Blogs > HNN > Academic Apologists for Shariah: The Real Meaning of the Abdul Rahman Case

Mar 28, 2006 12:19 am

Academic Apologists for Shariah: The Real Meaning of the Abdul Rahman Case

I suppose by now we've all heard of the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity now on trial for what Afghan law regards as the capital offense of apostasy. The case evokes the same response from me as does every case of its kind: a sense of indignation at the injustice involved, and hope for the victim's eventual exoneration. (As of this writing, Abdul Rahman's mental fitness to stand trial has been challenged by the government—no less a rights-violation than its having put him on trial for apostasy.)

In a recent post at Liberty & Power, David Beito suggests that the Abdul Rahman case is somehow a problem for those of us who backed the war on Afghanistan. I disagree, and will deal with that claim in a subsequent post. But it seems to me that the case is much more obviously a problem for people in Near East and Islamic Studies who have been trying for so long to split the difference between liberalism and Islam. Political Islam, they keep telling us, is a more benign thing than we secularists are willing to admit. Well, let's consider.

The basic lesson to be learned from the Abdul Rahman case is eloquently expressed in a pair of sentences in this March 24 article in The New York Times by Abdul Waheed Wafa and David Rohde:

The case illustrates a central contradiction of the compromise Constitution that Afghanistan adopted in 2004, which has been cited as an example for other Islamic countries. One passage declares Islam Afghanistan's supreme law, while another states that the country grants its citizens religious freedom.
Fleshed out a bit, I think, we can draw five further lessons from the passage in the Times story.
1. It's irrational to compromise on fundamental issues.
2. Constitutional issues are fundamental to governance.
3. The choice of secularism versus religion is a fundamental constitutional issue—hence not one where compromise is acceptable.
4. It is a fundamental mistake to expect religious freedom to be secured by a sectarian constitution, or by attempts to compromise with one.
5. Contrary to those who" cited" it"as an example for other Islamic countries," the Afghan Constitution is not worth emulating, and little different in principle from the constitutions of failed Islamic states like Pakistan or Iran.
Who, exactly, would be discomfited by having to confront the preceding lessons? Well, philosophical and political pragmatists would contest the"absolutism" of lessons (1), (2) and (3). Apologists for religion would contest (4), and apologists for the Afghan constitution would contest (5). What's amazing is how many"informed" and"authoritative" experts on the Islamic Near East fall into one of those five categories.

For instance: I can readily think of one person who simultaneously falls into all five of the preceding categories: Noah Feldman of New York University.

Consider this 2004 interview with Feldman on" constitutionalism in the Muslim world":
Question: I understand that the high court is going to be a combination of secular law judges and Islamic judges. Are you optimistic that will work?

Dr. Feldman: It's an experiment. It has the possibility of working, but there are certainly no guarantees. It's an experiment with a body that will be able to mediate between those two different sets of values, and do it in a way that is perceived as legitimate by the rest of the Afghan people.
So: a contradiction has"the possibility of working" if only we'll give it the chance to. Unfortunately, that only"works" if you're willing to split the difference between faith and reason, or between illogic and logic. Noah Feldman is a smart and talented man, but unfortunately for him (and for the people of Afghanistan) intelligence and talent don't add up to the capacity to square the constitutional circle.

Close behind Feldman, I think of the vaunted"experts" in the fields of Near East and Islamic Studies who would object to lesson (4) above—principally by accusing its defenders of"bigotry."

Consider the case of Mark LeVine, who makes just that claim in this post on his HNN blog. He's referring here to an anti-Islamist manifesto written and signed by a group of Muslim and apostate intellectuals.
Equally troubling…a group of well-known intellectuals, including some prominent secular Muslims such as Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji, issued a statement that mirrored the bigoted language as the United American Committee at UCI. In it they called Islamism"the new global threat," and condemned it as a"totalitarian and… reactionary ideology which kills equality, freedom and secularism wherever it is present."
I'm curious to learn where LeVine finds the"mirrored bigotry" in the statement he describes. I've read and commented on the statement, and I simply don't see what bigotry there is to be found in it. It's an instructive sign of the times that one can make accusations of bigotry in this way without offering the slightest hint of an argument for one's claims.

