Monday, July 26, 2010

6. Violence

With increasing clarity scholars of history and religion are coming to perceive a disturbing Abrahamic trifecta--a nexus that links monotheism, intolerance, and violence. Today the Islamic jihadists are the most prominent exponents of this noxious triad. As will be seen below, however, the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is where it all started.

To be sure, violence is a human universal. To take an extreme example, consider the wars waged by the Aztecs to procure victims for their rituals of human sacrifice. These conflicts were bloody, but they were not undertaken to maintain and extend an intolerant monotheistic faith. The Aztecs were quite content to leave the polytheistic beliefs of their neighbors just as they were. After all, they were polytheists


Matters were different among the ancient Israelites. As the Egyptologist Jan Assmann notes: “[t]he accounts of the Exodus from Egypt, violently forced upon Pharaoh by God-sent plagues--and even more so the conquest in Canaan--depict the birth of the Israelite nation and the rise of monotheism (these two being aspects of the same process) in terms of extreme violence.” (Assmann, 2010). The prominent place of these motifs in the historical memory of the people who created the Hebrew Bible makes them highly significant. In addition to the glorification of violence, these narratives demonize the Egyptians and the Canaanites. And demonization is often a prelude to aggression.

Violence also figured as a technique for internal control among the Israelite population itself. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, some 3000 individuals were slain, or so we are told (“each man kill his brother, and each man his fellow, and each man his kin”; Exodus 32:27-28). In another passage death is prescribed for those who might dare even to suggest a return to idolatry: “you shall strike him and he shall die, for he thought to thrust you away from the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:10).

Violence is also visited on those who would fraternize with neighboring people. For the crime of associating with Moabites and Midianites, 24,000 were purportedly slain (Numbers 25 1-11).

Extreme violence marked the campaign against the cities of Canaan, where nothing was to be left alive. The ancient Israelites invented ethnic cleansing.

All in all, scholars have identified some 600 passages linking violence with the origin and propagation of Israelite monotheism. As we have noted above, minimalists and others have questioned the historicity of of these accounts. To cite a recent essay by Niels Peter Lemche: “The exodus has a long time ago passed from history into fiction. It never happened. Neither did the conquest ever happen. Several biblical scholars including myself have made this clear. From an historical point of view, the Israelites could not have conquered Canaan by destroying Canaanite forces, for the simple reason that the Egyptians still ruled Canaan when Joshua is supposed to have arrived, i.e. shortly before 1200 BCE. Secondly, there is no trace of foreign immigration, and thirdly, even the biblical account about the conquest is contradictory (compare Joshua with Judges 1).” (Lemche, 1998).

Granting (as I think we must) these points, there remains this question: why would any people seek proudly to remember the atrocities I have just cited--and many others--parading them front and center in their most sacred text, the Torah? And of course, alllowing for all the embellishment, some details of the accounts are likely to have been true. For the victims it looks very much as if the Torah scrolls were the scrolls of agony.

The conclusion is inescapable. This tangle of violence, intolerance, and monotheism bears a clear stamp of origin: Made in Ancient Israel. Some seek to mitigate this harsh judgment by observing that after the rise of Christianity and Islam--the hyperpowers of monotheism as it unfolded in the course of history--Jews did not engage in these types of repression. Just so. But was it because they wouldn’t, or because they couldn’t?

Now Jews do have power in the state of Israel, and it is a very powerful state indeed. The Israeli government has been drawing on the ancient prototypes, by practicing violence and ethnic cleansing on the Palestinians. Ethnic cleansing? Well, what else can one call the massive land grab in the West Bank? To be fair, Israeli peace groups have been at the forefront of documenting and opposing this misbehavior. They represent the best aspects of the prophetic movement that has also radiated throughout the Abrahamic traditions. But the fons et origo of the trifecta is clear.

