India Could Take Some Lessons in Secularism from Egypt

A fiery Egyptian writer did not have to meet the same fate as Taslima Nasreen did in India, writes Aditi Bhaduri. 

Updated02 Jul 2015, 05:54 AM IST
4 min read
India Could Take Some Lessons in Secularism from Egypt

Two apparently unrelated events occurred recently – one in Delhi and the other in Cairo.

A few weeks ago, controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen left Delhi, where she had been living since 2008, for the US for ‘security reasons’. No stranger to either controversy or threats, this is not the first time Taslima had to leave a home she had made in India. In 2008, she was rudely hustled out of then Left-ruled West Bengal to Delhi because a mob caused chaos in Kolkata demanding that she leave the city as her work was offensive for Muslims.

The central government, which had earlier extended refuge to Taslima, hounded out from Bangladesh for blasphemy, meekly succumbed, preferring to pull her out of Kolkata to Delhi. No one knows what the immediate cause for offence was then. At that time, Taslima had refused to respond. Though she took calls, she refused to speak a word to this writer. Clearly, she was shaken. She offered and publishers removed passages deemed offensive to Muslims. Civil society, women rights activists and the Centre stood by mutely. She later called it a “staged riot”.

Her current departure to the US comes in the backdrop of a similar of situation. There has been no immediate offence, no new novel published, no new childhood or adolescent memoir penned. But recently, a Bangladeshi newspaper published a police report that an extremist organisation found responsible for killing “atheist” bloggers there planned to kill her in India. That disturbed her, and after consultations with friends, she decided to move to the US. But she did go on record saying that if she had had an assurance from the government, she would not have left India.

View From Cairo

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (Photo: AP)
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (Photo: AP)

Let’s now move westward. The view from Cairo is quite different. Soon after Taslima’s departure from India an Egyptian court upheld the death sentence for Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian president, who headed the country’s first government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling comes after the court consulted with no other than Egypt’s grand mufti.

Egypt is where the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned numerous Islamist movements across the globe, was born. It is the same ideology that has been driving the attack against Bangladeshi bloggers and threatens Taslima. While Cairo was the seat of the Muslim Brotherhood government which was unseated and its ideologues punished, it is also the place where a person who has greatly impacted Taslima’s work and activism, lives.

Nawal Saadawi, now in her 80s, like Taslima, is a medical doctor and writer, who has written prolifically about women and their bodies, spoken out against orthodoxy and religious fundamentalism. Like Taslima, Nawal has not had it easy. She has been threatened, hounded, imprisoned, forced into exile, made to divorce her husband by the orthodox clergy and lost the security of a government job.

Like the firebrand Taslima, she has remained unfazed and undeterred, continuing writing and advocating. If female genital mutilation began to be acknowledged and recognised as a crime against women in Egypt, it was to a large measure thanks to Nawal, who has known the agony of FGM herself.

Yet, Nawal can continue to live on in Cairo. (She even ran for presidency in 2005.) But Taslima has had to move from one city to the other in secular India, often not even knowing if her visa would be renewed, leave alone granted citizenship that she has requested, and even on occasions faced physical attacks.

As the recent ruling on Morsi demonstrates, Egypt is serious about its battle against Islamism. The sentence handed down to Morsi may appear extreme to many. Sure, Egypt’s war on the Brotherhood is a bit extreme. Yet, it has had the effect of dismantling the organisation.

Lessons For India

Taslima Nasreen. (Photo courtesy:  <a href="">Twitter.Com)</a>
Taslima Nasreen. (Photo courtesy: Twitter.Com)

India, on the other hand, with its relatively privileged position as a functioning democracy, a plural society and a largely peaceful and syncretic Muslim community, seems to be lagging behind.

This is seen not only in Taslima’s case, but a host of other instances: the scuttling of Salman Rushdie’s video conference at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2013, the huge pro-Jamaat rallies held in Kolkata two years ago to protest Bangladesh’s war crimes trials and the Shahbagh movement, the Ghaibana-Namaz-e-Janaza, held openly for the terrorists who opened fire at the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris earlier this year, and the continuing total boycott by the Urdu media of a former editor because she had dared to publish the cover page of Charlie Hebdo.

While shunning the extremities, India may wish to take a lesson or two from Egypt.

(The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.)

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Published: 01 Jul 2015, 11:32 AM IST

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