Sharia law

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. 

Shahbaz Bhatti, modern martyr

In the early days of Christianity, martyrs often gave their final testimonies of faith to Roman leaders before they were crucified, burned or fed to lions. Times being what they are, Shahbaz Bhatti turned to Al Jazeera and YouTube. The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet knew it was only a matter of time before his work as minister for minority affairs got him killed. Threats by the Taliban and al-Qaeda kept increasing.

"I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross and I follow him on the cross," said Bhatti, in a startlingly calm video recorded several weeks before his assassination on March 2.

"When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me. ... I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles."

The last straw was almost certainly the Catholic statesman's defense of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death last November for the crime of blasphemy after she publicly defended her faith in a village argument. The verdict -- which must be upheld by a higher court -- further polarized a tense nation and sparked a global firestorm.

Then again, in 2009 Bhatti received the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's first medallion for the promotion of religious freedom. A year later he met with Pope Benedict XVI to discuss interfaith work and religious liberty in Pakistan. Bhatti was not hiding his convictions.

The blasphemy laws in question went into effect in 1986, during the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. They ban, among other actions, the use of "derogatory remarks, etc; in respect of the Holy Prophet. Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine."

These blasphemy laws have been used against hundreds of Muslim dissenters and Ahmadi sect members, whose approach to Islam is specifically attacked in the laws. In practice, conversion from Islam to another faith is considered blasphemy, as are attempts to advocate or defend minority faiths, such as Christianity or Hinduism.

Vigilantes often kill those formerly or informally accused of blasphemy -- making trials irrelevant.

This was the case with Bhatti's death in a wave of machine-gun fire into his unarmored car. Pakistani officials had denied his request for an armored car, despite the constant threat of drive-by shootings.

Formalities were also irrelevant on Jan. 4, when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. This outspoken Muslim also defended Bibi and called for reform in the use of blasphemy laws.

Adoring crowds showered Taseer's assassin with rose petals and garlands as he arrived to face a magistrate, while moderate Muslim leaders remained silent. Pakistan's legislators observed a moment of silence for Bhatti, since it probably would have been fatal for anyone to offer a prayer in his honor.

After all, pamphlets left by those who killed Bhatti warned that they would keep fighting "all the world's infidels, crusaders, Jews and their operatives within the Muslim brotherhood. ... This is the fate of that cursed man. And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell, God willing."

Apparently, many radicals in Pakistan have concluded -- a perfect Catch-22 -- that it is blasphemy to oppose the blasphemy laws.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani conference of Catholic bishops is preparing to render a judgment of its own. Later this month the bishops will review a proposal to ask the Vatican to designate Bhatti as a martyr.

"Bhatti is a man who gave his life for his crystalline faith in Jesus Christ," Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan told a Vatican news agency. "It is up to us, the bishops, to tell his story and experience to the church in Rome, to call for official recognition of his martyrdom."

Blasphemy in the U.K.

The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.

In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."

To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.

"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."

The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.

Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."

But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.

The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."

Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.

"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."

Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.

In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."

News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.

As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.

Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.

"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.

"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."

God and Al-Jazeera

Siti Fatimah was born a Muslim, but tried to change her name to Revathi Masoosai before marrying a Hindu man.

This created a crisis, since multi-ethnic Malaysia has both civic and Muslim courts. After the birth of the couple's daughter, the Muslim grandparents urged a Sharia court to give them custody of the baby. They won and Revathi was sent to a rehabilitation center for apostate, wayward Muslims.

"I will make her a Muslim child. That's why I took her," said the grandmother. "Her mother has no choice. ... She asked me if I can allow her to convert out of Islam. I said, 'No way, you must remain in the religion. You cannot leave, it's the law here.' "

This kind of human drama makes for gripping television news. At one point, the Hindu husband briefly managed to talk to his wife through a metal gate before being confronted by a guard -- on camera.

Welcome to Al-Jazeera English, a news channel that few Americans get to see. It is operated by the controversial global network that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the "mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda."

Al-Jazeera English has struggled to find a U.S. audience because cable-television executives believe Americans are not ready to see world events -- many tied to religion -- through a Middle Eastern lens. Also, it's easy to question the perspective of a network funded by a billion dollars or more from His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar.

But Americans need to hear the kinds of voices featured on a network that reports from the developing world back to the west, said Nigel Parsons, a BBC and Associated Press Television News veteran who is managing director of Al-Jazeera English.

"But it's not just about telling the rest of the world what is happening from inside the Middle East out. It's also about telling the rest of the world about America," he said, at a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C. "America is often accused of not understanding the outside world, ... of being very insular and of not understanding the events that shape its policies."

However, it's possible to turn that equation around, because the rest of the world "actually understands very little about the United States," he said. "We hear about New York, we hear about Hollywood and we hear about things that go on inside the Beltway here in D.C. We don't hear much about that big bit in the middle."

The result is a kind of two-sided blind spot.

On one side, said Parsons, are millions of Al-Jazeera viewers around the world who previously had little or no chance to learn about "what makes America tick," including the diversity of religious and political beliefs found in U.S. churches, synagogues and mosques. On the other side, he is convinced that few Americans have been exposed to the variety of religious and political perspectives found in the many cultures of the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world.

That Al-Jazeera English report on the apostasy charges against Revathi Masoosai, for example, ended with a stark contrast. A "Sisters in Islam" spokeswoman backed the views of legal scholars who insist that Article 11 of Malaysia's constitution protects freedom of conscience and religion. But a conservative Muslim leader stood his ground, insisting that to "be a Malay is to be a Muslim" and that the nation will collapse if believers are free to convert to another faith.

The report ended with that question unresolved, which is the tense reality in Malaysia and many other parts of the Muslim world.

Parsons said it would be wrong to claim that Al-Jazeera English is promoting the spread of some form of "moderate Islam" -- a loaded label the network never uses -- because what is "moderate" in one Muslim culture would be called "apostasy" in others.

However, the network has pursued a "reformist agenda" that often clashes with state-controlled networks in the Middle East. Parsons proudly noted that Al-Jazeera has been forced, at one time or another, to leave almost every nation in the region -- except Israel.

"We are not going to see major changes in that part of the world overnight," he said. "Arguments and debate and dialogue are going to have to come first. We cannot afford to have news and information going in one direction and that's that."