Taslima Nasreen's Campaign Endangers Other Reformers

WHEN I knew Taslima Nasreen, she was a human being, not a media phenomenon. But even then, from 1989 to 1991 when I was a Fulbright research fellow in Bangladesh translating the work of Bengali women poets and writers, it was clear she was moving toward fame - and infamy. She had an uncanny knack for pushing people's buttons, for launching direct attacks in her newspaper columns against named, or easily recognizable, individuals - especially men whose acts she viewed as chauvinistic or misogynistic. Ms. Nasreen was also controversial because she tended to snub other women and denigrate the efforts of her fellow women writers and activists. These actions did not win her friends among Bangladeshi intellectuals. It occurred to me even then that such provocative tactics could land her in trouble if she ever became a public figure.

But no one foresaw the death threats from Islamic militants - not from tolerant and easygoing Bengalis, with their love of poetry and song and high-spirited intellectual discourse. Not in a country like Bangladesh, which even amid its poverty, overpopulation, disastrous floods and cyclones, and political upheavals is full of people who treasure fairness, justice, and human decency. Bengali is a language with a literary history as long as that of English, and there have been many courageous poets and writers who have risked their lives to express dangerous ideas.

Among the 20th-century Bengali women whose works I have translated are Mahasweta Devi and Kabita Sinha of West Bengal and Jahanara Imam and Sufia Kamal of Bangladesh. For four decades, Mahasweta Devi has attacked political violence and corruption and defended the rights of India's dispossessed tribal peoples; during the 1950s, Kabita Sinha was writing about women's oppression in a rebellious feminist spirit before the movement was even born. The late Jahanara Imam lost her husband and freedom-fighter son in Bangladesh's 1971 liberation war and risked her life in resistance work. The 83-year-old Sufia Kamal has written and performed social work on behalf of women for seven decades.

It is common knowledge in Bangladesh that such writers and social activists are on fundamentalists' death lists, but none of them has faxed the Western media at the first hint of danger. Nasreen is not the first and not the only voice of conscience in Bengali or in Bangladesh, but she is the most confrontational - and the most media-savvy.

When I knew her, Nasreen was a mild-mannered poet-physician, the independent-minded daughter of a traditional small-town Muslim family. Her public persona was a journalistic tigress who savaged her human targets with her pen with little thought for the consequences. She had no fear of fatwas (religious decisions).

Nasreen's international public life began in 1992, when she won West Bengal's highest literary award for a collection of her newspaper columns. The book made her famous among Bengali speakers worldwide.

But after Nasreen attacked her country's Muslim extremists last year in her novel, ``Lajja/Shame'' (named in emulation of Salman Rushdie's novel of the same title), she received her first death threat from an obscure Bangladeshi Islamic group. The Bangladesh government already had confiscated her passport for traveling under a false identity. Although the death threat was not considered serious by many intellectuals in Bangladesh - some of whom had received such threats themselves in the past - Nasreen applied for and received government police protection. She also appealed via fax and phone to Western media and human rights groups, who made her case a cause cbre.

In late April, after months of international pressure, the Bangladesh government issued Nasreen a new passport. She traveled to Calcutta, where she gave an interview to The Statesman, in which she reportedly declared that ``the Koran should be revised thoroughly.'' The resulting fundamentalist fury and renewed death threats, along with the June 4 arrest order from the Bangladesh government, put her life in real danger.

Charged under an archaic colonial-era law with offending Islam, Nasreen went into hiding for two months while the nation exploded into rioting. Militants demanded her execution, liberals resisted religious extremism, and the Bangladesh government's grip on civil order weakened. On Aug. 3, one day before the expiration of her arrest warrant would have rendered her a fugitive, Nasreen appeared before the Dhaka High Court, her head covered in traditional Muslim fashion with a scarf. She was granted bail with freedom to travel and flew to refuge in Sweden on Aug. 9, as a guest of the Swedish PEN writers' organization. After some recovery from her ordeals, she will meet the press and begin to fulfill long-standing invitations on the international celebrity writers' circuit, a symbol of the perils of free speech in a polarized world.

Unlike Mr. Rushdie, though, Nasreen is not under an international, and irrevocable, fundamentalist death sentence. The government of Iran, already suffering worldwide censure for the fatwa against one writer, has been deafeningly silent about this latest case. Whereas Rushdie tried to calm the ayatollahs' fury and initiate dialogue with his persecutors, Nasreen took ever-more-confrontational stances in the months before she went underground. At times, Nasreen has appeared to taunt her enemies, smoking a cigarette while handling the Koran in a BBC television feature. Such actions increased her visibility as a target for terrorists and a symbol useful to both sides of the controversy.

Now that Nasreen is free in the West, the still-quite-localized fury against her may die down, as had happened by the time she gave that explosive interview in Calcutta in May. But even in normally moderate Bangladesh, the fundamentalist backlash continues to engulf liberal-minded people at the grass-roots level: women's rights activists, social workers in the slums, village development workers, journalists who cover Nasreen's story, and other writers and translators. How many of them will have to abandon their low-profile progressive efforts and seek protection?

It is difficult to sound a cautionary note about an embattled symbol of free speech. But it is also important to understand that this is not a simple black-and-white issue and that the heroine is human.

In the outspoken expression of her beliefs, Nasreen has jeopardized not only her life but the lives of many people of conscience. She has faced the consequences of some brave and some reckless words. But the problem is that many other people still in Bangladesh are also facing those consequences with her. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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