Persuading Western Muslim leaders to repudiate Shari'a-sanctioned violence against apostates can be a frustrating exercise, as Prince Charles discovered in 2004. Troubled by the treatment of Muslims who convert to Christianity in Islamic nations, the prince convened a summit of senior figures from both religious communities. It ended in disappointment. The Islamic representatives failed to issue a declaration condemning the practice, which the Christians had requested; they also cautioned non-Muslims not to discuss such matters in public, arguing that moderates would be more likely to make progress if the debate were kept internal.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the outspoken Anglican prelate of Rochester, attended the meeting but rejected their advice. While continuing to highlight the perils faced by those who leave Islam in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, he now has turned his focus to the harassment of apostates in the West. Last year the bishop warned that a convert could die in Britain unless prominent Muslims affirm the right of all people to change their faith. There have been few takers, despite the dire need for this message: a poll indicates that 36% of younger British Muslims believe death to be an appropriate punishment for renouncing Islam.
Their views are grounded in Shari'a law. All major schools of Islamic jurisprudence stipulate that a sane adult male must be put to death for abandoning Islam, though varying interpretations persist on whether females should be killed or merely imprisoned. Many Islamic states outlaw apostasy and seven list it as a capital offense. However, freelancers such as angry relatives present the greatest danger to ex-Muslims, as Sunni and Shiite scholars largely agree that Shari'a empowers individuals to punish converts. This tradition has followed Muslims to the Western world.
Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and other high-profile apostates have brought needed attention to the risks that ex-Muslims encounter, even in liberal democracies. Pope Benedict XVI recently underscored the plight of this vulnerable population by baptizing the Italian journalist and former Muslim Magdi Allam on the most public of stages: Easter Vigil mass at the Vatican. Having suffered threats for opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Allam now speculates that he will endure "another death sentence for apostasy."
Ordinary Muslim apostates face similar fears, which were palpable when Christian converts from Islam met in Virginia four years ago at the first Muslim Background Believers Convention. One woman admitted that she had not yet told her family about embracing a new faith. "I know they're going to disown me," she said, "if they don't kill me." Another relayed that her brothers were not speaking to her because she had married an American. "Can you imagine what they would do if they found out I was a Christian?"
For other ex-Muslims, the intimidation is far more concrete. Khaled emigrated from Iraq to the Netherlands, hoping to freely practice his new religion; instead he receives death threats from Islamists. Sofia was beaten and told by her father that she deserves to die; she ultimately was thrown out of their London house. Hannah, the daughter of a British imam, has changed residences forty-plus times since converting to Christianity; she went underground in 1994 when her home was attacked by a horde of men that included her father, whom she describes as "shouting through the letter box, 'I'm going to kill you.'" In April Dutch politician Ehsan Jami announced that he is closing down his Central Committee for Ex-Muslims after less than a year of operation because people are too scared to join.
Aiding apostates begins with acknowledging what endangers them: the prescription of death under Shari'a law. Yet Islamist lobby groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations labor to obscure the facts. During the diplomatic crisis that centered on Abdul Rahman, a convert to Christianity who faced capital punishment in "liberated" Afghanistan two years ago, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper initially shrugged, "We haven't dealt with that issue." Once media interest in the story had made silence untenable, CAIR released a statement claiming that "Islamic scholars say the original rulings on apostasy were similar to those for treasonous acts in legal systems worldwide and do not apply to an individual's choice of religion."
Other leading Western Muslims justify, or even promote, the punishment of apostates. For example, Syed Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims, argues that freedom of religion implies the ability to be governed by one's religious laws. From this he concludes that, in the spirit of "tolerance," Canada must allow Muslims to discipline people who abandon the faith. He does grant that these penalties would not necessarily include death, but one may wonder whether his position is just a matter of expediency. After all, he surely recognizes that multiculturalism has its limits.
Given the prevailing climate, Bishop Nazir-Ali has called for governments to do more to protect former Muslims. However, it is clear that many officials are too swayed by political correctness to comprehend the dangers associated with leaving Islam. This sad reality is demonstrated by the case of Nissar Hussein, a British citizen and Christian convert. When he reported to police that locals had threatened to burn down his home, he says he was told to "stop being a crusader and move to another place."
Intimidation of ex-Muslims has not succeeded in dissuading Christian missionaries from going about their usual business, even when they themselves face bullying in Islamist-heavy neighborhoods. Nazir-Ali recently stirred controversy by chiding the Church of England for its oversensitivity toward Muslims. He recommends more proselytization instead. At the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem on June 24, he observed that "just as Muslims have a right to invite others to join Islam, Christians have a right to invite others to Jesus."
His statement reflects the thriving marketplace of religious ideas that has characterized the West for several centuries. Yet the perils suffered by Muslim apostates offer a powerful reminder that upholding such freedoms demands vigilance. How our societies respond to this challenge will help set the parameters of freedom in the twenty-first century by determining whether fundamental rights truly are guaranteed for all.
David J. Rusin is a research associate at Islamist Watch and a Philadelphia-based editor for Pajamas Media. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Pennsylvania. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.