The question that faces West Bengal, a state in eastern India , appears to be whether a Bangladeshi author named Taslima Nasreen should be allowed to stay. The recent news is that “a minority fringe group” has demanded that Taslima be deported.
The answer is absolutely clear to me: she may stay or go depending on what the law of the land says. Rule of law is something that I consider non-negotiable. So the deeper question is whether India at large, and West Bengal more specifically, is a nation that is governed by laws? Or is it that those who carry the largest sticks, those who can inflict punishment on the nation can dictate what the rules should be?
The more fundamental question is who makes the laws. In a strict sense, ultimately people decide what the law should be under which they will govern themselves. This is true generally and universally, I think. It is a “revealed preference” argument – the people explicitly or implicitly agree to be governed by the laws. For if it were not generally acceptable by the people, there would be mass disobedience and the law will not apply in fact. That certain people persist over long periods of time, often centuries, to allow themselves to be subject to certain laws is sufficient reason for concluding that that is what they want.
The laws of the land therefore reflect the distilled wisdom of the people of the land. If for some reason they have evolved a good set, they prosper; if the set is flawed, they suffer. I make this argument partly to shield myself from the distress I feel when I hear of the horrors that people commit around the world which are based on the law of the land.
Taslima, as a Muslim, is guilty of criticizing Islam and its holy book the Koran. She is guilty of pointing out that women are treated unfairly in Islam. The law of her land, the Islamic state of Bangladesh, finds her guilty. Moreover, her compatriots would murder her for what she believes in, has spoken and written about. That is the law of that land and there is nothing much one can do about it. That is the law and it is non-negotiable.
Recently, a case in Saudi Arabia attracted some attention. A woman was gang-raped 14 times. Her attackers were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging up to five years; she was sentenced to six months in jail and 100 lashes for being in a car with an un-related male when the attack happened. Her lawyer appealed her sentence, but the judges increased her punishment to 200 lashes.
Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia, the Islamic law, which requires segregation of the sexes. It must be that the Saudi courts do understand Sharia and can rule competently that the woman who was gang-raped does deserve to be punished for violating the Islamic law.
I am all for Sharia for Islamic countries. What I am against is Sharia being imposed on India now. If the people feel that Sharia should be the law of the land for India, then so be it. But India is not yet an Islamic state. Imposing Sharia by threat of violence should not be tolerated. More specifically, in this case, just because someone’s religious feelings are hurt by some author’s writings, it is not sufficient reason for killing the author.
Freedom of expression is something that some people grant to themselves, and some don’t. The people of the developed nations grant themselves that freedom. A case can be made that development is in a sense an outcome of that freedom. Support for it is provided by noting the strong correlation between how free a society is and how prosperous it is. Societies that forbid freedom of expression are insecure, cowering, fearful, and cowardly.
Taslima Nasreen is not alone in being the object of fearful cowardly people threatening her with violence and death. Another women, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, faces the same. She wrote the script of a documentary called “Submission“. The producer of that documentary, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam and a note pinned to his chest with a knife threatening Ayaan. She went into hiding and then had to leave the Netherlands because of the constant danger to her life.
Here’s her story, as she related it at a recent conference. It is a story of uncommon courage. It is hard not to be moved by her story.
The following question/answer session is below:
[Here is the Google video of the same presentation. It can be downloaded.]
I will be back with part 2 soon. But let me record here a bit of personal family history. My ancestors lived in what is today Bangladesh. About 100 years ago, the province of Bengal was partitioned. My grandfather was then a young boy. His family had to leave all their possessions and flee the land which had been their home for centuries to the western part of the state because the choice was stark: either convert to Islam or be killed. In a sense, we are displaced people, refugees. We have been made refugees once before due to Islamic intolerance. A few decades after that, India itself was partitioned because a large percentage of Muslims of undivided India could not bear to co-exist with non-Muslims. A bloody partition is in our history. I am not sure that it is the last one, though. It is quite possible that once again we may have to become refugees if Sharia indeed becomes the law in India. I, like my ancestors, would prefer not to live under submission.
 I clarify that the state is in India so as to avoid any confusion, given the context, whether it is a place in India or not.
 Here’s Submission on Youtube: