MCA leaders beware Questions Facing the Muslim World Anti-Blasphemy Laws


At a time when efforts to ban sharia law have been tabled in some two dozen states, it would be interesting to know what precisely their sponsors are hoping to prohibit — because their target has a 1,400-year history that extends deep into the realms of faith.

When the Quran was first enunciated to the Arabs, the word sharia conveyed the idea of a direct path to water — a route of considerable importance to a desert people — and Islamic scholars would always think of it as a spiritual concept. A 14th-century Syrian jurist named Ibn Qayyim set out the vision well:

It is the absolute cure for all ills. … It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. … If God wished to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the sharia … is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.

As befits so awesome a phenomenon, the science of studying law — jurisprudence, or fiqh — came to be considered a duty akin to prayer. No aspect of creation fell outside its scope, and jurists pronounced on questions from the lawfulness of logic to the legal meaning of the moon. They hypothesized fantastically unfortunate dilemmas: what Muslims should do on a desert island, for example, if they ever found themselves pining away alongside a dead shipmate, a pig and a flask of wine (clue: avoid the pork and alcohol until desperate). While some would always focus on big issues such as criminal justice and holy war, others explored far more specialized aspects of the cosmic order — the calculation of inheritance shares, say, or the jurisprudence of ablutions — and no problem was ever too personal to escape their collective gaze. A thousand years ago, al-Ghazali, arguably the greatest of all Sunni theologians, subjected the intimacies of marriage to rigorous legal scrutiny, and attributed to Muhammad himself a commandment on the importance of foreplay. Sex was unholy unless preceded by “kisses and sweet words,” the Prophet had reportedly warned. “Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal.”

Many parts of the world, such as Korea, China, and India – basically medieval kingdoms fifty or sixty years ago — are now among the pacesetters of the modern world, both producing, and improving on, existing inventions. The Muslim world, however, often better off than these countries just half a century ago, has remained as it was, or has even, in many instances, deteriorated. This inertia in the Islamic world seems to stem not from any genetic limitations, or even religious ones, but purely from Islamic culture.

The Emir of Kuwait is faced at this very moment with the decision of approving a law that would impose the death penalty against unrepentant Muslims (and varying prison sentences upon others) who exercise their religious freedom of speech in a way deemed blasphemous. So far, this is the most extreme version of such a law in the region, and it is very surprising that it makes its appearance in enlightened Kuwait.

Furthermore, similar though less draconian versions of this law have been recently adopted in Egypt and Tunisia. One year ago, hopes were high for these countries to usher in a new age of freedom, but the Arab spring is being viewed increasingly as an eruption of serious local, regional and global dimensions that will take a long time before its true character and impact is understood. In the meantime, we are witnessing unprecedented excesses, such as these anti-blasphemy laws, that must be addressed thoughtfully and effectively.

It is not sufficient to advise these countries to restrict their anti-blasphemy laws to cases of incitement to imminent violence or national security. In the era of the Arab spring, these criteria are often satisfied. Take the example of the young Egyptian Copt Gamal Abdou Massoud. His religiously offensive comments about Islam on Facebook led to riots in his village that soon spread to neighboring ones. Seven houses were burnt, both Muslim and Coptic, and a high level meeting between Muslim and Coptic religious leaders was convened to calm the situation. The court sentenced him to three years in prison. One could argue that the anti-blasphemy law was justified in this case. In fact, in reaching its verdict, the court in the Massoud case specifically mentioned the twin grounds of incitement to violence and threatening national security.

Thus a demand upon Egypt that it only criminalize speech that incites to imminent violence may help in some cases, but would not change the result in this case. This speech incited riots. The same can be argued for other cases. In dealing with anti-blasphemy laws in this tinderbox, it is not enough to propose our standards. We need to be cognizant of the local circumstances and tailor a more effective solution to the problem. For example, Amba Yisanti of the Coptic Orthodox Church demanded parity of treatment in blasphemy cases, so that the law applies equally to Muslim offenders. That is a demand we American Muslims should vigorously support along with the previously mentioned standard. It is not only fair through the lens of international justice but also through an Islamic one, a fact that is important in Muslim countries.

