It was just a brief item in last week’s news. Most papers in Canada didn’t find room for it. If I hadn’t met Taslima Nasreen years ago, it might not have caught my eye.
The news item came from Hyderabad, a city in south-central India. It concerned a book launch. “No wonder it didn’t make the front pages,” you’re probably thinking. But Nasreen is no ordinary author and this was no ordinary launch.
Nasreen writes mostly in the Bengali language of her native Bangladesh. A physician, activist and writer, she has been unable to live in her homeland for more than a decade. Having spent years in Europe, she now resides in India.
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Her insistence on the rights of women and her refusal to abide by sharia law have made her a target for fundamentalists. Since 1993 she has endured constant death threats. This year an extremist Muslim party in India put up a bounty of 500,000 rupees (about $13,000 Canadian) for her beheading.
I met Nasreen in Montreal thanks to a human rights group, the Ligue des Droits et Liberte’s. She spoke in praise of a secular society, saying: “If women want their freedom, they must cross the barrier of religion and patriarchy. They must stop thinking it is their destiny to be slaves of men. They must find the courage to break their shackles.”
Courage is one thing Nasreen has in abundance. “In Christian countries,” she told me on that visit, “people can say anything they like against Christianity. So why should people in Islamic countries not have the right to criticize Islam? If any religion keeps women in slavery, then I cannot accept that religion.”
Out of deference to the sensitivities of believers, many of us in Canada tiptoe around that kind of statement. We hate to cause offence. The last thing we want to do is sound like imperialists.
Nasreen has no such qualms. She speaks the truth as she sees it. And, as the news item from Hyderabad reminded me, she pays a price for her outspokenness.
Nasreen was trying to launch a Telugu language version of one of her novels. A mob broke into the Press Club, where the event was being held, hurling objects at Nasreen and shouting abuse. One of them — Akbaruddin Owaisi, an elected member of the Andhra Pradesh legislature — personally threatened to behead her.
After several days, the local police registered a case against him. They had already registered a case against Nasreen for “promoting enmity between different groups.” They did this at the behest of Akbaruddin Owaisi, who declared that Nasreen’s writings “hurt the sentiments of the faithful.”
So should the sentiments of the faithful have the power to turn an unbeliever into a criminal — or a corpse?
At some point, Western liberals have to draw a steadfast line. Sure, the American invasion of Iraq was an atrocity; sure, Muslim minorities from Bosnia to China have suffered grievous oppression; sure, Palestinians continue to be mistreated and abused; sure, the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving people.
But having said all that, we liberals need to define and hold onto the values that are essential to us — values we hold sacred, to use a loaded word. We need to defend and proclaim our own moral convictions.
For me, freedom of speech is sacred. For me, a library is as holy as any mosque or church. I despise anyone for whom religious sentiments justify a threat of murder.
I also despise anyone who thinks that out of sensitivity to Muslims, we should keep silent about the threats against Taslima Nasreen.