This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.
Key Facts (Sourced from Theodorou, 2016 unless otherwise stated)
- Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948 lays out the global right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). That includes the right to change or leave a religion.
- Similarly, Part 2 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) specifically protects converts by stating that “no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” (Anon, 2014b)
- 13% of states in the world have laws penalising apostasy
- 18 of 20 countries in the MENA region criminalise blasphemy and 14 criminalise apostasy.
- All 12 countries which have a death sentence for apostasy have Islam as the official state religion.
- In a Pew 2013 survey, about 75% of respondents in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia favour making shari’a the official law of the land.
- Among those who support shari’a, 25% in Southeast Asia, 50% in the MENA region, and 75% in South Asia say they support “executing those who leave Islam”. (Bell, 2013)
- Blasphemy is often charged alongside Apostasy. (Kuru, 2020)
- Some states, such as Iran, do not have Apostasy as an offence in their penal code, however, prosecutions for Apostasy do happen by religious leaders based upon their understanding of shari’a. (Anon, 2014a)
- A number of Muslim states have used apostasy laws and blasphemy codes to prosecute social media personalities who raise issues which the government finds awkward such as the case of Junaid Hafeez in Pakistan. (Kuru, 2020)
- International pressure has been successful in a number of cases in ensuring that convictions for blasphemy and apostasy are not carried through, such as in the case of Said Musa and Shoaib Assadullah in 2011 (Afghanistan), and, more recently, Asia Bibi in 2019 (Pakistan). (Vogt and Schreck, 2011; Sherwood, 2019)
- The term ‘irtidad’ has been the most commonly been used for apostacy (from the 8th AD onwards), although the term ‘kufr’ has also been used. (Hallaq, 2003)
- Q16:106 proscribes no forgiveness for those who first accept Islam and then reject it. “He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed, not he who is compelled while his heart is at rest on account of faith, but he who opens (his) breast to disbelief-- on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.” (Ali, 1934 p. 759) See also Q9.66 and Q3.90.
- The Hadith collection of al-Bukhari makes clear that the punishment for apostasy should be severe. “Allah’s Apostle said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.” (Ramadan, 2006)
- Even up to the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Apostates were treated as traitors as well as religious dissenters according to the Turkish Muslim historian Selim Deningril. (2012)
On the 11th July 2020, the Sudanese Minister of Justice, Nasr al -Din Abdel-Bari announced the passing of the Miscellaneous Amendments Act during an interview on Sudanese television. (Anon, 2020) The same bill also introduced a number of other liberalising measures, including permission to drink alcohol for non-Muslims and the freedom for a woman to travel abroad and take her children. The law brought the country back in line with the country’s constitution of 2005 which had granted freedom of religion and conscience. It was a law which had been ignored by the country’s previous president (and indicted war criminal) Omar al-Bashir, who had pursued a deliberate policy of Islamisation and Arabisation in the country throughout his Presidency. (al-Sherbini, 2019) It was a policy which included the attempted elimination of Christians who lived mainly in the south (which later became the independent country of South Sudan).
This recent abolition of the Apostasy law in Sudan under the new government has thrown light once again on the plight of those non-Muslim minorities, including Christians, living in states where Islam is the official religion.
As can be seen from the Pew statistics given above, in 2014 over a quarter of the world’s countries had some penalty for Apostasy, the vast majority of which were Muslim majority states. The penalties ranged from fines to death: the Sudanese government of Omar al-Bashir had been amongst those enforcing death for conversion, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Both the Pakistani and Afghani governments remain heavily dependent upon the good will of the religious authorities who are generally very literalist. The religious scholars are mostly drawn from the Dar ul-Ulum college at Deoband which has been fostering successive generations of Salafis since its creation in the 1860s. The Taliban (literally ‘Students’) are a key political force in both countries and they, in partnership with the religious authorities, have pushed for strict enforcement of the Hudud punishments in shari’a (the criminal law elements of shari’a) which includes the death penalty for Apostasy.
With the accord reached between the Taliban and the Afghani government to end the war, it seems likely that Afghanistan’s political and legal culture will move in a more, rather than less Salafi direction and the recently elected government of Amir Khan in Pakistan has come to power on a platform of strong Islamic identity. It seems therefore that both countries will be enforcing punishments for Apostasy for the foreseeable future.
Brunei is one country which seems to have been moving in an increasingly literalist direction when it comes to shar’ia penalties and enforcement. In 2013 the Shari’a Penal Code was enacted who’s provisions include the punishment of death or prison for 30 years for Apostasy, unless the ‘offender’ recants, (in which case the punishment has to be immediately rescinded). That provision was not widely reported, whereas the punishment for homosexuality which the penal code also brought in was both widely protested and roundly condemned. The introduction of this more literalist shari’a code appears to be a result of the Sultan seeking to mollify the religious authorities in his country who have complained that he is not ‘Islamic’ enough. The introduction of the Shari’a Penal Code therefore seems likely to be a political move to shore up his legitimacy as an Islamic ruler.
This all seems to point towards increasingly strict enforcement of shari’a over the Muslim majority world in general. However, the dynamic in the Levant and Gulf is less clear in relation to tolerance of Apostasy. Countries such as Lebanon had always been quite liberal, but countries such as the UAE and Jordan have been working to lessen (but not remove) punishments for Apostasy. This is probably due to the twin desires to encourage foreign, non-oil-based investment as well as reacting against the spectre of the work of Islamic State. That being said, Saudi Arabia added ‘Atheists’ (effectively Apostates) to the category of ‘Terrorist’ in new legislation in 2014. (Hannon, 2014) And polling in Egypt has shown increased support for severe punishment for Apostasy in recent years (Bell, 2013). So the story is certainly not consistent across the region.
It seems fair to say therefore that many governments in Muslim majority countries are needing to ‘prove’ their legitimacy in a way not seen twenty years ago. The method that many have chosen has been through the stricter enforcement of literalist forms of shari’a. This is clearly bad news for those having a crisis of faith in those countries, but there is a fine line being trodden by those same countries because of the need to attract foreign investment. It will therefore be interesting to see whether, in the changing economic circumstances, more Muslim majority countries will follow the example of the Sudanese government.
Ali, Yusuf (1934) The Holy Qur’an Birmingham (UK): IPCI
Al-Serbini, Ramadan (2019) ‘Grim Harvest of Bashir’s long Islamist Rule’ www.gulfnews.com 14th December.
Anon, (2014a) Laws criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions Washington DC: Library of Congress, Global Legal Research Center.
Anon, (2014b) ‘Apostacy as a crime in Islam’ www.csw.org.uk 17th April
Anon, (2020) ‘New law abolishes apostasy, allows alcohol drinking for non-Muslims’ www.sudantribune.com 11th July.
Bell, James (2013) The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society Washington DC: Pew Research Center.
Hannon, Elliot (2014) ‘New Law in Saudi Arabia labels all Atheists as Terrorists’ www.slate.com 1st April.
Kuru, Ahmet (2020) ‘Execution for a Facebook post? Why Blasphemy is a capital offense in some Muslim countries’ www.theconversation.com 20th February.
Ramadan, Hisham (2006) Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary Lanham (MD): Rowman and Littlefield.
Sherwood, Harriet (2019) ‘Asia Bibi begins new life in Canada – but here ordeal may not be over’ www.theguardian.com 8th May
Theodorou, Angela (2016) ‘Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy’ www.pewresearch.org 29th July.
Vogt, Heidi and Adam Schreck (2011) ‘Jailed Christian convert is freed in Afghanistan’ www.washingtonpost.com 25th February.