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Islam humiliates religious freedom of Christians and human rights of Muslims. It’s time for change.

Samir Khalil Samir, SJ

March 29, 2006

The ordeal of Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan is shared by many converts from Islam and poses the problem of Islam’s systematic violation of human rights.  If Sharia kills a man who changes religion, it is to be condemned and cannot be the principle inspiring law, in that it destroys any ideal of coexistence and contradicts the UN declaration on human rights, approved in 1948 by almost all Muslim countries.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who converted from Islam to Christianity, was released from prison with a juridical ploy: deemed to be mentally unfit and thus incapable of undergoing trial, he was able to avoid the death penalty foreseen by sharia in the case of apostasy.  But his ordeal is just one case in tens of thousands each year.  In Egypt alone there are at least 10,000 Muslims who convert to Christianity each year.  At the same time, there are at least 12,000 Christians who become Muslim.

This phenomenon of conversions from Christianity to Islam is rampant throughout the Middle East and in the world.  Fundamentalist violence that currently characterizes the Muslim world brings many to ask themselves: can such a violent religion truly come from God?  But what is the lot of former Muslims? That of having to flee, hide, emigrate.

A friend of mine who wanted to be baptized was forced to flee from his university friends because one day they found a pocket-sized Gospel in his room.  They began to threaten him with death and he fled, abandoning his university studies.

The solution found in Afghanistan is the best one, but is a compromise.  It must serve to lead us to a radical question: what takes precedence in Islam?  Internationally recognized human rights or Islamic sharia?  And if sharia runs counters to human rights, is it not time that the international community condemns it?  And if sharia is inscribed – as fundamentalists maintain – in the Koran, there are two things to consider: either the Koran denies human rights, or it must be reread to purge it of false and violent incrustations. 

Islam: politics or religion?

According to Afghan law, Abdul Rahman was to have been killed for his apostasy.  Sharia is based on the Koran and on the Islamic tradition of the Hadith (Mohammad’s sayings).  There are 14 verses in the Koran which speak of those who recant Islamic faith.  In 7 of these cases, there is no mention of punishment; the other 7 allude to punishment,  not however in this life, but in heaven.  One verse speaks of eternal flames; another of the curse of God, angels and men; another speaks of a “painful” punishment.  Only one of the Koran’s verses (that of “penitence” 9, 74) call for a painful punishment in this world and the next.

According to Muslim jurists, the death penalty can be decreed only if the Koran explicitly foresees it (hudud).  Lacking this, one turns to Mohammad’s sayings.  One of these sayings – and just one – states that death is required in 3 cases of sin, one of which is apostasy.

Historically speaking, the term “apostasy” is used for the first time, ambiguously, after Mohammad’s death.  Certain Arab tribes which had submitted (islamo, in Arabic) to the new faith, decided to “back out” (irqed, the same verb that refers to apostasy).  Abu Bakr, the first successor, attempts to stop these tribes, fearing that others will “back out” as well, and battles them.  Many of the Prophet’s companions disapproved of this.  But once Abu Bakr brings these rebel tribes back to the Islamic fold, he gains general approval.  Since them, this ambiguous term, “to back out, to draw back”, is applied to all those who seek to abandon the fold, the Islam family.

There are several verses from the Koran (Ch. II, 191-193) that everyone uses in such cases, verse 191 containing very dangerous words. “Kill [God’s enemies] wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, for” – and here one finds the dangerous word – “subversion is severer than slaughter.”  And then, in verse 193, “And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for God.”  This keyword, “subversion” (in Arabic fitnah), is the word used in all cases to justify a killing.  In Iran, it is also used against homosexuals.  To kill a subversive is considered a “lesser evil” with respect to “subversion” which, by spreading, can become a dangerous phenomenon.

Muhammad Chalabi, the head of Al Ahzar in the 1950s, used to say “We do not force the apostate to return to Islam, so as to not contradict the word of God which prohibits any constriction on faith.  But we leave him the opportunity to return voluntarily.  If he does not return, he must be killed because he is an instrument of subversion (fitnah) and opens the door to pagans to attack Islam and to sow doubt among Muslims.  The apostate is therefore declaredly at war with Islam even if he does not lift a sword against Muslims.”  This is the usual thinking in Islam.

Last week in Cairo, I was speaking to some Muslims about the Abdul Rahman question.  And they told me that Westerners too do the same thing.  “Let’s suppose,” they say, “that one of you passes over to the enemy’s side and relays state secrets to the enemy.  Do you not kill him?  Does he not deserve a radical punishment?  The apostate betrays the community!”  My answer: What you say applies to the political domain, not the religious.  Plus, we Christians are not terribly in favour of the death penalty.”

My Muslim friends conclude. “The Umma must be defended from attacks against Islam.”  I answer, “But Abdul Rahman did not condemn anyone.  He is a peaceful man.”  They reply with the same words as the head of Al Ahzar. “Even if he does not life a sword, the apostate is a subversive.”

It is worth noting that:

a) Islam presents itself as one way street: one can enter but one cannot exit;

b) the Islamic world is not at all concerned with the question of freedom of conscience;

c) Islam reasons on itself in political terms.

But this gives rise to an enormous question: if Islam is a political project, a movement that uses even the most extreme violence, then it must be fought politically.  And, most of all, it would be necessary to no longer call it a religion, a spiritual movement that helps man to create peace.  There is in fact in Islam a strong ambiguity to which attention must be drawn: at times, Muslims speak in spiritual terms (“Islam means peace (salam), coexistence, tolerance etc…”); other times, they act politically, justifying violent choices. 

