IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Critics of Islam on edge after murder

For some writers who criticize Islam, bullet-proof glass, bodyguards, death threats and pseudonyms are a part of everyday life.
/ Source: Reuters

For some writers who criticize Islam, bullet-proof glass, bodyguards, death threats and pseudonyms are a part of everyday life.

The slaying a week ago of Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who directed a film in which texts of the Koran were painted on a woman’s naked body, has highlighted the risk of violent reaction by Muslims sensitive to what they see as slurs on their faith.

The killing, 15 years after the “fatwa” against British writer Salman Rushdie that forced him into years of hiding, has sent shudders through a small but vocal community of writers who say they risk their lives by daring to question Islamic norms.

“Sure it is worrying, and for the people around me,” said Irshad Manji, a prominent Muslim writer based in Canada who receives regular death threats.

“Whenever I do interviews with media, I make it very clear that I appreciate there are people listening and viewing this piece and wanting to kill me,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Constant threat
Contacting the outspoken author of the “The Trouble With Islam,” and others like her, is not easy. Cautious publishers refuse to disclose telephone numbers and insist that e-mails go through them first. Home telephone numbers are never given.

Manji sometimes uses a bodyguard, although less often than before, and installed bullet-proof glass at her Toronto home.

“Somehow, I don’t feel the urge to share my schedule,” she wrote in a commentary after Van Gogh’s murder.

She is not alone.

Italian author Oriana Fallaci’s bestseller “The Rage and the Pride,” written in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, sparked fury among Muslim groups.

In her preface she wrote: “My life is in serious danger.”

In an interview with the New York Observer last year, she was quoted as saying: “I am not religious -- all religions are difficult to accept for me -- but the Islamic one is not even a religion, in my opinion. It is a tyranny, a dictatorship ...”

It is the kind of comment that sparks an angry response from Muslims, both moderate and radical.

Enduring tension
The clash between Islam and outspoken artists is not new.

The most famous recent case was that of Rushdie, the Indian-born author whose novel “The Satanic Verses” led to accusations of blasphemy against Islam and a call in 1989 by Iran’s orthodox leadership for Muslims to kill him.

Last week, Rushdie declined to be interviewed on relations between artists and Islam.

But writers and Muslim groups say that sensitivity among Muslims has grown since Sept. 11 and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Muslims feel under siege,” said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the mainstream Muslim Council of Britain.

“Their faith is not only under criticism, but there is an attempt to dominate the heartlands of Islam. It compounds that sense that Western nations are out to humiliate Muslims.”

Commentary, or provocation?
He also said that criticizing Islam was not the same as deliberately provocative art and commentary.

“When it comes to the likes of Theo van Gogh, a distinction has to be made between criticism and actual incitement,” he said, adding that he did not condone violence.

“We feel these people should be ignored.”

Tahir Aslam Gora, a poet, novelist and publisher who left Pakistan for Canada after receiving death threats, says he still feels at risk in his adopted country.

“I feel really scared,” he said, reacting to Van Gogh’s death in Amsterdam. Gora said he was finishing a new book called “Why Terrorists are Muslims,” which he feared would spark new threats on his life.

“When my new book is published, I’ll be in trouble.”

Manji believes some good has come of the U.S.-led war on terror, with Muslims and others “hungry for honest debate” about Islam and its place in the world.

Many Muslims, though, are too scared to talk openly.

“While I’m hearing lots of love and support and affection, those who are writing to me in support still tell me they can’t yet be public about that support. They fear persecution.”