Archive for the ‘Apostasy’ Category

Is There Too Much Morality in the World?

December 21, 2011

Steven Pinker

In his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking, 2011), Steven Pinker begins a section called “Morality and Taboo” (p. 622) with the following short and provocative declaration:

The world has far too much morality.

Yes, I, too, had to re-read that sentence. Is he about to say there should be more immorality? Well, thankfully, not. He explains:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice [revenge, vigilantism, honor killings, etc.], the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples.

What Pinker is telling us is not too surprising when you think about it: the human moral sense can go off the tracks.

Unless one is a radical moral relativist, one believes that people can in some sense be mistaken about their moral convictions; that their justifications of genocide, rape, honor killings, and the torture of heretics are erroneous, not just distasteful to our sensibilities.

Pinker is careful to distinguish between behaviors that are deemed immoral and ones that are merely disagreeable, unfashionable, or imprudent. Only the moralized infraction is universalized, actionable, and punishable within the culture that prohibits it.

Some of these prohibitions are truly universal, or “pan-cultural.” In every part of the world, murder, theft, perjury, and extortion are considered moral infractions. Our revulsion at such acts reflects our species’ core moral values of fairness, justice, and the prevention of harm. Such values pre-date not only religion but indeed the appearance of homo sapiens sapiens. They have been promulgated exclusively via religion—and sometimes horribly abused and violated by it—only in societies where religion has been culturally all-pervasive.

But other “infractions”—e.g., apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and idolatry—have been shown to be culturally contingent rather than universal. They are violations of archaic purity and sanctity codes that might have served some purpose in iron-age tribal societies but that are useless in modern pluralistic democracies. They persist wherever the secular state has not developed or has not completely disentangled itself from religion.

A society that values individual freedom and autonomy cannot bind its citizens to sectarian claims about what constitutes a moral infraction. We cannot all be required to forswear martinis or short shorts because they are forbidden by sharia law, and Mormons cannot expect us all to forswear lattes and black tea. Why then, do so many Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Mormons hope to universalize their prohibitions against homosexuality? These prohibitions have no rational basis and are as culturally contingent as the scripture-based codes from which they are derived.

Yes, we have far too much morality. Maybe it’s time to return to the true moral universals and reassess our culturally contingent ones. Instead of asking whether a behavior was forbidden by ancient scriptures, let’s ask, “Who is being harmed?” Or, as Sam Harris might ask, “How does our behavior affect human and animal flourishing and the health of our planet?”

The Trouble With the Cairo Declaration

August 28, 2011

Anyone attempting to understand the tensions between Western liberal democracies and Islamic societies over human rights issues has got to start with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and one of its foundational documents, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI).

Shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, countries with significant Muslim populations—57 in all—joined together to form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). (Just this year, the name was changed to “Organisation of Islamic Cooperation”—still OIC). The organization’s purpose is to represent the interests of the Muslim world (the Ummah) and to promote cooperation between the Islamic states in social, economic, cultural, scientific, and political spheres; it has a permanent delegation to the United Nations and claims to be the world’s second-largest international organization (after the UN itself). In 2007, U.S. President G. W. Bush established an envoy to the Parliamentary Union of the OIC member states (PUOICM), which is headquartered in Tehran.

The member countries of the OIC had long chafed under the presumptive authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. In 1981, the Iranian representative to the UN stated his country’s position that the UDHR was “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” that could not be implemented by Muslims without violating Islamic law.

Accordingly, the OIC crafted its own declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, and officially adopted it in 1990. It was promoted as a “complement” to the UDHR, not a replacement, and efforts were made to have it adopted by the UN Human Rights Council.

But the Cairo Declaration does not in fact “complement” the UDHR. In many important respects, it is its antithesis. Recognizing this, liberal Muslim organizations and human rights advocates opposed its endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council. They pointed to two critically important provisions of the document:

All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shariah. (Article 24)

The Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration. (Article 25)

The Cairo Declaration is nothing more or less than a “front” for Shariah law, which is itself a kind of “dark matter” of sayings, traditions, sacred writings, and juridical opinions about which Islamic scholars have disagreed almost since Day 1 of the Islamic era. The Cairo Declaration’s framers obviously meant to provide an Islamic counterpart to the UDHR, which they rightly viewed as a product of Western Judeo-Christian and secularist traditions. Their document would (1) affirm Islamic values that are palatable to non-Muslims while backgrounding those that are not, (2) establish or reinforce rights and protections for workers, families, children, women and military combatants and noncombatants, and (3) protect the integrity of Islam by deferring to Shariah regarding blasphemy, apostasy, and marriage with non-Muslims.

