Islam: Antithetical to Religious Freedom

Freedom to Believe: Challenging Islam's Apostasy Law
By Patrick Sookhdeo, Isaac Publishing, 2009
179 pp., $11.75.
The religious allegiance of Barack Hussein Obama has been the subject of intense debate across the United States. Is Obama, who was raised a Muslim, a committed Muslim or a Christian convert? A Harris Poll conducted in March of 2010, revealed that fully 57% of all Republicans and 32% of Americans overall believe that Obama is a Muslim. In 2008, a University of Texas survey found that 23% of Texans were convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

The American public has been confused by Obama's statements and actions that bring into question the Christian faith he professed prior to his election. It is certainly confounding that Obama would recite the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic during a New York Times interview in 2007 and call it the "prettiest sound on earth." In an infamous September 2008 interview on ABC's "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos corrected Obama's ostensible slip of the tongue when the candidate stated, "John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith." In addition, following the election, it was quite puzzling to hear the leader of a Judeo-Christian nation refer to the "holy" Koran, publicly proclaim civilization's debt to Islam, and avow that "America is not and never will be at war with Islam."

Barack Obama's religious practices have raised questions about his affiliation with Christianity. For twenty years, he attended the church of controversial former Muslim Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In 2007, Wright, who wrote his University of Chicago Master's thesis on "Islam in West Africa," honored Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan with Trinity Church's Man of the Year award. Since becoming president, Obama stopped attending church, even on Christmas day, and specifically requested that no religious decorations grace the White House tree, which featured an ornament with the image of Mao Tse-Tung. In 2009 and 2010, much to the consternation of American Christians, Obama canceled the White House National Day of Prayer ceremonies.

Obama's official actions while president have fueled speculation about his continued allegiance to the Muslim world. As president, his first phone call as the nation's highest foreign statesman was to Abu Abbas, the terrorist leader of Fatah who was responsible for financing the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972. Obama's first television interview was with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya. In it he emphasized the importance of engaging with Iran and explained how the Israelis recognized the importance of achieving peace and would be willing to make sacrifices. No mention was made of any Arab-Palestinian sacrifices, the Arab-Palestinian vote to install the terrorist group Hamas as their official government, or the barrage of rockets they were directing toward Israel from Gaza. One of Obama's first speeches as president was at Cairo University, where he greeted the audience with "assalaamu alaykum," a greeting typically reserved for Muslims to extend to their fellow Muslims. In his speech, he focused on the wrongs committed by the West against Muslims and never once referred to the Islamic doctrine of jihad and its threat to the West. Curiously, Obama explained that as president, it was his responsibility to combat negative Islamic stereotypes, yet he remained silent about the protection of other religious groups. He did not describe his duty to fight Islamic terrorism or the threat of jihadist attacks on America. At the G-20 summit in April 2009, Obama bowed to Muslim Saudi King Abdullah, a shocking and unprecedented departure from U.S. presidential protocol.

In his book, Freedom to Believe: Challenging Islam's Apostasy Law, Patrick Sookhdeo contemplates a future in which Muslims extend to apostates the respect he believes they conferred on Barack Obama when he was invited to speak at Cairo University in 2009. However, Sookhdeo may be mistaken. Obama's religious status is ambiguous, and it is unclear if he is truly an apostate. The president may quite possibly be inappropriately labeled a Christian, and thus his case is unrepresentative of the dilemma posed by Islamic apostasy and cited by Sookhdeo. Nevertheless, as Islamic apostasy law is explicit and historically incontrovertible, Sookhdeo's dream of freedom of religious affiliation, that he imagines is now enjoyed by Obama, is probably out of reach for the majority of Muslims.

Patrick Sookhdeo is a British Anglican canon who serves as the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity.  A Christian convert from Islam, he is a spokesman for persecuted Christian minorities in Islamic nations worldwide. Sookhdeo has authored several books on Islam, including Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam and Understanding Islamic Terrorism.

In Freedom to Believe, Sookhdeo describes how freedom of religion is not recognized in the Muslim world because Islam is viewed as a way of life with both political and religious implications. Religion and adherence to Islamic doctrine is not viewed as a personal or private matter, but a function of the state. Any concept of an autonomous individual expressing free will is absent from Islam. Leaving Islam is viewed as treason and betrayal of the umma, or Muslim community, and disruptive to the social order. Muslims may also be accused of apostasy if they are not orthodox enough in their observance of Islamic doctrine.

