The controversy surrounding the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen has brought three important questions to the fore. First, what is the exact status of freedom of speech in society, what are the conditions for its survival and what are the limits that can be prescribed to it? Second, is it right to condemn an author to death because she suggested revisions to the sacred text of a particular religion? Third, is it true there is no tradition of dissent within Islam and that Islam cannot adapt to the socio-political context of the present age? In other words, is Islam is an intolerant religion?
All these problems call for sober reflection. Every community should allow a space for dissent within itself. But it is also true that dissent cannot exist in a vacuum. One can speak out in favour of free speech in a democracy. But it must also be presumed that those who speak out are aware of the consequences that might follow from their actions,
Taslima Nasreen exercised her freedom of speech while giving an interview 10 The Statesman, but her fault lay in ignoring the consequences of her action. In the United Kingdom, neo-fascists have been convicted for making pro-Nazi pronouncements in front of Jews and thereby hurting their sentiments.
Bertrand Russell once said, “it is anti-democratic to allow a momentarily popular clique to secure itself in power indefinitely.” In the case of Taslima Nasreen, those who are citing reserences to Western traditions of free speech should know that even the New York Times once refused to review the book of the United States senator, Eugene Mc Carthy, Mc- Carthyism on the ground it might spread his ideas.
In a talk broadcast over the British Broadcasting Corporation, journalist and writer Mr. Nathaniel Micklem said, “There must be limits to freedom. For instance, could we permit communist schools within the national education system? My answer quite clearly would be ‘no’ on the ground that it is the duty of the Government to maintain national unity and to see that education produces good citizens to take their place in the traditional life of the nation.”
However, the death threat issued to Nasreen by some fundamentalists in Bangladesh is also wrong and unjustified from the Islamic point of view. Truc, no Muslim can question the validity of the Quran. But if in specific cases the word of the Quran is not clear, or the opinion of the Prophet is not known, one can rely on one’s own judgement, ijtihad, or on a consensus of opinion, ijma, that conforms to the basic tenets of Islam. The right to cxcrcise one’s own judgment, ijtihad, ensures that every generation of Muslims has the right 10 reinterpret basic Islamic principles and to face the world in a pragmatic and courageous fashion.
According to Muhammad Iqbal, “The purpose of Islam has hitherto only been partially revealed as the carly Muslims emerging out of the spiritual slavery of pre-Islamic Asoa could not fully understand the signilicance of the idea that as there could be no further revelation binding on man, the Muslims ought to be spiritually the most cmancipated pcoplc on carth; the Muslim of today should appreciate his position, reconstruct his social life in the light of ultimate principles and evolve out of the hitherto partially revealed purpose of Islam that spiritual democracy which is the aim of Islam.”
Also, as a non-Muslim, Nasrecn cannot be executed for her remarks, as Islam docs not permit this persecution. The Quran explicitly says, “You (the Prophet) shall not use force with them, admonish with this Quran whoever l’ears my warning.” In another verse, the Quran says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” Therefore the funwa issued against Nasreen has nothing to do with the fundamental principles of Islam.
Yet Nasreen is not beyond criticism, The right to free speech is not an absolute right. No one can criticisc a religion for the wrong reasons. During her stay in India, Nasreen told The Sunday Observer there should be a uniform code of divorce and that the wife should have as much a right to divorce as the husband.
Nasreen obviously does not know a Muslim women is always an equal party to the contract of marriage. She has the right to lay down certain conditions on breach of which she can divorce her husband through talaq e tafiid. Muslim women also have the right to divorce through khula which is so absolute she can exercise it without assigning any reasons. Nasreen also said in a recent programme on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that, “Islam treats women like slaves. It is said that woman was made from the rib of man.”
Nowhere in the Quran does it say woman was made out of the rib of man. That theory is to be found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It is obvious Nasreen does not know that she is talking about.
The reaction of the Western media shows the West is still to get out of a mindset regarding Islam that goes back to the age of the Crusades. Pope Benedict XIV, the greatest pontiff of the 18th century, sent his blessings to Voltaire for his tragedy “Muhammad or fanaticism,” a drama any cunning scribbler could have written in bad faith.
In our own time, The Times in its editorial said, “The plight of Taslima Nasreen has demonstrated the ferocity of fundamentalist Islam. Ms. Nasreen and many lesser known writers in Islamic countries are the victims of a conflict between two global cultures. It is vital that this battle should not be under-estimated in the West.”
The Western media has always blown up the “plight” of certain. muslims in order to prove how intolerant Islam really is. To them, Christianity alone represents a tradition of tolerance. Islam has always been perceived as a threat to the West. The “conflict between two global cultures” is actually a conslict between Islam and Christianity.
This prejudice against Islam came out very strongly during the recent Kuwait war. An entire nation, the United States, started praying hard, slipping into chapels for special services, joining in candlelight vigils, seeking moral certitude. Even the uren US president, Mr George Bush, invoked a long standing Christian doctrine in order to defend his action. The US press described the war in terms of Biblical prophecies concerning the imminence of Armageddon. With the end of the post-Cold War period the Western media has been talking about an international Islamic movement which aims to convert all the dar ul harbs into dar ul Islams.
They fail to see that in many places in the world it is not the Muslims but their sectarian opponents who have encouraged the rise of Muslim militancy by deliberately denying them their rights. Take the case of Bosnian Muslims who in the past had never felt the need to assert their Muslim identity and felt proud about their European and Slay antecedents. It was when Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats attacked Bosnian Muslims that the latter suddenly became conscious of their different identity.
No Western power was willing to come to the rescue of the Bosnian Muslims. They were not willing to allow the emergence of an independent Muslim state within Europe. This is why Muslims all over the world began to see Bosnia as “part of a broader picture of indulgence to the oppression of Muslims.” In Taslima Nasreen the Western media has found another opportunity to vilisy Muslim.
Written By: Sk. Sadar Nayeem (Columnist)
(Courtesy : The Telegraph, July 7, 1994)
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