Archive for November, 2022

Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

[On September 24, 2022, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy hosted a panel discussion on “Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries” moderated by Sahar Aziz. This our summary of highlights of the discussion and is not a transcript.  The use of the first person is for convenience only. The event can be seen in full here.]

Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Qur’an is very clear and ahead of its time that “There is no compulsion in religion.” Muslims have been more influenced by the khalifal policies in the “ridda wars” than by the practice of the Prophet. The question is why Muslim societies have not reformed their blasphemy and apostasy laws into conformance with the Prophetic model. I would argue that it is the absence of democracy. To understand this, it is useful to look at the example of Egypt where many people take to the airways to insult the Prophet with impunity but disagreement with President Sisi is not tolerated.

Mustafa Akyol. The early Muslim society adopted the laws on blasphemy and apostasy from other empires  of the time. Some modern translations now change the verse Dr. Abou El Fadl quoted by adding a parenthetical twist so that “No  compulsion in religion” becomes “No compulsion in (entering the) religion.” There is no punishment specified for blasphemy or apostasy. In fact, the Qur’an actually quotes blasphemies (to refute them), which puts the Qur’an itself in opposition to Pakistani laws against quoting blasphemies. “You are sure to hear much that is hurtful from those who have been given the scriptures before you and those who are polytheists. Be steadfast and mindful of God.” (3:186) The Qur’anic exegete Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi opines that the claim of some that this verse abrogated is weak because other verses instruct Muslims to win the disbelievers over by preaching and discourse. At-Tabari quotes verses that show Moses was ordered to speak gently to Pharaoh (the archetype of evil), and Muhammad is told to tell the believers to forgive those who do not believe. “If you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things”  (4:140). The Qur’an calls for disengagement from, not punishment of, mockery. Later episodes are taken as the basis for punishing blasphemers, in particular some poets killed by early Muslims for mocking the Prophet, e.g. Ka`b. But Ka`b was not just a disrespectful poet, he was engaged in propaganda to incite people to violence against the Muslims. The Prophet forgave those who insulted him. Ibn Taymiyyah has argued that the Prophet had the right to forgive people who insulted him, but we don’t. This opinion is cited in Pakistani High Court decisions, despite the fact that Prophet is supposed to be our model in all things. Blasphemy and apostasy laws are unIslamic and we Muslims do not need them.

Ahmet T. Kuru. There 70 countries with blasphemy laws today, half of which are Muslim majority countries where they are generally more severe (and six of which include capital punishment). This a societal, not just a state, problem. 70% in southeast and Southern Asia and 50% in the Middle East say apostates should be killed. This, the killing of other Muslims, and failing to make contracts written are the three most blatant departures of Muslim practice from Qur’anic commandments. In the 11th Century social, economic and military crises led to the rise of an uluma-state alliance embracing the killing of apostates. Today uluma (Islamic scholars), Islamists, and Sufi shaikhs embrace the idea of punishing blasphemers in order to establish a hegemony. It has become difficult to hold the middle ground because there has been a rise of an intolerant secularist camp that sees us as naive and an extremist religious camp that sees us as kafirs.

Basheer Ahmed. Rather than control blasphemy, the blasphemy laws spread it. I think Muslims have done more to spread blasphemy than non-Muslims. Without doubt blasphemy hurts the feelings of Muslims. Many Muslim countries today have laws calling for the incarceration or even execution of blasphemers. The existence of this laws affect both Muslims and those of other faiths. There are 150 people now incarcerated in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. Although none have been executed by the state there, many have been killed by mobs. Even a man who called for the fair trial of blasphemers was killed. A judge in a trial of a man accused of blasphemy was threatened and had to leave the country. Does this give a good image of Islam? Nearly all prophets were abused, but the Qur’an has never indicated that their supporters were encouraged to kill the abusers. The Qur’an says the punishment will be in the afterlife. Why did the Prophet never order the killing of his opponents?  When the lady who daily threw garbage at him failed to show up, why did he ask after her health?

