Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who faced the death penalty in his native country for converting from Islam to Christianity, was granted political asylum in Italy and arrived in Rome on March 29. His release came after several weeks of intense pressure by the United States and other Western governments on Kabul to spare his life and let him leave the country. Pope Benedict XVI also intervened on his behalf, and millions of Christians all over the world prayed for his safety.
President Hamid Karzai’s government eventually relented, not by removing death for apostasy from the statute book but by proclaiming Rahman insane and therefore unfit to stand trial. The country was outraged. Afghan parliamentary deputies and Islamic scholars criticized Karzai for succumbing to Western pressure and demanded that Rahman be executed; ordinary Afghans took to the streets chanting, “death to Christians.” All of that, in a country that President George W. Bush calls a “key partner” and “an inspiration” that will lead others in the region “to demand their freedom.”
Two important aspects of Rahman’s case have been neglected in the media coverage and public debate: the kind of society that is emerging in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, in the wake of the U.S. military action; and the overall treatment of Christians in the Muslim world. Undue prominence was given, on the other hand, to the misleading claims by Islam’s apologists in the West that apostasy is not a capital crime under sharia.
Rahman’s case became a cause célèbre only because of the presence of American troops in Afghanistan. Having him executed for apostasy under their noses would have thrown unwelcome light on the ongoing debacle known as “democratizing the greater Middle East.” In “democratized” Afghanistan, Rahman’s indictment and trial were perfectly legal. Afghanistan is among a score of Muslim countries that treat apostasy as a crime, and one of eight—along with Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania, and Comoros—that makes it punishable by death.
Afghanistan’s laws are based on a post-Taliban constitution, enacted in 2004, that was warmly supported and even guided in its creation by the United States. It defines the country as an Islamic republic and postulates that “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.” After it was adopted, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Afghanistan at that time, called the document “one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.”
By October 2005, it was Iraq’s turn to adopt a new constitution, and the ubiquitous Mr. Khalilzad was on hand in his new role as the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. He approved the core principle, that “Islam is a main source for legislation and it is not permitted to legislate anything that conflicts with the fixed principles of the rules of Islam.” This prompted a secular Kurdish politician to comment,
It’s shocking. It doesn’t fit American values. They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state . . . I can’t believe that’s what the Americans really want or what the American people want.
This was the kind of constitution the Iraqi people wanted, however, judging by the fact that they approved it by a margin of four to one. Mr. Khalilzad and his bosses have every right to claim that they have acted—both in Kabul and in Baghdad—in accordance with the wishes of the majority, but their primary task should have been not to pander to the “street” but to ensure that American interests are protected. As I have warned repeatedly in these pages, “democratization” of the greater Middle East would lead to its Islamization. It is not in this country’s interest to facilitate the trend, in principle, and then to confront its unpleasant fruits, in practice, but the damage has been done. Both Afghanistan and Iraq have constitutions that offer the basis for the establishment of a full-fledged Allahocracy once the Americans depart.
The attention given to Rahman’s case provides a sharp contrast to the general indifference of the West to Christian suffering elsewhere in the Muslim world. The lack of a principled American response when Christians are mistreated by other “key partners” of the United States—Pakistan, Egypt, and even “secular” Turkey—is a moral crime and a political mistake.
In Pakistan, where Christians account for under two percent of the population, they are subjected to endemic discrimination and harassment. Any dispute with a Muslim can become a religious issue if the Christian is accused of blasphemy. The blasphemy law, introduced in 1988, provides for punishment of “anyone who insults the holy name of the Prophet in word, writing or deed or visible representations, direct or indirect insinuations.” So far, more than 650 Pakistanis have been prosecuted under this law, and some two-dozen others accused of this offense were killed. A report issued in 2005 by the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Pakistan warned that the law is used by Muslims to settle quarrels. Charges of blasphemy can be made on the flimsiest of evidence, even one man’s word against another’s—and, since it is invariably a Muslim’s word against that of a Christian, the outcome is preordained.
A typical incident occurred last November in the town of Sangla Hill, when Yousuf Masih, a Christian, won a substantial sum of money playing cards with a Muslim neighbor. The sore loser went to the police and accused Masih of setting fire to a copy of the Koran. Local imams used mosque loudspeakers to demand retribution, a mob was duly assembled, three churches were torched, a Catholic convent and a Christian elementary school were vandalized, local Christians had to flee, and the police force stood idly by.
Being accused of blasphemy is only one of many risks faced by the Christian community. Terrorist attacks on churches are common. In October 2001, attackers opened fire on a church at Bahawalpur, in southern Pakistan, killing 16 worshipers. In March 2002, a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad killed five people, including an American woman and her 17-year-old daughter. In December of that year, three girls died during a Christmas Day attack on a small church in Chianwala, in eastern Pakistan. Less lethal attacks are happening more or less every week. Last April, fire was set to two churches in two days: a Protestant church in Mian Channu, east of Multan; and a Catholic church in Jivanpura, west of Lahore. On February 15, during protests against the Danish cartoons, demonstrators ransacked three Christian high schools. On February 18, unidentified men attacked a popular Christian singer, A Nayyar, and forced him to recite a profession of the Islamic faith.
