When governments gag writers

Taslima Nasreen is neither likeable nor easy to support but it is time for moderate Muslims to stand

Taslima Nasreen is in trouble again. The Bangladeshi novelist, essayist and poet, best known for her 1993 novel Lajja and the resultant fatwa issued against her, was recently attacked by audience members at a book launch in Hyderabad, India. The social and political fracas that has ensued has had myriad twists and turns, from Nasreen herself being accused of inciting religious hatred, to those responsible putting a price on her head.

The row over Nasreen asks us pressing questions about the responsibilities of writers and social commentators.

Like many progressive Bangladeshis, I have had mixed feelings about Nasreen. I cringed when, in the wake of the fatwa, the western media dubbed her the "best Bengali writer since Rabindranath Tagore" or "the female Salman Rushdie". Rather than resisting these overblown comparisons, Nasreen has seemingly preferred the role of diva to that of social critic. Her politics appear to stem almost entirely from a sense of her own victimhood. Thus, because she was the victim of religious hatred, she hates religion. She was exiled from Bangladesh, and therefore claims there is no freedom of expression in Bangladesh. She is a feminist, and therefore argues that there is no effective feminist movement in Bangladesh and that it is simply a country in which "murders are rampant, women are being raped . . . [and] are committing suicide".

As a Bangladeshi citizen, as an activist and as a feminist, I have real stakes in resisting Nasreen's trite and reactionary politics. She argues for the complete abolition of religion - Islam in particular - without recognising the historical and social importance of faith, or the risks she takes in adopting a stance that can easily be adopted by anti-Islamic rhetoric the world over. We know that this sort of stereotyping has grave consequences in the current global political climate. Her views on Bangladeshi society are ahistorical and do nothing to index the struggles of the feminist movement, which has campaigned for more than three decades to challenge social and legal strictures on freedoms for women.

Because her books have been banned in Bangladesh, she refuses to acknowledge the valiant struggle against censorship that has been waged by journalists, writers and academics. Her radicalism appears often to be uttered for its own sake, making her a caricature of the dissident - all protest and no programme, more interested in scandal than radical change.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that, despite having spent more than a decade in exile and suffered countless threats upon her life, Nasreen has continued to campaign against religious extremism, bigotry and patriarchy. We must applaud her tenacity and courage. She has also brought to light two painful truths about Bangladeshi society: discrimination against the Hindu minority, and the abuse and rape of adolescent girls in extended families, which she detailed in her 1999 memoir Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood). Finally, and most importantly, she has been exiled from her country and denied citizenship for her writing. As a writer, I can only adamantly oppose the idea that citizenship is conditional upon our making good with those who would silence us. The Bangladeshi courts have used Nasreen as a scapegoat, claiming that her writing "disrupts religious unity". It is easier to blame a book than a society.

In the meantime, the Nasreen question has also become relevant in India. Eager to capitalise on the anti-Taslima sentiment, the Hyderabad police have decided to charge her with "creating religious tensions" (sound familiar?), in an attempt to demonstrate its sensitivity to the large Muslim minority in the region. This charge has in turn caused a group of Indian citizens to protest, in a joint statement: "The deafening silence on these physical assaults from those who are the arbiters of citizenship points in only one direction - that the values that we had associated with Indian citizenship are being shamelessly subordinated to the arithmetic of electoral politics." Even in India, Nasreen is a symbol of competing claims on citizenship.

Taslima Nasreen is neither likeable nor easy to support. But it is time for moderate Muslims to stand behind her. Not because we agree with what she says, but because we adamantly disagree with what her detractors stand for: the absolute silencing of anyone who dares to speak out against them.

Tahmima Anam is author of "A Golden Age" (John Murray, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?