Arabs Without God: Chapter 9

By Brian Whitaker

Chapter 9: Once a Muslim, always a Muslim

WHEN Saudi Arabia decided to use Chinese labour for railway construction in Mecca controversy broke out because Mecca is a holy city where non-Muslims are barred. But that did not deter the Saudi authorities or the Chinese railway company, a former branch of the People’s Liberation Army which had been eager to secure the lucrative contract. The Saudis neatly solved the problem by presenting each of the workers with a small gift: a book printed in Chinese explaining about Islam. At that point something which can only be described as a miracle occurred. Within twenty-four hours, more than 600 Chinese workers had decided – apparently of their own volition – to convert to Islam and they were received into the faith at a mass ceremony witnessed by Dr Abdul Aziz al-Khudhairi, undersecretary of the Mecca governorate.[i]

Becoming a Muslim is extremely easy (though becoming an ex-Muslim can be far more difficult). All that is required for conversion is a recitation of the shahada – a short, simple statement testifying that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. To be valid, the shahada is also supposed to be said with sincerity, which perhaps was not the case with the 600 Chinese labourers in Mecca.

Foreigners who embrace Islam often make news in the Gulf media, especially if their line of work makes them seem unlikely candidates for conversion. Thus when the French female rapper known as Diam’s (with an apostrophe) converted to Islam it was an event to be celebrated in the Saudi press.[ii] In the Emirates each year, the government publishes a list of foreign residents who have converted, and reports such as these no doubt give believers a feeling that their faith has been validated.

Most religions welcome new members and Muslims are enjoined to take part in da‘wa, the call to Islam, through proselytising. Several verses in the Qur’an encourage it: “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation,”[iii] “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good.”[iv] Taking these verses to heart, Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s largest exporters of religion since the early 1980s. This was triggered partly by fears about the spread of Shia Islam after the Iranian revolution and partly by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which, among other things, led to the creation of large numbers of Saudi-influenced religious schools in Pakistan. Saudi-based foundations and individuals also made vast quantities of Islamic literature available in many parts of the world, either cheaply or free of charge. Much of this missionary work was aimed at steering other Muslims in the direction of Salafi/Wahhabi Islam and in many countries it found a receptive market. The kingdom, after all, was the Prophet’s homeland, and so Saudi – i.e. Wahhabi – religious ideas and practices were often perceived as the most “correct” or authentic. Other material was aimed at a securing new converts, with books such as A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam which can be read on the internet and also freely reprinted by anyone, so long as nothing is altered.[v] In the United States, English translations of the Qur’an, printed under the auspices of the Iqraa Charitable Society in Jeddah, became widely available free of charge.

In most of the Arab countries, however, da‘wa is a one-way street. While proselytising by Muslims is encouraged, proselytising by non-Muslims is regarded as inflammatory behaviour and forbidden by law or government policy. In Algeria, for instance, anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilises means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion” faces a possible fine of one million dinars ($12,900) and five years’ imprisonment. The law also forbids making, storing, or distributing printed or audiovisual materials with the intention of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim. In Kuwait, the law not only outlaws proselytising but also prohibits organised religious education for faiths other than Islam. One effect of that has been to prevent British schools in Kuwait from teaching comparative religion – which is a required part of the curriculum in Britain. Proselytising in Qatar for any religion other than Islam can result in a jail sentence of up to ten years, while the penalty for possessing missionary materials of a non-Islamic variety is two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,740). In practice, though, suspected foreign proselytisers are likely to be summarily deported.

What this amounts to is old-fashioned protectionism – the religious equivalent of governments shielding uneconomic industries from competition through subsidies or restrictions on imports. The idea that a religion needs to be protected in this way does not say much for the convictions of its followers or the merits of its creed, and it is surely not the job of governments to prevent people, in the words of the Algerian law, from having their faith shaken.

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

Some would no doubt defend this on the grounds that Islam is entitled to unique and special treatment because it is the only “true” religion. Arab governments, on the other hand, usually try to justify it in terms of cultural exceptionalism or even security concerns – fears that the free exchange of ideas about religion would result in fitna (discord or strife). If that were to happen it would be largely their own fault because they have tried, over many years, to maintain social harmony through compulsion rather than consent and have not allowed the public to learn to address differences in an open and mature way. Citing potential troublemakers as a reason for suppressing religious dissent in effect gives the troublemakers a veto over what may or may not be said.

