Martyrs and magistrates

ArabicBible2In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman is facing execution for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity.

This story is huge in the European and Canadian press and gaining coverage stateside every day. Similarly, other countries seem to be officially condemning the action more than U.S. officials have thus far. German and Italian officials have condemned the human-rights violation but so far the only words from America’s executive branch came from the third-highest senior official at the State Department. And, from Reuters, check out his rousing defense of a man who is about to die for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity:

“We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view, if it’s upheld, then of course he’ll be found to be innocent,” said Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranked diplomat.

An Afghan judge said on Sunday a man named Abdur Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates death for apostasy.

“While we understand the complexity of a case like this and we certainly will respect the sovereignty of the Afghan authorities and the Afghan system, from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their own religion,” Burns told reporters …

The Bush administration may need to bring out a slightly bigger gun — and slightly more compelling rhetoric — if it wants to help Rahman. But why hasn’t Bush addressed the matter? And why aren’t reporters asking him about it?

Bush held a press conference on Tuesday morning where reporters had the chance to ask hard-hitting questions and put him on the spot. Why not ask him why American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan so that a government that executes Christians can be put in place? For a media obsessed with President Bush’s supposed hardline Christianity, they could press him a bit. Or maybe they were too busy composing really tough questions such as “Why did you really want to go to war?” Seriously, Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson is tougher on Bush than is the press corps:

Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free? What have we accomplished for overthrowing the Taliban? This is the kind of thing we would expect from the Taliban, not from President Karzai and his freely elected democratic government.

The Times of London had an interesting article complete with a list of areas where Christians have been persecuted in recent years. They talked with the judge deciding whether an Afghan man should be executed for converting to Christianity. The judge says he does not understand what the big deal is:

“It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting. In your country (Britain) two women can marry; that is very strange. 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.”

The paper had some great analysis and perspective on the situation, including this bit of intel from Rahman’s cellmate (Rahman is not allowed to speak to reporters):

Sayad Miakhel, told The Times: “He is standing by his words; he will not become a Muslim again. He has been a Christian for over 14 years. It is what he believes in . . .” Mr Miakhel, 30, said that conditions in the prison were basic, with 50 men to a cell built for 15. “Most prisoners have food brought to them by their families, but none of Abdul’s family have been to visit. I’m not sure how he is eating.”

“He seems depressed. He keeps looking up to the sky, to God,” said Mr Miakhel.

Most reporters are doing a good job of using Rahman’s story as a hook to explore the lack of religious freedom in Afghanistan, but one reporter’s story stands out in particular. Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, has a meaty piece that explores the family drama that led to Rahman getting busted, describes the religious landscape in Afghanistan and includes some frightening and violent quotes about what Rahman faces. Barker worked on the Tribune‘s series, “Struggle for the soul of Islam,” before taking a job covering Afghanistan. Here, she provides some perspective:

Rahman’s trial, which started Thursday, is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the struggle between Islamic reformists and fundamentalists in the country, which is still recovering from 23 years of war and the harsh rule of the Taliban, a radical religious regime that fell in late 2001.

Even under the more moderate government now in power, Islamic law is supposed to be followed, and many believe it requires the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for another religion.

noose2There was also an interesting and noteworthy headline change to the piece. The original headline was:

Afghan man faces death for being a Christian
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s been corrected to read:

Afghan man faces death for abandoning Islam
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s an important change and one that reporters, copyeditors and editors should keep in mind with this story. Technically speaking, converting to Christianity in a Muslim country will probably not get you killed or otherwise punished — so long as you are not Muslim to begin with (thae judge’s comment above notwithstanding). Certainly non-Muslims are not viewed the same way as Muslims from a legal standpoint — and this caveat manifests itself in wildly divergent ways — but it’s not being Christian that is the crime. Rather, the crime is leaving the Muslim religion.

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  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Actually (and I have memories of pointing this out before here) “sharia, or Islamic law” does not stipulate death for apostasy, and it would be nice if GR journos could take their peers to task for mindlessly repeating this mistake. Various scholars, jurists and thinkers (medieval and modern alike) vigourously disagree on the topic.

