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, puzzled Western analysts pointed to what they thought were guarantees of freedom of religion and of conscience in the new Afghan Constitution: after all, didn’t the document pledge “respect” for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Didn’t it say, “followers of other religions” were “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law”?
Indeed it did, but what were the “limits of the provisions of law”? The Constitution itself made the answer abundantly clear: “In Afghanistan,” it stipulated, “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” It mandated that the President swear an oath to “obey and safeguard the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam,” and only secondarily “to observe the Constitution and other laws of Afghanistan and supervise their implementation.” What’s more, it stated that “the provisions of adherence to the fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam and the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be amended.”
Most non-Muslim observers missed the significance of these provisions, and especially the danger they posed to converts like Abdul Rahman and to the freedom of conscience in general. This is understandable, however, since so 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.” Several Muslim spokesmen have insisted the same thing to me in radio debates, excoriating me as “Islamophobic” for pointing out that many Islamic texts do indeed call for apostates to be killed.
Yet the idea that the death penalty for apostasy has always been an element of the “fundamentals of the sacred religion of Islam” is something that some Muslims have made no effort to deny or conceal. IslamOnline, a site manned by a team of Islam scholars headed by the internationally influential Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, explains, “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. When he “forced his entry” into Mecca, according to his ninth-century biographer Ibn Sa‘d, “the people embraced Islam willingly or unwillingly” (Ibn Sa‘d, II.168). The Prophet of Islam ordered the Muslims to fight only those individuals or groups who resisted their advance into the city – except for a list of people who were to be killed, even if they had sought sanctuary in the Ka‘bah itself. One of those was Abdullah bin Sa‘d, a former Muslim who at one time had been employed by Muhammad to write down the Qur’anic revelations; but he had subsequently apostatized and returned to the Quraysh. He was found and brought to Muhammad along with his brother, and pleaded with the Prophet of Islam for clemency: “Accept the allegiance of Abdullah, Apostle of Allah!” Abdullah repeated this twice, but Muhammad remained impassive. After Abdullah repeated it a third time, Muhammad accepted.
As soon as Abdullah had left, Muhammad turned to the Muslims who were in the room and asked: “Was not there a wise man among you who would stand up to him when he saw that I had withheld my hand from accepting his allegiance, and kill him?”
The companions, aghast, responded: “We did not know what you had in your heart, Apostle of Allah! Why did you not give us a signal with your eye?”
“It is not advisable,” said the Prophet of Islam, “for a Prophet to play deceptive tricks with the eyes.”
Apostasy from Islam had always been for Muhammad a supreme evil. When he was master of Medina, some livestock herders came to the city and accepted Islam. But they disliked Medina’s climate, so Muhammad gave them some camels and a shepherd; once away from Medina, the herders killed the shepherd, released the camels and renounced Islam. Muhammad had them pursued. When they were caught, he ordered that their hands and feet be amputated (in accord with Qur’an 5:33, which directs that those who cause “corruption in the land” be punished by the amputation of their hands and feet on opposite sides) and their eyes put out with heated iron bars, and that they be left in the desert to die. Their pleas for water, he ordered, must be refused.
The traditions are clear that one of the main reasons that the punishment was so severe was because these men had been Muslims but had “turned renegade.” 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.”
It stains credulity, in light of all this, that Islamic apologists in the West assert that, in the words of one Ibrahim B. Syed, President of the Islamic Research Foundation International of Louisville, Kentucky, “there is no historical record, which indicates that Muhammad (pbuh) or any of his companions ever sentenced anyone to death for apostasy.” This kind of assertion may be comforting to non-Muslims who would prefer to believe that the capital charges levied against Abdul Rahman were some sort of anomaly. Unfortunately, this claim simply does not accord with the facts of Muhammad’s life. That such assertions pass unchallenged only underscores the need for Westerners to become informed about the actual words and deeds of Muhammad – which make the actions of Islamic states and jihad groups much more intelligible than do the words of Islamic apologists in the West.
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 and weakness of their presentations. While we’re being polite to alleged “reformers,” Muslim hardliners are cheerfully implementing the 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 is considering returning Abdul Rahman to Afghanistan. It would be better if the United States 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 Shari'a 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.
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