Many people have heard of Capt. James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain who ministered to the prisoners in the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and who was arrested on charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, and later released and honorably discharged from the military. He was visiting my college yesterday to speak about his experiences in the military, his spiritual journey to Islam, his Guantanamo ministry days (particularly disturbing in terms of the details of how the prisoners are treated at the base), and his arrest and subsequent release by the US military (Read “The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee“ for a good summary.)
After his talk, the chaplain was on hand for a brief discussion session with the Muslim students here over some cheese pizza with chai. I asked what he thought about the case of the Afghan convert to Christianity who was facing the death penalty. He said that in the early days of Islam, when apostasy was made a crime punishible by death, it was not simply to execute those who abandoned Islam for their change of belief. Though it is often portrayed as such in the media nowadays, and though it is interpreted as such by literalists and conservative clerics, apostasy in and of itself is not a crime punishible by death. Rather, apostasy as taken in the historical context of the early Muslim community at the time of the prophet, when the community of the believers also constituted a polity, often implied more that simply a change of religious belief, and also meant sedition and treason. The chaplain pointed to how these crimes (of treason and sedition) were still regarded as capital crimes (including in the West), and the allegations brought against him were a case in point. If the court in Kabul was prosecuting the convert simply on the grounds that he had converted to Christianity, they were ignoring important preconditions for the criminality of apostasy in Islam, and hence in effect acting outside the Shariah law.
This is the sort of thing that I have not often read in the news in relation to the apostasy case in Afghanistan. This is the sort of thing that people in the West have to pay attention to as much as the clerics and judges ruling on this case.
A while back when the apostasy case first surfaced I did a search about apostasy and came across the Iranian cleric who is out of favor with the regime, Ayatollah Montazeri’s opinions on this subject. According to him (a significant Shi’a religious authority), a simple reversion of belief when grounded in an informed and educated decision to leave Islam (and when not undertaken out of malice and enmity towards the Muslim community- essentially similar to sedition and treason) is not apostasy at all. (See “Ayatollah Montazeri: Not Every Conversion is Apostasy“.)
I found Chaplain Yee’s comments mirroring the position taken by Ayatollah Montazeri, and I found both somewhat reassuring. Yet the case in Afghanistan has demonstrated that when conservative temperaments flare and blood needs to be spilt, there are always ways to bend the rules…