did this space for free thinkers start shrinking?
The change was
noticed at the time of General Hussain Ershad in the mid-1980s. A secular
Constitution was given away to make Islam the state religion. I have witnessed
the mass movement of 1969, the newly independent country of the 70s… the
situations then were different. People could voice their opinion and women
hardly wore the hijab or the burqa. But society slowly changed. For instance,
whatever I wrote in the 1980s, early 90s — criticising Islam and women’s
condition in Islamic societies — was published in newspapers with a wide
circulation. But that cannot be imagined now. Freedom of expression is an alien
Why has this
change taken place?
community is partly responsible. When I was expelled in 1994, the whole of
society went silent. If this community had objected then, Bangladesh would not
have had a society in which an Avijit is hacked to death, a Humayun Azad
targeted or an Ahmed Rajib Haider killed for criticising Islam. Perhaps the
conflict in Bangladesh is whether to have a country on the basis of language or
on the basis of religion.
How can this be
“We must stop stoning women to death in the name of
religion. Laws should be based on equality, not on religion”
born on the idea of a secular Bengali nation. Since 1952, Bengali Muslims,
Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have wanted their state language to be
Bengali, not Urdu. The people who opposed our independence, along with the
Pakistani army, killed three million Bengalis in 1971 and are now involved in
the Islamisation of Bangladesh. They are killing free thinkers and
intellectuals. Pakistan is a country which is based on religion. But the
Bangladesh constitution must remain secular, and separate state from religion.
We must have secular education rather than education through madrassas. The government
must not let the country become a safe haven for religious extremists.
People say your
criticism of religion is rather excessive and provocative.
I said religion
oppresses women. Laws should be based on equality, not on religion; women
should have equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. I
said we must stop stoning women to death in the name of religion. Is that
provocation? Every civilised state has questioned the relationship of the state
with religion, eventually disentangling and distancing the two. Islam should
not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that other religions have gone
through. My opinion is based on my belief in secular humanism. If that is
provocative, then it is absolutely necessary to provoke.
But it's often
said that your writings strengthen fundamentalism.
strengthening fundamentalism, not me. When religious fanatics set a price on my
head, instead of taking action against them, the government targeted me. The
Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party joined hands with these
forces and so did the caretaker government. Even in West Bengal, the Communist
Party of India (Marxist)-led government expelled me; the Imam Barkati of the
Tipu Sultan Mosque, who set a price on my head, was adored by the Marxists.
Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee befriended the Imam as soon as she came to
allegation is that by making statements against Islam, you strengthen the right
wing in India.
nonsense. I criticise all religions, including Hinduism. I opposed Hindu
godmen, rituals such as karva chauth and shivaratri, and condemned the
oppression of Muslims in Gujarat. I donated Rs.10,000 to poet Shankha Ghosh,
who was collecting funds for rehabilitating Gujarat riot victims.I objected to
the oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh, Jews in Nazi Germany, Muslims in
Bosnia, Palestine and Christians in Pakistan. I also wrote in favour of films
such as PK, Water and The Last Temptation of Christ. Please don’t call me a
Muslim, I am an atheist.
rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and CPI leader Govind Pansare were killed, you
Who told you?
You need to check my Twitter account to find out about my reactions and how the
Hindu right-wing elements abused me for that. However, it is true that I
consider Islamic fundamentalism a bigger threat.
As do many
western world thinks that Islamic fundamentalism is dangerous? Rather, it’s the
opposite — the West is keen to side with Islamists.
As a Muslim
writer, your work often reflects the West’s paranoia about Islam. Is the West
forcing you to say what it wants?
Are you saying
Muslims cannot have a mind of their own to criticise their religion? Is
criticism of religion the domain of non-Muslim intellectuals? That is an
anti-Muslim remark, seriously.
What could be
will be heading for a complete disaster if Islamic terrorists are not brought
to justice. However, given the past record, nothing will happen and such incidents
will increase in the coming months, as they are intrinsically connected with
Nasreen fled Bangladesh in 1994 when extremists threatened to kill her for
criticising Islam, and has been living in exile since. Her country has, in
recent times, seen many intellectuals expelled or killed. Ahmed Rajib Haider,
an atheist blogger who wrote under the name Thaba Baba, was hacked to death
after the Shahbag protests in 2013. In February this year, atheist blogger
Avijit Roy was killed in Dhaka by extremist groups for his writings on the
Bangla blog Mukto-Mona (Free Thinker) that he founded. Feminist and secular
humanist Ms Nasreen now lives in New Delhi. In an interview with Suvojit
Bagchi, she spoke about the shrinking space for free thinkers in Bangladesh
and says that Islam cannot be exempt from the critical scrutiny that other
religions go through.