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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Of Blood-lust, Religion and Education

A few blog-posts ago, a dear friend and I walked away from each other due to conflicting views of the issue of islam and violence.

In a nutshell (and I had to go back to refer the slings and arrows we had aimed at each other) his argument was that "they" [I think he understood "they" to mean muslims, arabs & terrorists interchangeably] would do anything to prove their culture was superior to everyone else's, and would destroy anyone who disagreed with them.

In a nutshell, my argument was people's reactions are based on what they have experienced at the hands of others. I also said something about respect, and used other such maudlin words. In short, while trying to speak out against intolerance, we both ended up being intolerant. Sic transit.

Our argument escalated, and not just because of emotion taking over the wheel, pushing reason the back seat. It was because both of us had part of the truth, and both parts contradicted the other.

What made me bring that up was today's Washington Post article on the Afghan convert, written by Pamela Constable of the Washington Post Foreign Service.

Abdul Rahman was put on trial after it was discovered he had converted to christianity. According to the BBC, he has been a christian for sixteen years, and now faces the death penalty because of his conversion. His supporters and family have claimed he is not fit to stand trial; Mr. Rahman himself has claimed to have heard "voices" in his head. Karzai is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with his international allies decrying the trial, and domestic clerics and institutions decrying the growing influence of the west interfering with sharia law.

NB: At this point, gentle reader, do remember that in Afghanistan's highly flagrant political climate, nothing can be seen as back and white. According to the Post article--

Some suggest that extremists may have provoked controversies such as the Rahman case to incite religious fervor or weaken the Karzai government. Islamic insurgents are trying to destabilize the country, and Muslim sensitivities have been aroused by the publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in Europe and the mistreatment of Muslim detainees in U.S. military custody.

What is interesting is that clerics who denounced the Taliban are now calling for the death of Rahman. They claim that the Taliban tortured the people and that this was dispicable. However, they also state that according to sharia law, whoever leaves the fold merits death.

Easy it is at this point to jump up and point fingers, to cry shame and decry hypocrisy.

Hold up. Take a breath.

The interpretation of theological doctrine will always be a delicate matter. Dr. Abu-Nabi Isstaif, visiting Fulbright scholar from the Damascus University to RWU, discussed this matter with me a few days ago. According to him, there is nothing in the Koran that points to death for the one who leaves islam, i.e. who is guilty of the crime of apostasy. This comes down to an interpretation of the text.

M. Cherif Bassiouni,professor and the president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law, holds the same opinion. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Bassiouni states

The principal category of crimes in Islam is called hudud. These crimes are referred to in the Koran and thus require prosecution. They are: adultery, theft, transgression (physical aggression), highway robbery, slander and alcohol consumption. Apostasy is included in this list by most scholars, but not by a few others. The Koran refers to it as follows: "And whoever of you turns [away] from his religion [Islam] and dies disbelieving, their works have failed in this world and the next [world]. Those are the inhabitants of fire: therein they shall dwell forever." Surat (chapter) al-Ma'eda, verse 35.This verse does not criminalize the turning away from Islam, nor does it establish a penalty.


In the same article, Bassiouni claims that apostasy has been criminalized in certain islamic countries based on "doctrinal constructs established in the 7th and 8th centuries". Afghanistan is a country with a muslim majority and a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion, as do the constitutions of other muslim-majority countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Countries that do consider Apostasy a crime punishable by death include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Interestingly, Bassiouni claims that "there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy in these countries has been put to death".

There is no demographic available that documents religious deaths as dictated by interpretations of sharia, just as there were no available demographics that documented religious deaths as dictated by interpretations of the bible during the middle ages. But we will leave aside comparitive analysis for now and take Bassiouni at his word.

Google "islam-convert-death" and a multitude of websites, faithfully trailing a .org, will descend upon you. And depending on the affiliation of these websites, you will get quotes from separate parts of the Koran that justify either death or leniency regarding apostasy.

I asked Dr. Isstaif about this discrepancy in islam: afterall, there is meant to be one 'ummah', one people, one god, one religion. Then why these versions of "the truth", this pendulum-course between extremism and the middle path?

Isstaif claimed it was all due to education. As a scholar of arabic, with a degree from Oxford, he claims that he knows the Koran as well, or better than, any Syrian arab. He also claimed that the Koran was written in arabic, and the nuances of the word is often lost in translation. The good doctor said that a lack of education, and a lack of a knowledgable grasp of arabic often left certain parts of the world with a very literal interpretation, or even a misreading, of the text. Isstaif thinks this is unfortunate.

Isstaif agreed, by the way, that an apostate was certainly put out of the fold. However, by no means is the death penalty a valid judgement, he says.

I asked Dr. Isstaif, what then is the way to reduce these misinterpretations, to let people know what the Koran actually says?

Education, he says. Teach them to read on their own, so these people in south asia and east asia can read the truth for themselves, and then choose whether they want violence or dialogue.

It's all very well for Dr. Isstaif. He isn't in Afghanistan right now. And it's not as simple as spreading democracy.

