Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

BANGLADESH: Pro-Islamic Groups Hound Writer Taslima Nasreen

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, Sep 21 1998 (IPS) - Furious fundamentalists in Bangladesh are hounding controversial writer Taslima Nasreen, who slipped incognito into the country last week, despite a ‘fatwa’ against her for blasphemy.

Nasreen’s return after four years of self-exile in the West made headlines here, but it triggered a wave of street protests by various right-wing religious groups which are demanding her immediate arrest and execution.

Leaders of pro-Islamic groups like the Jammat-e-Islami, Islamic Constitution Movement, Islamic Unity Movement and Inquilab Ulema Council have in separate statements warned the government of serious consequences if it gave her protection.

Speakers at protest rallies in the capital and elsewhere said Nasreen was a “sinner” and “renegade” and reminded people that the ‘fatwa’ has put a price on her head.

The writer, herself, is in hiding. The police and officials say they have no knowledge of her whereabouts since she entered the country on Sep. 14, in a ‘burqa’ or veil with her parents who had gone to New York for medical treatment.

Newspapers are reporting speculative stories of her whereabouts, and a report quoting a family friend said the writer would fly back to New York by month-end. “She has no intention of staying in Bangladesh,” the unidentified friend added.

A medical graduate-turned-writer, Nasreen shot into the public glare for writing against social injustices, male chauvinism, discrimination against women, bigotry of Muslim fanatics and so on. She ruthlessly and openly attacked religious fundamentalists for suppressing and oppressing women particularly.

Her book ‘Lajja’ (shame), written in the aftermath of Muslim- Hindu riots in the country in 1992-93, sparked further controversy. The book written in Bangla is an account of the travails of a minority Hindu family who are harassed by fundamentalists and forced to migrate to India.

But it ensured her popularity outside Bangladesh, with the publishing house Penguin India translating ‘Lajja’ in the English-language.

But her comments in an interview in the wake of ‘lajja’ to an Indian newspaper, ‘The Statesman’ in which she said the Quran, Bible and Vedas were “outdated” and “obsolete” snowballed into a crisis in Bangladesh.

In the face of violent protest and accused of blasphemy, Nasreen first denied having made the comments and then retracted her statement but that did not stop the fundamentalist outcry and campaign for heresy.

Muslim clerics who issued a ‘fatwa’ said her execution would be a befitting reply to her for questioning the validity of the Quran, which Muslims consider the word of Allah as revealed to the Prophet Mohammad.

Forced by the countrywide protests, the then government led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) issued an arrest warrant for Nasreen on charge of blasphemy against Islam. Realising the risk to her life, the writer went into hiding, surrendering later before the high court where she secured bail.

To escape the wrath of the fundamentalists, she fled Bangladesh in August 1994 and sought asylum in Sweden, from where she moved to Germany and stayed in France, Norway and most recently in the United States.

According to legal experts, there is no bar on her staying in Bangladesh. But legally, she could be tried in the 1994 blasphemy case, which religious fundamentalists here are demanding.

However, many young readers support Nasreen for her blunt comments on social injustices in her writings, for her outspoken and aggressive views on sexuality and religion.

Nasreen is not the first person to flee the country under threat from fundamentalists. Daud Haider, a promising poet and journalist had to quit the country in 1973 in the face of violent agitation by the fundamentalists for his what was alleged defamatory comment against the prophet in one of his poems.

Haider now lives in exile in Germany, but contributes articles on various national and international issues to several dailies in Dhaka.

In 1993, the government banned ‘Nari’ (women), a book by Prof. Humayun Azad of Dhaka University, in which he dealt with the subordinate and subservient position of women in Islam, for fear of religious protests.

Fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh have been quick to seize every chance of raising the voice of intolerance in the country, even during the country’s bloody liberation war. While thousands of innocent people were massacred by the Pakistani army and women raped, the ‘mullahs’ or clerics had sided with Pakistan.

Again in the early 1990s, the mullahs targetted Bangladesh’s well-known non-governmental organisations in the villages, attacking volunteers and people for seeking to improve the lives of the poor, specially women.

Nasreen’s novels are uncompromisingly critical of the Islamic right, who now want to silence the critic.

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