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The following article uses the high-profile case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who converted from Islam to Christianity, to illustrate the much broader problem of how Islam deals with Muslims who convert to Christianity.

AsiaNews (03/29/06) – 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…[Go To Full Story]