From exclusion to the death penalty

No demand holds as much conflict material for the Islamic-Western relationship as that for religious freedom. According to the UN Charter of Human Rights it has universal validity. Especially the harsh sentences against apostates in Islamic countries – up to executions – show that a consensus is far away.

The Koran does not threaten apostates with worldly punishments, but only with God's wrath in the hereafter. Sharia scholars rather rely on traditional sayings of Muhammad, which say: "Whoever abandons faith, kill him!" To this day, the list of legal opinions holding to this is long. Their authors come not only from explicitly Islamist circles, but also from the most prestigious centers of Islamic scholarship. Western individualism and Islamic collective thinking collide directly when judging so-called apostasy. Majority Islam sees apostasy not as a private choice, but as a political threat – not just a sin against God, but a crime against the community. From the beginning he proclaimed the unity of religion and state and drew his identity also from the militant demarcation against people of other faiths. Therefore, apostasy had to appear to Muslim leaders as a kind of desertion. It is no coincidence that the Arabic word for apostasy, ridda, also refers to the great uprising of the superficially Islamized tribes of Arabia against the new religion after Muhammad's death. The rebellion was put down with violence, but has left a deep mark on the historical memory of Muslims. Again and again scholars refer to it in their fatwas. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania and Iran continue to threaten with death those who abandon the state religion. However, executions are rare, if only because the number of apostates is small. In addition to prison sentences, forced divorces and admissions to psychiatric wards are known from Egypt. In Pakistan, those affected are currently hoping for the abolition of the "blasphemy law". It is supposed to punish "disrespect for Islam" and leaves wide scope for arbitrariness. Even in more moderate countries like Tunisia or secular Turkey, changing one's faith remains deeply frowned upon. Apostates must fear social and professional exclusion. In some states, moreover, Islamists repeatedly hunt down converts. The attacks by radical Hindus on Christians and missionaries in India last year show that such excesses are not an Islamic phenomenon. Among Islamic reform theologians, however, there is also criticism of the harsh procedure. Thinkers such as the Iranians Abdol Karim Sorush and Mohammed Shabestari or the Turkish scholar Yasar Nuri ozturk call for an interpretation of the legal sources that takes into account the circumstances of the time and for impunity for apostates. Representatives of a middle position tolerate faith changers as long as they do not take a stand against Islam. In Germany, the major associations DITIB and Central Council of Muslims have rejected any punishment in official statements. The Christian churches in the Islamic world are very cautious about proselytizing. The Apostolic Vicar in Arabia, based in Abu Dhabi, Paul Hinder, even explicitly advised Muslims against conversion to spare them harassment and isolation. Only a few free-church groups deliberately go on offensive missions among Muslims and have small successes with it – but live dangerously. The situation clearly shows that legal reforms alone cannot end the harsh treatment of apostates in Islam. In addition, a profound change in mentality would have to begin in Islamic societies. For this, however, modern reform Islam would need a much greater influence among authoritative scholars than it currently possesses.

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