Mark Thomas flushes out a fatwa, Marywan
By Mark Thomas
fatwa committee has sentenced the Kurdish writer
Marywan Halabjaye to death, while Kurd leaders just
stand by. By Mark Thomas
Being a card-carrying confused liberal, ie, someone
who is resolute in their lack of certainty, I was
dismayed - as I'm sure you can imagine - when I
sliced open an aubergine to find the seeds forming a
picture of the Prophet Muhammad holding an AK-47.
What was I to do? Should I send the aubergine to
Denmark for publication and risk another half-dozen
embassy fires, or send it to Koranic scholars for
interpretation? The scholars might decide that it is
not an AK-47 after all, but a shepherd's staff,
which would calm everything down. Or they could just
as well declare a fatwa on the aubergine and baba
ghanoush in general.
Maybe all of this is my fault. What if my eyes are
faulty or, even worse than going blind, what if I'm
subconsciously Islamophobic? What if my eyes have
been imbued with secular values for so long that my
pupils are anti-Islam? Can I get religious
corrective glasses? And if I can, what would a
fundamentalist optician's wallchart look like?
"Would you read the top line, please," says the
The patient reads, "Article 1: All human beings are
born free and equal in dignity and rights." To which
the optician replies, "He can read it! Blind the
blasphemer!" Well, what was I to do? I did what any
right-thinking liberal would do: I blamed myself,
ate the aubergine and pretended it never happened.
A chill wind of self-censorship blows through the
liberal world and it is our own fault. The fatal
mistake liberals make with freedom of speech is that
they seek to define what is and is not acceptable to
say, rather than asking who is censoring and why.
Take the example of the Kurdish writer Marywan
Halabjaye in Iraq. I was contacted by Houzan Mahmoud,
the UK representative of the Organisation of Women's
Freedom in Iraq. She told me Marywan would answer
any questions I might want to put to him, but as he
spoke no English and I no Arabic, I should e-mail
the questions to her and she would get the answers.
It was also a polite way of avoiding me compromising
Marywan is in hiding with his pregnant wife and
three children; he has been sentenced to be beheaded
by the fatwa committee of Halabja. His crime was
writing a book entitled Sex, Sharia and Women in the
History of Islam, which includes a textual analysis
of the Koran and how it is used to oppress women.
"I wanted to prove how oppressed women are in Islam
and that they have no rights actually," says Marywan,
"although this is really a traditional topic among
progressives." In fact, he is well known among Iraqi
Kurds and has written on religion before with a
minimum of fuss.
So his book was published last November, after
permission had been sought from the Kurdish
bureaucracy. The print run was for 1,000 copies, and
the work proved popular enough for a second edition
to be issued within a month. "The Islamists were not
happy with this," says Marywan, "because they always
want to hide the oppression of women within Islam."
Islamic scholars from Halabja made an official
complaint about Marywan to President Talabani.
Letters followed to the Kurdish newspapers, calling
for him to be punished.
Throughout December the verbal attacks continued
from the mosques throughout Halabja, Erbil and
Kirkuk. Then three of Kurdistan's Islamic parties,
the United Islamic Party, the Islamic Kurdish League
and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, joined the
debate. By which I mean they bellowed for him to be
According to Marywan, he is constantly harangued on
the Islamists' television and radio stations.
"Almost every day they have a programme against me.
They interview scholars and mullahs on how to punish
such an infidel . . . the Islamists said once from
the radio, if they found out where I was, they would
blow themselves up with me.
"A couple of weeks ago in Halabja, the mullahs and
scholars said if I go to them and apologise they
will give me 80 lashes and then refer me to the
fatwa committee, to decide if I am to be beheaded.
They might forgive me, they might not."
I am guessing, but in the world of fundamentalist
religion this is probably the closest you get to a
liberal or reform wing.
"By silencing me it's an attack on secularism and
women's rights in Kurdistan," says Marywan. He knows
first-hand that religious politicians have a
domestic agenda, and that is the establishment of
sharia law within Kurdistan.
There is nothing new in this revelation. What is new
is that the secular Kurdish politicians have allowed
this state of affairs to flourish. "The Kurdish
authorities have not provided any protection from
threats and fatwas," says Marywan. "Apart from phone
calls from progressive and freedom-loving people in
Kurdistan and abroad I have nothing else . . . Any
moment I am expecting a bullet or a hand grenade to
be thrown into where I live."
That Kurdish leaders have let this situation develop
without intervention is stunningly dangerous.
Amnesty International has contacted the Iraqi
ministry of the interior raising concerns about
Marywan's safety and is awaiting a response. You
might want to support him by signing up at
Campaign to defend the life and safety of Marywan
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