Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mustafa Akyol and the New Islam (part 3)

On November 5th, Mustafa Akyol wrote on Apostacy is a Right, Not a Crime. He begins with the now-familiar story of the Afghan man who was spirited out of the country last year before he could receive the death penalty for becoming Christian. Akyol notes that this "story was only one of the many severe violations of religious freedom in the contemporary Islamic world." You don't say. In Saudi Arabia, Filipino workers are deported if caught having private worship services in their room (see Thomas Friedman's article, here). In Egypt, converts are locked up in insane asylums because, by definition, anyone who leaves Islam for Christ has lost their mind. Throughout Muslim lands, even in Akyol's supposedly enlightened Turkey, Christians must keep a low profile. There is a reason all the churches are hidden behind protective, walled compounds.

And conversion is strictly a one-way street, as it has always been. Akyol admits as much. "Traditional Shariah (Islamic law) considers apostasy a major crime that deserves capital punishment...Ex-Muslims are consistently suppressed, harassed and attacked by their former co-religionists. As a Muslim, I feel ashamed to read such news."

Akyol is to be commended for his honesty. But he also maintains that Islam is not at odds with human rights, that such "elements in the Islamic tradition...should be discarded in the modern era." These calls to bring Islam up to speed with modern sensibilities is not without irony to many of us in the Christian West, where many are ready to jettison any teachings that inconvenience our 21st-century "lifestyle." Islam makes some pretty exclusivist claims about itself. Whatever you think it is, it has never been a way of life that allowed for its adherents to freely move to other faiths; at least not in my readings.

Akyol, incredulously, contends that the Koran doesn't really ban apostasy, and "actually includes many verses, which cherish religious freedom." He cites 2 verses: "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:246) and "It is the truth from your Lord; so let whoever wishes have faith and whoever wishes be unbeliever." (18:29). Well, indeed. I am certainly no Koranic scholar, and am not interested in any prooftexting battles. The Koran says many, often contradictory, things. For those who want to justify persecution of other faiths, there seems to be no shortage of Koranic support for such belief.

Akyol continues: "...a forced belief in anything is a totally absurd concept. If someone becomes or stays a believer because he is forced to do so, then that faith will simply have no meaning." Well yes, and no. It is a simple historical fact that much of the Middle East, and the whole of North Africa, submitted initially to Islam under the sword, and the heavy restrictions placed on those who refused to convert. To the first generation or so, Akyol is probably correct--their faith probably had no meaning other than survival. But give it time. Literally hundreds of millions of devout Muslims today are the descendants of these forced conversions.

Akyol believes ban on apostasy grew out of the particular political situation of early Islamic Arabia. Perhaps so, but the practice soon became the accepted norm through the Muslim world and centuries.

Akyol concludes: "Apostasy cannot be considered as a crime in today's world. It is, indeed, a natural right. People should have the right to believe or disbelieve in Islam." He also believes "that Islamic sources need a serious reconsideration. What most Muslims attach themselves to as divine commandments are actually the political and cultural codes of the early centuries of Islam, which were, to be sure, man-made facts."

These are strong words, coming from a Muslim writer. I wish him well, but I am not particularly hopeful. His reinterpretation of Islam seems like a lot of wishful thinking to me. And I see absolutely no evidence of such a societal shift in attitude in any Muslim country. Nevertheless, these are the voices of reason that we have been straining to hear for so long, and so I encourage Akyol to continue to speak out.

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