Limits to a Kinder, Gentler Islam

Taslima Nasrin is a world-famous secular humanist, writer and feminist who escaped the threat of hanging by Muslim fundamentalists in her native Bangladesh.

In 1994 Muslim militants issued a fatwa - a religious judgement - demanding her execution for her criticism of Islam. The Bangladeshi government followed suite with a warrant for her arrest on the grounds of alleged blasphemy.

She fled to Sweden.

I asked a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh about Taslima Nasrin. I met this young professional at a dinner party. He had a Master of Engineering degree from a well-known Canadian University. He was drinking a beer.

A Muslim drinking a beer!

"Why not," he said "the Koran’s admonition against alcoholic beverages is only if you can’t do it in moderation. If you cannot do it in moderation, you must abstain."

I had never heard that interpretation of verse 5:90 "O believers, wine, gambling, idols and divining arrows are an abomination of the Devil’s doing; so avoid them that perchance you may prosper!"

He went on to explain that during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the preferred mode of transportation for millions of Muslims is the jet plane.

"Most Muslims," he said, "accepted that the Prophet did not mean modern conveniences such as jet travel when he warned them to avoid innovations."

Our conversation eventually turned to Taslima Nasrin. I asked him why a country that allows a liberal interpretation of religious texts could sentence her to death for questioning the teachings of the Prophet, and did he agree with the sentence?

He agreed with the death sentence.

He was unequivocal: "You could interpret the teachings of the Prophet," he said "but Muslim countries, even Bangladesh, drew the line at allowing Muslims to express any doubt that the Koran is the word of God and that Muhammad is His Messenger."

My Muslim acquaintance's approval of Taslima Nasrin being sentenced to death for her criticism of Islam should not have come as a surprise. After all, the Canadian Muslim community has never condemned Khomeini's fatwa demanding the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie.

Islam must inexorably lead to a struggle between religious and secular authorities as to how much control over our lives humanity's alleged all-powerful invisible friend will have.

The uncompromising professional diviners of the word of God are bound to win the debate with their secular part-timers (including yours truly). Therefore, it is my belief that a kinder and gentler Islam is an aberration, including applying the label of "kind and gentle" to a religion that threatens death and eternal damnation for Muslims who question dogma.

Even a kinder and gentler Islam must inevitably lead to a harsher, more repressive form of the religion if dissent remains a capital offence. The West may have to decide one day what it values most: freedom of speech or freedom of religion?

Bernard Payeur