I wonder whether the Harvard Chaplains, the umbrella group for chaplaincies at Harvard, ever have some kind of interfaith study session. Perhaps the Catholic chaplains from St. Paul's get together with the Baptists; Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain and "rabbi," meets with the actual Jewish rabbis; Campus Crusade for Christ joins up with the Unitarians to consider the wisdom of their respective texts. The Catholics have the Bible and the Church fathers to share; the Jews the Torah and Talmud; the Muslims the Koran and Hadith; the liberal Protestants, I'm told, have The New York Times. In any case, if they do have such meetings, I might suggest for the next a reflection on some words from the Gospel according to St. Luke: "Why seest thou the mote in thy brother's eye: but the beam that is in thy own eye thou considerest not?"
I make the suggestion only because of the chaplains' latest statement in support of the right—they avoid speaking of the propriety—of building an Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York. They affirm "the unequivocal and inherent right of all Americans to practice their religion freely and without persecution or discrimination," and assail those "who seek to fan the flames of fear and bigotry." But it seems that some Harvard chaplains believe this a bit less than others.
Last April an email surfaced that had been sent by the Islamic chaplain, Taha Abdul-Basser, that clearly endorsed the belief that apostates from Islam should be executed—a negation of nearly every principle of religious freedom and tolerance in the chaplains' statement concerning the Ground Zero controversy. In response to an email from a student about this rather extreme conviction, certainly a vexing one for Muslims who wish to combine the traditions of their creed with robust religious toleration, Mr. Abdul-Basser, a certified Islamic jurisprudent, first admonished the student that "debating about religious matter is impermissible, in general." He went on to note that the Sunni schools of jurisprudence generally agree that apostasy deserves capital punishment, and treats of the few dissenting views rather dismissively. In fine, he says, "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. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically."
Of course, Mr. Abdul-Basser later publicly denied the obvious import of his statements. Improbably, he claimed he does not support capital punishment for apostasy. Even more improbably, he said he was merely explaining the development of Islamic thought on the issue and only meant that there was great wisdom in the way jurists had argued about the punishment for apostasy, not necessarily the content of their opinions. But his meaning was perfectly clear. He takes as the ethical norm the Islamic confessional state, as he treats the absence of a Muslim state as merely a practical issue. He also manifests contempt for the contemporary Western notions of human rights and religious toleration and supports the most extreme possible punishment for Muslims who should change their mind about their religion.
And this is hardly the only evidence of Mr. Abdul-Basser's extremism. While his weblog, Light at the End of the Tunnel, may seem innocuous at first glance—lots of posts on Islamic finance and uncontroversial moral teaching—a close look is rather disturbing.
For example, in one post from Jan. 28, 2009, Mr. Abdul-Basser links to an article that he says has "a sentence or two … that goes too far," but whose "main contention is difficult to rebutt [sic]." According to the article, President Obama's asking Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist in the wake of the 2008-2009 Israeli war in Gaza is "akin to yelling into the ear of a rape victim during an assault that she must recognize the rights of her rapist." Keep in mind that the author is talking specifically about Hamas, the Islamist organization that has frequently carried out terrorist attacks against civilians in an effort to destroy the Israeli state. He repeatedly suggests that the Israelis kill Palestinians for the sheer love of it, calling the recent war "a ghastly display of cheerful brutality." The sole sentence in this venomous piece that Mr. Abdul-Basser cites as "go[ing] too far" and being "indefensible" reads, "Pity that it was not the Palestinians experiencing this apparent upswing of Nazi-like vitriol [against the Jews]: it would have spared them 95% of their casualties." While I confess I'm not entirely sure what the author had in mind with this statement, it clearly offends common decency that he should so favorably characterize any essay that explicitly supports genocidal anti-Semitism, even if he expresses, rather restrainedly, his disagreement on that head.
While Mr. Abdul-Basser deals lightly with Muslims who have a soft spot for exterminating Jews, he is not so kind to non-Muslims who, to his mind, go too far in denouncing anti-Semitic or violent Muslims. In one post he called the documentary Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, which likens Islamic radicalism—though, the movie hastens to add, not all forms of Islam—to Nazism, "viciously anti-Islamic propaganda." He follows this by reposting an article that characterizes the movie as "a diabolical attempt by dark forces to sway an American election," and claims that the honor of Muslims is being "trampled on and violated by individuals who have placed themselves in the service of a sinister and nefarious agenda." It is perhaps not out of place to mention that those who produced and directed the documentary were predominately Jewish.
His words also suggest affinities with some extreme elements in the world of Islamic jurisprudence. In the infamous April 2009 email, Mr. Abdul-Basser noted that he was copying Yasir Qadhi on the message because of his expertise on the Sharia. Mr. Qadhi, who received his religious training primarily in Saudi Arabia, most recently came to public attention as one of the men who offered religious instruction to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day 2009. In a 2001 lecture Mr. Qadhi described the Holocaust as a hoax, though he has since retracted that view. In the same lecture he remarked that "95 percent of the Islamic Studies professors are Jews," and Jews were studying Islam in an attempt to destroy it.
There's also Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian Islamic jurist, or, as Mr. Abdul-Basser describes him, "one of the world strongest [sic] and most respected fuqaha." In April of last year the chaplain posted a link to a cloyingly hagiographic appreciation of Mr. Qaradawi's work. While the latter's interpretations of Sharia on many subjects are certainly popular in the Islamic world, many are apt to seem rather distasteful in the West. He has endorsed the targeting, even by suicide attacks, of Israeli civilians, including women and children, and has made rulings that some have interpreted as permitting attacks on American noncombatants in Iraq. Mr. Qaradawi, a Sunni, has held that all Muslims have a duty to support the Shia group Hezbollah in its fight against Israel. He has also opined that female circumcision, sometimes and perhaps more accurately known as female genital mutilation, is not only permissible under Islam, but frequently advisable, and that wife beating is also allowed as a "last resort." All this is not to say that Mr. Abdul-Basser supports all, or even any, of these views. But his willingness to associate himself with men who espouse them is troubling.
Even discounting his associations with radicals, Mr. Abdul-Basser's views are extreme, and present and former Muslim students at Harvard have expressed their discomfort with some of them. It is hypocritical, to say the least, that the University's chaplains presume to affirm the right to religious freedom when one of their own denies this to the extent that he believes the state can sometimes punish religious dissent with death. While the chaplains call for understanding and denounce bigotry, Mr. Abdul-Basser is, if nothing more, rather too indulgent to those who express remarkably hateful opinions. This school year. Mr Abdul-Basser will be on leave from active duties as the chaplain for the Harvard Islamic Society, but he retains the title and plans to return to active service next year. If they have any regard for the principles of religious toleration, the Islamic Society and the Harvard Chaplains should seriously rethink whether they should let him return.