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Going Apostate
How the rest of the world handles apostasy laws.
By Joseph Loconte

Last week much of the world learned of the plight of a lone convert to Christianity, Abdul Rahman, on trial for his life in Afghanistan. Jailed on charges of apostasy, Rahman was released on a technicality and spirited off to asylum in Italy –only after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed President Hamid Karzai for a favorable outcome. The Rahman case underscores the conflict between Islamic law, or sharia, and democratic norms. Yet it also hints at a growing argument among Muslims over religious freedom, a subject Americans know something about.

On the issue of religious liberty, Afghanistan ‘s new constitution tries to have it both ways. Though it says that “followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith,” it declares the country an Islamic state. While it endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–which specifically protects a person’s right to change his religion–it supports a judicial culture that criminalizes blasphemy and apostasy. The country’s supreme court already has invoked blasphemy laws to jail newspaper editors and intimidate political rivals.

The typical liberal solution to this problem–to quarantine government from religious values, replacing militant religion with militant secularism–is foreclosed in tribal, traditionalist Afghanistan . Rather, the history of religious freedom in America suggests a way forward–a frankly theological approach that could appeal to faithful Muslims.

It’s often forgotten that the political leader most responsible for ending church establishments in America argued from an unabashedly religious standpoint. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance” of 1785, James Madison opposed tax support for churches in Virginia as an assault on individual conscience, which he regarded as a sacred realm. “Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator . . . can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence,” he wrote. “If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man.” Only by freely following one’s conscience, he reasoned, could a person mature in his understanding of spiritual truths.

Madison ‘s faith-based argument won the day, and it animated his work on the First Amendment. It was this same principle that, a century and a half later, inspired defenders of a religious liberty clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. Lebanese ambassador Charles Malik, who took the lead in drafting the religious freedom provision, Article 18, called freedom of thought and conscience “the most sacred and inviolable things” about human beings.

Malik’s native Lebanon had become a refuge for people fleeing religious persecution. As an Arab Christian and professor at the American University of Beirut , he met regularly with colleagues from diverse backgrounds–including Muslims, Jews, Christians, and radical secularists–and in many instances witnessed their movement from one faith to another. Thus, it was Malik who insisted that Article 18 include the right to change one’s belief. “There is one point on which we wish to insist more than anything else,” he said, “namely that . . . you must also be free to become what your conscience requires you to become in the light of your best knowledge.”

Saudi Arabia balked at the document, but all the states with large Muslim populations signed on. Muhammad Zafarullah Kahn, Pakistan ‘s foreign minister, said the Koran endorsed freedom of conscience, including the freedom to change one’s religion. “Belief is a matter of conscience,” he wrote, “and conscience cannot be compelled.” Later, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, adopted in 1994 by the 22-member states of the Arab League, would affirm the principles of the Universal Declaration.

The fact that many Muslim states endorse these protections for religious freedom even while ignoring them in practice suggests the power of the case for conscience: It appeals to a basic sense of decency and justice.

A number of Islamic groups, in fact, have emphasized the rights of conscience to criticize apostasy laws. For what it’s worth, these include even some U.S. groups associated with the Wahhabi lobby. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, called on the Afghan government to release Rahman, declaring that “Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” and the Muslim Public Affairs Council condemned the apostasy charges, insisting that “faith is a matter of individual choice on which only God can adjudicate.” IslamOnline, a website supported by Islamic scholars committed to Sharia, also defended freedom of conscience as “a fundamental principle of the Qur’an.”

Last week the Free Muslims Coalition, a U.S.-based association of Muslims and Arabs promoting democratic values and reform in the Islamic world, went further. It threatened to file a brief on Rahman’s behalf and called on Afghanistan to amend its constitution, arguing that a decision to prosecute Rahman would violate the Koran, Islamic jurisprudence, and international human rights law. “The freedom to choose one’s own religion is sacrosanct,” said vice president Sami El-Behiri, an Egyptian-born columnist. “When it comes to faith, only God can judge people.”

Nevertheless, it remains unclear what path Afghanistan will take. Rahman was released only because a judge declared him mentally unfit. Even Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan ‘s Independent Human Rights Commission–who herself faced blasphemy charges a few years ago–failed to rebuke the judiciary. “We have to give evidence . . . that yes, he was mentally sick, and he has to go for treatment.” If that’s the best defense that Afghanistan ‘s leaders can muster, then the gap between their liberal-sounding constitution and the ultra-traditional Islamic culture in which it is being applied remains huge.

Many Muslims are still deeply reluctant to bridge this divide. Yet, unlike their secular counterparts, believers can cite a religious foundation for respecting the golden rule in matters of faith: Created by God as equal in dignity, every person should seek for his neighbor the same freedom to worship God that he claims for himself. “Because the Koran asserts that humanity was created from one man and one woman, we are therefore of one family and equal in the eyes of God,” writes Feisal Abdul Rauf, an imam in New York City and author of What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America . “Muslims regard the command to treat each other as we want ourselves treated as a religious commandment, the second greatest commandment.”

As cases like that of Abdul Rahman continue to force the issue, democratic reformers in the Muslim world may discover within their own religious tradition the firmest foundation for religious freedom–as did James Madison, who called the establishment of a church “a contradiction to the Christian religion itself, for every page of [the Bible] disavows a dependence on the powers of this world.”

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.