About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Christianity and the insanity defense

I thought I was prepared to hear about any degree of insanity connected with fundamentalist religion, but the recent news from Afghanistan once again proved me wrong. An Afghan named Abdur Rahman is on trial for his life because he has dared to convert from Islam to Christianity (the charge, incidentally, has been brought by members of his own family, after an internal squabble!). Of course, this is yet another example of how really retrograde some middle eastern societies are, despite all the talk about modernization, exporting democracy, and human rights.

But what makes this case particularly interesting, I think, is one of the few routes of escape now available to Mr. Rahman. You see, according to Islamic law – which is the accepted law of the land in “liberated” Afghanistan – apostasy should be punished with death, and there is little more apostatic than actually repudiating one's own religion. The problem, of course, is that Afghanistan is also supposed to legally function according to a Western-inspired Constitution, and its Western-backed government has pledged to respect the United Nations declarations of human rights, which includes freedom of religion (and, presumably, of changing one's religion – not to mention of not being religious at all).

The way out of the conundrum might be offered by the characterization of Mr. Rahman made by the prosecutor in the case: he is insane! You see, the only reason someone would willingly change religious affiliation away from Islam (and in a country where such decision is punishable by death) is because that person is insane. No one in his right mind would seriously entertain the notion! Well, I must admit that the prosecutor does have a point... The sadly ironic thing, of course, is that the very notion of punishing (by death or otherwise) someone for his beliefs is the real insanity. But such is the world in which we live, and we have always lived.


  1. This story is depressing beyond belief (no pun intended).

    Did you see this from a CNN report:

    "Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die," said cleric Abdul Raoulf, who is considered a moderate and was jailed three times for opposing the Taliban before the hard-line regime was ousted in 2001.

    If this is the opinion of a "moderate" what chance is there to ever reverse this type of fundamentalism?

    It is no wonder that Muslims in Western societies do not often criticize their more radical bethren. They are too scared.

    What an ingenious mechanism for securing the future of a meme though.

    We have seen (as should have been easily predicted) that we cannot change the culture by force, but how then will these societies ever change on their own?

    I don't see any good options for the future. Military intervention only fans the flames of radicalism and realistically cannot be used to change the beliefs of whole populations.

    But a total withdraw by the West from Middle East affairs could mean that the salafi vision wins out. In 50 years if all of the Middle East is ruled by Sharia law -- how long before radicals decide to try to spread their vision of Islam outward?

  2. I have lots of thoughts running through my head about this story and yet I'm not sure what to say about it. Maybe it's a good thing (in the long run) for Islam to show it's true face. It's certainly bad for the man facing the charges and maybe it's bad in some general sense for what it portends for the future. And maybe it's just no concern of mine what a sovereign nation half-way around the world does with it's own citizens.

  3. I wonder if Raoulf is the guy I saw interviewed on CNN back in 2001. He was tortured by the Russians, his forearms were broken. He hated the Taliban (they don't know shit). He did not want to ride his bicycle past his poorer brethren, because it would make them feel bad. I remember thinking "This guy is about the best that Monotheism has to offer."

    I wonder if it's the same guy? I hope not. But hell yes, I bet it is.

  4. The problem, of course, is that Afghanistan is also supposed to legally function according to a Western-inspired Constitution, and its Western-backed government has pledged to respect the United Nations declarations of human rights, which includes freedom of religion (and, presumably, of changing one's religion – not to mention of not being religious at all).

    The fact that they are supposed to function according to a western inspired constitution is not the problem Massimo. It would be the only solution (if it is even possible). You say that as if we never went to Afganastan Abdul Raoulf would be home free, and somehow The west is to blame for this Islamic extreemism. I find it amazing how the left is always trying to blame the West for Islamic atrocities. Do you understand the objective of the Islamic religion is world conformence. That means they will not stop untill you are in the same position as Abdul. Islam is not some peaceful religion and we are just stirring them up!

  5. Jim Fisher must be reading something between the lines in Massimo's post that I completely missed. I went back and read it over several times and could find nothing that even remotely suggested that left leaning Massimo blames Abdur Rahman's plight on US involvement in the Middle East. (The left in the age of Herr Chancellor Busch encompasses nearly every one including the John Birchers)

    What might be drawn from what "M" wrote is that people in this country, right and left, but especially this administration foolishly think that those folks in the Middle East are going to change their beliefs just because we blew through there hunting for bin Ladin (rather without success), put our puppet in place along with a rapidly produce quasi-western style constitution and presto we have created Kansas in the middle of Afghanistan.

