The case of Abdul Rahman, put on trial in Afghanistan for the apostasy of converting to Christianity, cannot be resolved except by main force. This is a fact of life that Catholics should be the first to acknowledge. We have a long history of confrontation with Islam, and we belong to the only earthly institution still standing in Islam’s wake.
At the time of writing, under acute international pressure, Afghanistan’s Karzai regime had prevailed upon its Kabul court to release Rah- man, suppressing the charges against him on vague technicalities. The court agreed to infer that he might be mad, or might not be an Afghan citizen. Rahman went immediately into hiding as large demonstrations in Mazar, Kabul, and elsewhere protested his release. Leading imams across the country called for Rahman to be butchered by anyone who could find him. The Sharia Islamic law remains an integral component of the Afghan constitution. As we are aware of many other cases of Afghans secretly converted to Christianity, we can only assume that the problem will recur.
Is the version of Islam that would execute people for converting to Christianity “backward”? It may appear so to Christian eyes, but in Islamic terms, it is quite forward. All four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence specify death for apostasy; so does the Shia school. All agree that leaving Islam is the worst form of apostasy. The only variations are over whether the apostate should be burned, drowned, impaled, strangled, or flayed to death. There is no “sixth school” that recognizes religious freedom.
There is a single passage in the Koran, frequently cited by Muslim apologists, saying that “there is no compulsion in religion” (sura 2:256). But this passage is abrogated by others such as 4:89, universally interpreted to mean that converts from Islam must always be killed; or 9:73, which demands harsh treatment for unbelievers. The latter passages are anyway in the imperative; the former is merely descriptive. And in its context, the former applied only to the Jews of Medina when the prophet first arrived there; later, he himself ordered all their men killed and the women and children enslaved when they failed to convert to Islam.
One might indeed long for a “sixth school” of Islamic jurisprudence that would turn the Koran on its head and abrogate the later violent passages with the earlier pacific ones, written when the young Islamic community was begging to be tolerated by suspicious and disapproving neighbors. Alternatively, one might hope that a class of imams will perform the same service as that class of rabbis in the first centuries of our era, who reinterpreted some of the harshest passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus in a “symbolic” way, or otherwise moderated them. Catholic Christians, of course, have no difficulty interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New.
But for the foreseeable future, Islam is not reformed, and the attempts to reform it from within, beginning in the 19th century by a procession of learned and “modern” Muslim thinkers, have failed abjectly. If anything, each attempt to liberalize or humanize seems to trigger a bigger reaction, culminating most recently in the movement whose chief spiritual authority is Osama bin Laden. Similarly, there should be no confusion about the Islamic validity of jihad (holy war against all infidels), or razzia (the raiding and plundering of their communities). These commandments remain integral to Islam until further notice.
What Western Christendom learned nearly 14 centuries ago, as Eastern Christendom began to fall under the Islamic sword, is that half-measures do not avail. It is not some abstract religious freedom that we must defend. It is our lives, and our territory.