A Discussion of Islam and Western Culture with Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

on October 14, 2009

The Rt. Reverend Michael James Nazir-Ali, the 106th Bishop of Rochester, spoke at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC on Tuesday, October 13, 2009. The discussion with Bishop Nazir-Ali, “Apostasy, Blasphemy, and Other Sharia laws in the Modern World,” was part of the Hudson Institute’s fall series, Lifting the Theocratic Iron Curtain: Examining the Application of Muslim Blasphemy and Apostasy Rules in the Contemporary World. And who better to speak about the dangerous situation of a largely secular, indiscriminately multicultural western world confronted with by Islam, a system of belief that exploits multiculturalism while having nothing but contempt for the concept, than the man who has earned the title of “most courageous man in Britain,” for his willingness to speak out about the threat of radical Islam?

Bishop Nazir-Ali was born in Pakistan to a family that had converted from Islam. He was educated at the University of Karachi; Ridley Hall Theological College and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University; St. Edmund Hall College, Oxford; as well as doing further study at the Australian College of Theology and Harvard Divinity School. Nazir-Ali was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1976, worked in Karachi and Lahore, and then was consecrated Bishop of Raiwind Diocese in West Punjab. At the time he was the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion.

When his life was threatened by radical elements in Pakistan, then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie brought him to England. He served as the Assistant to the Archbishop, and then as the General Secretary of the Church Mission Society. In 1994 he became the first non-white diocesan bishop in the Church of England when he was consecrated as the Bishop of Rochester. He was also the first Asian religious leader to serve as a member of the House of Lords. On September 1, 2009, Bishop Nazir-Ali, who describes himself as “evangelical and catholic,” resigned his Bishopric to devote his time to advocacy for the persecuted church around the world.

The Sharia: The Way

At the Hudson Institute lecture, Nazir-Ali first gave a brief background on the Sharia, (Islamic law) explaining that Sharia means “way” and is, for Muslims, the way to follow the teachings of Islam, Mohammed, and the Koran. Because Islam seeks to encompass all of life, the Sharia is not just a spiritual concept, but was given legal weight by a process of codification in the first 200 years of Islam. Fiqh is the codified Islamic law, an expansion of the Sharia, based on the Koran and on the Sunnah, the words, actions, and practices of Mohammed. Islam’s attempt to encompass all of life is also where the difficulty lies for those who believe in the universal and God-given right to religious freedom.

The Dhimma: The Treatment of Non-Muslims

Along with codification of Islamic law, the dhimma was developed as a treaty between Arab-Muslim conquerors and the non-Muslim conquered peoples. Nazir-Ali said that in the first Islamic state, Medina, all people were recognized as equals for a short time. Thereafter, Jews and Christians that submitted to Islamic domination without fighting were exempted from the jihad against infidels. They were required to pay a tribute, “the jizya,” however, and were subjected to continual oppression.

For instance, said Bishop Nazir-Ali, Christian dhimmi (people under the dhimma) could maintain existing churches, but not build new ones. The buildings could show no external signs of their religion, no bells, crosses, etc. Dhimmi could not ride horses – only mules or donkeys – and their houses had to be more modest than Muslims’ houses. Upon paying the jizya, said Nazir-Ali, a further humiliation was to receive a “symbolic blow on the neck,” to remind them that their lives were in the hands of the Muslims. Nazir-Ali said that while some conciliatory scholars see dhimmi status as an “advance,” it has resulted in a “particular repressed mentality amongst the non-Muslims of the Muslim world.” Since the 1950’s there have been attempts to reintroduce the dhimma into Muslim states.

Apostasy: Leaving Islam

Nazir-Ali then spoke about the concept of apostasy under Islam and whether or not the punishment for apostasy is part of the Hadud (a class of punishments that are fixed for certain crimes). The definitive word from the Koran says that there is punishment for apostasy, but that it is in the next life, not this life, said Nazir-Ali. He added, though, that all the schools of Islamic law prescribe death as the punishment for apostasy for adult males. Some use verses in the Koran such as Sura 2, which says that an apostate’s life is barren in this life and the next,” or Sura 4, which says that if people desert you, you must kill them wherever you find them” to justify the killing of apostates.

In actual practice rather than theory, said Nazir-Ali, apostasy is often punished by death. The punishment is also justified by a Hadith (the oral traditions of the words and life of Mohammed) that says that if one changes his religion, kill him. Nazir-Ali did find encouragement in the disagreement amongst Muslims on the conviction that apostasy should receive a death sentence. For instance, the Amadhiya Muslims (who are treated as heretics by mainstream Islam) say that no Hadith can trump the Koran. Even at Al Azhar University in Cairo, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, scholars have expressed reservations about the death penalty for apostasy. And yet, says Bishop Nazir-Ali, “people are still convicted, imprisoned, killed,” for leaving Islam, “so who do you believe?”

