Free Expression should not warrant charges of Apostasy

The Salman Rushdie saga continues as fatwa after fatwa keeps coming his way, the latest one from notorious alQaedah lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri.  Earlier, government officials in Iran and Pakistan had also issued death threats against him, after his recent knighting by the British Queen, along with an $ 80,000 reward for his head offered by a Pakistani tradesman.

Though quite distinct in their brands of fundamentalism-- one Shia, the other Sunni, these Pakistani and Iranian soldiers of radical Islam, are ever ready to pounce on individuals they consider threats to Islam's integrity, issuing fatwas of apostasy and blasphemy with impunity.

The all too familiar charges laden with murderous threats begin to emerge from various quarters.  Even more frightening is the sense of legitimacy and authority with which these threats are uttered, for the underlying sentiment is that the blasphemers are enemies of  God who rightfully deserve to be executed.

The trend has assumed dangerous proportions even in Canada where Tarek Fatah, myself and other notable members of the Muslim Canadian Congress recently received a death threat left at the answering machine of the Muslim Canadian Congress.  The charge against the MCC was in many ways far worse than the one leveled at Rushdie.  Whereas he is a "declared apostate",  our organization was labeled "hypocritical" and  therefore seen as  working more insidiously to "smear" Islam's image in the world.

There are myriad reasons why "hypocrisy" is deemed a greater offense than apostasy.  Often, conspiratorial motives are assigned to those who challenge the traditional view within Islam, with suggestions that  the progressive and secular Muslim voice is somehow serving the agenda of "anti-Islam"  forces.

Their myopic vision also prevents them from considering the larger picture where not only Islam, but  all faiths, ideologies and philosophies are routinely subjected to scrutiny from within and without.  My question to these religious fanatics is: Did Dan Brown receive similar threats from Christians for writing the Da Vinci Code, a novel which shakes the very foundations of Christian theology?  Indeed there were verbal protests and intellectual challenges to Dan Brown's premise, but was there ever the kind of mayhem one often sees in the Muslim world over perceived insults to Islam?  Granted that much of the Muslim world is suffering from illiteracy and poverty, but dangerously and unfortunately the impulse to condemn is not confined to the illiterate masses.

When government officials, along with the well-versed and erudite begin to express bitterness against dissenting views to the extent of calling for their obliteration through murder, law enforcement needs to take a serious look at the situation.

Salman Rushdie is a stalwart among writers and literary figures and has the  means available to protect himself, but lesser known individuals must also feel secure in knowing that their freedom of conscience will not be undermined through bullying tactics and threats. In applauding Britain's decision to bestow knighthood on Rushdie for his extraordinary literary achievements, let us also uphold the democratic rights of each individual citizen to disagree, as well as feel safe doing so.

Farzana Hassan is the president of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.


[Farzana Hassan-Shahid is President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Freelance writer, public speaker and author of  "Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest" and host of the radio program Islam: Faith and Culture.]