Ground Rules for the Religious Pluralism Club

June 26, 2008

On a regular basis of late, Muslim spokespeople have called for “interfaith dialog”. They evidently want Islam to be viewed as a mainstream religion in a pluralistic world. This fits with a general desire for Islam to be respected by non-Muslims. It’s true that mutual respect is a desirable thing; however, for this to happen, I think it’s important for religious leaders to establish ground rules. Every community needs ground rules so that members can get along with each other, and a pluralistic community of religions is no exception. Here are five simple rules I would propose, based on fairness, which I believe are reasonable prerequisites for joining the club of religious pluralism:

Religious Pluralism Ground Rule #1: Anyone Can Leave Any Religion

Oops, it appears that Islam is starting off on the wrong foot by breaking one of the very most important ground rules for fairness amongst religions. According to Sharia, the punishment for leaving Islam is death for men, and either death or life in prison for women (depending on the school of Sharia). Although few Muslim countries today enforce this punishment, vigilante enforcement is such that apostates from Islam fear for their lives, even in the United states. As long as this is the case, Islam is a religion that people can enter but cannot leave without risk. Why should other religions accept Islam when Islam traps its believers, including converts from other faiths, like flies on flypaper?

Religious Pluralism Ground Rule #2: Anyone Can Promote Their Religious Beliefs to Anyone Else

Unfortunately, things don’t get any better for Islam here. It naturally follows that if Muslims are not allowed to leave Islam, non-Muslims are not allowed to do anything which might persuade Muslims to leave Islam. Christian missionaries throughout the Muslim world face persecution. In “moderate” Turkey, missionaries are sometimes arrested or deported, even though missionary activity is ostensibly legal. Niyazi Guney, Turkish Ministry of Justice director general of laws, has commented that “Missionaries are more dangerous than terror organizations.” Even in the West, police have been known to support Sharia rules banning non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims though there is no legal basis for it. For example, in Britain, a constable told two preachers they couldn’t preach in a Muslim area. In the US, a Christian preacher at UC Irvine was assaulted by Muslim students, while campus police did nothing.

Even simple religious expression that falls far short of missionary work is banned for non-Muslims under Sharia. Displaying religious symbols and building new places of worship, for example, are forbidden for non-Muslims.

Meanwhile, under Sharia, Muslims are free to promote their faith to non-Muslims all they want, as well as building mosques and displaying Muslim religious symbols, which clearly violates the fairness principle.

Religious Pluralism Ground Rule #3: Anyone Can Criticize Any Religion

Hmmm…. Islam just gets further in the hole with this one. As noted by Robert Spencer in this must-read article, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is making a concerted effort, and a successful one, toward shutting down all criticism of Islam. Add to this the efforts of organizations such as CAIR, the MSA, and the MSU, to name a few, and it’s easy to spot a trend.

I would also note that mainstream, traditional interpretations of the Quran are severely critical of non-Islamic faiths, including polytheism, Christianity, and Judaism. In addition, any religion with a prophet after Mohammed is widely regarded by Muslims as blasphemous, based on mainstream interpretations of Quran 33:40. How can it be wrong for Islam to be criticized, when Islam’s holy book defames non-Islamic religions? So long as Islam keeps the Quran (and traditional interpretations thereof), fairness dictates that criticism of Islam must be allowed.

Religious Pluralism Ground Rule #4: Religions May Not Impose Their Rules by Force of Theocracy

In the past, Christianity was a misbehaver on this one, but this is the twenty first century. No major religion today other than Islam has a political agenda to rule the world. The rules of Sharia are incompatible with the US Constitution and basic norms of individual rights and freedoms in the West. Sharia includes laws which explicitly discriminate against other religions, such as valuing the legal testimony of a non-Muslims as half that of a Muslim. The barbaric punishments prescribed for certain crimes also comes off as unfriendly. Is it any wonder, then, that representatives of Islam have trouble gaining respect from non-Muslims?

Religious Pluralism Ground Rule #5: Religions May Not Support Holy War

Yes, it seems people get really annoyed when they or their loved ones are killed for being infidels. That’s just not a good way to get along with others–it makes people testy. Of course, the majority of Muslims have no interest in participating in Jihad warfare. However, Jihad warfare remains, to this day, very much a part of Islamic theology. Where are the mainstream Muslim organizations who denounce Jihad warfare under any circumstances and refute the theological justification for Jihad warfare on Islamic grounds? There do not appear to be any at all. Support for Jihad warfare amongst everyday Muslims remains uncomfortably high, as well.

Conclusions

Only Islam violates all five of these rules for respectful relations with others. Although there are individual Muslims who do want to follow these ground rules, they are not the ones who are “driving the bus” of Islam. Those who call for religious dialog can start by challenging the Muslim world to follow the same general ground rules that other religions today generally follow.


Do Blasphemy Laws Really Protect the Best Interests of Muslims?

June 8, 2008

We have witnessed a series of Muslim outrages over Westerners’ remarks or art about Islam. To name a few, there’s the movie Submission, the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the Pope’s quotation of Pope Benedict XVI, and recently, the movie Fitna. These outrages are always followed by (or even, as in the case of Fitna, preceded by) calls for self-censorship and/or hate speech laws.

