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Muslim Apostasy: When Silence Isn't Golden By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 31, 2005

Last month, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that Prince Charles was leading efforts to combat the Islamic law of apostasy, under which leaving the Muslim religion is at the very least illegal and is often punishable by death.  Charles had held a private summit of Christian and Muslim leaders at Clarence House to discuss the issue.  There was, however, one hitch:  The Muslim delegation at the summit cautioned the prince and other non-Muslims not to speak publicly about apostasy laws, and some of the Christian leaders in attendance were reportedly “sympathetic” to this concern.

Although the proffered reason that non-Muslims should not speak publicly about apostasy laws was that Muslim moderates could better influence the debate without outside intervention, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny.  After all, virtually every observer agrees that the West cannot prevail in the war on terror unless Muslim moderates can counter their co-religionists’ more militant outlook, yet Westerners do publicly criticize Islamic terrorism, loudly and repeatedly.  Western silence on the apostasy issue will not help Islamic moderates; rather, silence is more likely to make both Muslims and also converts out of Islam believe that the issue is unimportant to the outside world.

Many Westerners, however, appear hesitant to speak out on the issue of religious freedom for converts out of Islam.  There are two apparent reasons for this hesitation.  First, in our multiculturalist society, many feel awkward about speaking up on behalf of those who leave Islam out of concern that attacks on apostasy laws could be seen as criticism of Islam itself.  Moreover, apostasy laws affect small numbers in comparison to the large-scale threat of terrorism.  Thus, many people may believe that it is not worth making waves over the issue.

This base view should be rejected.  In pursuing interfaith dialogue, the treatment of apostates from Islam is one of the crucial issues that Prince Charles and other Westerners should address because the ability to change one’s faith is a fundamental right.  Freedom of belief lies at the very heart of an individual’s identity because one’s theological outlook is central to one’s moral and philosophical understanding of the world.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights thus proclaims that everybody should have the “freedom to change his religion or belief.”


For the vast majority of Muslims residing within the Islamic world, this freedom does not exist.  Conversion out of Islam is illegal in at least fourteen countries, and is punishable by death in at least eight.  Although official proceedings against Muslim apostates are relatively rare, they do occur.  Most recently, Asia News reported on December 17 that Emad Alaabadi, a Saudi Arabian convert to Christianity, had been taken into custody by Saudi authorities.


Even in Muslim states that don’t officially prohibit conversion out of Islam, the legal system is often used against those who leave the faith.  In Egypt, for example, the government refuses to issue new identification papers to converts that reflect their new religion.  Without new identification papers, converts’ children must be raised Muslim and the converts have to live their lives as though they were still Muslim.  Those who attempt to raise their children in their new faith when their papers list their religion as Islam may be charged with blasphemy.  Because of this, apostates in Egypt are routinely charged with falsifying documents.


But by far the greatest threat to Muslim apostates comes not from the state, but from former co-religionists who believe that apostasy should be punished and set out to enforce the law themselves.


It is difficult to quantify with certainty how many apostates from Islam are killed, because such incidents too often go unreported.  Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, told me in an interview that he knows of at least a dozen cases in the past year in which apostates were killed for leaving the faith, and estimates that hundreds of apostates are killed every year worldwide.


This problem is magnified by the fact that many apostates, even if not killed, are subject to physical attacks.  One prominent example is Yakup Cindilli, a Turkish convert from Islam to Christianity who slipped into a coma in October 2003 after being savagely beaten for distributing New Testaments in his hometown.  Marshall estimates that hundreds of Muslim apostates are beaten every year.


Beyond that, most converts out of Islam living in the Muslim world are forced to disguise their new faith because of the persecution they would face at the hands of either the state or their fellow citizens.  Marshall believes that thousands of converts from Islam to Christianity are in hiding in Egypt, and that tens of thousands of Muslim apostates throughout the world are concealing their new faith.

This is not some internal Muslim issue about which Westerners should politely hold their tongues.  Rather, people are killed every year for following their conscience, and many more beyond that have their fundamental right to religious freedom abridged.  Westerners should put aside their hesitations, and should publicly condemn the immoral treatment of Muslim apostates.

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