In “Apostates from Islam: The case of the Afghan convert is not unique” in My Weekly Standard, Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom marshals an impressive array of evidence to show that Abdul Rahman, the celebrated Afghan convert from Islam to Christianity, is not at all alone in his suffering under Islam’s apostasy laws:
Two other Afghan converts to Christianity were arrested in March, though, for security reasons, locals have asked that their names and locations be withheld. In February, yet other converts had their homes raided by police.
Some other Muslim countries have laws similar to Afghanistan’s. Apart from its other depredations, in the last ten years Saudi Arabia has executed people for the crimes of apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. The death penalty for apostates is also in the legal code in Iran, Sudan, Mauritania, and the Comoros Islands.
In the 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran used death squads against converts, including major Protestant leaders, and the situation is worsening under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime is currently engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and reconvert or kill those who have changed their religion from Islam.
Iran also regards Baha’is as heretics from Islam and denies them any legal rights, including the right to life: There is no penalty for killing a Baha’i. On March 20, Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on religious freedom, made public a confidential letter sent on October 29, 2005, by the chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Iranian Armed Forces. The letter stated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had instructed the Command Headquarters to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities, and asked the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Police Force to collect any and all information about them.
Other countries, like Egypt, that have no laws against apostasy, instead use laws against “insulting Islam” or “creating sectarian strife.” In 2003, Egyptian security forces arrested 22 converts and people who had helped them. Some were tortured, and one, Isam Abdul Fathr, died in custody. Last year, Gaseer Mohamed Mahmoud was whipped and had his toenails pulled out by police, and was told he would be imprisoned until he gave up Christianity.
While there has been no systematic study of the matter, and many punishments are not publicized, it appears that actual state-ordered executions are rarer than killings by vigilantes, mobs, and family members, sometimes with state acquiescence. In the last two years in Afghanistan, Islamist militants have murdered at least five Christians who had converted from Islam.
Vigilantes have killed, beaten, and threatened converts in Pakistan, the Palestinian areas, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia, and Kenya. In November, Iranian convert Ghorban Dordi Tourani was stabbed to death by a group of fanatical Muslims. In December, Nigerian pastor Zacheous Habu Bu Ngwenche was attacked for allegedly hiding a convert. In January, in Turkey, Kamil Kiroglu was beaten unconscious and threatened with death if he refused to deny his Christian faith and return to Islam.
Meanwhile, on March 21, the Algerian parliament approved a new law requiring imprisonment for two to five years and a fine between five and ten thousand euros for anyone “trying to call on a Muslim to embrace another religion.” The same penalty applies to anyone who “stores or circulates publications or audio-visual or other means aiming at destabilizing attachment to Islam.”…
But then Marshall continues the unfortunate practice of both the Center for Religious Freedom and My Weekly Standard: denying the implications of this evidence and misleading the public with the idea that all this represents a twisting of true Islam — which implies in turn that it can be untwisted with relative ease.
We need to go beyond the individual case of Abdul Rahman and push for genuine religious freedom throughout the Muslim world. Especially we need to push for the elimination of laws against apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and “insulting Islam.” They seek to place dominant, reactionary interpretations of Islam beyond all criticism. Thus–since politics and religion are intertwined–they seek to make political freedom impossible.
Of course Marshall is absolutely right that we need to “go beyond the individual case of Abdul Rahman and push for genuine religious freedom throughout the Muslim world,” and to “push for the elimination of laws against apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and ‘insulting Islam.'” And he is correct that such views are “dominant”; it is good of him not to repeat the “tiny minority of extremists” mantra.
But when he characterizes all these things as “reactionary interpretations of Islam,” he creates the false impression that non-reactionary interpretations are stronger and more deeply rooted within Islamic tradition than they actually are. In fact, in the fiqh — Islamic jurisprudence — there is complete unanimity: a male apostate must be put to death unless he is insane or has been forced into apostasy. Muhammad’s dictum that someone who changes his religion must be killed is amply attested in the Hadith: it appears in Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, An-Nasai, Malik, Tayalisi, and Ibn Hanbal. There is only some disagreement about female apostates and about the manner in which the apostate is to be put to death.
Why does this matter? Because it gives us a realistic sense of how easy it will be to “to push for the elimination of laws against apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and ‘insulting Islam'” in the Islamic world, and what obstacles we will face in doing so. These things need to be assessed realistically, not smoothed over by analyses that mislead Westerners into thinking the tasks we face will not be as difficult as they actually will be.