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Why Do Muslims Execute Innocent People?
Islamist Ideology

by Denis MacEoin
Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2006
   

While often ignored in the Western media, human rights abuses in the Islamic world are a daily occurrence. Both Muslim states and ad hoc religious courts order mutilation and execution, not only of criminals but also of individuals—mainly women—who have not committed anything which would be considered a crime in other societies. In some cases, Shari‘a (Islamic law) tribunals issue death sentences for those acquitted in regular courts. In other cases, religious leaders invoke religion to sanction non-Islamic practices such as honor killings and female genital mutilation.

Original Islamic jurisprudence, however, does not necessarily mandate such severe punishments. In the early twentieth century, it even seemed that the introduction of modern legal codes in Muslim majority countries might ameliorate regular Shari‘a punishments, but in recent decades, traditionalists have pushed a back-to-basics program which has augmented application of Shari‘a punishment. Rather than modifying Islamic practice, many self-described Islamist reformers make matters worse by advocating retrenchment rather than reform.

Unjust Punishment

Many of the crimes for which death is mandated involve sex or honor. While capricious application of Shari‘a punishment is common throughout Muslim majority countries and communities, since the fall of the Taliban and because of the activity of Iranian journalists and bloggers, many of the specific examples which are known in the West come from Iran.

On August 15, 2004, 16-year-old Ateqeh Rajabi, was hanged in public in the northern Iranian town of Neka. Her crime was to have sex with her boyfriend. She had no lawyer, nor could her family find one willing to defend her. The capriciousness of the judge rather than a strict interpretation of the Qur'an contributed to her death. She had talked back to the judge, Haji Reza'i, who later remarked that he would not have ordered her execution had it not been for her "sharp tongue.

In December 2004, Leyla, a 19-year-old girl with a mental age of eight, was sentenced to death for "acts contrary to chastity." The sentencing judge ordered her to be flogged before execution. Her situation was lamentable. When she was eight, her mother forced her into prostitution, letting her be raped repeatedly. She was later sold as a temporary wife (mut'a, sigha), legal in Twelver Shi‘ite law which allows temporary wives to be contracted for set periods ranging from one hour to ninety-nine years. Thirteen-year-old Zhila Izadi also received a death sentence—later commuted—after being impregnated by her older brother.

Other examples abound. In July 2005, Iranian authorities publicly hanged two boys, 18-year-old Ayaz Marhoni and 16-year-old Mahmud Asghari, in the shrine city of Mashhad for homosexual acts. Photographs of the boys with nooses round their necks just before their execution are available online, but never appeared in Western newspapers or on television.

On January 7, 2006, an Islamic court in Tehran passed a death sentence on an 18-year old girl, identified only by her first name, Nazanin. She had stabbed an assailant while fighting off three men who attempted to rape her and her 16-year-old niece. Reports suggested their attackers were members of the Basij, a radical militia charged with upholding the Islamic Republic's revolutionary principles. Nazanin was aged seventeen at the time of her offence, too young for a death sentence even under Iranian law that states that such sentences for minors should be commuted to five years' imprisonment. In Nazanin's case, the judge ignored extenuating circumstances and applied rigidly the law of retaliation (qisas). Under such a system, a life must be paid for by a life, an eye for an eye, except where the family of the victim is willing to accept blood money or compensation (diya) for lost body parts and organs.

Iran is not the only Islamic country practicing spurious punishment. On April 21, 2005, in Spingul, a valley near Faizabad in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, family members and villagers executed 25-year-old Bibi Amin after she was found in the company of a man to whom she was not married. She was buried to her neck and, for two hours, stoned. There have been similar cases in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other Muslim countries. Even in Egypt, where Shari‘a law has been modified, men and women are still imprisoned unequally for adultery.That the application of such punishments is widespread and that its perpetrators justify their actions in Islam neither means that a consensus exists among theologians or that such interpretations have been consistent through time.

Qur'anic Attitudes toward Punishment

With only one exception, every chapter of the Qur'an begins with the words Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate." While such compassion is lacking in modern application of Shari‘a law, this has not always been the case. Many traditional sources argue for limited punishment. The Sunan of Ibn Maja, one of the six canonical collections, cites a saying by Muhammad that reads, "Do not carry out punishments if you can find a way to avoid them."

This example is echoed by another tradition from the Sunan of Tirmidhi: "Wherever possible, do not inflict punishments (hudud; singular hadd) on Muslims; if there is a way out for someone, let him go. It is better for the ruler (al-imam) to err in forgiveness than for him to err in punishment."According to the twelfth-century jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), "hadd punishments are suspended in doubtful cases," echoing another hadith to that effect.

Still, in traditional Islam, adultery and fornication (both termed zina') are considered criminal acts worthy of a hadd punishment, which the Qur'an sets at 100 lashes. Adultery itself is a difficult charge to bring under Shari‘a: it requires four adult male witnesses to the penetration; in contrast, only two males (or four females) need witness murder for the charges to stick. Nor is circumstantial evidence sufficient. Pregnancy is not enough to prove that adultery occurred since the law considers that a woman may have been penetrated in her sleep or, according to some scholars, the possibility that an embryo could have gestated for up to five years. The penalty for false accusation of adultery is seventy-five lashes.

That does not mean that Islamic law does not embrace the death penalty for adultery. At some point—often said to have occurred during the rule of the second caliph ‘Umar (r. 634-44)—jurists began to set the punishment for married people as stoning to death based on a verse that had allegedly been dropped from the Qur'an. Stoning is also mentioned in the Hadith, and there is no doubt that Muhammad sanctioned the punishment. However, strict conditions are determined for accusation and punishment. A distinction is made between unmarried and married offenders; inebriation, force, and errors such as intercourse with a woman mistaken for a man's wife or slave girl are mitigating factors while the demand for four eyewitnesses to sexual penetration makes it almost impossible to bring an accusation. It is because of the difficulties of formal adultery charges that many Islamic societies embrace honor killing.

Historically, there were significant differences in the treatment of free men and slaves. Modern Iranian law discriminates even further against religious minorities. The Islamic Republic might execute a non-Muslim man accused of having sexual relations with a Muslim woman, whereas a Muslim man who has sex with a non-Muslim woman is not subject to any penalty.

Despite the potential for leniency in the application of Islamic rules, states acting in the name of religion have applied harsher penalties than traditional religious jurists. The Islamic Republic of Iran ordered Ateqeh Rajabi hanged even though Shari‘a only permits the execution of married adulterers, whereas she was single. At most, she should have received 100 lashes—and, according to many interpretations, these should not be laid on hard.

The hadith literature is not silent on two of the factors relevant to many of the recent applications of capital punishment in the name of Islam for crimes of honor. Tirmidhi relates an incident when a woman was brought to the Prophet, accused of adultery. It transpired that the man had forced her to have intercourse in acknowledgment of which Muhammad refused to have her punished. Young age can also be cause for leniency. Ibn Maja records a statement by a boy who survived the massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza in 627, saying he had been spared the fate of the tribe's men because he had not yet grown pubic hair.

What about a case such as Nazanin's, in which a person was killed? In Islamic law, offenses against the person come under the law of qisas. These offenses amount to five crimes: murder, voluntary manslaughter—such as when an offender sets out to beat a victim but kills him or her in the process, involuntary killing, intentional physical injury, and unintentional injury.

Retaliation—a life for a life—is permissible in the two instances of intentional killing or injury, but even in these cases, the victim's family may waive retribution in return for a set financial payment. In all other cases, only blood money may be demanded. If correct Shari‘a rules were applied, Nazanin would not face a death sentence for an involuntary killing, especially when she had acted in defense of her honor.

Theological Impediments to Reform

So why is there a growing discrepancy between the penalties justified in Islamic jurisprudence and the far more serious punishments applied? Traditional Muslims believe that the Qur'an is immutable. It is not just a sacred text like the Torah or the New Testament but a direct copy of God's word imprinted on the mind of Muhammad via recitation from the Archangel Gabriel. It cannot be rewritten. Indeed, a hadith attributes to Muhammad the saying, "Whosoever disputes a single verse of the Qur'an, strike off his head."

This doctrine has become pernicious for all who attempt a modern understanding of the scripture. Whereas progressive Jewish and Christian scholars and clerics have devised forms of higher criticism that tackle issues of context and period, all efforts to do the same thing with the Qur'an have met with fierce resistance. Several Muslim reformers—notably Pakistani academic Fazlur Rahman (1911-88), Iranian cleric Muhammad Mujtahid-i Shabestari (b. 1936), Iranian philosopher ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush (b. 1945), and the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur (b. 1938)—have tried to develop ways to account for the social, linguistic, and religious environment at the time of the Qur'an's revelation when adjudicating and legislating on matters relevant to the modern world, such as women's rights. Their efforts have pushed the debate in a positive direction, but they are both better understood and better liked in the West than in the Muslim world.

