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Furor over author Ayaan Hirsi Ali's visit stirs debate on religious freedom

| Sunday, April 22, 2007

Say what you want about your religion.

Go ahead, say anything that comes into your mind -- even if you don't agree with your minister, your priest, your rabbi. Even if you think you're right and they've got it all wrong, as long as you're not making a direct threat to someone, you can disagree or turn your back and walk away to another faith or to no faith at all.

Here, in America, it's OK. In a land of more than 3,000 diverse religions, your right to religious liberty is a guaranteed protection under the First Amendment.

"The key in the U.S. from the beginning has been to make sure all religious groups not only understand freedoms, but connect them to their own commitment," said Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar and director of educational programs at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., and Nashville.

A community debate over religious freedom surfaced in Western Pennsylvania last week when Dutch feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has lived under the threat of death for denouncing her Muslim upbringing, made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Islamic leaders tried to block the lecture, which was sponsored through an endowment from the Frank J. and Sylvia T. Pasquerilla Lecture Series. They argued that Hirsi Ali's attacks against the Muslim faith in her book, "Infidel," and movie, "Submission," are "poisonous and unjustified" and create dissension in their community.

Although university officials listened to Islamic leaders' concerns, the lecture planned last year took place Tuesday evening under tight security, with no incidents.

Imam Fouad ElBayly, president of the Johnstown Islamic Center, was among those who objected to Hirsi Ali's appearance.

"She has been identified as one who has defamed the faith. If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death," said ElBayly, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976.

Hirsi Ali, an atheist, has been critical of many Muslim beliefs, particularly on subjects of sexual morality, the treatment of women and female genital mutilation. In her essay "The Caged Virgin," she also wrote of punishment, noting that "a Muslim's relationship with God is one of fear."

"Our God demands total submission. He rewards you if you follow His rules meticulously. He punishes you cruelly if you break His rules, both on earth, with illness and natural disasters, and in the hereafter, with hellfire," she wrote.

In some Muslim countries, such as Iran, apostasy -- abandoning one's religious belief -- and blasphemy are considered punishable by death under sharia, a system of laws and customs that treats both public and private life as governable by God's law.

Sharia is based largely on an interpretation of the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, a consensus of Islamic scholars and reasoning, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. In some countries, sharia has been associated with stoning to death those who are accused of adultery, flogging for drinking wine and amputation of a hand for theft.

One of the most noted cases of apostasy in recent years involved author Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" offered an unflattering portrayal of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. The book prompted Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa -- a religious decree -- in 1989 calling for Rushdie's assassination.

Although ElBayly believes a death sentence is warranted for Hirsi Ali, he stressed that America is not the jurisdiction where such a crime should be punished. Instead, Hirsi Ali should be judged in a Muslim country after being given a trial, he added.

"If it is found that a person is mentally unstable, or a child or disabled, there should be no punishment," he said. "It's a very merciful religion if you try to understand it."

Zahida Chaudhary, a member of the education council and education secretary at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Monroeville, insisted that Islam is a peaceful religion.

"The Prophet Mohammed was a peacemaker and a role model for humanity," she said. "My understanding is that he was a peaceful person who believed that religion was a choice. He tried to teach people and bring them into it, not punish them."

Haynes, who has studied and written extensively about religious liberty and has worked with many Muslim groups, said he was "stunned" by ElBayly's comments.

"There are more radical, extreme views of Islam in European counties than in the U.S. It's rare to hear it and even more rare to learn that American Muslims believe it," he said.

While Hirsi Ali is viewed as an infidel among the Islamic community, those who speak out against other religions usually are met with discussion, prayer and counseling. In extreme cases, critics might be shown the door.

"One is free to choose whatever religion and body of truths one wants to believe," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese. "The church fosters freedom of religion. That's a decision everyone has to make on their own."

Centuries ago, Lengwin said, the church imposed harsh punishment -- including execution -- upon people viewed as heretics. He cited as an example the Roman Inquisition trial of 15th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the church, threatened with torture and sentenced to prison for his teachings on the motions of the earth.

With the evolution of the church, things have changed.

For example, Lengwin said, the church has faced criticism from many of its own priests who have disagreed with various beliefs and practices. When that happens, there is discussion and clarification of beliefs, he said.

It doesn't always work.

"We've had people walk away and start churches of their own or join Lutheran or Presbyterian or other churches," he said. "The role of the church is to teach the truth as effectively as you can. There's no jail if you don't agree with us."

The Rev. Douglas Holben, executive presbyter for the Redstone Presbytery, which covers Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset and Cambria counties, said the Presbyterian Church "as a community of faith would try to find a common ground" when confronted with differing opinions.

"We seek to find things to unite us," Holben said.

If faced with criticism, it's best to "find ways in which they find the church to be faithful to the Lord," he said.

Holben said the church has formed a Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity that includes people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Discussions among the group were productive, he said, adding that the members did not condemn or judge each other for their differences.

"They were able to say that even though we don't agree with your opinion, we can agree upon a common faith," he said.

Rabbi Sara Perman, leader of the Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, explained that before the French Revolution emancipated Jews in Europe, those who spoke out against Judaism faced "cherem" or excommunication. Cherem resulted in both a spiritual and economic "death" because people who were excommunicated were unable to make a living in their community.

"Now, the reality is that if you are unsatisfied and speak out against Judaism, there isn't much we can do about it in this country," Perman said. "Within the general Jewish community, there isn't much you can do except not give them a forum or ignore them."

Haynes said the key to America's success in religious diversity is for people of all religions to understand that you "can't just tolerate" the fact that Muslims or Catholics or Protestants or Mormons or Jews have a right to be here. He said this country is a "level playing field" where everyone is free to practice their religion, but not to carry out extreme ideas that violate basic principles.

"I don't think there's anyplace on the planet with more religious diversity," Haynes said.

"This is a big challenge in 21st century America to make sure we can live with the deepest differences, and religious differences are the most difficult to navigate."

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