    The same thing is happening in Iraq and I fear if Bush has his way may spread to Iran. This is a shoot and ask questions later administration. They abhor academia or any type of intellectual pursuit, thus never have any background on which to base what their actions might stir up. They obviously have no historic knowledge of the Middle East, of the tenets of Islam and never will, because they think the solution to all problems is to throw money, threats and bullets at them.

  6. I apologize, I meant Rahman instead of Raoulf.

    Dennis, Perhaps I misunderstood the second paragraph. When "M" said "The problem, of course", I thought he was citing this as the cause for the dilemma. After re-reading it I see meant soemthing else. although I still find it interesting that when discussing a peticular incident of Islamic fundimentilism. We associate it with What the U.S. (or Bush as you guys would probibly say) is trying to accomplish in the middle east. Is that a more fair way to put it? I guess my point is we have absolutly nothing to do with Rahmans potential death. If anything, we are the reason he is still alive.

  7. Jim,

    when I said "the problem of course" I meant that ironically. I thought it was clear from the context. Of course Afghanistan wasn't better off under the Taliban, but it seems like the improvement has been rather minimal...

  8. I've had a conversation or two with a Muslim who believes the law mandating the death of apostates is just. Very disturbing.

    His reasoning:

    Apostacy is the worst crime possible. That's why God places such high preventative measures against it, for your own sake.

    God says that whoever leaves Islam, will not only be eternally in Hell, they will never be guided.

    That's why a serious eternal punishment is forewarned with a serious earthly punishment. That's how seriously a person needs to reconsider their position.

    I assume I do not need to explain here the fanatacism that is required to wrap one's mind around such a rationale.

  9. Jim, First I would ask you to clarify a statement in your response to my post and that is "What are we trying to accomplish in the Middle East? First it was get the nasty weapons (WMD, chemical and biological). That fell flat! Then it was to get Al Qaida because they were surely in cahoots with Saddam. That hypothesis went south! Overlaying these things was the burning desire to unseat Saddam (the one and only mission accomplished). Then finally after pretty much every thing else has gone sideways the goal has become to bring democracy to Iraq and the entire Middle East. It's not to difficult to see how that's turning out. Civil war in everything but name in Iraq and the entire region is rapidly becoming destabilized. It has been really difficult to keep up with the revolving set of reason's about our involvement OVER THERE. Oh yes that;s another "the flypaper theory", "We're fighting over there so we won't have to fight them over here". My head is spinning!!!

    In the process the U.S. under Bush is bankrupting itself, selling its soul and infrastructure to China, Japan and several other countries that may not turn out to be our tightest allies in the future. This, and more importantly, the uncalled for loss of life on both sides. Anyway Jim I'm at loggerheads to figure out what we are trying to accomplish in the Middle East.

    New Subj: I would advise anyone whose curiousity is peaked by Hume's Ghost's post to rush to your local library and get a copy of Sam Harris' "The End of Faith". His chapter "The Problem with Islam" devotes 45 pages to the the Islamic view of apostasy as well as othe tenets of that religion. Apparently fervent,and even moderate Muslims do not feel this viewpoint is the least bit fanatical or radical. They take the Quran just as literally as the most fundamental Christians take the Bible.

    He also delves into belief and faith of Christianity and Judaism as well. All in all he paints a pretty scary picture of what we have to look forward to in the future.

  10. More actual conversation

    Me: This is so profoundly disturbing to me. Even ______, who is usually reasonable and moderate, sees nothing wrong with killing a person for the "crime" of changing his mind.

    A law which calls for someone to be put to death because they changed their mind about something is evil. If you worship a god that made thinking a crime, then your god is evil.

    Joseph Conrad once wrote, "all a man can betray is his conscience." This is what the Sharia would have you do, betray your concience. How can thought be criminalized? How can a person not be free to think whatever thoughts they are compelled to think?

    If a person is not free to choose or change their religion, then they are not free, period. They have been made a slave from the inside out.

    I know that _____ will tell me that we can't judge God's laws, that all we can do is follow them. That's fanatic talk, the talk of a slave, a person who now advocates that you too become a slave. That you should put the chains on yourself, and love being a slave.

    The word Islam is derived from means "submission". What you are to submit is your very humanity.

    Him:That's exactly it. You submit to God as His willing servant, "slave" if you like.

    Not one of the beings in the heavens and the earth but must come to God Most Gracious as a servant. (Qur'an 19:93)

    The answer of the Believers, when summoned to God and His Apostle, in order that He may judge between them, is no other than this: they say, "We hear and we obey": it is such as these that will attain felicity. It is such as obey God and His Apostle, and fear God and do right, that will win in the end (Qur'an 24:48-51)

    The Prophet (pbuh) said:"Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Mary, for I am only a slave. So, call me the Slave of God and His Apostle."

    "I am a slave. I eat as a slave eats and I sit as a slave sits."

  11. And if we don't have enough to worry about on that front, then we can add this, which comes from a Nigerian Christian group which is growing in leaps and bounds here in the U.S.:
    "We didn't bring this church to the United States to be another Nigerian church," said Ajibike Akinkoye, chief executive of Dove Media, in an interview in his Irving office. "We are afraid with the way things are going in the world and in America - allowing people to do what they like, creating their own religion and philosophy - those people are going to pay for it. We don't want that to happen." (search for: Redeemed Christian Church of God)

    They are determined to save us from ourselves. Between all of these religious groups wrangling for the legal 'right' to control my life and fighting each other along the way, I don't have a good feeling about the future.

  12. You guys are starting to scare me.


  13. On the "redemptive analogy" thesis


    In the gentleman's thesis, it is suggested that it may be next to impossible for Islamic culture and or religion to reconcile itself with any other set of beliefs because it lacks the symbolic language to implement the tools for change. I.e. namely the concepts of redemption or reconciliation.

    This is rather important to understand, especially if one sincerely wishes to know why this belief "thing" turns out to be so terribly complex.

    - thanks, mp, for posting dates and times

  14. While it's all terrible and everything like you guys say, I get a bit worried about some things that are said, sometimes. We got to be careful not to engage in hate talk ourselves as much as possible too.

    What I mean is that Islam is not at fault for anything here. It is just a religion, and as such can be twisted and turned to say whatever one wants (and what one wants is mostly determined by the social, economical, historical, personal, etc. millieu, isn't it?). Just like Christianity or whatever else you like - I don't know about you, but I've long ceased to be amused by christians saying that all the ugly, un-PC passages in the Bible don't really mean what is written, or are of actually of "historical" instead of prescriptive value... Now, the nice things there are really god's commands to you NOW. Right. You can play that game with the Quran just as easily, just try.

    The point being that as (if?) islamic societies evolve, their ugly passages in their sacred texts will also become something like that - whatever is convenient to the current societal climate, is god's will; whatever isn't, we explain away somehow. Just look at muslims born and raised in modern societies, for a few generations. Although they sometimes even do have the "fanatic" discourse, they usually don't live like that. Then again, sometimes they DO live up to it, like the muslims in England who exploded trains and all that.

    If the radicals will start spreading their "vision" or not, and when, and if they'll be stopped, I don't know (muslims are already more than a billion). What I do know is that Christianity's radicals really succeeded in doing their job hundreds of years ago (after all, they started earlier, right?). And death to whomever disagreed - that's why one of my last names is a tree name. Courtesy of the friendly "convert to Christianity, flee or die" policy of the counter-reform in the Iberic peninsule, thank you very much. Actually, I don't think "flee" was part of the policy itself, really.

    Thus I think any talk about Islam or whatever being "unable to this", "responsible for that", etc. only adds to the problem of hate. The problem is not Islam. The problem (and solution) is that we're human.

    And on a final linguistic note, Islam might not mean "peace" exactly, as HG pointed out, but it is very closely related, etimologicaly. Semitic words with the s-l-m root have something to do with peace ("shalom/salem", anyone?)


  15. Sometimes it is easy to forget that in Medieval times Muslim philosophers were somewhat more liberal than their Christian counterparts. Also, in modern times it was not so long ago that Pakistan elected a woman president.

  16. Dennis,
    The point of my post was not to approve or disprove of the war in Iraq. I was mearly pointing out that the left somehow feels the need to associate what we are doing in Iraq (right or wrong) with Islamic extreemism. If you want to know my opinion about the war, the fact is, I was dead against going into Iraq, even when I personally believed they were building nukes. Currently, at this point in time, I feel it would be a grave mistake to pull out. Hind site is everything though. I did not know anyone who did not want to go into Iraq at the time, now everyone says they were against it. I can remember debating with everyone I knew that we shouldn't go into Iraq at that time (living in MA, that means mostly left). Now all the sudden, everyone knew that Iraq didn't have any weapons and they were dead against war.
    I guess it is a question of can a true democracy be formed in Iraq? If we leave now, we will never know. A new Suddam will take hold. I personally believe it can be done. I realize most will not agree with that. I hate the fact my brothers are dying over there. Perhaps I just want to justify their deaths with a purpose? Formation of any democracy is always covered in blood. I pray it is worth it.


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