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Abdul Rahman and the Future of Shari'a

By Jay Bryant

The case of the Afghani morisco Abdul Rahman is being misinterpreted by many as suggesting the hopelessness of attempting to build civil societies in the Muslim world. If Afghanistan, generally seen as the policy's success story (as opposed to Iraq), is still going to execute a man like Rahman after we've kicked out the bad guys, the argument goes, what is the point of it all?

It's a serious argument, and a serious point. But we need to get past it, because, oddly enough, the Rahman case in fact represents progress. It has caused an uproar in the West. It has focused attention on the problem with the radical Islamic law code, shari'a. It has embarrassed moderate Muslims, and widened the gap between them and the radicals in their midst. It makes it more difficult for the moderates to do nothing about the problem.

In the end, Rahman himself will probably get off on some sort of technicality, such as finding him not guilty by reason of insanity. Critics will be outraged at such a verdict, but both their outrage and the verdict itself will be constructive.

What the case allows the West, and the moderates, to do is to give a name to the enemy, and the name is shari'a. Many Muslim nations have civil societies that are not run on the basis of shari'a, and historically, many others have been absolute models of tolerance - the Ummayad dynasty in Spain, for example, and the Abassids who founded the city of Baghdad. Both, in their day, were centers of learning that drew, and welcomed, scholars from Christendom as well as Islamia. And both, by the way, were overthrown by more radical Islamic movements - not by Christians.

The question thus becomes, which way is the current trend trending? In many ways, it seems the moderate Islamic states are on the defensive against the radicals. The Rahman case, by publicizing the most odious side of shari'a, will ultimately help move the trend in the right direction. Either the man will be martyred, or the authorities will have to back down. And if they back down, it will be clear that they, and the forces of radicalism and repression, have suffered a defeat.

There remains the question of the commitment of the West in midwifing civil society in those parts of Islamia where it does not now exist. The strength of that commitment will determine the length of time it takes to get the job done. If the West is resolute, a time frame of several decades may suffice - something comparable in duration to the Cold War, which has been the model for the Bush administration's commitment to the process ever since the days immediately following 9/11.

But if the West loses stomach - if the violence in Iraq and incidents like the Rahman case are interpreted wrongly, then we are potentially talking not about decades, but centuries.

The execution of Jesus of Nazareth is thought to have occurred in the year 33. The Prophet Mohammed died, by all accounts, in the year 632.

A lot can happen in 600 years. In those particular six centuries, for example, the Roman Empire, which had barely risen by 33 - Jesus was a younger contemporary of its founder, Augustus Caesar - fell into nonexistence in the west some two hundred years prior to 632.

Let's think about 600 years another way. Six hundred years ago, in 1405, Christendom had still to enter its Shari'a phase; the Spanish Inquisition wasn't founded until 1478. It lasted 348 years. A Valencia schoolteacher named Cayetano Ripoli has the honor of being the last person executed by the Spanish Inquisition. He was garroted in 1826 for poisioning his students minds with Deism. Estimates of the total number of people killed by the Inquisition vary enormously, and partly hinge on the question of whether you should count those who died in prison or just those actually sentenced and executed. A media number of about 32,000 has been recently suggested by some scholars.

While there may have been some people executed for convereting from Christianity to some other religion, the vast bulk of the early executions were of Jews and Muslims who had legally converted to Christianity, but whose sincerity in doing so was questioned - no doubt accurately in many cases.

The man most responsible for finally ending the Inquisition was Napoleon. He accomplished the feat by force of arms, but the Inquisition, by his day, was a mere shadow of what it had been in the time of Torquemada.

Ultimately, shari'a will suffer the same fate. The vast forces of history do indeed trend in that direction, however haltingly. How long it takes for the replacement of shari'a law with civil law remains to be seen, but the opportunity to hasten the process is alive and well now, if we have the courage and skill to seize it.

jaybryant@erols.com

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