As to executing offenders, it is wise to remember that the model proposed by the Kuwaiti law was discredited when Socrates was condemned to drink the hemlock. Many centuries later, we are still talking about Socrates and his ideas, not his judges. On a more practical level, an execution in Kuwait may temporarily intimidate potential offenders but will not solve the underlying problems which are political as well as religious. These will continue to simmer before they suddenly erupt, as in Bahrain, causing incalculable damage to the state. On the political level, draconian anti-blasphemy laws are misguided autocratic responses in a region which is just now attempting to rediscover its democratic roots. On the religious level, they violate various Qur’anic injunctions, such as “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”

The problem of offensive speech is not solvable through executions or prison sentences, but through serious multifaceted education about respecting diversity, the opinions and faiths of others, interfaith understanding and collaborative community building. There is a long tradition in the Muslim World for that, although the recent surge of extremist ideology has wiped it from many memories.

It is time to revive this tradition in school education, internet websites, political discourse and community outreach. It is time to say “no” to the extremists loudly and unabashedly. They will not be allowed to steal and disfigure a great heritage. They will not be allowed to destroy harmony in otherwise peaceful societies. Most importantly, they should not be allowed to speak for the silent majority. I can think of no better weapon to defeat them than grass roots education as well as comprehensive and well-reasoned policies protecting all democratic rights, especially free speech.

For angry Muslims eager to protect their religion from verbal attacks, the Qur’an exhorts them to “restrain their anger and forgive others.” It is appropriate to remember this important verse at a time when people across the region are rejecting authoritarianism in favor of democracy. It is time to move away from angry authoritarian responses, and adopt the Qur’anic recommendation to let the “common word” be the link among the faiths, which can be accomplished through interfaith education and outreach. We should demand that the young Massoud and others like him receive interfaith education not a prison sentence. This approach is similar to some UN Human Rights Council proposals. More importantly, if anger gives way to forgiveness and education, an older Massoud may become a close friend to his village neighbors instead of a bitter enemy.

Although one can gain some insight into Islamic culture from books and other written material, if one is to really understand the Muslim world, there is no substitute for sitting in coffee or tea houses, spending time with Muslims, and asking them questions in their own surroundings and in their own languages. A result of these approaches would seem to indicate, with respect, some of the factors citizens of the Arab and Muslim world might wish to consider to use their extraordinary talents even more fully:

The Ability to Question – Western culture is predicated on questioning: inquiring of authorities how they came to the conclusions they reached — a concept from the ancient Greek word “historayn,” to learn by asking. Although in the Shiite world questioning occurs among religious authorities and the educated elite, in the Sunni world, for centuries, asking questions of those more learned or in positions of authority has been unacceptable. Until Muslims once again allow themselves to ask questions and engage in critical examination, they are disabling themselves from accomplishing as much as they otherwise might.

The Role of the Individual vs. the Role of the Group – In much of the Muslim world, people are often seen not as individuals but as members of particular families, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or religions. In the Muslim and Arab world, a problem between two people can become a problem between two families, with the individual becoming a “soldier” in the ensuing feud. What an individual might think personally – who is right and who is wrong – becomes irrelevant, fostering a mindset that obstructs the impersonal and dispassionate analytic thinking that defines the modern world.

Encouraging Creativity – A good way to define Western intellectual creativity in the Muslim world is to use the Arabic word ijtihad, roughly meaning using one’s intellectual and reasoning capabilities to determine answers. Today’s Islamic culture seems not to encourage this ability: among the Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 85% of the approximately 1.4 billion Muslims, the “Gates of Ijtihad” were closed about a thousand years ago, apparently for political reasons: religious authorities declared that all questions had been addressed during the past four centuries, so there was therefore no more need for questioning. Since then, Muslims have been asked to accept institutionally what they learn from their authority figures – as in the word Islam, itself, meaning “submission.” Islamic culture therefore does encourage creativity as much as it might; it appears actively to discourage it – people are educated to memorize, not criticize.
Creativity requires, above all, questioning the accepted ways of doing things. What many Muslims do, therefore – and do very well – is produce things invented by others. The Turks, for example, who have had longer and closer contacts with the West than most other areas of the Muslim world have had, are superb at replicating what others have created. Although the F-16, for example, was created in the US, the only perfect one ever manufactured by the mid-1990′s was assembled in an F-16 plant in Turkey. Individual Turks would have been perfectly capable of inventing an F-16, but often feel constrained to think creatively in their own country. This might be a reason that gifted individuals in the Muslim world who feel the need to expand their abilities often abandon their native countries for the West, and do brilliantly there.

