Suman Turhan (former Muslim)
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I was born in a typical Muslim family in Moulvibazar, Bangladesh. In 1984, the year of my birth, Bangladesh was passing a critical stage of her history. Olive colored darkness spread all over the country and everyone was living under the shadow of a terrible military dictatorship.
As a Muslim boy, I learned the Quran in my early childhood. The local cleric used to come to our house and teach the Quran. I used to recite the verses as he instructed and I managed to finish the entire Quran twice before my 12th birthday. My parents were very religious, practicing Muslims. Although I never felt like, I had to pray regularly to please my father, I can’t recall whether I ever really prayed to please Allah.
This was my childhood, very typical and very ordinary until I turned 15. I was the 1st boy of the Moulvibazar Government High School. My parents loved me, my teachers loved me, and friends admired me because I was a good student.Suddenly though, something changed radically and I fell in love with poetry and books. I started to read all the classical poets, romantics, and modern poets of Bengali literature. I was always a bookworm, but my parents didn't allow me to read anything other than the boring textbooks that mostly contained artless, and lowly language of poetry. Despite my father’s repeated warnings, I started to buy books by the writers that fascinated me - I used my scholarship money. My world of beliefs and traditions began to fall apart.
In Moulvibazar, a tiny bookshop named "Utsarga" (Offering), changed my life significantly. Soumitra Dev, a famous and talented poet of the 1990's was the owner of that shop. During my study during year 8 in Moulvibazar Government High School, I became a frequent visitor to that shop during my lunch break. The shop was close to my school. Not only the personality of Soumitra Dev, but also the books attracted me so much so that I started to skip my classes to spend time with him to discuss poetry, literature, religion and politics etc. Soumitra Dev became my personal guru and I started to dislike my traditional teachers, as they couldn't fulfill my thirst of knowledge. Soumitra became my friend, philosopher and guide.
Since then, I started to write seriously. My poetry and literary criticism started to appear all over the country; even in India. It was too much for a small country town to digest. My parents became worried; they thought I was doing too much for my age. My teachers started to complain about my absence. In the meantime, I was arranging poetry festivals, publishing and editing little magazines and above all, buying and reading more and more books and enriching myself.
I first started to doubt religion when I looked for the answer to a thousand year old question: "where we have come from"? My biology book gave me the answer based on Evolution by Natural Selection - along with significant proofs. However, my Islamic studies textbook told me a completely different story. To find the answer, I started to read Gita, MahaVarat, Ramayana, the Bible and the Quran - all in Bengali. I read the Quran over and over again and couldn’t believe what I was reading. I started to mark the questionable verses and wrote comments beside them. These versus full of hate are being spread and preached every Friday in all corners of my town? I was completely dumbstruck. Initially I thought it was a problem with the translation I was reading, but I collected many different translations of the Quran, and very reputable Islamic scholars have translated some of them. My world of beautiful beliefs turned out to be full of lies, ignorance and hate verses. I started to understand the true nature of Islam.
Where was the God (Whoever he his supposed to be up there) when the Nazi army in death chambers killed millions? Or where was our all-merciful Allah during the 1971 massacre? How can he ignore the cry of millions in Africa today? I realized there is no one up there, and there never was.
I collected books by Araj Ali Matubbar, Probir Gosh, Vobaniprasad Sahu, Joyantanuj, Bertrand Russell, Ahmed Sherif and many other writers. But it was the book “Amar Obishwas” (My Unbelief) by Humayun Azad that gave me true insight about religions and how they evolved. I realized religions are not divine - they were created and proposed by humans, partly because of their ignorance about natural events, but mostly to establish a certain social system and to chain everyone within that system. There is no God or Allah, no one kicked out my ancestors from the garden of heaven. The history of religion is only 5000 years old, but human beings have developed through the passage of millions of years and we, modern humans, are the excellence of evolution and so are the other species. There is no afterlife. Life itself is meaningless, and life is beautiful and precious because it is meaningless. I realized Islam is the preacher of death and thus it is the enemy of life. All those verses in Holy Scriptures are completely absurd; they are the greatest example of our ancestor’s ignorance and they are full of countless lies . Nothing is divine, nothing is everlasting, and everything is meaningless; there is no judgment day, no heaven or hell. But I also realized that we can make our lives meaningful, and we can make ourselves humanly divine’ by practicing humanity and morality. This morality has to come from someone’s instinct and common sense and certainly not from a ‘Holy Book’ proposed by a killer prophet 1400 years ago.
