Debate on apostasy and political Islam
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj

The apostasy debate sparked in the Islamic world by the case of Abdul Rahman highlights the prevalent perplexity in the Islamic world, not only about the apostasy issue, but about other points too: suicide bombers, terrorism, family law and love.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Abdul Rahman's sin of apostasy, that nearly earned him the death penalty, was resolved diplomatically with his expatriation to Italy. But the episode of Rahman's conversion to Christianity drew many reactions in the Muslim world. I had the opportunity to read hundreds of them in Arab-language forums, with comments coming from all over the world.

To put it more precisely, I read nearly 400 comments posted on the al-Arabiya website, based in Dubai, and the Arab site of the BBC, where hundreds of interventions were posted.

Glancing through the comments, one can see that around 50% uphold Rahman's execution because this is what the Sharia says. For at least one out of four of these, the essential reason for the death penalty for apostates is: if conversion to another religion is allowed, this would be fitnah (sedition), it would prompt others to follow this path, and thus all would become Christians. To halt this trend, which is not considered "normal", it is better to kill. The concept of "fitnah" is Koranic (mentioned more than 30 times in the Koran) and it often justifies violence.

But then there is a minority, around 15% that insists killing is not just, for reasons we are acquainted with (the Koran says nothing about this, there are only hadiths that mention the death penalty and so on); others say also it would not have been right to kill Rahman because this would go "against human rights".

Only rarely was there mention of an obligation of reciprocity. Someone said: "We allow a Christian to convert to Islam, so it's only logical that we should also accept the contrary".

Many interventions however refuted this opinion, saying "Islam is the only true religion, the last revealed religion that cancelled everything said by other religions before it. Leaving Islam would be a step backwards into error."

There was also a beautiful testimony by a woman who signed off as an "Egyptian Muslim believer". In a well articulated article, this woman explained that there was freedom of choice in the Koran. In fact, there are passages which say "who wants to, believes, who does not want to, does not believe." Or else: "Is it you [Muhammad] who forces people to people?" But the woman takes her argument further: "If we force people to believe in Islam, then we would have hypocrites in our community, who do not believe, and this would do more harm than good. Then no one would know anymore what Islam is, it would be reduced to a political expedient." She adds: "We don't need to increase the number of Muslims who are so only by name, but who are not Muslims in their heart and actions."

Reasons for conflict and crisis within Islam

This debate highlights the prevalent perplexity in the Islamic world, not only as regards the question of apostasy, but about other points too: suicide bombers, terrorism, family law, love and so on. There is always a very fundamentalist faction, especially imams, who defend Sharia, jihad, and who would not be averse to resorting to brutality. Then there are moderate Muslims who do not approve of such things and who are in disagreement on many points: the value of woman, marriage… this is the real and profound crisis facing Islam: people no longer know what the true Islam is, they don't know what to believe in because there are so many interpretations of each faith element.

Solutions are sought, but the key problem lies in the clash between traditional beliefs – dating back to the IX-X centuries – that became harder through the centuries (in the Middle Ages, Islam was much more open than it is now) and the reality lived by Muslims in Arab countries, where an evolution of customs is under way.

The second reason for conflict is down to the immensity of the Muslim world that embraces poor and backward people as well as very modern populations. If you compared the member of a tribe in Afghanistan, to a man in Beirut or Tunis, you would be looking at two worlds that are very different one from the other.

All this causes a loss of confidence and identity in the Muslim world. The fact that Islamic countries are not among the leaders of the international community; the fact there is no one authority recognized by all Muslims since the end of the Caliphate (in 1924) at the hands of Kemal Ataturk.

Religious authorities are ever less open to the lives of Muslims.

False solutions to these crises

Many solutions to uphold Islam have been generated, mindful that a large chunk of the Muslim world is in the third world:

-          the first attempt was Arab nationalism, launched by Nasser in 1954 and continued in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. This did not yield economic or political results;

-          then there was pan-Islamism (in 1969, the International Organisation of Islamic countries was born), and this was completely inconclusive. We Arabs say Islamic countries agree about one thing only: that they don't agree among themselves. This irony says much about our lack of confidence;

-          in the 60s and 70s, there was a wave of socialism and this also failed and ended with the advent of the 90s.

In Islamic countries, opposition always tended more toward the right; it upheld that Islam is "always" and by nature socialist. Even these ideologies failed.

The state of Israel also contributed to the failure of Islamic pretensions: a small state has always managed to stand against the bloc of all Arab and Muslim countries.

From all these failures has emerged a quasi-desperate solution, the motto of the Muslim Brothers, of Hassan al-Banna: Islam is the solution (al-Islâm huwa al-hall). Whatever the problem highlighted, Islam is the solution. Answers to political, economic, cultural, social and family problems are sought in the Koran and in tradition. This extremist brand of pan-Islamism has no vision other than to apply Islamic law as a way of making Islam triumph and to save it from drowning. This comeback of religion, especially resorting to religion as an ideological argument for politics, is a state of affairs that serves neither politics nor religion!