Muslims demand respect - but not for Christians. By Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, published in Daily Telegraph on March 26, 2006.


The Prince of Wales enjoys a high reputation in the Muslim world, higher than he has in this country. This is because he has taken Islam seriously and attempted to engage with the various civilisations associated with it. His speech in Cairo last week accepting the honorary doctorate conferred on him by al-Azhar, the oldest place of Muslim learning in the world, repays close study.
It is true that he repeats various "mantras" that we have come to associate with him and seeks to find common ground even in the face of glaring differences. He is perhaps too apologetic about the history of Christianity in Europe and too uncritical about the history of Islam.
But he does for the first time mention the importance of reciprocity. He talks about respect for one another and, specifically, how the treatment of Muslims in Europe, in its positive and negative aspects, is inextricably bound up with how Christian and other minorities are treated in the Muslim world.
This is not a matter of "tit-for-tat", as I pointed out in the House of Lords last week. It has to do with agreeing, through dialogue, a common set of principles regarding fundamental freedoms that Christians, Muslims and others can then promote wherever they have influence.
The Prince`s comments and the debate in the House of Lords come at a particularly poignant time, with the news breaking about the trial of Abdul Rahman for apostasy. This is happening not in an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, but under a constitution produced with the full participation of the international community. British, American and other troops went into that country and are there today, not only to root out the menace of international terrorism but to liberate the Afghan people precisely from this kind of fanatical oppression. Does the Afghan constitution permit this treatment for someone whose only crime is that he has converted to Christianity? Opinions vary on this matter in Afghanistan itself. The investigating judge seems to have made up his mind already (an ever-present danger in an inquisitorial system of justice which some are commending here). The human rights lobby points to the reference in the Afghan constitution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; article 18 of which explicitly refers not only to freedom of thought, conscience and religion but also to freedom to change one`s religion or belief.
In this case, and in others, throughout the Muslim world, the question turns on the meaning of apostasy. Many Muslims point out that there is no punishment for apostasy, at least in this life, in the Koran, and that those early texts that do mention such punishments can be interpreted to mean that the punishment is for "treason" against the community and not for simply changing one`s faith. This is not merely an academic argument. Mr Rahman is accused of "attacking Islam". Is simply changing his faith an attack on Islam or does it have to be shown that he is somehow undermining or insulting the religion of most of his people?
Again and again, Muslim scholars assure us that there is no compulsion in matters of religion and that Islam upholds fundamental freedoms. Yet it remains the case that all the existing schools of law prescribe the death penalty for apostasy. The scholars at al-Azhar have been working on this issue for half a century but the fruits of their research need urgently to be shared with other parts of the Muslim world and beyond. Such matters are of universal concern. Surely, the general idea of Maslaha, or the common good, should now be used to promote an understanding of Islamic law that is both rooted in the Koran and open to interaction in a wholly new set of circumstances. If a clash of civilisations and clashes within civilisations are to be avoided, the Sharia, or Law of Islam, must be shown to be flexible and adaptable.
The so-called Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan - where I was born and worked - also continue to be a serious worry to the international community. It is widely acknowledged in Pakistan that some laws are needed to protect believers from gratuitous insult or threatening behaviour, but it is the draconian nature of these laws - life imprisonment for anyone insulting the Koran and the death penalty for anyone "defiling" the name of Mohammed - that are at issue and their use to protect only Islamic beliefs and practices. The laws have been widely misused by those with grudges of one kind or another, especially against people from religious minorities, to victimise their opponents. President Musharraf, at first, promised to modify the laws but had to back down under severe pressure from religious leaders. It is understood, however, that some work is being done to address the severity and the abuse of the legislation. Let us hope it will lead to a good result.
The irony of it all is that Muslims take pride in pointing to traditions about their Prophet that say he forgave those who insulted him and even asked about their welfare. How Islamic, they ask, is a law prescribing the death penalty for insulting someone who, in his own lifetime, refused to take any such action but instead chose to be magnanimous? What answer do Islamic lawyers and theologians have to such questions from Muslims themselves?
Abdul Rahman`s case is just one among many in the Islamic world of people who are facing the ultimate penalty. Charges of blasphemy against the Prophet are still being brought against Christians and others in Pakistan. There is acute danger for those who have become Christians in Iran (strangely not recognised by the Home Office) and three Indonesian Catholics are awaiting execution because they tried to prevent an extremist mob from attacking and destroying a Christian community. No extremist Muslim, however, has ever been charged with rioting or with the loss of life and property of the Christian community in that country.
Prince Charles`s appearance at Al-Azhar has obvious symbolic value. It shows how Muslims and Christians can talk to one another, respect each other and even honour one another. It does need, however, to be translated into nitty-gritty reality. What is its value for Abdul Rahman or the Indonesian Catholics as they await their execution?
Michael Nazir-Ali is the Bishop of Rochester and author of Conviction and Conflict: Islam, Christianity and World Order (Continuum).

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