One must also acknowledge that today secular Jewish scholars are at the forefront in exposing the sorry record of monotheism in these realms. An outstanding work is the book of Professor Regina M. Schwartz, “The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism” (University of Chicago Press, 1997). This hard-hitting monograph stems from a question posed to Schwartz when she was teaching the Bible to undergraduates: "What about the Canaanites?" In her view, biblical narrative has been a singularly powerful form of social memory. Too much theological reflection, Schwartz believes seeks simply to close the “old monotheistic” book, and leave things as they are. After all, we are told, the Bible is the word of God. (“What kind of God?” is of course a question too rarely asked.) In a positive message, Schwartz seeks to open the scriptures to the possibility of multiplicity so that, as she puts it, "new books may be fruitful and multiply." Hers is an invitation to an ethic of possibility, plenitude, and generosity, a welcome antidote to violence. In this way her study is as important for its insights into memory, identity, and place as for its criticism of monotheism's violent legacy.

Jonathan Kirsch, an attorney and book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has written “God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism” (Viking 2004). In this wide-ranging survey Kirsch points out, correctly, that the earliest impulses toward monotheism can be found in Egypt with pharaoh Akhnaten's forceful attempt to move the nation to the worship of one god, the Aten. Yet this reform lasted at most seventeen years, and efforts to connect it with Moses remain problematic. In fact, Akhnaten’s religion left no progeny; the Israelite project definitely did.

After reviewing the evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Kirsch demonstrates that monotheism gained momentum with the development of Christianity which became dominant in the Roman empire under the emperor Constantine. Interestingly, Kirsch shows that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Israelites, Jews, or Christians, despite many historians' claims to the contrary.

Conventionally and obsessively, monotheists decry polytheism (“paganism,” “heathendom”). One reason for such dismissals may be that in some ways polytheism is more reasonable, making it a dangerous rival. "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice," he asserts, the opposite of monotheism's dangerous "tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god." (Kirsch, 2004). Kirsch’s comparison is perhaps overdrawn, but it is worth pondering.

While he does not claim originality for his research, Kirsch clearly shows that monotheistic religions have too often used the worship of one god as a pretext to persecute those who do not share such beliefs. He demonstrates the ways in which this conflict gave rise to the tensions that ravage monotheistic religions today.


In the comings and goings of his daily life and ministry, the Jesus of the Gospels was a kind and loving person. However, he sang a different tune when it came to the afterlife. He frequently affirmed the reality of the hellfire that will be the inevitable fate of evil doers.

In the synoptic Gospels Jesus used the word Gehenna eleven times (Matthew 5:22; 5:29; 5:30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Mark 9:43; 9:45; 9:47; Luke 12:5); this word is customarily translated as “Hell.” In Revelation 20:14 the Greek word Hades is used.

Hell is situated below, inside the earth. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus descended there after the Crucifixion but before the Resurrection. According to Christian tradition he rescued several worthies from Old Testament times from those dire circumstances. It was not their fault that they lived before the Incarnation. For others. though, there will be no release.

High temperature (sometimes simply termed “the fire”) is perhaps Hell’s most salient attribute. Despite the flames, Hell is eternally dark ("But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness." Matthew 8:12; cf. 22:13). Sinners will be tormented with sulfur (or “brimstone”; Revelation 14:10) and devoured by worms that never die (Mark 9:44-48). They will also be visited with extreme thirst (Luke 16:23-26).

Needless to say, those consigned to this fate will not be happy about it (“there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth"; Matthew 8:12; cf. 13:42; 13:50; 25:30). The torment is for all eternity: it never ceases ("And these shall go away into everlasting punishment." Matthew 25:46; cf. Mark 9:43-48: Revelation 14:11).

The most violent book in the New Testament is Revelation, a text traditionally (but implausibly) ascribed to John, the author of the Fourth Gospel. The chief antagonist of the Lamb (Jesus Christ) is the archvillain Satan, known as “the dragon.” This strange book is full of threatening creatures, including locusts who attack the believers. The Beast par excellence has with seven heads and ten horns; he is associated with the mysterious number 666. Another creature, looking like a lamb but speaking like a dragon, is identified as the False Prophet. He leads people to worship the first beast. In the end, the dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet are thrown into a lake of fire to burn forever.

Chapter six tells of a scroll in God’s right hand that is sealed with seven seals. When Jesus Christ opens the first four of the seven seals, riders appears on white, red, black, and pale-green horses. They symbolize pestilence, war, famine, and death, respectively. These fateful horsemen are harbingers of the Last Judgment, when sinners will be consigned to eternal torment.


As Christianity gained adherents in the Roman empire, it attracted the hostile attention of the authorities, who subjected the Christians to a series of persecutions. Some were killed by being cruelly attacked by wild beasts in the arena. Other Christians were executed by the sword or other means.

Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 brought this era to a close. However, Christians turned upon themselves, with those who declared themselves Orthodox ostracizing and sometimes persecuting those they designated as heretics.

In the early church, heresies were commonly determined by a selected council of bishops, or ecumenical council, such as the First Council of Nicaea (325), and promulgated by the Pope and the bishops under him. The orthodox position was established at the council, and all who failed to adhere to it would thereafter be considered heretics. The church had little power to actually punish heretics in the early years, other than by excommunication. For true believers, excommunication was the worst form of punishment that could be imagined, as it separated the individual from the body of Christ, his church, and, if the sentence accurately reflected God's judgment, meant the denial of salvation.

Excommunication, or even the threat of excommunication, sufficed to convince many heretics to renounce their views, though not always. The obstinacy of a heterodox thinker named Priscillian provoked much heated opposition. Seeking to relieve the pressure being brought against him, Priscillian appealed to the emperor--with an unfortunate result. At Trier in 385 the authorities beheaded him, together with six companions. These seven achieved the distinction of becoming the first Christian heretics to be executed for their beliefs.

For the early Middle Ages (c.450-1100) reports of heresy are sparse. How much this paucity was the result of improved conformity, how much the inadequacy and variation of episcopal supervision, remains in question.

The eleventh century saw the beginning of an era in Western Europe in which Latin Christendom turned its aggressions both outward and inward. The outward manifestations were mainly directed against Islam, which many regarded as a Christian heresy. In Spain the Reconquista movement began a lengthy effort to recover the country for Catholicism, which culminated with the surrender of Granada in 1492. The Crusades in the Middle East were by their nature violent, since armed warriors had set out to take the countries of the Levant by force. When the Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1095, it was said that so many were massacred that rivers ran with blood. In 1204, with the Fourth Crusade, this violence turned against other Christians, the Byzantine citizens of Constantinople, which was sacked. In eastern Europe the Teutonic knights attacked the pagan Slavs in the Baltic regions with much loss of life.

In the long run these external attacks were dwarfed by the internal ones. The intensity of violence directed internally has endowed later medieval Europe with the title of the Persecuting Society.

Four main groups were the target of these persecutions in Europe: Jews, heretics, witches, and homosexuals.

1) As Christianity and Judaism began to diverge in the Roman empire hostility developed on both sides. The second-century Epistle of Barnabas claims that it was the Jews, not the Romans, who killed Jesus. In fact, a number of early and influential Church works, including the dialogues of Justin Martyr, the homilies of John Chrysostom, and the testimonies of church father Cyprian, are strongly anti-Jewish. These writings served to promote the perennial accusation that the Jews were deicides--that they were responsible for the death of Christ.

In 438 the Code of Theodosius II established Christianity as the only legal religion in the Roman Empire, leaving Jews in a precarious position. A century later the Justinian Code stripped Jews of many of their rights. Subsequently, church councils further enforced anti-Jewish provisions.

Despite these repressive provisions the earlier Middle Ages was relatively free of anti-Jewish violence. Matters changed dramatically in the late eleventh century as part of the fervor attending the launching of the First Crusade. At the end of 1095 and beginning of 1096, months before the departure of the official crusade in August, there were murderous attacks on Jewish communities in France and Germany. At Speyer, Worms. and elsewhere in the Rhineland. the Crusaders joined with locals to commit pogroms. In Mainz one Jewish woman killed her children rather than see them murdered; the chief rabbi also died.

The following centuries of the Middle Ages saw repeated instances of full-scale persecution in many places, with blood libels, forced conversions, and massacres. Expulsions were a notable feature: in 1290 all English Jews were banished; in 1396 100,000 Jews were expelled from France; and, in 1421 thousands were expelled from Austria. In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. All these events were accompanied by much suffering, loss of property, and death through hardship.

As the Black Death devastated Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, annihilating more than a half of the population, Jews were taken as scapegoats. Rumors spread that they caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells. As a result of these false beliefs, hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed by violence.

2) Once Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire, the Orthodox began to label their opponents in the church as heretics. This concern fell into abeyance in the early Middle Ages.

