Persecution and Death: Legal Punishment in Islamic Societies

Capital punishment continues to be one of the most controversial and heated issues in American public life on several levels -- political, religious, intellectual, and legal.  The controversy comes to a head particularly when the practice is applied improperly.  Courts in the United States at all levels, including the Supreme Court, are still grappling with the question.

Throughout the world, 140 nations in one way or another have abolished capital punishment, while 58 still insist on their legal right to practice it.  Some of the latter countries are discussed in a new report issued in Brussels on December 30, 2013 by Human Rights Without Frontiers International (HRWF).  This body, established in Brussels in 1988, seeks to promote human rights around the world.

In its present report, which is limited to countries where access to information was possible, the HRWF is concerned with the general problem of individuals put in prison and executed due to laws forbidding or restricting their basic rights to freedom of religion or belief.  It identifies 24 countries, eight of which are members of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as depriving religious believers of their freedom.  This would include forbidding people to change religion or belief, sharing one's religion or beliefs, freedom of association, and freedom of worship and assembly.

Since World War II, attempts have been made to affirm freedom of religion, and even more to end capital punishment.  The first affirmation was made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18): "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) used similar language in its own Article 18, which recognized the right "to have or to adopt a religion or belief" of one's choice.  It continued, "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice."  The U.N. General Assembly has also adopted non-binding resolutions for a moratorium on executions.

The European Union has gone farther through its legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, passed in 2000 and effective in December 2009.  Article 2 of the Charter states, "No one shall be condemned to the death penalty or executed."

It is saddening that the HRWF Report states that hundreds of prisoners are in the 24 countries discussed, including the eight states who have been accepted as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council despite their dismal record on human rights and their refusal to allow or their rigid control over religious freedom.  The report identifies 10 of the 24 countries as the worst in grossly violating individual freedom to change religion or belief.  Apostasy is a capital offense punishable by death in eight of them: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

Other studies note the use of capital punishment.  In Iran in 2011-2012, there were 360 juridical executions; in Saudi Arabia, 60 in 2012, with another 250 on death row; and in Yemen, 41 in 2011.  There can be no greater defining distinction between the cultures of the Western world -- certainly in Europe and increasingly in the U.S. -- all of which are concerned with constitutional questions of due process and equal protection, and countries abiding by sharia law than this use of capital punishment on the basis of religious intolerance.

While the countries that hold the largest number of prisoners are China, Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea, it is pertinent to say it is the Muslim countries that are the most wedded to capital punishment.  They make conversion from Islam to another religious belief a criminal offense, and they persecute or intimidate those of other religions who may emigrate, as have Egyptian Copts, to escape the threat of imprisonment or capital punishment.

It is the Islamic nations where freedom of religion and expression on religious issues is most violated, largely because of the laws against what are said to be blasphemy or defamation of religion or of the Prophet.  In these countries there is total denial of religious freedom other than Islam, or else punishment for any change of religion or belief from Islam, or controls over freedom of association, worship, and assembly.

Even if capital punishment is not always carried out as the penalty in these countries, those punished for their beliefs are subjugated to threats of the death penalty, flogging, stoning, amputation, and imprisonment.  They may also suffer "civic death" by deprivation of citizenship, by marriage being annulled, by losing rights over children.  

In Saudi Arabia, which has no codified penal code and where judicial rulings are arbitrary and indeterminate, 52 Ethiopian Christians were recently arrested for taking part in a service in a private home; some were imprisoned and others deported.  In Libya, a number of Copts were imprisoned for trying to convert others.  In Egypt, the government for some time used the Penal Code to prosecute supposed proselytizing by non-Muslims.  In Egypt and other Arab and Islamic countries, the charge of blasphemy has been used to prosecute and imprison those who do not accept the official Islamic beliefs, and who are accused of "insulting Islam or the Prophet."

A typical example is Iran, which defines itself as follows: "The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari school, and this will remain eternally immutable."  The law states that capital punishment will be the penalty for male apostates, a penalty the courts must apply on the basis of sharia law.

Individuals who were simply celebrating the Christmas festival or were building a non-religious orphanage were arrested and imprisoned on the basis of absurd allegations that they had converted from Islam to Christianity, that they were encouraging the conversion of others to Christianity, that they were acting against the regime by promoting Christianity, that they were insulting the supreme leader, and that they were committing crimes against Iran's national security.  They were tortured and severely beaten during interrogation in prison.  The activity of Christians is closely monitored, Bibles are often confiscated, security cameras are present outside churches, and worshipers are subjected to identity checks.

Moreover, Iran persecutes not only Christians, but also others. It regards Bahá'ís as apostates from Islam, who have no right to believe in the Bahá'í faith or profess it individually or in community. They have therefore been accused of espionage, anti-Islamic activity, and acting in cooperation with Israel.  More than 100 Bahá'ís are currently in prison.

Whatever one's views about the retention of capital punishment for the direst offenses, two actions are necessary.  One is the immediate release of all those imprisoned for religious reasons.  The other is the necessity to work toward changing the Islamic attitude to freedom of religion or belief.  Laws that criminalize "blasphemy" and restrict freedom of expression should be abolished.  Individuals belonging to non-Muslim faiths should not be intimidated or mistreated.  By adopting principles of freedom of religion and belief, Islamic society will take a giant step in moving to democratic development, the exercise of the rule of law, and real human rights.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.