Muslim Radicals and Police Hunt Feminist Bangladeshi Writer

A controversy surrounds Taslima Nasreen, whose works sparked a religious edict calling for her death

BANGLADESHI author and feminist Taslima Nasreen - whose writings have provoked a fatwa, or religious edict calling for her death, from her country's Muslim radicals - has yet to respond to an offer of safe haven from the European Union (EU). Ms. Nasreen, who is currently in hiding, is being hunted both by radicals and the police.

Nasreen's blunt criticism of Islam and its treatment of women has made her a controversial figure in Bangladesh for years, but recently she became a fugitive as well. On June 4, a court issued a warrant for her arrest, charging her under the country's blasphemy law with ``deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the feelings of Muslims.'' Under this law, she could be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

The charges stem from comments she allegedly made in May to an Indian newspaper, The Statesman. Nasreen was quoted as saying the Koran, Islam's holy book, should be ``revised thoroughly.'' Nasreen insists she was misquoted, but the court refuses to drop the charges. Nasreen, tipped off by a friend, went into hiding a few hours before the warrant was issued and is believed to be staying with friends in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said July 19 that EU countries have instructed their ambassadors in Dhaka ``to take all measures necessary for her protection and to let her leave ... if she so desires.'' For the past few weeks, newspapers in Dhaka have reported that Nasreen was hiding in an embassy of a Western nation.

Bangladeshi officials said the offer of asylum is ``immoral'' and repeated their pleas for Nasreen to turn herself in for her own safety. ``Taslima Nasreen should surrender to the court and present her statement if she has anything to say,'' said Public Works Minister Rafiqul Islam Mian, who is also a senior member of the ruling Bangladesh National Party. Earlier, officials had urged foreign nations not to flout the country's laws by offering asylum to the writer.

Nasreen, a physician by training, is the author of 15 books of poetry and prose - nearly all of them controversial. But it was her latest novel, ``Lajja,'' which caused the greatest outrage. It is a fictional account of sufferings inflicted by Muslim militants on a family of Bangladeshi Hindus. In its first six months in print, Lajja sold 50,000 copies - a remarkable figure in Bangladesh. But in July, the government banned the book because ``it might create misunderstanding and mistrust among different communities living in exemplary harmony in Bangladesh.'' Ninety percent of Bangladesh's 120 million people are Muslim.

Since her alleged statements calling for a revision of the Koran, there have been renewed protests and threats of violence against her. A Muslim cleric in southern Bangladesh recently offered a $2,500 bounty to anyone who kills her. Last month, thousands of Muslim extremists marched through the streets of Dhaka, shouting, ``Hang Taslima.'' Nasreen's family members have reportedly received threats as well.

The furor over Nasreen's writing - and now the warrant for her arrest - represents one of the biggest political challenges yet for Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, head of Bangladesh's first democratically elected government of nearly a decade. Ms. Zia's opponents have criticized her handling of the issue. Sheikh Haseena Wajed, leader of the Awami League, Bangladesh's largest opposition party, has accused the government of ``overreacting to the Taslima issue,'' in order to divert attention from Bangladesh's other problems.

Six other opposition parties have also asked the government to withdraw its case against Nasreen. Analysts say Zia is afraid to take sides in such a politically explosive issue. Muslim fundamentalist parties hold a small number of seats in parliament, but they are nonetheless an important constituency.

A group of lawyers and women's rights activists have called for the withdrawal of charges against Nasreen. Most of Nasreen's support, however, has come from her fellow writers overseas. Well-known writers such as Norman Mailer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, and Gunter Grass have lent their names to her cause.

Salman Rushdie, who is under a fatwa from the Iranian government, recently wrote an open letter to Nasreen, which was published in many newspapers in Europe and the United States. ``You have spoken out about the oppression of women under Islam, and what you said needed saying.''

In an interview with the Monitor in March, Nasreen, who at that time had not yet gone into hiding, made no apologies for her brash style. ``The writers who have written before me, they put forth their point, but they drew a line somewhere. [Their books] were not agitating very many people,'' said Nasreen. ``I bring it out very bluntly.''

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