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