Muslim reactions to such reformist initiatives have been largely hostile and even violent. In the 1960s, a Pakistani religious court sentenced Fazlur Rahman to death. Vigilantes have attacked Souroush on numerous occasions, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born ex-member of the Dutch parliament; Canadian writer Irshad Manji; and Los Angeles-based psychologist Wafa Sultan,  all outspoken critics of Islamic social practice, are in hiding or under guard.

The pressure to reject contextualization of the Qur'an is illustrated by two cases, occurring more than sixty years apart in Egypt. In 1930, a cleric named Muhammad Abu Zayd, published a book of Qur'an exegesis titled Al-Hidaya wa'l-'Irfan fi Tafsir al-Qur'an bi'l-Qur'an, in which he treated concepts such as paradise as metaphors. Other clerics at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the central seat of religious learning and authority in Sunni Islam, condemned him. Rashid Rida' issued a more forceful condemnation, accused the author of being an apostate, and called for his forcible divorce. All copies of the tafsir were collected by the police and destroyed. Clerics who had read it were dismissed from their posts.

In 1992, history repeated itself. Egyptian academic Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd presented research in application for a full professorship at Cairo University. His work argued that the Qur'an had been written in a human language so that men could understand it. Since it was in a specific language, he argued, it was legitimate to read it with reference to our knowledge of seventh-century Arabic and the human world to which it was directed. His arguments created an uproar. Al-Azhar University condemned him. Leaflets and the popular press accused him of heresy. The Egyptian government tried him before a secular court on charges of apostasy. He was declared a heretic (mulhid) and an apostate (murtadd) and became the object of death threats from radical Islamists throughout the country. An Egyptian court ordered that he and his wife be divorced on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to a non-Muslim, even as he denied ever abandoning his faith. He now teaches at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. That parallel situations would occur sixty years apart illustrates how stifled scholarly discourse is at Al-Azhar.

A particularly flagrant example of academic suppression in a modern Shi‘ite context may be seen in the case of ‘Abdulaziz Sachedina, a prominent Shi‘ite academic, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, and coauthor of Human Rights and the Conflict of Cultures: Western and Islamic Perspectives on Religious Liberty. In August 1998, Sachedina, who had received complaints from his local Muslim community about his teaching and writing about Islam, held a meeting in Najaf, Iraq, with grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. In the course of this interview, as recorded in detail by Sachedina, Sistani demanded that he could no longer "express any opinions in matters dealing with Islam, its religion, and its teachings." Prominent among the many theological errors of which Sachedina was accused was his promotion of an irenic, pluralist approach to Judaism and Christianity, which he saw as equals of Islam.

The net result of such incidents is discouragement of serious revisionist work on the Qur'an and the Hadith. Fear for one's life, the safety of one's family, or one's livelihood are powerful disincentives to saying or writing anything controversial. The only arena in which open debate on such matters takes place is in Western academe, but it is likely here that some Muslim academics living in the West and, indeed, some Western scholars of Islam have chosen safer areas in which to carry out research, knowing the risks they now run from a single accusation of defamation.

Qur'anic Challenges

The problem is that, despite the belief that the Qur'an is the immutable word of God, in its current form the book was compiled only during the reign of the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-56) and organized into suras, ranging in length from a few verses to many pages. While the Qur'an was revealed over a period of twenty-two years, the order of compilation was curious: with the exception of the first sura (al-Fatiha), the longest suras come first and the shortest last. Early scholars debated when particular suras, verses, or groups of verses were "sent down." Determining chronology was often basic, all suras being labeled either Meccan or Medinan, based on in which of these two Arabian cities Muhammad had received a particular revelation. Sometimes it was possible to attribute certain passages to a particular incident, such as the Battle of Uhud or a dispute with the Prophet's wives. These asbab an-nuzul (occasions of revelation), insofar as they are reliable, permit a more nuanced picture of how the text developed during Muhammad's lifetime.

