Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Apostasy - It can be religious and secular (Part I)

 The death penalty issued for apostasy against the Iranian pastor, Yusef Nadarkhani, evokes memories of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ affair. At the time, I found it amusing to see how the West was demanding the right of free speech for Salman Rushdie to offend, and concurrently denying the same right to Ayatollah Khomeini for expressing his fatwa. Surely, if Salman Rushdie can speak, so can the Ayatollah of Iran? Yes or no? If Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa is a call to violence, then isn’t the Satanic Verses the cause? Or is the book all benign based on objective research? You have to laugh at the level of hypocrisy, and the West can get away with it having the power of a ubiquitous media, with which it can roar like a lion or howl like a pack of wolves silencing their victims.  

Iran has subsequently retracted the verdict, facing mounting pressure from other states and human rights organisations. Nevertheless, it provides another excuse for the Islamophobes, not that they need one, to launch their usual diatribe against Islam and Muslims. Many of those Islamophobes, lacking elementary education, are unaware that penal codes for apostasy also exist within the Biblical text, and it was applied far more frequently and rigorously in Christian Europe than under Islamic rule. Indeed, like the issues of adultery, homosexuality and idol worshiping, apostasy is not specific to Islam. But the problem is the Muslims have a greater tendency to adhere to Islamic laws, unlike the followers of the Judeo-Christian text.

Before the facts are gathered, the secular-Mullahs trotting the media and the internet have issued their verdict, based on the premise that apostasy law contradicts individual freedom. As we know, such freedom exists for individuals like Salman Rushdie, but not for the Ayatollahs. Of course, in a secular framework, religion is reduced to a trivial personal matter for the individual to accept or reject. Hence, most secular constitutions guarantee freedom of religion because it has been rendered powerless in society. Naturally, under such a framework, it seems harsh to issue any kind of punishment, let alone the death penalty for a trivial personal issue like religion.

Often the verdict of these secular-Mullahs will contain references to the acts carried out during the era of medieval Christian-Europe, when ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake, and rival sects (Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox) slaughtered each other using the same argument of heresy. Well things worked differently in the Islamic world; scan through history, the Muslims never engaged in such activities, unless the acts of apostasy were a pretext for an armed uprising which rarely occurred. But I am sure, even the secular-Mullahs would see the need and the right of the state to defend itself.   

In exploring this issue, the first question that should be asked is: what is apostasy?

The conventional view is that it is an act of abandoning one's religious faith, the term apostasy is synonymous with religious-apostasy. Therefore, it has to be understood in the context of a religious state, where citizenship is determined by one’s belief; hence, apostasy is tantamount to treason against the state and society.

What underpins an act of apostasy is rejection of the current system and the core values. The term is probably derived from the Greek word “apostasia” meaning defection or revolt, which can take place in any society, be it religious or secular. Indeed, secular nationalistic states also have the same notion of apostasy, which they call treason, for example a person siding with the enemy, especially during conflict. Therefore, it is disingenuous for secular societies to argue that apostasy only exists within religious states.

Acts of apostasy can be physical or verbal and it can be belligerent or passive. Thus, there are various grades of apostasy and accordingly the various levels of punishment associated with it. The secular societies often claim to permits verbal apostasy under the pretext of free speech. However, that is not true. In the UK, tiny groups like Al-Muhajiroun have been banned for speaking out against British core values of democracy and freedom along with criticism of their foreign policy. Even relatively passive individuals who have confined expressing their opinions to books are punished. Professor David Irving is one example, serving a prison sentence for expressing his opinion on the Holocaust.  Only if he was living in a free country like Iran, he could speak his mind without the fear! 

Apostasy is a universal notion that exists in all societies, in various forms. It is defined according to their respective values; there are different levels of apostasy and punishments associated with it. Apostasy, to be precise religious-apostasy is more complex than just changing faith, and it will be explored in more detail in the subsequent article, with a specific reference to Islamic law.

Yamin Zakaria (yamin@radicalviews.org, http://twitter.com/#yaminzakaria)

Published 29/11/2011

London, UK (www.radicalviews.org, http://yaminzakaria.blogspot.com)

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