By Tim Scheiderer
Apostasy laws legalize violence against those making a non-violent decision. Shaymaa al-Sayed knows this horrific truth intimately. In the early 2000s, the 26-year-old converted from Islam to Christianity. On July 16, 2007, her family defied familial bonds and, in public, threatened her with death as she and her husband enjoyed a fair in Alexandria, Egypt. She had been in hiding from them for four years. Presumably taken into protective custody by the police, she was transferred to State Security Investigation [SSI] in Cairo. The nightmare continued. The SSI electrocuted her. Photographed her naked. And tortured her for a week. On the 23rd, she was released to her family. Dragged out of the police station screaming, they beat her severely before driving away.
What is the price for converting to another religion in the United States? For religious minorities in 18 countries, the price for committing apostasy or blasphemy is death. These countries include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria. Death, as the penalty for apostasy (though rarely carried out), is deemed the appropriate punishment by a “broad consensus of Islamic theology, including the prominent scholars of [Sunni Islam’s] Four Schools, [who] judge apostasy to be criminal. They are all in agreement that an apostate must be pressed upon to repent within a variable period of time or be killed,” said Dr. Ahmad al Tayyeb, Grand Sheikh of the Al-Azhar University. Located in Cairo, this institution is the “chief center of Islam and Arabic learning in the world.” Dr. al Tayyeb is considered the “most influential Muslim” in the world, according to the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan.
Converts are not the only targets, though. Reformers, students, social critics, journalists, artists, even teenagers, are among the many types of people who suffer because of apostasy as well as blasphemy laws. Apostasy is defined as converting from Islam to another religion. Blasphemy is speech or action deemed disrespectful toward Allah or his prophet, Mohammed. These laws stunt countries’ progress in not only religious vitality, but also in their progress in modernity, scholarship, their national culture of the arts and sciences, and most importantly, their establishment and defense of basic freedoms for their citizens.
Apostasy is categorized as a treasonous act and a “danger to society,” by Dr. al Tayyeb. Death is viewed as the proper punishment for such an act. One scholar, Mohammed Saalih al Munajjid, explains the seriousness of the punishment as a way of ensuring “the protection of the religion and as a deterrent to anyone who is thinking of leaving Islam. There is no doubt that such a serious crime must be met with an equally weighty punishment.”
The precise definition of blasphemy, however, is left to case law, which is “commonly unwritten … and subjective” and serves the interests of local authorities according to the Hudson Institute’s Paul Marshall and Nina Shea who co-authored Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. “Protesters, complainants, and even courts frequently alternate between the terms [blasphemy and insulting Islam], require no proof of intent, and offer novel understanding of what constitutes such transgressions, often without any historical foundation,” they write. Evidence of judicial inequity and ambiguity are seen in the ways Pakistan and Malaysia define their blasphemy laws. Pakistan terms blasphemy as “’any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly.’” While, Malaysia prohibits any statement including “’twisted facts that can undermine the faith of Muslims.’”
The punishment for committing blasphemy is also not uniform. Penalties can range from harsh treatment to death. This is due not only to the country, the court, but also if the “punishment” is meted out by a judge or a mob. Experts believe, however, many instances of mob punishment are sanctioned directly or indirectly by local authorities.
Mob punishment can be most horrific. On a Wednesday in 2015, 27-year-old Farkhunda Malizkzada was coming home from a day at work and stopped at the Shah-e Du Shamshira Shrine in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan to say her prayers. Wednesdays at the shrine are exclusive to women and a fortuneteller caters to women’s desire to be mothers by selling various amulets. Among the amulets, Farkhunda noticed Viagra and condoms according to The New York Times. The Islamic law student began discussing the inappropriateness of selling the non-religious items at the shrine with its caretaker and the fortuneteller according to her brother, Mujibullah.
She returned the next day, March 19, and presumably burned some of the used amulets. The caretaker then took some burnt pages of the Quran and mixed them with the burnt amulets and accused her of burning the Quran to those nearby the shrine. A mob assembled after hearing of the horrific religious “violation” and beat her to death. According to the State Department, Farkhunda “was beaten with sticks and boards, kicked, run over by a car and dragged, thrown into a dry riverbed, stoned, and finally set on fire as bystanders recorded the crime and police watched every act of barbarity.”
