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Author's appearance triggers melee

Extremist Muslims in India assault an exiled Bangladeshi whose writings criticize Islam. She is not badly hurt.

August 10, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

MUMBAI, INDIA — A rancorous crowd of about 100 Islamic extremists broke into a news conference and assaulted exiled Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasrin on Thursday, hurling books, bouquets of flowers and abuse at the author who has enraged many Muslims with writings harshly critical of their religion.

The author, who has been the target of numerous death threats over the last 15 years, was shaken but not badly hurt.

The melee, shown repeatedly on Indian television, was an outburst of communal fury that embarrassed and unsettled moderates of all faiths across the country. It occurred in Hyderabad, a cosmopolitan city of high-tech industries that bridges north and south India.

The attackers included three elected officials belonging to a local hard-line Muslim political party.

Shouting slogans accusing Nasrin of ridiculing Islam, the protesters surged into the press club where she was presenting a newly published translation of her book "Shodh," or "Getting Even." They overturned chairs and cornered the slightly built Nasrin, shouting that she should leave India.

The author was protected by a small cordon of other guests who bore the brunt of most of the tossed debris. One attacker tried to throw a chair before police were called to empty the room. They made at least three arrests, according to Indian media reports.

The national government condemned the attack and said it would extend Nasrin's six-month visa that was set to expire this month.

"I hope to live safely in this country as a democrat," said Nasrin, 44, after being escorted to safety by police. "The people who attacked me are in a minority. I get support and sympathy from a majority of people."

In the West, Nasrin's defiance of clerical authority and her refusal to be cowed by death threats or the banning of her books have made her a key figure in a rallying cry for free speech. But she is a polarizing figure in India, which offered her temporary shelter two years ago because she is barred from returning to Bangladesh.

To many Indian Muslims, Nasrin's presence is a burr that must be removed.

To hard-line Hindus, that attitude is another sign that the Muslim community is incapable of tolerating views it doesn't like.

The Indian government is trapped in the middle, anxious not to provoke greater Muslim anger yet watched by vigilant Hindu extremists for any sign of "appeasing" the minority group.

Educated as a physician, Nasrin has turned out a tide of essays, novels, autobiographies and poetry since the 1980s, much of it accusing the world's religions -- and Islam in particular -- of denying women equal rights. A proclaimed secularist, she accuses fundamentalists of stoking hatred among faiths.

She fled Bangladesh in 1994 after receiving death threats from enraged Islamists. Religious edicts calling for her to be attacked or killed have accumulated throughout her exile, initially while living in the West and continuing in India. She now lives in an apartment in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, with two policemen sitting constantly outside her door.

In March, a splinter group of Muslim clerics in the northern Indian city of Lucknow offered a $12,000 reward to anyone who killed Nasrin. That edict has been condemned by other Muslim clerics, though many argue she should be expelled from India.

"She should not be killed, but she is a disturbance here," said Kolkata imam Maulana Noorur Rahman Barkati, the senior Muslim cleric in the Indian state of West Bengal. "Hurting the sensitivities of others is not good. She is a very horrible lady, and once she's out of India, it will be better for India."

Some local boys recently asked him whether they should kill Nasrin, the cleric said, speaking early this week from his dank apartment in a crumbling Kolkata ghetto.

"They wanted to harm her, but I told them 'no,' " the imam said. "Whatever is to be done to her should be done within the wording of the law."


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