Fighting blasphemy laws is blasphemy

OXFORD, England -- Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan was not the first Muslim convert to Christianity to be sentenced to death and he will not be the last.

Human-rights activists around the world cheered when -- despite efforts by the post-Taliban parliament -- he was allowed to seek asylum in Italy. Other converts have been less fortunate, facing imprisonment, abuse, torture and death at the hands of state officials or vigilantes in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and elsewhere.

While Rahman's plight drew waves of prayers, few Western believers noticed a related case last year that was just as important, according to Paul Marshall, of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

Journalist Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was jailed for his work with Women's Rights magazine in Kabul. Among his many sins, the liberal Shiite cleric had argued that Muslim apostates should not face execution. Thus, radicals demanded that he face the gallows himself. He repented.

"If it is blasphemous to discuss charges of blasphemy, then you have in effect a totalitarian system," said Marshall, one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. We both took part in a seminar last week for journalists from around the world, focusing on blasphemy and freedom of the press.

"Blasphemy charges mean that you cannot discuss the blasphemy charges. Hence, seeking to remove, minimize or otherwise immobilize legal bans on blasphemy, apostasy, insulting Islam and insulting public religious sentiments is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary political space for debate that could lead to other reforms. Unless you can get this out of the way, you can't discuss other issues."

It's crucial, said Marshall, to realize that Islamists are using laws against apostasy and blasphemy to threaten liberal Muslims just as often, or more often, than against actual converts. When Osama bin Laden issues pronouncements against blasphemy, he reserves his strongest words for Muslims who want to compromise with the West.

There is no law higher for Muslims than Sharia law and no courts higher than those that enforce it. One notorious law in Pakistan says: "Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished by death."

The ultimate insult is for a Muslim to abandon the faith. So it matters little that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief. ..."

In recent years, powerful Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere have urged their Sharia courts to restore and enforce traditional penalties for crimes such as apostasy and "blasphemy against the prophet," said Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who grew up in a primarily Shiite family in Pakistan.

The bottom line is that penalties other than death are viewed as repugnant to Islam. Judges have little room to maneuver and the whole world is watching.

"The question, of course, is whether in a world such as ours -- which is increasingly interconnected -- religions have to be accountable not only to themselves and their followers, but to others," said the bishop. "Questions of personal liberty, of life, cannot be left just to circles of believers."

Nevertheless, it may become harder for moderate Muslims and their allies to avoid these questions, even in the safety of the West. Earlier this year, an organization called "Supporters of God's Messenger" sent out an email threatening to kill 30 or more "atheists," "polytheists" and Muslims who cooperate with "worshippers of the cross" and other believers.

Marshall noted that the message called people by name, including Muslims in America, and included information about their home addresses, their children's schools and times when their wives were alone at home.

"Appeasement of such groups will not work," he said. If Western leaders fail to take a stand, "violent Islamists will accept their victory and move on to demand the next part of their agenda -- the silencing or death of those who reject or criticize their program, including, especially, Muslims. ...

"If even Western democracies cannot provide the political space for Muslims to debate these critical questions concerning the meaning of Islam, then all hope of an Islamic reform movement will be lost."