Warrant issued for feminist author

A LOCAL court in Bangladesh has issued a second arrest warrant against Taslima Nasrin, the feminist author who has been in hiding for more than seven weeks after her life was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists.

The controversy over Ms Nasrin's criticisms of conservative, male-dominated Islamic society has proved a rallying-point for both sides in a wider political struggle. Trouble continued yesterday in Chittagong, the country's second city, where six people were killed on Tuesday in clashes between students and militants from Jamaat Islami, which has led the campaign against her. The same day a magistrate in northern Bangladesh ordered Ms Nasrin's arrest in a case filed by a local Muslim leader, claiming that a book of essays she published in 1992 was anti-Islamic.

A doctor turned writer, Ms Nasrin first became the target of fundamentalists with the publication of her novel, Lajja (Shame) last year. They were angered by her descriptions of the Muslim backlash against Bangladesh's Hindu minority in the wake of the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, including the rape of a Hindu woman. Demonstrators proclaimed that she should be killed, leading her to be seen outside the Muslim world as the female Salman Rushdie.

If Ms Nasrin enjoyed her notoriety, however, the affair became more serious after an Indian newspaper quoted her earlier this year as saying the Koran should be revised. She said she had been misquoted, and that she had been calling for the reform of Islamic sharia law, but the government came under pressure from outraged Muslim leaders. On 4 June, the day a Dhaka court issued an arrest warrant, she went into hiding.

The issue has stirred up divisions going back to Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, when Jamaat Islami sided with the Pakistanis against Bengali nationalists. The movement has had to keep a low profile ever since, but is now using the Nasrin controversy to resume a political role. The Chittagong violence began when the Jamaat Islami leader, Golam Azam, who is accused of war crimes, made his first speech in the city for more than 20 years. Further demonstrations are due today.

Middle-class liberals fear that demands by fundamentalist groups for a blasphemy law are part of a campaign for a repressive Islamic state, which some claim would seek to reunite with Pakistan. Amnesty International yesterday criticised Pakistan for misusing blasphemy laws to persecute religious minorities. Most victims were members of the Ahmadiyya sect, but Christians had also suffered.