Let me share with you how “freedom of religion” is understood by Muslim law (and by most Muslims around the world). It goes like this: all human beings are free to believe whatever they wish about religious matters, with no earthly penalty, until they are presented with the “call to Islam.” Once the message of Islam has been preached to them, they are then under obligation to make a decision for Islam. Their freedom now is the freedom to leave what they have heretofore believed and the freedom to embrace Islam. Should they choose not to embrace Islam, and they have the misfortune to live under a Shariah-compliant government, they are free to keep their old religion or to keep their heads, but not both. That is, all who hear the summons to Islam and reject it are to be executed. The one exception to this in Islamic law applies to those whom Islamic jurists recognize to be “monotheists” in their religion (traditionally Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians), though this exception is not always allowed in practice. Islamic law “graciously” allows such obstinate monotheists to remain as such under the reign of Islam, provided they accept their status as “dhimmi”, i.e., people of second class status whose religious, civil and social rights are severely restricted and who are liable to a special poll tax for non-Muslims. Regarding those born as Muslims, or those who convert to Islam, they have forfeited any right to change religions, again under penalty of death.
From one perspective, Islam’s rationale for this is understandable. If God has really revealed the true religion and you have accepted it as true, then to later turn your back on it (and God) is the ultimate insult. What would be an appropriate penalty for a human servant that has slapped the face of its Divine master? Death would be too good, but execution is the most extreme penalty available to earthly rulers, and so it is enjoined by Shariah law.
In contemporary news we are seeing the intended application of this view of “religious freedom” in the case of Yusef Nadarkhani, the 34 year old Iranian pastor who has been under government arrest since 2009. He was originally charged with apostasy against Islam, having been born to a Muslim father but converting to the Christian faith at age 19. Nadarkhani’s claim was that he was never a practicing Muslim, so he could not have apostatized. The lower court looked into this claim, and seemed to substantiate it, but refused to release him, in part because in his successful work as a pastor Rev. Nadarkhani had seen numerous Muslims become followers of Jesus under his ministry. When the case began to receive international attention and disapprobation, the Iranian authorities attempted to change the story, arguing that the pastor had never been charged with apostasy, but rather with rape, extortion and sedition (as a Zionist spy), all of which carry the death penalty. This turned out to be patently false, as the original written allegations by the government openly cited apostasy and nothing else, and no evidence was produced to support the later charges. The lower court’s original conviction of Nadarkhani as an apostate was appealed to higher courts, until it finally reached the Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the lower court with the clarification that should the “guilty” party recant his Christian faith, the death penalty would be annulled. It also ordered that his religious beliefs prior to his conversion to Christianity be investigated, and any appropriate actions taken.
As a result, the lower court again convicted Nadarkhani of apostasy, arguing per Shariah law that since he was born of a Muslim father, he was by law a Muslim, and to now declare himself a Christian was to repudiate Islam. The pastor has been given the opportunity to recant. Should he publicly refuse to do this three times, he will be found guilty beyond remedy. Presently, government officials have visited him with anti-Christian Islamic propaganda, demanding that he read it and respond to them formally. Their hope is, presumably, that in reading this he will see the light and turn to Islam. Failing that, their hope is that he will incriminate himself by how he disputes the propaganda, thereby sealing their case of apostasy against him.
Freedom of religion in the Islamic world bears little resemblance to its counterpart in the USA. To make this case, let me share just one recent case filled with sad irony. Early this year Abdul Awkal, a Muslim inmate in OH, filed a lawsuit claiming that the state government was obstructing his First Amendment guarantees in the practice of Islam. At issue was the fact that the prison was not serving him halal meals prepared according to Islamic law, even though it served kosher meals to Jewish prisoners. The prison meal policy with regard to Muslim prisoners states: “The diet will be free of all pork and products containing or derived from pork. The institution will provide nutritionally adequate meat and non-meat alternatives.” A prison imam stated his opinion that this is sufficient. But Abdul Awkal is not satisfied. Nor is he willing to settle for kosher meals, though Islamic law declares such food to be acceptable. He wants halal meals, even though they would cost the state significantly more to prepare. The reason? He is on death row for the murders of his estranged wife and brother-in-law, neither of which is in doubt, and he wants to help his case before the divine bench by becoming as observant a Muslim as possible before his execution. Using our government’s First Amendment protection of freedom of religion, Abdul Awkal has successfully forced a change in Ohio’s prison meal system, even though according to his religion the request he has made is not a religious requirement. Ohio prisons now have banned all pork products from their menus for any prisoners. This may have settled Mr. Abdul Awkal’s lawsuit (though that is not certain), but it has raised the specter of lawsuits from pork producers and processors in the state.
All this because we take the freedom of religion so seriously. As a country we bend over backward to avoid impeding the rights of individuals to practice their faith, without questioning the validity of their beliefs as long as they don’t break established law.
Mr. Abdul Awkal seeks the full protection of the law to change governmental behavior to accommodate his wishes, even though his religion does not require such extremes. And he seems to have succeeded in this quest. On the other hand, what in our country is guaranteed as a freedom of religion is considered a capital crime in Iran. Mr. Nadarkhani was arrested and tried for becoming a Christian and for pastoring others who have determined they wish to be Christians. He has no recourse to any protections from the government. All the power rests in the hands of the courts, which are committed by Islamic law to forcing him to recant or to executing him for refusing. This is undisguised religious tyranny, and it is inherent in the history and practice of the Islamic empire.
Why? There are so many reasons, but at the back of them is the theological motif of Allah as a god of unmatched power, who accomplishes his will by any means necessary, including both the threat and the use of power. Islam’s spread by the sword was not an aberration but a fulfillment of Muhammad’s vision of a god who would conquer the world and bring everything into submission under his sovereign will — hence the name “Islam.”
We may and should cry out for justice for Yusef Nadarkhani in the hopes that worldwide abhorrence of the Iranian government’s behavior will shame its leaders into releasing an innocent man. But we must not be under the illusion that should this happen those leaders will have recognized that they were in the wrong. They will only have been engaging in the practice of realpolitik, attempting to curry favor publicly while cutting their losses with Nadarkhani and continuing to practice in the cloak of darkness what they “know” to be God’s will with regard to apostates.