04/02/2007 05:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dissent Is Now OK, But Only For Muslims

Dissent can be a dangerous thing in the Muslim world. Those who are engaged in critique are actively banished from the community or are accused of leaving Islam altogether. So accused, they are faced with the prospect of death or civil penalties as "apostates."

On March 1, 2007, an important effort led by King Abdullah II of Jordan, went online in English and began soliciting endorsements from the global Muslim citizenry. Called the Amman Message, it is the first modern Islamic "consensus of scholars" that makes it "impermissible" upon Muslims to declare other Muslims apostates. Such a prohibition is important as many Muslim countries punish apostasy with death; not only that, but extremist mobs also try to execute Muslims they declare apostates. Hundreds of political and religious leaders from across the Muslim world have signed onto the statement.

Facially, this appears to be an important reform. However, that is all it is: a step in the right direction. The initiative does not yet go far enough. At the moment it protects a Muslim who intends on remaining a Muslim from being forcibly rendered an apostate or punished by other Muslims. It fails to provide any protection to those who seek to permanently embrace a faith other than Islam or become atheist. It is great that the Muslim world is now accepting of dissent from Muslims, but dissent does not have a religion.

In any event, even this "consensus" has been centuries too long in coming. Declarations of apostasy should have never been part of Islamic Law. There is no mention in the Quran of a punishment for it. The punishment of death for apostasy rests on a collection of flimsy hadith narrations: many of which do not pass the basic tests of Islamic hadith science while others openly contradict Quranic verses.

Unfortunately, until the Amman Message, such textual arguments did not matter much. Any criticism of apostasy was met with the refrain from extremists that "there is a consensus of scholars on the permissibility of declaring apostasy." The Amman Message, with its numerous signatories, both conservative and liberal, Shi'a, Sunni and Sufi, guts the extremist position. Furthermore, prong three of the message states that "only those with the proper moral and intellectual qualifications, and the proper methodology, may issue fatwas (religious edicts)." Intellectual and methodological requirements take the power of the fatwa away from Bin Laden and Zarqawi. The King of Jordan may have delivered while not the first, but the most powerful blow to Muslim fanaticism in some time.

The question now arises, while there is now moral authority for freedom of conscience (for Muslims), how are the Muslim states going to provide this freedom to their citizens? While Muslim jurists and theologians might concur on a particular position, and even have a consensus, that does not mean that the nation state has to, or will, abide by it. There are instances through the course of the 20th century where Muslim jurists concurred on an opinion but the nation state failed to effectuate their consensus.

As such, the Amman Message is meaningless until its conclusions are shoved into legislative assemblies around the world and its conclusions emerge as "the law of the land" and we see effective abolishment of the death penalty for apostasy (and blasphemy) as well as abolition of all civil penalties of apostasy (such as forced divorces). At the moment, the Amman Message is akin to a number of think tanks reaching a particular conclusion -- what the wonks think does not matter unless it becomes law.

Will political leaders like Ahmedinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Gulf Kings, Hosni Mubarak, and Parvez Musharraf (all of whom have signed the declaration) listen to the religious leaders and take punishments for apostasy off the books?

My experience with the Pakistan Women's Protection Bill (a reform of the Islamic rape laws) has taught me that even a military dictator cannot advance a reform unless the average person is willing to embrace it. The catch usually is that the average person is not willing to do anything that a dictator orders, even a necessary reform. Thus the irony in the Amman Message is that in order to abolish the death penalty for apostasy, a reformist must consent to the legitimacy of Muslim oligarchies like Iran and dictatorships like Egypt and Pakistan.

Keeping said irony in mind, I am endorsing the Amman Message as a tiny step forward. The real goal, that of making the world safe for those who wish to permanently depart from Islam has not been accomplished.