By Hasan Suroor
Mar 25, 2015
There are Muslim fanatics, Hindu extremists, and Christian fundamentalists. And then there arefire- and- brimstone atheists. Like our own Taslima Nasreen whose belligerence puts off even moderate Muslims while making fundamentalists look like victims.
Last week, she was her shrill self again—going out of her way to broadcast her atheism and renounce her Muslim identity. Rudely interrupting an interviewer mid-way, she admonished him for inadvertently referring to her as a Muslim writer.
"Don't call me a Muslim, I'm an atheist," she snapped.
If I was the interviewer I would have urged her to calm down. No need to get so upset, Ma'am."Muslim" is not a term of abuse. Not yet. But, actually, it is not so much Nasreen who is the problem. Her outburst is symptomatic of the militant, in-your-face brand of modern-day atheism she shares with the likes of Richard Dawkins, the British uber atheist whose anti-religion rants have alienated many of his own atheist mates on both sides of the Atlantic.
British literary critic Terry Eagleton and American academic Daniel Dennett, a fellow leading member of an egoistic atheist group that calls itself the Brights, are among some of his high-profile chums who have fallen out with him. And they are not the only ones.
"Richard Dawkins, What on Earth Happened to You?" queried The Guardian, one of Britain’s most atheist-friendly newspapers in a sign of growing backlash.
What has happened is that atheism has gone fundamentalist. As Lakshmi Chaudhry — commenting on Dawkins' tub-thumping anti-faith documentary — The Root of all Evil — noted there's a "virulent form of atheism" abroad "that mirrors the polarized worldview of the religious extremists it claims to oppose".
"Like his fellow fundamentalists, Dawkins has no use for moderation or its practitioners," she wrote. You’re either with them or against them.
Nasreen belongs to this band of puritan atheists--as bigoted and parochial as religious puritans they claim to fight. Obsessed with their own “superior’’ rational worldview and contemptuous of any belief they regard as irrational, atheists have acquired all the trappings of a navel-gazing cabal: self-righteous, arrogant, intolerant of criticism. Mention faith and they turn up their noses as though you've just belched in their face.
They revel in provocation, sadistically throwing red meat at the other side in a crass display of baiting the enemy. Seeking attention is the name of the game. And who knows it better than Nasreen whose reputation as an enfant terrible rests more on her penchant for controversies than on her literary prowess. She must have been mightily pleased that her "Don’t call me a Muslim" quote was widely reported with relish in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi media .
No wonder, Nasreen-Dawkins and Co.are seen as god-send by their detractors. There is a joke that every time this lot opens their mouth somewhere anew religious fundamentalist is born.
Yet,atheism was not meant to be like this. Defined as the opposite of theism, it was meant to challenge blind faith –not by hectoring and humiliating the believers but by engaging them through dialogue and sensible argument. But, ironically — to the dismay of many moderate atheists — it is rapidly morphing into a sort of faith itself. It is the latest in the long and perverse tradition of revolutions becoming the state, and change-bearing revolutionaries ending up as the Establishment. All that atheists need now is a church and a book and,voila, they will be in business at the head of a new religion of their own.
But coming back to Nasreen’s objection to be called a Muslim, I would say this to her if I were to meet her:
Remember, lady, you were born and brought up as a Muslim , still bear a Muslim name and remain culturally Muslim even if you have renounced your Islamic beliefs.You can't wish away the fact that Muslim-ness is part of your cultural DNA. And genes don't disappear with a wave of a hand: Abracadabra, and hey I'm now completely cleansed of my genetic faultines!
Rewind the tape of that interview and you will notice that in your unguarded moments even you tend to forget that you’re not a Muslim anymore. Here’s is what you did.
Asked whether your work often reflected the West's 'paranoia' about Islam, you retorted: "Are you saying Muslims cannot have a mind of their own to criticize their religion? Is criticism of religion the domain of non-Muslim intellectuals? That's an anti-Muslim remark seriously."
If this did not amount to acknowledging your Muslim-ness what else would? So you see, deep down, you remain a closet Muslim and all it takes is a momentary lapse of attention to show up the phoniness of your public posturing.
A lot of what you say or do sounds suspiciously like an attempt to grab headlines. And grab headlines you do, though not always quite the way you would have wanted to. Even your famous novel Lajja, your ticket to international celebrity, was for all its literary pretensions a crude stab at courting controversy. Unfortunately, you had not reckoned with the reach and power of your country’s mad mullahs. And the controversy exploded in your face.
Let me make it clear that there is absolutely no justification for the way you have been hounded – and continue to be hounded by Muslim fanatics. Even more shameful has been the conduct of the Government of Bangladesh. On occasions, even the Indian government succumbed to fundamentalist pressure to keep you out of the country.So, your bitterness is understandable.
But trying to fight religious fundamentalism with another form of dogmatism, however high-minded, is self-defeating as you should have discovered by now. The Dawkins school of atheism of which you’re a fully paid-up member suffers from hubris. And as The Guardian columnist Eleanor Robertson pointed out, "You don’t have to be religious to find this level of hubris baffling."
Meanwhile,next time, someone mistakes you for a Muslim, take it easy. As I said earlier, it is not yet a term of abuse.
Hasan Suroor is the author of India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?