In Egypt, supposedly a friend of the United States and the second-largest recipient of the U.S. taxpayers’ largesse, 7 million Christians (in a nation of 70 million people) experience harassment and persecution from both the government and various Islamic groups, such as the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya. Islam is Egypt’s “state religion,” and Islamic schools receive state subsidies. Apostasy is not a crime, but the authorities treat it as such. When Hanaan Assofti, a 26-year-old convert from Islam to Christianity, tried in 1992 to leave and seek asylum in Europe, she was arrested by state security officers at the Cairo airport. In 2003, Egyptian police arrested 22 converts and their helpers. Some were tortured, and one, Isam Abdul Fathr, died in custody. In 2005, Gaseer Mohamed Mahmoud was tortured by police and was told he would be imprisoned until he renounced Christianity. However, conversion from Christianity to Islam is encouraged. The pressure to do so is intense and often accompanied by offers of material reward.
When bribes fail, there is violence. In May 1992, Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya killed 14 Christians in a series of coordinated attacks. In September 1993, Christians were forced to flee four villages in Upper Egypt and abandon their properties. A series of attacks followed in 1996 and 1997, including the murder of ten Christians at Mary Guirguis Church in the El Minya province. Not a single person was convicted of murder following the January 2000 massacre of 21 Coptic Christians in the village of Al Kosheh, and smaller-scale massacres continue unabated.
The murder last February of Fr. Andrea Santoro in Trabzon, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, was a classic case of jihadism. Such incidents are fairly rare nowadays, however, not because Turkish society has become enlightened and tolerant, but because there are practically no Christians left in the country. In 1955, the Greek minority—already reduced to a tiny remnant of what had been a community of over two million—suffered the worst ethno-religious riot in Europe since Kristallnacht. There are but 2,000 Greeks remaining in Turkey today, and, according to a Helsinki Watch mission that visited Turkey in October 1991, they still suffer harassment by police, discrimination, restrictions on religious freedom, limitations on the right to control charitable institutions, and the denial of their ethnic identity.
Elsewhere in the region, the picture is equally grim. Beleaguered Christians are leaving Iraq en masse. In Lebanon, their numbers have collapsed, from a simple majority to an estimated 25 percent in two generations. In the Palestinian territories, they have declined from one third of the Arab population a century ago to under two percent today. In his grim 2002 book, The New Persecuted: Inquiries Into Anti-Christian Intolerance in the New Century of Martyrs, Antonio Socci provides evidence that an average of 160,000 Christians have been killed every year since 1990, almost all of them by Muslims, in East Timor, Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria, Indonesia, etc. Socci laments the fact that “this global persecution of Christianity is still in progress but in most cases is ignored by the mass media and Christians in the West.”
While ignoring this broader backdrop of the Rahman affair, the media in the United States proved all too eager to publish assurances by Islam’s assorted apologists that executing apostates was not in accordance with that religion’s teaching or its historical practice. M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of international law at DePaul University, did not merely claim, as other authors have done, that the Koran does not provide a clear injunction to punish apostasy with death. In the pages of the Chicago Tribune, he asserted that “a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity is not a crime punishable by death under Islamic law.” This statement denied 13 centuries of historical practice and glossed over the fact that death for apostasy is clearly mandated by the Hadith, the supposed record of Muhammad’s words and deeds that provides an essential source of Islamic jurisprudence.
It may be possible to dispute the Koranic basis of a death penalty for apostasy, but it is not possible to deny that the demand for such punishment is based on incontrovertibly valid Islamic sources, precedents, and methods of deduction. Its advocates invoke sources and principles that are independent of any capricious or dubious interpretations of Islam’s source material. These core sources have created a moral philosophy and a legal code that leaves no room for individual judgment based on natural morality or on the allegiance to any other source of authority but itself. Analogies thus derived stand above reason, conscience, and nature. The lack of any pretense to a moral basis for executing apostates is explicit: There is no “spirit of the law” in Islam, no rationality behind it for human reason to discover.
As Clement Huart pointed out 99 years ago,
Until the newer conceptions, as to what the Koran teaches as to the duty of the believer towards non-believers, have spread further and have more generally leavened the mass of Moslem belief and opinion, it is the older and orthodox standpoint on this question which must be regarded by non-Moslems as representing Mohammedan teaching and as guiding Mohammedan action.
Indeed: Rahman’s would-be executioners were not the ones “distorting” Islam; rather, it was those apologists claiming that the death penalty should not or does not apply to his case.
At a personal level, we may sympathize with the desire of supposedly moderate Muslims to be “revisionists” without sliding into apostasy themselves, but the effort is doomed. The willingness of a few to become objectively bad Muslims, because they are willing to reject discriminatory and offensive tenets of historical Islam, may be laudable in human terms, but it will do little to modify Islam as a doctrine. A reformed faith that should question the authority of the Afghan court to execute Abdul Rahman, or attempt by rationalistic selection or abatement to force such a reform, would be Islam no longer.