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The Punishment for Conscience is Death
Converts from Islam to Christianity are often hunted in the Muslim world, where virtually all religious authorities agree that such individuals deserve death. Muhammad himself commanded such a punishment: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” This is still the position of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, although there is some disagreement over whether the law applies only to men, or to women also.
At Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious and influential institution in the Islamic world, an Islamic manual certified as a reliable guide to Sunni Muslim orthodoxy states: “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatises from Islam, he deserves to be killed.” Although the right to kill an apostate is reserved in Muslim law to the leader of the community and other Muslims can theoretically be punished for taking this duty upon themselves, in practice a Muslim who kills an apostate needs to pay no indemnity and perform no expiatory acts (as he must in other kinds of murder cases under classic Islamic law). This accommodation is made because killing an apostate “is killing someone who deserves to die.”
IslamOnline, a website manned by a team of Islam scholars headed by the internationally influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, explains, “If a sane person who has reached puberty voluntarily apostatises from Islam, he deserves to be punished. In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.” And what if someone doesn’t wait for a caliph to appear and takes matters into his own hands? Although the killer is to be “disciplined” for “arrogating the caliph’s prerogative and encroaching upon his rights,” there is “no blood money for killing an apostate (or any expiation)” – in other words, no significant punishment for the killer.
An Afghan named Abdul Rahman knows all this well. In February 2006, he was arrested for the crime of leaving Islam for Christianity. The Afghan Constitution stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Even after his arrest, Western analysts seem to have had trouble grasping the import of this provision. A “human rights expert” quoted by the Times of London summed up confusion widespread in Western countries: “The constitution says Islam is the religion of Afghanistan, yet it also mentions the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 18 specifically forbids this kind of recourse. It really highlights the problem the judiciary faces.”
But in fact there was contraction. The Constitution may declare its “respect” for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it also says that no law can contradict Islamic law. The Constitution’s definition of religious freedom is explicit: “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law” [My emphasis].
The Islamic death penalty for apostasy is deeply ingrained in Islamic culture -- which is one reason why it was Abdul Rahman’s own family that went to police to file a complaint about his conversion. Whatever triggered their action in 2006, they could be confident that the police would receive such a complaint with the utmost seriousness.
After an international outcry, Abdul Rahman was eventually spirited out of Afghanistan to relative safety in Italy. Despite the publicity, his case was hardly unique. Sudanese Al-Faki Kuku Hassan, whom news reports describe as “a former Muslim sheikh who converted to Christianity in 1995,” was arrested for apostasy in March 1998 and held, despite international protests, until his declining health (he suffered a stroke in Spring 2001) led to his release on May 31, 2001.
Muhammad Sallam, an Egyptian convert to Christianity, was arrested in 1989 and tortured; he was arrested again in 1998 and spirited away to an unknown destination. Two other converts to Christianity in Egypt, Dr. Abdul-Rahman Muhammad Abdul-Ghaffar and Abdul Hamid Beshan Abd El Mohzen, were held in solitary confinement for extended periods in the late 1980s.
In Morocco, authorities jailed Christian converts as well as a Salvadoran Baptist musician, Gilberto Orellana, who was accused of converting a Muslim to Christianity. Even in comparatively tolerant Jordan, where freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, “Muslims who convert to other religions suffer discrimination both socially and on the part of the authorities, since the government does not fully recognise the legality of such conversions and considers the converts to be still Muslims, subject to the Sharia, according to which they are apostates and could have their property confiscated and many of their rights denied them.”
Robert Hussein Qambar Ali, a Kuwaiti national who converted from Islam to Christianity in the 1990s, was arrested and tried for apostasy, even though the Kuwaiti Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. Mohammad Al-Jadai, one of Hussein’s prosecutors, explained: “Legislators did not regulate the question of apostasy in the Constitution because they never thought this kind of thing could happen here. The freedom of belief in the Constitution applies only to the religion of birth.”
When Hussein asked during a court hearing to see a memorandum from the prosecution, the prosecutor told the judge, “His blood is immoral! This document contains verses from the Holy Qur’an and should not be touched by this infidel!” Then the prosecutor began quoting a passage from the memorandum that made abundantly clear the relationship between Kuwait’s ostensibly tolerant secular law and the Sharia: “With grief I have to say that our criminal law does not include a penalty for apostasy. The fact is that the legislature, in our humble opinion, cannot enforce a penalty for apostasy any more or less than what our Allah and his messenger have decreed. The ones who will make the decision about his apostasy are: our Book, the Sunna, the agreement of the prophets and their legislation given by Allah.”
An Islamic court condemned Hussein to die. Professor Anh Nga Longva of the University of Bergen, Norway visited Kuwait in 1997 and found passions running high over the case: “I found a surprisingly strong consensus across the liberal/islamist divide. Practically everyone agreed that Qambar’s conversion was a serious crime and as is the case with all crimes, it had to be punished. They also agreed that depriving him of all his civil rights was an adequate punishment. The only topic which gave rise to some disagreement and a subdued sense of unease within some circles was the question of the death penalty.”
Intriguingly, Longva reports that those who were indignant over Hussein Qambar Ali’s conversion invoked the same Qur’anic verse he would have used to argue that Hussein was within his rights to become a Christian: “Those who opposed [the death penalty for Hussein] based their position on the Qur’anic verse 2:257 [in most Qur’anic verse numbering systems it is 2:256] that says ‘no compulsion is there in religion’. But more often than not, the same verse was quoted in front of me to show that precisely because Islam is such a tolerant religion, there are no possible excuses for apostasy.”
Longva quotes the disquieting summation of a Kuwaiti jurist: “We always remind those who want to convert to Islam that they enter through a door but that there is no way out.” Hussein was eventually convicted of apostasy, but increasing international attention to this case enabled him to escape to the United States.
In August 2007, Mohammed Hegazy, an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity, was forced to go into hiding after a death sentence was pronounced against him by Islamic clerics. He refused to flee Egypt, however, and declared:
“I know there are fatwas to shed my blood, but I will not give up and I will not leave the country.” Early in 2008, his father told Egyptian newspapers: “I am going to try to talk to my son and convince him to return to Islam. If he refuses, I am going to kill him with my own hands.” As of this writing, Hegazy remains in hiding in Egypt.
While doing nothing to help Hegazy, in February 2008, the Egyptian government made what appeared to be a significant concession to that nation’s Christian minority when it allowed converts from Islam to Christianity to note their new religion on their state-issued identity cards.
This seemed at first glance to be a major departure from the traditional death penalty for apostates from Islam. But Egypt, although it is not a Sharia state, has never looked kindly upon those who converted. While the new regulation seemed to be a step in a new direction, it turned out that the concession applies only to Christians who converted to Islam and then returned to Christianity. The converts’ identity cards will bear that information. In light of the Islamic law making apostasy from Islam a capital offense, the converts’ identity cards are the equivalent of a bulls-eye. Any Muslim who meets them and takes the death penalty for apostasy seriously will consider himself justified to kill them.
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