Death for apostasy?
By NESRINE MALIK
Added: Sat, 18 Oct 2008 23:00:00 UTC
AC Grayling and the Council of Ex-Muslims are distorting the picture and undermining efforts to bring change
Reading AC Grayling's latest article and listening to the protestations of the Council of Ex-Muslims, you would think that the death penalty is being gratuitously and frequently applied to those who renounce Islam or harbour thoughts of apostasy.
As a Muslim who has lived most of my life in Muslim countries, this picture is hard to recognise. I have several friends and family members who are non-believers and apart from some efforts to return them to the straight and narrow or at least go through the motions of religious observance, they have not come into any physical danger. A close friend — hitherto religious — only recently sent me a long, tortured email detailing his journey away from Islam and from all religion; he expressed no fears for his life or safety, merely trepidation at the prospect of acclimatising to this new God-free world view.
Although the Council of Ex-Muslims and AC Grayling depict the threat to life and limb as an indisputable fact, in reality there are differences of opinion among Muslim scholars (ostensibly the hard core of the religion) regarding the death penalty for apostates.
This is not to say that Muslim governments — and Arab ones in particular — have a tolerant view of apostasy but the death threat is invoked only rarely and more for political reasons rather than religion ones: to set an example or to save face as a proxy punishment for challenging the social or political status quo. While this is in no way acceptable, it is an extension of the general lack of enshrined civic human rights and evolved political institutions and processes — a historical, social and geo-political reality in many Muslim countries that makes a mockery of any comparison to the experience of those renouncing Christianity or Judaism.
Nawal El Sadaawi, a prominent Egyptian writer and social activist, has clashed several times with religious authorities and has even dismissed some of the rituals of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) as pagan, but I do not believe she lives in any fear for her life. Of course, there is always the possibility that violent individuals will take matters into their own hands, as in the case of the Nobel prize-winning writer, Naguib Mahfouz, but these are a minority found in all religions.
AC Grayling repeatedly refers to "Islamic states", as if political Islam is a natural extension of state-sponsored Islam. If anything, political Islam is persecuted at home as much as it is reviled abroad. It is also a vehicle for dissent against repressive regimes — violent Islam being its warped cousin.
This is where the primary lacuna becomes apparent: the conflation of politics and religion in the Muslim world. The "repressive and political social climate" that AC Grayling talks about cannot be reduced merely, or attributed entirely, to Islam. To discount the myriad of other factors in states that range from dictatorial monarchies in the Gulf to entrenched presidential dynasties in Egypt and Syria is absurd and undermines efforts to bring about change.
It is easy to appear churlish or insensitive when disputing the assertions of people who claim their lives are in danger but we must also consider the possibility that some will annex the emotive power of "death for apostasy" to serve their own ends, be they personal or political. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born ex-Muslim who has lived in the US for almost 20 years, became a hero of the neocons after claiming that some casually dismissive words from a cleric in a TV debate amounted to "a fatwa". In due course, Time Magazine listed her as one of 100 influential people "whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world".
Rejecting Islam and being anti-Islam are two different things, as are rejecting religion and being anti-religion. One is a spiritual lifestyle decision while the other entails some action, some campaign to eject religion from public life.
To call for religious freedom for all, including those who still believe, with the purpose of reform in mind is a noble endeavour. But claiming Islam is the root cause — or in some cases the only cause — of the Muslim world's malaise, and crusading against it on that basis is both disingenuous and counterproductive. It serves only to frame the argument through the prism of western experience and alienates the real protagonists even further.
To read AC Grayling's article, go to:
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