Isis may be more brutal but many Arab governments are on the same ground – asserting the superiority of Islam
Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of Isis and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God’s wishes for mankind, such groups feel entitled – even required – to act on his behalf and punish those who fail to comply with the divine will. In doing so, of course, they do not claim to be seeking power for themselves but merely trying to make the world more holy.
Bombing Isis and banning Islamist movements may suppress such movements for a while but it does nothing to address the ideological problem. Unless the question of compulsion in religion is tackled head-on, and in a serious way, they will resurface later or similar groups will emerge to replace them.
Although freedom of belief is a widely accepted principle internationally, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it is still far from becoming established in the Arab countries. This is true of both governments and society.
As far as many of the Arab public are concerned, discriminating against members of the “wrong” faith, or those who hold unorthodox views, is not only acceptable, but the right thing to do. For Arab governments, enforcing religious rules and allying themselves with God helps to make up for their lack of electoral legitimacy.
This causes a particular problem in combating the ideology of groups such as Isis because most Arab states – including several members of the military coalition against it – share Isis’s approach to compulsion in religion. Isis may be more brutal in practice but, basically, they are on the same ground – asserting the superiority of Islam and the legitimacy of religious discrimination.
Isis’s readiness to execute people for their beliefs has parallels in six Arab countries – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the UAE and Yemen – where apostasy is a crime and in theory the death penalty can apply. Curiously, though, they seem reluctant to enforce it. No recent executions for apostasy have been reported in any of them and in Saudi Arabia there have been none for well over 20 years, according to the US state department.
On the rare occasions when an execution for apostasy becomes a possibility, these countries usually resort to avoidance mechanisms.
In 1996, for example, the authorities in Kuwait were confronted with their first apostasy case since independence when Hussein Ali Qambar, a Shia Muslim, converted to evangelical Christianity and adopted “Robert” as his first name. Qambar had separated from his wife and his conversion came to light during a court case about custody of their children. In accordance with Islamic custom, efforts were made to persuade him to recant – but to no avail. Islamists then began agitating and filing lawsuits seeking to have him condemned for apostasy.
The case went to court and a judge recommended the death penalty. This put the Kuwaiti authorities on the spot, since there was no doubt (in sharia terms) that Qambar was an apostate. Looking for a way to defuse the situation, they issued him with a passport and allowed him to quietly leave the country.
A similar case arose in Yemen in 2000 when Mohammed Omer Haji, a Somali refugee who had converted from Islam to Christianity, was arrested and charged with apostasy. Once again, there were behind-the-scenes activities to avert his execution, which ended with him being granted emergency resettlement in New Zealand with his wife and son.
More recently in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death. In the absence of her Muslim father, Ibrahim had been raised by her mother as a Christian but in Sudan, under Islamic law, children inherit the religion of their father and so Ibrahim was officially classified as a Muslim. This meant she was technically an apostate, having supposedly abandoned Islam for Christianity.
Following much international pressure, an appeal court overturned her death sentence. She was released from jail and, as with the Kuwaiti and Yemeni cases, eventually allowed to leave the country.
These countries are essentially trying to have it both ways. They don’t want to execute anyone for apostasy because they know there would be an international outcry, but they also fear the reaction from religious elements if they try to abolish the death penalty.
This kind of fudging and fence-sitting has served them quite well until now, but with the growth of religious intolerance and the spread of sectarian-related conflicts in various parts of the region it is becoming less and less tenable. So long as they shy away from a clear commitment to freedom of belief, their stance helps to legitimise the actions of groups such as Isis. At some point soon they will have to decide whether they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution.
Source: The Guardian.com / Oct. 28, 2014