Another View on Apostasy in Islam

March 27, 2006

Many people have heard of Capt. James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain who ministered to the prisoners in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and who was arrested on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, and later released and honorably discharged from the military. He was visiting my college yesterday to speak about his experiences in the military, his spiritual journey to Islam, his Guantanamo ministry days (particularly disturbing in terms of the details of how the prisoners are treated at the base), and his arrest and subsequent release by the US military (Read The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee for a good summary.)

After his talk, the chaplain was on hand for a brief discussion session with the Muslim students here over some cheese pizza with chai. I asked what he thought about the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity who was facing the death penalty. He said that in the early days of Islam, when apostasy was made a crime punishible by death, it was not simply to execute those who abandoned Islam for their change of belief. Though it is often portrayed as such in the media nowadays, and though it is interpreted as such by literalists and conservative clerics, apostasy in and of itself is not a crime punishible by death. Rather, apostasy as taken in the historical context of the early Muslim community at the time of the prophet, when the community of the believers also constituted a polity, often implied more that simply a change of religious belief, and also meant sedition and treason. The chaplain pointed to how these crimes (of treason and sedition) were still regarded as capital crimes (including in the West), and the allegations brought against him were a case in point. If the court in Kabul was prosecuting the convert simply on the grounds that he had converted to Christianity, they were ignoring important preconditions for the criminality of apostasy in Islam, and hence in effect acting outside the Shariah law.
This is the sort of thing that I have not often read in the news in relation to the apostasy case in Afghanistan. This is the sort of thing that people in the West have to pay attention to as much as the clerics and judges ruling on this case.

A while back when the apostasy case first surfaced I did a search about apostasy and came across the Iranian cleric who is out of favor with the regime, Ayatollah Montazeri’s opinions on this subject. According to him (a significant Shi’a religious authority), a simple reversion of belief when grounded in an informed and educated decision to leave Islam (and when not undertaken out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community- essentially similar to sedition and treason) is not apostasy at all. (See “Ayatollah Montazeri: Not Every Conversion is Apostasy“.)
I found Chaplain Yee’s comments mirroring the position taken by Ayatollah Montazeri, and I found both somewhat reassuring. Yet the case in Afghanistan has demonstrated that when conservative temperaments flare and blood needs to be spilt, there are always ways to bend the rules…

Just a stranger in the bus…

March 27, 2006

Awake in bed early this morning, a copy of the New York Times in hand, I was getting increasingly distressed reading about the case that I just wrote about in the previous post: that of Abdul Rahman’s conversion to Christianity, and the hysteria surrounding it.

After all, this is a serious subject. People everywhere are treating it seriously, and rightly so; from the leader of the free world to that of a recently freed portion of it, from the Pope to the Mullahs, and from the blogsters that form my virtual intellectual classroom, to the college students who people my real ones.

But seriousness, as that great prophet of immorality once put it, is nothing but the sign of indigestion and bad metabolism. And of all things, especially seriousness about a subject like this one. Religion. God. What God? Which God? The Right God, or the wrong God? The one that we know, or the one that belongs to them?

I fell asleep reading the story in the paper. Early morning sleep while I should be in class: what joyful abandon! Whoever said that anything was better than twilight sleep? Especially prostration with an aching back before an unbeknownst and contradictory semitic fantasy…

I woke up later to the sound of my radio alarm, and fittingly, a female voice was singing:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger in the bus
Trying to make his way home…

Religious freedom and the contradictions of Afghanistan’s compromise constitution

March 24, 2006

Over the past several days the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has come under increasing international pressure to intervene in the case of an Afghan convert to Christianity who faces death on charges of apostasy. More significantly, much of this pressure has come from the highest levels of the US government, Mr. Karzai’s closest allies and itself subject to similar pressures from its Christian base here in America.

While the calls for upholding religious freedom are welcome in that they speak to the fundamental value of human dignity and a basic human right, in their appeals to the government of Afghanistan to intervene in the case, the international community and the US government are addressing the wrong crowd and seeking the improper solution. Thus far, these calls have produced a backlash from the ruling judge in the case, who has correctly cited independence of the judiciary and has refused to cave in to pressure from the government. At the same time the government is trying to get another charge –that of insanity for the accused- to stick in order to extricate itself from the debacle. Either outcome would be a five year leap backwards for Afghanistan.

More than anything else, the apostasy case in Afghanistan has exposed the contradictions inherent in the country’s new constitution. In an effort to appease both the West and the religious conservatives who wielded power in the new government and in the countryside, the drafters of the new constitution paid ample lip-service both to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the Sharia Law. The result is a labored, uninspiring, and double-entendre text full of vagueness and room for equivocation. It neither meets the lofty Jeffersonian ideals of the constitution that it tries to emulate, nor clearly defines the limits and bounds of the Sharia Law, thus leaving its application open to the whims of activist, conservative interpreters.

This is why over the past three years there have been three cases of when activist judges of the Kabul Supreme Court have hauled journalists and authors before the court on charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam. Interestingly, the last case before the court prior to the apostasy case was that of an Islamic scholar who argued that though apostasy is ill-gotten, it is not a crime. He was first sentenced to death, and then given two years in prison after he recanted. In the first case, the editor of a paper in Kabul had argued against what he called “consecrated fascism,” a phrase that seems more fitting in retrospect. He is currently living in exile.

I hope Mr. Rahman is released and makes it to a safe haven with both his life and his sanity intact. The people of Afghanistan, on the other hand, may have to live in the shadow of their two-headed hydra for a long time to come. The problems of Afghanistan’s current constitution is characteristic of all such charters drawn up in times of extraordinary emergency, and demonstrates the need for mechanisms that allow for modifying them as conditions improve. Over the protests of some of the drafters, such sunset clauses were not included in Afghanistan’s new constitution. The success of democracy in Afghanistan, and the lessons learned in the process continue to remain important for the United States.

The author is a student of International Political Economy from Afghanistan and the President of Student Body in Juniata College, Pennsylvania.

Happy New Year!

March 22, 2006

Saba Nowroz ast…
I know I ought to insert some sort of a fancy image here, with fresh grass bound with a red ribbon and two goldfish in a little aquarium and a holy-looking book.
Truth is, Nawroz never was like that for me. Growing up in Afghanistan, Nowroz was about a sleepless night (partly because of henna-bound hands, partly the excitement of wearing fresh clothes and bloating my stomach with dried fruits the next day), a welcome day off from school, an early wake-up and kissing my grandparents hands, and a full sunny day full of mud, melting snow, and colored eggs. Oh yeah, and going to relatives with my father and younger brother, though I can’t say I cared too much for that part.
This is my 10th consecutive Nowroz out of Afghanistan. Those were the good old days. These are nostalgic musings about another time, another age; as the adage in Farsi goes, days that were eaten by a big fat COW