When Muslims Convert
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
In the bustling religious marketplace of modern America, conversions out of one faith and into another are not exactly news. They happen every day, across the full spectrum of belief. But some conversions resonate more than others, especially at a time when the U.S. finds itself at war with terrorists who draw their inspiration from one of the world’s great religions.
Consider the case of Jean-Michelle Ajon, the subject of a 2002 article in the women’s fashion magazine Marie Claire. Raised a Catholic in New York City, Ajon had been thinking about converting to Islam during the summer before 9/11. After the attacks, a remark that she overheard while working in Manhattan–”We should bomb everyone, the whole Arab world”–strengthened her resolve, and she soon made her shahadah (declaration of faith), thus entering the fold of Islam. Her new faith, Ajon explained to Marie Claire, had improved her life. “I used to be very aggressive,” she said. “Now, I am more patient–and spiritually fulfilled.”
Ajon’s story–no doubt seen by her editors as an inspiring antidote to widespread anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States–has been multiplied by many other, similar stories over the past several years. But far less attention has been paid to voyages in the opposite direction, that is, outward from Islam. In fact, thousands of Muslims in the West embrace Christianity each year, and the courage they must muster to do so is of an entirely different order from the bravado of someone protesting against supposedly pervasive social prejudice. These converts stand accused, rather, of apostasy, a transgression against Islam whose consequences, even in the sheltering confines of the West, are always serious–and sometimes deadly.
In the Islamic world, there is a broad consensus, both popular and scholarly, that apostates deserve to be killed. A rich theological and intellectual tradition, stretching as far back as Muhammad and his companions, supports this position. Though official proceedings against those who reject Islam are fairly rare–in part, no doubt, because most keep their conversion a closely held secret–apostasy is punishable by death in Afghanistan, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.1 It is also illegal in Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Maldives, Oman, and Qatar.
The greatest threat to apostates in the Muslim world derives not from the state, however, but from private individuals who take punishment into their own hands. In Bangladesh, for example, a native-born Muslim-turned-Christian evangelist was stabbed to death in the spring of 2003 while returning home from a film version of the Gospel of Luke. As another Bangladeshi apostate told the U.S. Newswire, “If a Muslim converts to Christianity, now he cannot live in this country. It is not safe. The fundamentalism is increasing more and more.”
Because of this ideological environment, every apostate in the Muslim world must live in constant fear of death. And unfortunately, as harsh recent experience has taught us, Islamist ideology is hardly confined to the Muslim world alone. Advocates of jihad, to say nothing of actual terrorists, can be found in every corner of the West. More disturbing, because of what it says about our own ideological self-defenses, is the respectability that has been granted to spokesmen for Islamic fundamentalism who have learned to promote their agenda in our own idiom, even as they argue that mere conversion out of Islam should be considered a crime.
A prime example in this connection is Syed Mumtaz Ali, the president of the Canadian Society of Muslims. The Indian-born Mumtaz Ali was the first South Asian lawyer in Ontario when he set up practice more than 40 years ago, and has been the intellectual force behind the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice, a group dedicated to applying shari’a (Islamic law) to certain civil disputes in the province. Ontario’s Arbitration Act, passed in 1991, paved the way for this campaign–and for Mumtaz Ali’s emergence as a respected public figure–by granting religious authorities the power to arbitrate in family and property matters so long as the parties involved gave their consent (and with the proviso that the decisions can be appealed to Canadian courts).
Instituting even so restricted a version of shari’a has been controversial in Canada, especially among feminists rightly worried about its effects on Muslim women. But for Mumtaz Ali, this first, modest concession to the claims of Islam has been just the beginning. As he declared in defending the shari’a tribunal, “freedom of religion as guaranteed under Canada’s constitution means not only freedom to practice and propagate religion but also to be able to be governed by one’s religious laws in all aspects of one’s life–spiritual as well as temporal.”
What Mumtaz Ali meant by this portentous remark is made clear in an astonishing essay under his name that can be found on the website of the Canadian Society of Muslims. Not only does he affirm there the traditional proposition that apostates must “choose between Islam and the sword,” but he argues that, if Canada is to be true to its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it must allow the country’s Muslim community to punish those of its members who renounce or traduce their faith.
[W]hat such a large segment of the Canadian minority believes as a precept of their faith/religion ought to be fully recognized if the Charter’s provision respecting freedom of religion are [sic] to have any real meaning. . . . Failing [to incorporate Islamic law concerning apostasy and blasphemy into the laws of Canada] will be a flagrant breach of equality rights. . . . Failing to interpret the guaranteed rights and freedoms of Muslims in accordance with the true spirit of multiculturalism results in the effective denial of this fundamental philosophy of the Canadian constitution. This is a tragic departure from that cherished “tolerance” (the real tolerance) which is the distinguishing quality of a cultured people.
Mumtaz Ali allows that recognizing Islamic law in this context “does not necessarily entail any obligation to enforce the Islamic punishment for blasphemy/apostasy within the Canadian jurisdiction” (emphasis added). Apostates, that is, will not have to be stoned or beheaded. But plainly some punishment by the community itself is in order, and Canada, as Mumtaz Ali would have it, has no right to stand in the way.
