Denying Islam's Assault on Freedom of Conscience

The Abdul Rahman case has given rise to a spate of articles in the Western press, assuring Westerners that Muslims do not actually kill or want to kill apostates. While these may be reassuring to non-Muslims, many of them have been downright misleading about the real status of the death penalty for apostasy in the Islamic world. One of the most egregious of these came this week from M. Cherif Bassiouni, President of the International Human Rights Law Institute. He has served at the UN in various capacities, including as Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan.

In "Leaving Islam is not a capital crime" in the Chicago Tribune, Bassiouni purveys a series of half-truths and distortions about apostasy in Islam that are — at best — misleading. He begins by asserting: "A Muslim’s conversion to Christianity is not a crime punishable by death under Islamic law, contrary to the claims in the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan."

While others have asserted that apostasy should not be a capital crime in Islamic law, they have at least acknowledged that many Islamic authorities believe that it should. Bassiouni, on the other hand, states flatly — in defiance of the clear teaching of every school of Islamic jurisprudence — that apostasy is not a capital crime under Islamic law.

Bassiouni then invokes the ostensibly liberal laws of Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey as evidence for his contention that Islamic law doesn’t prescribe death for apostates. But in none of those states is Sharia the sole basis of law. Certainly it is more or less of an influence in all of them, but since they all also have other sources for legislation, none of them can be invoked as telling us anything about Islamic law.

Also, because of the influence of the Sharia, in all those states apostates from Islam live under a cloud. As Paul Marshall notes: "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…told he would be imprisoned until he gave up Christianity."

Bassiouni continues: "States that recognize it as a crime punishable by death include Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. However, there are no known cases in recent times in which someone charged with apostasy in these countries has been put to death."

However, Marshall asserts that "in the last ten years Saudi Arabia has executed people for the crimes of apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy" and "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."

Bassiouni asserts that the Qur’an forbids the death penalty for apostasy. He says that it "contains a fundamental principle stated in unequivocal terms: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion,’ Surat Al-Baqarah, verse 256. Surely this overarching principle cannot be transgressed by forcing a person under penalty of death to espouse Islam even after such a person professes to have renounced it."

Many Islamic apologists have invoked this verse recently in order to establish that Islam has no death penalty for apostasy. Yet advocates of such a penalty are well aware of this verse, and have explanations for it. For example, Pakistan’s foremost cleric, Mufti Munib ur Rehman, maintains that it applies only to non-Muslims who wish to become Muslims, not to Muslims who want to leave Islam. If Bassiouni thinks this is an erroneous interpretation, he needs to confront it, not simply ignore it. After all, this verse appears in the Qur’ans of all the advocates of the death penalty for apostasy, and it has not deterred them.

The Abdul Rahman case is not isolated: freedom of conscience is routinely trampled in many Muslim countries. Muslim moderates like Bassiouni should stop sweeping this under the rug, and develop honest ways to try to work within the Islamic world to inculcate lasting respect for this basic human right.