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Dutch Killing Prompts Soul Searching Among Europe's Muslim Writers

The November 2 killing of Dutch film producer Theo van Gogh has triggered fears in the Netherlands about religious extremism, along with a backlash against the country's Muslim population. It has also caused soul searching among Muslim artists in Europe about the boundary between free expression and what is considered religiously offensive.

The play "Une Viree," French for "an excursion," has recently opened at a theater in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to critical acclaim. The play is about three musicians who drift through an Algeria racked by Islamic fundamentalism drinking wine and beer and smoking marijuana. It is written by Aziz Chouaki, a 53-year-old Algerian poet, playwright and part-time jazz musician who is considered one of France's most talented writers.

On a recent evening, Mr. Chouaki spoke with VOA about his latest play a few minutes before it opened at the Nanterre theater.

"This play deals with despair on every level," said Mr. Chouaki. "Social despair. Religious despair. Because one of them at a certain moment in the play says, 'Yes, we have practiced the religion. We all went to the mosque to see ... [if] God exists.'"

A Muslim by heritage, Mr. Chouaki describes himself as an atheist who fled Algeria in 1991, just before Islamist terrorists launched a bloody civil war in the North African country. But he has not escaped censure in France.

Mr. Chouaki's characters sometimes denounce Islam in offensive ways. One of the protagonists in "La Viree," for example, says that if he were president he would turn all the mosques into bordellos. The line usually gets a laugh, but not from everybody.

In recent years, Mr. Chouaki has gotten harsh criticism, along with several death threats, from Muslim militants. He says he respects the Muslim religion, but that his characters must have the liberty to say what they think.

Mr. Chouaki is hardly the only artist in Europe under fire. Earlier this month, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated. The suspected assassin is believed to be a Muslim extremist who was presumably enraged about Mr. van Gogh's movie "Submission." The controversial, 11 minute documentary is about violence against women in Muslim societies. One of its scenes featured images of battered women with passages of the Koran traced on their bodies.

The screenplay was written by another ex-Muslim, Somalian immigrant Ayaan Hirshi Ali. She, too, has received death threats. Today, she lives under 24-hour police protection in the Netherlands.

But Ms. Ali presents only one face of a new generation of Muslim screenwriters, poets, novelists and playwrights who are changing Europe's artistic landscape. They include devout Muslims and agnostics, exiled political dissidents and second-generation immigrants.

They write about sexual awakening, political oppression and racism. Many, like 26-year-old French-Moroccan writer Loubna Meliane, generate applause rather than death threats.

Ms. Meliane is an anti-discrimination activist who published her first book, "Living Free," last year. The book is about breaking away from the strictures of the ethnic North African community in France.

Ms. Meliane says she has gotten a lot of positive reviews of her book from other North African youths, particularly from frustrated young men.

Ms. Meliane has not seen "Submission," but she has read about the movie and about Ms. Ali.

Ms. Meliane agrees that violence against women is intolerable. But she believes Ms. Ali may have made generalizations and gone beyond the limits of what is appropriate, and offended many Muslims.

But other writers, like Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasrin, believe writers should generally be allowed to criticize Islam freely. Ms. Nasrin, another Muslim-turned-athiest, has received fatwas to kill her in her native Bangladesh. She has lived in exile in Sweden for the past decade, and until recently had police protection. Even in Europe, Ms. Nasrin says, conservative Muslims criticize her writing, which deals with feminist issues.

"The majority tell me, 'You are destroying Islam,'" she says. "A very common criticism is that the West uses me to speak out against Islam. I was speaking out against Islam when I was in Bangladesh. I didn't know anything about the West at the time. But it is a very common criticism."

But other Muslim writers point out that Islamic societies have fostered dazzling scholarship and creativity over the centuries. They have spawned tales of sexuality and adventure such as the famous "Alf Layla Wa-Layla," or "A Thousand and One Nights." They have also produced ninth-century poets like Abu Nawas, who wrote about love and taverns.

Acclaimed Egyptian novelist Adhaf Soueif, a practicing Muslim, says her religion has not inhibited her from writing what she wants. Her novels explore issues like sexual awakening, and love between Muslims and non-Muslims. In a telephone interview from her home in London, Ms. Soueif says she gets praise from Muslim and Western readers alike.

"I've had women say, 'You have written my story. I am so comforted that you have written my story,' and that's been very moving," she adds.

Like Ms. Soueif, Muslim scholar and writer Malek Chebel also believes Islam poses few limits to creativity.

Mr. Chebel says he criticizes Islam from morning to night. But he believes that's OK within Islam. He says his religion is one of reasoning and debate. It doesn't condone killing people who criticize Islam or show, as Mr. van Gogh did, nude images in movies.