What do Pakistan’s Swat Valley and Harvard University have in common?
Their leading Islamic authorities uphold the Shariah (Islamic law) tradition of punishing those who leave Islam with death.
There are differences, of course. For one thing, Shariah actually rules the Swat Valley, while Shariah’s traditions, as promulgated by Harvard Muslim chaplain Taha Abdul-Basser, retain a more or less theoretical caste. In a recently publicized e-mail, for example, Mr. Abdul-Basser approvingly explained to a student the traditional Islamic practice of executing converts from Islam.
As the chaplain put it: “There is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment), and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human-rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand.”
Certainly, one should not dismiss Mr. Abdul-Basser out of hand - or the chilling implications of what it means to have a religious leader at Harvard validate the ultimate act of Islamic religious persecution. But dismissing - or, rather, ignoring - this controversy is precisely what Harvard is doing in what appears to be an institutional strategy to make it go away. No one from the public-affairs office I contacted would answer questions or return phone calls. The lady who unguardedly answered the phone at the Harvard Chaplains’ office couldn’t get off fast enough, offering by way of answers a faxed “On Inquiry Statement” prepared by Mr. Abdul-Basser in which he issued a raft of denials unrelated to the e-mail statements in question.
“I have never called for, advocated or otherwise supported the murder of anyone - ever,” he wrote. Nope, he didn’t, especially since under Shariah, death for apostasy is not considered “murder.”
“I have never expressed the position that individuals who leave Islam … must be killed.” True. Indeed, in the original statement, Mr. Abdul-Basser specified the unworkability of death for apostasy “in our case here in the North/West” because, for one thing, it “can only occur in the domain and under supervision of Muslim governmental authority and can not be performed by nonstate, private actors.”
And finally: “I do not hold this opinion personally.”
This doesn’t exactly resound as a bell-clanging denunciation of the Islamic juridical consensus on death for apostasy. But maybe more disturbing than either Mr. Abdul-Basser’s Shariah position or Harvard’s stonewalling is the silence of the media. With the exception of the Harvard Crimson, no news outlets have covered the story.
It broke online when someone anonymously leaked the e-mail to talkislam.info on April 3, and it was picked up by researcher Jeffrey Imm on April 4 and subsequently blogged at various sites. (I wrote about it at www.dianawest.net on April 4.) The Harvard Crimson became the sole media outlet to report the story on April 14.
Compare this silence to the uninterrupted media pillory that Lawrence H. Summers endured back in 2005. For suggesting that differences between men and women, not discrimination, accounted for a dearth of women in the sciences, Mr. Summers was ultimately driven from the Harvard presidency. Today, for seeing “great wisdom” in the Shariah tradition of capital punishment for apostasy, Mr. Abdul-Basser not only doesn’t rate a news squib, but he also continues to minister to Harvard’s flock.
Not incidentally, a number of Harvard Muslims - two by name and three anonymously - objected to Mr. Abdul-Basser’s statements in the Harvard Crimson story. One student said Mr. Abdul-Basser shouldn’t be the official Muslim chaplain. His reason, in part, was because the chaplain “privileges the medieval discourse of the Islamic jurists and is not willing to exercise independent thought beyond a certain point.”
Identified by name in the original Crimson story, this student later requested and received anonymity from the online edition “when he revealed that his words could bring him into serious conflict with Muslim religious authorities.”
His “words”? What kind of “serious conflict”? What “Muslim religious authorities”? The article didn’t say.
Another Muslim student who called Mr. Abdul-Basser’s remarks “the first step towards inciting intolerance and inciting people towards violence” also requested anonymity “for fear of harming his relationship with the Islamic community.” So did a third Muslim student in order “to preserve his relationship with the Islamic community.”
It is here that we broach the most disturbing aspect of this highly disturbing story: There are Muslims who oppose the Shariah tradition of death for apostasy but don’t feel free to say so publicly - not at Harvard, not in the Swat Valley. But little wonder. No Harvard official, neither religious nor administrative, has been willing so far to speak out against the chaplain’s statement, let alone can him. This means that when it comes to Shariah rules versus freedom of conscience at Harvard, it is freedom of conscience that goes unprotected by those hallowed, ivy-covered walls.
No wonder nobody wants to talk about this story.
Diana West is a columnist and the author of “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization.”