At any rate, LeVine continues:
Such a base reduction of Muslim religious belief to one simplistic and in many ways artificial category called"Islamism" (a term which, it should be noted, most of the ultra-conservative Muslims against whom the statement was directed, do not even use to describe themselves) generalizes the worst aspects of one expression of Islamic faith as if it encapsulates the entire breadth of Muslim belief. It betrays an utter ignorance of the complexity of contemporary Islam, and the reality--which the Left as much as the Right seems to have a hard time accepting--that there is a growing body of Muslims who are both religious and progressive.

Ironically, it is precisely these people who, in the words of the Swiss Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan (who has been attacked by the Left and Right for allegedly misleading the West about his"true motives"), are engaged in the process of secularizing Islam that the supposed defenders of"universal values" seem totally unaware of. It seems that Muslims, and their non-Muslim allies, can be as ignorant of their religion, and willfully so, as everyone else.
LeVine's website describes him as having"a command of Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, as well as Italian, French and German." I wonder if the omission of English from the list is intentional: how could a historian read so simple a document in his native tongue with such brazen ineptitude?

For starters: the document to which LeVine refers doesn't equate Islamism with Islam; it's LeVine who does that, and falsely ascribes his own equation to the document. As for the reference to"Islamism," it may be true that"ultra-conservative Muslims" don't refer to themselves as"Islamists," but then, they don't refer to themselves as"ultra-conservatives," either. The point is, an ideological group doesn't have a monopoly on the labels that can legitimately used to describe it. Nor is a label"wrong" simply because the group labeled doesn't use it. (Never mind that it is Islamists who characteristically equate Islamism with Islam.) As for LeVine's charge of ignorance, in fact it exemplifies ignorance: he seems ignorant of the possibility that the signers know something about"the growing body of Muslims who are both religious and progressive" and reject their claims.

Consider in similar vein the apologetics of John L. Esposito of Georgetown, who speaks darkly of"the dangers of secular fundamentalism," and tells us, blithely, that"Contrary to what some have advised, the United States should not, in principle, object to the implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government" (The Islamic Threat, Second Edition, p. 245). I would have thought that the First Amendment objects, in principle to the implementation of any religious law in government; I guess the advisors to whom Esposito alludes would include Locke, Jefferson and Madison, whose advice we ought to throw out on his say-so.

"Too often," Esposito sighs,
analysis and policymaking have been shaped by a liberal secularism which fails to recognize that it too represents a worldview which, when assumed to be a self-evident truth, can take the form of a 'secular fundamentalism.' Secularism or liberal democracy is no longer regarded as 'a' way (one of many possible paradigms, albeit for some the best way) but"the" way, the only true path for political development….Alternative paradigms, especially religious ones, are necessarily judged as abnormal, irrational, retrogressive (249).
Translation: Liberal secularism is a worldview. A worldview affirmed dogmatically is a form of fundmentalism. Hence, liberal secularism affirmed dogmatically is a form of secular fundmentalism. From this banal series of truisms, Esposito somehow manages to infer (only God knows how) that religious political"paradigms" are normal, rational, and progressive. Reflect a bit on the predicament of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. Then ask yourself how to gauge John Esposito's distance from reality.

But if"distance from reality" is what you're after, you couldn't do much worse than to peruse the writings of Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, apologist for theocracy, zealous critic of secularism, and (not coincidentally) darling of the liberal media establishment. Behold the man as he dresses down secularist writer Ibn Warraq in an essay entitled"On Revising Bigotry".
Misery loves misery, and so Pipes teams up with Ibn Warraq, a pitiful figure inviting Muslims to liberate themselves from their religion and their Lord. Earlier on, Ibn Warraq fascinated us with his ranting about why he is not a Muslim. Of course, his title came from Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, but while Russell wrote philosophy, what Ibn Warraq wrote is an inanity, and an utter intellectual bore. This time the man with the funny name collected a bunch of articles and published them under the title The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. One of the two introductions to the book is written by a fellow with the pathetic pseudo-name Ibn Rawandi. Perhaps, our contemporary authors are alluding to friendship between the historical Ibn Rawandi and al-Warraq, both from the third Islamic century. The Manicheism and heresy of the historical figures is debated, but compared to the originals, our modern authors are unfortunate mutations and intellectual trolls.
The passage begins with a conspiracy theory about Ibn Warraq's relation to Daniel Pipes. In fact, there is no such relation (or in fact, any relation); but never mind. Facts don't matter when venom is at hand. El Fadl goes on to tell us that Ibn Warraq is a"pitiful" figure. In fact, since El Fadl doesn't know a thing about Ibn Warraq, he has nothing of a factual nature to tell us about why Ibn Warraq is so"pitiful." This doesn't seem to matter, either. Next we're told that Ibn Warraq's book doesn't match up to Bertrand Russell's, that it's an"inanity" and"bore": oddly, El Fadl doesn't try his hand at refuting any of it.

