Vol. 5 Num 651 Tue. March 28, 2006  

Death for apostasy and Shariah

The latest spine chiller from Afghanistan is the revolting news about the sentencing of one Abdul Rahman to death for converting to Christianity, a capital crime as per the obscurantist Shariah law. One might be surprised at the recrudescence of barbarism in the name of Islam in presence of UN peace keepers and almost five years after the overthrow of the demonic Taliban regime. However, those who know about the Shariah code have nothing to be surprised about dispensing death penalty to apostates from Islam.

In view of the judgment, one may even assume that since the UN has recognized the post-Taliban regime, Hamid Karzai being an important US ally in its "war against terrorism," the Afghan government, including its judiciary, is a legitimate part of a sovereign country. Consequently one may surmise that condemning someone to death for apostasy or blasphemy in accordance with the Shariah, as it has been going on in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, is but "an interference into the internal affairs" of a sovereign country.

On the one hand, some American observers are raising the question if the Afghan regime wants to revert to the Taliban way of doing things, then it should do so without American help; and on the other, both the US President and Canadian Prime Minister have asked the Afghan President to restore the freedom of religion in the country in accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We believe, despite the sabre-rattling by mullahs and judges, finally the Afghan government will prevail by unhooking Abdul Rahman from the claws of the Shariah. As we understand, unfortunately this will happen not by scrapping the barbaric Shariah code but through a deceptive compromise, by declaring the victim not an apostate, but insane. (In fact, the original judgement has since been over-turned but only due to "lack of evidence.")

Both the progressive Muslims and upholders of human rights everywhere should come forward and declare unanimously: "Enough is enough, no more Shariah law anywhere in the East and West." Let us bury the past inadequacies, vacillations and double standards of liberal Muslims and non-Muslims (mainly due to the exigencies of the Cold War) towards the violation of human rights in the name of Shariah -- from Saudi Arabia to Iran and Sudan to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Both the liberal democrats and secular humanists in the West and East, including the Muslim World, should fulfill their moral obligations towards humanity. Nothing would be more counter-productive than portraying the West as the enemy of Islam and the Muslims as obscurantist Shariah-loving terrorists. A bridge is essential and a "dialogue of civilizations," to paraphrase former Iranian President Khatami, between Islam and the West is the only viable alternative to the Shariah obscurantism and provocative Islamophobia nourished in the West.

Exerting pressure on Karzai to save Abdul Rahman's life is fine, but not enough. Exposing the un-Islamic nature of the Shariah code, together by liberal, progressive Muslims and non-Muslim upholders of human rights and dignity with a view to abolishing the so-called Islamic code everywhere is the only solution to the violation of human rights in the name of Islam, once and for all.

Those who consider attacking Shariah as an affront on Islam and as a violation of the UN Charter should know that there is nothing "divine" about the code. Shariah is the combination of legal opinions of Muslim jurists sought and enforced by medieval Muslim rulers. Although claimed to be emanating from the Quran, Shariah code is mainly based on problematic "sayings" of Prophet Muhammad, individual and collective opinions of medieval jurists, local customs and common sense.

Interestingly, the Islamic scripture or the Quran spells out: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" [2:256] and does not prescribe any death penalty for apostasy either: "Surely (as for) those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, Allah will not forgive them nor guide them in the (right) path" [4:137].

The Quran sanctions death penalty for murder and other horrendous crimes, not apostasy: "You shall not kill any person -- for God has made life sacred -- except in the course of justice. If one is killed unjustly, then we give his heir authority to enforce justice" [17:33]. One also finds the following in the Quranic text: "For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men" [5:32].

However, the Shariah law condemns the apostate to death. One finds striking similarity between this barbaric provision with the Biblical prescription: "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death” [Bible, King James Version, Leviticus 24:16].

There are many other incongruities between the Islamic scripture and the Shariah code. As for example, while the Quran prescribes 100 lash as punishment for adultery, the Shariah sanctions stoning to death for both the adulterer and adulteress, in accordance with the Old Testament.

The Shariah with all its variations and contradictions has created problems both for Muslims and non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated as well as other countries in our times. The term “Shariah” evokes bad memories among its victims as well as opponents who want the abolition or drastic reforms of this Draconian code. Our experience tells us that Shariah is inherently prejudicial to women, non-Muslims and freethinkers, and that its language, spirit and above all, execution, go against the spirit, ideals and teaching of Islam. However, ironically the mullahs, who are supposed to be the upholders of the ideals of Islam, have been the main promoters and defenders of Shariah which stands in contravention of human rights, decency and civilized behaviour.

The collective ignorance of the Muslim community combined with the vested interests of many Muslims is sustaining this incongruous Shariah code. The Muslim community in Afghanistan and beyond can replace this absurd, outdated un-Islamic code of Shariah with a liberal and modern one only through collective efforts of the members of the civil society, human rights groups, intellectuals and liberal politicians. They need to educate both the mullahs and ordinary Muslims with regard to the obscurantist aspects of the Shariah. The core of the problem is political. So, only social reformist agenda by a few cultural groups will not be able to resolve the issue.

However, this arduous task requires global support from the UN agencies to the various human rights organizations, liberal democratic governments and donor-driven development agencies and NGOs. The West must call the shots not by demonizing Islam, Prophet Muhammad and the not-so-monolithic Muslim community or by selective condemnation of the anti-Western "Islamic" countries such as Iran and Sudan. Violation of human rights in any form in "Islamic" countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt or Bangladesh, despite their pro-Western foreign policies, should become a global concern. With UN sponsored sanctions, and if required, military interventions as taken against the rogue Serbian regime in the early 1990s, the terror of Shariah may be contained and eliminated eventually.

The Afghan President's assurance to the West that his government is not going to yield to the pressure of the blood-thirsty mullahs who want to kill Abdul Rahman for apostasy is but an isolated act of redemption, not an outright victory against Shariah and barbaric obscurantism in the name of Islam. We have a long way to tread to get human rights and dignity for all the victims of Shariah in Afghanistan and beyond.

Taj Hashmi writes from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.