Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Monday 30 November 2009
The Application of the Apostasy Law in the World Today
This article is an extract from Dr Patrick Sookhdeo's new book Freedom to Believe: Challenging Islam’s Apostasy Law.
Many Muslim states have two totally different legal systems operating in parallel: the Western secular system and the Islamic shari‘a one. The comparative weighting given to each system varies between different states. Most states with a mixed system and a written constitution guarantee freedom of religion and equality of treatment to all citizens, including those belonging to religious minorities, but in practice the authorities usually give Muslims more rights than non-Muslims.
This practice might seem surprising given that most modern Muslim states have ratified international agreements on human rights, but they limit the application of these by subordinating them to Islamic shari‘a. Human rights and the equality of all people before the law are thus conditioned by shari‘a, which discriminates on the basis of religion. Islamists defend this stance by claiming that the Western understanding of human rights is based on a radically secular worldview and that human rights must be applied in culturespecific ways, respecting the deep religiosity of the Muslim world.
In Muslim states religion is not usually a private matter, as in the West, but is under state control to a greater or lesser degree. Freedom of religion is understood in the Islamic way, i.e. as freedom of worship for officially recognised religious minorities within their communities. The individual freedom of choosing a religion is restricted to non-Muslims who choose Islam; Muslims are not allowed to choose another religion and, as shown above, for them to do so is regarded as a grave offence.
The incorporation of shari‘a laws into the state legal system enables official charges to be made within the state courts against those accused of apostasy and/or blasphemy. Apostasy is punishable by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, North Sudan and Yemen, and it is also illegal or punishable in others such as the Comoros, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia and the Maldives. In some countries, such as Morocco, the government regards all citizens as Muslims, so conversion from Islam is simply unrecognised. Official proceedings against those who reject Islam are fairly rare, partly because most keep their conversion a closely guarded secret, and the death penalty is still not often implemented. But increasingly severe punishments for the act of apostasy are being imposed, and it is common for apostates to be deprived of all their civil rights. Their marriages may be dissolved so that they lose their spouses and children, and their right of inheritance may be withdrawn.
A Muslim who leaves his or her faith is often viewed as guilty of treason and liable to the death penalty even if there is no official punishment for apostasy laid down in the constitution or legal system. Various methods can be used to punish or even kill apostates even if there is no applicable law on the statute books, for example, by framing them for other offences, or arresting them for causing public disorder because of the outcry about their conversion. Arrest can be followed by beatings, torture and imprisonment.
Where suitable legal provisions do not yet exist, or where state legal systems are not interested in pursuing apostates, the religious authorities may act on their own initiative to carry out what they see as obligatory shari‘a penalties against those accused of apostasy. Fatwas may be issued either by state shari‘a courts or by individual ‘ulama, demanding the death of the apostate, using the statement “His blood is permissible”. Individual fatwas are not legally binding on the state but can be acted upon by any Muslim, and many would argue that an assassin is obeying shari‘a and must not be prosecuted. The Civil Codes of several states, including Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Kuwait, allow the use of religious fatwas based on shari‘a.
If neither the state authorities nor the religious authorities act, converts may still suffer enormous social pressure and severe harassment, as their conversion is seen as a betrayal of Islam that brings great shame on family and community. Among the Muslim masses, apostasy is an emotive subject that easily provokes negative responses; it can also be manipulated by those who see themselves as defenders of traditional Islam or by those who could benefit from the downfall of accused people.
Many employers will dismiss converts from their jobs. Some relatives will try to have an apostate officially declared insane, as the insane are not held accountable for their actions. Families exert pressure by coercive measures such as threats and violence, or by tearful pleading, urging converts to return to Islam. Some try to “wash away” the shame of apostasy by casting offenders out of the family, driving them out of the country or even killing them: a number of converts in several countries, including Egypt and Pakistan, have been murdered by enraged family members and friends. Mobs can be easily incited to launch frenzied attacks against offenders, their families and their communities, or individual Muslims zealous for their religion and its honour may take it on themselves to assassinate alleged apostates, believing that they are doing a holy service to God and to Islam. The perpetrators are rarely prosecuted by the authorities and frequently go unpunished. Some Muslim states worry about the unwelcome attention given by the Western media to cases of apostasy, so they prefer to let such cases be handled unofficially by the community.