One thing is clear: later verses often express a position contrary to earlier ones. For example, early—mainly Meccan—verses express a positive view of Jews and Christians, whereas late ones—all Medinan—follow the souring of relations between the Prophet and both Jews and Christians. By this reckoning, there are late verses that abrogate (termed nasikh) and early verses which are abrogated (termed mansukh).

Verses commanding jihad against non-believers abrogate those of an ecumenical nature, moving from a position of "There is no compulsion in religion" to "Fight those who do not believe in God or the last day, who do not forbid what God and his Prophet forbid, who do not believe in the religion of truth among those who were given the Book [Jews and Christians] until they pay the poll tax (jizya) by their own hands, having been brought low."

The problem is that earlier sections of the Qur'an tend to be more amenable to a modernist interpretation than later ones. Where modern Muslims emphasize the verse decreeing that there is no compulsion in matters of faith, more radical or orthodox scholars trump such citations with nasikh verses overriding moderate interpretations.

What impact does this have on punishment? Qur'anic verses that mention punishments are invariably late but not very detailed. Although the Qur'an always carries greater weight than the hadiths, it is not uncommon to see a hadith cited to support a harsher legal position. Thus, the verse, "There is no compulsion in religion" is outweighed by the tradition according to which the Prophet said, "Whosoever changes his religion, kill him," which forms a basis for the law of apostasy as it still stands.

The Emergence of Islamic Neo-radicalism

What happened to some strains of Islam to favor the past over the present and glorify black-and-white interpretations of the Qur'an over more nuanced approaches? While the exact answer varies across regions, certain common factors emerge.

In several cases, a puritan form of Islam has either allied itself with a military or political force—for example the Salafi-Wahhabi movement's alliance with the Saud family in Saudi Arabia—or has itself taken political power, as with the early nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa or, more recently, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's followers in Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or, perhaps, the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. In all such cases, the resulting political systems have applied Shari‘a in a harsher form than usual.

In addition, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, there has been a broader struggle between traditionalist and modernizing influences and movements. Growing European influence in Middle Eastern states led to demands for the introduction of Western-style constitutions, educational systems, and laws. Many regional countries adopted modern legal codes modeled on the French, Italian, Swiss, British, or other systems. This represented a great step forward in respect to areas such as family law, tangential women's rights, legal clarity, and modes of punishment.

There were, however, two drawbacks to this brand of modernization. The first was the alienation of the clerical class. Religious leaders are "the learned" (ulema), men who have undergone training as jurists within Shari‘a. Marginalized by the introduction of European criminal codes and the establishment of Western-style courts, divested in many places of their role as educators, and alienated by the overt secularization of many Muslim societies and cultures, the ulema dreamed of a return to basics. They were backed by like-minded lay thinkers, such as Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), a schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential and radicalizing force in several countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The reaction against modernization might have been muted had there been a loose movement for reformation of Shari‘a itself. Mainstream scholars held that it was impossible for modern jurists to challenge or alter the legal precepts set down in the early tenth century by the four main Sunni law schools—Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. The classical formulation of this precept is that the gates of ijtihad, independent reasoning in matters of religious law, had been closed. The Qur'an—as the immutable word of God—could not be rewritten nor could the records of the Prophet's life and sayings—the other source from which Islamic law derived—be edited or reconsidered.

However, beginning in the late nineteenth century, a number of thinkers argued that, even if the sacred texts could not be altered, it was legitimate to exercise reasoning in order to bring the laws more in line with modern ways of thought and practice. At that time, Muslim attitudes to the West were generally positive. Arab, Iranian, and Turkish political reformers sought to emulate European political systems, science, technology, military know-how, schools, universities, and laws. They argued that Islam could advance by re-configuring itself along Western lines.

Despite this, a small number of intellectuals developed a countervailing trend that emphasized the religious and legal thought of the first three generations of the faith. This became the Salafi movement, derived from the Arabic term salaf (predecessors). Salafi thinkers such as Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905)[33] reexamined the two basic texts, the Qur'an and the body of traditions or hadiths that make up the Sunna, the living record of how the Prophet and his companions behaved and thought. From this emerged a belief that, far from needing to be modernized, Islamic law and, by extension, Muslim life in general, had to return to how it was at the time of the Salaf. Most of the movements Western commentators term "fundamentalist" are Salafi.