From the late eleventh century onward, Catholic authorities in Western Europe returned to this preoccupation--with increased vehemence. The factors accounting for this renewed intense interest are complex, including popular response to the eleventh-century clerical reform movement, greater lay familiarity with the Bible, exclusion of lay people from sacramental activity, and more rigorous definition and supervision of Catholic dogma.

At first it was not clear how heresy should be suppressed, but there was agreement among the elite that this should be done. At the outset there was clerical resistance to the use of physical force by secular authorities to correct spiritual deviance. As the papacy viewed heresy with increasing concern, however, the "secular arm" was called in more frequently during the twelfth century and afterward. This process meant torture and, in many instances, burning at the stake.

The church instituted the Holy Inquisition, an official body charged with the suppression of heresy. This effort first saw a vigorous extension of preexisting episcopal powers (possessed, but little used, by bishops in the early Middle Ages) to inquire about and suppress heresy. Eventually, the Inquisition became the particular responsibility of Dominican monks, authorized by the Pope.

A particularly significant episode was the Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade (1209-1229), a military campaign to eliminate the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Prosecuted mainly by the north French, the crusade quickly acquired political aspects. In this way southern France, which had formerly been relatively independent, came into the orbit of the French crown.

The background of the effort is as follows. By the twelfth century dissident Waldensians and Cathars were beginning to appear in the flourishing towns of Western mediterranean France. The Cathars grew to represent a popular mass movement, and the infection (as the authorities viewed it) was spreading to other areas. The demands of this dualist sect were severe, so that relatively few believers became full Cathars, but the faith attracted many followers and sympathizers. The Cathars were known as Albigensians, through association with the Languedocian city of Albi. They were also sometimes called Manichees, because of a confusion with Manicheanism.

At first peaceful attempts at conversion were attempted, but these had little effect. Military measures were then undertaken. The period from 1209 to 1215 saw a series of great successes for the crusaders in Languedoc. The captured lands, however, were largely lost between 1215 and 1225 in a series of revolts and military reverses. The situation turned again following the intervention of the French kings Louis VIII and Louis VIII. By 1229 the area was reconquered, and the leading nobles made peace. The hostilities were marked by many bloody scenes and massacres.

3) During the high and especially the later middle ages down onto early modern times the witchcraft delusion was a frequent source of anxiety and panic. This had not always been the case. Augustine labeled belief in witchcraft a heresy, and in 785 the Council of Paderborn outlawed the belief. The Council of Frankfurt, called by Charlemagne in 794, was explicit in condemning "the persecution of alleged witches and wizards,” calling the belief in witchcraft "superstitious,", and ordering the death penalty for those who presume to burn witches.

However, popular opinion moved in the opposite direction. Historians have shown that witch hunts originated among the common people in Switzerland and Croatia, who pressed the civil courts to suppress the supposed malefactors. Eventually, in 1320, Pope John XXII formalized the persecution of witchcraft when he directed the Inquisition to prosecute sorcerors. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull authorizing two inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to systematize the persecution of witches.

The witch trials in early modern Europe, eventually subsiding. There were trials in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before reviving in the high middle ages, and peaking in the seventeenth century. Some scholars argue that a fear of witchcraft started among intellectuals who believed in maleficium: that is, harm committed by magic. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed a special charisma (which could be used to protect the people) morphed into a belief in pacts between the people with supernatural abilities and the devil. Christianity and its proxy secular institutions sought to justify the killings by spreading racy accounts of Satanic gatherings featuring much naked dancing, orgiastic sex, and even cannibalistic infanticide.

Current scholarly estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft vary between about 40,000 and 100,000. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known for certain to have ended in executions is around 12,000.

During the early eighteenth century the delusion finally subsided. The last executions for witchcraft in England had taken place in 1682, when three women were executed at Exeter. The practice died out more slowly in Central Europe. The last execution seems to have been a case in East Prussia of 1811.

4) Male homosexuals, then known as sodomites after the biblical city, were particular targets of hatred. During the earlier middle ages, a period of sparse population, homosexuals were not very visible, and hence not a source of concern. The growth of cities changed this situation. In keeping with the German proverb "City air makes one free," the towns were increasingly the refuge of individuals uncomfortable living elsewhere. The migration of gay men and women to urban centers had begun. The new conditions of town life probably inspired the enactment of new sodomy legislation, beginning with that of the Council of Nablus in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1120.

