Last month, American al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn issued a “convert-to-Islam-or-die message to U.S. President George W. Bush, Daniel Pipes, Michael Scheuer, Steve Emerson and Robert Spencer. This attempt at forced conversion to Islam followed the “conversion” at gunpoint of the two kidnapped Fox News reporters Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig.
What exactly was the significance of these events?
On the one hand, these attempts at forced conversion were in clear continuity with Islam’s long history of calling people to convert before waging war on them. But how exactly does this tradition and practise in Islam square with the Qur’an’s verse “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)? If Gadahn and the kidnappers of the Fox reporters consider themselves Muslims, what was their rationale for their actions in this context? Also: if forced conversion is anti-Islamic, where were, and are, all the Muslims furiously protesting Gadahn’s threats and the treatment of Centanni and Wiig?
To discuss these issues with us today, we are joined by:
Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim journalist and author from Istanbul, Turkey. He has written extensively in the Turkish and international press, including many American publications, about Islam and the current Muslim world. His writings are available at www.thewhitepath.com.
David Aikman, a former senior correspondent and foreign correspondent with Time Magazine, an author (see www.davidaikman.com for his books), and currently writer in residence and associate professor of history (History of Islam, Ages of Revolution) at Patrick Henry College in Purcelville, VA. He recently wrote a column for the Houses of Worship section of the Wall Street Journal on religious conversion in the US and overseas.
Robert Spencer, Director of Jihad Watch who, last month, was offered by Al-Qaeda the same 'invitation to Islam' that Centanni and Wiig received: convert or face the consequences.
Andrew Bostom, M.D., M.S. (Providence, RI), an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Renal Diseases of Rhode Island Hospital. He has published articles and commentary on Islam in the Washington Times, National Review, Revue Politique, FrontPage Magazine.com, The American Thinker, Investor’s Business Daily, and other print and online publications. He is the author of The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims.
FP: Mustafa Akyol, David Aikman, Robert Spencer and Andrew Bostom, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Mustafa Akyol, let me begin with you. What do you make of the forced conversions of the two Fox journalists and with the Gadahn calls for the conversions of the people he named?
As a Muslim, how do you regard these events?
Akyol: First, greetings to all participants and readers of this symposium. And thanks for having me.
This is an important topic and, as a Muslim, my position is clear: I am absolutely against the concept of forced conversion, which I believe is in opposition to the basic principles of the Qur'an. The verse you mentioned -- “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) -- is very clear and there are also other ones, such as, "It is the truth from your Lord; so let whoever wishes have faith and whoever wishes be unbeliever." (18:29) There is nothing in the Qur'an which would justify a forced conversion to Islam. Indeed a purely Qur'anic Muslim view should cherish full religious freedom.
However, the post-Qur'anic Islamic literature is not so friendly to religious freedom. The hadiths and the jurists' opinions based on them added a lot of extra rules and regulations due to the political needs of the early Islamic empire. The ban on apostasy was such a post-Qur'anic rule that I think we Muslims should abandon right away. People should have the right to leave Islam and choose other religions if they decide to do so.
However, forced conversion is something that goes even beyond the mainstream post-Qur'anic orthodoxy, whether it is Sunni or Shiite. Although pagan Arabs weren't tolerated and were forced to convert, the Sunni orthodoxy accepted that Christians and Jews (and later, Hindus and Buddhists) had the right to keep their faith by accepting the dhimmi ("protected") status.
Therefore I think the Palestinian militants who forced those two kidnapped Fox News reporters Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig did something terribly wrong. From a purely Qur'anic point of view, that's totally unacceptable. Even from a Sunni Orthodoxy view, that's very hard to justify. It is also stupid: How can you think that you can make someone a sincere Muslim by pointing a gun at him?
Or maybe it was not that stupid. Those militants might have been seeking not a genuine conversion, but a political show. They might have wished to give the message that they are powerful and they can force Westerners to accept what they want, and even transform their identity. In other words, their focus seems not to direct people to what we Muslims believe to be a path to God, but to recruit them into their tribe. This tribal mentality lies beneath much of the assaults against religious freedom in the Muslim world, but it is not what the Qur'an commends.
