First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Freedom of Religion: For Everyone, Everywhere
Poor Abdul Rahman. He lived in Germany, where there is freedom of religion. He forgot that freedom of religion only applies to non-Muslims who convert to other faiths. Muslims aren't allowed to follow their individual consciences. If you're born a Muslim, then in your entire life you will never, never have a choice about what religion to belong to.
Because if you convert from Islam to another faith, good Muslims have a right -- no, a duty -- to kill you.
Oh, wait. How can I say that? I keep forgetting -- we've been assured ten thousand times since 9/11 that Islam is "a peaceful religion."
Many -- probably most -- Muslims who live as citizens in the United States no longer accept the idea that Islam gives anybody the right to kill anybody.
But enough Muslims do believe there is a death penalty on the crime of converting away from Islam that it remains a dangerous thing to do.
Remember that when poor Abdul Rahman went home to Afghanistan, it was his own parents who turned him in and set him up for the death penalty.
You know: Tough love. Maybe a nice beheading will help our son get his head on straight.
Now the international pressure has led the Afghan court to back down. Suddenly there is "not enough evidence." I wonder how that could be. His parents can affirm that he was born and raised Muslim. He himself has openly stated that he converted to Christianity and has no intention, even under penalty of death, to renounce that conversion. Hard for evidence to get much clearer than that.
Obviously, Afghanistan's government recognized a couple of facts that had clearly been pointed out to them by Condoleezza Rice:
1. Americans are willing to let their soldiers fight in Afghanistan as long as we're bringing them freedom. Specifically, freedom from the religious intolerance of the Taliban, which enforced the most rigid, ridiculous interpretation of Sharia.
2. If Abdul Rahman had been executed for no worse "crime" than converting to Christianity, then a huge portion of the support for the war in the US would evaporate. In short order, American troops would be home and Afghanistan would be on its own.
I would have been one of the most fervent in demanding the immediate withdrawal of US troops. Not one more American life should be risked to sustain a system of law in which someone who changes religion can be murdered by the state -- or even by a religion tolerated by the state.
Freedom of conversion is at the core of freedom of religion -- indeed, at the core of freedom of any kind. If you cannot change your mind, your stated beliefs, and the religious community you choose to associate with, you are not free.
What I find most amusing is the widespread belief among Muslims that this Sharia law is essential in order to preserve Islam.
Don't they see that it is exactly this law that destroys Islam wherever it is enforced?
To the degree that the law demanding the death of anyone who converts away from Islam is actually enforced, to exactly that degree the nation that enforces it is not a Muslim nation.
Indeed, there are no Muslims at all, wherever that law is enforced.
Because religion is absolutely not about mere outward compliance with the law. It is about belief -- it is about what a person believes in his heart. But in a nation where conversion away from Islam means death, then no believer can be sure that his own obedience is purely a matter of conscience.
If a person "believes" in Islam, but there has ever been a moment when he thought, "since I can't convert to another faith anyway, what's the point of learning about any other way of thinking?" then that person is not a Muslim.
There is no faith under compulsion. Any nation where Sharia is enforced is not a Muslim nation, and none of its people are Muslims. If they cannot choose not to be Muslim, then they have not chosen to be Muslim. Without freedom not to believe, faith is a sham even if you think you are sincere.
Four hundred years ago, European Christians shed the blood of thousands of Christians over precisely this issue. Between inquisitorial actions and outright warfare, European states made the attempt to enforce uniformity of thought, until the people themselves became sick of the killing. Exhausted and publicly shamed by their actions, the governments and the official churches gradually backed off, grudgingly permitting freedom of conscience ... but with restrictions.
But that retreat from murder as a method of encouraging religious conformity was a slow one. Some nations adopted a policy of tolerance-with-penalties -- you could join another church, but you had to pay higher taxes or couldn't hold office or forfeited other rights.
Other nations, more ruthless, adopted the policy of expulsion and impoverishment. You can believe whatever you want, they said, but not here. Out you go.
That's where Afghanistan has reluctantly moved today. Rahman can stay Christian and stay alive -- just not in Afghanistan.
And not if some ardent Muslim decides to take it upon himself to enforce Sharia on a volunteer basis by murdering Rahman no matter where he goes.
