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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They then present essays by two Islamic scholars opposed to apostasy and blasphemy punishments: the late Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd (1943-2010), who fled his native Egypt for the Netherlands, and Abdullah Saeed, from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. As Marshall and Shea note, the Maldives, little known to foreigners except as a country said to be crumbling under rising sea levels, is “one of the most religiously repressive states in the world. .  .  . [The state] bans all religions other than Sunni Islam.” Maldivian law is exclusively based in religious jurisprudence, with prohibitions on “apostasy” and “blasphemy.” Abu-Zayd wrote that “earthly punishment” for departure from Islam or blasphemy is never mentioned in the Koran. Both he and Saeed trace the concept of apostasy and its capital punishment to Islamic history after the death of Muhammad in 632 a.d. 

Along with the contributions of Abu-Zayd and Saeed, and the conclusions by Marshall and Shea, Silenced includes a foreword by Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), a former president of Indonesia, also locating the origin of apostasy punishments in the politics of early Islam, and outlining a moderate vision of the religion. The inclusion of these conventional Muslim authors is explained by Marshall/Shea in their claim that “countering the use of such accusations and punishments in the Muslim world and the current attempts to spread them to the rest of the world, far from being an attack on Islam, can be seen as a defense of Islam.”

Between Wahid’s prefatory text, emphasizing a lyrical, Sufi variety of religious observance, and the elaborated, authoritative arguments of Abu-Zayd and Saeed, this compendium offers substantial reviews of the four countries best known for producing radical Islamist doctrines and for imposing severe measures, including death, on those held for purported apostasy and blasphemy. These are led by Saudi Arabia, center of the Wahhabi sect that inspires al Qaeda; Iran, an authentic theocracy ruled by “Westophobic” clerics; and Egypt, whence the Muslim Brotherhood was founded and grew to its current position of political strength. Then comes Pakistan, haven of the Taliban, which follows the Wahhabi-like Deobandi school of fundamentalism, as well as other homicidal jihadists. The Saudi kingdom and Iranian Islamic Republic were erected on fundamentalist precepts, while in Egypt and Pakistan, sectarian bigots have had to contend with pluralistic and modernist trends surviving in the political landscape.

Marshall and Shea also take up the progress of Muslim radicalization in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, and other countries in the greater Middle East, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.  

One may hope that recent reform developments in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt—led, respectively, by King Abdullah, the “Green Movement” during the 2009 Iranian elections, and the democratic revolutionaries of Tahrir Square—will ameliorate these terrible injustices. But as Marshall and Shea state, many of King Abdullah’s reforms have been blocked by the Wahhabi clerical establishment. The whole world saw the stalemate of the Iranian Green Movement at the hands of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. About the future of Egypt, we can only guess.  

Pakistan remains the outstanding exemplar of a Muslim country with weakening civil institutions and burgeoning radicalism. There, nonconforming Muslims and non-Muslims are fair game for imprisonment, assassination, and massacre at the hands of local terrorists, against whom the Pakistani government has shown a reluctance to act—the same hesitation visible in Islamabad’s handling of al Qaeda and the Taliban on Pakistan’s borders.

After presenting a catalogue of inhumanity and intolerance, Marshall and Shea assess the efforts of the OIC and radical clerics in the West to apply the actions against Rushdie to others who have criticized Islam in the West. These cases range from that of the ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her slain film collaborator, Theo Van Gogh, to the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons in a Danish newspaper, to instances of fear and self-censorship by Western artists, publishers, theater directors, journalists, and politicians. The efforts of the OIC and others to criminalize “defamation of religion”—attempts more or less abandoned at the United Nations in the last two years, as Marshall/Shea point out—are not, in their words, intended to protect Muslims but “to criminalize religious and political criticism of particular versions of Islam.”