Politics & Policy

Death to Apostates: Not a Perversion of Islam, but Islam

The case of Said Musa shows why we cannot graft democracy onto Islamic societies.

On NRO Friday, Paul Marshall lamented the Obama administration’s fecklessness, in particular the president’s appalling silence in the face of the death sentence Said Musa may suffer for the crime of converting to Christianity. This is in Afghanistan, the nation for which our troops are fighting and dying — not to defeat our enemies, but to prop up the Islamic “democracy” we have spent a decade trying to forge at a cost of billions.

This shameful episode (and the certain recurrence of it) perfectly illustrates the folly of Islamic nation-building. The stubborn fact is that we have asked for just these sorts of atrocious outcomes. Ever since 2003, when the thrust of the War On Terror stopped being the defeat of America’s enemies and decisively shifted to nation-building, we have insisted — against history, law, language, and logic — that Islamic culture is perfectly compatible with and hospitable to Western-style democracy. It is not, it never has been, and it never will be.

This is not the first time an apostate in the new American-made Afghanistan has confronted the very real possibility of being put to death by the state. In 2006, a Christian convert named Abdul Rahman was tried for apostasy. The episode prompted a groundswell of international criticism. In the end, Abdul Rahman was whisked out of the country before his execution could be carried out. A fig leaf was placed over the mess: The prospect of execution had been rendered unjust by the (perfectly sane) defendant’s purported mental illness — after all, who in his right mind would convert from Islam?  His life was spared, but the Afghans never backed down from their insistence that a Muslim’s renunciation of Islam is a capital offense and that death is the mandated sentence.

They are right. Under the construction of sharia adopted by the Afghan constitution (namely Hanafi, one of Islam’s classical schools of jurisprudence), apostasy is the gravest offense a Muslim can commit. It is considered treason from the Muslim ummah. The penalty for that is death.

This is the dictate of Mohammed himself. One relevant hadith (from the authoritative Bukhari collection, No. 9.83.17) quotes the prophet as follows: “A Muslim . . . may not be killed except for three reasons: as punishment for murder, for adultery, or for apostasy.” It is true that the hadith says “may,” not “must,” and there is in fact some squabbling among sharia scholars about whether ostracism could be a sufficient sentence, at least if the apostasy is kept secret. Alas, the “may” hadith is not the prophet’s only directive on the matter. There is also No. 9.84.57: “Whoever changes his Islamic religion, then kill him.” That is fairly clear, wouldn’t you say? And as a result, mainstream Islamic scholarship holds that apostasy, certainly once it is publicly revealed, warrants the death penalty.

Having hailed the Afghan constitution as the start of a democratic tsunami, the startled Bush administration made all the predictable arguments against Abdul Rahman’s apostasy prosecution. Diplomats and nation-building enthusiasts pointed in panic at the vague, lofty language injected into the Afghan constitution to obscure Islamic law’s harsh reality — spoons full of sugar that had helped the sharia go down. The constitution assures religious freedom, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice maintained. It cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and even specifies that non-Muslims are free to perform their religious rites. 

Read the fine print. It actually qualifies that all purported guarantees of personal and religious liberty are subject to Islamic law and Afghanistan’s commitment to being an Islamic state. We were supposed to celebrate this, just as the State Department did, because Islam is the “religion of peace” whose principles are just like ours — that’s why it was so ready for democracy.

It wasn’t so. Sharia is very different from Western law, and it couldn’t care less what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has to say on the matter of apostasy. Nor do the authoritative scholars at al-Azhar University in Cairo give a hoot that their straightforward interpretation of sharia’s apostasy principles upsets would-be Muslim reformers like Zuhdi Jasser. We may look at Dr. Jasser as a hero — I do — but at al-Azhar, the sharia scholars would point out that he is merely a doctor of medicine, not of Islamic jurisprudence.

The constitution that the State Department bragged about helping the new Afghan “democracy” draft established Islam as the state religion and installed sharia as a principal source of law. That constitution therefore fully supports the state killing of apostates. Case closed.

The purpose of real democracy, meaning Western republican democracy, is to promote individual liberty, the engine of human prosperity. No nation that establishes a state religion, installs its totalitarian legal code, and hence denies its citizens freedom of conscience, can ever be a democracy — no matter how many “free” elections it holds. Afghanistan is not a democracy. It is an Islamic sharia state.

To grasp this, one need only read the first three articles of its constitution:

1. Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary, and indivisible state.

