Eating your cake and having it too may be a tempting thought. But you can’t have it both ways. The sooner Muslims realise it, the better for the ummah... and the image of Islam.
A Christian pastor — Reverend Chander Mani Khanna, the presbyter-in-charge of All Saints’ Church in Srinagar — is being hounded both by the state and society for his “crime-cum-sin” of converting, allegedly through inducements, a number of Muslim youth from the Valley to Christianity. The priest was arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir police last Saturday. More ominously, the arrest was precipitated by a growing Muslim outcry in the Valley, apparently sparked by a poor quality video clip on YouTube showing the baptism of the new converts.
There have been protests on the streets, protests on the campus. Leading the charge is Kashmir’s sharia court. After forcing the pastor to appear before them, a group of Islamic scholars claimed he had “confessed” his crime. Addressing the media, Kashmir’s official grand mufti, Mohammed Bashiruddin warned that such activities “warrant action as per Islamic law” and will not be tolerated. “There will be serious consequences of this. We will implement our part and the government should implement its,” he thundered.
What’s Islamic law and a sharia court doing in a secular democratic polity? Your guess is as good as mine. The J&K government, it seems, knows better. Acting suo motu, the police arrested the priest within 24-hours of Bashiruddin’s warning.
For what crime has Khanna been booked? Unlike states like Gujarat, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, J&K does not have a law against conversions. But where there is a will there’s a way. The pastor has been charged under sections 153A and 295A of the Ranbir Penal Code, the J&K equivalent of the Indian Penal Code.
Section 153A pertains to “promoting enmity between different groups... and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A has to do with “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
Why should conversion of a few Muslims to Christianity be deemed a malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings? Why should it be tantamount to promoting enmity between different groups? These might be questions for you and me. But Omar Abdullah and his police may well be wondering whether the FIR and the arrest are enough to douse the flames.
The worse, quite possibly, is yet to come. A Dharam Sansad comprising of leaders of different Muslim sects in Kashmir is to meet soon to deliberate over the “grave issue” and decide on a further course of action. Meanwhile, as is obvious from an appeal purportedly written by his son — posted on the website Christian Persecution Update India — that the pastor’s family and flock fear his life may be in danger. The responses to the video clip have apparently been venomous. “We promise to kill all Christian missionaries and burn their buildings, schools and churches!” pronounces one commenter, while another proclaims, “we should burn this priest to death!” Echoes of Pakistan’s obnoxious blasphemy laws?
It is far from clear whether the priest is in fact guilty of a cash-for-conversion deal. Only a thorough and impartial investigation could establish if there’s any truth in the charge. But in the brand of Islam Bashiruddin and most mainstream Muslim organisations espouse, the issue of inducement is irrelevant. The theology is simple: for conversion into Islam, there’s divine reward aplenty for both the converter and the converted; but conversion out of Islam is gunaah-e-azeem (mahapaap), treason of the highest order, deserving of the harshest punishment.
What’s at issue here is not just something confined to the Valley but a global Muslim malady. Islam is today the fastest growing religion in the world, many a Muslim will proudly tell you. He’ll also tell you with equal aplomb that the punishment for a Muslim apostate is death. The ulema call this Islam; the world calls it hypocrisy, a double standard.
Obviously, not all Muslims are ethically challenged. Take the unusual case of Sudan’s Dr Hasan al-Turabi, a man accused by many in the West of fanning Islamic extremism. Turabi, otherwise an advocate of an Islamic state and sharia law said in an interview in 1995: “If a Muslim wakes up in the morning and says he doesn’t believe any more, that’s his business. There has never been any question of inhibiting people’s freedom... The function of (Islamic) government is not total.”
Human rights groups and Muslim bodies from the Valley and elsewhere must denounce the hounding of the pastor; the Islamisers should be reminded that Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees to all citizens “the right freely to profess, practice and propagate (their) religion.” Perhaps they could also be reminded of the Quranic injunction: “La ikraha fiddin” (There is no compulsion in religion).
The writer is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy