Celine Sawiris, ICC’s Advocacy Intern
For many people across the Muslim world, the month of Ramadan is a joyful time of celebration and community. It is a time of fasting, spiritual rejuvenation, religious devotion, and time spent among loved ones. However, for those who leave Islam, these very things that are treasured by many can make the month an isolating period filled with hardship. Many already struggle to hide their conversion from their families during the rest of the year, but these struggles are heightened during the most important month of the Islamic calendar. At the core of these struggles is the fear of being exposed as an apostate and the potential safety risks that come with that.
Many practicing Muslims will observe their religion more closely during the month, being more careful to adhere to the rules and teachings in the Qur’an and Hadith. This additional emphasis on piety makes a lack of participation in religious practices even more glaring, further threatening the safety of the apostate.
The community aspect of Islam is also emphasized during Ramadan, with large family gatherings happening nightly for iftar, or the breaking of the fast, especially during the first ten days of the month. During this time, families often pray together, as the fast is broken with the maghrib call to prayer. During the rest of the year, an apostate may avoid prayers by avoiding others during the designated praying times. During Ramadan, however, they will be expected to be in the presence of family and the community. In addition, Muslims are expected to read the Qur’an nightly during this month, sometimes involving recitations in front of the present company. Failure to participate in this may also raise suspicions and put the safety of the apostate at risk.
Even for those who have never practiced Islam, eating publicly during Ramadan is frowned upon in many predominantly Muslim countries. For recent converts from Islam, this struggle follows into their private lives as they interact with family and community members. Fasting is an intense physical commitment and often leads to lower energy levels. For a practicing Muslim, this is an exercise of piety and religious devotion. For non-Muslims in a Muslim community, it is a significant inconvenience and a cause for fear. If converts from Islam are to abstain from participating in the fast, they risk revealing to their family and community that they are no longer Muslim. As a result, many converts continue to outwardly fast and follow the practices of Ramadan to keep their conversion a secret. Even if refusal to fast does not expose one’s apostasy, there are still penalties for failure to fast in Islam.
Restrictions on conversion
One of the main causes of fear for an apostate during Ramadan is the legal consequences that a convert may be subject to if their conversion is revealed. Nearly all countries in the Middle East and North Africa have some type of restriction on conversion, whether it be explicitly stated in their code of laws or a de facto restriction.
Even in countries without explicit bans on conversion, legal loopholes and the vague inclusion of Shari’a in the constitution can still lead to legal consequences for those who leave the religion. Interpretations of Shari’a can vary between countries and the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. These differences can lead to potential variations in the punishments assigned for apostasy, but it is generally not permitted under Shari’a law. Many classical schools of Islamic Jurisprudence ascribe the death penalty as the punishment for apostasy. Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, and Syria apply Islamic law to apostasy cases, putting those who leave Islam at risk of receiving the death penalty. Saudi Arabia and Yemen outright ban apostasy, with both countries having recent cases of apostates facing long-term imprisonment or even being sentenced to death.
There have been multiple cases across the region involving the seemingly unexplained arrest of recent apostates, with legal loopholes being utilized to punish those who leave Islam. Some victims are allowed to walk free provided they keep their conversion secret, do not openly attend churches or other religious meetings, and maintain a low profile. Due to the indirect nature of this persecution, there are often no official records of these stories. They are known only by word of mouth among religious minority communities, such as within churches. Many who are punished for their apostasy in this way do not receive justice because of this. It is also possible that if the government does not take action against the apostate, another individual may take it upon themselves to be an agent of Shari’a and harm or kill them.
These threats make the increased risk of exposure for apostasy during Ramadan even more dangerous for those who have left the religion. They must hide their apostasy for the sake of their lives and safety. This takes the month of Ramadan from a time of excitement into one of great fear and isolation.