As far as freedom of belief is concerned, the policies and practices of most Arab governments are fundamentally at odds with international principles established by the United Nations. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. And in the view of the UN, this right is absolute and unconditional; it cannot be modified in any way by individual states: “Article 18 … does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice.”[vi]

Although the article can be assumed to include various forms of disbelief along with belief, this was made explicit by the UN Human Rights Committee in 1993 when it said: “Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”

Article 18 also explicitly states that people have the freedom to change their religion or belief – a point which is of particular importance to Muslims who wish to leave Islam. By rejecting Islam they expose themselves to possible charges of apostasy, a “crime” which in the eyes of many Muslims – and, indeed, some Arab governments – warrants the death penalty.

Interestingly, the mention of freedom to change religion was included in Article 18 at the behest of Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian who was a member of the international committee drafting the declaration shortly after the Second World War. Although “freedom of belief” implies freedom to change beliefs, Malik’s insistence on spelling it out stemmed from his experiences in Lebanon, “a country then known for the relatively harmonious coexistence of its many ethnic and religious groups, which had served as a haven for people fleeing religious persecution”.[vii] The phrase about changing religion was opposed by several Muslim countries, partly because of sharia rules against apostasy but also because of fears about Christian missionary activity. Saudi Arabia, which had general objections to what it saw as western cultural influences in the draft declaration, was especially critical of Article 18, arguing that the right to change religion would “open the door to proselytism, political unrest, and perhaps even war”.[viii] Eventually, though, other Muslim countries accepted it and Saudi Arabia was the only one among them not to vote in favour of the declaration.[ix]

A few years later Article 18 was incorporated word-for-word into the European Convention on Human Rights which is binding on all 47 states belonging to the Council of Europe. However, moves to incorporate it into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were again resisted by Muslim countries – notably, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq and Egypt – with the right to change religion as the main sticking point.

The draft of the International Covenant finally adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 omitted the word “change”. Instead, it said that everyone shall have freedom “to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”, adding that “no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. This was a diplomatic fudge in order to secure agreement. Essentially it conveyed the same meaning as Article 18, allowing people to choose their religion without resorting to use of the objectionable word “change”. In 1981, the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief softened the language a bit further by omitting the word “adopt”. Regardless of semantics, though, both documents clearly indicate that people have a right to change their religion.

Among the Arab League members, the ICCPR has since been ratified by Algeria, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. They are thus legally bound by its terms. Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Mauritania have ratified but with reservations which in the case of Bahrain and Mauritania appear to claim that sharia over-rides the treaty. Comoros has signed but not ratified. Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have neither signed nor ratified.

A growing emphasis internationally on human rights issues has prompted several efforts by Muslims to formulate alternative rights systems. These are partly intended to counter the idea that Muslims are not particularly concerned with human rights but also, and perhaps mainly, to challenge what they regard as “western” concepts by developing alternatives which purport to be no less valid. In reality, though, they are attempts to create a more limited rights framework using the sanctity of Islam as its justification.

One particularly egregious example is the 1981 Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. This was circulated with an English translation which, as Ann Elizabeth Mayer has demonstrated, disguises some of the more restrictive parts found in the Arabic version.[x] Article 12a, in the English translation, begins by saying: “Every person has the right to express his thoughts and beliefs so long as he remains within the limits prescribed by the Law.” As translated, this appears consistent with international norms, since the expression of beliefs – as opposed to the holding of beliefs – can, under certain circumstances, be limited by law [see next chapter].

The English translation is inaccurate and deceptive, however. What the Arabic actually says is this: “Everyone may think, believe and express his ideas and beliefs without interference or opposition from anyone as long as he obeys the limits set by the sharia.” The first problem here is that the Arabic text makes no distinction between holding and expressing beliefs, subjecting both of them to legal controls – contrary to the internationally accepted view. The second problem, as the Arabic text makes clear, is that “the Law” mentioned in the English translation is not statute law (qanun) but religious law (sharia).

