Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide

March 20, 2012

The New Republic:

In spite of its slightly agitated title, this book is mostly a cool and even-tempered human rights report, and its findings go a long way toward explaining one of the mysteries of our time, namely, the ever-expanding success of political movements with overtly Islamic doctrines and radical programs.

Some people may suppose that Islam itself, the ancient religion, mandates theocracy. Seen in this light, the vigor of theocratically tinged political movements right now ought to seem normal to us, and maybe even commendable—a fitting renaissance of cultural authenticity in places around the world that, having left behind the indignities of colonial domination and the awkwardness of the post-colonial era, have entered at last into the post-post-colonial age of the return to self. Movements that carry such labels as “Islamism” or “radical Islam” or “political Islam,” judged in this way, could perfectly well drop their suffixes and adjectives and simply adopt the name of Islam itself—an Islam that has exited the mosque in order to fulfill still more sacred obligations in the public square. But Paul Marshall and Nina Shea take a different view. And in order to confer an august authority upon their contrary estimation, they have padded their human-rights report, or perhaps armored it, with learned commentaries by three Islamic scholars, two of whom are recently deceased but all of whom are distinguished.

The Islamic scholars are the late Abdurrahman Wahid, who at one time was president of Indonesia; the late Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University until he fled into exile; and Abdullah Saeed, in exile from the Maldives, who is currently a professor at the University of Melbourne. All three of these eminences argue stoutly and knowledgeably that the radical Islamic political movements of our time represent, in Wahid’s phrase, an “extreme and perverse ideology.” The ideology ought not to be confused with other, more tolerant and traditional currents of thought within Islam, more compatible with modern liberal ideas—such as the peaceable Sufism endorsed by Wahid, together with sundry humanist currents that descend from Islam’s medieval Golden Age. The three scholars display a confident erudition in laying out their view. And yet the scholarly self-confidence only raises a further question: why have liberal-minded and scripturally sophisticated thinkers such as Wahid, Abu-Zayd, and Saeed failed in so many parts of the world to out-argue the extreme and perverse ideologues? Why haven’t the liberals and the moderates crushed the radicals? This is the mystery that Marshall and Shea address.

Marshall and Shea have been toiling for many years at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, and the dossier they have assembled on religion and human rights shows that, in the Muslim world and beyond, the proponents of a radical and politicized Islam have set one great goal for themselves, which is not at all dreamy or utopian. The goal is to narrow the limits of what everybody else is allowed to think. The way to achieve this goal is to invoke sacred taboos against apostasy and blasphemy, together with a series of other taboos—“insulting Islam,” “corruption on earth,” “fighting against God,” “witchcraft,” and so forth.

The radical ideologues deem apostasy and blasphemy to be capital offenses punishable, according to the code of sharia, by death. The radicals do not expect everyone else to share an enthusiasm for corporal punishments, but they do want the rest of the world to acknowledge that apostasy and sacrilege against Islam are abominations, which ought to arouse indignation in the heart of every decent and fair-minded person. As it happens, everyone else does not assent to this crucial point. The scholarly Muslim contributors to Marshall and Shea’s book explain that, from their own non-radical standpoint, sharia ought to be regarded as a flexible call for a thoughtfully pious morality, and not as a rigid code of temporal punishments. Nor do blasphemy and apostasy send the non-radical scholars reeling in horror. Nor is there any consensus on how to define blasphemy and apostasy. There is, instead, a debate. But the debate has gone the way it has gone. The liberal counter-arguments have gotten trampled underfoot. The limits of permissible thought have shrunk. And the radicals’ success is owed in significant measure to a large and observable factor that Marshall and Shea are at pains to document. It is systematic intimidation.

THE RADICALS, WHO are perfectly happy to argue in a conventional manner, are equally happy, should argument fail, to enforce. In countries where the radicals are in power, enforcement falls into the hands of the uniformed services—a visible reality in countries as diverse as the ultra-revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran and the ultraconservative Wahhabi monarchy of the Arabian peninsula. But police enforcement of the apostasy and blasphemy taboos used to figure in the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak as well, if only because Mubarak’s Free Officers’ movement, for all its boasting about secular modernity and democratic aspirations, managed to strike up a working alliance with the semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. In still other countries, non-governmental militias—for example, the Boko Haram in Nigeria—take enforcement into their own hands. There are also the mobs, as can be seen in various places from West Africa to Pakistan. And there are vigilantes.

Marshall and Shea present a summary of these violent campaigns and their consequences in some twenty countries around the world, chosen from among the forty-plus countries whose populations are principally Muslim. Indonesia, the most populous, remains a largely tolerant place—as does the not-so-populous Mali, just to show that Indonesia’s civic virtues are more than a local aberration (though just now, as I write, Mali has fallen into a civil war, along ethnic instead of religious lines). A religious oppression weighs more heavily in other places, such as Abdullah Saeed’s unhappy Maldives in the Indian Ocean, a miserable sea-bound spot for anyone hoping to dip a toe into the free-floating waters of the untrammeled intellect.

