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Islam, Apostasy and the Human Right to Freedom of Conscience


Paolo Bassi
2006/03/30

The decision to change one's faith is rarely ever done on a whim. Conversion almost always results from some life altering personal experience that leaves the individual changed forever. History's seismic religious movements were triggered by such individuals and groups questioning established beliefs often placing themselves in great danger. Six hundred years before Christ, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) challenged orthodox Brahmanism in India to give the world the serenity of Buddhism. Two thousand years later, in 16th Century Northern India, the Sikh socio-political movement arose to challenge both the stranglehold of the Brahmanical caste system and the religious apartheid system imposed by India's then Islamic rulers. Considering the immense psychological pressure from Hinduism to-absorb Sikhism and the intimidation and violence inflicted on Sikhs by Muslim rulers in the 1700s, it is a miracle these people survived. Around the same time in Europe, the "heretical" Martin Luther was challenging the Vatican 's 1500 year reign. The Reformation Luther started permanently altered the nature of European Christianity and freedom.

While the 1789 French Revolution deprived the established Catholic Church of its traditional power, it simultaneously enshrined into law the individual's religious freedom to enter or leave a faith. This freedom of conscience, in subsequent centuries, became fully protected by the secular law of pluralistic democracies throughout Europe, America and elsewhere, such as modern India . However, there has never been any such an affirmation of human rights in the Islamic world, and so the right to choose one's religion a fundamental human right according to the United Nations is unknown in the Muslim world. The reason is simple. The Koran and Islamic law expressly reject the idea that other faiths are worthy of equal respect. According to the Koran, non-Muslims are to be converted, slain or reduced to second class status or "dhimmitude". Such totalitarian ideas cannot be conveniently ascribed to Islamic radicalism they come from Islam's basic texts and historic practices. The religious duty to crush other faiths is at the heart of Islam. For those who doubt this, one need only study the history of how today's Islamic countries, such as Iran , became Islamic in the first place.

In the early 1990s, while working with refugees in Pakistan , Abdul Rahman, an Afghani Muslim, secretly converted to Christianity. In converting, Rahman did nothing different from Mohammad himself 1,400 years earlier, who in starting Islam, had also broken with his own Meccan pagan cult. Yet while Mohammad is revered, Islamic law regards Rahman as a traitor and an apostate, who must be killed for leaving Islam. Since the only way for a Muslim to leave Islam is by death, Islam, in this regard at least, shares the same fundamentalist belief of Brahmanical Hinduism, in which the only escape from one's birth caste is at death.

Although Afghanistan has adopted a new post-Taleban constitution, that sounds secular, it remains subservient to and based upon Islamic (Sharia) law. This arrangement is disturbingly contradictory, since Islamic law by its very nature seeks power and thus is diametrically opposed to secularism and religious equality. Bolstered by this confusing duality, an Afghani Islamic court took jurisdiction over Rahman's case and threatened to execute him for apostasy unless he returned to Islam. Sharia law regarded as divine since it is based on the Koran and Mohammad's words and deeds demands death for any Muslim who leaves Islam. Rahman knew this when he converted to Christianity. Since the issues and law are clear for once, the case raises critical human rights issues for Muslims and the West which need honest examination, unhindered by political correctness or expediency.

The Islamic demand that Muslim apostates be killed raises a glaring contradiction between the rights that Islam reserves for itself and those it denies to other faiths. From its beginnings, Islam established itself as a world force by converting others, whether by force or persuasion. The right to convert others is taken directly from the Koran, which exhorts Muslims to fight non-Muslims until Islam is supreme (Surah 2:193 and 9:33). Those who did not convert could stay alive provided they agreed to live as "dhimmi" or second class citizens, with severe restrictions and upon payment of special taxes. Those who could no longer take the humiliation or pay the taxes, often accepted Islam proof enough for Islam of its power. Islam also made it quite clear that any non-Muslim daring to try to convert Muslims was to be killed. In Saudi Arabia , to this day, new converts are publicly feted and financially rewarded to show the power of Islam. In the west, especially Europe , Islam actively seeks converts among non-Muslims this is part of the reason for Islam's claim of being the fastest growing faith in the West. Two of its more infamous converts being Richard Reid, of shoe-bomber fame (recruited while in prison) and John Walker Lindh who was converted through a local mosque in California .