2. The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law.

3. In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.

Need to hear more? The articles creating the Afghan judiciary make higher education in Islamic jurisprudence a sufficient qualification to sit on the Afghan Supreme Court. Judges are expressly required to take an oath, “In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate,” to “support justice and righteousness in accord with the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” When there is no provision of law that seems to control a controversy, Article 130 directs that decisions be in accordance with “the Hanafi jurisprudence” of sharia.

Moreover, consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood’s blueprint for society (highly influential in Sunni Islamic countries and consonant with the transnational-progressive bent of the State Department), the constitution obliges the Afghan government to “create a prosperous and progressive society based on social justice” (which, naturally, includes free universal health care). It commands that the Afghan flag be inscribed, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet, and Allah is Great [i.e., Allahu Akbar].” The state is instructed to “devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and to “develop the curriculum of religious subjects on the basis of the Islamic sects existing in Afghanistan.” In addition, the constitution requires the Afghan government to ensure that the family, “a fundamental unit of society,” is supported in the upbringing of children by “the elimination of traditions contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” Those contrary traditions include Western Judeo-Christian principles.

Was that what you figured we were doing when you heard we were “promoting democracy”? Is that a mission you would have agreed to commit our armed forces to accomplish? Yet, that’s what we’re fighting for. The War On Terror hasn’t been about 9/11 for a very long time. You may think our troops are in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban — that’s what you’re told every time somebody has the temerity to suggest that we should leave. Our commanders, however, have acknowledged that destroying the enemy is not our objective. In fact, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top U.S. commander, said what is happening in Afghanistan is not even our war. “This conflict and country are [theirs] to win,” he wrote, “not mine.”

It’s not our war, nor is it something those running it contemplate winning. “We are not trying to win this militarily,” the late Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last fall. Indeed, the administration had concluded — upon what Ambassador Holbrooke described as consultation with our military commanders — that the war could not be won “militarily.” So the goal now is not to defeat the Taliban but to entice them into taking a seat at the table — in the vain hope that if they buy into the political process they will refrain from confederating with the likes of al-Qaeda.

Afghanistan is not an American war anymore. It’s a political experiment: Can we lay the foundation for Islamic social justice, hang a “democracy” label on it, and convince Americans that we’ve won, that all the blood and treasure have been worth it? The same thing, by the way, has been done in Iraq. Ever since the Iraqis adopted their American-brokered constitution, Christians have left the country in droves, and homosexuals, similarly, have been persecuted. And the Iraqis are so grateful for all the American lives and “investment” sacrificed on their behalf that, just this week, the capital city of Baghdad demanded that the U.S. apologize and fork up another $1 billion in reparations. For what? Why, for “the ugly and destructive way” the American army’s Humvees and fortifications have damaged the city’s aesthetics and infrastructure. Yes, a brief time-out from the usual serenity of life in a sharia state to chastise Americans for their “deliberate ignorance and carelessness about the simplest forms of public taste.”

In 2006, promoters of Islamic democracy — having dreamed that this chimera was not merely plausible but a boon for U.S. security against terrorists — were stunned upon awakening to the reality of “democratic” Afghanistan’s intention to execute Abdul Rahman for apostasy. This was an “affront to civilization,” we at NR said at the time. As Samuel Huntington explained, however, there are two senses of “civilization.” One assumes that all human beings, all cultures, are essentially the same and share the same concept of the higher form of life — that there is only one real civilization. The other holds that different cultures have very different ways of looking at the world — that there are several different civilizations, and what is an affront to one may be a convention to another.

The underlying premise of the democracy project is the former sense of “civilization.” As I argued at the time, the real world is the latter. And now, five years removed from the Abdul Rahman case, five more years of intensive, costly American entanglement with Afghanistan, Paul Marshall gives us the harrowing plight of Said Musa. When he told the Afghan court he was a Christian man, no Afghan defense lawyer would have anything to do with him — except the one who spat on him. He was thrown in jail as an apostate among 400 Afghan Muslims, and he has since been beaten, mocked, deprived of sleep, derisively referred to as “Jesus Christ,” and sexually abused. And just as no Afghan lawyer was willing to aid an apostate, the Afghan sharia state declined to aid him — refusing him access to foreign counsel. We think of this as an affront to civilization. They, on the other hand, think they have their own civilization, and that our civilization and Said Musa are affronts to it.

The affront here is our own betrayal of our own principles. The Islamic democracy project is not democratizing the Muslim world. It is degrading individual liberty by masquerading sharia, in its most draconian form, as democracy. The only worthy reason for dispatching our young men and women in uniform to Islamic countries is to destroy America’s enemies. Our armed forces are not agents of Islamic social justice, and stabilizing a sharia state so its children can learn to hate the West as much as their parents do is not a mission the American people would ever have endorsed. It is past time to end this failed experiment.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.


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