Recent attention to Islamist apostasy and blasphemy rules focused on cartoons of Mohammed published by the Danish newspaper Jyllends-Posten and on Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, a Muslim who converted to Christianity. These cases were troubling to all those who value freedom of speech and religion, but they provide only a small hint of the full, terrifying implications of such charges.
Accusations of apostasy and blasphemy are also a means to silence Muslim reformers wherever in the world they may reside. Their power as an instrument of totalitarian repression may soon make itself apparent. On Wednesday, an organization, probably based in Egypt, calling itself "Supporters of God's Messenger" ("Al-Munasirun li Rasul al Allah") announced it would kill "atheists," "polytheists" and their supporters unless they repented, and it listed its targets, and many of their family members, by name. The communiqué, signed by one Abu Dhar al Maqdishi, identified as the group's media spokesperson, was e-mailed to over 30 prominent political and religious reformers, including many in the West.
Among its named targets is Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the best known human-rights and democracy activist in the Arab world, who was previously imprisoned by the Egyptian government for his advocacy of Coptic Christian rights and free elections in his native country.
Another is Ahmad Subhy Mansour, an imam who fled Egypt and now lives in Virginia, and has published works arguing against the death penalty for apostasy.
Yet another is Wafa Sultan, a California psychiatrist who, in recent media appearances in the West and the Arab world, has been an open, eloquent, and consistent critic of reactionary versions of Islam.
The communiqué said they had betrayed "Islam and the Muslim umma, publicly supported leaders of unbelief, the worshipers of the cross, the Christians with whom they attend conferences, helping them against our spiritual leaders, and even demanding for them the right of ruling over our Muslim lands. Also, they support and cooperate with the sons of pigs and monkeys [i.e. Jews] against our brothers in our homeland of our Al-Aqsa Mosque." (Translations by the Center for Islamic Pluralism.)
Consequently the targets were pronounced "guilty of apostasy, unbelief, and denial of the Islamic established facts" and were given three days to "announce their repentance and disavow their writings in denial of the traditions of our prophet and to repent their support of the countries of unbelief and their rulers." It demanded that repentance be made "publicly in the newspapers that they write in, and never to return to these writings and deeds again." The message also said the group knows where their homes are, where their children go to school, and when their wives are alone at home.
Of course, death threats are an occupational hazard for Muslim reformers and those who support them, but this is more than the usual vicious e-mail or phone message. As Dr. Sultan pointed out in the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, the latest threat "differed from the dozens she had previously received because it was made by a group and not an individual" and "included personal information about the recipients, as well as the names of some of their spouses and children."
Jihadists have taken heart from the many confused and appeasing government responses to the violence over the Danish cartoons and are escalating their offensive. Groups such as "Supporters of God's Messenger" now aim to silence any prominent Muslim who dares to criticize their actions and beliefs and suggest a modern interpretation of Islam.
Appeasement of such groups will not work. If cartoonists rein in their satire, if pundits and politicians carefully guard their language, violent Islamists will accept their victory and move on to demand the next part of their agenda — the silencing or death of those who reject or criticize their program, including, especially, Muslims.
Now is the time to ensure not only that those on these and similar lists are protected, but that their voices are heard and amplified. If even Western democracies cannot provide the political space for Muslims to debate these critical questions concerning the meaning of Islam, then all hope of an Islamic reform movement will be lost.
Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online