Since Islam demands that a Muslim who leaves Islam be killed, it should, for example, willingly accept the British Government punishing, even murdering, its Christian citizens who embrace Islam. Since nothing as fascistic as this is likely, Islam will continue to use the religious freedom of the West to expand while silencing its own dissenters. However, if Islam is to be morally consistent and in compliance with international norms, it must respect the rights of those Muslims, who choose to leave it and also allow other faiths to actively reach out to Muslims. If Islam cannot do this, it must stop, or be stopped from, converting others. There is no moral legitimacy in Islam's position in demanding rights for itself that it denies to other religions.

The Rahman case also raises a theological problem for Islam. If Sharia law (which demands the death of apostates) is Allah's divine will and if Allah is all powerful, without whose will nothing occurs, then the very existence of an infidel, or an ex-Muslim, is also Allah's will. Therefore, logically, it seems that either Islam is against Allah himself, or Allah is setting up apostates and non-Muslims for slaughter. In either case, an explanation is needed.

When a Danish paper published cartoons of Mohammad in 2005, Muslims worldwide exploded in violent rage, claiming that Islam had been insulted. However, the idea that a man should be killed for choosing Christianity over Islam has triggered no protests in Islamic countries. No Islamic leader has dared to publicly defended Rahman's right to leave Islam and still live. Where then is Muslim moral outrage, if any? Where is the voice of Islamic moral consistency and its much-vaunted tolerance?

The same question can be asked of Western liberals and the left in general, whose usual timidity and fear of questioning Islamic practices is evident. The left seems simply unable and/or unwilling to raise its voice against Islamic excess, regardless of the human rights at stake. If Western liberals can defend such minority interests rights as same-sex marriage, is the right of people such as Rahman to leave Islam less worthy of support? Rahman's case is far more important because it goes to the essence of what it means to be human the right to free thought and individual responsibility. The death penalty facing Rahman is an attack on all humanity since it seeks to crush freedom of conscience. It is an attack on human freedom by a totalitarian ideology using terror, pure and simple.

To show that Islam is tolerant, Muslim scholars often quote from a particular part of the Koran which states "there is no compulsion in religion". This is part of a larger chapter or Surah and is in direct contradiction to other parts of the Koran which explicitly demand death for apostates. According to the Afghani trial judge in Rahman's case, Ansarullah Mawlazezadah, Islam is a religion of tolerance because Rahman would be invited to return to Islam and only be killed if he refused. In a further absurdly Kafkaesque comment, Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission stated that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be sentenced to death. The irony is too deadly to be amusing.

Afghanistan 's constitution recognizes the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 18 demands the freedom to worship and to "change" religion or belief. The Rahman case clearly reveals that the UN declaration is inconsistent with Islamic Sharia law, yet Afghanistan continues to allow Sharia a stranglehold on Afghani life. It is this convenient duality that leaves individuals like Rahman with no legal protection.

Rahman in the end avoided the death penalty. It was not the "secular" Afghani constitution or Islamic clemency that saved him, but rather concerted international pressure from the United States and various European governments. The publicity in the end was too much to ignore but a face saving formulae had to be found to appease the Afghani mullahs. These mullahs had threatened to incite the people to tear "Rahman to pieces" should the Afghan Government yield to international pressure and interfere with the death penalty that Islamic law had imposed. Rahman was declared unfit to stand trial, even though he had bravely stated he was ready to die for his Christian faith and rejected accusations he was an infidel. While Rahman's reprieve is welcome, the one-time face-saving, ad-hoc solution is wholly unsatisfactory for a problem that is world wide and will recur. This arbitrary solution may have saved Rahman's life but does nothing for the debate over religious rights under Islam. It merely continues to screen Islamic totalitarianism from attention. In time the world will forget Rahman yet the tragedy is that there are thousands more Rahmans and will be in the future. These silent dissidents are unlikely to receive any attention from the Washington . The clerics and mullahs too will learn from the Rahman case and ensure that the next Islamic apostate is dealt with quietly. It is now critical that the West and other countries that respect religious equality and freedom put intense diplomatic pressure on Muslim countries to force them to grant equal rights to non-Muslims and Muslim apostates. The Western press also has a duty to ensure that this issue be kept alive until Muslim governments are forced to respond.

 

 

 

 

 

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