Radwan Masmoudi. Most people in the world don’t care about the theory of blasphemy, but about the practice. One of the biggest misunderstandings of Islam is that it does not believe in freedom of religion or belief and that it imposes itself on Muslims and others. The biggest rebuttal to this is the existence of Islam with religious minorities in so many Muslim majority countries around the world. I will focus on freedom of conscience in the 2014 Tunisian constitution, the only popularly written constitution in the Arab World, written by an elected Constitutional convention after two years of public comment to build a consensus that would be backed by virtually all Tunisians and not just a majority. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience were among the thorniest question. Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Should people be allowed to choose or to change religion, or to have no religion at all? Debates were often heated or intense. Some argued that we must protect Islam and allowing people to change or leave their religion would jeopardize Tunisia’s religious homogeneity. Can you achieve homogeneity by forcing people to pretend belief in something in which they do not believe? Or do you achieve homogeneity by open debate? Is the goal homogeneity or hypocrisy? And what does Islam itself require? The Qur’an is very clear and specific: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever believes in God rejects evil has grasped the most trustworthy handhold which never breaks; and God is the All-knowing” (2:256). “Say, I am not a guardian over you” (6:104). How can Almighty God hold us accountable for our choices if we were not free to choose? The Tunisian people, allowed to choose, overwhelmingly approved Article 6 guaranteeing freedom of conscience and belief. Unfortunately the Tunisian democracy was overthrown in a coup and the new dictator has imposed a new constitution from which Article 6 has been deleted.

Sahar Aziz. Is any Muslim majority country governed by Islamic law? Are not almost all Muslim countries governed by a mishmash of colonial law and Islamic law (except for some elements of family law)?

Abou Fadl. Islamic jurisprudence has not survived the colonial moment. It has been deconstructed and all purported representations of Islamic law in effect are legacies of colonialism. Consider Saudi Arabia. Who has been put to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy and blasphemy?  A Shia scholar who supported the Arab Spring and said protest against oppressive government is an Islamic right. In Egypt law is idra’ al idyana, disrespect of religion, a phrase that comes not from Islamic tradition but is a translation of a phrase from the French colonial period. One man was arrested on this charge at the request of the Coptic church.

Mustafa Akyol. It is respect for authority that is imposed by coercion. (It has secular versions, like the law against insulting Ataturk). Diversity of state law should not distract us from the main issue. Blasphemy law is not only an issue of state law but a driver of mob violence.

Ahmet T. Kuru. We are addressing two different audiences. To the Western audience the diversity of Islamic law is an important point. To the Muslim world, most have secular constitutions, but the blasphemy issue is a matter of teachings in mosques and schools. Rather than focus on the state law, look at the influence of Locke on the English speaking world, Descartes on the French, and Shafi on the Arab.

Radwan Masmoudi. The rulers of the Muslim world do not want any debate whether about religion or politics. Yes, we want a modern understanding of Islam, but it must be authentic and come from within the Islamic tradition. It is a long struggle. In Tunisia, we have trained over half of the imams on democracy and free speech.

Sahar Aziz. Should we be focusing on changing laws or changing popular attitudes? Is your position that Islamic law does not accommodate blasphemy law at all or does it merely require reform?

Ahmet T. Kuru. In the Western model, blasphemy laws were first made a dead letter. In Pakistan, the murderer of an accused blasphemer was killed by the state and now a political party celebrating him as a martyr is getting 10% of the votes.

Mustafa Akyol. Blasphemy laws can be used against Muslims, as in India where Muslims are subjected to violence for disrespecting Hinduism by eating beef. We can abolish blasphemy laws in the same way that we abolished slavery.

Sahar Aziz. We may fetishize American free speech rights, but people across the Atlantic, supposedly in the same tradition, disagree on things like hate speech laws.

M. Basheer Ahmed. All shariah laws were devised by human beings during the Medieval period.  When laws defeat their purpose, should they not be changed or abolished?

Khaled Abou Fadl. There are very good scholarly works challenging such laws. Abu Bakr’s decision to fight the apostasy wars laid the groundwork for the existing problematical laws. The prerequisite for a reasoned discussion of history is to take that history seriously and approach it with an open mind. We Muslims don’t take our history seriously. Works produced in Arabic, Turkish, Persian are for the most part reductive, derivative, and imitative. Consider Ibrahim Issa who has sold out to a despot equal to the Pharaoh allowing his call for reform to be used as a justification for Sisi’s oppression. The minute a Muslim starts dreaming of liberty and rights, he is told he is an exception to humanity that locks the Muslim mind into an endless pathology.

Sahar Aziz. There are many forces causing these problems, it is not just religious zealotry.

Mustafa Akyol.  The number one reform we need is of the rule that the ruler must be obeyed even when he is oppressive. It is true that U.S. standards of free speech and religion are higher than those of Europe, but I believe they are better for that reason. Let us not forget that hate speech laws can be used against us Muslims as well.  Does not the Qur’an say unbelievers will go Hell? Can that not be used against atheists?

