A Question of Belief

Published in Comment is Free - The Guardian, 29 April 2008

Debates about apostasy, or conversion from Islam, have bubbled away for some time. Occasionally an example of the treatment of converts hits the headlines. Yet, each time much of the debate has centred on whether the Islamic position clashes with contemporary ideals of human rights.

In fact, the Qur'an does not prescribe an earthly punishment for apostasy. Examples of the imprisonment, punishment and threat of death against apostates are therefore sometimes dismissed as the activities of extremists and for most people this is where the conversation ends. Yet the bulk of the problem remains untouched.

Apostasy is not merely a theoretical debate; it is a growing and often overlooked human rights concern. As a Turkish convert from Islam to Christianity, I am no stranger to the subject and over the last year, commissioned by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, I have researched the daily pressures faced by apostates in Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and the UK. Our findings are published today.

It is true that the death penalty is rarely applied today. Out of 44 predominantly Muslim countries in the world, only a few have laws on apostasy. In Sudan and in some states in Malaysia, capital punishment is permitted. In Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran, death remains a real possibility for the convert as although it is not specified in law, the countries can invoke this penalty through their application of sharia.

Yet it is not just under the threat of death that converts suffer. Egypt has laws which can be used to annul the marriages of converts and remove custody and inheritance rights. In countries such as Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Yemen, where sharia is used to govern matters of personal status, converts can face serious penalties, such as the annulment of marriage, termination of citizenship, confiscation of identity papers and the loss of further social and economic rights, even though there are no specific regulations on apostasy. These converts may still be physically alive, but the penalties can render them legally 'dead'.

Sadly the human rights abuses faced by converts do not end there. Some of the other violations include extrajudicial killings by state-related agents or mobs; "honour" killings by family members; detention, imprisonment, torture, physical and psychological intimidation by security forces and the denial of access to judicial services and social services.

Even though reformist Muslims in the west argue that the death penalty cannot be justified on the basis of the Qur'an, traditional views which build on the sunna and its interpretations continue to shape how Muslims living in the non-western world see apostasy. No religious community develops its theology on the basis of its religious texts alone, but interpretation and application of the teachings of its sacred book is often dictated by its tradition. Arguments about the exact text of Qur'an do little to help apostates suffering gross human rights abuses today. Sadly, there are hardly any Muslim leaders and writers living in the Muslim world who challenge these practices.

Muslim nations continue to fail in their obligations under international law to protect their own citizens. Islamic human rights documents, such as the Universal Islamic Human Rights Declaration, the Cairo Declaration and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, airbrush the suffering of converts and make no attempt to hold governments accountable.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the defamation of Islam, echoing an earlier resolution by the UN general assembly which followed intense lobbying by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. These resolutions make it almost impossible to speak up for those who are persecuted for exercising their right to choose a religion or belief as enshrined by the universal declaration of human rights.

Through my research, a tragic picture emerges. Converts live in a no-man's land; isolated from their native communities, haunted by the actions of their states, burdened by the vulnerability of their families and overlooked by the international community.

One convert told me in an interview that when he was subjected to torture in a Middle Eastern country, his torturer told him he could scream as loud as he wanted, but no one would hear or save him. When he realised this was true, he broke down and has never really recovered from the damage caused by his detention. For too long the experiences of men and women like him to go unnoticed. The Muslim world and the international community must not allow these cries for help to be swept under the carpet any more.