On June 16, Queen Elizabeth announced in the annual birthday honors list that author Salman Rushdie, previously accused of “insulting Islam,” would be knighted. At the same time, five Egyptian Muslims, also accused of “insulting Islam,” languished in the jails and interrogation rooms of Egyptian State Security.
The Queen’s announcement caused violent protests in many countries and renewed death threats, and received extensive media coverage. The imprisonment elicited little protest or coverage. Both events teach important lessons, but the latter is politically more significant.
The reaction to the protests over the knighthood reveals an erosion of confidence in the West. Back in 1989, when Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued his fatwa declaring that all Muslims had a duty to kill Rushdie, the writer was defended and feted. Politicians vied to appear with him and shake his hand. When I passed through Amsterdam airport, the bookstores had every possible display space filled with copies of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Free people declared that freedom of speech would not be surrendered in the face of threat and violence.
This time around, there were sporadic articles in Rushdie’s defense, but no governments or politicians rushed to his side offering outspoken support. Many more now seem to regard him as a bit of an embarrassment, someone who makes unnecessary trouble, just like the writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those Danish cartoonists, and maybe the pope. Why do these people persist in provoking Muslims? There is a palpable loss of nerve in the defense of freedom.
Equally worrying is that the way the “insulting Islam” story has been framed—freedom of speech versus insulting a religion—misses the crucial political question: Can there be open debate about Islam, especially among Muslims? This is revealed starkly by recent events in Egypt.
In May and June, Egyptian State Security arrested Amr Tharwat, Ahmed Dahmash, Abdelhamid Mohamed Abdelrahman, Ayman Mohamed Abdelrahman, and Abdelatif Sayed, who are all members of the “Quranist” network. On June 21, they were charged with “insulting Islam.”
These Quranists promote a reformist view based entirely on the Koran (www.ahl-alquran.com) and are committed to religious freedom and an open society. They oppose a penalty of death for apostasy since the Koran nowhere mentions it. Amr Tharwat had coordinated the monitoring of Egypt’s June Shura Council elections on behalf of the pro-democracy Ibn Khaldun Center, headed by prominent Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Former Jemaah Islamiya member Tawfik Hamid told me that it was Quranists who gave him the space to develop critical thinking and so helped wean him away from jihadism.
State Security has now also leveled charges against Quranist founder Ahmed Subhy Mansour, who formerly taught Islamic history at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the major center of Sunni learning. He was fired because of his views and imprisoned in 1987. Subsequently he found asylum in the United States and lives in Virginia. Also charged is Dr. Othman Mohamed Ali, who lives in Canada.
These arrests are part of the Egyptian government’s double game in which it imprisons members of the Muslim Brotherhood when the latter appear to become too powerful, while simultaneously trying to appear Islamic itself and blunt the Brotherhood’s appeal by cracking down on religious reformers, who are very often also democracy activists. A similar strategy was followed in the February 22 arrest of blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil, who was sentenced to four years in prison—one year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak, and three for “insulting Islam.”
The Quranists’ plight, mirrored in countless other cases in the Muslim world, shows that in defending those accused of “insulting Islam,” there is far more at stake than a right to offend. Islamists and authoritarian governments now routinely use such accusations to repress political dissidents, writers, journalists, and, perhaps politically most important, religious reformers.
Such laws and threats are not a marginal religious quirk afflicting only cartoonists, converts, and controversial authors. They are a fundamental barrier to open religious discussion and dissent, and so too to democracy and free societies, within the Muslim world.
Hence, removing legal bans on “insulting Islam” is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary space for debate that could lead to other reforms. If, in the name of false toleration and religious sensitivity, free nations fail to firmly condemn and resist these totalitarian strictures, we will not only silence ourselves, but also abet the isolation and destruction of our greatest need and resource in combating radical Islam—courageous moderate Muslims.