Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Irfan Yusuf: Clear violation of Koran

A 41-year-old Afghan father lives overseas for 15 years. He has a custody battle with his wife who lives in Afghanistan. He returns to Kabul to fight a custody battle. A relative with a personal vendetta claims the father has converted to Christianity and dobs him into the authorities.

The father is charged with the ancient crime of apostasy. For poor Abdul Rahman, his apparent choice of religion is being used as a secondary means to deny him custody of children. It's amazing what people are prepared to do to pursue personal vendettas.

But for a small group of radical Afghan mullahs, this case has become the latest rallying cry for religious chauvinism and defiance of the West. Some mullahs haven't quite figured out that the Taleban lost the war.

Islamic legal tradition (or sharia) cops plenty of flack in the press and from politicians. Australian Government ministers, keen to deflect attention from the Saddam kickback scandals, tell us people supporting sharia should be deported.

But what people don't mention is that the alleged law of apostasy doesn't exist in sharia. And if it does, there is little consensus on its application among Muslim legal experts.

Paranoid commentators claim the Koran teaches Muslims to kill anyone abandoning Islam. In fact, the cardinal principle in the Koran is expressed in a verse which, translated into English, says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion."

In other words, the Koran teaches that religion is a matter of choice. You can't force someone to believe in a certain religion, let alone kill them for abandoning it.

In the early days of Islam, Muslims were a small group living under siege in a small city-state, surrounded by enemies always ready to drive them out of existence. In such dangerous circumstances, a person's Muslim identity was closely linked to their loyalty to the state.

If a person abandoned Islam and wished to remain in the city-state, they were effectively committing treason.

A person who left Islam could leave the city-state or might face trial for treason. If convicted, they could face a death sentence which wasn't mandatory and could be replaced with a lighter punishment. Today, even in the most civilised Western countries, treason is punished by a mandatory death penalty.

From some isolated historical incidents, a minority of medieval Muslim scholars concluded that leaving the Islamic faith (or apostasy) is punished by mandatory death sentence. Most Muslim legal scholars dispute this view. It isn't the practice of the overwhelming majority of Muslim countries to kill people who leave Islam.

One Australian Muslim scholar, Professor Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne, recently co-authored a book on the law of apostasy. He states that the original intention of the law was to punish treason, not to forbid peaceful conversion.

A Swiss Muslim scholar, Professor Tariq Ramadan who teaches at Oxford University, goes further. He argues all forms of capital punishment should be stopped in Muslim countries. He says that corrupt police and judges mean that enforcing capital punishments will make sharia an instrument of injustice.

In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, the government recognises six official religions. People switch faiths all the time especially after they get married.

During a recent visit to Indonesia, I met a woman whose Muslim mother married a Dutch Protestant man. The woman was brought up as a Muslim but converted to Catholicism after marrying a French Catholic. Her sister married an Australian Protestant Christian and converted to Anglicanism. Neither sister has spent any time in an Indonesian prison, nor have they been put on trial.

So why can people convert so easily from Islam in most Muslim countries but not in Afghanistan?

One factor is that ordinary people in Afghanistan aren't known for their high literacy rates or their general knowledge of Islamic law. Only 14 per cent of women in Afghanistan can read and write.

Muslim minorities in Western countries often claim discrimination and prejudice. Yet what they experience pales into insignificance compared to the plight of Abdul Rahman. Muslims have no reason to support those calling for Rahman's execution, an act which would represent a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Koran.

* Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and occasional lecturer in the School of Politics at Macquarie University.


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