I became addicted to the books of Humayun Azad. I read all of Humayun Azad’s writings in quick succession and it influenced me so heavily that I started to write and talk like him. My prose was so influenced by Dr. Azad that even Soumitra Dev sometimes got confused whether it was my work or Dr. Azad’s. I became a fanatic fan of Dr. Azad and no one ever dared to say anything bad about him in my presence. My very first little magazine ‘Khatrio’ was dedicated to Humayun Azad. We first met when Humayun Azad came to Moulvibazar to inaugurate the ‘Monipuri Ras Purnima’; a yearly tribal festival for commemorating the Radha-Krishna legend. Dr. Azad was surprised when I claimed that I have read all his books at my age. To further his astonishment, I remember telling him: “Sir, your novel ‘Suvhabrata, and gospel was actually based on the life of Muhammad. If you would have used Semitic names for the characters instead of the Indian ones, I am sure you would become world famous like Salman Rushdie.” Humayun Azad admired my ability of understanding metaphor. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Although, it was Soumitra Dev who first lit the candle inside me, it was Humayun Azad who influenced and fascinated me most.
At home, I completely stopped praying, fasting and going to mosques because all these appeared stupid and ridiculous to me. My parents noticed the change. They discovered the books I was reading and couldn’t accept a year 10 student was reading all these. I refused to go to Eid prayer, and my father was so angry that he burned most of my books in the roof. He said I should not see that “Malaun” (Filthy Hindu) librarian again. I didn’t listen to him and I met Soumitra Dev at the very first chance I got. I didn’t realize my father was following me. He verbally insulted Soumitra for ‘spoiling’ me with all those infidels’ books. He also went to Soumitra’s home, complained and insulted his mother and accused her of intentionally driving her son to spoil a ‘Muslim’ student.
This was the most terrible time of my life. I was locked in my home. When I went to school, my father’s spies were always following me. I couldn’t see Soumitra or collect any books for the rest of the year. Later on, we used to avoid the bookshop and meet in secret places.
In 1999, when I was the student in year 10, the headmaster assigned me as the editor of the School Magazine. This offer came to as a welcome relief at that terrible time. I started to collect writings from students and teachers. The Magazine was published. It was the most enriching publication in the history of our school. Then something happened which forever changed my life and my way of thinking; my teachers accused me of blasphemy. It was one of my poems in the magazine that raised questions among them. The poem was:
Januk tara kobi-i holen oditio isshor’(Translation: "Bigots are basically mortal, but a poet is like the God - immortal")
All of my Muslim teachers became very angry. The Hindu teachers remained silent for understandable reasons. The teacher of Islamic Studies - Sahidullah Sir - started to beat me with a cane like a mad person.
In the afternoon all the teachers held a meeting. I was standing quietly in the corner of the room accused of blasphemy. Some teachers said: “You are a shame of this institution; therefore, you should be permanently expelled from the school.” The mullah teacher said, “How could you write something like this? You were born in a Muslim family!” Others said: “You didn’t write the poem; it was the Hindu Soumitra who wrote it for you.” I just said: “If our national poet could write – ‘jagadisshor isshor ami purusuttom sotto’ (“I am the God of this universe, I am the man, I am the truth!”) then why can’t I?” They didn’t accept my logic. The Headmaster said, “You have to buy loads of correction fluid and delete those two lines from the 10,000 copies of the magazine. We will only circulate the copies once you are done. You are not allowed to attend classes until you finish. From now on you will come to school at 10 am and continue with correction until 4pm”. I did so for more than two weeks. For more than two weeks I went to school, sat in the floor of the headmaster’s office and deleted my starry verses with the correction liquid.
After I finished all 10,000 copies, I was allowed to join the class just prior to my test exam. The magazines were circulated all over town. That was the most monumental event of my life. Hundreds of people who admired me for my free speech and cultural activities started to show me support. They scratched and removed the white layer of the correction liquid and read my poem. Local newspapers condemned the school authority for their action. Poet Soumitra Dev wrote his famous poem “Kalo Kobita” (Black Verse) in his book “Bon Porjotok” (Forest wonderer):
But the fanatics at school were not ready for this. The cleric said, “ We do not understand the meaning of your poem. Therefore, O boy, you are guilty of blasphemy!”
Then the White terrorism came down on him. With the help of the correction liquid, He had to wipe out the starry verses he wrote. In the meantime, as none noticed, the boy wiped tears from his eyes.