    Abdullah Saeed’s book _Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam_ (Ashgate, 2004) points this out, and makes a thorough case for arguing that a separation of the concepts of state treason and religious apostasy can and should be made, particularly as the Prophet never executed those who left Islam through religious conversion.

  • Mark Vassilakis

    I beg to differ with Umm Yasmin. If you study the hagiography of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, there are many stories of executions (martydoms) of Turks converting to Christianity or European converts returning to Christianity. I believe this was mandated by the sultan’s law.

  • http://bobhyatt.typepad.com bob

    You said: “it’s not being Christian that is the crime. Rather, the crime is leaving the Muslim religion.”

    The Judge presiding over the case said: “it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished.”

    It seems that in an Islamic country, everyone is assumed muslim unless proven otherwise… Even if one doesn’t practice Islam well, as long as the cultural markers are respected, one is okay. So unless you were born elsewhere and emmigrated there, the practical effect is that being a Christian is criminalized.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I believe there are other underlying issues at stake:

    1. Capital punishment. If George W. Bush is against this instance of capital punishment, the world community will ask why he doesn’t push to eradicate capital punishment in the US. Notice how quickly and vociferously the European nations spoke out?

    2. What specifically is TRUE Islam? It appears there are differing interpretations. Just like Christianity–there are Catholics for the death penalty and those against.

    3. At what point is a nation sovereign? The US is currently maintaining we have sovereignty within our borders and do not need to be ruled by international courts and tribunals. Again, if we meddle in another nation’s affairs, is that not the same as an international tribunal dictating to us how we in the US must live and govern?

    Nations with a history of intolerance will falter. France is a classic example–what does France export that the world wants? It doesn’t even have a cachet for cheese and wine anymore! The nations that are open and tolerant and reward risk takers and take the risk of people making their own choices are the ones who succeed.

    I would hope that President Bush offer asylum to Abdul Rahman. And while the MSM does not cover the religious aspects of this issue well, there are also political aspects that also need to be considered.

  • csa bill

    The punishment for apostacy in islam is death. This goes for even people who convert to islam and then leave it.

    The quran starts with “no compulsion in religion” but as you go to the later chapters it asks you to “slay those who abandon Allah”. Dont know what made Allah change his mind. ;-)

  • http://www.psonnets.org/ Michael Rew

    Even if Rahman were released, he would face death by mob rule. How many immigrant converts to Christianity in Europe and America have been spirited back to their home countries by their families to face execution? That would be one scenario of “extraordinary rendition” worth studying.

  • csa bill

    My mistake. It is the Hadiths which say death penalty for apostacy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostasy_in_Islam has more information.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Bob: It seems that in an Islamic country, everyone is assumed muslim unless proven otherwise.

    No, there are also non-Muslims living in Afghanistan. One fo the news stories I remember from a few years back when the Taliban fell was that of the last two Jews living in Afghanistan. (Of course, they hated each other. Neither was willing to leave and let the other be the last Jew in Afghanistan — and there was also a valuable Torah scroll involved — but eventually one died.)

  • tmatt

    2. What specifically is TRUE Islam? It appears there are differing interpretations. Just like Christianity—there are Catholics for the death penalty and those against.

    Of course, the Islamic world has no Vatican. It is a religion of movements and within the movements there are leaders who disagree.

    Thus, you can know what the Vatican teaches and at least refer to that, even if millions of Catholics disagree. In Islam, you simply have no ultimate court at all.

    I assume this means that sharia courts would even disagree from nation to nation and sect to sect?

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  • http://www.highchairtheology.blogspot.com Jodi

    Honestly, I don’t know the ins and outs of apparently multiple interpretations by Muslims on Islamic law. It seems as though they are as wide spread as Christian interpretations regarding Jesus’ teachings (did Jesus condem homosexuality for example.) Simply because an American Muslim authority (or Arab Muslim for that matter) states that apostasy isn’t a capitol offence doesn’t necessarily mean that is the true historical Islamic teaching.

    The fact is, this IS happening…like it or not. And, the fact is, this HAS BEEN happening before this particular case. I am a bit surprised at the attention this is receiving. Are people so closed to international issues of religion that they aren’t aware of this? Or is it somply something that the media finds convenient to bring up at this moment as a way to influence political opinion. I really would like any additional information regarding the particular importance of this case which causes it to stand out from other such cases. Is this the first “legal” trial and excecution? Really, I don’t know enough to judge the differences which makes this case stand out.

    My husband worked in refugee camps in Europe for three years. I was fortunate to accompany him on many occasions. In my personal experience, I met two families with similar experiences. One was an Iranian family of four (two small children) who had to flee because of religious persecution: they converted. I will never forget the mother shielding her children from the camera’s eye for fear that her extended family would see the pictures, find out where they were, and have them killed. Another man (I forget his nationality) escaped his country for the same reasons: he had converted to Christianity. He was not so furtunate as to escape with his family. Because the government knew of his apostasy, he was in constant fear for the lives of his wife and kids. He knew the reality that they could be killed for his faith. He accepted it.
    I do hope this case in Afganistan will open the eyes of those unwilling to accept what is happening. I hope, also, that this will not be viewed as an isolated event. Again, please let me know if there are some extraordinary circumstances surrounding this case.

  • http://terraextraneus.com Terry Hull

    In other words, being a Muslim in Afghanistan is like being in the Mafia. Once you’re in, there’s no way out.

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  • Stephen A.

    1. Capital punishment. If George W. Bush is against this instance of capital punishment, the world community will ask why he doesn’t push to eradicate capital punishment in the US. Notice how quickly and vociferously the European nations spoke out?
    Actually, Bush doesn’t advocate the murder of those who convert from Christianity to other religions, or from any religion, so your analogy is not a very good one. It is a shame Bush and others haven’t spoken out, or that the press hasn’t held their feet to the fire on this failure.

    3. At what point is a nation sovereign? The US is currently maintaining we have sovereignty within our borders and do not need to be ruled by international courts and tribunals. Again, if we meddle in another nation’s affairs, is that not the same as an international tribunal dictating to us how we in the US must live and govern?
    No. Urging another nation not to murder all who convert from Islam to another faith is by no means the same as an international tribunal, especially since you argued above that Bush isn’t really pushing this issue very hard. So I again fail to see the analogy.

    It’s important to be consistent in your arguments for them to be effective.

  • Stephen A.

    Back to the media, once again, this story will apparently be driven by the New Media, since the MSM is dropping the ball.
    What’s been more important this week?
    - a car chase in LA
    - What will Trump name his baby (“Barron”?)
    - A cat fell 80 feet and survived (remarkable video, though)

  • Michael

    since the MSM is dropping the ball.

    Is it. A quick search shows stories about Rahman in pretty much every traditional MSM outlet.

  • pdb

    There is undoubtedly more going on behind the scenes we don’t know about. For the administration to put a lot of public pressure on Karzai to intervene could well backfire. He’d look weak. Look for this case to be resolved in some face-saving manner. The larger issue, religious freedom, will still be there.

  • tmatt

    Michael:

    The story was driven INTO the MSM by the alternative media. It is now getting some very good coverage. I think we can agree on that.

    A friend of mine online, who works in a pivotal ministry, just said: If Rahman dies, the GOP loses one of the two houses of Congress this fall.

  • csa bill

    The punishment is different in different schools of islam, but all seem to agree that death is the punishment except for the Ahamaddiya sect.

    But, the question remains… What is the difference between Mullah Omar & Karzai??? And once again I am reminded of what one guy said on BBC. The US is exporting the process of democracy, but not the values. Freedom without appropriate values is doomed and will bring doom to others unless externally corrected.

    I dont think Afghan is ready for democracy in the true sense.

  • http://www.highchairtheology.blogspot.com Jodi

    pdb-
    You hit the nail on the head as far as judging the actions of the politicians goes: there is a lot more information that they have than we are given. Like it or not, the majority of our “intel” comes from the media…and we all know what the media can do.

  • Michael

    A friend of mine online, who works in a pivotal ministry, just said: If Rahman dies, the GOP loses one of the two houses of Congress this fall.

    Very interesting. In the sense that religious conservatives won’t turn out to vote or bankroll campaigns?