Fast-forwarding, we get to El Fadl's dehumanizing reference to Ibn Warraq as a"mutation." This metaphor might perhaps remind you of the prosecutor in the Abdul Rahman case, who referred to the defendant as a"microbe." It might also call to mind the procedures of the Afghan court system, which would now like to declare Abdul Rahman mentally incompetent. All of that might also justifiably remind you of the Nazi use of metaphors of disease and mental incompetence for purposes of dealing with dissidents and race-enemies. It is, at last, the same mentality at work in all three cases: a mentality that equates intellectual challenge automatically with evil, and the challengers themselves with vermin. We might very well expect such beliefs from the semi-literate morons who populate the Afghan government. It comes as a bit of a surprise to hear them expressed by a fully literate professor of law at UCLA.

But only the utterly naive will be completely surprised. For the sad fact is that however hard El Fadl tries to mask his differences from the inquisitors in Afghanistan, he cannot mask his fundamental agreement with them. He shares their faith, shares their moral verdict on apostasy, and shares Islam's view of the eventual fate of the apostate. He may not want to kill an apostate with his own hands, or even want one to be killed by any actual government. But in compliance with the wishes of his"Lord" and master, he can't help acquiescing in the thought that the apostate deserves to be damned to Hell for eternity.

"In the end," God tells us in the Quran, the unbelievers"will have only regrets and sighs; at length they will be overcome; and the unbelievers will be gathered together to Hell" (8:36). As for Hell, in it (we are told) the skins of the unbelievers will be roasted and renewed (4:56), they will drink boiling fetid water (14:16), they will wear garments of fire (22:19), they will neither live nor die (20:74), they will be"broken to pieces" (99:4), etc. etc. etc.

I would insist that even the likes of Saddam Hussein deserves a fair trial and a measured punishment for his crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, Professor El Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law, defends a doctrine according to which it is permissible to torture someone for eternity for having the wrong beliefs. Excuse me, but who is the bigot among us?

If there is a useful lesson for Americans in the Abdul Rahman affair, it's this: what the fields of Islamic Studies and Near East Studies need today--but completely lack--are scholars who are willing to give Islam the frontal challenge it so richly deserves. And by" challenge," I decidedly don't mean the milquetoast sort of" challenge" one finds in writers like Daniel Pipes or Bernard Lewis, who criticize Islamism but leave Islam itself untouched. Nor do I even mean the sort of" challenge" one finds in scholars like Patricia Crone or Michael Cook, whose muted criticisms of Islam come in the form of indirection and insinuation. I mean scholars capable of entertaining the hypothesis that Islam is false and irrational as such, and are willing to deal with it accordingly.

Faced with such critics from outside of the field, the reigning stars of the field have nothing to offer in rebuttal but defamation. But for precisely that reason, they have nothing to offer in defense of the Abdul Rahmans of the world. We hard-core secularists are the only critics of Islam capable of offering the sort of defense that the Abdul Rahmans of the world deserve—the one that cuts to the heart of the matter. The principle in question is succinctly stated by the philosopher Ayn Rand in the climactic speech of her epic novel, Atlas Shrugged:"The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments." (Atlas Shrugged, p. 944). A word of advice for the apologists of Islam, Muslim or non-Muslim: bring forth a sura like that one, if ye can…(cf. Qur'an, 10:37).

comments powered by Disqus