In effect, the document is not so much a declaration of rights as a declaration that sharia determines what rights people shall have. Furthermore, these rights cannot be specified precisely because sharia is not a codified legal system and is subject to a variety of interpretations by religious scholars.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam suffers from similar problems. Adopted in 1990 by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference[xi] representing 57 countries, this document is described as “a guide for member states in all aspects of life”. It refers to “fundamental rights and freedoms according to Islam”. It does not talk about freedom of belief but it does say there should be no discrimination on grounds of religious belief. Freedom of expression is allowed “in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the sharia”. It ends by saying: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this declaration are subject to the Islamic sharia” and “The Islamic sharia is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this declaration.”

While these “alternative” formulations illustrate a certain style of approach to human rights issues, their importance should not be over-estimated. “Islamic human rights declarations,” Ziya Meral points out, “are known to a small circle of Muslim statesmen, activists and scholars and are almost never referred to by Muslims in discussions over human rights abuses in the Islamic world.”[xii]

The ‘crime’ of apostasy

APOSTASY – the abandoning of faith by former believers – is something that Muslims either welcome or condemn, depending on the circumstances. They welcome it when an ex-Christian converts to Islam but when a Muslim leaves Islam it is often regarded as a serious crime.

There are differences of opinion, however, over what constitutes apostasy in Islam and what punishments, if any, should apply. The Qur’an provides no clear-cut ruling and a much-quoted verse says: “There is no compulsion in religion.”[xiii] Others counter with a remark attributed to the Prophet: “He who changes his religion should be killed.” Some argue that apostasy (irtidad or ridda in Arabic) involves more than simple disbelief and should be viewed in its historical context during the lifetime of the Prophet. Tariq Ramadan, for example, writes:

The Prophet took firm measures, only in time of war, against people who had falsely converted to Islam for the sole purpose of infiltrating the Islamic community to obtain information they then passed on to the enemy. They were in fact betrayers engaging in high treason who incurred the penalty of death because their actions were liable to bring about the destruction of the Muslim community.[xiv]

According to Professor Abdelmouti Bayoumi of the Islamic Research Academy in Cairo, renouncing Islam is not enough, on its own, to merit execution. Interviewed by the BBC, he said the death penalty would only apply if an apostate was found to be working against the interests of a Muslim society or nation. In effect, the apostate would not be punished for disbelief but for treason.

Morocco’s Supreme Scholarly Council (a body functioning under government auspices) adopted a similar position in 2017, arguing that in the historical context of early Islam apostasy was primarily a political offence. “The most correct understanding of the apostasy issue,” it said, “resides in the spirit of the tradition and of Prophet’s biography, who by apostate means the traitor of the group (khā’in al-jamā’), the one who reveals its secrets and hurts it with the help of its opponents – what is equivalent to high treason under international law.”[xv]

Based on the Moroccan scholars’ ruling, renouncing Islam would not amount to apostasy unless there was also some accompanying threat to the wellbeing of the community. While that distinction might appear to be a step forward by exonerating those who simply abandon the faith, it still leaves questions about the dividing line between “religious” and “political” apostasy – and there are some Muslims who interpret the “treason” element so broadly as to include even public expressions of disbelief. In the words of Abdelsabour Shahin, an Islamist writer and academic at Cairo University, “if someone changes from Islam to kufr (unbelief), that has to remain a personal matter, and he should not make it public”. But if someone goes public with his apostasy it “amounts to fitna [sedition, or civil strife]; he is thus like someone fighting Islam, and should therefore be killed”.[xvi] The fear that disbelief constitutes a threat to social order has not been confined to Islam, however. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, for example, regarded atheism and impiety as a cause of vice, and therefore as a problem to be dealt with by the law. Book X of Plato’s Laws advocated putting religion under state control, with punishments for “those who speak or act insolently toward the gods” – an idea that would not sound unfamiliar to Arabs today:

There should be one law, which will make men in general less liable to transgress in word or deed, and less foolish, because they will not be allowed to practise religious rites contrary to law.

