Friday, November 10, 2006

Through the Looking Glass

This title is in fact rather unjust, as I hope to explain, but at first sight these are strange days indeed. This morning I saluted a post by Ali Eteraz in which he continued a theme he has been developing, that there is no punishment, let alone the death penalty, prescribed in Islam for apostasy. As I quoted earlier, he argues:

... there is no Quranic basis for an EARTHLY punishment for apostasy. (Maududi tried to find one but he failed). As such, the death penalty for apostasy is rooted in the hadith. Within the three links above, the single most important apostasy hadith, and a couple of corollary hadith, have been discredited. It becomes really difficult, in light of this information, to persuasively argue that Islamic Law should permit a death penalty for apostasy.

Now, the issue is to spread these opinions so more people i.e. Muslims can get out of their ignorance.
As the guardian apostate has commented here, Robert Spencer of Jihadwatch has disputed Eteraz's argument. As the apostate put it:
I've been a keen observer of the numerous exchanges between Dean Esmay, the poster on his site Ali Eteraz and Robert Spencer it seems to me that Robert Spencer 'wins' hands down. More importantly, as Robert Spencer points out, it's the wider Islamic community that really need convincing and Mr Eteraz's article seems unlikely to do that.
I am always grateful for the comments of the guardian apostate, but in this case I think he has it wrong.

However, this is where my title comes from. On the face of it, we have Robert Spencer, a courageous opponent of radical Islam who has to live in hiding because of his activism, trying to deny an influential reforming Muslim who is advancing an argument against the persecution of apostates that, as Spencer puts it,
... is just the sort of thing that we need to see, right? Islamic arguments against the death penalty for apostasy! Here then is a small sign of the Islamic reform that everyone (except those who believe that Islam is essentially peaceful and needs no reform) wants to see, right?
The repeated use of the interrogative "right?" alerts the attentive reader to the fact that Mr Spencer is sceptical. The use of the word "small", as in "small sign of ... Islamic reform" is strange; the penalty for apostasy is so fundamental a breach of human rights, and so powerful a driver of persecution and violence, that if Eteraz were to be at all successful with his argument he would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Basically, to cut through the long arguments, Spencer thinks that Eteraz is mistaken in his theological arguments - almost suggesting there is deliberate intent to deceive:
Click on the link again. It's a hadith about giving the apostate a chance to repent -- not about the death penalty for apostasy itself. Does Eteraz think people will not click on his links? Moreover, he asserts that the death penalty for apostasy contradicts the Qur'an -- funny how all the many Islamic jurists who have upheld the death penalty for apostasy over the centuries, in all the schools of Islamic law, never seem to have noticed that.
What is Spencer's point?
The problem, of course, is not that I am not convinced. It is that no Muslim who can read and check Eteraz's links will be convinced. No one who believes in the death penalty for apostasy will be convinced. And they are the ones who need to be convinced.
The dispute between Robert Spencer and Eteraz (and his fellow bloggers) has some antecedents and they both descend to ad hominems easily now. There has been a response to Spencer's response, to which Spencer has responded, and in passing commented:
The view of Mr. Eteraz is an unorthodox, minority view, by the explicit words of the scholar who supports it, quoted above. I do hope it wins out, but if it were convincing to Muslims, you would see the schools of jurisprudence setting aside the death penalty for apostasy. Instead, all we have seen recently is its furious reassertion, in the Abdul Rahman case.
No doubt this will continue for a while. I can't help feeling, though, that the only constructive thing Spencer is doing is lending credibility, through his opposition, to Eteraz, and this is a small mercy. In the process he is, I think, misunderstanding what reformation is, and what a Muslim reformation might look like. To play with word substitution:
The problem, of course, is not that I am not convinced. It is that no Christian who can read and check Luther's arguments will be convinced. No one who believes in the traditional papal and ecclesiastical practises with which he takes issue will be convinced. And they are the ones who need to be convinced.
If Ali Eteraz and his associates were walking in the theological mainstream of their religion there would be no reason to mention the word "reform", and the same applied to Martin Luther.

Reformation necessarily, intrinsically, requires a re-evaluation of theological interpretations and teachings. That's not a problem, it's the whole point.

In a response to Spencer, Eteraz says:
Robert Spencer also states that I face an uphill battle on the issue of apostasy. I agree, partly, but only partly. Scholars of enormous weight, like Shahrour, An-Naim, Moosa, Mernissi, Kamali, Ramadan, all oppose the death penalty for apostasy. Tomorrow there will be one less Muslim who believes in the death penalty for apostates because of their work.
Bravo, Ali Eteraz.

Abdul Rahman has been persecuted in Afghanistan, a country in which the most extreme and hateful version of Islam is widespread, a country in which schoolteachers are murdered for educating girls. I happen to think there are a lot of problems with every version of Islam, but I would have said that of Robert Spencer's Catholicism four hundred years ago. Even so, Afghanistan is, fortunately, an untypical example. Why, then, raise it?

Fights tend to polarise, and it can become difficult, for a combatant, to see any good in their opponent. I think Spencer is in this particular pit right now. This is why the title of this post is unfair. To see an opponent of fundamentalist, supremacist Islam taking issue with a reformer is not a glimpse through the looking glass; it is all too common.

1 comment:

Harry J said...

Peter, with the greatest respect i think you've done Robert Spencer a disservice in your post. Having read his responses to Ali Eteraz I would say he was polite but assertive and quite right to be sceptical. I don't think comparing the reformation of Christianity with any potential reformation of Islam is particularly useful. They are both very different in numerous ways. Having re-read Spencer's replies I think he more than adequately points out the flaws in Eteraz's position and does so not to score points but because, as he says, if he can see the logical flaws then so wiill the jihadists. It's them that need convincing, not you or I. Personally I struggle to be convinced that Islam can even be reformed. Were I a Muslim am I supposed to feel comforted that Muhammed, the person I'm supposed to revere as the perfect man and role model, killed people because they decided to leave Islam? This is only the tip of a very large iceburg. There just seems to be too much to reform. Another reason why I think comparisons with Christianity are unhelpful is because, essentially, Islam need not be judged by Christianity's standards. It should be judged on itself alone. I was confirmed as a Christian but it didn't take me long to have serious doubts and to then continue my spiritual search elsewhere. I've since seem to have come back in full circle. In brief, the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospels, was part of the exoteric, outer, mysteries of the early Gnostic Christian church. That's all it was, a story, or rather a complex allegory, the deeper understanding of which was part of the esoteric, inner, mysteries of the Gnostics. It also contained a guide in how to live in the guise of such things as the parables and the 10 commandments. The story, or variations of it, was based on the Pagan myths, extant in the Mediterranean area, given a Jewsih flavour by disgruntled Jews unhappy with orthodox Judaism. The Jewish/Christian tribes that inherited these beliefs seem to have been early influences on Muhammed. Indeed it's only later that Islam seems to 'go wrong'. The point I'm stuggling to make, in such a short space, is that belief or not, the Jesus story is ours and a large part of Western civilisation is based on it. Various mystical Islamic sects seem to attempt a similar thing with Islam in that the Koran is really a multi-level allegory. Trouble is the story running through it is far from inspiring and worthy of reverence. It contains plentiful examples of war, misogyny, intolerance, violence, murder, untruthfulness and even, it seems, paedophilia. Maybe any sceptical and questioning Muslims should look at the early influences Muhammed had and work backwards rather than forwards from there?