The al-Qaeda call to American writers like Mr. Spencer seems to be a political show of the same sort. It is in fact a good thing to invite people to Islam from my point of view, but hearing a call to Islam directed to Americans by al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization which has killed thousands of innocent Americans up to now, is like a joke. If they were serious about it, what they should have done was to establish an Islamic cultural center in the Twin Towers -- not to blow them up.
FP: Robert Spencer?
Spencer: While I applaud Mustafa Akyol’s endeavor to construct an Islam free from “hadiths and the jurists' opinions,” unfortunately those traditions and rulings are normative for the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. Since many of these ahadith are attributed to Muhammad himself and are found in hadith collections generally considered reliable by Muslims (such as Bukhari’s), it is extremely difficult to convince orthodox Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims to dismiss them. For them, the ban on apostasy from Islam is not just a “post-Qur'anic rule,” but a supreme evil, as it was regarded, according to many ahadith, by Muhammad himself.
When he was master of Medina, some livestock herders came to the city and accepted Islam. But they disliked Medina’s climate, so Muhammad gave them some camels and a shepherd; once away from Medina, the herders killed the shepherd, released the camels and renounced Islam. Muhammad had them pursued. When they were caught, he ordered that their hands and feet be amputated (in accord with Qur’an 5:33, which directs that those who cause “corruption in the land” be punished by the amputation of their hands and feet on opposite sides) and their eyes put out with heated iron bars, and that they be left in the desert to die. Their pleas for water, he ordered, must be refused (Bukhari 8.82.794-797; 9.83.37).
The traditions are clear that one of the main reasons that the punishment was so severe was because these men had been Muslims but had “turned renegade.” Muhammad legislated for his community that no Muslim could be put to death except for murder, unlawful sexual intercourse, and apostasy (Bukhari 9.83.17). He said flatly: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him” (Bukhari 9.84.57). These words are obviously taken with utmost seriousness around the Islamic world, as we saw in Afghanistan during the Abdul Rahman case – which was by no means an isolated incident. Some Muslim authorities even argue that, aside from the Hadith, the Qur’an itself mandates death for apostates when it says: “if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them” (4:89).
As for forced conversion, it is likewise unfortunately unclear among Muslims that what happened to Centanni and Wiig was, in Akyol’s optimistic words, “from a purely Qur'anic point of view…totally unacceptable” and “from a Sunni Orthodoxy view…very hard to justify.” Islamic law forbids forced conversion, but in Islamic history this law has all too often been honored in the breach. More significantly, Islamic law regarding the presentation of Islam to non-Muslims manifests a quite different understanding of what constitutes freedom from coercion and freedom of conscience from that which prevails among non-Muslims. Muhammad instructed his followers to call people to Islam before waging war against them – the warfare would follow from their refusal to accept Islam or to enter the Islamic social order as inferiors, required to pay a special tax:
Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war…When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them….If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya [the tax on non-Muslims specified in Qur’an 9:29]. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them. (Sahih Muslim 4294)
There is therefore an inescapable threat in this “invitation” to accept Islam. Would one who converted to Islam under the threat of war be considered to have converted under duress? By non-Muslim standards, yes, but not according to the view of this Islamic tradition. From the standpoint of the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence such a conversion would have resulted from “no compulsion.”
Muhammad reinforced these instructions on many occasions during his prophetic career. Late in his career, he wrote to Heraclius, the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople:
Now then, I invite you to Islam (i.e., surrender to Allah), embrace Islam and you will be safe; embrace Islam and Allah will bestow on you a double reward. But if you reject this invitation of Islam, you shall be responsible for misguiding the peasants (i.e., your nation). (Bukhari, 4.52.191).
Heraclius did not accept Islam, and soon the Byzantines would know well that the warriors of jihad indeed granted no safety to those who rejected their “invitation.”