Ahmet T. Kuru. I agree that as along as we do not harm one another there should be freedom of speech. We must also not forget that Muslims who continue to profess Islam have also been called apostates for questioning any particular of traditional Islamic law even though they pray five times a day and fast.

M. Basheer Ahmed. There is no reason we have to accept law as understood in the eleventh century.

Radwan Masmoudi. We need more of these debates and discussions. It is a long-term project to change the mindset of Muslims. Who speaks for Islam? Authoritarian regimes or institutions they create and control are not qualified. In true Islam there is no one charged to speak for Islam; all of us speak for Islam, which is more democratic than a Church establishment. It is time we speak louder and take back our right to define and defend Islam. We must convince the majority of Muslims that what we say is true and genuine.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Public Freedoms in the Islamic State

Monday, November 28th, 2022

[On October 27 the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding co-hosted a book launch for the English translation of Rached Ghannouchi’s book Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, co-moderated by Radwan Masmoudi and John  Esposito.  This is a summery of highlights of and is not intended to be a transcript of that discussion.]

Prof. John Esposito, Georgetown University and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding. We have seen how Shaikh Rashed walked his talk, and, until recently, hopes were high for the success of Tunisian democracy.

Shaikh Rached responded to questions from Andrew March, Univ. of Amherst (who said this book is of importance not only to Islamic studies but to political philosophy more broadly) David L. Johnston, Fuller Theological Seminary (who translated the book), Tamara Sonn, Georgetown Univ. (who noted it was his advocacy of democracy that required Shaikh Ghannouchi to seek political asylum in the face then, as now, of well-funded disinformation campaigns), and from the audience.

Rached Ghannouchi wrote this book during exile and imprisonment. Islam is valid for all time and places and not linked to  a particular context.  There  is no value unless humans are free. Shurah (consultation with stakeholders) and democracy are compatible. Revelation and reason are compatible. All human relationship are established by free will, whether social, theological, or economic. Freedom of conscience is essential. In prison he came to realize that riddah is a political crime (treason), not a religious crime (apostasy). Islam is democratic because democracy is not a creed but a mechanism to avoid dictatorship. The ethical dimension is important in the state. Islam provides values from which a democracy may draw strength.

The first Islamic state in Medina was headed by the Messenger (peace be upon him) so that state and ummah were intertwined. Now the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) consists of 27 countries, and the religious community is no longer linked to the nation state, but refers to a broader society.

Human beings are ideological creatures. Even secularism is a kind of religion. Humans have spiritual longings beyond matter. Politics is built on interests but should not be divorced from values. For example, the war on Iraq in the nineties, launched on the false premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, led to horrible consequences to Iraqis and to Westerners. The transition to democracy in Tunisia has been difficult but so have all others — many more difficult. Even America has undergone wars and even recently has seen an attack in the Capitol. Tunisians will fight those who seek to take it back to its despotic past.

Sayyid Qutb believed that Islam is civilization, whereas Malek Bennabi believed that they are separate things. Islam can be understood in a way that produces progress or that leaves us backward. Ghannouchi met with both men and realized that Malek Bennabi’s understanding was better. The greater the space for freedom, the more liberal understandings of Islam that spread. Under the Soviet Union Islam was almost extinct, but as soon as communism collapsed, Islam regained its power. Islam flourishes where there is freedom.

The concept of human vicegerency is a fundamental concept due to the fact that humans are neither pure matter nor pure spirit. Regarding non-Muslim minorities, all citizens equally own the state regardless of creed. In the process of writing the book Ghannouchi abandoned any notion of classes of citizenship, realizing in the modern world such distinctions serve no positive purpose. In the medieval era Muslim states came closer to this ideal than the Christian ones.

Like Stalin and Hitler, the founders of the French Revolution (who invented modern state terrorism) were all secular. In America, politicians visit churches, synagogues, and mosques, and debate issues like abortion and prayer in the schools. Yet, many have chosen to push democracy on the French, rather than the American, model. In Tunisia, Ghannouchi was not pushed from parliament by elections, but by a coup which some persons in a position to do something about it have refused to call it by its true name. Ghannouchi believes people are fundamentally good and is hopeful that the truth will prevail over the smear-mongers.

Responding to a question as to whether democracy is now unpopular in Tunisia and Egypt, Ghannouchi said that we cannot say that democracy failed in Tunisia or Egypt until there have been free and fair elections from which no one is excluded.