But there were problems in all three of these categories, particularly the third. On the one hand, the writers recognized that certain provisions of Shariah (such as the death sentence for apostasy and blasphemy) were considered barbaric by Western democracies and would never pass muster in international courts. On the other, they knew that the Declaration could not be authentically Islamic without an unflinching adherence to even the most draconian provisions of Shariah. Their solution was to fashion a document that defers to Shariah from beginning to end (15 times in a text of only 2446 [English] words) without ever once specifying what the relevant Shariah laws are. All references to Shariah are vague, embedded in phrases like, “…in accordance with the tenets of Shariah,” “…within the framework of Shariah,” and “…contrary to the principles of Shariah.”

In 1992, the Cairo Declaration was presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council), where it was strongly condemned by the International Commission of Jurists.

Little wonder.

Keeping in mind that what has been omitted from a document like the CDHRI may be more telling than what is included, let’s examine a few of the CDHRI’s provisions.

Blasphemy protest by London Muslims


In Islam, blasphemy is irreverent behavior toward personages, beliefs, or customs that Muslims revere. Judging from reports that appear almost daily in the world press, Muslims throughout the world seem to have an exquisite sensitivity to any criticism of their religion. All the more curious, then, that blasphemy is never mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. Instead, we learn from Article 22(a) that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shariah.”  Fine. So what does Shariah have to say about freely expressing opinions that are critical of Islam?

Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Naik has this to say: “In Islam, a person who has committed blasphemy can either be killed or crucified, or his opposite hands and feet can be cut off, or he can be exiled from that land. On the other hand, in other religions there is no other option except capital punishment. Islam at least has four options of punishment for an act of blasphemy.”

So we are to conclude that Islam is superior to other religions because it offers a wider selection of barbaric penalties for free expression?

Blasphemy in Pakistan

CDHRI Article 22 (d), which prohibits incitement of doctrinal hatred, can also be used to stifle free expression. The case of Parvez Kambaksh, an Afghani student arrested and sentenced to death in 2007 for having distributed to classmates an Internet article critical of Islam’s treatment of women, shows how broadly the word “hatred” can be interpreted.

Taking into account the importance of Islam to Muslims and its pervasiveness in their lives, the Cairo Declaration’s implicit “bracketing” of expression critical of Islam constitutes a major restriction on human rights. The glass is not almost full. It is almost empty.

Privacy Rights

CDHRI Article 18 (b) states that “Everyone shall have the right to privacy in the conduct of his private affairs, in his home, among his family, [and] with regard to his property and his relationships.”

The broad consensus among scholars of Shariah is that the hadith (sayings of Mohammad) prescribe harsh punishment for homosexual acts—even those performed in the privacy of one’s home. Modern scholars of Islam interpret homosexuality as a punishable offense without prescribing any specific punishment.


Like blasphemy, apostasy is never explicitly mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. This is yet another curious omission in a document that one would expect to advocate against the extremely harsh punishments meted out to defectors from the True Faith under Shariah law. Article 10 prohibits any attempt to proselytize a Muslim, but fails to affirm the rights of those who are successfully proselytized:

“Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism.”

Once again, words like “pressure” and “force” are susceptible to very broad interpretation.

Apostates in Iran

The punishment for apostasy is not mentioned, but the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree with Shi’a scholars that apostasy is treasonous and must be punished by execution. Some contemporary Islamic jurists argue for a more humanistic approach. Nevertheless, the reality is that accusations of apostasy are heard again and again in Islamic societies and executions for it—both judicial and extra-judicial—are disturbingly commonplace. The Cairo Declaration could have sided with the more humanistic interpretations of Shariah on this matter, but instead it gave wide latitude to radical Islamists.

In contrast to the CDHRI, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has this to say about religious conversion: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

* * *

The Cairo Declaration needs to be either scrapped or massively amended. Its deficiencies are in its unconditional deference to Shariah law, its confusions about human rights principles, its obsessive concern with protecting Islam, and its abject failure to fully address human rights abuses that are so rife in countries with majority Muslim populations. Conditions inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Syria, Bangdalesh, Iraq, and Afghanistan call for a bold declaration of the rights to free expression, privacy in personal relationships, religious dissent, and freedom of conscience. These are cornerstones of all other human rights and cannot be subordinated to Shariah, which recognizes none of them.

The Cairo Declaration is a symptom of the Muslim world’s inability to achieve an “enlightenment” of its own—not necessarily like the “Aufklärung” of 18th-century Europe, but something more like what some Muslim sages have called an ishraq (“illumination”). What form this might take is not for non-Muslims to suggest, but its effects will be seen in a greater openness to the modern world and less fear about maintaining the fiercely “tribal” integrity of Islam and its traditions.

