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.

 

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.”   

The attempt to prevent non-Muslims from criticizing Islam or any aspect of its existence by Islamist intimidation is, as Marshall and Shea aver, new. They quote Bernard Lewis, stipulating, “[A]t no time, until very recently, did any Muslim authority ever suggest that Sharia law [including a ban on insulting Islam] should be enforced on non-Muslims in non-Muslim countries.”

Notwithstanding the title, this is not a bleak book, or a justification for pessimism. It includes many episodes of cruel oppression, but also presents many chapters of courageous resistance. It presents powerful evidence that religious freedom among Muslims has many more friends and defenders than Westerners might imagine, and that none of this frenzied onslaught need be a feature of Islam and its relationship with the rest of the world forever.

Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam.