One Brave Woman vs. Religious Fundamentalism
An Interview With Taslima Nasrin
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.
The following interview was conducted by Matt Cherry and Warren Allen Smith in the
months before Taslima Nasrin's return to Bangladesh. — Eds.
Free Inquiry: Tell us something of your background.
Taslima Nasrin: I was born into a middle-class Muslim family in a
small town called Myonenningh in a northern part of Bangladesh in 1962. My father was a
physician, my mother a housewife. I have two elder brothers and one younger sister. All of
them received a liberal education in schools and colleges. I studied in a medical college
and qualified myself as a medical graduate.
FI: When did you start writing?
Nasrin: I have been writing poetry since 1975. My first poetry book
was published in 1986. Since 1989 I have written columns in daily newspapers and
periodicals as well. I wrote about women who were being unfairly oppressed and other such
subjects. I got support from liberal and secular people and hatred from fundamentalists
and conservatives for my articles.
FI: Could you describe the fundamentalist reaction to your writings in
Nasrin: The Muslim fundamentalists filed several cases against me in
court. They attacked me physically. They demanded my execution by hanging. They declared
me an apostate and made frequent demonstrations against me. They broke into newspaper
offices where I had written columns and filed cases against my editors and publishers.
They demanded the banning of all my books.
Because the fundamentalists are so powerful, the Bengali government banned one of my
books and filed a criminal case against me on charges of hurting the religious feelings of
the people. In 1994 when the arrest warrant was issued against me I went into hiding
because prison was not safe for me. Political murder is not rare in Bangladesh prisons.
FI: Was your life in danger?
Nasrin: Yes. They called a general strike all over the country for
several days to protest my writings. No political party came to my support except one or
two small leftist parties. People are afraid of fundamentalists because they can kill
people whenever they want in Bangladesh. The fundamentalists came together and made
demonstrations of over 300,000 religious people and openly announced that they must kill
In desperation I had to leave my country with the help of some democratic governments
of Europe and the United States, the international literary organization PEN, and women's and humanist organizations.
FI: Do you still have police protection?
Nasrin: Mainly when I speak to large groups. At Nottingham in England,
Islamic students attacked me. At Concordia in Canada I had to stop speaking because of
Muslim demonstrations. Police were on hand when I spoke at Michigan and at Harvard.
Hundreds of French gendarmes have been on duty when I spoke. When I first was hiding in
Sweden, as many as a hundred policemen and policewomen were my guards. Once, when I
slipped out of my apartment and bought flowers from some Bengalis, I was scolded and told
never to do that again.
FI: Tell us about some of your other experiences in hiding.
Nasrin: Well, at one point PEN
arranged a peaceful place near the Gulf of Bothnia for me. A great place for privacy and
writing! I had a wonderful neighbor, an English lady with many cats, who helped with my
pronunciation of English words. But one night when the wind rose and branches touched my
roof, I became really alarmed. The police, who had been positioned in a house nearby, were
quick to come. One of the policewomen, in fact, kindly spent the night. Only if you have a
fatwa on your head and are alone far from home could you possibly understand what I was
FI: What originally prompted you to become so outspoken in your
opposition to Islam?
Nasrin: When I began to study the Koran, the holy book of
Islam, I found many unreasonable ideas. The women in the Koran were treated
as slaves. They were nothing but sexual objects.
Naturally I set aside the Koran and looked around me. I found religion
equally oppressive in real life. And I realized that religious oppression and injustices
are only increasing, especially in Muslim countries. The religious terrorists are
everywhere. But if I criticized Muslim fundamentalists and mullahs in particular, it is
because I saw them from close quarters. They took advantage of people's ignorance and
oppressed them. They considered women as chattel slaves and treated them no better than
the slaves of the ancient world.
So one day I had to take up my pen and start writing against the various misdeeds
committed by religion, against all the injustice, unreason, and prejudice sanctioned by
religious institutions. I began to try to expose the crimes of religion, particularly the
injustice and oppression against women.
FI: But you were harder on fundamentalists?
Nasrin: I criticized fundamentalists as well as religion in general. I
don't find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is
the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove
fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or another fundamentalism will grow again.
I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for
creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn't permit democracy
and it violates human rights.
And because Islam itself is causing injustices, so it is our duty to make people alert.
It is our responsibility to wake people up, to make them understand that religious
scriptures come from a particular period in time and a particular place.
FI: What are you presently working on? Are there new projects, new
perspectives that have occurred to you as a result of your experience?
Nasrin: I would like to write about my experience. I already wrote a
few articles in European newspapers, such as Le Monde in France. I will write
more. Though I have been far from my country and my own people for years now, I still
remain true to my own ideals. I still have confidence in myself.
FI: Free Inquiry
is very proud to have you as a Senior Editor. What made you accept this role?
Nasrin: I think Free
Inquiry is the best magazine in the world - at least in the field of ideas. I
say this because I think the issues FI addresses and the ideas it promotes - the
principles of secular humanism - are fundamental to the cause of human freedom and
progress. Free Inquiry deserves
more recognition and influence, and I am delighted to do whatever I can to support it. I
tell everyone I meet at conferences and human rights events to read it.
FI: When and why did you become a secular humanist?
Nasrin: When I was young, I was forced to practice religion. I had to
read the Koran in Arabic without knowing the meaning. I said to my mother
several times: "I don't have any interest in reading something I don't understand. I
want to know the meaning of the verses." My mother said, "We don't need to know
the meaning. We should read because these are the verses written by God. If you read
these, God will forgive you and send you to heaven."
