In FrontPage this morning I discuss the prevailing unreality regarding the Islamic death penalty for apostates in reference to one particularly egregious case:
The Abdul Rahman case in Afghanistan has given rise to a spate of articles in the Western press, assuring Westerners that Muslims do not actually kill or want to kill apostates. While these may be reassuring to non-Muslims, many of them have been downright misleading about the real status of the death penalty for apostasy in the Islamic world. One of the most egregious of these came this week from M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of Law at DePaul University and President of the International Human Rights Law Institute. He has served at the UN in various capacities, including as Chairman of the Security Council’s Commission to Investigate War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia; Vice-Chairman of the General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court; and as Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan.
Yet all these credentials don’t amount to accuracy. In “Leaving Islam is not a capital crime” in the Chicago Tribune, Bassiouni purveys a series of half-truths and distortions about apostasy in Islam that are — at best — misleading. He begins by asserting: “A Muslim’s conversion to Christianity is not a crime punishable by death under Islamic law, contrary to the claims in the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan.”
This is a sweeping characterization that goes much farther than most statements that have been made by Islamic moderates in the last week or so. While others have asserted that apostasy should not be a capital crime in Islamic law, they have at least acknowledged that many Islamic authorities believe that it should. Bassiouni, on the other hand, states flatly — in defiance of the clear teaching of every school of Islamic jurisprudence — that apostasy is not a capital crime under Islamic law.
It is hard even to take seriously an analysis that begins with such an obvious falsehood. It gets even worse when Bassiouni continues: “While there is long-established doctrine that apostasy is punishable by death, that has also long been questioned by Islamic criminal justice scholars, including this writer.” Now we are already entangled in a contradiction. I’m glad that Islamic criminal justice scholars are questioning this doctrine. But that does not mean that the doctrine doesn’t exist, as Bassiouni asserted in his first sentence.
Bassiouni then invokes the ostensibly liberal laws of Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey as evidence for his contention that Islamic law doesn’t prescribe death for apostates. But in none of those states is Shari’a the sole basis of law. Certainly it is more or less of an influence in all of them, but since they all also have other sources for legislation, none of them can be invoked as telling us anything about Islamic law. Bassiouni knows full well that there are schools of Islamic jurisprudence that he should be talking about if he wants to say anything about Islamic law. Why doesn’t he mention them? Perhaps because he knows they will contradict what he is asserting?
Also, he makes no mention of the fact that because of the influence of the Sharia, in all those states apostates from Islam live under a cloud. For example, when the Egyptian secularist Faraj Foda was murdered in 1992, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali, whom some have hailed as a “reformer,” declared: “The killing of Faraj Foda was in fact the implementation of the punishment against an apostate which the imam (the state) has failed to implement (undertake).” So Al-Ghazali was asserting that individual Muslims had the responsibility to implement Sharia when the state did not do so — and he was asserting this with specific reference to the killing of an apostate.
Also, Paul Marshall notes: “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.”
Bassiouni continues: “States that recognize it as a crime punishable by death include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. However, there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy in these countries has been put to death.”
However, Marshall asserts that “in the last ten years Saudi Arabia has executed people for the crimes of apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy” and “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.”
But perhaps even more important than the simple inaccuracy of Bassiouni’s statements here is the fact that if such laws are on the books, that is enough. They can then be reasserted at any time, even if they are ignored for long periods.
Bassiouni then appeals to the Qur’an. In doing so, he ends up acknowledging that his is a minority position among Islamic scholars. “The principal category of crimes in Islam is called hudud. These crimes are referred to in the Koran and thus require prosecution. They are: adultery, theft, transgression (physical aggression), highway robbery, slander and alcohol consumption. Apostasy is included in this list by most scholars, but not by a few others.” He asserts that “turning away from Islam, which is translated as apostasy, would not have been considered a crime, except the Prophet Muhammad (praise be upon him) in the 7th Century applied the death penalty to a Muslim who turned away from Islam. Historians of the Sunnah, the tradition established by the Prophet and deemed binding upon all Muslims, failed to note a significant fact about that case–that person not only had a change of faith, but decided to join the enemies of Islam at a time of war, thus making it a crime of high treason. Such a crime exists in all legal systems, many with the death penalty.”
But it is not true that Muhammad ordered the execution only of apostates who joined the enemies of Islam. His statement Baddala deenahu, faqtuluhu — if anyone changes his religion, kill him — includes no caveat. He didn’t say, “If anyone changes his religion, kill him only if he joins the enemies of Islam.” He simply said, “If anyone changes his religion, kill him.” This statement is amply attested in the Hadith, and is accepted as authentic by all except the most disingenuous Islamic scholars. It appears in various forms in Bukhari, Ibn Majah, An-Nasai, Tayalisi, Malik, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, and other authorities.
Nor does Muhammad make any exception when enunciating the principle in this way: “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims” (Bukhari, vol. 9, bk. 83, no. 17).
Bassiouni asserts that the Qur’an forbids the death penalty for apostasy. He says that it “contains a fundamental principle stated in unequivocal terms: “˜Let there be no compulsion in religion,” Surat Al-Baqarah, verse 256. Surely this overarching principle cannot be transgressed by forcing a person under penalty of death to espouse Islam even after such a person professes to have renounced it.”
Many Islamic apologists have invoked this verse recently in order to establish that Islam has no death penalty for apostasy. Yet advocates of such a penalty are well aware of this verse, and have explanations for it. For example, Pakistan’s foremost cleric, Mufti Munib ur Rehman, maintains that it applies only to non-Muslims who wish to become Muslims, not to Muslims who want to leave Islam. If Bassiouni thinks this is an erroneous interpretation, he needs to confront it, not simply ignore it. After all, this verse appears in the Qur’ans of all the advocates of the death penalty for apostasy, and it has not deterred them.
Bassiouni then continues to build a case from the Qur’an, after which he says: “Why these issues were not raised in the Rahman trial in Kabul and with the government of Afghanistan is surprising.”
It’s only surprising to people who don’t know, or don’t want others to know, the deep roots that the death penalty for apostasy has within Islamic tradition. But the Abdul Rahman case is not isolated: freedom of conscience is routinely trampled in Muslim countries. Muslim moderates like Bassiouni should stop sweeping this fact under the rug, and instead develop honest ways to deal with it and try to work within the Islamic world to inculcate respect for this basic human right.