OF all the applications of the death penalty, none seems less defensible than the sentence invoked on the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen. She has been accused of criticizing the Koran in her novel ``Shame'' (like the India-born writer Salman Rushdie five years ago in his novel ``Satanic Verses''), and for this a Muslim cleric has said: ``If she doesn't come back to the faith, the punishment is clear. She should be executed.'' No trial. No appeal.
Other writers have risen to her defense, including Czech novelist Milan Kundera, Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (all of whom have experienced exile), plus the writers' organization International PEN.
Nevertheless, like Mr. Rushdie, Ms. Nasreen has been forced to go underground, marked for assassination.
The character assassination has already begun. Nasreen has been defamed as a pornographer. Much has been made of her three marriages. She has been faulted for her flamboyance, even by other Muslim feminists.
True or false, the particulars of the case should not be allowed to obscure the main issue. This is a direct challenge to freedom of thought, posed in the most brutish terms. To sanction the killing of a human being for holding an opinion deemed ``incorrect'' is profoundly abhorrent to anyone with the smallest feeling for democracy. What could be more sacrilegious than hoping to destroy an idea by murdering its author?
That the deadly witch hunt should be led by men of God is, of course, a terrible irony. In an open letter to Nasreen, Rushdie observed, ``How sad it must be to believe in a God of blood!'' But an even deeper irony lurks here. Like all significant aspects of civilization, religion itself needs to be free in order to flourish. Thus the Muslim theologians are working directly against their own interests in failing to recognize that their challengers may, in fact, be their best friends.
``The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right,'' John Stuart Mill affirmed in one of the basic passages that American schoolchildren used to memorize.
Taslima Nasreen may not belong among the great writers, but all writers and all readers everywhere are entitled to a world in which an individual will not be killed for what he or she thinks.