Sharia is against human rights

If sharia kills a man who changes religion, then it must be condemned and cannot be placed at the basis of national constitutions.  If sharia is the principle inspiring law, any ideal of coexistence is destroyed and, even more, there will be a contradiction with the U.N. declaration on human rights, approved in 1948 by almost all Muslim countries.

Article 18 of the declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Well then, let’s have a look at the news that is arriving from Muslim countries: this article is violated every day, as AsiaNews’ records often show.  House churches are destroyed in Indonesia; in Algeria, there is a prohibition against public manifestations of faith; anyone who invites anyone to leave Islam is threatened with death in all Muslim countries.  There is excitement at the moment in the West for the successful outcome in Abdul Rahman’s case, but the compromise that was reached masks the real problem: the roots of violence vis-ŕ-vis apostasy is contained in the Koran and in Islamic tradition, so much so that one can speak of the incompatibility between human rights and rights foreseen by the Koran.

The conclusion is that a choice is needed in the Islamic world, between saying that traditional texts and the Koran are unacceptable documents, contrary to human dignity and reinterpreting the Koran, by dropping the violent aspects which are tied to outmoded situations.

We cannot keep silent or continue to speak of Islam in an ambiguous fashion, defining Islam as a religion that “speaks of peace and tolerance,” hiding the verses that encourage violence and brutal killings.  Such an ambiguous behaviour is shameful to those who adopt it and to those who keep silent. 

The West must not keep silent

I say this out of affection and sympathy towards Muslims.  Many Muslim friends find themselves at difficulty with the texts of Islam and do not know what to say.  If they dare criticize texts they are immediately accused of apostasy and blasphemy.  There are tens of thousands of cases in the Arab and Islamic world: Salman Rushdie, Talima Nazrin, Sarag Foda (Egyptian agnostic who had criticized Islam and was murdered); Naguib Mahfuz, who risked death in 1995 for apostasy, so he had to recant.  Then there is the case of Nasr Abu Zaid, who was removed from his university teaching post and even had his wife taken from him: she was forced to divorce from him, as he could no longer be married to a Muslim woman, having been condemned for apostasy.  They both eventually fled to Holland.  We cannot overlook all these aberrations by saying: it takes patience, Islam was born many centuries after Christianity; it still has a lot of road to cover…  This would be like saying that Islam is a religion of the disabled!  Instead, Muslims include in their ranks great figures, scientists, intellectuals.  The fact is that the time has come for the West to speak truthfully for the sake of Muslims themselves.  The West cites human rights every day, but when it runs up to cases such as these, where the highest offense to human rights is at play – life and freedom of conscience – Western governments keep silent.  The most typical case is that of Saudi Arabia, which tramples all human rights, even those of its own people, and no one says anything.  The West has lost a lot of credibility in the Islamic world, due to acts contrary to human rights, such as preventive wars, economic injustices, the immorality of Western laws, etc.  The time has come for a choice. If there is incompatibility between human rights and the rights set out in the Koran, then – I’m sorry to say – the Koran must be condemned; or else it must be said that our understanding of the Koran puts us against human rights and freedom of conscience, and so the interpretation must change.  One thing is certain: we can no longer keep silent.  The European bishops decided in recent days to dedicate the forthcoming year to studying the problems of Islam in Europe and Islam in the world, relations of European Union countries with Muslim-majority countries, from the perspective of international justice and reciprocity.  But if European countries keep silent, reciprocity can never be requested.

Muslims alone cannot change anything.  If Afghanistan were an isolated country, with no relations with the West, Abdul Rahman would have been killed.  Muslims with a profound awareness of human rights are a minority.  The Egyptian branch of Amnesty International, for example, publishes two monthly magazines in Arabic, but it not able to counterbalance the fundamentalist trend.  It is necessary that the international community intervenes with external pressure.  In the case of human rights, it is by no means a question of intrusion.  It is necessary to arrive at serious measures: exclusion from the U.N. of those who do not respect the Charter on human rights, economic boycotts, etc.   Perhaps, with a boycott, certain countries could initially take any even harder line, but in the long run countries and hundreds of millions of people could be saved from terrible oppression.

The human rights problem in the Islamic world is not tied only to apostasy.  Even people who want to go on living in Islam are subjected to extraordinary social pressure.  An example: many young women who live in Egypt today wear headscarves.  It is said that they do so willingly.  But social pressure is such that, if a girl goes out without a headscarf, all her neighbors begin to say: aren’t you ashamed?  Your daughter has no shame.  Thus even Christian women in the end say: we prefer to put on a headscarf for the sake of peace and quiet!  Apostasy is just the tip of the iceberg of an enormous problem: to this very day, there are a billion people in the Islamic world constrained in an ideological-religious prison, which denies their fundamental human rights.  This deformation is pushing a lot of people away from Islamic faith.  In Teheran, young people are distancing themselves ever more from Islam, looking for truth in other religions: they can no longer put up with this justification for violence.  It is perhaps for this reason that, in Iran, all Christian web-sites are censured or blacked out.

The suffering of the Islamic world is increased by globalized information.  Thanks to television, radio and internet, the ideas of freedom, human rights are spreading and this increases the desire and frustration of Muslims, who see “no future” for themselves or their families.  It is necessary that those who live in Islamic countries find not only bread, but also human rights.  If Europe does not work for this, all the lectures on globalization are just chatter.  Keeping silent is an injustice against millions of people.  The time has come to speak out, not for attacking, but for love.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved