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Apostates from Islam: The case of the Afghan convert is not unique

Paul Marshall

The news that, despite the Afghan parliament’s last-minute attempts to prevent him from leaving, Abdul Rahman has been given asylum in Italy has drawn a global sigh of relief. But now is not the time to forget the issue. The case of Rahman—an Afghan Christian tried for the capital crime of apostasy—is not the only one, even in Afghanistan, and is unusual only in that, for once, the world paid attention and demanded his release. But there are untold numbers in similar situations that the world is ignoring.

Two other Afghan converts to Christianity were arrested in March, though, for security reasons, locals have asked that their names and locations be withheld. In February, yet other converts had their homes raided by police.

Some other Muslim countries have laws similar to Afghanistan’s. Apart from its other depredations, in the last ten years Saudi Arabia has executed people for the crimes of apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. The death penalty for apostates is also in the legal code in Iran, Sudan, Mauritania, and the Comoros Islands.

In the 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran used death squads against converts, including major Protestant leaders, and the situation is worsening under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime is currently engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and reconvert or kill those who have changed their religion from Islam.

Iran also regards Baha’is as heretics from Islam and denies them any legal rights, including the right to life: There is no penalty for killing a Baha’i. On March 20, Asma Jahangir, the United Nations special rapporteur on religious freedom, made public a confidential letter sent on October 29, 2005, by the chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Iranian Armed Forces. The letter stated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had instructed the Command Headquarters to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities, and asked the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Police Force to collect any and all information about them.

Other countries, like Egypt, that have no laws against apostasy, instead use laws against “insulting Islam” or “creating sectarian strife.” In 2003, Egyptian security forces arrested 22 converts and people who had helped them. Some were tortured, and one, Isam Abdul Fathr, died in custody. Last year, Gaseer Mohamed Mahmoud was whipped and had his toenails pulled out by police, and was told he would be imprisoned until he gave up Christianity.

While there has been no systematic study of the matter, and many punishments are not publicized, it appears that actual state-ordered executions are rarer than killings by vigilantes, mobs, and family members, sometimes with state acquiescence. In the last two years in Afghanistan, Islamist militants have murdered at least five Christians who had converted from Islam.

Vigilantes have killed, beaten, and threatened converts in Pakistan, the Palestinian areas, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia, and Kenya. In November, Iranian convert Ghorban Dordi Tourani was stabbed to death by a group of fanatical Muslims. In December, Nigerian pastor Zacheous Habu Bu Ngwenche was attacked for allegedly hiding a convert. In January, in Turkey, Kamil Kiroglu was beaten unconscious and threatened with death if he refused to deny his Christian faith and return to Islam.

Meanwhile, on March 21, the Algerian parliament approved a new law requiring imprisonment for two to five years and a fine between five and ten thousand euros for anyone “trying to call on a Muslim to embrace another religion.” The same penalty applies to anyone who “stores or circulates publications or audio-visual or other means aiming at destabilizing attachment to Islam.”

Converts and Baha’is are not the only ones subject to such violence. Ahmadis, whom many Muslims regard as heretics, suffer a similar fate throughout the Muslim world. The victims also include many Muslims who question restrictive interpretations of Islam. In traditionally moderate Indonesia, Yusman Roy is now serving two years in prison for leading prayers in Indonesian and Arabic instead of only in Arabic.

Abdul Rahman’s plight is merely the tip of the iceberg. Like the violence over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s demand that Salman Rushdie be killed for blasphemy, it reveals a systematic, worldwide attempt by Islamists to imprison, kill, or otherwise silence anyone who challenges their ideology.

We need to go beyond the individual case of Abdul Rahman and push for genuine religious freedom throughout the Muslim world. Especially we need to push for the elimination of laws against apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and “insulting Islam.” They seek to place dominant, reactionary interpretations of Islam beyond all criticism. Thus—since politics and religion are intertwined—they seek to make political freedom impossible.

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