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November 23rd 2009 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Working Toward Religious Freedom in Islam

Religious freedom is not exactly a hallmark of Muslim-majority countries. One of the most disconcerting features of Islam is the way “apostates” are treated. In Islam those who choose to leave the faith are regarded as traitors, and death is often the penalty.

Religious freedom is not exactly a hallmark of Muslim-majority countries. One of the most disconcerting features of Islam is the way “apostates” are treated. In Islam those who choose to leave the faith are regarded as traitors, and death is often the penalty.

Islam appears to be alone among the major world religions in this harsh and barbaric practice. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are features of free and democratic nations. Indeed, Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief…”

Thus if Islam is to be seen as an acceptable religion among civilised nations, it must address the issue of apostasy law. True, some Muslim reformers want to see the law abandoned, but they are clearly in the minority, and they face an uphill battle. Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to be informed about the nature and practice of this law, so that it can be successfully challenged.

Patrick Sookhdeo is well placed for this assignment: he is an expert on Islam who has written numerous scholarly titles on the subject. His newest volume (Freedom To Believe. Isaac Publishing, 2009), offers an authoritative and well-documented account of Islamic apostasy law. He covers a wide array of territory here, leaving no stone unturned.

He begins by examining the Koran, the hadith, and sharia law. He notes that all three give approval for the punishment, harassment, and even death of those who dare to leave Islam. In the Koran for example there are a number of passages which speak of severe punishment in the next life for apostates.

But punishment in this life is also possible. Sookhdeo points out that most Muslim scholars believe that justification for killing apostates can be found in various suras, such as 2:217, 16:106, and 88:24. He cites a number of Muslim jurists, commentators and scholars who favour this reading of the Koran.

He also offers an extensive examination of the hadith, and provisions in sharia law. For example, Muhammad is cited in Bukhari as saying, “Whoever changed his [Islamic] religion, then kill him.” As to the Islamic legal code, the different schools are fairly uniform when it comes to apostasy law.

They all prescribe the death penalty for apostasy, and all state that rulers or their deputies can only carry out the punishment. Yet they also say that if an individual kills an apostate, he is not to be punished in any way.

He also quotes extensively from modern Muslim scholars and jurists on this issue. These experts demonstrate the clear linkage between apostasy and heresy and blasphemy. These last two crimes are also considered to be severe, and can also be punished by death.

Sookhdeo also contrasts Islam with the Judeo-Christian tradition when it comes to human rights. Muslims regard Islam and the community as paramount, and do not have a high regard for autonomous, individual rights. Indeed, the former are always to trump the latter.

Thus in some Muslim nations you will find both sharia law and various forms of Western secular law existing together. However it is sharia which determines if and when human rights and equality can be allowed.

While not every Muslim nation carries out the death penalty for apostasy (the main ones are Saudi Arabia, North Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Mauritania and Yemen), death can still result, since laws against treason can also be invoked, and they too mandate the sentence of death.

And elsewhere, a sort of living death will be experienced by converts out of Islam. They will be severely punished, harassed and mistreated in various ways for their defection. Social ostracism, dismissal from jobs, beatings, and general second-class citizenship (dhimmitude) are all part of the daily reality for many ex-Muslims.

Sookhdeo also discusses how Muslims are seeking to gain a privileged position in this regard on the international level. The 57-member nations of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have been heavily lobbying the UN and EU, for example, to get preferential treatment, so that Islam can continue doing business as usual.

It has pushed the UN General Assembly and other UN bodies to adopt resolutions which seek to prevent any negative criticism of Islam, something accorded to no other major religion. Says Sookhdeo, the “OIC is seeking international legitimation of its own state-sanctioned blasphemy laws.”

He continues, “Should these trends continue, there will be no need in the future for fatwas such as those issued by Ayatollah Khomeini demanding the death of Salman Rushdie. Non-Muslim states will themselves prosecute their own citizens for alleged ‘blasphemy’ against Muhammad and Islam.” Indeed, this is already beginning to happen.

The rest of this volume looks at a number of Muslim nations and how this law is dealt with and applied. It also provides a number of case studies of individuals directly impacted by such laws. Several substantial appendices round out this thorough and comprehensive work.

For those looking for a single volume which brings together most of the important information on this topic – mainly from Islamic sources – this volume is indispensible. If we are to see any substantial change in Islam at this point, this most timely and necessary publication needs to be widely read and promoted.