Muhammad did not limit his veiled threat only to rulers. Another hadith records that on one occasion he emerged from a mosque and told his men, “Let us go to the Jews.” Upon arriving at a nearby Arabian Jewish community, Muhammad told them: “If you embrace Islam, you will be safe. You should know that the earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle, and I want to expel you from this land. So, if anyone amongst you owns some property, he is permitted to sell it, otherwise you should know that the Earth belongs to Allah and His Apostle” (Bukhari, 4.53.392). In other words, if you accept Islam, you may keep your land and property, but if not, Muhammad and the Muslims would confiscate it.
Would someone who converted in the face of such a threat be considered to have been forced by Islamic jurists? No – and therein lies the reason why the conversions of Centanni and Wiig could be presented by their captors as uncoerced, in the teeth of the evidence.
This, too, has a foundation in the Qur’an. Sura 9:29 says: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book [that is, Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizya [a special tax levied only on non-Muslims] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” This verse does not force conversion, but it did in Islamic history become the foundation of an elaborate legal system, the dhimma (to which Akyol refers). This system ensured that non-Muslims would “feel themselves subdued” by mandating a series of humiliating and discriminatory regulations that institutionalized second-class status for non-Muslims in Islamic societies. As the schools of Islamic jurisprudence developed, they constructed upon various ahadith and passages of the Qur’an a legal structure for the treatment of non-Muslims.
The features of this remained remarkably consistent across the centuries, and among all the legal schools. Consider the contemporary Saudi Sheikh Marzouq Salem Al-Ghamdi, who several years ago explained in a sermon the terms in which an Islamic society should tolerate the presence of non-Muslims in its midst:
If the infidels live among the Muslims, in accordance with the conditions set out by the Prophet — there is nothing wrong with it provided they pay Jizya to the Islamic treasury. Other conditions are . . . that they do not renovate a church or a monastery, do not rebuild ones that were destroyed, that they feed for three days any Muslim who passes by their homes . . . that they rise when a Muslim wishes to sit, that they do not imitate Muslims in dress and speech, nor ride horses, nor own swords, nor arm themselves with any kind of weapon; that they do not sell wine, do not show the cross, do not ring church bells, do not raise their voices during prayer, that they shave their hair in front so as to make them easily identifiable, do not incite anyone against the Muslims, and do not strike a Muslim….If they violate these conditions, they have no protection.[i]
In this the Sheikh is merely repeating the classic terms of Islamic jurisprudence for the treatment of non-Muslims in Islamic societies – and he explicitly links these terms to Muhammad’s example. The second-class status for Christians and Jews, mandated by Qur’an 9:29’s stipulation that they “feel themselves subdued,” was first fully articulated by Muhammad’s lieutenant Umar during his caliphate (634 to 644), in terms strikingly similar to those used by Sheikh Marzouq. The Christians making this pact with Umar pledged:
We made a condition on ourselves that we will neither erect in our areas a monastery, church, or a sanctuary for a monk, nor restore any place of worship that needs restoration nor use any of them for the purpose of enmity against Muslims….We will not . . . prevent any of our fellows from embracing Islam, if they choose to do so. We will respect Muslims, move from the places we sit in if they choose to sit in them. We will not imitate their clothing, caps, turbans, sandals, hairstyles, speech, nicknames and title names, or ride on saddles, hang swords on the shoulders, collect weapons of any kind or carry these weapons…. We will not encrypt our stamps in Arabic, or sell liquor. We will have the front of our hair cut, wear our customary clothes wherever we are, wear belts around our waist, refrain from erecting crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets. We will not sound the bells in our churches, except discreetly, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims. . . .
After these and other rules are fully laid out, the agreement concludes: “These are the conditions that we set against ourselves and followers of our religion in return for safety and protection. If we break any of these promises that we set for your benefit against ourselves, then our Dhimmah (promise of protection) is broken and you are allowed to do with us what you are allowed of people of defiance and rebellion.”[ii]
All this does not add up to forced conversion, but many times in Islamic history it has made living as a non-Muslim so burdensome and onerous that conversion to Islam became the only path to a better life. Coerced? Perhaps not. But the line between coercion and free choice is in this case exceedingly fine.
FP: David Aikman?
Aikman: I applaud Mustafa Akyol's denunciation of the forced conversion of Fox newsmen Centanni and Wiig, but I fear that Mr. Akyol's humane disgust with conversion at the end of a gun-barrel is largely because he has benefited from having grown up in modern Turkey, which, since its founding in the 20th century by Attaturk, has been blessed by a secular state and not an Islamic one. If Mr. Akyol were resident in many other Muslim countries around the world, he would at best be repudiated for the un-shariah approach to the issue he expressed in this forum, at worst threatened with physical harm or death.
Mr. Robert Spencer, a specialist on Islamic attitudes in history towards people of non-Islamic faith, has put the case expertly and eloquently that the overwhelming weight of the Islamic tradition in practice has been to subject conquered non-Muslims to unconscionable humiliations in the way they are permitted to practice their faiths, humiliations that amount to coercion to convert to Islam. I certainly have nothing to add to his historical arguments. I think they are very persuasive.
What I do wish to address is what this new, threatening component in the discourse of Islamic militants means for the whole of the human race. It amounts to a war for a totalitarian control not just of its adversaries all over the world, but of the world as a whole. It aspires to coerce the entire world into conversion to Islam or into the humiliating acceptance of "dhimmi" status. In effect, Al Qaeda and all who support it are waging a war not just on the West, not just on the remains of a Christendom almost fatally weakened by political correctness and notions of moral equivalence, but on global civilization itself. Terrorist strikes and plots by advocates of global jihad have been committed or plotted in a variety of countries that makes little sense from the perspective of their various political positions. From England to Indonesia, from Canada to India, from the US to Spain, there have been terrorist plots and outrages, even though in regard to policies towards the Middle East, many of these states have been at odds with each other. But that has not protected them from the jihadist scourge. The reason is that their governments have all shared the view that in the modern world civilized life requires the free movement of commerce and people, of communications and ideas. All of these nations, indeed, except Indonesia, have been signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations in 1948. Even Indonesia, however, is not an officially Islamic state. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, or religion." By extension that has been accepted by signatory states as implying also the freedom of their citizens to change religious belief without penalty or punishment.
In our modern world even those countries still ruled by one-party political systems such as China or Cuba had paid lip-service to the view that freedom of conscience and religious belief is inviolable. China itself has flatly repudiated that period of its recent history when, during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, a nation-wide attempt was made to suppress all manifestations of religious faith. Though China is not fully free by most criteria of political democracy, it is no longer a totalitarian society and has already moved far away from totalitarian state control of all areas of private life. Other countries have problems of pressure on ordinary citizens by adherents of one religion or another not to change religion (India and Sri Lanka, among others) but the overwhelming direction of global civilization is away from religious coercion, not towards it.
It is only in the Islamic world that there is broad sympathy for a point of view that the individual conscience is not a sacred thing at all and does not even belong to the individual, but to the Muslim-controlled community in which the individual is located. This is at odds with the entire direction in which, by overwhelming broad consensus, human civilization as a whole is moving. In effect, Islamic coercion of personal religious conscience is not an example of the "clash of civilizations," but of a war waged by desperate fanatics upon civilization itself. I will leave it to scholars of the early years of Islam to debate whether this war upon the human conscience was the intention of early Islam or not. But that it is the goal of Al Qaeda and practitioners of Islamofascism around the world, there can be no doubt. Mr. Gadahn, the Californian voice of Al Qaeda, may issue his sneering threats to President Bush, or Dr. Daniel Pipes, or to my forum colleague Mr. Robert Spencer and others. But I predict that, when this new totalitarian challenge to global civilization has been overcome, Mr. Gadahn's blustering will be recalled as a historical footnote, like the blusterings after the defeat of Japan during World War 2 of "Tokyo Rose".