The problem for Islam is that it is not an organized religion. There is no Caliph to declare that there is a new, universal interpretation of the Koran that denies any right to kill anyone for the sake of religion. No authority in all of Islam that can say that Islam truly is and must be a peaceful religion, and any imam or ayatollah who teaches otherwise will be excommunicated from Islam, losing his position and his authority.
And the only candidates we have for the job of Caliph are the very people -- Osama, for instance -- who would like to enforce this law on everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, throughout the world.
In other words, the attempt to compel Rahman to revert to Islam under threat of death is a warning to the whole world: If we do not relentlessly oppose the fanatic Muslims who wish to spread Sharia and rigidly enforce it everywhere, then someday we may all find ourselves in Rahman's unenviable position.
I can hear the scoffers now. "That could never happen."
Oh, really? And the world could never have been ruled by Communists. Or by Nazis.
And why could the world have never been ruled by these people who felt entitled to enforce their beliefs on all nations? Because we fought them and resisted them, that's why.
Like it or not, Communism was (and, it must be pointed out, remains) a proselytizing religion that used (and uses) every tool, including murder and terrorism and war, torture and prison, constant spying and betrayal, in order to spread its rule, ultimately to every corner of the earth. Wherever it established its grip, it held on brutally and relentlessly; wherever it stretched its hand, it took powerful and usually bloody resistance to stop it.
Even those who shared some of the same ideology as the Communists eventually came to realize (except, of course, Western intellectuals, who are able to resist even the most obvious facts) that it had to be resisted. And wherever it was not resisted -- like, for instance, Vietnam after our withdrawal, or Tibet when the Chinese moved in -- the price in blood and horror was immeasurable.
Islam's history is thick with exactly the same processes. The ideology is different, of course, and many millions of Muslims manage to live their faith without killing or hurting anybody. But from the first explosion of Arab warriors into the Christian lands of the Byzantine Empire, it was clear that unless you fought the Muslim armies, matching their brutality and fervor with your own, you would soon find yourself in a Muslim nation.
Europeans fought -- and won, in France and then in Austria; but also lost, in Spain and Byzantium and all of north Africa.
In fact, when we look at the Muslim world, it's worth remembering that almost every nation now listed as "Muslim" was once of another faith entirely, and most of them were not converted but conquered.
And those are the glory days that Osama and his ilk wish to return to.
Most Muslims have no interest in any kind of conquest today.
But neither are there many Muslims openly opposing the idea that where Islam is established, no one may convert to another faith.
In other words, they support the freedom of non-Muslims to convert to Islam -- but not the freedom of Muslims to choose to leave Islam. There may be those who believe that -- but they are either very rare or very quiet.
Of course they're quiet. Advocating such a policy is a pretty good way for a Muslim to get himself killed.
Any religion that believes itself entitled to kill anyone who deviates from or stands in the way of their holy law poses a danger to everyone else, until they give up that belief and renounce that entitlement.
And until Islam finds a way to make that the universal policy of all true Muslims, so that anyone who claims the right to kill for Allah is immediately denied the right to be recognized as a Muslim by any established Muslim community, then Islam poses a continuous threat to the freedom of all people in the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
There is no Muslim nation where conformity to Islam is enforced with the death penalty -- or even with exile. It is a mockery of faith to enforce it.
But let us also pause to pity the poor Bush administration, when faced with this dilemma. For despite the fact that Afghanistan's court bent, under intense pressure, and declined to officially kill Rahman (though his safety remains in serious doubt), the fact remains: That law is on the books in Afghanistan. And the minute Afghanistan no longer needs U.S. support to remain "free," we can fully expect that such laws will once again be enforced.
We can talk about democracy all we want, but if the right to convert to another faith is not fully protected by law, we are not bringing freedom.
Yet here is the contradiction: When and if we, by pressure of our military might, demand the right of the people of a nation to freely choose their own faith, it will immediately be seen -- and not incorrectly, I must add -- that American troops are thus opening the door to Christian proselytizing within the boundaries of Islam.
To us, the answer to that concern is, "Of course. Just as Muslims are free to proselytize within Christian-majority or nothing-majority nations in the West."
But to Muslims, that turns American armies into crusaders, trying to break Islam and restore Christianity to the lands that Arab armies tore from Christianity more than fifteen hundred years ago.
After all, that's exactly what the Crusades were -- an attempt to take back what Islam had taken from Christianity by force.
