The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain have announced that the 14th March shall be an International Day to Defend Apostates and Blasphemers. A worthy occasion. As they note, such courageous people as Alex Aan, Hamza Kashgari, Asia Bibi and Saeed Malekpour are enduring jail sentences or awaiting executions for the “crime” of describing the universe as they see it.
Governments have not executed religious dissidents in some time – it would too bad for PR – but vigilantes among their populations are happy to. Last year alleged blasphemers were murdered in Pakistan; attacked by mobs in Indonesia and stoned in the Maldives. Just last week, in an event that was extreme even by the standards of the region, 150 houses and shops in Christians in Lahore were burnt to cinders after some from the community was charged with using blasphemous language. The nation’s governors, meanwhile, are occupied with the blasphemy case that has been filed against its US ambassador. She faces capital punishment, ironically, for suggesting that blaspheming does not call for execution.
I have written a great deal on the treatment of blasphemers and apostates across the Islamic world but I have never really stopped to think how it must feel to be one. Have you ever had an opinion you have felt lonely in holding or awkward in expressing? I have. The extent to which exploring unorthodox ideas is described as “brave” is evidence of the self-importance of Western culture but, still, it not fun to think that words could earn one rejection or opprobrium. There is no idea, though, that could assure one’s alienation and provoke hostility on the scale that nonbelief, conversion and dissidence have done for courageous souls in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere.
To lose one’s faith as a citizen of such nations is not merely to become freakish among one’s compatriots but to know that vast numbers of them would wish you dead. This must inspire a sad feeling of disunion from the people one dwells among but also a fear of them. One is a mole without a mission, and has no cause or allies to provide consolation and the chance of escape. It must be frighteningly lonely to harbour questions or disbelief, and simply frightening to express them or be exposed.
The comparison to undercover agents is especially apt not because heretics and nonbelievers commit betrayal but as they know that this is the thought their rejection of their beliefs will inspire among their peers. Muslims often treat one’s membership of Islam as others might one’s loyalty to one’s homeland. In the Maldives, for example, citizenship is defined by one’s status as a Sunni Muslim. To convert, then, and to criticise one’s past ideas, is, in the words of Abul Ala Maududi, to become “traitors”.
This belief that the religion is entitled to dominate is evidence of both undeserved assurance and unconscious insecurity. I am far more receptive to the theories of religions than other participants in this event but it seems obvious to me that a belief that respects the importance of truth must tolerate criticism, and believers with any faith in their righteousness must tolerate rejection and mockery. Whatever the strength of religious or ideological men and women who are averse to doubt or disrespect, their intolerance exposes intellectual and spiritual weakness.
The victims of this supremacist censoriousness have not merely been the apostates and blasphemers themselves but all those believers who have been sheltered from the scepticism that might have inspired their doubts. The intolerance of its internal critics have protected the religion from reform. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, a Muslim opponent of sharia law, was executed in Sudan in 1985. Turan Dursun, a Turkish atheist and critic of Islam, was shot in Istanbul in 1990. Farag Foda, a secular academic in Egypt, was gunned down in 1992. Salman Taseer and Sahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani politicians, criticised their nation’s blasphemy laws and were swiftly assassinated. Thus has Islamic literalism been defended not been words and thoughts but fists and weapons.
We should not fetishise free speech or free expression. There are, I am convinced, such things as good speech and good behaviour and they are the ends we should pursue. Liberty, however, has provided the means through which contests of concepts and experiments with actions have allowed truths and valuable styles of living to emerge and the abuse of these dissidents reminds us of its preciousness.
There is little we can do to help apostates and blasphemers in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Islamic supremacism is inherent to the cultures of their societies and it is their business to decide whether it is valuable enough to maintain. We can make use of the freedom we enjoy, though, to express the doubts that others are oppressed for bearing: to encourage the study and criticism of the faith and its different forms. As information is globalised, these efforts cannot be ignored. After Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were killed their images were sprayed on sheets and walls above the slogan, “You did not kill them: their ideas walk on our legs”. I make no claims for my insight or character but I know I have been blessed with the freedom to pursue inquiries and uphold causes that brave, intelligent souls were forced to abandon. It is a pleasure to honour them.