Although conversion to Islam from other religions is actively encouraged, the reverse does not hold in Islamic doctrine. Sookhdeo cites all five main schools of shari'ah, or Islamic law, that consider apostasy from Islam a severe crime punishable by death. No disagreement exists about whether an apostate should be put to death; the only debate is whether the individual should be allowed a period of repentance. The death penalty for apostasy is brutal and can include decapitation, crucifixion, burning, strangling, drowning, impaling, and flaying. Muslims who participate in the killing of apostates are rewarded by a place in paradise. The humiliation of apostates continues into the afterlife, and those who leave the religion are denied a decent burial. 

In actual practice, observes Sookhdeo, apostates usually lose all civil rights. Their marriages may be dissolved, they may lose their families, and they may forfeit their inheritance rights. Apostasy accusations are often accepted uncritically with scant or no evidence. Apostates are often framed for spurious charges, arrested, tortured, and jailed. They may be dismissed from their jobs by their employer and suffer severe harassment, plus shame is visited upon their families and communities. Often family members try to have apostates declared insane to spare their lives, or they may even attempt to kill them or drive them away.

In Freedom to Believe, Sookhdeo also reviews the law of apostasy. It is based on the shari'ah and founded in the Koran and the practices of Mohamed, or the Hadith. The Hadith is very clear on the requirement to kill apostates, Sookhdeo writes. In Bukhari, the most authoritative of the Hadith collection, Mohamed is recorded as saying, "Whoever changed his religion, then kill him" (9:84:57). Whether or not the apostate is given a chance to repent is unclear, as there are verses that support either position. No designated punishment exists in Islamic doctrine for killing an apostate.

Ostensible contradictions in the Koran -- illustrated in the verses "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and "Fight and slay the non-believers wherever you find them" (9:5) -- are discussed by the author. He explains that this apparent discrepancy is an example of abrogation, a method of interpretation that imposes the precepts of later-day verses over earlier ones. More violent and definitive later-day verses, written after Mohamed had been victorious in Medina and Mecca, take precedence over earlier, milder verses written when Mohamed lacked sufficient power.

Sookhdeo also explains that apostasy is linked with blasphemy -- the cursing or insulting of Mohamed -- under the category of kufar, or unbelief. In contravention to Western principles of freedom of expression, the 57 Muslim states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have called for criminalizing religious defamation. Their goal, cites Sookhdeo, is to give Islam a privileged place among the world's religions. It would seem to be working. Non-Muslims are increasingly self-censoring to avoid charges of Islamophobia and to prevent actual violence, such as that which occurred with Cartoongate -- the protest against cartoons of Mohamed published by the Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which resulted in over one hundred people killed and embassies destroyed. Of course, Muslim violence against others, such as the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, Muslim anti-Semitism, and slavery in the Sudan, are off-limits. 

The OIC has been trying to use the United Nations to support incorporation of shari'ah-based, anti-blasphemy prohibitions into international human rights law. In 2008, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution against the defamation of religion, specifically mentioning Islam four times to the exclusion of all other religions. In March 2009, Pakistan put forth a draft resolution on behalf of the OIC to combat the defamation of religions, specifically mentioning Islam and Muslims but no other religion or religious groups. The effect of such a law, Sookhdeo believes, will be to stifle religious freedom, outlaw conversions to other faiths, and persecute non-Muslims. 

He contrasts Western tolerance of religious freedom with various religious restrictions in Muslim countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia, non-Islamic religious worship is strictly forbidden. Individual judges are able to make decisions regarding apostasy in secret proceedings. In Pakistan, the desecration of the Koran carries a sentence of life imprisonment. Oftentimes, charges of apostasy and blasphemy are spurious and used to settle a personal vendetta. In Malaysia, non-Muslims are prohibited from using the word "Allah" in their publications. In the Maldives, all citizens must be Muslim, and the public practice of any other religion is not allowed.

Sadly, recounts Sookhdeo, Muslims who immigrate to the West in search of religious freedom are gravely disappointed. Apostasy still remains a problem for Muslims who convert and move to countries where religious freedom is guaranteed. Such immigrants are often at risk from their own families as well as radicals in their communities. Many are harassed with death threats and find it necessary to keep a low profile or even go into hiding. Often their adoptive countries lack an understanding of the risks they face and are unsupportive of their plight. If refugees, they also face the threat of deportation to a death sentence in their home countries.

Sookhdeo concludes that Islamic apostasy law stands in direct contrast to Western principles of human rights and religious liberty. He sees scant hope for change -- that Muslims will be able to freely change their religions -- as Muslims remain shocked and repulsed by apostasy and believe harsh punishment is justifiable. Further, dissent invites blasphemy charges, which effectively silences opposition, and criticism, which, in turn, stifles reform. Given the conclusions in Sookhdeo's book, it is likely the respect shown by Muslims to President Obama is simply acceptance of a Muslim brother, not a foretaste of a future in which Muslim apostasy is tolerated and accepted.
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