Monday, April 10, 2006

The Case of the Afghan Apostate

Islamic Pluralism 1, Religious Dogmatism 0.

This is how I greeted the news that Abdur Rahman has been spared execution and freed by an Afghan court. He is the Afghan who converted to Christianity from Islam 16 years ago. When his apostasy came to light last week after a family squabble, a prosecutor threatened to execute him as mandated by what he claimed to be Afghanistan’s Sharia law.

Many Muslim media carried compelling articles about the illegality and immorality of apostasy-killing as the hapless Rahman’s impending fate filtered out of Afghanistan. The most powerful indictment comes, of course, from the Quran: There can be no coercion in matters of faith (2:256).

By citing a weak and dubious hadith, one that goes against the message of love and compassion that Prophet Muhammad preached and practiced throughout his life, a handful of Afghanistan’s frozen-in-time, pre-Taliban clerics sought to impose the death penalty on Rahman.
But worldwide outrage and a fledgling democracy’s resolve under President Hamid Karzai to do the right thing forced the clerics to retreat.

While Rahman’s travails remind us that we still have ways to go before the interpretation of Islam is loosened from the grips of dogmatists, we can also take some satisfaction from the progress that has been made.

Consider what would have happened to Rahman if the Taliban were still in power. Remember the harrowing video - widely distributed after the 9/11 attacks - of the woman who was publicly executed in a soccer stadium in Kabul, “cowering beneath a pale blue all-enveloping burqa?” Can anyone doubt that Rahman would not have met the same fate, given the Taliban’s record in these matters, particularly the record of its "Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”?

Implementing Sharia, as the Taliban defined it, became synonymous with beatings and killings. Is it any wonder that anytime patriarchal clerics talk of implementing Sharia, it sends shivers down the spines of Muslims in the affected areas, particularly of Muslim women?

Consider also the question of stoning to death (unmarried) people accused of adultery, again based on a weak hadith. Remember the case of the Nigerian woman Amina Lawal, charged with conceiving a child while single? A Nigerian Sharia court declared in 2002 that for her crime of adultery, she was to be stoned to death. (The court couldn’t be bothered about the man who was her “partner in crime.” He was nowhere to be found in the Katsina district in Northern Nigeria where the Sharia court held sway and was also absent from any theological discussion!)

The Quran mentions stoning five times - 11:91, 18:20, 19:46, 26:116 and 36:18 - but it is directed against prophets Shuaib, People of the Cave, Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Noah, and Companions of the City, respectively. When these prophets and the righteous servants of God began preaching monotheism, people used to polytheism threatened them with stoning. That is as far as the Quran goes.

International outrage across religious boundaries forced the Nigerian court to spare Lawal’s life in 2003.

Hopefully, killing for apostasy and stoning to death (only women need apply) for adultery will soon be a thing of the past as absolutist clerics realize that their hold over Muslim minds and hearts is rapidly dissipating. In the Age of the Internet, ideas travel with the speed of light and millions of Muslims are taking advantage of it to deepen their understanding of Islam and mobilize support for progressive and humane causes. Many new avenues of thought are opening up. One example is the complex nature of the relationship between mosque and state, as opposed to the reflexive and traditional view that the two must be conflated in Islam. Even in conservative societies, Muslims are beginning to recognize that faith is a matter of personal responsibility and not a consequence of authoritarian decree. The days of any religious leader thundering “I am right, you are dead” will soon, let us pray, be over once and for all.

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