Ghannouchi denied any contradiction between Islam and democracy. In democracies, parliaments represent the people, but they do not have absolute power.  They reflect the common culture whether it is Islamic or something else. The book is premised on the notion that Islam is freedom. Establishing freedom is the necessary first step towards an Islamic state. Excluding secularism from public life  is not moderation, it is extremism of a Jacobin sort.

Islam is a space for common ground, not conflict. Islam is democratic because democracy wants to create space for dialog, not war. Tunisia is living though a difficult transition, but it shall triumph because justice will prevail.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. I asked a question which, unfortunately, there was not time for Shaikh Rached to entertain: Even if foreign investment were more valuable than domestic development (a premise I do not share) a viable domestic economy would still be important to attract foreign investment. Either way, what though have you given to freeing up the Tunisian domestic economy, especially given the degree to which over-regulation invites the corruption which, after all, was the seed around which the regulation there sprang?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

News and Analysis 11/28/22

Monday, November 28th, 2022

To date Israeli soldiers have killed 77 children, Palestinian fighters killed one:

“[T]he ‘Hindutva’ (Hindu supremacist) project in India is adding diversity and objectivity to its anti-minority hatred”:

Victims of Israeli detention now include Jewish activists as well as Palestinians:

Khan “denounced numerous alleged incidents of official intimidation, legal harassment, threats and attacks against himself, his supporters, political allies and journalists”:

“Moradkhani called on people around the world to urge their governments to cut ties with the Iranian regime amid protests sweeping the nation”:

MBS shares his father’s “distrust of any independent reform movement”:

Initiatives fail to address how the “criminal justice system subjects Muslims to surveillance, deportation, and detention, that fuel hate crime violence”:

Israeli medical negligence causes one man to lose most of his teeth and the medical issues underlying another man’ s severe body pain are ignored and he is treated only with pain-killers:

News and Analysis 11/26/22

Saturday, November 26th, 2022

As appalling as Israel’s violence against education, trade, and fishermen may be …

… things are about to get worse:

Malaysia’s liberal advocate of Muslim democracy pledges to fight corruption and “uphold the rights of all citizens”:

Khan’s father heard his son’s screams at the police station less than an hour before police delivered the dead body to the hospital:

Israel threatens free speech in America as well as in the areas under its direct control …

… and humanitarian efforts as well:

“The complex interactions between establishment feminists and government institutions explain the former’s [clamor] … on certain … issues and … silence on other[s]”:

“In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests”:

The “pattern of infiltration, investigation, approach, incitement and provision” is not limited to Muslim communities:

In a “forward-thinking community where women have a lot of freedom to make their choices. And one of those choices is to live a religious life and wear religious dress”:

But the American consulate remains closed:

News and Analysis 11/24/22

Thursday, November 24th, 2022

Israeli demonstrators shout “I’m proud to be a racist” and “You should all be in camps,” and a former Israeli police chief says suspicion of Ethiopians is only “natural”:

Somali-American Muslims withdrew their request in deference to their neighbors, but still do not know why the call to prayer should be treated differently than church bells”:

Palestinians and Israelis each kill a noncombatant teenager, making this the deadliest year since 2005:

The school claims to encourage differences of “views, beliefs and opinions” but students who challenged a claim on homosexuality in Islam were “put in isolation and suspended”:

The day before, “Israeli settlers, under army protection, closed the main entrance of Nilin town, west of Ramallah”:

“The three largest Muslim majority countries, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangledesh, have already elected a women president. How many women presidents have we had in this country?”

With the spread of adoption of the flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism, conflation of criticism of apartheid with antisemitism becomes increasingly problematic:

“Fatima’s role as treasurer for that early group of British Muslims was ‘so important’ as women ‘can’t even get into a load of mosques’ boards now, never mind [be] a treasurer'”:

News and Analysis 11/21/22

Monday, November 21st, 2022

Understanding Israel’s cruel response to a nonviolent protestor …

… can help explain why it won’t join “80 states, including the US, UK and France” opposing attacks on civilians …

… and why the settler / soldier terrorism continues:

After journalists are threatened online by presumed militants, Indian police police respond by raiding the homes of … journalists(!):

Better security due to the end of the war frees access to an estimated trillion dollars in resources:

Human rights groups and opposition parties demand “the release of all jailed human rights defenders in the Delhi pogrom UAPA case, calling arrests ‘state witch-hunt'”:

