Apostasy: A Certain Death | Sarah Stook
To walk away from a faith is personal to many, but in some places, it can get you killed.
Apostasy is the act of shunning or leaving one’s religion. It comes with a variety of consequences, from family friction to cut ties. Denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses cut off all contact from those who renounce the faith, which is not uncommon. Historically, being the wrong religion could give you a one way ticket to the stake- just think of the 16th Century when the status quo religion changed faster that one could keep up with.
We think of these things as ancient history, something we learn about in history books- but that is not the case. The act of apostasy will not just lead to social shunning, but to death- decided by the state.
Recent protests against France and its President, Emmanuel Macron have put Muslim beliefs in the spotlight. The clash between freedom of expression, speech and religion have come to a head. Muslim heads of state implore their followers to reject France, which many are. In response, Macron has underlied France’s values of freedom and liberty. This all stemmed from the death of teacher Samuel Paty who showed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in the classroom, something extremely forbidden in Islam. The horrible deaths of three people at the hand of a man who proclaimed to be doing this for Islam, as well as the shooting of a Greek Orthodox priest as he was locking up for the night, have caused massive shock.
Let’s dive deep.
The Quran openly expresses an intolerance for apostasy:
‘Make ye no excuses: ye have rejected Faith after ye had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin’Quran 9.66
‘Narrated `Abdullah: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said,
The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the MuslimsBook 87, Hadith 17
It doesn’t stop there.
A Library of Congress report lists 23 countries in which apostasy is a crime. Several have no particular punishments, but certain laws definitely pertain to apostasy and ensure that it is an offence. 12 countries have the death penalty for apostasy, with others also including blasphemy in the deal. That’s right: in 2020, leaving a religion means that the state can end your life. Such value is placed on faith that the rights of the individual are clearly secondary in importance. Each of these countries has one thing in common- they are all Muslim majority. In practice, the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy is fairly rare- the only countries in recent years to have used it are Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are fairly liberal in their use of capital punishment regardless.
Others may not have laws against apostasy, but attempting to convert Muslims and proselytizing non-Islamic religions is a crime in several places, such as Somalia and the Maldives. In the latter, leaving Islam means you could be stripped of your citizenship.
These millions of people are not free.
The idea that the state can kill you or punish you for such a personal decision is a terrifying one. Being Muslim is more important than anything else, because to them, Islam is above all. That on its own is not a bad thing; billions of people define themselves by their religion. Your faith should be your personal decision, the state should not impose its views onto you. The death penalty is a deeply contentious one and if one supports it, it’s usually for murder. Changing religion is not harming a single soul, yet the idea of apostasy terrifies many.
Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says the following:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’
Each one of the countries that punishes apostasy is a member of the United Nations, which shows how the world has stopped caring about those trapped in an unwanted faith. World leaders have not stepped up to support President Macron as he declares a war against intolerance, too afraid of the response of others. These countries demand total respect of Islam to the point of denegrating other religions. Whilst all countries bar Saudi Arabia allow open adherence to non-Islamic religions, the human rights violations are grotesque. These people are not protected. In no way are Muslims protected either, which is apparently the point of the government. They want to use religion to control the masses- and they genuinely believe to renounce it is the greatest sin of all.
Opinions on the death penalty for apostasy vary hugely within the Islamic world. A 2013 Pew poll told us that 4% of Muslims in Kazakhstan and 8% in Albania believe in it, compared to 86% in Egypt and 82% in Jordan. It’s pretty compatible with how strictly religious the countries are, but still worrying nonetheless. These people are happy with someone being killed for leaving the Islamic faith.
Those angry at Macron have called out what they perceive to be Islamophobia in France and its colonial past. Does Islamophobia exist in France? Of course it does, and we’d be silly to deny that it exists. What we do need to recognise is what exactly Islamophobia is.
If we start pulling off the hijabs of innocent women in the streets, start putting Muslims in camps and targeting mosques, then that is what Islamophobia is. Islamophobia is not criticising an ideology we do not agree with. We are entitled to criticise what we disagree with, as is the right for other religions to receive such criticism.
Apostasy and blasphemy are two such things.
Note that China has not been criticised for its frankly abhorrent treatment of Uyghurs- the apparently modernising Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has said it is Beijing’s ‘right to fight terrorism.’ These are not terrorists, these are innocent Muslims. We do not see the Muslim world condemn this treatment and call out for the safety of their Chinese brothers and sisters.
If these countries criminalise leaving Islam but do not care for oppressed Muslims, then why should we take the charges they accuse others of? They apparently place faith above everything but do nothing to help.
Prisons should hold people who have murdered and raped. Reduced sentences for ‘honour killings’ exist, but the human right of choosing your religion can get you the noose. Take Afghan Abdul Rahman for example, a man who converted to Christianity and was reported by his own family. Only international pressure prevented Rahman from being executed and he had to flee to Italy. Large swathes of Afghans, from mullahs to the Attorney-General, wanted him executed.
Why is this accepted?
Abdul Rahman got lucky by being offered asylum, but many others are not. He still lost his family, who turned against him and denounced his conversion. His life was saved, but his livelihood was not.
If we are to fight for liberty, we need to condemn this abhorrent practice. A person is no lesser if they change their religion, Islam or not. Apostasy is not something that should lead to the sharpening of a blade and tying of a noose.
Freedom should not come with a death sentence.