COMMENT: Must Islam uphold barbarism? — Ishtiaq Ahmed
Even barbarism should be differentiated in terms of degrees. Facing the wrath of envious mullahs for fornication is not the same as choosing a religion or a secular philosophy as one’s moral compass for finding the way in this directionless world
Let me begin by paying a compliment to the late General Muhammad Zia ul Haq for having had the good sense not to make apostasy a crime punishable with death even when he imposed Hudood laws on the people of Pakistan. Despite his weakness for a punishing type of Islam rather than the merciful type which my venerable grandfather Al Haj Mian Ilam Din lived by, General Zia was civilised enough to realise that matters of faith and conscience can never be imposed or forced on anyone. This wisdom must have come from somewhere. My bet is it was from the British rule in the Indian subcontinent.
Thank God the British ruled India for long enough to leave behind one great legacy — no law or public policy was ever instituted to force people to become Christians. Since Pakistan is a western zone of the former British Indian Empire our culture is not easily reducible to that of Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which never had a liberal past and could easily succumb to the worst type of barbarism when fundamentalist regimes came to power.
No denying that we have the Hudood laws, the Law of Evidence and the Blasphemy Law and these laws are applied as routine. Therefore isn’t my theory of British liberal rule as an antidote against barbarism forthwith falsified? No, I would say.
My point is that even barbarism should be differentiated in terms of degrees. Facing the wrath of envious mullahs for fornication is not the same as choosing a religion or a secular philosophy as one’s moral compass for finding the way in this directionless world.
As a civilised nation we do allow communist parties to function and even contest elections. I have yet to meet a communist who is not an agnostic — unless he is an outright atheist. How many times do we not wonder if there is any credibility in the belief that an Almighty God presides over the whole universe and nothing happens in this world against His will or at least His fore-knowledge. Such a God is also supposed to represent justice and always be on the side of the righteous.
If that is to be believed literally then how come thousands of infants and young children die of leukaemia; why are young girls from poor families sold into prostitution; why do small boys start shining shoes or work in carpet factories where their hands are mutilated and rendered useless when they are still small, while other boys of the same age go to school and play cricket?
I am sure many of us pose this question many times in our lives and never find an answer. Are we all then to be hanged because we question dogma, even when we obey the laws of Pakistan, pay our taxes and never hurt or injure a fellow human being or a fellow Pakistani?
Now, the case of apostasy which I have in mind is not one that denies the existence of an all-powerful God, but one in which a change of religion has occurred in the search for the true God. I am referring to the conversion of the Afghan convert to Christianity, Abdul Rahman. According to available information Mr Rahman who is 41-year old converted to Christianity in 1990 when he was working for some Christian charity that delivered medical aid to Afghans. It is possible that he was disillusioned with the way the Taliban and other fanatics had brutalised Afghan society and upon reflection found the religion of Jesus (peace be upon him) closer to his heart and soul. What is particularly objectionable about that?
After all only recently the distinguished Pakistani cricketer Yusuf Youhanna converted to Islam and became Muhammad Yusuf. For Abdul Rahman Christianity apparently provided the moral anchor that a Talibanised Islam did not. Should he not have the same freedom as former Mr Youhanna?
Of course a solution has been found. The Afghan government had Abdul Rahman declared mentally ill and the next day despatched him to Italy. I salute the Afghan government for its wise decision. It had no other choice. But what have Afghan politicians and ulema been saying? In an interview published in the Asia Times online of March 25, 2006, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, an engineer by profession and a prominent Afghan leader who was acting prime minister in the government of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani before the Taliban came to power, said, “Regardless of the court decision [whether or not he is hanged], there is unanimous agreement by all religious scholars from the north to the south, the east to the west of Afghanistan, that Abdul Rahman should be executed.”
The same article mentions that senior clerics in Afghanistan have already given the verdict that he should die. “We will not allow God to be humiliated”, Abdul Raouf a member of the Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s main clerical organisation, told Associated Press. “We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there’s nothing left.”
The problem is complicated because the Quran declares that there is no compulsion in religion. How should such an apparent contradiction be made to appear not a contradiction but a confirmation of the ulema’s view of apostasy? They argue that Islam does not force others to convert to Islam. Non-Muslims can retain their faith if they are a conquered people and agree to pay the jizya. However, if a Muslim abandons Islam it is an act of sedition since by adopting another religion he joins the enemy camp and is therefore a threat to the Islamic state and the Ummah.
Such twisted logic would make no sense to us who know that in the present world wars are not fought over beliefs but over strategic assets such as oil and natural gas. After all the most steadfast support for the most reactionary regime in the Muslim world, that of Saudi Arabia, was and is still provided by the USA. Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini would not have returned safely to Iran had the French not provided him sanctuary and protection against the agents of Savak, the secret police of the late Shah of Iran. Similarly the Afghan reactionaries should feel some shame for rabidly turning against a convert to Christianity when the Christian USA helped them drive the Soviets out of their country.
I think the problem is not the silent majority of Muslims but the quiet minority of Muslim intellectuals who continue to confuse Islamism with anti-imperialism rather than see it as a Third World type of fascism.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se