Kafer: The Arabic word for heretic. A word that weighs heavily on the history and consciences of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. A word that has caused untold death, suffering, and persecution. A word that, to this day, plays an outsized role in the sociopolitical and religious discourse of the region.
Kafer is a word that excites and enrages, that stirs up hate and resentment. It is a word that should be excised from the laws of the emerging “democratic republics” being born from the Arab Spring. Unfortunately however, archaic laws dealing with apostasy, blasphemy, and proselytization remain on the books in many Arab countries. In Saudi Arabia for example, a person who renounces Islam, an apostate, can be executed for his or her “crime.”
In addition to brutal legal codes, the constant barrage of fatwas coming from certain elements in the region are only increasing the importance of the word kafer, exacerbating religious differences, and leading to the torment of minority groups and Muslims who simply do not live up to the standards set by some religious authorities.
Yes, it is easy to be cynical about the “democracies” rising from the ashes of the Arab Spring when religious conservatism seems to be at the center of power in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, countries that are cracking down on religious pluralism and attempting to homogenize Islam in a way that fits a radical mold.
Labeling someone a heretic or blasphemer can have grave consequences in some countries. If someone is accused of proselytizing, or actively trying to convert people to another religion, the result could be even more dire. Take the recent example from Libya, where Coptic Christians were arrested for allegedly attempting to turn people to Christianity. Although these Copts have been safely returned to Egypt, there is information now emerging that they were tortured in prison, tortured for a nonviolent crime for which they were never convicted.
Then there is the very famous case of Bassem Youssef, the so-called “Jon Stewart of Egypt.” He was arrested for “insulting Islam” and President Morsi, for blaspheming and making a mockery of his own religion. A man who stands up to the excesses of political power was attacked and denigrated by the government as an enemy of Islam. Bassem Youssef, who was doing nothing but eagerly embracing the new rights he was granted thanks to the Egyptian “revolution,” was transformed into an enemy of the people and a “threat” to Islam.
These two examples show the inherent dangers associated with laws criminalizing blasphemy and proselytization, laws that make it easy to label regular people as heretics and apostates. Primarily, these laws restrict freedom of religion and conscience, a critical aspect of international human rights norms and principles. Secondarily, these laws give governments free reign to arrest critics and political enemies simply by accusing them of blasphemy or proselytization. Is someone stirring discontent against the status quo and causing trouble for the political class? Just call him or her a blasphemer and silence will (hopefully) ensue. Is a member of a not so popular religious group posing a threat to the political elite? Fabricate some evidence that he or she is spreading his or her faith and it’s over. Threat extinguished.
Some countries in the Middle East and North Africa have more liberal legal codes when dealing with apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. One example is Morocco, where apostasy is not a crime. Still, radical forces in that country could not let this continue. As a result, Morocco’s high council of religious scholars, or ulema, released a fatwa calling for the execution of apostates, a fatwa that would theoretically empower regular Moroccans to go out into the street and kill anyone deemed to have renounced Islam.
This fatwa creates conflict domestically because it diverges from the enacted laws of the Kingdom. Although some members of the government have rejected the fatwa, this pronouncement by religious authorities may galvanize reactionary forces in the country. It can justify violence, hate, and civil disorder. With the growth of Salafism in Morocco, the consequences of a fatwa like this can be devastating indeed.
If newly established democratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa are to be considered legitimate, they must take seriously the fact that pluralism plays a critical role in the formation of a democracy. More must be done to ensure that religious minorities are protected, that freedom of religion and conscience are not undermined, and opponents of the established political elite are not victimized by baseless accusations of blasphemy, heresy, or proselytization. This can only happen when secularism becomes the very core of reform, the foundation of democratization.
Each and every religion and political stripe in the region has a role to play in development. Therefore, each and every religion and political stripe must be allowed to thrive so that each can contribute to society. Christians, Shia, Sunnis, leftists, environmentalists, liberals, conservatives, etc. all have their own views on what is best for their countries. But labeling them as threats to religion, as enemies of Islam, as dangerous miscreants, does not accomplish the goals of sociopolitical change and evolution.
The Middle East and North Africa has always been and always must be a bastion of diversity and pluralism. It is time for the word kafer and laws criminalizing apostasy and proselytization to be wholeheartedly rejected by the people of the region.
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