Saturday, December 29, 2007

Taslima Nasreen Living in "Prison Conditions"

While the world's attention was focused on the Sudanese regime's Kafkaesque persecution of Gillian Gibbons, a woman living in India also found herself under threat from Islamist mobs. Unlike Ms. Gibbons, the victim in this case is all too familiar with such circumstances.

On Wednesday, November 21, Islamist-led demonstrations turned into riots in the Indian city of Calcutta. According to the BBC, 43 people were injured and over 100 arrested. The Islamists were demanding that exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen be expelled from India. A forceful critic of Islam and of the treatment of women and religious minorities in her native country, Nasreen has seen a number of her books banned and been the target of Islamist death threats and intimidation for well over a decade. She has lived in Calcutta for the last three years. Until now, that is.

In the wake of the riots, Nasreen was forced to flee the city, going into hiding in India's capital of Delhi.

In response to this renewed campaign against her, on November 30 Nasreen announcerd that she would edit her biography in order to appease her Islamic critics. According to the Times of London:

Ms Nasreen had claimed that the religious references in Dwikhandito, which means Divided, are sourced from “universally accepted” books on Islamic history.

Today she relented under pressure and said that “controversial lines” relating to Islam from the autobiographical novel would be removed.

“The book was written in 2002, based on my memories of Bangladesh in the 1980s, during which time secularism was removed from the Bangladesh constitution. I wrote the book in support of the people who defended secular values. I had no intention to hurt anybody’s sentiment,” she said today from a secret location.

“I have done what I have never done in my life. I have compromised even in a secular India.” She added that she hoped she would now be able to “live peacefully” in India.

Prashant Mukherjee, her publisher in Calcutta, refused to divulge the exact text or the nature of the sentences that were deemed particularly offensive by Islamic clerics, but said two paragraphs would be deleted.

Unfortunately, Nasreen's hopes that appeasing the Islamists would allow her to "live peacefully" have proven to be predictably futile. This December 3 report from The Guardian explains:

But the offer to remove the paragraphs from new printings of the bestseller was not enough for Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the chief cleric of New Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque, who suggested earlier today that Indian Muslims should "not tolerate the infamous authoress Taslima Nasrin on the Indian soil" unless she offered a written apology for what he called her "anti-Islamic publications".

"The apology must bear her assurance that in future she will desist from repeating such venomous writing that may have any inkling of blasphemy," he said in a statement.

On December 12, the president of the Indian Union Muslim League demanded that Nasreen be deported from India. In an Orwellian inversion of reality, G.M. Banatwala justified his position by stating that it was Nasreen who was engaged in "an assault on the freedom of expression".

While the controversy has continued, Nasreen has remained in Delhi under Indian government protection. According to Agence France Presse, she is being held in a government safe house "under virtual house arrest". Indian officials have been mostly silent about Nasreen's situation, fueling speculation that they would prefer that she left the country.

The Marxist government of West Bengal, where Calcutta is located, has behaved in especially disgraceful fashion. You might think that Marxists would be eager to protect a secular, atheist feminist from religious extremists. In this case, you would be wrong. The West Bengal government, for its own cynical reasons, has openly joined in the verbal attacks on Ms. Nasreen and her writings.

While Indian officials have been reluctant to stand up for Nasreen and her right to free expression, many writers and intellectuals have come to her defense. On December 22, some of India's leading intellectuals staged a demonstration in Calcutta demanding that Nasreen be allowed to return if she wished. Yesterday, a number of Indian writers published a letter to authorities asking that Nasreen be freed from the "prison conditions" in which she is currently being held. Even Gloria Stienem spoke up in defense of Taslima Nasreen during a recent visit to India.

Perhaps in response to such criticism, the Marxist leaders of West Bengal have made noises about allowing Nasreen to return to Calcutta as long as the national government agrees to handle her security. Predictably, local Islamic leaders have threatened even more violent protests if she returns.

India is the world's largest democracy and has made enormous social, economic and political progress during the sixty years of its independence. Unfortunately, it also remains riven with religious and sectarian conflict. Indian authorities have adopted the belief that, if they limit free expression that is potentially offensive to some religious groups, they can alleviate these tensions. This is incorrect. Allowing religious extremists and sectarian grievance mongers to define the limits of free speech is not the solution to sectarian conflict; it only entrenches and perpetuates it.

By effectively allowing Taslima Nasreen to be silenced by mob censorship, India has handed Islamism yet another victory in its global war on intellectual freedom. It has also set a dangerous precedent that could well threaten Indian democracy if allowed to continue unchecked.


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