Taslima Nasrin thinks the Indian government gets nervous when it comes to thinking of providing shelter to the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. For that matter, she thinks that nearly every government or country around the world is frightened of the United States. Why else would Snowden remain trapped at Russian airport, unable walk free of it and into a country of his choice? She has a point.
Not very long ago, some irate Muslim lawmakers attacked Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad. Earlier, somewhere in India, a Muslim bigot decreed that Taslima Nasrin be beheaded. The one who can accomplish the deed, or misdeed, would be rewarded with nothing less than a tidy sum of five hundred thousand rupees. When you sit back and reflect on the edict, disturbing as it is, you cannot but wonder at the temerity with which the so-called defenders of the faith have regularly taken it upon themselves to define the course of life for people who happen to think of temporal existence in terms of the literary and the philosophical. It is quite another point whether or not you agree with a writer. But it becomes a positive threat to decency and human dignity when an individual thinks nothing is remiss when he lets the world know that a writer who has aroused his ire must be dispatched with swiftness to the grave. Such a threat was held out back in 1989 to Salman Rushdie when Ayatollah Khomeini, convinced he was the new guardian of Islamic religious thought, ordered a bounty on the writer’s head. It was a bad move. It went against the principle of liberal thinking. It made Muslims everywhere shudder in unease.
History is of course replete with instances of individuals and groups and governments persuading themselves that they ought to be arbiters of the moral parameters which underpin, or should underpin, life. There is the story of Leni Riefenstahl, the German film-maker and admirer of Hitler (until the Third Reich collapsed in a heap), for whom life after 1945 was essentially a tale of vilification. There has been nothing to suggest that she collaborated with the Fuhrer in the latter’s nefarious attempts to reshape German society according to Aryan specifications. Not a shred of evidence has been found to implicate Riefenstahl in any of the crimes the Nazis committed in their twelve-year dominance of their country. But the film-maker continued to be reviled in her lifetime. In our times, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel certainly ought to have come later, is a man whose running battles with the state convince us that the historical image of the writer being at the receiving end of persecution is a reality that has acquired permanence of a definite kind. Naguib Mahfouz was never in the good books of the regime, any regime, in his native Egypt. And if you remember the trauma that Boris Pasternak went through once the Nobel for literature came to him in 1960, you will have cause to comprehend anew the many shades of darkness courageous writers live under from day to day.
It is these shades of darkness Taslima Nasrin has been living through for the past thirteen years. There has been no official decree formalizing her exile abroad; and yet no government in Bangladesh since 1994 has felt any compulsion of bringing her back home. There are the bigots who man the ramparts, here in Bangladesh, intent on ensuring that Nasrin does not make her way back to her country. In the mid-1990s, with the Awami League holding political authority in Bangladesh, the natural expectation arose that conditions would be facilitated for the writer to end her exile abroad and come home. The expectation turned out to have been misplaced, for the ruling classes were afraid of the consequences should Nasrin return to Bangladesh. The BNP-wallahs, of course, were never expected to warm to Nasrin. And they never did. Today it is our collective reputation as a nation proud of its democratic sensibilities that stands threatened through the hypocrisy defining our attitude to Taslima Nasrin. By every measure, Nasrin is a good writer. In terms of social commitment, she remains one of the foremost defenders of courage as a weapon in the war against obscurantism. Yes, to be sure, there are times when something of the worryingly judgemental comes into her analyses of conditions around her. But judgement ought never to be challenged through a brazen display of ignorance. You do not finish off the idea that is Federico Garcia Lorca by pumping bullets into his head. You may find Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views on the faith she has deserted repugnant to the core, but when you decide that she should die for her heresy, it is your attitude which threatens to become a good deal more reprehensible than hers.
Taslima Nasrin’s thoughts have never been repugnant. Writers, in the true spirit of a formulation and dissemination of ideas, are careful to state the truth. Any writer who believes that treading a fine line between truth and the lack of it is what the calling of writing should be is making a dreadful mistake. You are not a writer if you cannot or will not write in all the boldness your heart can call forth. That is where the difference between politicians and writers lies. A politician, with his sights on gaining power over the state, will hedge his arguments, will compromise to reach the top of the mountain. A writer has no such compulsions, for it is not the peaks he aspires to. He is content with the open valley before him, for in that valley he spots beauty he sings praises of and notes cacti he thinks ought to be out of the way. There is Ahmad Faraz in Pakistan. Courage in the face of adversity has been his forte. In Bangladesh, Ahmad Sharif and Shaukat Osman, all these years after their passing, remain emblematic of the principles that once underlined, and continue to denote, writing. Araj Ali Matubbor was an iconoclast all his life. In death, he remains an inspiration from whom men and women given to thoughts of life and nothingness draw a certain strength of will.
The bizarre spectacle of the severed head of Taslima Nasrin on a platter is an image that should bring men and women of conscience everywhere together. The man who issued that threat is a grave danger to decency, to civilised life everywhere and ought to be dealt with as such. For us, here in Bangladesh, it is time to ask that the state move to reinstate the rights of a woman who has been wronged for the past thirteen years, through opening the door for her re-entry into a country she was born in and to which her devotion has been as well pronounced as ours.
And much of the shame our impotence puts us to can be scratched away when, and only when, those who dominate Bangladesh’s literary ambience in these times come together in a defence of Taslima Nasrin’s unquestioned right to be back where she belongs. And she belongs here, whether or not you like it.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is with The Daily Star.