Article 18 and Apostasy



For years, the US right has been talking about Muslims taking over the Europe and the steady transformation of the continent into ‘Eurabia’. A book by Doug Sanders, the ‘The Myth of the Muslim Tide’, carefully dismantles the US right’s use of tendentious demographic projections to support the scaremongering. My review of this book on Amazon UK admired his performance.

I wrote that review nearly three years ago. I haven’t changed my opinion on the right’s use of dodgy demographics. I am, however, less sanguine at the downplaying of real differences between mainstream Islam and mainstream Western liberal principles, which is a weakness of Sanders’ book. These differences do exist and it is incumbent on anyone who professes liberal principles to understand what the differences are. We do not pander to the racist right when we consider this question. If we are to welcome outsiders in our midst, even those deserving our protection, then we need to identify where conflict might arise.

A key, glaring, difference is that between the Islamic conception of apostasy and the western idea of freedom of conscience. If we want to define what freedom of conscience is, then a good place to start is Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

‘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.’

Article 18 enshrines the right to choose one’s religion. That means one can choose to profess a different religion or none at all. This is the basis for freedom of conscience. It is sometimes claimed that the Universal Declaration expresses Christian values, just without god. I am not convinced by this. The Declaration does not presuppose any creator is required for its principles to be promoted. If it does needs a deity to uphold it, then it is not one that prescribes what the one and true religion is, which is an idea anathema to most religious believers, of all faiths. Article 18 is liberal, individualist, secular and agnostic. It does not recognise any such thing as one true religion. It accepts value pluralism and the right of an individual to choose their values.

The Islamic concept of apostasy stands in opposition to this. According to the website, Islam Q and A, apostasy, what Muslim scholars call Al-Ridda, is when a Muslim becomes an unbeliever, by his beliefs, his words, his actions or his omissions. If a Muslim adult does these things in his right mind, and of his own free will, then his blood can be shed. The moral justification for the death penalty should be spelled out in full:

“You may need some time for you to be convinced about this matter, and for you to think about it. Perhaps you think that if a person follows the truth and enters into it and embraces the one true religion which Allaah has enjoined, then we allow him to leave it quite easily whenever he wants and to utter the words of kufr (disbelief) that put him outside of Islam, so he can reject Allaah, His Messenger, His Books and His religion, and there is no punishment as deterrent, how will that affect him and others who enter the religion?

Do you not see that this would make the one true religion, that everyone should follow, like a shop or store which a person can enter when he wants and leave when he wants, and it may encourage others to forsake the truth?

Moreover, this is not someone who has never known the truth and practiced it and worshipped in accordance with it; rather this is a person who has known the truth, and practiced the religion and done the rituals of worship, so the punishment is no greater than he deserves. Moreover, such strong rulings as this are only applied to such a person whose life is no longer considered to be useful, because he knew the truth and followed the religion, then he left it and forsook it. What soul can be more evil than the soul of such a person?

In conclusion, the answer is that Allaah is the One Who revealed this religion and enjoined it. He is the One Who ruled that the one who enters it and then leaves it is to be executed. This ruling does not come from the Muslims’ ideas or suggestions. As this is the case, then we must follow the ruling of Allaah so long as we are content to accept Him as our Lord and God.”

The writer of those words would consider Article 18 as a ‘shop store’ approach to religion. You can buy a set of values but if you change your mind, then you can ask for a refund, buy a new set or just dump the original purchase. That’s how he would see Article 18. I don’t see it like that. But that is not the point. Article 18 and the idea of apostasy express different world views and values.

This is a thorny question and some liberals would prefer the issue is ducked. One way to do it is to distract ourselves with the question of whether Islam demands death for apostates or not. According to one commentator, writing on Al Jazeera :

‘The death penalty for apostasy relies at the core of it on an authentically verified Hadith from Prophet Muhammad who said, “Whoever changes his religion kill him.”  This statement, however, would seem to contradict numerous verses in the Quran that guarantee freedom of belief, few of which include “There is no compulsion in religion” [2:256], and “Whoever so wills may believe and whoever so wills may deny” [18:29].’

The commentator rationalises the Hadith about the death penalty as not being about ‘apostasy in the strict sense of no longer believing in Islam per se.’

So there seems to be room for debate whether apostates deserve death. It would seem, alas, that plenty of Muslims think that death is deserved, if a 2013 study of Muslim opinion is representative of what the world’s Muslims think. But we are missing the point: the question is, should apostasy be treated as a crime at all? The concept of apostasy as a crime, even if it doesn’t deserve the death penalty, is intrinsically at loggerheads to western ideas of freedom of conscience, as expressed in Article 18. You can’t simultaneously profess freedom of conscience and the idea of apostasy.

So what practical implications does this have for the real world? One salient issue is whether a state based on Sharia can respect universal human rights. Despite the starkness of the contrast I have outlined above, in practice, could the two concepts be reconciled? In principle, this is possible. Politics can hold the ring between contending viewpoints, without people having to agree on the ultimate questions like the basis for morality.

But if a Muslim-majority state really accepts that there is no compulsion in religion, then we should expect it to accept its corollary, that to leave one’s religion is not a crime. That means we can expect the three things from such a state. First, the state imposes no penalty whatsoever on those that leave. That means not just the death penalty but any form of sanction whatsoever, like denying welfare rights, education etc. Second, the state protects those who leave from reprisal from the believers and punishes believers who retaliate against those who leave. Third, the state refuses to recognise apostasy at all and enshrines freedom of conscience in its laws. That means that it gives those who leave the right to persuade others to follow them. This also allows for the believers to persuade others to stay – or to come back in. Freedom of conscience cuts both ways.

In my view, I don’t think there is a single state, with a Muslim-majority population, to which the above description of political practice applies. Perhaps Turkey, Tunisia and Bangladesh are partial exceptions. These are all secular states but secularism is under a great deal of pressure in all three, pressure which is coming from below. Whether secularism holds out in these countries remains to be seen.

Islam is not being singled out here. It is not alone in having a concept of apostasy. Christianity has such a concept, too. But, in the West, secularism has tamed it. That includes the United States. The US constitution fulfils the conditions I have described above. There is indeed no compulsion in religion in the United States. This doesn’t mean the concept of apostasy has been banished from the thoughts of the believers in that country. It means that they do not have any recourse to use violence to punish those who think differently, and can expect no indulgence or mercy from the state. Nor can they censor those who criticise them.

Taming the gods does not mean untrammelled democracy. It means taming the majority’s desire to impose their view on the minority. That includes the majority’s religion. This does not mean the majority have to abandon their religion. It means they have to accept others can think differently and they can live with that, even if their religion tells in theory that they should not live with it. In most Muslim countries, we are a long way from seeing that.




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