Remarks on apostasy and capital punishment under Islamic law by Harvard's Muslim chaplain have become the center of a heated debate about whether Islamic and Western values can be compatible.
In an e-mail to an unnamed student, the chaplain, Taha Abdul-Basser, stated that most traditional authorities on Islamic law agree that in countries under Muslim governance, the proper punishment for apostasy — that is, rejection of Islam by a former Muslim — is death. The e-mail was subsequently published online, and although Abdul-Basser has distanced himself personally from that position, the remarks have stirred a flurry of controversy and debate.
Abdul-Basser's e-mail was circulated through an e-mail list and subsequently posted April 3 on the blog Talk Islam, from which it was picked up by several other blogs. On April 14, The Harvard Crimson, a student-run daily, published an article about the controversy. One week later, on April 21, it remained the paper's most viewed, most commented-upon article online.
The issue being debated is anything but academic: Apostasy is outlawed in a number of Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Malaysia, Iran and Algeria. In 2006, an Afghan named Abdul Rahman faced trial, with a potential sentence of death, for converting to Christianity, before being granted asylum in Italy. The issue has attracted a great deal of attention from such international human rights groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.