Thursday, March 23, 2006

Apostasy and Absolutism

Weblogistan has been abuzz in recent days, discussing the strange case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghani who faces a possible death sentence for converting to Christianity. (He has not been "sentenced to death," as so many bloggers have alleged—he hasn't even been tried yet.)

In particular, xenophobic bloggers and Christian "activists" have seized on this terrible case to prove their contentions that Islam is an evil religion that simply is not compatible with Western CivilizationTM. Most prominent among these offenders is, as always, Andrew Sullivan. On March 20, Sullivan wrote a brief post called "'Tolerance' in Afghanistan" in which he quoted the barbaric words of the prosecuting attorney in the case and then made this sarcastic appeal:
There are many Muslims in the West and elsewhere who do not support or tolerate this kind of medieval oppression. I look forward to hearing their protests. Please let me know of any I might have missed.
I fully understand his hostility to this case in particular. What I don't appreciate is his underlying hostility to Islam in general. Sullivan fluctuates between recognizing moderate Muslims in good faith (as in the case of the anti-extremist manifesto published by his friends Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji) and wringing his hands over the dearth of moderate voices and the fundamental incompatibility of Islam with the West.

The problem with viewing the entire Muslim world as a monolithic swamp of intolerance (apart from oversimplifying things to the point of utter absurdity) is that it undermines the logic of trying to affect political change in the region—attempts that Sullivan, paradoxically, supports. If this view is accurate, then there's really no difference between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, or between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It's a view that simply makes no sense. If the only way to be a tolerant Muslim is to be an apostate Muslim, then we are left with only two choices, both of which Sullivan would presumably reject: we can leave them all to rot, or we can pull an Ann Coulter and invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them all to Christianity.

In this light, Sullivan's sarcastic call for Muslim protests over the Abdul Rahman case is unseemly. It assumes, first of all, that none will be forthcoming because all those terrible Muslims really do believe you should be killed for abandoning Islam. Secondly, the implication that all Muslims are somehow responsible for the conduct of all other Muslims, wherever they are, and therefore have a responsibility to speak out about every atrocity is nothing more than stereotyping at its ugliest and most xenophobic. I am not responsible for everything done in the name of Christianity; why on earth should Mehmet in Istanbul be held responsible for something Ali does in Medina? It's actually a very insulting expectation to have. Just because you're ignorant about the endless variety in the practice of Islam doesn't mean that it's adherents have a duty to educate you. Pundit, heal thyself.

The first thing to realize in the Abdul Rahman case is that there's a tremendous "duh" factor involved. Of course most people, Muslim or otherwise, don't agree with it. Assuming that if someone does not speak out against this ridiculous case means they support the prosecution is absurd and degrading. Expecting Muslims to speak out on this case and every other one like it is akin to forcing foreigners to sign a loyalty oath and then continually reaffirm it. Reasonableness is a trait that is assumed in non-Muslims until proven otherwise. Sullivan and his ilk have a different standard for all Muslims. They are, in a manner of speaking, guilty until proven innocent—a belief that would appear to stand in contradiction to Sullivan's own proclaimed ideals.

That said, two of the most prominent Muslim organizations in America have come out against the impending trial of Abdul Rahman. This statement is from the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations:
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, called for Mr. Rahman's release, saying that the Koran supported religious freedom and that Islam was never compulsory. CAIR said its position was endorsed by the Fiqh Council of North America, a committee of Islamic legal scholars.... "the man’s conversion is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state.... Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience..."
So sorry to disappoint those of you hoping this wouldn't happen.

This obscene apostasy trial is notable not because it tells us something about mainstream Islam, but because it tells us a whole lot about modern-day Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and the Pashtun plurality from which he comes have created a Kabul-centric government that has done little to address the regional and ethnic divides in the country. The New York Sun quotes a representative of Human Rights Watch as saying, "This represents politics in Afghanistan being played out on this guy's body." According to their source, Karzai's lack of control over the judiciary is linked to "efforts to win support from a regional warlord, Abdul Sayyaf."

So we have a leader of an exceedingly fragile democracy who is trying to live up to his more liberal beliefs while keeping the country from falling apart. That's why we don't see a ham-fisted attempt on the part of the Afghan government to stop this case. It is apparent that Karzai would like the case to be dropped without having to resort to undemocratic means to achieve this goal. Many reports indicate that the government has been working diligently behind the scenes to make this happen. Here's hoping they're successful.

In the meantime, to hold Afghanistan up as the exemplar of mainstream Islamic belief is, to say the least, to argue in extremely bad faith.
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