Plato identified two kinds of unbeliever who should be punished by the law. One was “the hypocritical sort”, while the other was the misguided kind who needs “bonds and admonition”:

Let those who have been made what they are only from want of understanding, and not from malice or an evil nature, be placed by the judge in the House of Reformation, and ordered to suffer imprisonment during a period of not less than five years. And in the meantime let them have no intercourse with the other citizens, except with members of the Nocturnal Council, and with them let them converse with a view to the improvement of their soul’s health. And when the time of their imprisonment has expired, if any of them be of sound mind let him be restored to sane company, but if not, and if he be condemned a second time, let him be punished with death.

R F Stalley, in his Introduction to Plato’s Laws, comments: “No doubt Plato expects members of the Nocturnal Council to convert the atheist through philosophical argument. But since the atheist’s only hope of freedom (and indeed survival) lies in agreeing with his instructors, the conditions are hardly those of a fair and free discussion. ‘Brainwashing’ might be a more adequate description.”[xvii] Meanwhile, the more serious type of offender who combines atheism with “contempt of mankind” is to be imprisoned for life:

Let no freeman ever approach him, but let him receive the rations of food appointed by the guardians of the law from the hands of the public slaves; and when he is dead let him be cast beyond the borders unburied.[xviii]

In Thomas More’s Utopia – an imaginary picture of an ideal society written in the early sixteenth century – religious tolerance is viewed with approval, though tolerance of atheists is specifically excluded. Among the inhabitants of Utopia, belief in an afterlife where vice will be punished and virtue rewarded is considered essential for good order; people will “openly despise all the laws and customs of society, if not prevented by fear”:

Who can doubt that a man who has nothing to fear but the law, and no hope of life beyond the grave, will do anything he can to evade his country’s laws by craft or to break them by violence, in order to gratify his own personal greed?

On that basis, unbelievers cannot be treated as full citizens:

A person who holds such views is offered no honours, entrusted with no offices, and given no public responsibility; he is universally regarded as low and torpid. Yet they do not punish him, because they are persuaded that no one can choose to believe by a mere act of will.

This is not unlike the concept of “civil death” in modern Jordan, where apostates from Islam can be stripped of basic social rights in the areas of marriage, inheritance and custody of children.

The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke was an advocate of religious freedom. In 1689, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote: “No private person has any right in any manner to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church or religion … Neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion.”[xix]

Locke considered religious diversity to be beneficial and not in itself a cause of civil strife, arguing that civil strife was more likely to be the result of efforts to suppress religious diversity. Nevertheless, he found it difficult to accept atheists: giving them free rein could weaken the nation’s religious faith and, consequently, its morals. Locke also doubted the honesty of non-believers: “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”

The idea that atheists could not be trusted – since they had no fear of God’s punishment if they lied or broke promises – provided a legal basis for discrimination which continued in England for two centuries after Locke. Atheists were prevented from holding certain public offices and from giving evidence in court because of the requirement for a religious oath. This was eventually overcome by allowing non-religious “affirmation” as an alternative to the oath, but not without a struggle. In 1880 Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist and a republican, was elected as the Member of Parliament for Northampton and, on arriving at the House of Commons, asked to affirm rather than taking the religious Oath of Allegiance. Parliament rejected this and in the ensuing dispute Bradlaugh was deemed to have forfeited his seat. A fresh election was called which Bradlaugh contested and won – only to be disqualified once again. This process was repeated for a third time and it was not until 1886, after Bradlaugh’s fourth re-election, that he was finally allowed to affirm and take up his seat.

Threats of execution

THE EXACT legal position regarding apostasy in the Arab countries today is often difficult to determine. This is partly because their systems are based on a mixture of secular and religious law. In some countries Islamic sharia law predominates; in others it is confined to personal status matters – marriage, divorce, etc. Sharia law, since it is not formally codified, can also be inconsistent because it relies heavily on the interpretations of individual judges. In addition to that, what the law says – or appears to say – does not necessarily reflect actual practice; the way suspected apostates are treated may be determined more by social pressures than the law itself.

Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Tunisia have no statutory laws against conversion from Islam. Bahrain does not specifically outlaw apostasy, though the constitution’s statement that sharia is “a principal source” for legislation implies that it could be illegal. In Iraq, government laws and regulations prevent conversion away from Islam but the country’s civil and penal codes prescribe no penalties for doing so. Despite the absence of specific laws against apostasy or atheism in Syria, the Assad regime promoted a stern view of non-belief. A school textbook aimed at teenagers informed them: “Islam accepts only two choices for pagans: that they convert to Islam or be killed.” The textbook made the surprising claim that pagans (whom it defined as “those who worship something other than God”) and atheists “contradict the principle of freedom of belief”. This, it explained, is because “Islam gives freedom of belief only within the limits of the divine path,” which “means a religion descended from heaven”.[xx]

In Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen apostasy is a crime and in theory the death penalty can apply. As far as the state in these countries is concerned, though, “death for apostasy” is more of a myth than a reality. No recent executions for apostasy have been reported in any of them and in Saudi Arabia there have been none for well over twenty years, according to the US State Department.[xxi] On the rare occasions when an execution for apostasy becomes a possibility, these countries usually resort to avoidance mechanisms. In 2000, for example, the Yemeni authorities had a dilemma over what to do about Mohammed Omer Haji, a Somali refugee who faced possible execution after converting from Islam to Christianity and being charged with apostasy. However, the need for a decision on his execution was averted when, as a result of behind-the-scenes activity, he was granted emergency resettlement in New Zealand with his wife and son.[xxii]

Allowing the accused to leave the country was also the solution in the Sudanese case of Meriam Ibrahim (discussed in Chapter Six) and the 1996 case of Hussein Qambar Ali, a Kuwaiti businessman whose conversion from Islam to Christianity had become public knowledge. Three Islamist lawyers launched a case against him in the family court, seeking to have him declared apostate and stripped of his civil rights.

This was the first case of its kind since Kuwait became independent. In court, Hussein Qambar Ali confirmed that he had become a Christian and adopted “Robert” as his first name, but argued that it was a matter for the constitutional court rather than the family court – on the grounds that the Kuwaiti constitution allows for freedom of thought and belief (Article 35 says: “Freedom of belief is absolute. The state protects the freedom of practising religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals.”)

However, the family court rejected his claim, saying that while the constitution allowed “freedom of religion without fear of being closely monitored”, it did not mean that “a Muslim should be allowed to convert from his religion to another”. After several hearings, the family court declared Qambar Ali an apostate and ordered him to pay the costs of the case. Although Kuwait’s criminal law prescribed no penalty for apostasy, there was public clamour to have him punished under Islamic law and one member of parliament reportedly called for him to be stoned to death. Looking for a way to defuse the situation, the Kuwaiti authorities issued Qambar Ali with a passport and allowed him to quietly leave the country.[xxiii]

Since the southern part of Sudan became independent in 2011, the north – still known as Sudan – has assumed a more strongly Islamic character and accusations of apostasy have become fairly common. Among the 22 Arab League members, Sudan – along with Saudi Arabia – is designated under the US International Religious Freedom Act as a “country of particular concern”. According to government estimates, 97% of the population are Muslims (overwhelmingly Sunni) and 3% are Christians. Among the Muslims, though, are a variety of religious traditions, including Shia Islam, Sufi orders, the Republican Brotherhood and apparently growing numbers of Salafis. Amidst this maelstrom, discrimination and abuse is prevalent; claims of apostasy are often bandied about but rarely result in formal charges. To complicate matters further, Sudan’s vaguely worded apostasy law criminalises acts that encourage apostasy as well as apostasy itself.

Apostasy cases in Sudan tend to be more about religious and ethnic differences than actual renunciation of belief. In 2011, for example, police in South Khartoum arrested 150 men, women, and children, mostly of Hausa ethnicity, for apostasy – based on the way they performed their Islamic prayer. Some of them were detained for almost two months but all were eventually released after instruction on “proper religious practice”.[xxiv] Although apostasy in Sudan is potentially a capital offence, the law insists that anyone who is convicted must be given an opportunity to recant. This no doubt helps to explain the lack of executions but also, perhaps, how the apostasy law has come to be used in such a trivial fashion.