  • Stephen A.

    Is it. A quick search shows stories about Rahman in pretty much every traditional MSM outlet.

    Well, a while ago, CNN.com had the story – but it was buried deep inside the Middle East archive, far from the front page. You really had to WANT to find it, and it was halfway down the page. Not a huge priority.

    Granted, it is starting to make some papers, but I agree that this is being driven by the online blogs – and outraged Christians.

    Michelle Malkin’s blog notes that the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling on Pres. Harmid Karzai to pardon the man. That’s an interesting development.

    The president of the Family Research Council (Christian group) has apparently “read the Bush administration the riot act” on their response to the case, according to CNSnews.

    I agree that some Christians will be HOPPING MAD if this man is executed, and Italian troops may very well pull out of Afghanistan.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Of course capital punishment on a charge of apostasy has been used as a tool of political oppression. That has certainly not been limited to Islamic civilisations alone.

    But the fact of the matter, there is a spectrum of wildly different opinions in interpreting Islamic law in regard to the status of those who leave the religion.

    To give you an example, in pre-modern interpretations, Hanafis do not apply capital punishment to female apostates, which gives credence to the argument that apostasy was seen as state treason and desertion from the army. Furthermore, the Hanbalis do not consider capital punishment for apostasy to be divinely prescribed and consequently famous Hanbali scholars such as Ibrahim al-Nakha’i and Sufyan al-Thawri asserted apostates should never be put to death. One of the most famous Hanbali scholars Ibn Taymiyyah asserted that it was up to a judge’s discretion.

    Now, that is simply to show you that great and famous Muslim scholars were *not* of one mind on the status of apostasy. There is single voice from “shari’a law” here!

    Many Muslims argue that the modern concepts of religious allegience are dramatically different to what were tribal or national affiliations in the past, and consequently can not and should not be treated in the way that medieval scholars treated the topic.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Fixing typo: There is NO single voice from “shari’a law” here!

  • MT

    To Umm and other Muslim commentators: Is it correct that the Koran allows a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, but not the other way around? Do you agree with this interpretation? Why is it OK for a man to marry a women who rejects Islam?

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    Dear MT,

    The Qur’an prohibits marriage to either male or female kafirs (truth-concealing ingrates) and mushriks (polytheists). It gives permission for men to marry chaste, believing ahlul-kitab (Jews and Christians). It is silent on whether a woman can marry a chaste ahlul-kitabi. The Qur’an, as you may be able to tell, does not simply divide people into Muslims and non-Muslims, or goodies and badies, even though some Muslims and non-Muslims try to read it that way.

    Traditionally, there was no room for free Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Even in the sixteenth century CE, Muslim male converts were seen as very low on the social scale. The Fatawa Alamgiri (a famous canon of interpreted law) allowed a male guardian to reject a *Muslim* man who was a convert on the basis of his low status. Forget non-Muslims who wouldn’t even appear on the social-scale of acceptability.

    Mind you, Muslim female slaves married to non-Muslim owners are a different kettle of fish.

    Today, the vast majority of Muslims would adhere to the traditional patriarchal view of marriage as interpreted in the medieval and pre-modern periods. There are a small number of progressive-oriented interpreters who argue that this is an area in which the Qur’an worked within the limits of traditional patriarchy, but provides room for more egalitarian interpretations in the long-term.

    My views on the topic are available here.

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com/ Bob Waters

    The man is not going to be executed, or even punished.

    What we are seeing is the birth pangs of a pluralistic democracy in a backward and primitive society. The Karzai regime would not survive the backlash in the United States if Mr. Rahman were even imprisoned, much less executed, for converting to Christianity- and President Karzai is not stupid enough to think that it could.

    Watch: he’ll be released, and settle somewhere other than Afghanistan- probably in a non-Islamic country.

    Should he have to leave his own country to enjoy freedom of religion? Obviously not. But change takes time, and the Taliban is a lot closer to the mainstream in Afghanistan than we Westerners can easily imagine.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Stephen:

    “1. Capital punishment. If George W. Bush is against this instance of capital punishment, the world community will ask why he doesn’t push to eradicate capital punishment in the US. Notice how quickly and vociferously the European nations spoke out?
    Actually, Bush doesn’t advocate the murder of those who convert from Christianity to other religions, or from any religion, so your analogy is not a very good one. It is a shame Bush and others haven’t spoken out, or that the press hasn’t held their feet to the fire on this failure.

