Guardians of unequal freedoms
[In August of 1994, I wrote in the Arab News] on the controversy in Bangladesh concerning the writer Tasleema Nasreen. She is alleged to have written a defamatory book which has provoked the anger of Bangladeshis because it questioned some basic tenets of Islam.
The brouhaha in Bangladesh, it seems, caught the attention of certain Western countries, notably Sweden, whose Prime Minister Carl Bildt was asked by Nasreen for sanctuary in 'beautiful' Sweden.
It seems Mr. Carl Bildt was concerned about her plight and asked his Bangladeshi counterpart to let Nasreen leave the country.
But apparently that was not the end of the issue. Nasreen left the country after having secured an invitation from the Swedish PEN Club to come and "rest and work" in Sweden. The Swedish government has "blessed this flight to freedom."
But most amazing and even disturbing was the level of welcome accorded to this woman on her arrival at Stockholm. The Swedish Foreign Minister Margaretha of Ugglas was herself at the airport to meet Nasreen.
Her arrival in Stockholm was front page news in 'Times'. A picture in another paper, 'The Independent', had a caption "Mullahs have put a price on her head".
And of course the press had a field day attacking "Muslim fundamentalists" and their "narrow mindedness".
A few days after her 'rest' in Stockholm, she was awarded the prestigious Kurt Tucholsky literary prize and the Swedish Culture Minister Birgitt Friggebo who, I'm sure, has no idea who Tasleema is or has even read her book was to award her the prize. Apparently, the Swedes are falling over each other to help poor Tasleema Nasreen who it seems would like to write her memoirs and put into words "the agonies I suffered during those terrible days in hiding."
'Poor' Nasreen is to visit Oslo next month where the Norwegian government will also host her and of course she will "win" a prestigious literary prize!! Maybe she is to become the Naguib Mahfooz of Bangladesh!!
However, the question arises as to why all this attention on this woman?
At the same time the press are also having a grand 'time' applying the word 'fundamentalist' on the North Africans living in France.
Day in and out we read of the 'threat of fundamentalist' terror, 'Muslim terror', 'Islamic backlash' and a juxtaposition of words to describe the campaign waged by the French Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua.
Innocent people have been picked up and questioned. Scores have been held for deportation many of whom are legally qualified to stay in France. Take the case of Ali Zaitouni who by any stretch of imagination cannot even be described as a moderate Muslim let alone a fundamentalist. He was dragged for deportation and rescued only by the timely arrival of his Catholic wife, Martine who was herself clearly not amused to hear police describe her husband as a dangerous Islamic activist!!
Others were not so lucky.
Even the dramatic arrest of "the much wanted terrorist Carlos Jackal" has failed to dampen the media's spotlight on the 'dangers' posed by 'fundamentalist' Muslims.
'The Times' highlights a 'jihad' against Moscow by little Chechenia, a 'breakaway' republic in the Caucasus.
Now with all the diatribe and venom emanating from such respectable newspapers what would you expect the ordinary Westerner to do? He hears and reads of a 'poor and frail' writer threatened with death by "mobs and hordes" of fundamentalists. He listens to the radio and hears about 'fundamentalist' plans to take over Europe or to 'destroy' it. He hears of yearning by certain groups to a return to the former glories of Islam.
Of course he or she will be alarmed.
Stoking such fire in the hearts and minds of the average man in the streets of Brussels, Paris and London is literally playing with fire.
Ever since the collapse of communism and the East European bloc there have been mutterings about the 'Islamic threat'.
The most dangerous aspect of all this is the frequent publishing of commentaries in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries about how Islam is beginning to replace Soviet communism as the enemy of western civilization. The 'Red Menace' seems to have disappeared and a new monster has appeared on the horizon.
Islam is perceived as a religion committed to despising infidels, patronizing terrorism and on a continuos jihad against the Western establishment.
It is unfortunate that certain acts by a tiny minority are magnified and reported as representing the Muslim world.
Then, of course, there are those who are constantly implying that Muslims in Britain and Europe are a threat to democratic traditions!!
When ordinary Europeans are subjected to such heavy doses of anti- Islam venom it is only rational that they will feel alarmed.
But who is to blame for all this? Is it the Muslims themselves or is it the media?
While not absolving some Muslims of blame (and these are a very small minority led by demagogues who are calling for 'Muslim Parliaments' and what not) I strongly believe that the onus lies squarely on Western establishments themselves.
It is confirmed by the acts of those self-appointed guardians of public expression. These are the same guardians who have signed the declaration that anyone denying or even questioning the 'holocaust' should be charged criminally and punished.
In Canada, an academic who, while not doubting this act but only questioning the accuracy of the figures, was dismissed.
In Germany, again a professor who wanted to probe and verify the figure was banished from his place of work.
What did the advocates of free speech do? They just kept quiet.
The application of different standards of press freedom and indiscriminate denunciation of anyone questioning these so-called 'myths' leaves many of us bored and cold.
It also makes us laugh. In fact officials of the Swedish ministry went scouring around the country trying to find a typewriter with the Bengali alphabet for poor Taslima!!
Why all this provocation? Taslima Nasrin is by any standard a third- rate writer. Have these gullible people, including the Swedish foreign minister, not thought that this drama may be at her own instigation? She may want to escape the guiding poverty and obtain a free passage to Europe and the States. She may even become a female Salman Rushdie. She'll get a chance to address literary clubs, publish her book in America and even be invited to the White House by the Clintons!!
Many have asked me what purpose it served the Swedish foreign minister and its government and their neighbor Norway to have received this woman at the airport.
Is it not a deliberate act of provocation against Muslims? Why did these governments not ask for the release of Palestinian intellectuals languishing in Israeli jails? Why are they not asking that Human Rights Commission to go to Kashmir and check into alleged atrocities? Why, why and why?
Why associate the word 'Muslim' or 'fundamentalist' if some little known obscurantist levels a threat.
We are of course living in an age of violence. An Israeli gunman kills sixty five worshippers in Hebron. No newspaper in the West said he was Jewish. He was of course described as 'deranged'.
Colombian Soccer star Pablo Escobar was killed upon his return home. Did any news agency say he was killed by Catholic gunman? David Koresh who burned himself and tens of others was described as a 'nut' although he claimed he was a priest. Nobody said Christians fired at the FBI in Waco.
It is unfortunate that we do not have access to the Western media so that a correct portrayal of our news and views can take place. It is more disturbing that many media people who come here do tend largely to ignore the positive aspects of our culture and civilization and focus on the negative character of morally decadent minority groups.
Many Muslims, including myself, are somewhat skeptical of the 'holier than thou' pronouncements of the Western world.
While quick to denigrate us and describe us as a backward and reactionary civilization, they continue to profit from the material resources of the Muslim world.
Is this not hypocrisy? Does attacking pornography, racism, the breakdown of the family and upholding morality constitute fundamentalism? If it does, then many Christians should also be described as such because they are striving to achieve the same goals.
We should all realize that the world is facing threats all of which are man-made. Instead of provoking others and judging them by their own yardsticks and labeling them with choice words, the West should initiate a dialogue of understanding and tolerance so that the threats and prejudices that are perceived ebb away.
Some analysts are predicting the next great global war: Islam versus the West. Only understanding, only mutual understanding, can prevent this.