Lord Ahmad has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Lord Ahmad is not to be confused with Lord Ahmed, they are two different people. Lord Ahmad is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
Lord Ahmad was interviewed briefly about this new appointment on the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 (15 July). In the interview he defines religious freedom as (@40:32):
“Religious freedom is your ability to practice, profess and propagate your faith, and your ability to change faith if you so choose”
Now of course the problem with this statement is that there are faiths that really don’t like it when you try to leave or criticize them, and the one that really springs to mind is the Islamic religion. Harsh punishments including the death penalty are still enforced for blasphemers, proselytisers, and apostates in Islamic countries even now in the 21st century. The harrowing story of Asia Bibi who has been on death row for 8 years in Pakistan for merely allegedly criticizing the man Muslims regard as their prophet is just one of a large number of cases of such punishments being applied in practice.
The interviewer (@42:20) asked Lord Ahmad if he believed religious freedom should include the freedom to have no faith at all, and he replied “absolutely”. An important question that the interviewer did not ask though was the question of whether he thought that people should be free to criticize a faith and to proselytise (to encourage people to leave a faith). Freedom of expression is surely meaningless if we are not free to criticize the beliefs of others. My religious belief is that the man Muslims regard as their prophet was a paedophile and a fraud who invented the Islamic religion in order to legitimize his own lusts and thirst for power, does Lord Ahmad think I should be free to profess and propagate MY religious belief?
It is clear from the interview that Lord Ahmad doesn’t think that Islam for example calls for the death penalty for apostates, but what do the texts say? There have been many denials from apologists that Islam calls for the death penalty for apostates, however the man that Muslims regard as their prophet is explicitly quoted in hadiths as saying for example:
Sahih Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ “
To my mind that and other statements in the texts really don’t leave any room for doubt, that statement is about as unambiguous as it could be. I find the apologists’ arguments to be very weak – mostly the arguments revolve around the claim that the hadiths are not reliable and the Koran does not explicitly call for the death sentence, but as I mentioned in a previous article most mainstream Islamic scholars accept that the Sunnah (the example of Mohammed’s life) cannot be followed without reference to the hadiths. There are also statements in the Koran that could be interpreted as calling for the killing of apostates (e.g. 4:89).
Not only does the law in several Islamic countries specify the death penalty as the punishment for such crimes, those punishments are also supported by a majority of the population in several of those countries; according to Pew Research this is the case in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt among others. So, how can we simultaneously defend the freedom to follow such a faith and the ability of followers to leave that faith?
Some apologists for Islamic barbarity will also try to deflect criticism from Islam by pointing for example at this passage in Deuteronomy 13:6-11 where the killing of proselytisers is called for:
“You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God”
Jesus was clearly opposed to stoning as a punishment for sinners however, so I think we can safely assume that Jesus would have opposed such a penalty for proselytisers as well, and as far as I know there are no Christian heritage countries on earth today where such crimes are even punished, never mind by execution. I am not left with the impression that Christianity calls for the death of blasphemers, proselytisers, or apostates when you look at the religion as a whole.
Furthermore of course, Islam does also encourage Muslims to commit violent actions to propagate the religion. When Lord Ahmad defines freedom to propagate one’s religion he is surely not saying that Muslims should be free to incite violence or actually commit violent acts against the disbelievers? One of the aims of his mission is to oppose the persecution of religious minorities in the world, so I think it’s safe to assume that he opposes both the violence and the incitement. There is certainly a lot of work for him to do in this area since there is a lot of such persecution taking place in the Islamic world today, against Christians in particular and also against the followers of his own Ahmadiyya faith. Whether Islamic countries will take much notice of an Ahmadi envoy remains to be seen (Ahmadis are regarded as apostates themselves by a great many mainstream Muslims).
The big question that all this raises in my mind is the question of whether we should really tolerate the intolerance of a religion like Islam. I do not think that we should tolerate such intolerance. Can we say we support the freedom of speech if we support government action against the religion? I think the answer is yes in fact, because in most people’s minds freedom of speech is not an absolute; most people would agree that there are limitations, and one such limitation would prohibit serious incitement to violence. In general in a civilized society people are free only as long as they do not threaten the freedom of others.
Even the First Amendment of the US constitution does not protect the freedom to incite violence, but in US law the incitement must be “immediate” to warrant prosecution. You can say “let’s kill all the disbelievers” in a general way, only if you say “let’s go and kill those disbelievers (referring to a specific group) right now” would you fall foul of the law in the US. By contrast in European countries it is generally illegal currently to incite violence in any serious way (although somehow religions are let off the hook). We also have this bizarre situation where people are being locked up for merely “offensive” expression, while often really serious incitements from religious leaders are not prosecuted.
Consider the case of Syed Muzaffar Shah Qadri, a preacher from Pakistan who is even banned from speaking in that country and yet was allowed to come to the UK on a speaking tour of mosques here. This was reported by the Guardian in 2016. He has praised the assassination of a governer of Punjab (who tried to defend Asia Bibi) and he has said that the killing was “lawful”:
“Muslim cleric banned in Pakistan is preaching in UK mosques”
I think most sensible people who follow current affairs in the UK today would agree that the laws relating to freedom of speech are a convoluted mess (and getting worse as successive governments feel they have to add further irrational complications), and that we really need to set out a sensible framework that protects a sensible degree of freedom of speech, somewhat along the lines of the First Amendment. However a problem with the First Amendment is that it also protects freedom of religion, and so once again we have an inherent problem when we are faced with a religion that incites violence. The founding fathers were of course mainly only thinking about different branches of the Christian faith, and as discussed above the Christian faith doesn’t really incite violence.
I propose therefore that we should adopt a modified version of the First Amendment. Firstly we should remove any specific reference to religion – religions that do not incite violence would be implicitly protected in any case. I also propose that the incitement to violence would not have to be immediate to be unprotected. Consider the case of Islamic preachers who preach to large congregations inciting the killing of others for religious reasons. The incitement is not immediate, but I think we have to recognize that it is very serious nonetheless. Such a modified First Amendment would not restrict governments if they decided to proscribe particular religious organizations that promoted such views.
Instead I propose the qualification that the incitement must be DIRECT to be unprotected. If a preacher is calling for people to be killed and his followers take his words very seriously then I think we really should be prosecuting those preachers. We don’t really want to be locking up everybody who just simply jokingly threatens to kill somebody (if we did that then both George Osborne and David Attenborough would be facing jail time), I think we should add the qualification that the incitement should also be CREDIBLE.
What do you think? Do we need a modified First Amendment to protect our freedom of expression?
“What Does Islam Teach About… Apostasy”