By Hilal Ahmed
August 1, 2017
Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen was sent
back from Aurangabad airport on July 30, after a group of Muslims led by
Aurangabad MLA Imtiyaz Jaleel protested against her visit to the city. This
incident has rejuvenated the Muslim sentiment versus Creative freedom debate.
As expected, we are asked to take a committed position as if there is no need
to go deep into the immediate context in which this event took place.
Let us look at this case carefully and the
actors who participated in it in order to understand the nature of their
arguments. According to the police, Taslima Nasreen was planning to visit the
world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora, besides other tourist spots in
Aurangabad. However, this ‘secret’ program of the author was discovered by some
radical Muslim protesters.
There were two groups of protesters: The
MLA Imtiyaz Jaleel led the first mob at the airport; the other group gathered
outside the hotel where Nasreen was to stay during her three-day visit.
Taslima Nasreen in her tweets has also expressed
“surprise”, or rather shock, about the “information network of protesters.”
Nobody but security police in Aurangabad
was informed about my itinerary & hotel booking. I wonder how fanatics got
to know everything!
Her other tweets are also very instructive.
“Can any of them tell what I wrote abt the
Prophet? They can’t becoz they haven’t read my books. They only use me for
their political interests”
“Allah made Islam so difficult for his
followers to understand. They’ve been in dilemma for 1400 years over true
Islam. Still, can’t figure out”.
“There is no such thing as Allah’s Islam
and Mullah’s Islam. Islam is one and that is Allah’s Islam. Accept it or reject
Imtiaz Jaleel, the AIMIM legislator from
the Aurangabad central constituency, interestingly, expresses the same
sentiments. He says:
“Her writings have “hurt” the religious
sentiments of Muslims across the world. So, we will not allow her to step on
the soil of our city,”
What are the justifications given in
support of these two positions?
MLA Imtiyaz Jaleel’s comment is a perfect
example of the Muslim sentiment argument. His claim that Taslima Nasreen has
written some “anti-Islamic stuff”, hence her presence in Aurangabad would hurt
the sentiments of Muslims, underlines the standard line of reasoning that began
with Ayatollah Khomenei in the 1980s. Therefore, according to him, shouting
“Taslima go back” is religious-obligatory and politically desirable as her
visit might also disturb the “law and order” situation. This “sentiment
argument” was also accepted by the police and Nasreen was not given permission
to stay in Aurangabad.
The second set of arguments is equally
interesting. Nasreen evokes a closed binary between Islam and freedom of
expression. It is asserted that Islam itself is a problem. Hence, either one
has to follow Islam or reject it completely. The argument that Islam as a
religion ought to be reformed so that it can cope with the challenges posed by
modernity thus becomes unsubstantiated. By this logic, the protesters, who
forced Nasreen to go back to Mumbai, can be called followers of Allah’s Islam,
which they claim they are!
There are remarkable similarities in these
seemingly conflicting arguments. They tend to revolve around a few strong
beliefs: (a) there is only one form of Islam in India (and for that matter in
the world); (b) all Muslims are deeply religious; they follow Islam as an
ultimate way of life and (c) reform or no reform Muslims cannot be understood
Are Taslima Nasreen and MLA Jaleel not
aware of these similarities?
Imtiaz Jaleel, it is worth noting, is a
former journalist. Her twitter handle introduces him as:
Switched over roles after being behind the
camera for over 2 decades and running after news to being the news myself as
MLA from Aurangabad!!
As an emerging political leader from
Maharashtra Jaleel wanted to capture the media space by evoking the “Islam in
danger” argument. He, it seems, was desperately looking for a known
controversial public figure, who could easily be “used” so as to become
national news! Hence, the idea of universal Islamic hurt helped him create an
image of a radical Islamist in a deeply anti-Muslim environment in contemporary
Evocation of Islamic homogeneity was also
beneficial for Nasreen. Despite her support to the BJP-led central government
on issues such as ‘triple Talaq’ or her active participation in anti-Muslim
controversies such as use of loudspeakers in mosques, she has not been able to
achieve the status that Canadian journalist Tarek Fateh has acquired in a short
span of time. Hindutva forces do not find her suitable enough for representing
anti-Islamic views in the name of reforms. The union Home ministry has extended
her visa to remain in India only for another year. In such a context, this
protest offers her a new lease of public life as a “victim”. She is back on TV
and a number of write-ups are going to follow soon.
So, the question is: what position should
The politics of Muslim homogeneity is not
exclusively played out by Muslim politicians in India; it is also used by those
who present themselves as rational, scientific and progressive. Jaleel, I
doubt, has read Lajja or other works by Nasreen; similarly, Nasreen, as it
appears from her tweets and interviews, is unaware of the scholarly discussions
on lived Islam in South Asia. But they both survive as adversaries in the name
of Islamic universalism.
Hilal Ahmed is an Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of
Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal