The Magazine

Annals of Intolerance

The Islamist war on freedom of conscience.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Paul Marshall and Nina Shea have performed an important service with this account of laws and customs against “apostasy” and “blasphemy” in Muslim countries. Marshall, a senior fellow, and Shea, the director at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, have accumulated a daunting inventory of tyrannical abuses, including assaults, murders, massacres, executions, imprisonment, torture, censorship, and denunciations.    

In addition, they survey the dangerous impact of such repressive canons on Western freedom of opinion about Islam. This litany, therefore, comprises restrictions on free expression in Muslim lands and similar efforts in non-Muslim-majority regions by Islamist radicals, including by governmental and international bodies, such as the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) based in Saudi Arabia.  

The introduction by Marshall and Shea commences with the case that made “blasphemy” and its association with Islam known across the globe: Salman Rushdie, his novel The Satanic Verses, and the capital sentence against him by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. As Marshall and Shea observe, Khomeini’s condemnation of Rushdie 

signaled a new worldwide movement to curb freedoms of religion and speech through the export and enforcement of Muslim blasphemy rules that were already suppressing minorities and dissenters in Muslim-majority countries. All this took place in the context of a revival of reactionary forms of Islam, supported heavily by the political rulers and spiritual authorities of both Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Marshall and Shea declare that Islamist ideological “radicalization has produced increasing pressure and attacks .  .  . on those accused of having in some way insulted Islam, especially affecting four groups.” These are, first, sects originating in Islam, like the Baha’is and the lesser-known Ahmadis, who “believe, or are thought to believe, that there has been a prophet after Muhammad.”  

Muslim faith holds that the prophet of Islam was the last divine messenger to humanity. Because of devotion to their founders—for the Baha’is, the Persian Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri (Baha’u’llah), who lived from 1817 to 1892; for the Ahmadis, an Indian Muslim named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), who proclaimed himself the mahdi or Islamic messiah—the Baha’is have been persecuted, especially in Iran, and the Ahmadis in many Muslim countries. 

Second come those who leave Islam knowingly or convert to other religions—that is to say, literal apostates. They are followed by minorities labeled heretical, exemplified by Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Sufis in Iran, and then by “dissidents, liberals, or reformers, especially if they challenge the entrenched power of regimes that claim to be representative of Islam.” The authors have treated “apostasy,” meaning a change in one’s religion or the public abandonment of religion, and “blasphemy,” an insult to a religion or its sacred figures and principles, similarly, if only because they are pretexts for targeting by the same despotic rulers, fanatical clerics, and violent zealots. 

Nevertheless, in the cases recorded here from Muslim countries, few of the victims attempted to leave Islam or denounced it seriously. “Apostasy” as a cover for persecution of dissenting or heterodox Muslims is replete here. “Blasphemy” appears often as a reproach to the uninhibited culture of the West, and as an excuse for settling personal quarrels by allegations of irreligious or anti-Muslim conduct among poor and marginalized people.  

Marshall and Shea end their main text by noting:

The targets of attacks over alleged insults to Islam are many and varied. .  .  . Perhaps most targets are of Muslim background. .  .  . Some are seeking to advance the interests of their co-religionists; others are ex-Muslims, either converts to Christianity or atheists. Some are Muslims with unorthodox views, while others are mainstream Muslims who denounce terrorism and violence. The only thing that they have in common is that they have acted or created or spoken in a way that offends the sensibilities—or frustrates the social and political ambitions—of Muslim extremists.