As we have seen, the term “apostate” (murtadd) usually refers to a Muslim who has officially converted to another faith, thus becoming a kafir. But others, who claim to be good Muslims, can also be accused of unbelief, blasphemy and heresy as well as of apostasy, for various other reasons including scepticism, atheism, ascribing partners or associates to God and not fully implementing shari‘a. In some contemporary Muslim states traditional definitions of apostasy, blasphemy and heresy have been broadened to include anyone who disagrees with what the authorities, religious and/ or governmental, consider to be orthodox Islam. The shari‘a laws on apostasy and blasphemy are increasingly being used by some states arbitrarily to detain citizens who are viewed with disfavour by the authorities (or by militant Muslims), and to suppress any idea, person or group that contradicts the established regime. In many cases multiple charges of apostasy, blasphemy, unbelief, heresy and insulting Islam and Muhammad are brought against those accused, thus giving the judges greater flexibility in deciding under which category to define the crime and ensuring that the defendants are convicted of something. A feature of accusations of apostasy and blasphemy is the way they are often uncritically accepted as true by members of the police and of the criminal justice system, who require little or no evidence. The result is that Muslims themselves are increasingly in danger of suffering what is, in effect, murder by other Muslims. Even if members of Muslim minorities are not executed for holding views that the government considers heretical, they may suffer discrimination, harassment and imprisonment.
Amending the Apostasy Law?
For most contemporary Muslims across the spectrum of beliefs and ideologies, apostasy still carries shocking and dreadful associations as a most abhorrent sin. Even for modernists and secularists it can carry negative connotations of betrayal of one’s community and rejection of one’s heritage. This attitude explains why so few Muslim voices are ever raised in defence of those accused of apostasy. But there have been Muslim calls for a reform of the harsh apostasy law and for Islamic leaders to proclaim that it is permissible for Muslims to choose other faiths, just as non-Muslims are allowed to choose Islam.
Some modernist Islamic scholars argue from the Qur’an and from the historical context of the hadith that an apostate should not be put to death unless he (or she) is also a danger to the Islamic state. Thus they differ from the traditionalists in asserting the possibility of apostasy without rebellion. The definition of “danger to the Islamic state” is important, however. Sheikh Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, says that an apostate “should be left alone as long as he does not pose a threat or belittle Islam”. It is hard to imagine how those who have left Islam could say anything about their conversion without in some sense being critical of Islam. Muslims would then, by Tantawi’s logic, be “forced to take action”.
In July 2007, the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, stated in an interview on a Forum operated by The Washington Post and Newsweek that Muslims should not be punished for converting from Islam as long as they did not undermine the foundations of society. Muslims were free to change their religion, which was a matter between an individual and God; those who commit the sin of apostasy should not receive a punishment in this world, but will be punished by God on Judgement Day. Following a furore in the Egyptian media, Ali Gomaa denied he had made any such statement. Dar al-Iftaa, Egypt’s highest body for delivering shari‘a verdicts on Islam, alleged that he had in fact said that “Islam forbids Muslims from renouncing their faith … if a Muslim did they would be committing a mortal sin … apostasy is a kind of subversion and a sort of crime that requires punishment.” The deputy head of the Egyptian Supreme Court did admit, however, that the punishment for apostasy was “controversial”, and asserted that there was nothing in any Qur’anic text about it. This case highlights the use of double talk by some Muslim leaders when speaking to western audiences and indicates that majority Muslim public opinion in most countries still supports the apostasy law and is not ready for its reform.