The Ability to Admit Failure and Learn from It – Although no one particularly likes to fail, people in the West expect those who have failed to examine why they have failed, and to learn from their mistakes. Some high-tech firms even try to hire people who have failed at startups in the hope of gaining insights so their companies will not pursue avenues that did not succeed. It is hard to imagine a similar approach in any Muslim country, where it is virtually impossible for anyone publicly to admit failure. The concept of personal honor (in Arabic, ‘Ayib), what others say about you – is prevalent everywhere: admitting failure means shaming yourself, a situation to be avoided at all costs. In Western culture, this concept of shame is largely alien; we are more of a “guilt” culture, in that what we think about ourselves counts more than how others view us, and largely motivates our advancement.

In Asian cultures, for example, which also care deeply about “face,” a more neutral way of recognizing problems has evolved. The Japanese and the Chinese, for instance, do not say they have failed; they say that the road that had been chosen did not prove to work, so the direction should be changed. This indirect way of admitting failure has helped them advance. Such a blameless approach, however, is virtually non-existent in the Muslim world, and a major reason so much of it remains in squalor.

The results of this contrast – The Asian and Western cultures on one hand, and the Muslim culture on the other — might be described as two kinds of cakes: just looking at the cake tells you nothing about how it tastes. The Western world is like a cake covered with an uninviting khaki-colored frosting. Although it might look awful, the cake inside tastes great: its ingredients are first class and well-baked. By contrast, the Muslim world is like a cake covered with beautiful frosting, but made out of ingredients that might disappoint the people at the table.

The Learning Process – Muslim culture emphasizes memorization. Universities in Muslim lands grant degrees based on the students memorizing vast amounts of material, but not necessarily knowing how to apply them. In engineering, for instance, the Arab world graduates more than 250,000 engineers each year, but when the Arabs want to build an airport, they invariably import foreigners to do it, In the Arab world, engineering degrees often have become symbols of “personal honor” rather than knowledge to be used.

Taking Responsibility for One’s Actions – In the same vein, there is no equivalent in the Muslim world to the Western concept of taking responsibility for one’s actions. The word mas’uliya in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian is usually translated in Western dictionaries as “responsibility,” but it really has a meaning which corresponds more to the Western concept of “being held responsible for, or being blamed for something not going well.” The meaning of this word in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish has little to do with the Western concept of responsibility — defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to act independently and make decisions,” and largely devoid of personal honor.

How Information Is Passed On To Others – In Western societies, information is usually passed down along a chain, based on information moved up it by subordinates. In Muslim societies, the opposite usually occurs: the job of the subordinate is to implement what superiors pass command him to do; the subordinate almost never participates in the decision-making process. The Middle Eastern subordinate fears not doing what his superior tells him to do, even if the subordinate knows that what his superior wants him to do is wrong or will not work. At best the subordinate is discouraged, on pain of being fired, from questioning the decision — true even in the most Westernized country in the Muslim world, Turkey. Most officers in the Turkish army, for example, have a sign behind their desks: “The commander wants answers, he does not want questions.” That attitude was most likely the reason senior Turkish military officials could not learn how deeply the Islamic fundamentalists had penetrated the military establishment – their subordinates knew their officers did not want to hear that their units had been penetrated by people who disagreed with Ataturk’s philosophy of separating religion from the state.

The Western Concept of Compromise  – In the West, the precept of “win-win” forms the basis of how we negotiate. To reach an agreement, each side gives in to some of the demands of the other side; doing so entails no loss of personal honor. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, however, giving in to the other side’s demands involves enormous amounts of shame and the loss of honor – which is why the culture in these Islamic lands requires negotiations only after victory. Asking to negotiate before one has won indicates weakness – or why else would one be reaching out to end a conflict? — and another loss of personal honor to be avoided at all costs. After one side has decisively won, and has then imposed a solution on the vanquished party, then one begins to negotiate: the vanquished party licks his wounds and looks for the opportunity to redress his loss. This is known in Arabic assulh, somewhat like the Western concept of a truce, by definition temporary. In such circumstances, there cannot be a win-win situation. This is, unsurprisingly, why conflicts in the Middle East are never permanently resolved, and why life in the Muslim world, unlike the West, seethes in a constant state of tension.

The Western Concept of Peace – In Western culture, making peace boils down to putting the past behind one, letting bygones be bygones, and moving on from there. This mindset already existed in ancient Hebrew culture, in which the word shalom, from the root sh-l-m, meaning completeness, involved leaving past disagreements behind. But in the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian cultures, such a concept does not exist. The Arabic word salam – used in all three languages – derives from the same Semitic root, but instead means “the special joy that one gets by submitting to Allah’s will through Islam.” The word Islam, from the same root, means submission; not exactly the same as peace. If bygones can never be bygones, conflicts can never be resolved. In these Muslim lands, when one side is stronger, it attempts to subdue its ancient enemies. The culture does not permit Muslims to put the past behind them: the internet, for example, is filled with discussions among Muslims about how they must and will reconquer Spain, which they lost to the West 520 years ago. In the Muslim culture, individuals — both the leadership and the common man — spend so much time looking for ways to right perceived wrongs, that they might find it disconcerting to focus their energy on looking what we might think of as more productive and positive activities.

Book Publishing – The subject of most of the books sold in the Arab world, except for Lebanon and Iraq, concern either to Islam or hatred of the West – more specifically, they are either anti-America or anti-Israel. The number of books translated annually into Arabic is about the same as those translated into Finnish. There are, however, about 365 million Arabs, compared to 5.5 million Finns. How are Arabs to acquire the knowledge necessary to propel them into the modern world if they do not have access to modern scientific and intellectual thought, easily available in their own languages? Sadly, there does not seem to be a market in the Arab world for these types of books. Is this because there is little desire for that knowledge? If so, this inertia guarantees that as the outside world gallops into the future, the Arabo-Muslim world will find it harder and harder to catch up to Asia and the West. Arabs leaders can, of course, buy modern technology, but this solution, although instant, only guarantees a permanent dependence on outsiders.

The Status of Women  – The great 19th century Ottoman historian, Namik Kemal, argued that the Muslim world was in danger of being left behind because of its oppression of women. He asked how a country could advance if it oppressed and failed to educate half its population — the equivalent of intentionally paralyzing half of one’s body. Further, this paralyzed part of society is the one responsible for raising the next generation of males. Much of the Muslim world continues to place great obstacles in the paths of its women. In Iran under the Shah, for example, the marital age for women was 16; under the Islamic republic, this age was lowered to nine lunar years, meaning that an 8-1/2 year old girl can legally be married off by her family. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, women can be murdered, often without definitive proof, if the male members of their families believe that they may have done something that could have put a stain on the family honor; if a woman is regarded as contaminated, the entire clan can be held in disrepute and cast out by the community.

In some parts of the Muslim world, females are pressured to undergo various forms of “female circumcision,” a cutting of their genitals presumably intended to prevent women from having sexual pleasure — a practice that often takes place in unsanitary conditions that can cause significant health problems, if not death. This practice, however, has nothing to do with Islam; it is tribal, it pre-dates Islam, and it has everything to do with Islamic culture and a seeming male terror of being tempted by women’s sexual allure.

The Oil Curse – Since Muslims in the oil-rich states can now afford to have others do everything for them, they are not compelled to use the one renewable resource available to everyone: the human brain — if exercised to think creatively, capable of amazing feats. But given the cultural realities and financial wealth available in so much of the Muslim world, there seem to be few incentives, if any, to be productive in ways other than gaining, conserving, or enjoying wealth.