On a local level, experts say Muslims feel empowered to carry out such “justice” because of the very existence of the apostasy and blasphemy laws. This is one means of propagation and intimidation, which is perpetuated on an international level by Muslim leaders using the United Nations and its member nations.
CAMPAIGN TO GLOBALIZE BLASPHEMY LAWS
The effectiveness of an international campaign was realized by the Muslim world on February 14, 1989. Few in the West would recognize the significant “tremor” that was initiated and “now threatens to fracture the very foundations of Western free society,” Shea and Marshall contend. The tremor began with Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeini condemning Salman Rushdie’s new book, The Satanic Verses. In the book, Rushdie weaves an allegorical tale concerning the fight between good and evil. Rushdie also presents an “unflattering portrayal” of Khomeini in one portion of the book. Khomeini found the work offensive and issued a fatwa calling for the executions of the British author and all involved in the publishing of the book. As a result, Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered while his Norwegian editor and Italian translator were seriously injured in separate attacks.
Shea and Marshall believe this was the watershed moment for Islamic extremism. “[Khomeini’s] edict signaled a new worldwide movement to curb freedoms of religion and speech through the export and enforcement of Muslim blasphemy rules.” One organization is significantly responsible for the exportation of blasphemy laws and it significantly exemplified its power and influence in 2005.
Founded in 1969, the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] was organized during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, it has a membership roll of 57 countries including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. In 2005, the OIC aided in stirring up strife amongst Muslims worldwide in protest of the Danish cartoons and their portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed.
In December of that year, over two months after their publication in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, the OIC met in Mecca and shelved its original topic of sectarian violence and terrorism for an extensive discussion about the cartoons. Three Danish imams who were already spreading the word in their circles provided a dossier of the published cartoons and additional unpublished images (perceived to be more offensive) for review by summit attendees. It is alleged no distinction was made between which cartoons were published in the Danish paper and which ones were not.
After the summit, widespread protest and violence swept across many portions of the globe. The next year, in January, a European Union office in the Gaza Strip was taken over by 15 armed men who demanded apologies from Denmark and Norway. (A Norwegian paper had republished the cartoons.) Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to apologize defending the right to freedom of the press. Late January and February were the most tumultuous months with significant diplomatic outposts damaged, several bounties announced, over 100,000 protesting and over 200 deaths.
For example, on February 4th, protesters set ablaze Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria. Five days later, Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah claimed there were one hundred suicide bombers ready to carry out “holy” retaliation. He also offered a reward of one hundred kilograms of gold to anyone who killed the cartoonists. The next day, the situation escalated when thousands of Muslims left their mosques after Friday prayers and protested violently.
Throughout February, the violence continued in the Middle East and in other regions as protestors, in two instances 40,000 and 70,000 strong, vandalized buildings, businesses, and more embassies. Christians and churches were also targets as one Italian priest was killed in Turkey and 59 Nigerian Christians were killed during attacks. During one of the attacks, protesters tried to burn a man alive.
The OIC’s campaign of intimidatory propagation dates back to 1999 as it began pushing non-binding resolutions condemning the “defamation of religions” at the United Nations. Between that year and 2010, the UN adopted these OIC-sponsored resolutions. Support over the years has waned, though, and the OIC has not introduced one since 2011 when it realized it would not garner enough votes for passage. The use of the word “defamation” is not by accident. Muslim extremists are striving to change the perspective of freedom. According to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, the individual is guaranteed certain freedoms seen as inherent to every person’s existence. The effort is being made to protect a religion’s freedom—freedom from critique, mockery, reformation, etc.
As Marshall and Shea point out, traditionally, defamation occurs to a person. A person is defamed or slandered by another. In this instance, the OIC is striving to make Islam, a religion, the object of defamation. As well, there are intrinsic protections for those using violence to silence the “defamer” of Islam instead of protection for the individual’s speech against the religion.
Kamal Fahmi, president of Set My People Free, views the campaign as nothing but a power play. “The whole West is being blackmailed,” he said. The OIC and others are advocating speech should be limited because it causes violence from the religion’s adherents, not because speech causes violence against the religion. The logical fallacy unnaturally pits freedom of speech against freedom of religion. And if freedom of speech is muzzled, then freedom of religion will also eventually be limited.
