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The New Roman Lions By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 31, 2006

The first generation of Christians faced severe persecution under the Roman Empire because of their refusal to bow down to the goddess Rome and the emperor. For Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Afghani man who was charged with a capital offense last week for converting from Islam to Christianity, post-Taliban Afghanistan might as well have been ancient Rome. Although Abdul Rahman was ultimately freed after massive international pressure was brought to bear on Afghan president Hamid Karzai's government, the case was dismissed because of alleged evidentiary questions: the anti-apostasy laws under which he was charged remain in place. It is only a matter of time before a similar apostasy case--either in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Middle East--again captures the public imagination in the West.

Middle Easterners who leave the Islamic faith have faced serious persecution for decades. Many have been killed, either by the state or by their former co-religionists. But the Abdul Rahman case marked the first time in recent memory that this practice has attracted significant attention. The issue extends far beyond Afghanistan and poses a problem not just for converts from Islam, but for all those who have invested in a strategy of peace through democratization.

A broad consensus exists through much of the Islamic world that apostates from the faith deserve to be killed. This consensus could be glimpsed in Abdul Rahman's case, where the judge, Ansarullah Mawlavezada, said, "In this country we have the perfect constitution. It is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished." Even the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, expected to take a more moderate stance, called for Abdul Rahman's punishment, claiming that he clearly violated Islamic law.

But apostasy laws stretch far beyond Afghanistan. At least 14 Islamic countries make conversion out of Islam illegal. The crime is punishable by death in at least eight of these states, either through explicit anti-apostasy laws or the broader offense of blasphemy.

Official proceedings against those who convert out of Islam are rare, at least in part because most of those who leave Islam choose to keep it secret. More often the government looks the other way while irate citizens mete out their own punishment. In July Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, estimated that dozens of apostates from Islam had been killed throughout the world in the previous year. Bolstering Marshall's estimate, the Compass Direct News Agency was able to identify 23 expatriate Christian workers who were killed in the Muslim world between 2002 and July 2005.

But the ripples spread beyond the obvious victims. While a large number of elections were held throughout the Middle East over the past year, we may be seeing a rise in illiberal democracies in the region. Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim Brotherhood's massive parliamentary gains in Egypt are suggestive of this trend.

The reason for the rise of illiberal democracy is the lack of true alternatives. The only safe way to criticize most Middle Eastern governments is from a fundamentalist direction, so citizens are forced to protest the ruling regimes by voting for the Islamist opposition. Thus, in our promotion of voting, we may be unwittingly empowering our enemies.

The way to create true alternatives in the long term is by bolstering liberal concepts such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Thus, while the attempt to put Abdul Rahman to death can be viewed as one man's struggle, it is more properly understood as a small part of a larger battle--the battle for Middle Eastern liberalization--that affects us all.

Unfortunately, prior to the media firestorm that accompanied Abdul Rahman's prosecution, the Western contribution to this battle wasn't limited to ignoring the plight of converts out of Islam. Some Westerners actively provided a platform for those who countenance the harsh treatment of apostates.

For example, the Cumberland Law Review recently published an essay by Ali Khan, a law professor at Washburn University. In his piece, Khan suggested that Islam can be seen as a form of intellectual property, and Muslims as "trustees" who have vowed to protect their faith's "knowledge-based assets." With this analogy in mind, Khan argued that apostasy should be punished because it

is aimed at dishonoring the protected knowledge of Islam. The murtad (apostate) is akin to a corporate insider who discloses the secrets he has undertaken to protect; he is akin to a state official who turns traitor and joins the ranks of the enemy; he is akin to a custodian who destroys the very monument he was safeguarding on behalf of the community. All legal systems punish insiders who breach their trusts; Islam punishes murtaddun [apostasy] too, sometimes severely.

This ugly rationalization for the harsh treatment of converts from Islam was never rebutted in the law review's pages. Nor has there been any sustained rebuttal of Syed Mumtaz Ali, the president of the Canadian Society of Muslims. Mumtaz Ali emerged as a respected public figure while leading the drive for an Islamic arbitration tribunal in Ontario, despite the fact that an essay on apostasy published under his name frankly--and favorably--quotes from a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that states: "Whosoever changes his religion, kill him with the sword."

The Abdul Rahman case presents an opportunity for the West, but only if we refuse to view this as an isolated incident. When Abdul Rahman awaited trial, Representative Tom Lantos wrote a letter to Hamid Karzai stating: "In a country where soldiers from all faiths, including Christianity, are dying in defense of your government, I find it outrageous that Mr. Rahman is being prosecuted and facing the death penalty for converting to Christianity." Lantos was correct, but he did not go far enough. This is not only an outrage in countries being defended by Western soldiers. The unjustifiable punishment of apostates from Islam is an outrage wherever it occurs.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and attorney.

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