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. She says:
“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 it.”
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 without Islam.
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 India.
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 one take?
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