Surprise! Defeating the barriers of white fluid, those unbeatable verses started to appeareverywhere. And, everyone saw the black minds of the white clad clerics.”
During the farewell ceremony of SSC students I delivered a fiery speech in front of all the teachers. At the end of the ceremony, I refused to join the prayer led by one of the fundamentalist teachers. When everyone stood up to join the prayer I remained seated.
Although this event made me instantly famous, it affected my traditional studies. I was expected to achieve a place on the merit list, but I only managed to get a 76% mark in my SSC exam in the year 2000. Ironically, my first collection of poetry got published by Sarabanjon, Aziz market Dhaka on the very day (11 June 2000) when my SSC results were published. The book was titled “aai pakhir probaha, aai rituboti megh” (This flow of birds, this seasonal cloud). An Islamic organization named ‘ Hilful Fujul Poronjoy’ declared a few freethinkers of the town including Soumitra Dev and me as ‘Nastik-Murtad’ (Apostate-infidel) and demanded exemplary punishment. They pointed out one of the poems from my books:
Mohabissho chirokali kobider proti muhomoi-i
("The stupidity of the religion will never win over us, As the poets are blessed in this universe”)
E metal jane feraun chilo thik
Meyemosader kore ene tai vara
Sinai pahare allahr protirudh
Sob matha noto sudhu ekjon chara
Bidrohi field marshal nomrud.
Solomon ar Judaser moto Dugdho
Pan kore nil, amio korchi ukti
Tomar viruta dekhei hoechi mughdo
Please Allah eibar dao mukti
(“This drunker knows, The Pharaoh was the man!
So Allah hired the female mosquitoes
And faced his enemies in Sinai Mountain
Everyone have collapsed, except one
The field Marshal himself, rebel Nimrod.
I drank just like Solomon and Judas
And I am saying in cool brain
I am sick of your coward ness
For God’s sake, O God, Give us a break!”)
A vicious retaliatory attack was followed by a death threat. A group of young fundamentalists in Motorbike attacked me on a dark night behind the quiet street of Moulvibazar Government College as I was returning home after visiting a friend. The three attackers laid me on the ground and tried to cut a vein in my left hand with a sharp paper-cutting knife (Anti- cutter).I managed to shout out and students from College Boarding ran over to rescue me. The attackers eventually fled and the rescuers took me to their hostel and gave me first aid. No serious damage was done. I am still not sure why they attacked my left hand first, as I am right-handed writer. However, The marks in my left hand are still visible.
After the incident, I realized that it is not safe for me to stay in the town. Since passing the SSC, I was thinking about going to India for HSC, as I disliked Dhaka and didn’t want to go there. I got admitted in St. Edmund’s College in Shillong, India. Even in Shillong, Bangladeshi students beat me at my hostel for calling Muhammad a ‘liar’. They beat me with chairs and cricket stumps. I didn’t share this horrifying experience with anyone except Dilip Lahiri; my Bengali teacher at St. Edmund’s College. However I managed to pass my HSC in 2002 and in 2003 I came to Australia. Last year I went to Bangladesh in order to marry my childhood sweetheart - a girl from Kushtia. She eloped with me and we eventually got married on the 5th of December, 2005. Our parents didn’t accept our union for no apparent reason. (I Probably shouldn’t have told them that I didn’t recite those meaningless Arabic verses during my marriage!).
Life is not easy for freethinker and for someone who breaks with tradition. But somebody has to stand up and point out the cruelty and ignorance that religions have offered us. One doesn’t have to be a scholar to become a believer. Any idiot can follow tradition. But it takes knowledge and courage to ask the questions and to find and accept the answers. I left Islam because it is the most violent and aggressive of all religions. I consider myself as a human being and I choose ‘humanism’ as my one and only virtue. I am grateful to all those freethinkers and writers who helped to make my decision to leave Islam. Now I know that I am a human being. I was born due to one course of natural activities and I will die due to another course of natural activities. I found all my answers in science and rationalism; not in a 1400 year old so-called holy book, full of ignorance and violence.
Darkness and religious beliefs goes hand in hand. But it is my unbelief which led me to the path of brightness, knowledge, and humanity.
Suman Turhan is an accomplished poet, essayist, critic and translator of Bengali Literature. Suman has a number of books to his credit. He is also the editor of the little magzine “Maverick”. E-mails can be directed to email@example.com