On June 13, 2015, famed author-feminist Taslima Nasrin, a senior editor of Free Inquiry, made an unscheduled appearance at the Center for Inquiry’s “Reason for Change” conference in Amherst, New York. She was there because CFI had just played a pivotal role in bringing her to the United States from India, where she had faced death threats from al-Qaeda. Amid heavy security, she was interviewed by Lindsay Beyerstein, cohost of the CFI podcast Point of Inquiry. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.—Eds.
Lindsay Beyerstein: Can you talk about how you came to secularism within a very religious society?
Taslima Nasrin: I do not think I ever believed in religion. I was a curious child. I always questioned. My mother was religious. She forced me to read the Qur’an in Arabic. As we are Bengali, we do not understand Arabic, so I didn’t know the meaning of the Arabic language that we read.
Beyerstein: So you were sounding out the script? You could say the words but not understand the meaning?
Nasrin: That’s right. One day I asked my mother, “What is the meaning of the verses?” My mother told me that I did not need to know the meaning of the verses; if I read the Qur’an in Arabic, Allah will be happy. But I was not happy. I wanted to know the meaning of the verses. So my mother asked me, pray the namaz [one of Islam’s five daily prayers] in Arabic. I asked my mother, what if I pray in Bengali? She was furious: “Everybody always knows you should pray in Arabic.” Then I told my mother, “Look, you told me that Allah knows everything. Doesn’t Allah know Bengali?”
Beyerstein: Did anyone tell you any kind of rough outline of what you were praying for? Happiness or health?
Nasrin: No, I was just told to recite the verses. My mother told me, “If you say anything bad about Allah, your tongue will fall off.” I was very scared. But also I was a curious girl, so I went to the bathroom and closed the door and I said, “Allah is a son of a bitch. Allah is a son of a dog. Allah is a son of a pig.” And I waited for one minute, two minutes, five minutes . . . I was scared my tongue would fall off. But nothing happened. So I thought my mother was wrong. Later, when I was eleven or twelve years old, I read the Bengali translation of the Qur’an. I found great numbers of injustices and inequalities in the Qur’an. So I stopped believing in Islam. I shouldn’t say I stopped believing; actually, I probably never believed in Islam. But I thought maybe the Qur’an said good things about people. No; then I realized that actually the Qur’an is a very bad book. When I studied other religions, I found they oppressed women too. There are lots of inequalities and injustices in other religions.
Beyerstein: What were some of the things that jumped out at you as being oppressive?
Nasrin: The Qur’an says that men are superior to women because men earn money. So what about women earning money? Nothing is said about that. But the Qur’an also says that if wives are disobedient, men can beat them. And men can have four wives, but women are not allowed to divorce their husbands. And women are not allowed to inherit their parents’ property equally with their brothers. So there are many injustices against women.
Beyerstein: When you started learning these things, did you keep these thoughts to yourself or did you start sharing them with other people?
Nasrin: I was a very shy girl. I could not share—but I could write.
Beyerstein: It’s hard to believe that you were shy.
Nasrin: I was not at all shy in my writing. So I started writing—but not about Islam, not at first. When I was thirteen years old, I started writing poetry; I was published in different literary magazines. I even edited a literary magazine when I was seventeen years old. While I studied medicine, I didn’t have time to continue publishing my literary magazine. After I became a doctor, I wrote poetry again. My poetry book was published, and then my other books—books of essays and short stories and novels—were published. I wrote forty books of poetry, essays, and fiction and seven books of autobiography.
Beyerstein: Was it unusual for a woman of your age to be trained as a doctor?
Nasrin: In Bangladesh, more men than women attended medical college. So it was unusual but not hugely uncommon. There were middle-class and wealthy women studying medicine. When I was a student, the other girl students didn’t wear burka or hijab. But now, more than twenty-five years later, all of my classmates who became women doctors are very famous doctors. Some practice in Bangladesh, others in Europe, the United States, Canada, or also Australia. But I was surprised to see that they are all veiled now.
Beyerstein: With the full face cover?
Nasrin: No, they wear the scarf. It is the new students at Bangladeshi medical colleges who wear full hijab. Students attending medical colleges or engineering colleges, students studying science—they are surprisingly and unfortunately very religious. They wear burkas and hijab. I’m very sad when I see it. It’s because of the Islamization that started in Bangladesh during the mid-eighties. So even the science students are very religious. Also, some of the terrorists who support killing atheist bloggers are engineers. Some of the suspects accused of killing the very famous atheist blogger Avijit Roy were engineers. This is very strange. There are more atheists, secular atheists, and humanists we have seen in Bangladesh whose backgrounds are not in science but the arts. What makes science students become religious fundamentalists?
Beyerstein: Do you think maybe it’s because the science education they’re getting isn’t giving them some sort of grounding in other meanings, other ways of thinking about the meaning of life, and that they’re grabbing onto something else?
Nasrin: I think that students who become doctors and engineers in Bangladesh study science because they want to get good jobs, yet they really do not have scientific outlooks.
Beyerstein: When did you first become aware of the level of Islamization in Bangladesh? Do you remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, things are really changing,” as you were living it in the eighties?