While the first modern Salafi thinkers sought reform, later Salafi theoreticians narrowed the debate. Egyptian cleric Muhammad Rashid Rida' (1865-1935) published a periodical, Al-Manar (The Lighthouse), which influenced intellectuals across the Islamic world. His ideas formed a bridge between Salafi reformers and more radical movements such as Banna's Muslim Brotherhood.

These new Salafists focused on improving Muslim morals and what has come to be known as "Shari‘a-mindedness." Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), probably the most influential Islamist thinker of the twentieth century, took this moral emphasis and extended it to include violent action against both non-believers and unfaithful Muslim rulers. He argued that the term al-jahiliya, which had normally been used to define the "Age of Ignorance" that preceded Islam, should now be applied to the present day to the extent that modern society—including Muslim society—had distanced itself from Islam. Just as Muhammad fought a holy war against the forces of paganism in seventh-century Arabia, so, too, true Muslims should fight the barbarism of the modern age. Qutb outlined these ideas in a short book, Ma'alim fi' t-Tariq (Milestones on the Road), based on notes he kept in prison. The text launched the new, radicalized, jihadist style of Salafi thought and activism.

It is this world-view that is echoed today by theorists such as Osama bin Laden and groups such as the Afghan Taliban. They argue that Islam cannot adapt to the changes imposed by history but must remain rigidly faithful to the existing interpretations of scripture, the models laid down by the Prophet and his companions, and the legal rulings developed from these sources by the first generations of legal scholars.

Reform without Reformation

There have been and are a number of reformers working to bring Islam into closer harmony with universal standards of justice, tolerance, pluralism, and human rights. These include Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), the founder of a school of Islamic neo-modernism in Indonesia, in which contextualized, independent reasoning in matters of religious law, ijtihad, is put forward as a path to renovation, and radicalism is understood as an obstacle to progress because of its authoritarian and intolerant nature; Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian thinker, who teaches at the University of Paris III, for whom secularization and modernization are essential elements of Islamic progress; and feminists such as Asra Q. Nomani who have called for major liberalization in the sphere of women's rights.

Others present a liberalizing face to the Western media and academia but retain an essentially conservative position on everything from hijab (veiling) to jihad. This charismatic but, essentially, two-faced trend promotes an image of Islam as protective of human rights while sticking to an agenda in favor of strict Shari‘a limitations to such rights. Two notable figures in this context are Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Ramadan is the Swiss-born grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna. With a broad academic background including Swiss doctorates in philosophy and Islamic studies, and Arabic and Islamic studies qualifications from Al-Azhar University, he has taught at several Western universities, including the University of Fribourg and St. Anthony's College, Oxford. While he is banned from the United States, he has been accepted in Europe as a Muslim intellectual with a reputation for moderation. That said, many French intellectuals describe him as "The Master of Doubletalk" and regard him as an intégriste or fundamentalist. He has argued, for example, that Muslims should enter into mainstream society only to move it closer to Islam; that he accepts Western laws but only so long as they do not oblige him to do something against his religion; that stoning for adultery should be subject only to a moratorium until Muslim clerics discuss the matter; that Muslim women should insist on wearing the veil; that swimming pools should be segregated, and so on. His support for radicals such as Yahya Michot, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or Sayyid Qutb lays bare an agenda far from that of the moderate he likes to pass himself off to be.

Qaradawi (b. 1926) is another Azharite with an international following. Considered by most Muslims as a "moderate conservative" and lionized by London mayor Ken Livingstone, Qaradawi's moderation on issues such as elections and women's enfranchisement is a thin disguise for radicalism. He has issued fatwas and commented in lectures, television broadcasts, and on the Internet that wives should submit to their husbands; men may beat their wives "lightly;" men and women should mix only to a very limited degree; and women must wear hijab. He has deemed female genital mutilation, flogging of adulterers, and execution of homosexuals and apostates permissible and has endorsed suicide attacks against Israeli civilians or U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq. He has also condemned liberal democracies and urged Muslims to vent their anger publicly on issues such as the Danish cartoon controversy.

Some Western governments have relied upon Ramadan, Qaradawi, and others to develop appropriate policies towards Islam and Muslims. Western media have painted them as authorities on Islam, enabling them to speak without an explicit mandate on behalf of Muslims. By drawing media and government attention to themselves while keeping their agendas hidden, they come to overshadow more authentically reformist figures. This problem is compounded by the numerous self-appointed bodies claiming to represent Muslims in Western countries, such as the Council for American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Council of Britain.

