The Mufti in Newsweek
In a contribution to the really excellent Newsweek/Washington Post series Muslims Speak Out, which invited a wide range of Muslim figures to respond to a series of questions, Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa wrote under the headline "No Compulsion to Believe" that
from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one’s religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world.
This suggestion that apostasy should not be punished by humans - with the important exception of when such apostasy 'undermines the foundations of society' - goes a considerable way towards meeting liberal and secularist concerns. It's the sort of thing that Newsweek readers might like to hear from a leading Muslim figure, and the sort of thing that a leading Muslim figure might want to say to Newsweek. But almost immediately the piece was picked up by the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, among others, and soon sparked a minor firestorm. Copts and human rights activists welcomed his statement as a "revolution", the Muslim Brotherhood reportedly objected strenuously, and the story spread out into the pan-Arab media. Gomaa's office complained to al-Masry al-Youm about the story, and the paper responded by reproducing the Newsweek essay in its entirety - which seemed to show that its story had been accurate. Gomaa's office has denied that he said what has been attributed to him, but that's a tough case to make since it was published in a prominent place under his byline. This will no doubt escalate.
It's interesting for a number of reasons. One is that it shows really clearly the extent to which the internet has made it impossible for Islamists - or anyone - to really engage in 'double talk' anymore. Maybe there was a time when Arab Islamists could say one thing to a Western audience and another to an Arabic audience - as critics of Islamists always charge - but that time has passed. When Gomaa said something relatively liberal in English, it almost immediately filtered back into the Egyptian public sphere - forcing him to either defend the assertion or else repudiate it. It's not that these things haven't happened before, that statements made in one realm have traveled back to the other, but it happens much faster now, and more routinely to the point where it has to be expected rather than coming as a surprise.
This is increasingly becoming the rule, and it applies to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists as well - for all the continuing complaint about 'double talk', the new media forms have increasingly rendered both the practice and the accusation obsolete. I suspect that Brotherhood leaders understand this better than do some of the other more conservative or regime-oriented Islamic trends, since they are more accustomed to being under hostile scrutiny. While many of their critics complain that they preach democracy in English but are anti-democratic in their Arabic pronouncements, in fact Brotherhood leaders talk about democracy pretty much the same in their Arabic statements and interviews as they do in their conversations with Westerners. At any rate, on this specific issue the Muslim Brotherhood's position on the question bears watching, although its official website doesn't have much of anything about it right now (Islam Online, while not mentioning Gomaa specifically, featured a piece by the highly influential Yusuf al-Qaradawi which took a much harder line on apostasy - essentially arguing that since Islam was so central to the identity of Muslims and their states, apostasy in and of itself represented a threat to society and even treason to the nation.) This is the kind of issue where the Brotherhood could shed light on its real moderation, one way or the other - a hard line would tend to undermine its cultivated moderate image whereas a more open reception would burnish its credentials.
These new media trends promote transparency, but they don't necessarily promote liberalizing trends. So evaluating their importance comes down to how much significance - normative, political, or strategic - you place on transparency. In this case, Gomaa's relatively liberal interpretation got walked back when Egyptians and other Muslims got wind of it. Rather than forcefully defend the position, he tried to weasel out of it and then essentially repudiated it (at least as I read his interviews published today in various papers). That in itself says something about the conservatism of the Egyptian public realm and the entrenchment of Islamist worldviews. But at least a debate is joined, and that's a good thing. This for now is one very small but telling example of how the new media are reshaping the patterns of Islamist politics - forcing a public engagement on the issue, demanding some level of reconciliation between Western and Arabic arguments, and promoting transparency... for better or worse.