As has been noted above, after 1000 the authorities became very interested in religious deviation or heresy. The most formidable of these spiritual movements of dissidence was Albigensian dualism, which flourished particularly in the south of France. This heresy was believed, not altogether wrongly, to have come from the Balkans, from the Bulgarian Bogomils in particular. Their French persecutors applied the term “bougre” [bulgarus; bugger) to them, and by extension to heretics generally, from the beginning of the thirteenth century, which saw the establishment of the papal Inquisition. The association of heresy with sodomy, a recurring feature from this point onwards, gave bougre an additional meaning, that of sodomite. In English this sense has usurped the older one of "heretic," though the term is also used for heterosexual anal intercourse and for sexual relations with animals. Yet another medieval transformation gave bougre the meaning of usurer, someone who lent money at prohibited rates of interest. The attacks on the heretics are major historical exemplars of the orchestration of popular fears and prejudices by clerical and lay authority to punish actual deviation and to cow the rest of society into continued submission. The most notorious instance is Philip the Fair's repression of the Templar Order for heresy and sodomy in the early fourteenth century.

To the disciplining and purification of the people assured by the "two swords" of church and state corresponded a regimentation of higher knowledge, symbolized by the Scholastic movement. The best known figure in this trend is Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica (1266-73) remains an imposing point of reference. As is well known, Aquinas created a new synthesis by weaving Aristotle together with the Patristic corpus, imparting to the whole a transcendent sense of order which compels comparison with the great Gothic cathedrals. Aquinas' classification of unnatural vice was to have resounding influence over the centuries. After a brief mention of masturbation, he divides unnatural intercourse into three kinds: with the wrong species (bestiality), the wrong gender (homosexual sodomy), and the wrong organ or vessel (heterosexual oral and anal intercourse), and declares that such sins are in gravity second only to murder.

If a certain degree of toleration or indifference to homosexuality had pre­vailed previously, after the end of the thirteenth century the individual known to have engaged in homosexual activity was both a criminal and an outcast, without rights or feelings that church or state needed to recognize in any way. Not to denounce and persecute him meant complicity. The penalties for homosexual activity between males (rarely between females, and then only when an artificial phallus was employed) ranged from compulsory fasting to confinement in irons, running the gauntlet, flogging with the cat o'nine tails, the pillory, branding, blinding, cutting off the ears, castration, and perpetual banishment. The death penalty prescribed by Leviticus was rarely enforced, but when it was, it took the form of hanging or burning at the stake. Some of the inhuman punishments of the Middle Ages lingered into the early nineteenth century, when the reformers of the criminal law secured their abolition by denouncing them as survivals of supersti­tion and fanaticism.


Islam is a “religion of peace.” So we have been told by president George W. Bush. His is an opinion shared by numerous Islamophiles, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and by gullible members of the lay public.
This view is simply false. The Qur'an contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers. Here are a few examples.

"They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks." (Qur’an 4:89)

"The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement." (Qur’an 5:33).

"I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them." (Qur’an 8:12).

"And let not those who disbelieve suppose that they can outstrip (Allah's Purpose). Lo! they cannot escape. Make ready for them all thou canst of (armed) force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy." (Qur’an 8:59-60).

"Go forth, light-armed and heavy-armed, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah! That is best for you if ye but knew." (Qur’an 9:41).

"O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness." (Qur’an 9:23).

"Surely Allah loves those who fight in His way." (Qur’an 61:41).

Apologists for Islam seek to balance these verses with others supporting peace and compromise. Muslim apologists speak of the "risks" of trying to interpret the Qur'an without their assistance. This assistance is usually special pleading.

The key point is this. The relatively peaceful verses all stem from the earlier “Meccan” group according to the traditional reckoning. According to the doctrine of Abrogation, they are superseded by the later, warlike verses that stem from the Medina period. So the “peaceful” verses are null and void.

The matter is summed up by the notorious “sword verse.” “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity [zakat], then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:5). Unbelievers have two choices: either to suffer continual harassment, and possible death; or to convert to Islam ("repent”).

Until recently, substantial minorities of Christians and Jews subsisted in Islamic countries. However, they were only permitted to live there if they payed a special tax called the jizya. The act of paying this tax was accompanied by harsh humiliation rituals. Other disabilities were imposed as well.