    3. At what point is a nation sovereign? The US is currently maintaining we have sovereignty within our borders and do not need to be ruled by international courts and tribunals. Again, if we meddle in another nation’s affairs, is that not the same as an international tribunal dictating to us how we in the US must live and govern?
    No. Urging another nation not to murder all who convert from Islam to another faith is by no means the same as an international tribunal, especially since you argued above that Bush isn’t really pushing this issue very hard. So I again fail to see the analogy.”

    Actually, the analogies are still true. We ask that converts not be executed. The European community asks us not to execute *anyone.* Each nation and each culture has its own laws and rules. We have become accustomed to religious tolerance so in our minds executing someone over religious belief seems intolerable. But go back to Europe in the 1500′s and a man named Martin Luther was condemned to death by his emperor for his religious beliefs. He was protected by an Elector who could also have been killed (a quirk of history, though, had the Holy Roman Emperor more concerned with keeping the German princes unified against the Turkish threat that he did not pursue having Luther and anyone aiding and abetting him put to death).

    And the point still remains we would not tolerate living under sharia law; the same could be said for the Muslim nations that feel uncomfortable under Western-style law.

    It’s important to be consistent in your arguments for them to be effective.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    There are also a sizeable number of Hindus in Afghanistan. Some of us will remember coverage from when the Taliban wanted to impose a yellow-star equivalent on non-Moslems, on the pretext that this would “protect” them from being hassled by the sharia police. The NYT reportage quoted local Hindus as saying that they had not previously been harassed, and anyway people could perfectly easily who Hindu men were– the ones *without* beards.

  • http://areyoudressed.blogspot.com Molly

    I don’t suppose NPR is considered MSM by some, but I’ve been hearing about this from them for the past two days.

  • Stephen A.

    John, you say: “But go back to Europe in the 1500’s…”

    Exactly. You HAVE to go back there (or to the old standbys, the Crusades or the Inquisition) to find Westerners slaughtering those who converted the “wrong way.” Same goes for Umm’s statement, “Of course capital punishment on a charge of apostasy has been used as a tool of political oppression. That has certainly not been limited to Islamic civilisations alone.”

    True. But the fact that talk of Western nations who practice that policy inevitably include words like “German princes” and “Holy Roman Empire” proves in itself that it’s NOT the policy of ANY government in the West today to put people to death because of their religion, or lack thereof.

    To make blanket statements to the contrary is purposefully misleading.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin
  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    No, but the US murders the mentally ill :)

    (Just a little point, my moniker is “Umm Yasmin” which means Mother of Yasmin, so calling me “Umm” literally means calling me “Mother”.)

  • Caleb

    I am writing from Kabul, Afghanistan.
    I’m not surprised to see what had happend to Mr. Rahman and the decision they are talking about. The conistitution had a problem from day one. He (Mr. Rahim) was bold in what he said and I am greatly encourged by it.

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    For those still following the thread, this blog post is worth reading.

  • MT

    Yasmin – are you aware that there is a difference between murder and execution?

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    I come from Australia where we consider the death penalty to be state murder :)

  • http://www.maryams.net/dervish Umm Yasmin

    I should point out my uncle was a protestor at the execution of Ronald Ryan, Australia’s last man to be legally executed in 1967. Australians reject the concept that a secular modern state should be allowed to kill its citizens as punishment for real or perceived crimes.

  • Herb

    Why aren’t the developments here being followed up? This thread is days old! In 1983, a missionary who had worked in the Muslim world for decades told me, “many people are going to die before there is freedom of religion in Afghanistan.” His words were prophetic, though perhaps not particularly brilliant — the same is true in almost every predominantly Muslim country, and execution of Muslim converts has happened in Western Europe, and even right here in the U.S.

    God bless Abdul Rahman, and hundreds and thousands of his brethren and sisters like him!


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