When I was 14 or 15 years old, I found the Bengali translation of the Koran,
and I learned what God says in the verses. I was surprised to read wrong information about
the solar system in the Koran - for example, that the sun is moving around
the earth and the earth is not moving but standing still because of the support of the
The inequalities and injustices against women and the people of different faiths in the
Koran made me angry. If any religion allows the persecution of the people of
different faiths, if any religion keeps women in slavery and keeps people in ignorance,
then I cannot accept that religion. As an individual, I wanted to serve people
irrespective of religion, race, and gender. And instead of having irrational blind faith,
I preferred to have a rational logical mind. In short, I became a secular humanist. To me
humanity is the ultimate.
FI: Do you find religion to be inherently divisive?
Nasrin: It does not often teach people to love one another. On the
contrary, it often teaches them to hate people of a different faith. Religion also leads
people to depend on fate and thus lose self-confidence. It unnecessarily glorifies poverty
and sacrifice and thus serves the vested interests of the wealthy few.
In all countries and through all ages, conscientious people have exposed these
unethical aspects of religion and educated people to see religion with the eyes of reason
FI: The eternal conflict ...
Nasrin: Yes. Let me give as an example the philosophers of the
Lokayata tradition, the materialists of ancient India. Three thousand years ago, they
raised many questions about religion, questions that appear simple but are actually very
subtle. These materialists did not believe in reincarnation, they did not believe in
heaven and hell. They were quite vocal against the dominance of the priests.
According to scholars, the organized resistance of these priests did not allow the
materialists to make much progress. Even their texts have been almost obliterated. There
remain only some fragmentary references to what they preached. But some believe that they
had a big influence on the common people. Hence perhaps their name, Lokayata, which really
means the opinion or philosophy of the common people.
Today we are still carrying on the same fight against unreason and prejudice. The rise
of fundamentalism all over the world shows that the battle remains urgently necessary. In
a discussion at Harvard University on the rise of religious fundamentalism, I said that
after the end of the cold war the world faces a new battle, and it is between secularism
FI: Do you think there is also a clash of civilizations between East
Nasrin: No. I don't agree with those who think that the conflict is
simply between two religions, namely Christianity and Islam. Nor do I think that this is a
conflict between East and West. To me, the key conflict is between irrational blind faith
and rational, logical minds. Or between modernity and anti-modernity. While some people
want to go forward, others are trying to go backward. It is a conflict between the future
and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those
who do not.
FI: Why do you think there has been a resurgence of religious
fundamentalism in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa?
Nasrin: The question of fundamentalism is a complex and deep one. In
short, I should say it is the failure of Western democracy and free-market economy on the
one hand and the failure of socialist economy on the other that has made the
fundamentalists' rapid advance possible in the developing world. They are trying to
present a religious substitute to modern Western ideologies. Disillusioned and hopeless
people are now seeking salvation in the blind forces of faith. Beaten by science,
overwhelmed by other civilizations, Islam is now in search of "roots." And, as
always, there is an element of fear in the search.
Of course, the responsibility for inciting fundamentalism should not be laid fully on
the so-called secular leaders of the ex-colonies who have used fundamentalism to serve
their own interests. The responsibility should be shared by the democratic and secular
states of the developed world. They have also made a lot of compromises with the
We have seen how the so-called secular political parties of Bangladesh use the
religious sentiments of the people to get votes. But similar instances of rank opportunism
have been seen in India and elsewhere.
FI: What role have Western governments played in this?
Nasrin: We have also seen how the powerful Western nations have
declared protecting human rights to be one of their supreme objectives and then patronized
fundamentalism, overtly or covertly. Democratic governments recognize military
dictatorships for short-run political interests. Secular states make friends with
autocracies as well as theocracies. They tolerate even completely inhuman behavior of
fundamentalists. Such double standards practiced by so-called democratic and secular
states at home and abroad give the fundamentalists a sort of legitimacy.
FI: Do you think the fundamentalists will continue to gain and hold
power in these developing areas?
Nasrin: The fundamentalist prescription for all ills of society is
severely questionable. Obviously they cannot go far. Even if they assume power here and
there they cannot run a state on just religious rules, and I am sure they will also be
challenged by the people after some time.
Fundamentalism is an ideology that diverts people from the path of natural development
of consciousness and individuality, and undermines their personal rights. I find it
impossible to accept fundamentalism as an alternative to secular ideas. My first reason is
the insistence of the fundamentalists on divine justification for human laws. Second is
the insistence of fundamentalists upon the superior authority of faith, as opposed to
reason. Third is the insistence of fundamentalists that the individual does not count,
that the individual is immaterial. Group loyalty over individual rights and personal
achievements is a peculiar feature of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists believe in a
particular way of life; they want to put everybody in their particular straight jacket and
dictate what an individual should eat, what an individual should wear, how an individual
should live everyday life - everything would be determined by the fundamentalist
Finally, though they proclaim themselves a moral force, their language is hatred and
violence. Is it possible for a rationalist and humanist to accept this sort of terrible
FI: What hope is there for secularism and for human rights and women's
rights in the Islamic world?
Nasrin: Nothing will be achieved by reforming Muslim scriptural
tenets. What is needed is a change of the sharia, the code of laws based on
the Koran. I want a uniform civil code that is equally applicable to men and
FI: How can we protect ourselves against the resurgence of
Nasrin: To get rid of fundamentalism, people should be educated;
especially they should receive a secular education. And the secular humanists should unite
and fight fundamentalists without any compromise.
FI: So you will continue to fight, despite the risk, despite fatwas
Nasrin: Yes, I can assure you that my ideological fight against
religious fundamentalism will continue. I am an atheist. I do not believe in prayers, I
believe in work. And my work is that of an author. My pen is my weapon.