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 Sex and Islam author says he fears for his life, but some call him a publicity hound

 Source : NY Times
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Sex and Islam author says he fears for his life, but some call him a publicity hound 4.4.2006
By ROBERT F. WORTH, Published: April 4, 2006

ERBIL, Kurdistan-Iraq, -- Only a few months ago Mariwan Halabjayi was an obscure 42-year-old Kurdish writer. Now he is a famous fugitive who moves from house to house, not daring to go near the windows for fear that assassins will catch sight of him.

He says he has been receiving death threats by phone since January, when his new book on sex and Islam touched off angry street demonstrations in several Kurdish cities in Iraq.

"I have promised myself that if they find me I will kill myself," Mr. Halabjayi said, sitting on a couch at a friend's house recently, his face weary and unshaved, a pistol by his side. He says his ordeal is proof that even here in Kurdistan, the most secular and peaceful part of Iraq, there is no escape from militant Islam.

But some of the characters in Mr. Halabjayi's real-life drama do not quite fit the roles he has assigned them.

Mariwan Halabjayi

Islamist political leaders deny that they ever threatened him and say they see him as a publicity-hungry clown, not a dangerous blasphemer. Even some secular figures say Mr. Halabjayi's book which has a sensational cover illustration of a scantily clad woman next to a very suggestive minaret tower may have been a ploy to get political asylum in Europe.

One thing seems clear: if Mr. Halabjayi was looking for conflict, he got more than he or the Islamists bargained for.

"I think the Islamists made a big mistake," said Asos Hardi, a secular journalist and founder of Kurdistan's most popular independent newspaper, Hawlati. "They made Mariwan famous and they made his book famous."

After the protests started, the book was discussed on editorial pages and television and radio talk shows, with some clerics angrily calling for the author to be punished. The regional government's minister for endowments and religion, Muhammad Gaznay, publicly denounced it. Mr. Halabjayi says the Kurdistan Islamic Group, one of the region's main Islamist parties, threatened him with death for insulting Islam.

That accusation drew a scoff from Muhammad Hakim Jabar, one of the group's leaders.

"If he were to walk down the street right here we wouldn't even stare at him," said Mr. Jabar, who speaks fluent English and wears well-tailored Western-style suits. "We don't care about him."

Mr. Jabar said the Islamic Group had not threatened Mr. Halabjayi. Instead, he said, it published a pamphlet detailing what it says is the author's abysmal Arabic and ignorance of the Koran. Secular critics agree that the book is far from learned. It would never have been noticed, Mr. Jabar said, if not for the protests against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that angered Muslims around the world earlier this year.

"He was hoping to get some advantage from all this," Mr. Jabar said. "He has insulted all the prophets except those who are Christians, because he wants to move to Europe."

Mr. Halabjayi denies that he was hunting for fame or political asylum. He said his book, "Sex, Legislation and Women in Islamic History," was an honest effort to examine questions that matter deeply to him.

It is his 14th book, and the latest of several that criticize Islam, he said. But the earlier critiques of Islam were published under pseudonyms. This time he used his own name on the cover, and in passages about sex he used vulgar language, including slang terms for the male and female genitalia.

"I was thinking that the kind of writing I used in the past is difficult," he said. "So this time I decided to use simple language that anyone can understand."

The book, Mr. Halabjayi said, argues that "women have no rights in Islam" and condemns polygamy and other practices allowed under many interpretations of the Koran. It also portrays the religion generally as a formula for terrorism and extremism.

Mr. Halabjayi said he had been raised as a Muslim but no longer considered himself one. He has worked for various cultural organizations in Halabja, his hometown, while working on his books, which he published at his own expense. Paying for the publication of one's own books is common in Iraqi Kurdistan, where publishing costs are low and many authors want to avoid the censorship sometimes practiced by the Culture Ministry.

His new book was published in November. It went through two editions of 1,000 copies each with only minor protests from religious figures. In January there were street demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan against the Danish cartoons, and the protesters denounced Mr. Halabjayi's book too. Mr. Halabjayi grants that the criticism helped sell the book, which quickly went through two more editions.

It was then that the threats began, he said, mostly anonymous phone calls. At the same time, a group of Muslim clerics presented a petition to a court in Sulaimaniya asking that Iraq's blasphemy laws be invoked against the author. A judge opened an investigation and ordered Mr. Halabjayi to appear at a hearing.

Mr. Halabjayi has refused to do so. He says he does not trust the Iraqi legal system to judge him fairly. That prompted his lawyer to quit, saying he could not represent a fugitive from justice.

To Mr. Halabjayi's Islamist critics, that is a delicious irony. "He used to write about us that we did not believe in the courts," Mr. Jabar said. "But now he does not believe in the courts."

Mr. Hardi, the newspaper editor, said he did not think that Mr. Halabjayi was in serious danger of being killed. The Islamist parties and their followers have steadily lost influence and grown more moderate over the past decade.

If Mr. Halabjayi had written his book in a less sensational way, scarcely anyone would have noticed, Mr. Hardi said.

At an outdoor book market in Sulaimaniya, a bookseller said he had evidence of that. He pointed to several books critical of Islam one of them titled "Political Islam" and another "Society Under the Shadow of the Caliphate."

"These books are worse than Mariwan Halabjayi's," he said. "But because the media hasn't talked about them, there's no demand."

Yerevan Adham contributed reporting from Sulaimaniya for this article.



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