Conversion from Islam:

Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa — described by Agence France Press as "Egypt's official religious advisor" wrote last week in a Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" forum:

The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can, because the Quran says, "Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion," [Quran, 109:6], and, "Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve," [Quran, 18:29], and, "There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error," [Quran, 2:256].

These verses from the Quran discuss a freedom that God affords all people. But from a religious perspective, the act of abandoning one's religion is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment. If the case in question is one of merely rejecting faith, then there is no worldly punishment. If, however, the crime of undermining the foundations of the society is added to the sin of apostasy, then the case must be referred to a judicial system whose role is to protect the integrity of the society. Otherwise, the matter is left until the Day of Judgment, and it is not to be dealt with in the life of this world. It is an issue of conscience, and it is between the individual and God. In the life of this world, "There is no compulsion in religion," in the life of this world, "Unto you your religion and unto me my religion," and in the life of this world, "He who wills believes and he who wills disbelieves," while bearing in mind that God will punish this sin on the Day of Judgment, unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam.

All religions have doctrinal points that define what it is to be an adherent of that religion. These are divine injunctions that form the basis of every religion, but they are not a means for imposing a certain system of belief on others by force. According to Islam, it is not permitted for Muslims to reject their faith, so if a Muslim were to leave Islam and adopt another religion, they would thereby be committing a sin in the eyes of Islam. Religious belief and practice is a personal matter, and society only intervenes when that personal matter becomes public and threatens the well-being of its members.

In some cases, this sin of the individual may also represent a greater break with the commonly held values of a society in an attempt to undermine its foundations or even attack its citizenry. Depending on the circumstances, this may reach the level of a crime of sedition against one's society. Penalizing this sedition may be at odds with some conceptions of freedom that would go so far as to ensure people the freedom to destroy the society in which they live. This is a freedom that we do not allow since preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms. This was the basis of the Islamic perspective on apostasy when committed at certain times and under certain circumstances.

This was in turn picked up by Agence France Press and reprinted in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the Gulf News now reports something different:

Egypt's top cleric yesterday denied in a statement that he had said a Muslim can give up his faith without punishment.

Ali Goma'a, the mufti of Egypt, was quoted as saying in a posting on a Washington Post-Newsweek forum that Muslims are free to change their faith and this is a matter between an individual and God.

"What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished," Goma'a said.

The alleged fatwa coincides with an uproar over the case of 12 Egyptians who converted to Islam from Christianity and now want to re-embrace Christianity....

Commentator Ali Eteraz (a fairly left-wing lawyer, if I read his profile correctly) tries to reconcile the two at The Guardian's site:

Conversation with Gomaa's people reveals that his actual quote given to the [Gulf News] newspaper was: "This disobedience can, in some of its manifestations, embody a departure from the general norms ... and a kind of crime that would necessitate punishment."

This direct turn-around, (or guarded qualification if one accepts Gomaa's version of what he said), appeared curious to many. What happened? Does Dr Gomaa think that an apostate should be punished, or does he not?

A close read of Gomaa's Newsweek opinion shows that the answer is "both". The opinion is a serious bit of legal reasoning. On one hand Gomaa indeed eliminates the death penalty for apostasy in Islamic law (by citing Quranic verses dealing with freedom of conscience), which is a major event. However, on the other hand, he grants to the Egyptian "judicial system" the authority to prosecute certain apostates — those that leave Islam in "public" — for the "crime of undermining the foundations of society". He ends up proposing a new criminal cause of action called "sedition against one's society". Sedition is not an Islamic term. It is a secular term that does not exist in the Quran.

Is it the case that Gomaa found a way to affirm penalising public apostasy via the back door? Yes, he did. The question is, why did he use a back door at all? Like thousands of Islamic jurists in the past, he could have easily said that Islam requires punishing apostates and be done with it. Yet he didn't do that. He first said that Islam was against penalising private apostasy, and he then moved to penalise public apostasy because it was a social (and not religious) problem.

Why go to all these lengths?

Simple: Muslim leaders are no longer relying upon religious law — "because God said so" — to justify their religious ends. Instead, they are coming up with what we western lawyers call "value-neutral terminology." I saw this in Pakistan's Women's Protection Bill last year. In order to pull rape cases out of the Shariah courts, reformers created new secular crimes to replace what used to be Shariah crimes. They did so even though the new secular crimes did not qualitatively differ from old religious crimes (ie "fornication" was renamed "lewdness"). This was smart. "Fornication" is a Quranic term backed by Islamic law but "lewdness" is a value-neutral term with no fixed meaning except what a contemporary criminal court decides (and in Pakistan's case, the criminal courts are secular). If, and when, a law against "lewdness" is abolished, abolition wouldn't be considered an assault on religion as it was never a religious term to begin with.

This sort of transubstantiation of religious ideas into secular terminology is the west's original contribution to government, and the backbone of liberalism. Starting at the Enlightenment, western leaders took their appeals to God or religious law, out of lawmaking (even if they secretly did wish to satisfy God or religious law). Even at the height of conservatism in the US, when proposing legislation, the most fundamentalist Christian Congressperson will not invoke Jesus. His or her faith might certainly inform his positions but the Congressperson will seek non-religious ways of winning the argument: patriotism, commerce, public health, or social good. This is what Gomaa is doing with apostasy.

Certainly none of us agree with Gomaa that apostasy be classified as sedition, or even be punished at all; but we must at least appreciate that he tried to assert his position in an explicitly non-religious manner.

Gomaa's Newsweek opinion does not directly advance the rights of apostates as western newspapers initially thought. In political terms it doesn't help apostates at all. It is, however, an opinion that starts, just barely, to separate religion from state. Such a trend will lead to Muslim fundamentalists in the future having to justify their imposition on non-Muslims in "secular" or "value-neutral" terms. That creates a much more even playing-field for non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries. Further, by taking the imprimatur of Islam out of the discussion, and leaving the crime to be defined by the state, Gomaa, one of the top Islamic scholars in Egypt, has deferred a religious question to Mubarak (and in the future, one hopes to Egyptian democrats). In other words, he has "rendered unto Caesar" - which is a nascent version of separation of religion from state.

Muslims like Gomaa, by pulling Islam out of political debates, can, and are, creating the conditions for liberalism. We should celebrate that while remembering that they will not work at a pace dictated by us in the west.

I'm not sure whether Eteraz's analysis is correct, and whether Gomaa is changing his position or was incompletely quoted by the Gulf News; but I thought I'd pass along this interesting story. Thanks to the Becket Fund for the pointer to the Gulf News and Agence France Press pieces.