None of these individuals have used their prominence to speak out about harsh punishments, the execution of minors, or the stoning of those whom most modern cultures would call innocent women. It is probable that many self-described reformers practice a form of taqiya or religious dissimulation in order to show a moderate face to the West and quite a different perspective to their constituents in the Muslim world.

Indeed, when challenged about the harshness of Shari‘a penalties, many Muslim writers and Islamist politicians state their dislike for the alternative—human rights as defined by the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights"—on the grounds that such agreements are of Western origin, that they will undermine the norms of Islamic societies, and that they are not themselves based on Shari‘a rulings. Some Muslim intellectuals have even argued that human rights do not exist in Islam. In 1985, Sa'id Raja'i-Khurasani, the permanent Iranian delegate to the United Nations, stated that the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which represented secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, could not be implemented by Muslims and did not accord with the system of values recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran … his country would, therefore, not hesitate to violate its prescriptions." According to Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Misbah-Yazdi, a contender for the role of Iranian supreme leader upon the demise or removal of ‘Ali Khamene'i, "Islamic human rights differ from the ‘Declaration of Human Rights.' … Human rights must be Islamic human rights."

Conclusion

There are, then, several reasons why severe punishments and unreasonable judgments continue in parts of the Islamic world and why certain human rights—the freedom to change one's religion, to convert Muslims to another faith, to enjoy full civil rights as a Baha'i, Zoroastrian, Armenian, or Jew, to marry by free choice, to write about controversial religious issues—are nowhere recognized. In the absence of fully secularized educational systems and with the increasing political involvement of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas, the day when genuine reform arrives in most Muslim countries seems to be as far off as ever.

A hardening of sentiment against the West and an increasing tendency to fall back on conspiracy theories to explain Islamic problems seem to make insistence on tough Shari‘a -mindedness a desirable option for many if only as a weapon to use against perceived Western weaknesses. Desperate not to offend, the West has done little to make issue of abuses such as those promoted by judges like Haji Reza'i. While crimes such as his go unpunished, the continued stoning, hanging, flogging, and even beheading all serve to intimidate Western critics and are, therefore, encouraged by Islamic states and groups.

On a wider scale, a major debate needs to take place between advocates of Islamic or other relativist human rights agendas and supporters of the principle that such rights are, by their very nature, universal and applicable to all people at all times and in all places. Unfortunately, that debate cannot take place openly while there is a threat of violence from those who oppose the notion of human rights as a Western or Zionist evil.

What are the policy implications of this situation for Western countries, the U.N., and international human rights organizations? One is that they should give more genuine support to Muslim reformers, their conferences and publications, and, where appropriate, their teaching positions. Another is to pressure Islamic governments to make arrests when death threats and similar menaces are used instead of open argument. A recent Saudi doctoral thesis listed two hundred names of intellectuals who must be killed while, in May 2006, Osama bin Laden declared open season on all Muslim freethinkers. Neither the Saudi government nor the Islamic establishment elsewhere have moved to counter such provocations.

Human rights issues must be linked more firmly to trade and other agreements. The multiculturalist notion that Muslims may not be criticized for the use of unjust and cruel punishments must be countered. The stigma of political incorrectness is counterproductive. Islamic countries and ordinary Muslims must be given incentives to observe human rights norms within their borders and disincentives to apply the Shari‘a in harsh and unjust ways.

The case of Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim is instructive and suggests that outside pressure can work. In 2000, following his criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's anointing of son Gamal as his successor, an Egyptian court arrested Ibrahim on spurious charges involving finance of his nongovernmental organization, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. The Bush administration responded by withholding nearly $200 million in aid pending Ibrahim's release. The Egyptian government responded by setting him free.

The payoff from support given to positive reform is potentially enormous. If genuinely reformist thinkers are enabled to have an impact within Muslim societies, violence, unjust punishments, and abuse of human rights in the name of religion will decline. In the end, a space for dialogue can only be opened up when intellectual debate joins forces with a determined war on terror—not only terror against Western interests but also against all violence done to Muslims themselves in the name of religion.

Denis MacEoin holds a Ph.D. in Persian studies from the University of Cambridge. He taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University and was for many years an honorary fellow at Durham University. He is currently the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University.

 

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