"It Is Time for Arab States to Make Declarations of Apostasy (Tafkir) A Crime"
On March 14, a radical Saudi cleric named Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa stating that two authors who wrote newspaper articles arguing that non-Muslims should not be considered "infidels" were themselves apostates who needed to be killed. On March 19, Reuters reported that a group of Saudi clerics issued their own statement on this question. The contents were sadly predictable:
A group of 20 clerics, all associated with Barrak, issued a statement on Tuesday asking God to support him in the face of a "wicked attack" by liberals with "polluted beliefs".
"We know the Sheikh's knowledge in religion and status in the Islamic nation and trust Muslims place in his opinions ... The fatwa is based on the book of God (Koran) and the path of the Prophet," they said in the statement posted on Web sites.
"The Sheikh's words were clear in placing the issue in the hands of the temporal authorities when he said that there must be a trial. We affirm there should be a trial."
Barrak, who is thought to be around 75, is viewed by Islamists as the leading independent authority of Saudi Arabia's hardline version of Sunni Islam, often termed Wahhabism.
In a piece for National Review Online, Raymond Ibrahim pointed out that this incident is merely a symptom of the broader intolerance prevalent in Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi version of Islam:
In Saudi Arabia, the facts remain: native citizens who dare convert to Christianity must be slain; absolutely no churches or any other “symbol” of non-Muslim worship (e.g., crosses, rosaries, Bibles) is permitted on the peninsula; non-Muslims are barred from entering Mecca or Medina.
To cite another example of Wahhabi intolerance, the MEMRI Blog reported on March 18 that the Saudi Shura Council rejected "a proposal to draw up an international agreement banning harming other religions and their prophets." While I believe that such an agreement would be a very bad idea, unfortunately the opposition was motivated by anything but a commitment to free expression. Rather, the critics argued "that such agreements require recognition of polytheistic religions."
Fortunately, even in the oppressive intellectual climate of Saudi Arabia, there are signs of hope. As the Christian Science Monitor noted recently, there is an "expanding awareness of human rights among the public and government officials." Obviously, this process is still in its infancy. However, it will only benefit from the example of the numerous Arab and Muslim intellectuals who have come forward to condemn the obscurantist barbarism Barrak and his fatwa represent.
For example, in a piece for the Guardian's Comment is Free web site, Ed Husain points out that there is a Muslim case to be made against the Islamist practice of threatening death for those allegedly guilty of apostasy:
Saudi writers Yusuf Aba al-Khail and Abdullah bin Bejad al-Otaibi have started a rigorous debate inside Saudi Arabia about the right of Muslims to adopt other religions with impunity. Rather than address their strong scriptural and intellectual reasoning, a leading Saudi cleric has called for the writers' deaths, unless they "repent".
Literalist, ahistorical readings of scripture have lead Saudi and other rigid clerics to pronounce death on those who they consider to have left Islam. However, more erudite and mainstream scholars have cited scripture and history to illustrate the false notion of a death penalty for those who abandon Islam. For example, Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad from Cambridge or the hugely popular Grand Mufti of Egypt. In my recent debate with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I made similar points based on what I learned from Muslim luminaries.
Saudi Arabian clerics must stop enforcing their medieval, outdated opinions on ordinary Muslims. The Saudi royal family, close allies of the clerical class, has a moral duty to rein in the bigots who masquerade as "scholars". True scholarship, as Tariq Ramadan puts it, understands text in historical and contemporary context.
The same newspaper reported on April 3 that Husain is not alone in his outrage and revulsion:
Arab human rights activists have condemned a Saudi religious edict calling for the execution of two writers for apostasy - giving a rare glimpse of tensions over Islam inside the conservative kingdom.
The ruling by Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak was called "intellectual terrorism" by "clerics of darkness" in a statement obtained by Reuters and signed by 100 human rights groups and intellectuals from the region. Last month Barrak issued a fatwa against two Saudi writers he denounced as "infidels".
On March 24, Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former Dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, published a scathing attack on Barrak and his fatwa. Al-Ansari offers a devastating critique of the Islamist penchant for using apostasy accusations as an ideological tool to justify the murder of Muslim reformers and freethinkers. MEMRI has a translation of his article:
"It is part of the misery of Arab life that the 'sheikhs of excommunication' have the right to excommunicate and declare apostasy against intellectuals, while no one has the right to sue these 'sheikhs' in court. This contradiction is a travesty of Arab law, for you have the right in Arab law to sue someone who insults you and slanders you, but you do not have the right to sue a person who declares you an infidel, which is the most serious and the most dangerous accusation! And why?
"The reason is that the religious sheikhs are placed above the people and have immunity, which prevents their being prosecuted. Several years ago 'Imam University' in Riyadh granted a Ph.D. 'with distinction' to a Saudi researcher who, in his doctoral thesis, declared 200 Arab intellectuals - prominent proponents of modernity, rationality and enlightenment - to be infidels. He said 'they are infidels and it is legal to kill them,' and not one of these accused intellectuals is able to demand justice for himself!
"Imagine the misery, absurdity, and contradictions in the Arab world when one person is able to excommunicate all of the Arab reformists in a Ph.D. thesis without any of them having the right to go to court against him!"
"And if an ignorant person believed what that researcher wrote and assassinated one of the scholars who was labeled and infidel, because the researcher made the shedding of his blood licit, there is no legal blame on the researcher who instigated the crime and misled the killer.
The doctoral dissertation referenced by Al-Ansari is discussed here. It is indeed a call for the murder of those writers and intellectuals that the author, Sa'id Al-Ghamdi, declared guilty of "heresy". Al-Ghamdi was even cited as an authority by Osama bin Laden in the latter's April 2006 audiotape in which he called for the killing of "freethinkers and heretics".
Al-Ansari, then, is clearly right when he notes that accusations of apostasy are not merely hateful or offensive speech; they are literally a form of incitement to murder. Thus, he argues that there is only one solution:
"It is time for Arab states to make declarations of apostasy (tafkir) a crime, just as murder is a crime, and an issue of great gravity not to be left to the unilateral declaration of an individual sheikh. We must have legislation to govern this matter to prevent anarchy and protect the dignity and reputation of the Muslim and his family...."
Such a move is long overdue and would be a major victory for free thought and expression in the Islamic world.