An Afghan citizen named Abdul Rahman, you may recall, made international news last spring, when his conversion from Islam to Christianity led to his arrest, with the intention of putting him on trial for apostasy. At that time he was spirited away to safety in Italy. Now jihadists in Afghanistan are demanding his return to Afghanistan in exchange for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Gabriele Torsello. “We want this issue resolved before the end of Ramadan,” his captors demanded, but no resolution seemed imminent as the holy month drew to a close.
It is safe to say that if Italian authorities agreed to turn over Abdul Rahman to the kidnappers, the convert would almost certainly be killed for his crime of apostasy from Islam. Yet at the time of Abdul Rahman’s arrest, many Muslims in the West maintained that Islam contained no provision against apostasy. Typical of this was “Leaving Islam is not a capital crime,” a Chicago Tribune article published by M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of Law at DePaul University and President of the International Human Rights Law Institute, when Abdul Rahman was arrested. “A Muslim’s conversion to Christianity,” Bassiouni wrote, “is not a crime punishable by death under Islamic law, contrary to the claims in the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan.”
Yet the death penalty for apostasy has always been an element of Islam. IslamOnline, a site manned by a team of Islam scholars headed by the internationally influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, explains that “if a sane person who has reached puberty voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be punished. In such a case, it is obligatory for the caliph (or his representative) to ask him to repent and return to Islam. If he does, it is accepted from him, but if he refuses, he is immediately killed.” And if someone doesn’t wait for a caliph to appear and takes matters into his own hands? Although the killer is to be “disciplined” for “arrogating the caliph’s prerogative and encroaching upon his rights,” there is “no blood money for killing an apostate (or any expiation)” – in other words, no significant punishment for the killer.
These laws are rooted in the words and deeds of Islam’s prophet, as I explain in my new book "The Truth About Muhammad." Apostasy from Islam had always been for Muhammad a supreme evil. Muhammad legislated for his community that no Muslim could be put to death except for murder, unlawful sexual intercourse, and apostasy. He said flatly: “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.”
The kidnappers’ demand that Abdul Rahman be returned to Afghanistan illustrates the hollowness of the arguments we hear all the time — about how we must support self-proclaimed moderate Muslims like Bassiouni by refraining from noting the flimsiness of their presentations. While we’re being polite to alleged “reformers,” Muslim hardliners are implementing elements of Islamic law that bemused non-Muslims are nodding their heads and agreeing don’t exist.
It’s good that the Italian government shows no sign that it’s considering returning Abdul Rahman to Afghanistan. It would be better if the U.S. government, on which the Afghan regime depends for its continued survival, called upon the Afghans to drop the Sharia provisions from the nation’s Constitution, and affirm in unequivocal terms freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. For the kidnappers’ action has placed the Afghan government in a peculiar position. What can Afghan officials say? That they don’t want the kidnappers to get hold of Abdul Rahman because they want to kill him themselves? The kidnappers’ demand is an unpleasant reminder that United States has deposed one Sharia regime in Afghanistan, that of the Taliban, only to replace it with another. The State Department should call upon the Afghans to seize on the occasion of this demand to call for a searching reevaluation of the role of Islam in Afghan public life.
But this, of course, is even less likely to happen than Abdul Rahman’s return to Afghanistan. One certainty is that people will continue to suffer for freedom of conscience in Afghanistan — under the indifferent eye of the U.S. military.