There are some, on the other hand, who think the apostasy law is not used nearly enough – as a news item from the Sudan Tribune showed:

The chairman of the Islamic Centre for Preaching and Comparative Studies, Ammar Saleh, said that cases of apostasy and atheism are on the rise in the country and accused authorities of negligence in addressing this issue.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Saleh claimed that the number of converts from Islam in Khartoum has reached 109 apostates, stressing that these figures are growing in a “continuous” and “scary” fashion, especially with the presence of atheists and homosexuals.

The Islamic figure slammed the government for not taking decisive action against missionaries operating “boldly” in the country. He said that anyone who denies the existence of proselytising or the increase in people converting to the Shiite faith are either “living on Mars” or are in denial.

Saleh appealed to the official bodies and the community to take a stand against Christianisation and find a long-term solution to the problem, arguing that government’s efforts in this regard are timid compared to missionaries’ efforts.[xxv]

Much of this may be paranoia but it’s also a sign of Sudan’s multi-dimensional religious ferment. In its report on religious freedom for 2012, the US State Department noted:

In December unknown persons put up posters throughout Khartoum urging Muslims not to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, asserting that celebrating the holidays of unbelievers was akin to being an unbeliever.

The growing proportion of Salafists in the Muslim population created conflict with non-Salafist Muslims. On January 29, members of the Ansar al-Sunna group in Khartoum urged the public to refrain from celebrating the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Sufi activists harassed Ansar al-Sunna group members. Violent clashes between the two groups the next day left between 35 and 50 injured.

Mauritania, on the Atlantic coast of Africa, is officially classed as a Arab country and its population is overwhelmingly Muslim. At the end of 2013, twenty-nine-year-old Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir[xxvi] wrote an article for a local website criticising Mauritania’s discriminatory caste system, including prejudice against the low-status blacksmith class. His article also referred to similar practices in the time of the Prophet – implying religious double standards.

Two days after the article appeared Ould Mkhaitir was arrested. His family reportedly disowned him, his marriage was dissolved on grounds of apostasy and his lawyer abandoned him. A Mauritanian businessman also offered a substantial reward for anyone who succeeding in killing him. During a one-day court hearing where the judge informed him that he was accused of “speaking lightly” of the Prophet in his article, Ould Mkhaitir was convicted and sentenced to death.[xxvii]

In Mauritania, as in Sudan, convicted apostates must be given an opportunity to repent. Ould Mkhaitir reportedly did so, but there were claims that his repentance was not sincere. In November 2016 his case reached the Supreme Court. Huge and angry crowds chanting “Allahu akbar” gathered outside the building in Nouakchott. One banner, bearing the name “Group of Lovers of the Prophet” said in Arabic: “We demand the execution of Ould Mkhaitir immediately”. Ahead of the hearing, Mauritania’s Forum of Imams and Ulemas had also called for him to be executed “with no exception made for his repentance”. Their statement said: “We demand that the competent authorities apply the law: kill him and bury him in conformity with the law of God.”[xxviii]

Faced with this pressure, the Supreme Court seemed unsure what to do. In January 2017, after postponing a decision several times it amended Ould Mkhaitir’s conviction from apostasy to the lesser crime of “unbelief” and passed the case back to the appeal court for a ruling (under different judges) about the “sincerity” of his repentance. It appeared from this that the authorities were seeking to avoid an execution without further inflaming the religious protesters. In the meantime, Ould Mkhaitir had begun his fourth year in jail with his future still uncertain.[xxix]

At the other end of the scale, in countries where apostasy is not illegal, the situation can still be more problematic than it appears on paper. Jordan has no explicit law preventing Muslims from leaving Islam, and no formal legal penalties. Regardless of that, though, the government does not recognise conversions away from Islam and this can have serious consequences for those affected. Muslims who leave Islam continue to be treated as apostate Muslims rather than converts to some other religion (or none).

Personal status law in Jordan is dealt with by two types of court: sharia-based courts for Muslims, and others for those of recognised non-Muslim religions. Defectors from Islam can be taken to the sharia courts (by relatives or others) and stripped of important rights – in effect being punished with “civil death”:

During 2005 and 2006 two apostasy cases were heard by the sharia courts in Jordan. In January 2005, the sharia appeals court, declaring a Muslim convert to Christianity to be a ward of the state, stripped him of his civil rights and annulled his marriage.

