01-05-2006 - Traces, n.5
Islam Apostasy and Islamic Countries

Religious Freedom,
a far-off Conquest

The case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan whose conversion to Christianity caused him persecution by the sharia of his country

by Giorgio Paolucci

The apostate must die. Guilty of abandoning Islam and embracing Christianity, he should have mounted the scaffold, according to the provisions of sharia, which continues to dictate law in Afghanistan even after its liberation from the Taliban, notwithstanding the protective presence of UN multinational forces. Rejecting the label of “hero” pasted on him by the Western media, he gave the chilling statement, “I am fully conscious of what I have chosen. If I have to die, then I’ll die. A long time ago, Someone else did the same for us all.” As we know, it did not turn out this way. The countries with troops in Kabul (Italy, the United States, Germany, and Canada) exerted effort to save Abdul Rahman, interceding with the Afghan President Karzai, himself the target of the local ulemas who had incited the crowds against the apostate. Even the Holy See stepped into the fray, sending a letter to Karzai, asking, in the name of the dignity of human life, for “respect for the freedom of conscience and of religion for every person.” Now Rahman is in Italy, where he has received political asylum, living under protection in a secret location. In order to release him without being overwhelmed by the rage of the Islamic fundamentalists, the Afghan authorities had to invent procedural flaws in his judiciary process and advance the hypothesis that he was mentally ill, a condition that suspends the application of sharia. Even so, a fatwa is still hanging over his head, proclaimed by a group of ulemas demanding his death.

Saved by diplomacy
One convert’s life has been saved by diplomatic mobilization and the media’s focus on his story. But his case is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg practically unknown to most: thousands of people throughout the world who have abandoned the Islamic community run the risk of being ostracized or even put to death. The Koran does not sanction the death sentence for converts, though 14 verses punish apostasy in various ways, calling for “a very painful punishment in the other world” or “in this world and in the other” (Sura on Conversion IX, 74). As often happens in Muslim culture, a religious aspect is considered a crime by a government law and, with the wave of fundamentalism that is engulfing a great part of the Islamic world, there is an increase in restrictive and liberticide interpretations of the sacred text and the sunna, the tradition deriving from it. The penal codes of Islamic countries punish apostasy with the death sentence (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Yemen, and Kuwait), prison (Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco), or various forms of discrimination in family law, inheritance law, and the exercise of civil rights. There are many cases of converts who have lost their jobs or been deprived of the custody of their children (who must be educated according to Islam), or whose property has been confiscated. If the State does not act, the initiative of any zealot can be enough: in many countries, every citizen has the right to appeal to the court to request prosecution of the apostate. It is not rare that groups or individuals feel charged with the duty to mete out private justice on Allah’s behalf, even to the point of killing the “traitor.” Often the accusation of apostasy is exploited to strike intellectuals, writers (recall the famous case of Salman Rushdie, victim of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini), teachers, and humanitarian organizations that battle for an interpretation of the Koran open to the values of modernity and respect for the rights of the person, positions that are spreading in Islamic countries but still remain a minority.

Religion and politics
Looming behind the individual cases are radical questions: Is there space for freedom of conscience in Muslim societies? Is it possible to modify the relationship between religion and politics in Islamic countries, opening it to the prospect of laicity? Along with those who hold that the very nature of Islam blocks any positive answer to this question, there are those who highlight the engagement of the “liberals” who courageously raise their voices and ask the West to help the development and communication of their positions, so they might produce a beneficial fallout in Muslim societies, above all at the level of education. It is a high-risk challenge, but we must respond—this problem involves the destiny of all of humanity. For this reason, the odyssey of the Christian Rahman must become the occasion for a commitment on the front of religious freedom and human rights, one less distracted and episodic than that of recent years.