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Scholars Argue Prosecutions Against Muslim Liberals Don't Follow Islamic Teachings


Some of the most deadly terrorist attacks have been Muslims killing Muslims. Earlier this month, a truck bomb targeted Shia Muslims in Baghdad, killing some 300 people. ISIS considers them apostates. In Bangladesh, radicals have gone after Muslims they suspect of blasphemy. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on how a liberal Muslim in Saudi Arabia found himself facing such charges.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Eleven years ago in Saudi Arabia, a restless young man named Raif Badawi set up an internet forum. It was a place where he and other Saudis could share thoughts about the social order in their country. In English, the site was called Free Saudi Liberals. Inevitably, it got Badawi in trouble with the religious authorities. Four years ago, he was arrested. He remains in a Saudi prison today.

ENSAF HAIDAR: (Foreign language spoken).

GJELTEN: Ensaf Haidar is Badawi's wife. She speaks here through an interpreter.

HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) As it is written in the judgment, he has been accused of creating an internet website, adopting liberal thinking and ridiculing some religious figures as well. And he also liked a Christian page.

GJELTEN: That was on Facebook. Haidar fled Saudi with their three children and now lives in Canada. In her book, "Raif Badawi: The Voice Of Freedom," Haidar says that her husband is a good Muslim but that he promoted a live-and-let-live philosophy. That's a perspective conservative Saudi clerics consider un-Islamic.

HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) There was a fatwa issued against him from 150 religious figures in Saudi Arabia. So this was the main thing that created the problem for him.

GJELTEN: A serious problem. In a Saudi court, Badawi was charged with blasphemy and apostasy. For conservative Muslims, blasphemy is when someone insults Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. Apostasy is when a Muslim rejects Islam altogether. Badawi was accused of abandoning his faith for liberalism. Assim Al-Hakeem is a hard-line Saudi sheikh famous for lecturing in English.

ASSIM AL-HAKEEM: The consensus of all scholars that if a person changes his religion from Islam to any other religion, the punishment should be execution, death.

GJELTEN: Badawi was indeed condemned. Under international pressure, Saudi authorities later reduced his death sentence to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. But his case raises vital questions. Who gets to judge what constitutes blasphemy or apostasy? And is this what Islam really teaches? Sheikh Assim, while defending the death sentence for apostates, says in one of his online lectures that it can be imposed only by the government of an Islamic state on the advice of scholars.

AL-HAKEEM: It is not for Tom, Dick or Harry to carry out this punishment. This cannot be done without following the procedure, meaning if someone says that he doesn't believe in the Prophet (speaking Arabic), can we go and chop his head off? The answer is no.

GJELTEN: Sheikh Assim says ISIS leaders do not follow the required procedure, so their killings are not justified. He defends the Saudi approach. But in her book, Ensaf Haidar says that system often amounts to vigilante justice.

HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) In terms of who can accuse a person of apostasy, unfortunately, it's anybody who has a long beard.

GJELTEN: The men with long beards are the ones with influence. The version of Islam prevailing in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism, an uncompromising fundamentalist ideology dating from the 18th century. Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, says Raif Badawi's live-and-let-live philosophy doesn't fit with Wahhabism.

AKBAR AHMED: The Wahhabi faith would take a very conservative, very hard line of drawing boundaries around the faith and saying, in fact, you cannot have a live-and-let-live philosophy. It must be only this way of life. Anything else is not the correct interpretation of how we approach God.

GJELTEN: But many Muslim scholars question whether Wahhabism is a true reflection of Islam. Akbar Ahmed says some of what's associated with it and other fundamentalist interpretations of Islam does not actually come from the Quran or from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, but rather reflects beliefs and practices passed down from Arab tribes before Islam even emerged as a religion.

AHMED: Very often, pre-Islamic customs come into Islam, for example, honor killings. These are tribal customs which have come into Islam. So tribes which are Muslim will practice these in their societies. And they will say these are Muslim because we are Muslim. In fact, these are not Islamic, and they come from outside Islam.

GJELTEN: Another consideration, seventh-century Arabia was a purely Islamic state. To be a Muslim was to be a citizen. To reject Islam was to reject state authority. Apostasy was tantamount to treason. But that was a political, not a theological, fact. And Akbar Ahmed of American University says such anti-democratic thinking has no place in the modern world.

AHMED: When someone tells me there's no democracy in Islam, I ask them, which Islam are you talking about? Because it's certainly not my understanding of Islam. To me, the value of Islam is precisely that it is a religion which is compassionate, which is inclusive and can be interpreted in a way that people who are not Muslim are able to relate to it and be comfortable with it.

GJELTEN: This is, however, what Ahmed calls a modernist view of Islam. And he acknowledges that it's the ultra-conservative fundamentalists who have been gaining strength recently in the Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Syria to South Asia. That does not bode well for liberals like Raif Badawi, who still faces years in a Saudi prison. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.