The radicals have focused their campaign against apostasy and blasphemy on several categories of people, which Marshall and Shea have taken the trouble to identify and to describe, beginning with religious minorities. No one will be surprised to learn that, for Christians in different parts of the Muslim world, today is the age of the Roman lions, and Christians have been fleeing en masse. Marshall and Shea remind us that in Sudan an Islamist government sparked a civil war partly by trying to impose a ferocious version of sharia on Christians and other non-Muslims in the south, and by the time the war ended (though the violence seems to be starting up again) more than two million people of various confessions had been killed.

In Somalia, Islamists have looked on the entire Christian population as Muslim apostates, and this has led to a call by one of the Islamist groups for a general extermination. Christians have suffered persecution even in places where, formally speaking, the government is secular and civic rights are supposed to apply. There is the case in Algeria, where, in response to an Islamist outcry ostensibly against foreign Christian missionaries, the government during the last few years has taken to exerting pressure on a variety of Christian activities, sometimes with the implication that Algeria’s Christians are agents of foreign forces. In Egypt, Christians appear to be fleeing, perhaps in large numbers.

The most consistent pressure has fallen upon heterodox Muslim groups such as the Ismailis, the Alevis, and the Ahmadis (who suffer persecution even in Indonesia), not to mention offshoots of Islam such as the hugely oppressed Baha’i. Then again, the militants of radical Islam tend to hang the label of blasphemy around the necks of whichever mainstream Muslim denomination happens to be locally in the minority—the Sunnis in Shiite Iran, the Shia in Sunni Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Surely everyone has noticed that, for many years now, scarcely a week goes by without a report of yet another massacre of random Shia, sometimes in mosques, sometimes at funerals—a vast development in Iraq, but also in Pakistan and recently in Afghanistan. Entire ethnic groups are sometimes deemed to have fallen afoul of the taboos. The persecution of Christians in Algeria singles out the Algerian Berbers, known as Kabyles, some of whom are Christians, though most are Muslims. Islamists in Sudan have declared the Nubas apostate, which puts half a million people at risk—though a full-scale massacre has failed to occur.

Marshall and Shea punctiliously demonstrate that persecution by the radicals focuses everywhere on the Islamic humanists, liberal reformers, and free-thinkers. Some very distinguished Islamic reformists have been killed—for instance, the Sudanese intellectual Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed by Sudan’s Islamist government on a charge of blasphemy in 1985. I mention Taha because one of his disciples, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im of Emory University School of Law, published an incisive book in 2008 called Islam and the Secular State, which means that any readers who have been following our own American debate over Islamic theology and its uses and distortions may recognize Taha’s name and may even suspect, on the basis of his disciple’s reasoning, that Taha offered exceptionally powerful arguments for a tolerant and modern Islam. But Marshall and Shea have filled their pages with a great many additional names and case summaries, such that you could easily conclude that in our time an entire generation of progressive Muslim intellectuals has come under attack. If you have been following the news you may have noticed that a new generation, too, has come under attack—as demonstrated by the case of a Saudi columnist named Hamza Kashgari, age twenty-three, who fled from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia after having posted three Twitter messages having to do with Muhammad, and has now been deported back to Saudi Arabia to face charges of blasphemy, apostasy, and atheism: capital offenses.

Marshall and Shea feel that, having taken note of the tolerant exceptions, they are in a position to generalize from their country-by-country analysis. They write, “Our survey shows that in Muslim-majority countries and areas, restrictions on freedom of religion and expression, based on prohibitions of blasphemy, apostasy, and ‘insulting Islam,’ are pervasive, thwart freedom, and cause suffering to millions of people.” The suffering is sometimes inflicted subtly or indirectly, which makes it no less grievous. The visible persecution falls upon the designated heretics and out-groups, but the ordinary members of the privileged majority population also learn their lesson. Each lonely individual, in the privacy of his own ruminations, has to reflect on the possible consequences of allowing a wayward thought to wander down a forbidden alley. Islam itself ends up a victim. An-Na’im observes that if you do not have the possibility of abandoning your religion, you do not enjoy the possibility of freely embracing it, either.

Who will stand up, under these circumstances, to block the militants in their forward march? Absolute majorities of people in one country after another may well look upon the champions of a totalitarian Islam with disdain and horror. But the majorities have every reason to keep their feelings to themselves; and people who keep their feelings to themselves tend not to know, after a while, what their feelings are. Anyway, majorities sometimes do side with the radicals, as we have been learning, which leaves the whole responsibility for putting up a resistance in the hands of some very lonely minorities…

Read it all.

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