Saturday, August 9, 2008

On Tasleema Nasreen: C. M. Naim

Asghar Ali Engineer is someone whom I greatly respect. He is a brave man and a learned man; a man not just of words, but also of action. It is therefore with much humility and sincerity that I beg to differ with him in the matter of Tasleema Nasreen. His long piece, entitled Reform and Social Context, appeared here in Spotlight (Chicago) of 15 July 1994./1/ (Since the weekly does not indicate its sources I don't know where the article originally appeared.)
Mr. Engineer's position is that Tasleema Nasreen is the darling of the press, and "a woman in a hurry, both to acquire publicity and to establish sexual equality." He accuses her of only condemning religion while ignoring the reality of present "social context," and being of the same ilk as Salman Rushdie and others: "thoroughly westernized and cut ... adrift from their own roots." "They talk like aliens," he charges, "and needlessly provoke their fellow religionists." These are strong accusations, but also unfair.
The first time I became aware of Dr. Nasreen's existence was on 6 October 1993. The Times of India had a short item about her. It said that she had written a novel criticising the Muslim fanaticism in Bangladesh that caused substantial loss of Hindu life and property after the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India. It further reported that several Muslim religious leaders were angry at her and that one of them, Maulana Habibur Rahman, had issued a fatwa that she should be killed. Clearly, if anyone was in a hurry, it was the Maulana.
As the story developed and people became more curious about her, it came out that she was not just a novelist. She had been writing essays and columns and was fairly well-known for her trenchant comments, but her reputation as a novelist was meager compared to that as a social commentator. More important, in my view, was the fact that her novel Lajja was consistent with what she had been saying all the time. In other words, she had not put on some special act when she wrote her short novel.
But even if she had, what of it? Were there not attacks on Hindu lives and property in Bangladesh? Do two wrongs make one right? Personally, as a Muslim, I felt proud of the fact that she had the courage to describe the pain of her non-Muslim brethren. Just as I was proud -- as a former Indian -- that an Indian Hindu, Vibhuti Narain Rai, had the courage to write a short novel, Shahar Mein Curfew, about the plight of riot-stricken Muslims in Allahabad. So far, no Hindu organisation has asked for his head on a platter. And that deserves to be noted. Yes, it is true that Islam is not any less tolerant than other religions, but it is also true that presently a lot of Muslims seem to have become more intolerant, or at least the more intolerant among them are getting a dominant hand in many so-called Muslim countries. It seems that is the "social context" that Dr. Nasreen has had very much in mind. As has Mr. Engineer, for that matter -- in other writings.
Taking up the issue of "sexual equality," Mr. Engineer uses the example of Islam to make his point that "even if a religion preaches sexual equality, it is quite naive to believe that sexual equality will be established." I must quote his entire paragraph:
Islam normatively accorded equality to both the sexes. There is a clearly worded verse in the Koran (33:35) which strongly and unambiguously advocates sexual equality. However, it made concession to the then prevailing context and accepted slight male superiority. When a woman complained to the Prophet that her husband had unjustly slapped her, the Prophet advised her to retaliate (iqtasi). The women of Madina were jubilant. But this was short-lived as the men protested to the Prophet and Allah had to make a concession to the men as they were the earning members of the then society and women and children were dependent on them (see the Koran 4:34). Thus the social context has to be taken into account for legislation.
That is an amazing line of argument. Mr. Engineer contends that God, after declaring normative equality, had to give in to man-made social conditions of the time and accept "slight male superiority." If Almighty God had to give in then who can hope to challenge social conditions now? And what makes him think that after just a few more generations "the idea of sexual equality will be accepted unambiguously by the society?" But we do see that any number of God-fearing men and women challenge social conditions every day and have been doing so since the beginning of time in all societies. Mr. Engineer himself is one such person. He knows that God does not change the condition of those who don't strive to change it themselves.
Mr. Engineer believes the word of The Statesman's correspondent despite the denial issued by Dr. Nasreen. That's his privilege. Perhaps he has never been misquoted in the press. But when a matter concerns something that touches on faith, I'm more willing to believe the accused. Mr. Engineer also accuses her of seeking publicity. But she only gave interviews when the reporters came to her, and the reporters went to her only because a Maulana issued a fatwa against her and demanded her death. (Now he denies that he offered a prize.) But he is not accused of seeking publicity!
Yes, there are contexts within which this entire matter must be placed to get a better sense of it: (1) The fatwa against Salman Rushdie which no "Muslim" country or Muslim religious institution seriously challenged, not even to the extent of asking for a trial of some kind before passing a judgment of such nature. (2) The attacks, verbal, physical, even fatal, on any number of writers and journalists in "Muslim" countries, including Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Sudan, and Pakistan. (Remember, in Pakistan, Akhtar Hameed Khan, a true man of social action, has also been accused of blasphemy, and in India, Professor Mushirul Hasan was bloodied and has not been allowed to work for only questioning the ban on Rushdie's book.) (3) The campaign being waged by the mullas of Bangladesh against various NGOs involved in developmental work. (4) The rise and rehabilitation of the Jama'at-e-Islami in Bangladesh and their increasing attacks on supporters of secular polity. Rather than getting upset about what we assume to be Dr. Nasreen'smotives, we should give some sober thought to the ambitions of her detractors.

Originally published in Mainstream, Bombay, 17 September 1994.
For Asghar Ali Engineer's article, see Appendix 2.
The Hindi novel is now available in English translation. V. N. Rai, Curfew in the City, translated by C. M. Naim, New Delhi: Roli Books, 1998.

1 comment:

महामंत्री-तस्लीम said...

पहली बार आपके ब्लॉग पर आया हूं। आपका विचारोत्तेजक आलेख पढ कर अच्छा लगा। मैं आपसे एक निवेदन करना चाहूंगा कि यदि आप इस सामग्री को हिन्दी में प्रस्तुत करें, तो इसकी पहुंच ज्यादा लोगों तक हो सकेगी।
आशा है आप मेरे सुझाव पर ध्यान देंगे।
जाकिर अली रजनीश