I've removed myself from these Muslim/freedom of expression/Islam debates because they all seem to devolve into the same melee of contradictions. I am an Indian of Muslim descent. To me Muslim and Indian are both socio-cultural identities, not a religious one, because I really do not follow Islam.
The "Indian" tag is very important because it identifes that identity as something distinct from what is perceived as muslimness in the world, something that always seems to come back to Arabic roots. To me culture-- dynamic, changing, evolving culture is more vibrant, exciting and most importantly, open to change than religion, which seems to be stuck in place.
Coming out this way--which is a negation of Quranic teachings, and therefore Islam, always has consequence. For me, I know an announcement like this generates reactions from two camps. One, is the anti-Muslim, right-wing group that lauds my emergence as some kind of victory for their own fundamentalism. The other is the Muslim crowd that gets divided into further sub-groups: (a) Those convinced that this is some kind of publicity ploy, because apostate Muslim writers are tools of Western media to get recognition and/or riches. (b) Those who send threatening messages that refer to the only suitable punishment for an apostate. (c) Those who say other religions also have x,y, problems (fair enough) without really bothering to answer concerns/questions/issues raised about this particular issue.
My theory is this. Other religions for all their faults (and I follow none of them btw) have, or now have a tradition of criticism from within their own ranks. Religious debate in Islam, however, is only valid when using the Quran, hadith, or shariah. So essentially the debates are centered around different interpretations of the same text. Part of the debate needs to include voices that consider the whole thing crap. Questioning God, the revelation of the Quran itself, and questioning the legitimacy of the prophets is needed for this debate. Which is why there is constant debate about whether there is compulsion in religion because there are a dozen contradictory verses, as there are about the dress code for women, and other hot-button current issues, which do not go near any of the real issues at stake. When the same source material is used for a debate, coming to any common conclusion is impossible because each individual adheres to the reason(s) that make sense to that person.
For true religious reform to happen, the debate needs to take into account other things. The outside world, cultures, philosophies, religions, etc. all need to be party to this debate. Otherwise, it's like trying to air out a room with all its windows and shades closed, and the door slammed shut. At the very least it becomes a false debate with no room for dissent, because you start with the premise that there are certain immutable and unquestionable facts. To me, a constrained debate is no debate. It's just a bunch of people tap dancing around a group of elephants that none of them want to acknowledge.
This is the reason I believe, that most non-Muslims feel frustrated and most Muslims cannot understand that frustration. Their paradigms are different. What does debate really mean to all of us? And what is dissension? Is it merely disagreeing about the interpretation of something or is it actually just a starting point?
I am a purist. Religion to me is not a smorgasbord, where you pick and choose. If religion is divine, something that is supposed to lead to your salvation it either is something or it is not. I, personally, cannot cherrypick some version of Islam or any religion and then claim that *that* is the true way to practice it. Fundamentalists of all religions do that, but so do moderates and liberals. The only difference is what verses and parts are picked to justify the points of view.
When the Quran and all five major schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that the punishment for apostasy is execution (well, definitely for men. Female apostates may be executed or imprisoned for life), the reason for this lack of open debate becomes clear. Debate will only be tolerated within the constraints already described.
Apostasy in Islam includes denying Allah and rejecting the prophet's claim of prophet-hood, which brings us back to the point that true, open, questioning debate cannot happen. Here are the other acts that constitue apostasy:
1. A public declaration that denies Islam, and its beliefs
2. Denying the existence of God, or of accepting the Chritian belief of the Trinity
3. Saying the world has always existed. In other words, denying the role of the Creator
4. Belief in reincarnation
5. Denying the resurrection
6. Declaring that someone can become a prophet through spiritual exercise (i.e., there can be no other prophet)
7. Cursing Muhammad, the prophet.
8. Questioning the perfection of Muhammad's knowledge, beliefs, actions, and or character.
9. Any clearly blasphemous act (burning the Quran, and or books of the hadith)
10. Contradicting positions held by Muslim scholars (e.g., saying prayers or fasting are not obligatory, or that adultery is not punishable by death)
With such strictures in place it is no surprise that true debate in Muslim society would fall dangerously close to apostasy. There are concepts of apostasy in other religions to be sure but no other religious leaders (note: George Bush is not a religious leader, no matter how Christian he is. He is a political figure) exhorts the death of apostates and critics. And the difference I believe is that no other religion has such a clear consequence for apostasy.
The fear of death can do great things.