Self-censorship, typically called ”showing respect for religion” or “responsible free speech”, in this case basically comes down to a voluntary internalization of Islamic blasphemy laws. Who decides what kind of speech regarding Islam is “respectful” or “responsible”? Why, that would be Muslims.

Hate speech legislation, or laws against “defamation of religion”, basically comes down to a government’s official adoption of Islamic blasphemy laws. Who decides what speech regarding Islam is “hateful” or “defamatory”? Why, that would again be Muslims.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could think Muslims should determine what non-Muslims can and can’t say about Islam, any more than Christians, Republicans, Democrats, Communists, or any other group of people should decide what non-members can and can’t say about their ideology. This notion is indefensible on its face, and to even consider going down that road is to take the fist step toward a theocracy.

Muslims don’t get the notion of what constitutes an outrage out of thin air, but from centuries-long traditions of dhimmi laws, subjugating non-Muslims under Islamic rule. Just one small part of this subjugation is controlling non-Muslims’ speech. Andrew Bostom notes, following Muslims’ outrage over the Pope quoting Pope Benedict XVI:

The ultimate source of the convulsive reaction to the Pope’s speech is the Islamic belief that spiritually and physically debauched infidels have no right to express opinions—least of all negative opinions—regarding Islam’s sacred text, the Koran, the Muslim prophet, Muhammad (Ecce Homo Arabicus), or the sacred Islamic Law (Shari’a), which includes the permanent institution of jihad war.

Such deep-seated intolerance has always predominated under Muslim rule….

Blasphemy laws and their first cousins, heresy laws, are currently used to persecute religious minorities including Christians, Hindus, and Bahais. Accusations of blasphemy can also provide cover for the murder of non-Muslims in Muslim countries.

Many observers have commented about the dangers to non-Muslims of restricting our speech concerning Islam in the West.

Islamic Blasphemy Laws Are Bad for Non-Muslims. But Are They Good for Muslims?

It may seem as though blasphemy laws are bad for non-Muslims, but good for Muslims. However, the question is: Which Muslims? Unorthodox Muslims are among the primary victims of blasphemy laws. For example, in Muslim countries, the peaceful Ahmadiyya sect is typically deemed heretical and is stifled, even in a “moderate” country like Indonesia. Other “heretical’ sects are persecuted elsewhere in the Muslim world, such as the Alevis in “secular” Turkey. Then there are the well-known conflicts between the Sunnis and Shias, much of which is kept alive through charges of blasphemy. Pretty much any Muslim sect can be considered heretical by other Muslim sects.

In addition to heretical sects, individual Muslims are punished for blasphemy. Arifur Rahman, a 20-year-old cartoonist in Bangladesh, was recently sentenced to six months amid public demonstrations calling for his death. He wrote a cartoon making fun of a local custom involving the name “Mohammed”. Parwiz Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old Afghan student journalist, has faced the death penalty for downloading and distributing articles that were said to question some tenets of Islam. (So far as I know, he is still in prison pending final appeals.) Street thugs sometimes mete out punishment vigilante-style: Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian novelist, was stabbed in the neck by a Muslim who was angry at his portrayal of God. Jawaad Faizi, a Pakistani journalist in Canada, was beaten for criticizing an Islamic organization. Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed Taha was kidnapped and killed in Sudan for publishing an article which he personally disagreed with, questioning the ancestral lineage of Mohammed. These are just a few examples.

Muslims who choose to leave their religion, even in the West, had better keep quiet about their thoughts on Islam. Just ask Salman Rushdie.

Muslim and ex-Muslim reformers are often hurt by blasphemy laws and Muslim vigilanteism. Rashad Khalifa in Tucson, Arizona, founder of the “Submitters” sect, was declared to be an apostate due to his blasphemous ideas and assassinated. Farzana Hassan Shahid, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress who receives death threats from other Muslims for her views, explained: “There is an underlying fear all the time…that uneasy feeling is part of my daily life. I have been declared an apostate twice, for opposing the Sharia [Islamic law]….” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the well-known Somali ex-Muslim, wrote “…the reformists are shunned by their families and communities and live under the constant fear of assassination.”

Of course, blasphemy laws and fear of vigilante punishment also cause immeasurable harm to all the unorthodox Muslims we don’t know about because they dare not speak or publish their views freely.

Islamic blasphemy rules for non-Muslims are somewhat different from those for Muslims, because non-Muslims endure the added element of dhimmi subjugation, as noted above. Certain things could be considered blasphemous for non-Muslims to say, but not for Muslims to say. Nevertheless, all Islamic blasphemy laws share a common assumption: the Islamic orthodoxy gets to regulate what people can and can’t say about Islam. Any time the West gives any credence to this assumption, we strengthen and legitimize it.

So even if, in a fit of madness, we non-Muslims cared nothing about our own interests and only about the interests of Muslims, we would still need to decide which Muslims’ interests would be important to uphold. It would be absurd to throw the peaceful Ahmadis and reformers under the bus, to “respect” the religious thought police who would persecute them. Given the harm caused to unorthodox Muslims by blasphemy laws, we should think twice before adopting them ourselves. We may not be able to do a lot for the Ahmadiyya sect in Asia or for young cartoonists like Rahman, but at least we can set a good example by protecting freedom of expression in the West. If we do not protect it here, freedom of expression may well disappear from the world.