Pascal Perich

Muslims, too, can defend Salman Rushdie's freedom

Mustafa Akyol

5 mins - 19 de Agosto de 2022, 07:00

The Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York is a summer camp for liberal Americans interested in ideas and arts. It is a blissfully peaceful place, as I personally observed two years ago during my speech there on the nuances of Islamic theology. So, it really is not the kind of setting that you would expect a terrorist attack on a world-renown author.
Yet that is exactly what happened last Friday (Aug 12), when novelist Salman Rushdie, whose life has been under threat since 1989, when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous “fatwa,” or legal opinion, calling for his murder. A 24-year-old American of Lebanese descent named Hadi Matar jumped onto the stage and stabbed the 75-year-old Rushdie at least ten times. Soon, the police found that his phone and social media accounts were filled with pro-Iran content. Some reports also claim that he had been in touch with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
So, it seems that the “death fatwa” on Rushdie finally hit the mark — some 33 years later, when Rushdie himself, and much of the world, began to think that the threat had waned.  

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But why would the Iranian regime and its assets target a novelist so persistently?
The answer has something to with politics. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s Shiite leadership posed itself as the staunchest defender of Islam, often by outbidding Sunni powers. Rushdie’s novel, which then many Muslims took as offensive to the Prophet Muhammad (and his wives), came as an opportunity to show this ferocity. Ultimately, as journalist Arash Azizi explains in Newlines magazine, the “incitement for killing [Rushdie]” became “integral to the regime’s identity.”
Yet this political answer only points to a deeper problem: The belief that anyone who insults Islam, especially its Prophet, deserve to be killed. It is a belief that is shared not only by Iran’s Shiite regime, but also some hardline regimes or groups in the Sunni the world. In Pakistan, especially, almost every month, someone either gets jailed by authorities or lynched by furious mobs based on accusations of “insulting the Prophet.”
The deeper problem, in other words, is the criminalization of blasphemy in Islamic law, the Sharia, in both Sunni and Shiite interpretations. In its mainstream applications, this leads to legal punishments given at courts, which are troubling enough. In its extreme applications, it leads to mob violence or terrorist attacks, as also seen in the savagery against the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France.
All these may sound bad news about Islam and its place in the modern world, but there is better news, too: Like some other troubling verdicts in the Sharia — such as the execution of apostates or segregation of women — blasphemy laws have only a weak ground in the two foundations of the Islam: the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet.
First, the Qur’an simply has no commandments for Muslims to punish blasphemers. Quite the contrary, a verse commands a very mild response: “If you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things...” (4:140). So, just “do not sit with them.” That really is the Qur’anic response to blasphemy. It is not killing or jailing. It is not even censorship.
Second, in the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, there are some reports about satirical poets executed by the first Muslims, which have been taken later by medieval jurists as the very basis of blasphemy laws. But, as I argued in my book Reopening Muslim Minds, a close examination suggests that those “poets” may be targeted for other acts, such as incitement to war against Muslims or outright violence against them. No wonder there are other reports showing that Muhammad actually tolerated or pardoned his harshest critics.

With such arguments, some prominent Islamic scholars have lately been challenging blasphemy laws in Islam. They include Rached Ghannouchi, the leader Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party Ennahda; Javed Ghamidi, a popular scholar in Pakistan; or Mohsen Kadivar, an Islamic theologian from Iran. And right after the recent attack on Rushdie, a group of prominent Iranian Islamic intellectuals published a powerful statement rejecting any “assassination in the name of Islam” as well any “despotic rule.”
All this shows that one can be a faithful Muslim, while also defending free speech for everyone, including Salman Rushdie.
But can such reformist ideas really change attitudes in the world of Islam, towards freedom and tolerance? As a Muslim, I believe yes. And if you are doubtful, just recall that Christianity had even more troubling attitudes just a few centuries ago, with even harsher verdicts against blasphemers, heretics, even “witches.” Things changed thanks to both painful ordeals and also therapeutic ideas.  
Today, the Islamic world is at such a critical moment. And Salman Rushdie, for whom I sincerely wish fast recovery, will perhaps go down in history as someone who catalyzed of those some therapeutic ideas with his own painful ordeal.

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