Why Afghanistan should not have dismissed the apostasy case
Abdul Rahman will not be executed for abandoning his Muslim faith and embracing Christianity. Citing problems with the evidence, Afghanistan's Supreme Court has dismissed the case against the 41-year-old convert. Whether cynical or deft, the decision takes much of the heat off President Hamid Karzai, caught between popular demands for the apostate's execution at home and equally strong appeals for his release from western leaders abroad.
But what probably spells relief for Karzai and Rahmanassuming no fatwa-heeding Muslim kills the latter in his new home in Italymay prove as much a setback for the new democratic regime of Afghanistan as for the ongoing global effort of Muslim reformers to make the case for a tolerant, broad-minded Islam.
Most immediately, the Rahman case would have brought to a head questions about the compatibility of Islamic law, or sharia, with the more universal principles of human rights (namely religious tolerance), both of which the Afghanistan Constitution claims to respect. Dismissing the case on technical grounds means Kabul has only put off its rendezvous with an inevitable constitutional dilemma. (Think, by analogy, of the U.S. Supreme Court sidestepping something so fundamental to the nation's constitutional arrangements as Marbury v. Madison.
At the same time, the dismissal robs the larger Muslim world of a golden opportunity for religious moderates to challenge an Islam-wide crisis of authority that allows extreme, literalist interpretations of Islamic law to go unchallenged. That is no small matter. Embraced not only by Wahhabi puritans and militant Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, those extremist interpretations also influence the law of the land in many predominantly Muslim nations. Although only a few statesSudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and, possibly, Afghanistanendorse capital punishment for apostasy, many other Muslim nations, including Jordan and Egypt, have subjected apostates to lesser punishments that include imprisonment and exile, according to Georgetown University historian Yvonne Haddad. Even Muslim nations that officially embrace religious tolerance, like Pakistan, often turn a blind eye to widespread and unofficial persecution of apostates., a crude village justice carried out by supporters of a narrow construction of sharia
Within Muslim intellectual circles, there is considerable disagreement over whether the brunt of the Islamic legal tradition stands behind religious tolerance or for punishment for apostasy. On one hand, many argue, Koranic passages supporting tolerance outnumber those inveighing against apostasy. And even the latter (in addition to sayings called hadith attributed to the Prophet and his earliest followers) are associated with the martial phase of the Prophet's career and are often understood as applying to acts of treason rather than to abandonment of the faith. Nevertheless, precisely because many of the punitive Koranic passages and hadith come later, puritanical jurists within almost every major Islamic legal tradition have at some point argued that they supersede (or "abrogate") the calls for tolerance. As UCLA legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl points out in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, "puritans habitually declare any part of the Qur'an that is inconsistent with their worldview to have been abrogated."