By Mehdi Hasan
30 September 2011
The death sentence given to Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran is an affront to universal moral values and a disservice to Muslims.
In 1948, most of the world's Muslim-majority nations signed up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including article 18, "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" which includes, crucially, the "freedom to change his religion or belief". The then Pakistani foreign minister, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, wrote: "Belief is a matter of conscience, and conscience cannot be compelled."
Fast-forward to 2011: 14 Muslim-majority nations make conversion away from Islam illegal; several – including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Sudan – impose the death penalty on those who disbelieve. The self-styled Islamic Republic of Iran has sentenced to death by hanging a Christian pastor, born to Muslim parents, for apostasy. At the time of writing, Youcef Nadarkhani, head of a network of Christian house churches in Iran, is on death row for refusing to recant and convert back to Islam.
The decision to execute Nadarkhani beggars belief. For a start, the sentence handed down by judges in the pastor's home city of Rasht a year ago, and affirmed by the country's supreme court in June, is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but Iran's own constitution. Article 23 is crystal clear: "The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief."
Pleas for clemency from the archbishop of Canterbury, the UK's foreign secretary and Amnesty International, among others, have fallen on deaf ears in Tehran. Meanwhile the silence from the world's Muslims – especially the UK's usually voluble Muslim organisations and self-appointed "community leaders" – has been shameful. The irony is that I have yet to come across an ordinary Muslim who agrees that a fellow believer who loses, changes or abandons his or her faith should be hanged. Yet frustratingly few Muslims are willing to speak out against such medieval barbarism. We mumble excuses, avert our eyes.
There is a misguided assumption among many Muslims that such an abhorrent punishment is divinely mandated. It isn't. Classical Muslim jurists wrongly conflated apostasy with treason. The historical fact is that the prophet Muhammad never had anyone executed for apostasy alone. In one well-documented case, when a Bedouin man disowned his decision to convert to Islam and left the city of Medina, the prophet took no action against him, remarking only that, "Medina is like a pair of bellows: it expels its impurities and brightens and clears its good".
Nor does the Qur'an say that a Muslim who apostasises be given any penalty. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Islam's holy book in the famous verse: "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). Apostasy is deemed a sin, but the Qur'an repeatedly refers to punishment in the next world, not this one. Take the 137th verse of chapter 4: "Those who believe then disbelieve, again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, God will never forgive them nor guide them to the Way" (4:137). This verse, which explicitly allows for disbelief, followed by belief, followed once again by disbelief, suggests any punishment is for God to deliver – not judges in Iran, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.
Interestingly, the judgment in the Nadarkhani case is based not on Qur'anic verses but the fatwas of various ayatollahs. Fatwas, however, differ. For example, the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a grand ayatollah and one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, argued that the death penalty for apostasy was originally prescribed to punish only political conspiracies against the nascent Islamic community; Montazeri believed Muslims today should be free to convert to another religion.
The decision to execute Nadarkhani, therefore, is both an affront to universal moral values and a disservice to the cause of Islam. There can be no freedom of religion without the freedom to leave or change one's religion. To try to control a person's mind and heart, their thoughts and beliefs, is the ultimate negation of individual freedom. It is totalitarianism, pure and simple.
It also doesn't work. Another late Iranian ayatollah, and high-profile ally of Khomeini, Murtaza Muttahari, once wrote of the sheer pointlessness of any and all measures to compel belief upon a Muslim (or ex-Muslim!), arguing that it was impossible to force anyone to hold the level of rationally inspired faith required by the religion of Islam. "It is not possible to spank a child into solving an arithmetical problem," proclaimed Muttahari. "His mind and thought must be left free in order that he may solve it. The Islamic faith is something of this kind." Muslims have to ask ourselves: Is the God we worship so weak and needy that he requires us to force our fellow humans to worship him? Is our religion so frail and insecure that it cannot tolerate any rejection whatsoever? And why are we silent as an innocent Christian is sentenced to death in the name of Islam? To hang a man for refusing to believe in Islam is theologically and morally unjustifiable; it is not just unIslamic but anti-Islamic.
Source: The Guardian, London