Blasphemy: Insulting Islam

The prescription against blasphemy in Islam has been very troublesome for both non-Muslims and Muslims, says Nazir-Ali. In his native Pakistan, the penal code on blasphemy was changed from mandatory life imprisonment to a mandatory death sentence. This has changed the climate of religious freedom in Pakistan, says Nazir-Ali, and contributed to anger, hostility, fear, and alienation between Christian and Muslim communities. Rather than civil discourse, issues are settled by the Muslim party accusing the Christian or fellow Muslim of blasphemy. Some Muslims are trying to rectify the situation, said the bishop, by pointing out circumstances where Mohammed forgave those who insulted him. But the law itself is bad, and “a bad law will come back again and again to haunt the nation,” warned Nazir-Ali. He has urged Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari to repeal the Blasphemy Laws.

Islam in the West

Muslim communities in the West seem to have almost as great a difficulty in accepting freedom of expression as those in the Muslim world, Nazir-Ali continued. When there is a challenge to Islam, he said, the tendency is to shut it up, not to enter into the public space and debate. Behind this hostility, said Nazir-Ali, is the same sentiment that is found in the blasphemy and apostasy laws. Such repression should not be allowed in free, Western society, the bishop warned. “You can disagree with respect,” the bishop said, “but freedom of speech remains a cornerstone of a free society. We live in a world where people should be free to believe, live out and share their beliefs, and change their beliefs.”

Bishop Nazir-Ali and IRD’s Faith McDonnell after his talk (IRD/Jeff Walton)

The Incitement to Religious Hatred law in the United Kingdom threatens to stifle all opposition to or even discussion about Islamism in Great Britain. Nazir-Ali said that “the day was saved” only by an amendment to the law saying that nothing in the law should be taken as being able to prevent free speech. And yet the police in Great Britain have often wrongly impinged upon the freedom of speech of citizens who have made comments that were critical of Islam, said Nazir-Ali, citing several current cases.

Bishop Nazir-Ali then referred to the development in Great Britain over which his public statements have made him the subject of both criticism and even death threats. In January 2008 Nazir-Ali said in The Sunday Telegraph that Islamic extremism had turned “already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas.” Readers of the bishop’s comments would know that the term harkens back to areas of Northern Ireland that were barricaded against police and British military presence by violent paramilitaries. Now attempts to “impose an Islamic character on certain areas” have done the same thing in Britain. Christians have been prevented from advertising church events in these parts of town and even police have been reluctant to enter these communities.

Some, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have argued that perhaps the Sharia should be permitted as the law for the inhabitants of these Muslim areas. But Nazir Ali responds that “the incorporation of Sharia into public law in the West is fraught with many difficulties.” The use of the Sharia in family law arbitration could work against the rights of women. It could prevent access to the courts for these women. And in some cases, the courts, desiring to be culturally sensitive to Islam, may actually enforce the unjust decisions of the Shariaarbitration tribunals.

Multiculturalism in Britain has encouraged the growth of these separate communities with no proper integration, Nazir-Ali said. This, along with the United Kingdom government’s reluctance to intervene in the situation, has led to a greater possibility for young people to become radicalized. There must be action by the British government to demonstrate that they will support freedom of speech and action, said Nazir-Ali. He expressed concern over opinion polls in the United Kingdom that have revealed that young Muslims appear to be far more hardline than previous generations. Young Muslims have shown approval for the most draconian of punishments for apostasy, blasphemy, and other issues.

Unfortunately, at the very time that other cultures began to arrive in the United Kingdom, the country had begun to lose its own Judeo-Christian discourse according to Bishop Nazir-Ali. There is a moral and spiritual vacuum in Western Europe, he said. “Judeo-Christian values, refracted through the Enlightenment, have to be recaptured,” he declared. In that regard, Nazir-Ali asked that the government make a public affirmation of the “Christian roots of British society.”

Nazir-Ali’s comments regarding the “no go areas” resulted in some debate and criticism, including criticism from the Muslim Council of Britain, the Liberal Democrats, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears. But the bishop did not back down, acting as a model of the very freedom of speech that he shows is so necessary. He regretted any hurt, and did not wish to cause offense to anyone, let alone his Muslim friends, but said, “unless we diagnose the malaise from which we all suffer, we shall not be able to discover the remedy.”

We are fortunate to have Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s courageous and compassionate diagnosis. “No go areas,” multiculturalism, and appeasement that is nothing more than a modern version of the dhimma, are being embraced by both Church and civil society, but they will do nothing but increase the malaise to an illness of epidemic proportions. Only filling today’s moral and spiritual vacuum with truth and achieving a renewed understanding of the critical nature of religious freedom will provide the remedy we need.

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