Shea and Marshall see a concentrated effort by extremist Muslims to “export their … system of repression into the free world.” The additional efforts are seen in a few ways. Firstly, the OIC’s “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” has been cited as a reputable standard in several UN reports and a UN resolution. The OIC declaration is similar in form to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], but it subjugates the main provision of the declaration to Islam. “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Sharia,” it reads.
Secondly, the United Nations has endorsed or legitimized Islam’s definition of human rights at a couple of events. In 1998, the UN hosted an OIC-sponsored seminar regarding the meaning of the UDHR filtered through Islamic philosophy. In essence, the seminar was a promotion event for sharia where only certain approved “experts” spoke. No other UN-registered nongovernmental organizations participated. In 2002, at a UN seminar, Mary Robinson, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stamped her approval on Islam’s belief about human rights. She said, “No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principle of fundamental human rights.”
Thirdly, in effort to appease Muslim-majority countries, in 2014, the United States government co-sponsored a hate-speech resolution with Egypt. In part, the resolution “urges States to take effective measures to combat … any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” The measure is at odds with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. All of these efforts are to protect the current Islamic power structure according to Shea and Marshall. Muslim leaders fear “Western critiques could weaken their religious claims and rule.”
As there are various belief groups within Christianity, even amongst Christian church denominations, the same exists in Islam. Some groups are considered conservative adhering to traditional interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith. Others are liberal, forsaking the legitimacy of certain long-practiced Islamic beliefs, statutes, and practices. Therefore, their view of freedom and the history of the apostasy law differs from scholars like Dr. al Tayyeb.
The late Kayi Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, penned a treatise, “God Needs No Defense,” on the suppression of speech and non-Islamic beliefs in the “so-called Muslim world.” He argued the Muslims’ goal of maintaining “purity” in Islam through laws works against the very freedom necessary to know God. He notes the Quran calls for mankind to find their way to God who is also referenced as the Truth in the Islamic sacred text. The path one follows is not monolithic and “employ[s] the intellect, emotions, or various forms of spiritual practice.” Therefore, freedom is a crucial component in this pursuit. “For without freedom, the individual soul cannot attain absolute Truth, which is, by Its very nature, unconditional Freedom itself,” Wahid wrote.
The roots of apostasy law stem from Islam’s early days and the caliph’s means of dealing with militaristic insubordination, according to President Wahid, who was also head of Nahdatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. To prevent desertion from or delinquency in the caliph’s army, harsh punishments were administered to discourage such actions considered rebellious or treasonous. It was also a tool of political shrewdness.
“The codification of harsh punishments for apostasy into Islamic law must be recognized as an historical and political by-product of these circumstances, framed in accordance with human calculations and expediency, rather than as the eternal dictate of Islamic sharia on the issue of changing one’s religion,” Wahid wrote.
Mr. Wahid believed there is intense self-interest, not religious fidelity, on the part of today’s political leaders in Muslim-majority countries. He contended these leaders are wielding Islam, including apostasy and blasphemy laws, to accomplish “their own mundane and political purposes.”
Fish do not know they are in water. It is all they know. Take one out of the water, though, and the fish’s body seems to convulse in shock as it begins feeling the lack of oxygen it was gaining from the water. The fish needs no notification of the significant absence.
Mankind does not need to be told when one’s freedom is being infringed upon. The love of freedom is embedded deep in the soul. It is instinctive. It is intimate, visceral. The absence of freedom causes an unmatched restlessness. One’s soul can be diminished to the point of misery.
1.3 billion Muslims do not have the freedom to convert to another religion. 26 percent of the world’s countries and territories deny freedom of speech to its citizenry according to the Pew Research Center.
In these places, one will find restlessness and misery. Life is not flourishing. Apostasy laws are “creat[ing] instability and inspir[ing] violence [as well as] conflict with minority communities,” human rights advocates declare. Blasphemy laws are “coerc[ing] religious conformity” and thereby stifling theological progress that is needed for the good of 21st century Muslims.
It is crucial the West and the Church use the freedom they have, Famhi says, to speak up against these atrocities and these laws. It is not about being “against a certain religious group.” It is about using our freedom to advocate for the freedom of another. “They don’t have freedom of thought. They don’t have freedom of conscience. They don’t have freedom of change.” Famhi concludes, “[People in Muslim-majority countries] are living in total fear.”
For the most part, we have been living in total silence. If silence continues, change is uncertain, if not impossible.
Article was updated on September 17, 2017.