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March 29, 2006
Column #1,283
Islam & Religious Liberty
by Michael J. McManus

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged "the Government of Afghanistan to order the immediate release of Mr. Abdul Rahman," a man facing death for converting from Islam to Christianity. It did so March 22 - four days before he was released.

CAIR argued that Rahman's conversion was a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state: "Islam advocates both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, a position supported by verses in the Quran," Islam's holy book:

1) `If it had been the will of your Lord that all the people of the world should be believers, all of the people of the earth would have believed! (Surah 10:99)

2) `Let there be no compulsion in religion.'" (2:256)

If this is what the Quran says, why was there an apparently universal and passionate call in Afghanistan for the beheading of Rahman? Thousands marched calling for his execution.

The Quran's peaceful passages come from Mohammed's early ministry in Mecca when he had few followers. In later years when his numbers were stronger, the Quran reveals greater intolerance of other religions. "Slay the Pagans wherever ye find them."says Surah 9:5.

In addition to the Quran, Muslims pay attention to the Hadith, or the collected statements of Mohammed, such as "If a Muslim changes his religion, kill him." (Vol. 9, #57).

Dr. Emir Caner, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity and is now Dean of the College at Southwestern, confesses, "Islam has never adhered to religious liberty. Traditional Islam interprets that Hadith literally. 

"My father, who was Turkish, and an architect of a mosque in Columbus, Ohio, attempted to modernize that verse when he heard that I and two of my brothers had converted to Christianity.  He told us, `You are as dead to me.' I was disowned.  But that is no sacrifice compared to Mr. Rahman."

The Afghan judge in the case, Ansarullah Mawlazezadah, told ABC News, "We will ask (Rahman) if he has changed his mind about being a Christian. If he has, we will forgive him, because Islam is a religion of tolerance."

Such tolerance if he recants is not tolerance at all, of course, from a Christian perspective. The new Afghan Constitution grants "religious freedom" but only if it does not conflict with "sharia law," that allows a freedom to choose one's religion, as long at is Islam.

American, British and Italian leaders expressed outrage since their soldiers fought and died to free Afghanistan from the Talliban. Dr. Caner notes that James Madison called religious liberty the central liberty, without which there cannot be freedom of the press, assembly or speech.  Freedom of conscience is the rock on which other freedoms are built.

American Muslims agree with this perspective. Immam Mohammed Magid, who leads the 5,000 member All Dulles Area Muslim Society, said the threat to kill Rahman "is very disturbing to me.  Islam teaches there is no compulsion in religion.  No one should be forced to be Muslim or to stay Muslim. No one has a right to impose a belief system, because God would not accept someone who is forced."

Asked about the Hadith, "If a Muslim changes his religion, kill him," Immam Magid said, "That refers to a crime of treason, which was stated when Muslims were engaged in fighting."

However, no one alleged that Rahman had committed treason. In a divorce dispute over custody of his children, his ex-wife revealed he had converted to Christianity 16 years earlier. On Tuesday Rahman was released from prison and went into protective custody. Italy may grant him asylum.

What I find disturbing is that moderate Islam voices came only from Mulims in countries like America, where they are in the minority. CAIR could not identify any calls for Rahman's release from such Muslim nations as Egypt or Pakistan.

Robert Seiple, the first U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, says that "Once the extremists have the megaphone, the moderate view is always silent. That's why it is important for the international community to rise up to cry for the universal freedom of conscience. People must have the freedom to choose, for their faith to be authentic."

This time the outcry had a positive effect. But many are dying for their faith. In Iraq alone, bodies of Sunni and Shiite believers are found tortured and killed daily.

Even in America, Baptists were jailed in Virginia in colonial times and chased out of Massachusetts. That's why Madison fought for the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is not easily won.

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