A still more original apologist for the harsh treatment of apostates who reside in the West is Ali Khan, a law professor at Washburn University in Kansas. In a recent issue of the Cumberland Law Review, Khan suggested that Islam can be seen as a form of intellectual property, and Muslims as “trustees” who have vowed to protect their faith’s “knowledge-based assets.”
These assertions, on their face, seem innocuous enough, if a bit absurd. But Khan’s argument quickly takes an ominous turn. If Islam is understood as intellectual property, he contends, the faith should enjoy what he calls “the right to integrity”–that is, its trustees should be able to safeguard “the protected knowledge from innovations, repudiation, internal disrespect, and external assaults.” Thus, Khan continues, apostasy should be punished because it
is aimed at dishonoring the protected knowledge of Islam. The murtad (apostate) is akin to a corporate insider who discloses the secrets he has undertaken to protect; he is akin to a state official who turns traitor and joins the ranks of the enemy; he is akin to a custodian who destroys the very monument he was safeguarding on behalf of the community. All legal systems punish insiders who breach their trusts; Islam punishes murtaddun [apostasy] too, sometimes severely.
Khan does not specify what punishment should be meted out to those Muslims in the West who compromise the “intellectual property” of Islam, and perhaps he has something in mind for them that falls short of capital punishment. After all, as he surely knows, American law generally does not countenance the execution of corporate spies and inside traders. The key point, however, is not the outlandish substance of Khan’s argument. Rather, it is the fact that he was able to use an American law review as a soapbox from which to advocate the licensed punishment of apostates–and that his grossly illiberal views were never rebutted in its pages.
The ugly rationalizations of propagandists like Syed Mumtaz Ali and Ali Khan do not emerge from nowhere; they are attempts to legitimate the harsh social reality already faced by the thousands of Muslim apostates in the West who must constantly worry about their personal safety. For most of them, this means maintaining an extremely low profile in religious contexts.
Converts from Islam, especially those who become involved in Christian ministries, often use assumed names, or only their first names, in order to protect themselves and their families.2 Thus, Abdullah, whose family hails from Saudi Arabia, kept his new faith secret for many years after converting to Christianity in 1980 while living in London. When asked about his religion, he would describe himself only as a “believer.” Even after he became a churchgoer, Abdullah hesitated to talk to fellow congregants about his spiritual journey. His new faith, as he recognized from the start, has placed him directly in harm’s way.
The most common dangers faced by Muslim apostates come from their own families. At a recent evangelical convention in Falls Church, Virginia, a couple of female converts from Islam told a reporter about their fears as new Christians. One woman said that when her family finds out, “I know they’re going to disown me if they don’t kill me.” The second woman had similar fears. “My brothers haven’t spoken to me in the last couple of years, and that was only because I married an American,” she said. “Can you imagine what they would do if they found out I was a Christian?”
Roy Oksnevad, a missionary with the Evangelical Free Church in Minneapolis, tells of a Turkish convert whose brother, an ultra-conservative imam who also owns a lucrative carpet and jewelry business, threatened to have him killed if he ever returned to Turkey. A Farsi-speaking pastor [name withheld by request] in Oakton, Virginia, told the Washington Times, “I’ve seen some people who’ve come from Iran to the United States to persecute, if not kill, in order to bring back their relatives to Islam.”
Even when apostates do not face physical danger from their families, they are often ostracized. This experience is not unique to Muslims, of course; it is a fact of life for many people who convert out of the faith into which they were born. But for Muslim apostates, the loss of family and community support can carry a heavy price, especially if they are immigrants. If they lose their livelihoods or the means to maintain themselves financially, they can be forced to return to their home countries–and that can amount to a death sentence.
Apostates living in the West also face pressure from Islamist radicals. Consider the case of Khaled, an Iraqi who converted to Christianity in 1990 while still living in the Middle East. Having immigrated to the Netherlands so that he could practice his new faith openly, he was surprised by the ferocity of the country’s Islamic fundamentalists, from whom he received regular death threats. Paul, an Egyptian convert to Christianity, reports similar experiences in Chicago. Once his apostasy was known, he was menaced by radical Muslims who frequented the restaurant at which he worked and became the object of a sustained campaign of threats and intimidation.
Responding to opponents of Syed Mumtaz Ali’s effort to bring Islamic law to Canada, an op-ed writer in the Calgary Herald recently chided his countrymen: “The barbarians are not at the gates, and liberalism is not under siege.” Stated so broadly, this benign assessment sounds compelling. Imams will not soon preside over the courtrooms of Canada or any other Western country, and anyone physically attacking a lapsed Muslim will not be able to avoid criminal prosecution simply by pleading religious freedom.
But barbarism takes many forms in our day, and one of them, surely, is the exploitation of the West’s traditions of tolerance (and, of late, multiculturalism) in the service of deeply anti-Western ends. It is a sad irony–and one that casts a harsh light on the limits of our own principles–that so many former Muslims who have come to the West seeking religious freedom have instead found, couched in the language of “equality rights,” a grotesque and insidious form of the very tyranny they have fled. The danger in which they live is quite real, a rebuke to the indulgent culture of their new societies and a disgrace to conscience.
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior analyst at the Investigative Project, a terrorism research center in Washington, D.C.
1 All of these countries either have explicit anti-apostasy laws or decree capital punishment for the broader offense of blasphemy.
2 The same concern for security makes it difficult to gather information on this topic, which has been scantily covered in the press and elsewhere. Research for this article was largely conducted through personal interviews.