The court stated that he no longer had any inheritance rights and that he could not remarry his wife unless he returned to Islam. He was also forbidden from being considered an adherent of any other religion. The verdict also implied the possibility that legal and physical custody of his child could be assigned to someone else. The convert has since left Jordan, received refugee status, and resettled in another country.

A similar decision in 2006 left another Jordanian man without identification cards, thus depriving him of basic social rights.”[xxx]

Egypt, like Jordan, has no specific law forbidding apostasy but in another “civil death” case a 73-year-old Egyptian Muslim was awarded custody of his seven-year-old grandson because the boy’s parents changed their religion, converting to the Baha’i faith. The grandfather, Mohammad Abdul Fatah, said he had gone to court after seeking advice from Egypt’s Grand Mufti: “He advised me to consider my daughter dead, and to file a lawsuit to demand the guardianship of my grandchild.” The court ruling could not be enforced, however, as the parents had already emigrated with their son.[xxxi]

The use of lawsuits in religious disputes has been taken to extreme lengths in Egypt and used by Islamists in particular to harass those they disagree with – people who are not necessarily unbelievers. For Nasr Abu Zayd, a teacher of Arabic literature at Cairo University in Egypt, the trouble began in 1992 when he applied for a professorial post. The committee responsible for promotions considered three reports on his work – two of which were favourable. But the third report, prepared by the Islamist Dr Abdel-Sabour Shahin, questioned the orthodoxy of Abu Zayd’s religious beliefs, claiming that his research contained “clear affronts to the Islamic faith”, and the committee rejected his appointment by seven votes to six. Not content with having deprived Abu Zayd of a promotion, Shahin then wrote a newspaper article accusing him of apostasy. This in turn prompted a group of Islamist lawyers to file a lawsuit seeking to divorce Abu Zayd from his wife, on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. They eventually won their case and Abu Zayd fled the country along with his wife.[xxxii]

The Egyptian writer and feminist, Nawal el Saadawi, faced a similar situation in 2001 when Islamists sought to have her divorced after thirty-seven years of marriage, on the grounds that her views had placed her outside Islam. The case seems to have been prompted by an interview in which she said kissing the black stone of the Kaaba (which Muslims do on the pilgrimage to Mecca) is a “vestige of pagan practices”.[xxxiii] Fortunately for Saadawi, the divorce claim was rejected.

Both these cases were made possible by hesba, an Islamic legal principle based on notions of collective responsibility – the idea that every Muslim has a part to play in promoting good and opposing evil. Following the Islamists’ success in the Abu Zayd case, hesba in Egypt became a busybodies’ charter, allowing countless vexatious lawsuits to be brought – mainly (but not always) by those of a religious disposition against high-profile figures whose beliefs were suspect.

In effect, these were private prosecutions and many of them never reached the courts. But they did have an intimidating effect. In 2009, the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information accused the Mubarak government of allowing cases to go ahead where the plaintiffs had no real interest or legal status, and complained: “These primarily illegal cases are becoming a hovering threat over the heads of all intellectuals in Egypt. Instead of conducting an open, reasonable dialogue based on intellectuals’ opinions, hesba experts [would] rather start the legal chase and a chain of lawsuits.”[xxxiv] One lawyer, Nabih el-Wahsh, was reported to have initiated more than 1,000 hesba cases over a ten-year period.[xxxv]

Legal proceedings aside, there is always the possibility of hotheads taking matters into their own hands. In 1992 Farag Fouda, an outspoken secularist who ruthlessly mocked many of Egypt’s leading Islamists, was shot dead by two members of the militant group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. The Muslim Brotherhood publicly welcomed his killing and during the trial of his assassins a scholar at al-Azhar who was also a former Brotherhood member argued in court that their action was justified because the authorities had failed to punish Fouda for his apostasy.[xxxvi]

Two years later, Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab ever to win a Nobel prize for literature, was stabbed in the neck outside his home after being accused by militants of apostasy. Mahfouz, who was eighty-two at the time, survived the assassination attempt but with his right arm partly paralysed.