Afghanistan’s Constitutional Confusions Over Blasphemy

August 23, 2011
Sayed Parwez Kambaksh

In October, 2007, Afghanistan security officials arrested Parwez Kambaksh, a 24-year-old Afghan journalism student, for electronically distributing to his classmates an Internet article criticizing the treatment of women under Islamic law. He was detained without a hearing for three months, during which he claims torture was used to elicit a signed confession. His trial was held behind closed doors, and he was denied representation. Fellow students and teachers testified that Kambaksh had routinely asked “difficult questions” in class. The tribunal deliberated for only four minutes before sentencing Kambaksh to death on a charge of “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam.”

Thanks to the international attention brought to bear on this case, Kambaksh was allowed to appeal his sentence. In October, 2008—a year after his arrest—a Kabul appeals court commuted his death sentence in favor of a 20-year prison term.

Not satisfied, international human rights groups continued working through diplomatic channels to obtain Kambaksh’s release. Finally, in August, 2009, President Hamid Karzai granted him “amnesty.” But judicial amnesty could not guarantee Kambaksh’s safety from radical Islamists. Fearing reprisals, he fled the country, and his whereabouts are now unknown.

Afghanistan’s constitution, ratified in 2004 under pressure from occupying military forces, appears to guarantee citizens a broad array of human rights. It is ostensibly more in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) than with Shariah, the religious law of Islam. It specifically guarantees the right to life and liberty, to privacy, to peaceful assembly, to freedom of expression, and—in cases of judicial proceedings—the appeal to formally codified statutes or binding precedents (stare decisis), the right to legal representation, and the right to a jury. Shariah guarantees none of these rights.

The constitutional principle most relevant to Kambaksh’s case is found in Article 34, which states that “freedom of expression is inviolable … Every Afghan has the right to print or publish topics without prior submission to the state authorities in accordance with the law.”

All well and good. The only thing missing from the constitutional inventory is freedom of conscience—the freedom to profess whatever beliefs one finds compelling. This is not a trivial omission, for under Shariah law, the penalty for apostasy, considered a treasonous defection from Islam, is death. Even where the death sentence is not imposed by the court, the accused may still be threatened with assassination by thugs who insist on strict application of Shariah. In 2006, Afghan-born Abdul Rahman, a convert from Islam to Christianity outside Afghanistan, was threatened with the death penalty for apostasy. Like Parwez Kambaksh, he was released as a result of international pressure and fled the country to avoid vigilante-style justice. Such cases are not uncommon, and Muslims worldwide are well aware of the severity of Shariah law where blasphemy and apostasy are concerned.

Though Shariah is not specifically mentioned in the constitution, Article Two states, “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.” Article Three draws out the implications of this: “In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

Could Article Three amount to a claim that the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution are not in fact contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam? No one who is knowledgeable about the two traditions could seriously support such an interpretation. Clearly, Article Three means that any of the enumerated freedoms that is not supported by Islamic law may be nullified.

But if these “beliefs and provisions of Islam” are important enough to be referred to—and so prominently—in the first three articles of the constitution, then why are they never enumerated, as are the specific guarantees of rights? At the very least, we might expect the authors to reference them. The “avoidance” of any such reference—which would certainly point us to Shariah—is conspicuous in a document that so plainly affirms Islamic law.

Unlike Western secular law, Shari’ah law includes a category of crimes that involve, among other things, privacy and free expression. The “Hadd”—one of three categories—are “claims against God” and include adultery, sodomy, lesbianism, and—signficiantly—blasphemy and defamation, the two charges brought against Parwez Kambaksh. The punishment prescribed by Shariah for these crimes is death.

The European Court of Human Rights has characterized such punishments as barbaric and cruel, and it has argued that Shariah is incompatible with a democratic state.

Afghanistan’s constitution is a political document reflecting the balance of power that existed when it was written. Whether it merely gives a nod to Shariah or creates an opening for it is unclear. What is clear is that the framers of this document made no attempt to reconcile Shariah with the principles of Western liberal democracies as expressed in the UDHR. Nor could such an effort have succeeded. But by ignoring the intrinsic incompatibility of the two traditions, the framers may have set their country up for an eventual constitutional crisis. Even if that does not happen, incidents like the arrest and detention of Parwez Kambaksh are likely to continue as long as adherents of Shariah law interpret the first three articles of the constitution as a license to suppress free expression. Because the constitution offers no unequivocal protection for dissenters, they are at the mercy of whatever faction happens to be in power. Fortunately for Kambaksh, international human rights organizations had some leverage with President Karzai, but Karzai himself has a poor record of human rights and cannot be depended on.

Perhaps the only hope for Afghan freethinkers like Kambaksh is continued international pressure on Afghanistan’s government to honor their constitution’s guarantees of basic human rights and to protect all citizens from fundamentalist thuggery.