This tolerance, if such it may be termed, is reserved for the “peoples of the book,” Christians and Jews. Other groups have faced a much harsher fate. For five centuries, beginning about 1000 CE Hindus suffered the brutal slaughter of tens of millions, including the massacre of those who defending their temples from destruction. Buddhists escaped a similar fate only because by that time most of them lived outside the Indian subcontinent. Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia, is a particular object of hatred; it barely survives in modern Iran. Islam never gives up what it conquers, be it religion, culture, or language. Smugly convinced of its own perfection, it brutally shuns self-examination and represses criticism.

These beliefs are shored up by Islam's dualistic world view that pits Dar al-Islam (the "realm of submission," i.e., the Islamic world), against Dar al-Harb (the "realm of war," i.e., the non-Islamic world). While these struggles are violent, ultimately they will cease--when the latter is swallowed up by the former. This is the real meaning of jihad.

The concept of struggle is highlighted by the following example. Based on the ten-year treaty of Hudaibiya (628), ratified between Muhammad and his Quraysh opponents in Mecca, ten years is, theoretically, the maximum amount of time Muslims can be at peace with infidels. Based on Muhammad's example of breaking the treaty after two years (by citing a sole infraction), the sole function of the "peace treaty" (or hudna) is to buy weakened Muslims time to regroup before going on the offensive once more. In this way oath-breaking and dissimulation became standard practice in dealing with Unbelievers. In the campaign to reduce them to obedience no holds are barred.

Regrettably, human beings, especially men, are subject to an inborn tendency to aggression and violence. Most ethical traditions, and the advance of civilization itself, have sought to curb this proclivity. Yet Islam, given Muhammad's own martial legacy, aggravates and exalts this tendency to hostility.

And there is more. In Islamic law, the penalty for apostasy is death. Since Islam is conceived as a community and not an aggregation of individuals, it follows that apostasy is treason. The four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, in concert with Shi’a scholars, concur in their conclusion that a sane adult male apostate must be executed. A female apostate may be put to death, according to the majority view; or imprisoned until she repents, according to others.

Some apologists have suggested that such harsh penalties are characteristic only of a bygone age, that of primitive Islam. As societies have progressed, they have been discarded. This claim is belied by recent evidence. Over and over again, radical elements of Islam issue accusations of apostasy and demands that it be punished.

Today of 57 Islamic countries, six make apostasy from Islam a crime punishable by death: Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia. According the US State Department, there have been no reports any executions carried out for this crime by the government of Saudi Arabia for several years. However, this absence may simply reflect the severity of the regime. No Saudi would even think of declaring himself an apostate, and in any cases there are no churches or synagogues there for such a person to join. In Pakistan, however, vigilante attacks against alleged apostates are common.
In Afghanistan, the recent case of Abdul Rahman has achieved particular notoriety. In early 2006, Rahman was arrested and held by Afghan authorities on charges that he converted from Islam to Christianity, a capital offense. Muslim clerics in the country pushed for a death sentence, but after international pressure, he was released and secretly conveyed to Italy, where he was given asylum.

In 1993, an Egyptian Muslim professor named Nasr Abu Zayd was divorced from his wife by an Egyptian court on the grounds that his controversial writings about the Qur'an demonstrated his apostasy. He subsequently fled to Europe with his wife. Another Egyptian professor, Farag Foda, was killed in 1992 by masked men after criticizing Muslim fundamentalists and announcing plans to form a new movement for Egyptians of all religions.

Generally well known is the case of the Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who had to live in hiding for years because of a fatwa that had been issued against him.

By law seven Islamic countries today stipulate the death penalty for homosexual behavior: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Nigeria (capital punishment applies in the twelve northern provinces that observe sharia law).

The most notorious country for executions of homosexual men is the Islamic Republic of Iran. From 1979, the year of the revolution, to 1990, there have been at least 107 executions on homosexual charges, according to the Boroumand Foundation. Amnesty International has reported that at least five people convicted of "homosexual tendencies," three men and two women, were executed in January 1990.

In Western countries, such a the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and Great Britain there have been many documented instances of gay bashing conducted by Muslim youths of immigrant background.


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Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

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Teehan, John. In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.

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