In vain do we Americans protest that we are bringing freedom; to many, perhaps most Muslims, it will seem (and the propaganda of our enemies will make sure it will seem) to be an attempt to dilute, weaken, and eventually destroy Islam.
After all, look what freedom of religion has led to in the West: Christianity has become a joke in the universities and intellectual circles of almost every Western nation, and active church membership in most Western countries is low and falling lower. If that's where freedom of religion leads, few Muslims in nominally Muslim countries will want it. "Does the coming of American troops mean that our children might grow up and turn Christian? Or Ba'hai? Or Hindu? Or atheist? Then send them home!"
To those who have never known religious freedom, it is difficult to understand that, when faith is voluntary, it grows more robust among those who freely adhere to it. Because it can be heartbreaking to watch your child turn from the faith of his family. Few parents desire it -- even those with faith in atheism are appalled when a child of theirs converts to a religion that has a god in it.
The answer, though, is to teach them well, and make sure your religion actually works in the real world -- that compliance with its law really does make people happier, that the doctrines really do explain what matters in the real world. A religion that refuses to compete on a level playing field with other ideologies is a religion that confesses its own inferiority.
If Muslims believe Islam can only be defended by blood or exile, then obviously they doubt Islam's strength. They are afraid that Islam is not actually true enough to compete for the hearts and minds of its own believers.
To insist that those who would leave Islam must be killed if they do not revert is to insist that Islam is not, in fact, true.
The truly faithful of any religion will insist on the right of people to lose faith and leave the religion. Any other position is, in fact, a confession of one's own lack of faith.
Of all religions, Islam, with a firm belief that all that happens in the world happens as a result of the will of God, should accept that when someone leaves the faith, it is clearly permitted by the will of God, for God is not so powerless as to need bloody-handed men to enforce his will!
Therefore only the coming of full religious freedom and the repudiation of conversion or retention by force will allow nominally Muslim nations to become genuinely Islamic.
But just try making that clear in the arena of international politics, with Al-Jazeera blaring out the worst possible interpretation of American motives every day. Our President needs the cooperation of many Muslim states. If our enemies succeed in painting our military efforts against terrorism -- against the forces in Islam that would make all the world a prison camp in the name of Sharia -- as a crusade, then that cooperation will dry up.
It would be so easy for the war on terrorism to become a war between Islam and the West.
And yet it is also certain, if history is any teacher, that a failure to resist Islamic terrorist-fundamentalism will have an even more terrible outcome.
For, bad as war is, and frightful as a holy war would be, they would pale in comparison with the living hell of being subject to universal Sharia as interpreted by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
So I am waiting for American Muslims to band together to stand openly and bravely against the anti-freedom doctrines and laws within Sharia. I am waiting for them to establish the councils that would give official authority to a body that could renounce and excommunicate any imam, here or abroad, who taught that any Muslim has a right to kill or exile anyone over matters of faith and conscience.
Only Muslims can change Islam. And Islam must, for its own sake and for the sake of peace and freedom throughout the world, change on precisely this point of law.
Those who think it is right to kill Abdul Rahman are precisely those who think it was right to kill the innocent people in the World Trade Center or the subways of Britain and Spain. Any religion that claims the right to kill is a dangerous one, which must be resisted -- by force if necessary.
And if Western Islam wishes to be taken seriously as a peaceful religion, they must draw the line clearly and demand that this law be renounced by all Muslims everywhere.
Instead, what do we see? Western Muslims demanding that they, and they alone, be immune from even being offended by mere cartoons, though they themselves can attack people of other faiths however they want -- with words and actions.
No wonder, then, that non-Muslims in the west are growing more and more suspicious that Western Muslims might not be significantly different in their sense of entitlement from Muslims in nations where you can be killed for converting away from Islam.
The time will come -- or perhaps has already come -- when Muslims in the West must choose: Stand up for freedom of religion and demand change in Muslim doctrine throughout the world on this exact point. Or else remain under the suspicion, which will grow in many minds into certainty, that all Muslims everywhere are merely biding their time till they can rule by force over the consciences of all.
It is because of the actions of some Muslims that all Muslims are being put to that choice. But tolerance of other religions does not mean we have to tolerate any religion that claims the right to kill unbelievers. To paraphrase Lincoln, freedom of religion is not a suicide pact.
Copyright © 2006 by Orson Scott Card.
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