Palestinians, as well, are easily capable of accomplishing what anyone else does, if only their education, governance and cultural incentives were changed from destroying their neighbor, Israel, to building a felicitous society. Palestinian political leaders, however, seem to have decided that the rewards from the international community, at least for them, will be greater if they are seen as victims receiving perpetual handouts, rather than as leaders receiving rewards linked to accomplishments. The economic system seems to have evolved into bribes in exchange for promises that are never kept, followed later by the request for still more bribes.
Ironically, all genetic analyses of the many ancient Muslim Palestinian families indicate that they are largely from the same genetic stock as Ashkenazi Jewry. So what is the difference here? The Jewish culture encourages questioning and thinking from an early age, whereas the Palestinian Muslim culture does not. What is encouraged instead is the unexamined acceptance of whatever is set before one, whether on government-run television or in government-written textbooks. Religion has nothing to do with this situation; Islam therefore is not the problem: Islamic culture is. Only when Muslims address their culture head-on can there be any real hope for their world to overcome its self-imposed limitations and start fully contributing to the wonders of the 21st century.

[Harold Rhode received in Ph.D. in Ottoman History and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the US Department of Defense. He is now a Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.]

It is course possible that America’s anti-sharia activists are hoping to ban such advice. It is a lot more likely, however, that they have no clue it even exists, and are confusing sharia with violent extremism. Something similar could be said about the Muslim hardliners whose harsh legal interpretations are ascendant in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. And one thing is for sure. All those people inclined nowadays to pronounce on the eternal meaning of Islamic law could do a lot worse than think about its history first.

Agree to Disagree: Book Banning Frenzy Must End

Joint Statement: Agree to disagree — Book banning frenzy must end

We the undersigned are alarmed at the increasing rate of hostilities leveled against certain publications, leading to either their outright banning and seizures, or even in some cases, hostility against and the arrest of their authors and publishers.

While there has been uproar against Irshad Manji’s Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta [“Allah, Liberty and Love“] recently, the trend started much earlier with the banning of works by Karen Armstrong, Salman Rushdie, Khalil Gibran, Irvine Welsh and Iris Chang, among others.

Even the works of local authors such as Faisal Tehrani and Kassim Ahmadand cartoonist Zunar have not been spared.

It seems this banning frenzy led by the Home Ministry knows no limit. Zulkifli Noordin, Member of Parliament for Kulim-Bandar Baharu, also recently called for the ban of Kahwin Campur antara Muslim dengan Non-Muslim [“Mixed Marriages between Muslims and Non-Muslims“] published by Institut Kajian Dasar.

Not only do such measures contradict the government’s supposedly moderate or wasatiyah stand on issues of diversity and tolerance, it stifles discourse and views required by any mature and developing democracy. In a healthy democracy, progress can be measured by space given to different views without fear of retribution.

It also provides a pretext for the wanton exercise of power under the guise of religious order, with not only the Home Ministry’s Publications Control and Quranic Text Division carrying out seizure of books but also the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) and the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais).

These measures blatantly favour only one or two interpretations or solutions to key issues affecting Malaysian life and society at the expense of others.

Book banning is a draconian measure that is not only ineffective but contrary to the spirit of dialogue and engagement that Malaysia desperately needs.

Malaysia as a nation of diverse identities, religions and cultures should embrace and welcome the complex interaction and exchange of ideas that is rapidly expanding in this era of globalisation. In that, the ethics of agreeing to disagree is crucial to ensure mutual respect for diverging ideas and dissenting views.

We call upon the authorities in Malaysia to put an end to book banning as the first step towards promoting diversity and respect in our society.

Endorsed by:

1. Aliran

2. All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)

3. Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)

4. Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF)

5. Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)

6. Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)

7. Persatuan Masyarakat Selangor & Wilayah Persekutuan (Permas)

8. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor

9. Pusat KOMAS

10. Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)

11. Sisters in Islam (SIS)

12. Suaram

13. Tenaganita

14. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

15. Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)


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