By Mark Thomas (first printed in the New Statesman, Monday 27 February 2006)
Being a card-carrying confused liberal, i.e., 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 optician. 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 his safety. 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, Irbil 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 punished.
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
www.petitiononline.com/01021970/petition.html, under the campaign to defend the life and safety of Marywan Halabjaye.