Islam and heresy – Where freedom is still at stake

Wanted: Islam’s Voltaire

Published on the Economist.com, August 6, 2009.

TO MOST Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers. Most religions began as heresies. Today the concept of “heresy” still means something. Every community built around an idea, a principle or an aim (from fox-hunting enthusiasts to Freudian psychotherapists) will always face hard arguments about where the boundaries of that community lie, and how far the meaning of its founding axioms can be stretched. But one of the hallmarks of a civilised and tolerant society is that arguments within freely constituted groups, religious or otherwise, unfold peacefully. And if those disputes lead to splits and new groups, that too must be a peaceful process, free of violence or coercion. 

How depressing, then, to find that in the heartland of one of the world’s great religions, Islam, charges of heresy are still being bandied about in a violent and threatening way, in the hope of silencing critical voices. The latest figure to face such an accusation is an Egyptian scholar, Sayed al-Qimani, whose profile has risen since he agreed to accept a prize from his country’s semi-secular cultural authorities (see article). Mr Qimani’s work—which would be unremarkable in any Western context—applies the familiar techniques of empirical research to early Islamic history.

As so often these days, he faces not punishment by his own government but the potentially lethal consequences of being denounced as a heretic by several influential groups in the quarrelsome world of Egyptian Islam. To the ears of a zealot, such a denunciation sounds like an invitation to go out and claim a heavenly reward by slaying the offender … (full text).

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