According to the Post's article:

Members of the clergy, traditionally the most influential segment of this tribal, largely illiterate society, tend to add a major caveat. The Western world, they say, has no right to interfere in Afghanistan's religious affairs, and outsiders should not confuse Afghan desires for political freedom with a shift to permissive views on personal behavior.

"We have no enmity with the West, but if the West wants us to live in democracy, it must let us make our own decisions," said Enayatullah Balegh, imam of the large Pul-I-Khishti mosque. "Islam is everything to us. It is more powerful than our constitution. We appreciate honest help, but we ask that you not interfere, or else we will have no choice but to become suicide bombers."

In public, few Afghans are willing to question the authority of the clergy or the inviolability of Islamic law. But some, including college students, journalists, human rights advocates and government officials, say they support a more moderate interpretation of their religion.


As a political science student, I can tell you that extremist parties in Pakistan have often influenced violence in Afghanistan, a border issue that has been a bone of contention between Karzai and Musharraf.

As a political science student, I can also tell you that like the argument babs and I had, the imam's words, quoted above, also hold a grain of truth. Historically, no country has been able to balance the twin jurisdiction of religion and state. Italy in the 13th century, Afghanistan today, Pakistan on and off, and Iran in the 1970's and 80's stand as proof of this.

His ultimatum could have been predicted. I do not seek to justify his claim-- If the man lived in the Gaza strip, or what used to be Jaffa and is now called Tel Aviv, if the man was palestinian and has been deprived of flag, country and passport illegally for the past 40 years, and was decrying the actions of the israeli government, I would understand his claim, fully. For an imam of a historically important mosque in the older part of Kabul, and the centre of protest against the US invasion of Afghanistan, it is requires to look under the first layer of the onion to understand his ultimatum.

The fact is that a literal, orthodox interpretation of islam does not allow for western democracy as it is known in the world today. The fact is, moderate muslims who claim that a bridge can be built, are discounting the fact that no time was given in Iraq or Afghanistan for any such bridge to be built. Demagogues took the opportunity the US invasions provided to incite violence against the people and form of government that was opposing what these orthodox clerics believe to be their way of life.

Dr. Isstaif lives and breathes his religion, and takes the time to pray five times a day. He claims that democracy cannot be implanted as is, without making any allowance for cultural and historical differences between western and islamic countries.

Karzai is fully aware of this, and to balance the effects of the chief cleric of the supreme court, who is as orthodox as they can get, the president has elected younger, more moderate judges to the court.

One is Qasim Hashimzai, the deputy justice minister, an articulate man who wears pinstriped suits and returned several years ago from long exile in the West. "The principles of Islamic jurisprudence are perfectly logical and consistent with democratic political institutions, and the Koran gives people lots of freedom," Hashimzai said. "But it all depends who interprets Islam -- a rigid person, a moderate person or a one-eyed person."
(Washington Post)

Hashimzai also claimed that execution as penalty for converting to another faith, stemmed from earlier times, when Islam was under threat, and made less sense today. In the case of Rahman's high-profile prosecution, he said, "I think political hands were behind it. Someone wanted to test the system, to put the government in confrontation with Islam and with the West."

The article also claimed that a "few younger, educated Afghans said they strongly disagreed with executing a convert or enforcing harsh punishments, but they said they could not afford to be quoted for fear they would be ostracized and possibly hounded".

"our mullahs are very strict, and many people are not educated, so they follow them", said a young man who, when interviewed, said he felt Rahman should be spared.

Hm. Freedom is choice. I agree with babs on this.

A final quote from the Post article:

After the service, worshipers offered nearly identical opinions, saying Islam was a democratic and beneficent faith -- but that no one had the right to leave it.

"Islam is the most perfect religion in the world. We have accepted it, and we should stick to it," said Mahmad Humayun, 35, a clean-shaven science instructor at Kabul University. "Islam is the basis for democracy. It gives rights to all people. Therefore, we must all think very carefully and never do anything to cause Islam problems."


Freedom is choice. But what kind of choice would be made, when a person knows nothing of the outside world, and no other reality other than what he or she has been taught? Such freedom of choice that Mr. Mahmad Humayun claims is the same freedom that Mormons choose, that sub-saharan african families who indulge in female circumcision choose. All is done on a basis of religion and cultural identity.

May the voices in Mr. Abdul Rahman's head keep him safe, just in case his gods can't.

1 comments:

david raphael israel said...

Nicely thought through, Priyanka. That Hashimzai makes a key point: "But it all depends who interprets Islam -- a rigid person, a moderate person or a one-eyed person."

Though your focus here wasn't so much on Karzai, reading this reminds of what an admirable man he seems to be.

It's too bad Abdul Rahman cannot claim to in fact be following Islam in the form of Christianity. I suppose this sort of sophistry would not hold water in fiery times. Alas, he has the example of the Christ as pitiful model.

I'm sure the views of your Dr. Isstaif are not unique; there are surely intelligent thinkers like this in many places. Their reasonable voice will not hold sway everywhere at once. A difficult time of global adjustments proceeds, it seems.