Clearly, the Arab countries have a very long way to go before freedom of belief can become a reality. The problem is not merely one of government policies but of societies which do not yet accept that what individuals choose to believe is their own personal business – and nobody else’s.

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[i]. “Over 600 Chinese nationals working in Saudi embrace Islam.” Gulf News, 27 September 2009.

[ii]. “French Rapper Diam’s embraces Islam.” Saudi Gazette, undated. The Saudi Gazette was chastised by one of its readers for saying that Diam’s had “converted”. Many Muslims believe that everyone is born with a natural faith in God, so non-Muslims who embrace Islam are considered to be returning or “reverting” to their original faith.

[vi]. CCPR General Comment No. 22: Article 18 (Freedom of Thought,

Conscience or Religion).

[vii]. Kristine Kalanges: “Religious Liberty in Western and Islamic Law: Toward a World Legal Tradition.” OUP USA, 2012, p 60.

[viii]. ibid, p61.

[ix]. Mayer, Ann Elizabeth: Islam and Human Rights – Tradition and Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press 2007. p. 150.

[x]. Mayer, Ann Elizabeth: op. cit. Mayer’s book discusses these Islamic rights schemes extensively.

[xi]. It was renamed in 2011 and is now known as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

[xii]. Meral, Ziya: “No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam, Failures of the International Community.” Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 2008.

[xiv]. Ramadan, Tariq: “Muslim Scholars Speak out on Jihad, Apostasy and Women”, 2007.

[xv]. Pellegrino, Chiara: “Morocco: the Apostate no Longer Faces Death”. Oasis, 2 March 2017.

[xvi]. Abdelhadi, Magdi: “What Islam says on religious freedom”. BBC, 27 March 2006.

[xvii]. Stalley, R F: An Introduction to Plato’s Laws. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983. pp 177-178

[xviii]. Plato: Laws. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Internet Classics Archive.

[xix]. Locke, John: A Letter Concerning Toleration. 1689. Translated from Latin by William Popple.

[xx]. Whitaker, Brian: “Assad regime and the right to kill ‘pagans’.”, 4 December 2014.

[xxi]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.

[xxii]. Barbara Baker: “Yemen Court Sentences Somali Convert to Death”, Christianity Today, 7 July 2000.

[xxiii]. “Hussein Qambar ‘Ali: Death threats”. Amnesty International, August 1996. See also: Longva, Anh Nga: “The apostasy law in the age of universal human rights and citizenship”. Fourth Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies, Oslo, 1998.

[xxiv]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: International Religious Freedom Report for 2011.

[xxv]. “Sudanese centre says incidents of apostasy, atheism increasing in country”. Sudan Tribune, 15 May 2013.

[xxvi]. There are several alternative spellings of his name. He is also sometimes referred to as Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed.

[xxvii]. According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which produced a briefing paper about the case, the initial conviction (and death sentence) was for “hypocrisy” and “insulting” the Prophet but at a later appeal hearing Ould Mkhaitir was formally convicted of apostasy.

[xxviii]. Whitaker, Brian: “Mob calls for death of Mauritanian ‘apostate’.”, 16 November 2016.

[xxix]. Buchanan, Elsa: “Apostasy death penalty case blogger ‘in limbo’ as Mauritanian courts ‘pass buck’.” IB Times, 1 February 2017.

[xxx]. Meral, Ziya: “No Place to Call Home: Experiences of Apostates from Islam, Failures of the International Community.” Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 2008.

[xxxi]. Sherbini, Ramadan al-: “Bahai daughter, Muslim father locked in court battle over child’s custody.” Gulf News, 9 August 2009.

[xxxii]. For more details see: Whitaker, Brian: What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East. London: Saqi Books, 2009, pp. 126-128.

[xxxiii]. Szymanski, Tekla: “Battling Bigotry”. World Press Review (Vol. 48, No. 9), September 2001.

[xxxiv]. ANHRI press release, 1 October 2009.

[xxxv]. Whitaker, Brian: “The biter bit”. Blog post, 10 October 2009.

[xxxvi]. Soage, Ana Belén: “Faraj Fawda, or the cost of freedom of expression.” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 11, No. 2, June 2007.