Ever since Taslima Nasrin became Bangladesh's Salman Rushdie, my homeland has become synonymous, in Western eyes, with backwardness and fundamentalism. In 1993, Nasrin's book "Shame" was banned because of its alleged provocation to Muslims, and she was all but forced to leave Bangladesh under threats from fundamentalist groups. The surface similarities with the Rushdie affair produced an appalled fascination in the West.
Yet the foreign journalists who flocked to Dhaka to cover this incident failed to report certain relevant facts. For example, Jamat-i-Islami, the leading fundamentalist party in Bangladesh, held only 17 seats in the 300-seat national parliament. After the elections in 1996, the party's share was reduced to just three seats.
Jamat isn't just unpopular in Bangladesh--it's loathed. The party sided with Pakistan during Bangladesh's 1971 War of Liberation, and many of its members aided the Pakistani army in conducting genocide. After independence, the dictators Zia and Ershad rehabilitated these war criminals rather than bringing them to justice.
|What cornered mullah doesn't love to be able to issue a fatwa against perceived blasphemy?|
Once elections restored democracy to Bangladesh in 1991, a popular movement to bring the war criminals to justice gained momentum, culminating in a staged "public trial" that was attended by well over 100,000 people. This demonstration didn't translate into any kind of legal action, but the astonishing public gesture, combined with the continuing support of the liberal press, damaged the Jamat irreparably.
In this atmosphere, Nasrin's statement that the Qur'an should be revised came to Jamat as a blessing. What cornered mullah doesn't love to be able to issue a fatwa against perceived blasphemy?
By most Western accounts, Nasrin's words were, as a writer for The New Yorker put it, "like the pronouncements of someone who has dropped in from Mars." In reality, many of Nasrin's early writings appeared in the progressive weekly Khaborer Kagoj, within whose pages she had plenty of company. (Full disclosure: Khaborer Kagoj is owned by my family.) The linguist Ahmed Sharif and the poets Humayun Azad and Farhad Nazhar are among those who have contributed to the magazine and have been targets of fundamentalists.
Nasrin did not drop from Mars. She belonged very much to a culture brimming with progressive aspirations. The Western reluctance to acknowledge this homegrown liberalism only plays into the hands of the fundamentalists, who would like more than anything to nullify the progressives' existence.
And they found what they were looking for: a local replication of the Rushdie affair. Most of them were content to leave with that caricature. Missing in the process was a more complex contest between the liberals and the fanatics.
The existence of such a contest makes Bangladesh no different from most other countries. The Christian right in the United States has the same kind of sway as the Jamat does in Bangladesh. If the rituals of public protest or state mechanisms to control them are different, that's because the two countries have different histories of development. Should death threats by some fanatics allow anyone to tar an entire nation with a fundamentalist brush? If so, how should the United States be described the next time someone is killed for performing an abortion?
|The Nasrin affair offers the West an opportunity to assert a difference between "us" and "them." And assertions of difference are precisely where cultural identities come from.|
Westerners' tendency to choose only an individual, like Rushdie or Nasrin, as an ally, when they could have a collective on their side is misguided. Or perhaps it makes perfect sense, because it's not at all clear that the West inserts itself innocently in battles between blasphemers and believers. Sure, the West wants to protect free speech, but that may not be its only or even its main purpose. What the Nasrin affair offers the West is an opportunity to assert a difference between itself and other, mainly Muslim, cultures--between "us" and "them." The pleasure of assertions of difference is neither small nor incidental. Assertions of difference are precisely where cultural identities come from.
Western interest in upholding liberal values in other parts of the world may be more superficial than the West itself likes to think. Where was the Western press last year when Nasrin's latest book, "Amar Meyebela," was banned in Bangladesh? Were they missing because this time the ban wasn't accompanied by a fatwa or by the spectacle of bearded multitudes marching in the streets of Dhaka? (And when Hindu fundamentalists gained power in neighboring India, the West didn't make a big deal about it--the stigma of fundamentalism doesn't stick to India with the same tenacity that it does to predominantly Muslim Bangladesh.)
Nasrin was the most publicized, but not necessarily the most significant, episode in what for Bangladeshis is a long battle. Whether the West cares to know it or not, the fight goes on, with gains and setbacks on both sides. How it will finally resolve itself is anybody's guess, but the chances of Bangladesh becoming the next Iran or Afghanistan are extremely remote.
This may be disappointing to Westerners bracing themselves for a great clash of civilizations. But thankfully, that's the West's problem, not Bangladesh's.