Israel continues to disregard the property rights of Palestinians:

‘Hurriyat Conference expresses grave concern and anguish over the cold-blooded custodial killings of young boys arrested … while in police custody”:

“[A]fter the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces there seem to be no questions about the place of politics in sports, and more specifically in association football”:

“Activist groups inspired by Islamic and pro-environment ideas have the potential to do more to address climate change, if those in charge hear them out”:

Qatar has permitted alcoholic beverage sales “in hotel bars for years” but made a last-minute U-turn on the sale of beer in the stadiums during the World Cup:

News and Analysis 11/18/22

Friday, November 18th, 2022

Neither schools nor the autistic are safe from Israel’s war on children:

A mother complains “Plainclothes forces shot my child. That is it” …

… and a leader tweeted of the government’s responsibility to “family members of those who have been killed or wounded” and “to uphold their rights”:

Israel’s new government will expand the protection given to settlements illegal under international law”

“A’isha, reports how the Prophet (PBUH) kept praising women of the holy city of Medina for their spirit of enquiry and quest for knowledge”:

“Israel’s refusal to cooperate should raise questions about the US/Israeli relationship”:

Many “children of Muslim background in the care sector … suffer from mental health issues, racism, Islamophobia, estrangement …, and a sense of isolation and shame”:

“[E]xtended family members, friends and neighbours” all are subject to Israeli “collective punishment'”:

News and Analysis 11/17/22

Thursday, November 17th, 2022

Shouldn’t Elon Musk’s “free speech absolutism” apply to on-the-ground reports of Israeli crimes?

Twenty-one “detainees have been charged with security-related offenses that are punishable by death” …

… but propaganda that thousands of protestors will be executed is false:

As if to demonstrate the danger, Palestinians will not be allowed to discuss the effects of conflating criticism of Israel with antiSemitism:

Developed countries have imposed an “externality” on poor countries through CO2 emissions, but Pakistan’s “solution” of reparations to corrupt governments is problematical:

“The law … prohibits public school teachers, police officers, government lawyers and a host of other civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work”:

The prize jury in Germany “withdrew a Lifetime Achievement Award from renowned British playwright Caryl Churchill over her support for Palestinian rights”:

Symbolic, yet unprecedented, a “pressure campaign from Democratic members of Congress pushing a Democratic administration to take a firm stance against Israel”:

Israeli soldier / settler violence continues:

Most experts doubt Iran has plans to build a bomb but “[f]ew doubt that Iran would reduce its breakout time … to mere weeks … if the deal were not restored”:

News and Analysis 11/14/22

Monday, November 14th, 2022

As the UN asks the ICJ for an opinion on Israeli human rights abuses, the occupier state is angered by Ukraine’s lack of hypocrisy on illegal occupation:

To understand why no Pakistan PM has never managed to complete a five-year term … it is crucial to focus on Pakistan’s army”:

School buses fear to tread on the roads Israel refuses to maintain:

Although the Qur’an makes no explicit mention of transgender, transsexual, or nonbinary persons, it “clearly recognizes … people neither male nor female”:

Israel bans harming animals in “natural reserves,” so Palestinian farmers are at the mercy of the wild boars that destroy their crops, animals, and kill the farmers:

“Iran’s Revolutionary Court issued the sentence to a protester who allegedly set fire to a government building”:

Israel continues its unprovoked murder spree which is now victimizing Israelis as well:

News and Analysis 11/12/22

Saturday, November 12th, 2022

As the U.S. and Israel object to a U.N. request for an ICJ opinion on Israeli human rights practices …

… the settler/soldier onslaught continues:

“We will not allow this Nevada prison to ignore a federal court’s order” CAIR Staff Attorney Kim Noe-Lehenbauer:

A film festival organized by JCC Manhattan aims “to illustrate that criticism against Israel was not to be conflated with antisemitism” …

… while one in Ramallah organized by Film Lab: Palestine serves an “audience [that] cannot travel freely”:

Naga believes he was dismissed in retaliation for a suit alleging that a committeeman used “an obscene phrase offensive to both Blacks and Arab Muslims”:

“State Representative-elect Ruwa Romman and state Senator-elect Nabilah Islam will be the first Muslim women in their respective chambers”:

“The course prepares students to critically engage with … the recurrent misogynistic and Islamophobic ways” in which the Middle East and Islam are represented:

The U.S. calls on India “to restore local elections and political rights in all the regions across the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir“: