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Sitting down on the job will help modernize Islam


Mohammed Enait started his career as a Dutch lawyer last week. He refused to stand up when the judges entered the courtroom. "In Islam all people are equal and therefore I must not rise for anyone", explains Mr. Enait, citing a story from the Koran where the Prophet Mohammed asked his disciples not to stand for him. The Rotterdam Court allowed for his deviation from the standard procedure on the basis of his deep religious beliefs.

The Netherlands Bar Association disagreed. It's dean, Willem Bekkers, explained that the tradition of standing up when the Court enters is a sign of respect for the institution, not the person. Naturally, right-wing politicians have jumped on the anti-Enait bandwagon, "outraged by this attack on the rule of law".

With all this excitement it is easy to overlook the good news in all this. A quick glance at the Moslim discussion websites will show that Dutch Muslims are also outraged, but at the negative affect that "one bearded freak" will have on perceptions of their faith as a whole. The Dutch Moslim Council has pointed out that in Islamic countries people also stand for the judges. The incident is thus sparking a debate on how literally Muslims should take the Koran.

And that is a very good thing. Many of my Muslim friends do not chew their food 32 times before swallowing, very few (especially the men) remain virgins until marriage or abstain from wine. So if those parts of the Koran should not be taken that literally, what about the passages that allow beating of women or violence against infidels? Critics of Islam often point out that since the Koran is the direct word of God, it is not open to interpretation like the Bible (which was patched together by different authors, over different time frames and whose contents were subject to various political negotiation for centuries). It is precisely this flexible interpretation that has allowed (most) Christians to combine their faith with lives in stable democracies governed by the rule of law. Otherwise we would still be selling our daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), killing people who work on Sunday (Exodus 35:2) and banning baseball mitts made out of pigskin (Leviticus 11:6-8).

Flexible interpretation and application of religious texts will take a long time. Throughout history, thousands of Europeans died, were tortured or persecuted over these issues. It is very sad that today this still happens in some Muslim countries. Any contribution that can be made towards opening up the debate is a step forward. With internet and email, the Dutch debate is bound to make its way across the globe, so that these issues can be resolved with words, rather than violence.

My only problem is with the Rotterdam Court. What were they thinking? Last month, Mr. "All people are equal" Enait was barred from taking a job because he refused to shake women's hands. The Court judged that not shaking a women's hand was NOT permissible on religious grounds. Just like Mr. Enait, the Court should not pick and choose from the Koran. It is a secular institution that needs to treat all people equally, regardless of the justification they may seek for their behavior in scripture. And if the Court has a problem separating the law from religion, perhaps the legislature should make it clearer. But that will have to be the job of another government and the subject of another column.