Nasrin: I started writing for newspapers as well as writing books. I was at that time working as a medical doctor in a public hospital in Bangladesh. In the beginning of the nineties, Islamic fundamentalists issued fatwas against me. They set a price on my head. And then hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists came to the streets demanding my execution by hanging.
Beyerstein: There were hundreds of thousands of people in the street?
Nasrin: Yes, there were four hundred thousand. They paralyzed the country. Hospitals, schools, colleges . . . everything closed.
Beyerstein: So you were public enemy number one.
Nasrin: I was. One day, I was going to my medical college hospital. I didn’t have a car at that time; I took a rickshaw. I was going to work and fifty thousand people came from the opposite side of the street demanding that I be hanged. The rickshaw puller just stopped, so I asked him to turn a little bit sideways so they could not see my face.
Beyerstein: They did not realize it was you?
Nasrin: If they had recognized me, they would have killed me right away. So I lived that day. But still I did not want to leave the country. Later, the government filed a case against me on charges of blasphemy. An arrest warrant was issued; police were looking for me. So I thought OK, they will arrest me. What is the problem? I wanted to face the charges, but my lawyer told me, “You must go into hiding. Religious feelings are very dangerous. The police would kill you. Or if you make it into in prison, maybe the prisoners would kill you. It is better that you go into hiding.” I was in hiding for two months in 1994. Then I made bail, and human rights organizations in the West tried to save me. I was saved—but that meant being torn out of my country.
Beyerstein: How did you feel about this way out?
Nasrin: I actually was not happy to leave the country. It was a battlefield, and I was fighting. It was a kind of challenge. But I had to save my life. So I came to Sweden. I wanted to go back to Bangladesh afterward, but it was impossible; the government prevented me. When my father was on his deathbed, I begged the government to let me into the country, just for a few days. I wanted to be with my father in his last days. The government of Bangladesh didn’t allow me to enter the country, and my father died. He so badly wanted to see me before he died.
It has been twenty-one years now that I am not allowed to enter my country. The government doesn’t do it to save my life, for my security, but for their own security—because they think that if they allow an atheist to enter the country, they will be considered atheist sympathizers, and they won’t get votes from the ignorant religious masses.
Beyerstein: Can you tell us about the escalation of threats that led you to come to the United States in 2015?
Nasrin: That story begins around the turn of the twenty-first century. I was living in Europe, as you know. Since Bangladesh wouldn’t let me return, I decided to go to India. It’s a neighboring country, and also India has a state, West Bengal, where I could live in a Bengali environment. I have many Bengali friends there.
At first I was not allowed to enter India; then I could only visit. Finally the Indian government allowed me to live in India. I moved to West Bengal in 2005. After an interval, the West Bengali government used me for their political interests. I was labeled as being anti-Islam, though I criticize all religions. But Muslim fundamentalists labeled me as anti-Islam. At that point, West Bengal’s government threw me out of West Bengal. They did it to get votes from the West Bengal’s Muslims, who make up 25 percent of the state’s population.
Beyerstein: So they were demagoguing your case and saying, “Oh yes, we’re really sticking up for the faith by kicking her out.”
Nasrin: Yes. Then I was put under house arrest in Delhi by the Indian government.
Beyerstein: How can they put you under house arrest? I mean, India’s a democracy. How are they allowed to do that?
Nasrin: They put me under house arrest, but they told the world that I was in a “safe house.” It was no safe house; I would call it an “unsafe house.” Eventually, they told me to leave the country. They asked me, “What do you want? We will give you as much money as you want. We will give you an apartment in Europe. We will give you a furnished apartment, a car. But leave India.” Because they were really afraid of me. Yet there are many secular people in India and also feminists and humanists, and they wanted me to stay in India.
Recently, however, a Bangladeshi newspaper published a story quoting a police report that al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent planned to kill me in Delhi. The story said al-Qaeda had sent two or three sleeper cells. In each sleeper cell there are three or four killers (they are trained as killers) and one sleeper cell does not know about the other sleeper cells.
Beyerstein: And they just kind of live their lives and work their jobs until they get the order to go after somebody?
Nasrin: Yes. But I did not want to leave. I could leave at any time—I am a European citizen, and I hold a U.S. green card. Still, I wanted to live in India; with Bangladesh closed to me, it’s the only place I could live on the subcontinent. All my readers are there, because I write in Bengali and my books are published in many different Indian languages. Additionally, women are oppressed in India. It’s a very misogynistic patriarchal society. If I stayed I could encourage women to fight for their rights and freedoms. I could encourage both men and women to become secularists and humanists. Many, many women have become secularists, feminists, and humanists after reading my books. Many of the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh also have been influenced by me. They were really young when I was living in Bangladesh and fighting against religious fundamentalists and misogynists, and they learned from my example. It gives me some satisfaction that I have actually helped to create many socially conscious people.
If I stayed in India, by writing books, writing newspaper columns, and making speeches I could influence people. But after that news that assassins were coming to kill me, I found that I couldn’t sleep. When I went out I was always thinking that somebody would be coming to hack me to death. Even though I had police protection in India, I was not very sure the officers could protect me. Finally, I decided that it was better that I should move to a safe place and from there continue my writing. Because if I’m dead in India, what is the use? So it is better that I live in a safe place and continue writing and fighting against religious fundamentalism, misogyny, and the patriarchal system.
Transcribed by Nicole Scott.