Journalists’ Forced Conversion Not Contrary to Islam

The most bizarre element of the two weeks of captivity suffered by Fox News reporter Steve Centanni and photographer Olaf Wiig was the video that surfaced depicting their conversion to Islam. Even before the journalists revealed that their conversions had been coerced, there were indications that they were not acting freely. While reading a statement he himself had ostensibly written, Centanni stumbled over words, appeared to puzzle over the handwriting, and seemed to grimace after pronouncing the words “peace be upon him” after the name of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Most jarring was the video editor’s invocation of the favorite Koran verse of Western analysts of Islam and terrorism, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). The irony of featuring this verse in a video depicting two forced conversions has been widely noted. In fact, however, the juxtaposition of this verse with the video of Centanni and Wiig was probably not simply transparent deception, as strange as that may seem.

Islamic law forbids forced conversion, but as Andrew Bostom documented earlier this week, this is a law that throughout Islamic history has all too often been honored in the breach. Nor is this yet another case of a “twisting” or “hijacking” of Islam; in fact, Islamic law regarding the presentation of Islam to non-Muslims manifests a different understanding of what constitutes freedom from coercion and freedom of conscience from that which prevails among non-Muslims.

Muhammad instructed his followers to call people to Islam before waging war against them—the warfare would follow from their refusal to accept Islam or to enter the Islamic social order as inferiors, required to pay a special tax (Sahih Muslim 4294). There is therefore a threat in this “invitation” to accept Islam. Would one who converted to Islam under the threat of war be considered to have converted under duress? No; from the standpoint of traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence, such a conversion would have resulted from “no compulsion.”

Muhammad reinforced these instructions many times during his prophetic career. Late in his career, he wrote to Heraclius, the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople: “Embrace Islam and you will be safe” (Bukhari, 4.52.191). Heraclius did not accept Islam, and soon the Byzantines would know well that the warriors of jihad indeed granted no safety to those who rejected their “invitation.”

After being freed, Centanni said: “We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Don’t get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what … was going on.”

Indeed, few in the West know what’s going on regarding the example of Muhammad and the stance of traditional Islam on conversion. The human rights should have the courage to recognize and denounce this conversion-or-else directive, and to recognize the plight of those who even today suffer from its scourge. Moreover, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad operating according to Muhammad’s instructions, this now has geopolitical implications. In his letter to President Bush, Ahmadinejad invited him to accept Islam, and then echoed the Prophet of Islam in delivering a threat to Bush through Mike Wallace: “We are all free to choose. But please give him this message, sir: Those who refuse to accept an invitation will not have a good ending or fate.”

Ahmadinejad’s threat, as well as the ordeal of Centanni and Wiig, epitomizes the threat that the global jihad represents to the freedom of conscience. Analysts are increasingly beginning to note that the conflict has ideological dimensions, but these dimensions are still imperfectly understood in the public sphere. Were Western leaders courageous enough to speak forthrightly about the threat we face as an Islamic jihad, they could use the “conversions” of Centanni and Wiig to illustrate one of the elements of Western civilization that is being challenged and that we are resolved to defend. Unfortunately, mired as they are in denial about the nature of the “terror” threat itself, they have made as yet no such resolution.


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