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One-way traffic

April 01, 2006

THE recent furore over the arrest and threatened trial of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan for the alleged ‘crime’ of converting to Christianity has puzzled and alarmed many in the West.

Newspapers have been full of reports and op-ed articles about the case, and everybody from President Bush to the Pope has pleaded for the accused. Most people cannot understand what the fuss is about: in the last census in the UK, tens of thousands of people filling in the form put ‘Jedi’ in the religion column, a reference to the ‘Jedi knights’ in the Star Wars films. Millions said they were agnostics or atheists.

In a society where religion plays an increasingly marginal role in everyday life, it is incomprehensible that the state can dictate a citizen’s belief and even execute him for changing his faith. It is all the more puzzling when Muslims routinely proselytise all over the world, converting thousands to Islam every year. Why, people ask, do Muslims not have the same freedom themselves?

Fortunately, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, succumbed to pressure and his government has dropped the trial. Nevertheless, the case has opened an important debate. After all, Afghanistan (like most Muslim countries) is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man which guarantees freedom of religion and conversion. So on what grounds was Mr Rahman being charged in the first place?

When the Danish cartoons caricaturing the Holy Prophet [PBUH] erupted on the scene, many thoughtful westerners condemned them as an unacceptable provocation to Muslims. A number of politicians condemned the publication of the cartoons, and many editors ran strong leaders denouncing their Danish colleagues. But when news about the unfortunate Afghan’s ordeal appeared, the same people expressed their condemnation of his incarceration and horror over the death sentence he faced. Even after the case has been dropped (on grounds of ‘insanity’), many Afghans have threatened to kill him and he has been offered sanctuary by Italy.

In the eyes of the world, Muslims are practising a double standard whereby they insist on the right to spread their religion aggressively, while preventing other faiths from evangelising among them. And while they too often treat non-Muslims living in their midst as second class citizens, they demand that they be allowed to build mosques and run madressahs in non-Muslim countries.

Writing about the Abdul Rahman case in the Observer of March 26, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali says: “Again and again, Muslim scholars assure us that there is no compulsion in matters of religion and that Islam upholds fundamental freedoms. Yet it remains the case that all the existing schools of law prescribe the death penalty for apostasy...”

The good Bishop goes on to suggest: “Such matters are of universal concern. Surely, the general idea of maslaha , or the common good, should now be used to promote an understanding of Islamic law that is both rooted in the Quran and open to interaction in a wholly new set of circumstances. If a clash of civilisations and clashes within civilisations are to be avoided, the Sharia, or Law of Islam, must be shown to be flexible and adaptable...”

Whether or not the Muslim world follows this advice, the fact is that over the last 50 years, millions of Muslims have migrated to the West, and their children and grandchildren are now struggling to make a living and find recognition in non-Muslim milieus. Never an easy task at the best of times, they are hampered by the post-9/11 tension that now separates Muslim from non-Muslim.

Muslims who live in the West are now constantly on the defensive, having to explain to their local friends and colleagues that Islam is a religion of peace and that the terrorism around us is the work of a handful of extremists. But when churches are attacked in Pakistan or a priest is killed in Turkey or an Afghan faces the death penalty for converting to Christianity, it is hard to maintain that all is well in the Islamic world.

While sane and moderate Muslims naturally believe that these excesses arise from a misinterpretation of the faith, non-believers see things differently. When suicide bombers and terrorists spread death and destruction in the countries that gave them shelter, they too often blame the faith that drove them to these moments of madness.

Habib Johnson, an American reader with whom I have been in correspondence before, writes: “A few months ago, I wrote to you about my plight having converted back to Christianity after my family embraced Islam. As an African American I wrote about the problems I faced from mostly Muslims of Asian origin in my mosque area (most of them Pakistani) who made life hell for me. It convinced me Muslims will never assimilate and become moderate ... even if they are living in a country that gives them everything, including the licence to preach and build mosques...

“How can Muslim leaders who ad nauseum say ‘there’s no compulsion in Islam’ sit quiet when a man is sentenced to death for the simple reason he changed his religion? Every day I read newspapers in Muslim countries shamelessly tom-tomming the conversion of Christians (especially whites) to Islam. Isn’t this hypocrisy of the highest order...?” He concludes by asking: “Should you write a column about this?” And he answers his own question: “Hell no; I care for your well-being.”

The writer makes some deeply troubling points. Indeed, the Abdul Rahman case encapsulates the entire conflict between Islam and modernity. Can we really believe that we should have the right not only to practise our faith in non-Muslim societies, but also to convert others, while we deny others the same right in our countries? More to the point, will we be allowed by others to continue with these double standards indefinitely?

The truth is that for years, Muslim immigrants have been exploiting western liberal attitudes that have made it possible for them to get jobs, an education for their children and health care for their families. All this while the majority have chosen to maintain their distinctive lifestyle that westerners often find offensive. Their attitude towards women, for example, flies in the face of the same liberalism that Muslims use to spread their faith.

But now, terrorism has exposed the faultlines between the two civilisations, and an increasing number of western voices are saying enough is enough to this one-way traffic.