Akmal Shaikh got a raw deal from his co-religionists. Not from the West, mark you. From the Foreign Office down to the humblest humanitarian agency, the heirs of the Age of Enlightenment pleaded for the life of this 53-year-old mentally disturbed drug smuggler whom the Chinese authorities cruelly executed by lethal injection yesterday morning. But from the imams of Al-Azhar and the great teaching mosques of the world – from Cairo and from Mecca and from Qom and from Mashad – there came only silence. Well, did you really expect the Islamic experts in jurisprudence to speak up for a man caught with 4 kilos of heroin in Urumqi?
I can see how China's roaring economy would mute the voice of even the most courageous and humanitarian of clerics in the Islamic homeland. When China promises to oppose the US in the Middle East – albeit for its own self-interest – what Arab is going to take China to task for killing a Muslim drug-smuggler?
Of course, the hypocrisy comes in spades from "us" too? When did the Foreign Office whisper even a note of concern about the hundreds of Muslims in Saudi Arabia who have had their heads chopped off for lesser "crimes" – after even more preposterous trials than that staged by China? Oil is a mighty counterweight to compassion.
But then again, how many Muslim clerics condemned the execution of Chinese Uighur Muslims or the killing of Muslim demonstrators in Iran – killed with the permission of the very clerics who ought to show compassion towards them – or the torture of Muslim prisoners in Egypt or, for that matter, the mass fratricidal slaughter of a million and a half Muslims in the Iran-Iraq war?
There is no rule in Islam that says criticism is sacrosanct. Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, the eloquent Shia "sayed" in Beirut – the target of a CIA bombing in 1985 for his supposed moral support for Hizbollah – is one of the few clerics to have spoken out against injustice in the Muslim world.
Is this because he is a brave man? Or because he happens to be a first-rate poet and thus moves beyond theology into the world of human imagination? His Shia companions in Iraq spoke out against Saddam's Western-supported oppression – and paid for it with their lives. Yet these were rare men indeed.
Last June, I recalled for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad how a young Iranian woman had been led weeping to the scaffold as she pleaded with her mother on her mobile phone to be spared the gallows for a murder she did not commit. "I do not like the death of even a fly," the Iranian President replied to me, and went on to explain the independence of the Iranian judiciary, with whom he promised to discuss the death penalty – when, Mahmoud, when? – but he spoke not a word about the hanged woman.
We rage against the cruelty of Israel, and against the Americans and the British for their outrages in Iraq and Afghanistan. So do Muslims, and rightly so. But it would be nice to hear a little vocal humanitarianism in the "umma" of Islam. Akmal Shaikh, needless to say, is not a name that will be uttered in the mosques this week.Reuse content