Jul 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition
“CAN a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?” When Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, pondered that dilemma in an article published last year, many of his co-religionists were shocked that the question could even be asked.
And they were even more scandalised by his conclusion. The answer, he wrote, was yes, they can, in the light of three verses in the Koran: first, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”; second, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve”; and, most famously, “There is no compulsion in religion.”
The sheikh’s pronouncement was certainly not that of a wet liberal; he agrees that anyone who deserts Islam is committing a sin and will pay a price in the hereafter, and also that in some historical circumstances (presumably war between Muslims and non-Muslims) an individual’s sin may also amount to “sedition against one’s society”. But his opinion caused a sensation because it went against the political and judicial trends in many parts of the Muslim world, and also against the mood in places where Muslims feel defensive.
In the West, many prominent Muslims would agree with the mufti’s scripturally-based view that leaving Islam is a matter between the believer and God, not for the state. But awkwardly, the main traditions of scholarship and jurisprudence in Islam—both the Shia school and the four main Sunni ones—draw on Hadiths (words and deeds ascribed with varying credibility to Muhammad) to argue in support of death for apostates. And in recent years sentiment in the Muslim world has been hardening. In every big “apostasy” case, the authorities have faced pressure from sections of public opinion, and from Islamist factions, to take the toughest possible stance.
In Malaysia, people who try to desert Islam can face compulsory “re-education”. Under the far harsher regime of Afghanistan, death for apostasy is still on the statute book, despite the country’s American-backed “liberation” from the tyranny of the Taliban. The Western world realised this when Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who had lived in Germany, was sentenced to die after police found him with a Bible. After pressure from Western governments, he was allowed to go to Italy. What especially startled Westerners was the fact that Afghanistan’s parliament, a product of the democracy for which NATO soldiers are dying, tried to bar Mr Rahman’s exit, and that street protests called for his execution.
The fact that he fled to Italy is one of the factors that have made the issue of Muslim-Christian conversion a hot topic in that country. There are several others. During this year’s Easter celebrations, Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born journalist who is now a columnist in Italy, was publicly baptised as a Catholic by Pope Benedict; the convert hailed his “liberation” from Islam, and has used his column to celebrate other cases of Muslims becoming Christian. To the delight of some Catholics and the dismay of others, he has defended the right of Christians to proselytise among Muslims, and denounced liberal churchmen who are “soft” on Islam.
Muslims in Italy and elsewhere have called Mr Allam a provocateur and chided Pope Benedict for abetting him. But given that many of Italy’s Muslims are converts (and beneficiaries of Europe’s tolerance), Mr Allam says his critics are hypocrites, denying him a liberty which they themselves have enjoyed.
If there is any issue on which Islam’s diaspora—experiencing the relative calmness of inter-faith relations in the West—might be able to give a clearer moral lead, it is surely this one. But even in the West, speaking out for the legal and civil right to “apostasise” can carry a cost. Usama Hasan, an influential young British imam, recently made the case for the right to change religions—only to find himself furiously denounced and threatened on Islamist websites, many of them produced in the West.
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