3: We Must Champion Apostasy From Islam

About six weeks ago, in a televised address during Ramadan, the leading Muslim cleric in Egypt, Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, who is hailed as one of the leading ‘moderate’ teachers in the Islamic world, denounced apostasy from Islam as ‘grand treason’. He stated categorically: ‘Those learned in Islam and the imams of the four schools of jurisprudence consider apostasy a crime and agree that the apostate must either renounce his apostasy or else be killed.’ 

This prominent cleric has been a critic of ISIS, of Salafist radicals and of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was appointed by former dictator, President Hosni Mubarak as Grand Mufti of Egypt and has been welcomed by Pope Francis to the Vatican. Yet here he is backing condign penalties for apostasy from his religion. Pew Centre surveys across the Muslim world show that many Muslims do not support such penalties; though a majority of Muslims in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Malaysia do so. In (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Somalia, as well as (Shia) Iran death for apostasy is official state policy and has been defiantly defended against UN principles of the universal human right to freedom of religion. 

Whether or not you are Christian (of any denomination), or some other religion or no religion at all – and the census this week asks you that question – you have a stake in this matter, as a citizen of Australia and a resident of the Western world. Remember that, in the long struggle for religious liberty and freedom of expression in the West, the right to apostasy – the right to reject religious orthodoxy or religion itself – was one of the hardest rights to secure. Now we take it for granted. That battle has most definitely not been won in the Islamic world. Ahmed al-Tayeb’s televised address is just one more sobering indication.

This issue should concern us, because the West in general is taking in more and more Muslim immigrants. Either we are clear that we intend to assimilate them into a culture of secular norms and freedoms, or we encourage Islamic mullahs – especially if they are Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia or Shias from Iran - to believe that they can perpetuate the culture of fear and intimidation within Islam that prevails in so much of the Muslim world. This is the cutting edge of the current fraught debate about Muslim immigration and religious tolerance. The imam’s address is Cairo, as well as numerous other developments show that we cannot afford complacency or indifference. We should be on the front foot.

The debate over whether or not apostasy calls for the death penalty has a long history in Islam, but it now needs to end with an unequivocal denunciation of the very idea of intimidation for apostasy, to say nothing of the death penalty. In that regard, there is serious work to do. The Muslim Brotherhood advocate Tariq Ramadan has gone so far as to say, ‘free and conscious choice and willing submission are foundational to the very definition of Islam. Therefore, someone leaving Islam or converting to another religion must be free to do so and her/his choice must be respected.’ 

That, however, is far from being the prevailing norm within the Muslim world and the eminent Egyptian cleric has just made things worse and more confused. Apostates again and again find themselves in danger. Even if they are not arrested and condemned for a private renunciation of Islam, they face severe threats if they seek to speak out against it. Both cases are documented in Ibn Warraq’s illuminating book of 2003, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out. If you are interested in freedom of religion and the debate about Islam in Australia, this book is required reading.

As a case in point, Syed Ahsan Gilani, a young Pakistani activist who, in 2012, co-founded the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan, deserves our attention. Having grown up a practicing Sunni Muslim, he rejected Islam in his late teens, concluding that the Qur’an was full of obscurantist mumbo-jumbo. He has worked over the past four years for the acceptance of religious dissent in his own country and to provide counsel and support for those leaving Islam. Now there is a young man who deserves the Voltaire Award for freedom of speech! He is not a celebrated TV personality and media star, with a comfortable lectureship at a good university. 

My own favourite figure from the early centuries of Islam is the great philosophical sceptic and apostate al-Rawandi, who lived in the early 9th century. He held that prophecy in general and that of Muhammad in particular was nonsense and that reason not faith should guide our thinking. He wrote that the Qur’an, far from being a work of inerrant revelation, was neither clear nor comprehensible, nor of any practical value. If this individual could have the insight and courage to so argue at the time of Islam’s first ascendancy, we have no excuse at all for doing otherwise.

A century after al-Rawandi, the great al-Razi rejected dogmatism, taught that no authority was beyond criticism and was scathing of those ‘billy goats with long beards’, the mullahs, who spouted lies and imposed on the feckless masses blind obedience to the ‘words of the master’. An admirer of the Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and others, he taught that critical reason is superior to claims of ‘revelation’ and that ‘salvation’ is possible only through philosophy. 

Do not, therefore, corrupt young minds with the Qur’an, is the lesson of al-Razi. Rather, give them Aristotle’s Eudaemian Ethics and encourage them to develop critical minds, public spirited virtues and scientific knowledge.

This must, surely, be the message of the West in our time. This should be our answer to Ahmed al-Tayeb’s Ramadan address: we wish, like al-Rawandi and al-Razi, to see the world enlightened and liberated, not subject to dogmatic religion, which everyone should feel free to leave behind.