Author Taslima Nasrin,M.D., who has had an Islamist bounty on her head, and has been forced to flee Bangladesh and then India, is interviewed by Salah Uddin Choudhury, editor-in-chief of the Bangladeshi newspaper The Weekly Blitz, and currently on trial for his life on charges of “blasphemy” after having asked permission to attend a peace conference in Israel.
Question: Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni told reporters in New York that there is no obstacle for you in returning to Bangladesh. This has certainly received positive response from the secularist forces in Bangladesh and elsewhere. How do you assess this statement?
Nasrin: I know about this news, it was published in one or two obscure newspapers in Bangladesh. When journalists asked her about the possibility of my return to Bangladesh, she said I did not have any legal problem to return to my own country.
I know this. I know that I do not have any legal problem to return to my country, if that is so then why did they prevent me from entering my country for more than a decade? They have never given me any reason for imposing the ban.
Without a valid travel document or visa I can not board an aircraft. No government of Bangladesh is willing to renew my Bangladesh passport; they even do not issue a visa or ‘no visa required for Bangladesh’ stamp (which is given to all Bangladeshi-born people) on my European passport. So how do I enter my country?
I was born in Bangladesh and as a citizen it is my legal right to be able to live in Bangladesh. My right has been violated time and gain. Both the BNP and the Awami League (AL) Governments have violated my fundamental rights as a citizen.
If there is no obstacle for me to return to my country, then they should accept my application for renewing my passport, which is lying in the Home Ministry. Although a handful of secular human rights advocates have requested the government to help me to return, they have not got any positive answer yet. I wrote a personal letter to Sheikh Hasina requesting her to allow me entry. I do not know whether my sincere plea will yield any result.
Question: You have Bangladeshi passport. Have you already renewed your passport, because no renewal was done by the BNP-led Islamist government and the military-backed interim government for past several years? But now the Bangladesh Awami League, which is a secularist party, has come in power. Have they instructed Bangladeshi embassy to renew your passport?
Nasrin: My Bangladeshi passport was not renewed either by the BNP or the AL regimes. Both governments banned my books and shut the door of Bangladesh in my face. I have been living in exile for 15 years. They are punishing me for crimes the Muslim fanatics committed against me. I have been to almost all Bangladesh embassies in the West to get my passport renewed. But no Bangladesh embassy issued me a visa or renewed my passport. The embassies need permission from the supreme authority of the government to renew my passport. This rule is applicable only in my case. No permission has come for renewal of my passport from the government since 1999, the year the validity of my Bangladeshi passport expired.
Question: The present government commented that Bangladesh is not a moderate Muslim country. How do you assess this statement?
Nasrin: The foreign minister said that Bangladesh is ''a secular country, it is not a moderate Muslim country''. That is wonderful to hear but it is not true. There is no reason why we should call Bangladesh a secular country. No secular country has laws based on religion. But Bangladesh’s family law ( Marriage, Divorce, Child custory, inherience) is based on religion. Secular state means religion and state exist separately. But Bangladesh is not a secular state. No secular state can have a state religion. Bangladesh’s state religion is Islam. No government of a secular country can participate in religious ceremonies or make the religion compulsory in the syllabus of academic curriculam in public schools. Secularism was erased from the Bangladesh constitution in the 1980’s. It is still has not been restored---even the Awami League did not restore it during its last tenure (1996-2000). The AL came back to power again in 2008. But will they bring back the secular constitution of 1971 and abandon the concept of having a state religion?
The Awami League during their election campaign said a lot against fundamentalists; they promised to punish the war criminals, but so far there is no sign of making the country secular, making the law secular (which must be based on equality, not based on religion).
A secular state is the ideal choice. But being a ‘moderate Muslim country’ is not too negative considering the condition in other Muslim countries, which are more and more inclined towards fundamentalism.
Question: The Government of India is not letting you visit that country. What would be the reason behind such actions by the Indian authorities?
Nasrin: I lived in India for a few years. After I was attacked by the Islamic fundamentalists, the Indian government forced me to live under house arrest and then compelled me to leave the country. The problem of all political parties in India is that they tend to appease the Muslim fundamentalists. Muslims comprise 25% of the Indian population, who generally rely on their religious leaders to choose the politician or the party for whom to vote. So all political parties try to win the hearts of these religious leaders, who are often fanatics. The Indian authorities do not allow me to live in India, because they are afraid of being labeled as anti-Islam. Muslim fundamentalists claimed that I destroyed Islam. The politicians thought that instead of supporting freedom of speech, they should issue a fatwa against it because to them supporting me would mean being labeled as anti-Islam, which would destroy their Muslim vote-bank.
I am genuinely a secular person. I have been fighting for women’s rights and freedom. My fight is not against any particular religion. I always believe in secular states and secular education. Religion should be people’s personal matter. Nobody should be persecuted or oppressed for their beliefs (religious or atheist), gender, color or ethnicity. It is very painful to see that the largest democracy of the world cannot give shelter to a secular writer whose entire life is dedicated to secular humanism.
Question: How do you assess the leadership of Sheikh Hasina and her governance?
Nasrin: It is quite promising. I hope this government will take some progressive steps for good. As there is no true secular political party in the country, it is the only party we pin our hopes on. There is no alternative. I appreciate Sheikh Hasina’s idea of giving some important ministries to women. For the empowerment of the women, she is doing good job.
I hope I will be able to return to my country during Hasina’s term. If I cannot go back now, I am afraid if I will ever be able to in the future. I have not seen any positive signs from her side so far that she will grant me a free passage to my own country. I hope good sense will prevail.
Question: The rise of Islamist militancy is a great problem for many nations. What initiatives should be taken to check such a rise and eliminate the Islamist forces?
Nasrin: In different cultures, different measures should be taken. What is good for Saudi Arabia may not be suitable for Bangladesh. Even the fundamentalists are of different kinds and have different powers of resistance. I do not prescribe the same medicine for all of them. I think what is necessary is to change the system. I do not blame the Taliban. The innocent little boys are sent to madrasas where they are not given any other book but the Koran and are brainwashed to become terrorists and pick up guns to kill people. So what would you expect from them? Killing the Taliban will not solve any problem. You have to kill the system of making people Taliban. You have to stop that dangerous conspiracy, based on hatred, which is underway to destroy mankind.
Question: Are you presently working on a new book? Would you kindly describe the
Nasrin: I am working on the sixth part of my autobiography. It is about how my mother suffered all her life in a misogynist society. How she was kept untreated for a decade, and died having lived a miserable life. My mother was religious, but she was the most honest person I have ever known. No priest came to my mother’s funeral because her crime was that she was the mother of an ‘apostate’. My mother was the most kind and generous person. She loved everybody. She did not use religion to harm others. She always tried to help people with all her goodness. If you believe in God, it does not necessarily mean that you become an enemy of the mankind. I believe that even if my mother did not believe in God, she would have remained a woman of high moral and ethical values - she always has been.