Rifqa Bary, Islam, Muslims, Shar'iah, and Apostasy (Part One of Two)
by M. Zuhdi Jasser
At the center of the Rifqa Bary case is more than the plight of one teen. While we all like for our courtroom dramas to begin and conclude in a one hour timeframe including the commercials, the real world is not black and white. For this reason, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) has been very deliberate in our response to this case. Let us begin by saying that within some Muslim families and communities, belief in some type of punishment for apostasy is a very real threat. It may be dressed differently or given a different name, but it is still intolerance for apostasy. But also significantly, in my lifetime as a Muslim, I have not met Muslim parents who personally countenance punishments for apostasy. But I have met Muslim clerics who do (Islamists). That being said, as a father, the thought of anyone – let alone the courts – usurping the place of the parents in the decisions of a teen is chilling. If we take religion out of the mix in this a priori discussion and hypothetically state that the girl was a younger teen who had run away from her family to pursue an abortion, I believe we would be having a much different discussion. Rifqa's legal case is, however, particularly compelling in her favor due to her reports of prior abuse, verbal threats, and how close her age is to the age of majority of 18.
Addressing the issue of apostasy is a very real concern for AIFD and has been since our inception. I believe that the Bary case should be used as tool to bring to light many questions that Muslims should ask themselves. While I have never heard a Muslim directly or personally justify violence against another Muslim for the act of apostasy, there is a significant amount of pathology in the way many Muslims deal with apostasy from almost every level – from the familial to the tribal to the intellectual levels. What I will show here is that the preponderance of the intellectual evidence shows a systemic intolerance and, in fact, there is strong evidence for legal (Shar'iah-based) underpinnings for the intolerance, abuse, discrimination, and even at its worst, direct countenance of murder of apostates. I will also show that, thankfully, there is a disconnect between rational, moral, lay Muslims (the majority) and authoritative Islamic law as defined by the ulemaa (the theocratic scholars) who still, unfortunately, drive the ideas of a significant minority of Muslims in the West. This problem, as evident in Afghanistan's Rahman case of March 2006 is magnified manifold in Muslim majority nations where there is far less influence of Western ideas of religious freedom upon Muslim interpretations of Shar'iah law and their treatment of apostates. But the evidence will show that even in the West, the majority of Islamic scholars still endorse some sort of Islamic punishment for apostasy with various and sundry apologetics. Some scholars provide the absurd qualification of "only under an Islamic state" or "only as apostasy is a war against Islam," which somehow makes that all right. And we will see that other texts in the West still basically endorse the death penalty.
Fathima Rifqa Bary
Many aspects of the Bary case are beyond troubling. From media reports, Fathima Rifqa Bary of New Albany, Ohio is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants Mohammed and Aysha Bary, who reportedly came to the U.S. in 2000 seeking medical care for Rifqa. According to some reports,
She then apparently joined a Facebook prayer group and connected with the Lorenzs and their Global Revolution Church (GLC) in Florida online. She vanished from New Albany, Ohio on July 19, 2009. Her parents filed a missing person report with the local police in Columbus, Ohio. Hopefully further court proceedings will clarify Rifqa's whereabouts from July 19th to August 9th and why there was a delay in connecting her with the Ohio missing persons report. Her whereabouts became known on August 11, 2009 after an interview with Rifqa surfaced and Pastor Lorenz of GLC reported her struggle. According to Fox News she testified in a custody hearing in Orlando on August 10, 2009 "that she'd recently changed religions and is worried her relatives will do something drastic, according to WFTV in Orlando and Central Florida News 13." Her parents denied the allegations.
Going on only what they knew to be the truth from the 17-year-old Rifqa, the Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) then quickly placed Rifqa with a foster family. A recent report from The Tampa Tribune on September 5, 2009 reviewed some of the more salient facts and accusations in the case. While there is no denying that many of the blogs and news stories have been sensationalized from both sides of this issue, there is no escaping the fact that the pleadings of Rifqa Bary must be given the benefit of the doubt and due process. Regardless of the implications true or false to the community to which she belonged, thankfully individual rights trump those of the community in the United States. As Herb London recently discussed, our Constitution and religious freedoms which our government officials are sworn to uphold demand this. Another hearing took place on August 21, 2009 with the coalescing of a legal and media firestorm. Rifqa's parents were present and Judge Daniel Dawson ruled that his court does have jurisdiction and more time was required to gain more facts until the next hearing.
In this specific case with Rifqa Bary, the courts will surely demonstrate whether the physical threat to Rifqa is real. If there is any doubt whatsoever, I pray that she be protected. We must surely take Rifqa at her word in her television interview that her father "would kill me or send me back to Sri Lanka…where they have asylums where they put people like me." Rifqa also said that after learning of her conversion to Christianity, her father said, "If you have this Jesus in your heart, you're dead to me, you're not my daughter." She has said that "They have to kill me…I don't want to die," noting her fear of being a victim of honor killings. At this point in the case we also need to remember that America is founded upon the premise that individuals are innocent until proven guilty.
Is her fear real? Within her own family, the courts will have to decide. Globally, honor killings are a reality for the fate of over 5,000 Muslim girls annually. The barbaric killings happen after conversion (apostasy), divorce, rape, extramarital sex and pregnancy, and a host of other actions which the male dominated family feels to have "dishonored" them. If the state cannot protect teens with this fear, then our state mandate for the protection of children at risk is meaningless. There are many layers to the sickness that results in honor killings. The deepest and most essential layer is the theological underpinnings which I will discuss in the next sections.
Superimposed upon the theological apologetics and their real "slippery slopes" of intolerance and oppression towards apostates lies a compounding effect of tribalism, misogyny, illiteracy, and cultural depravity. In the United States, while far rarer, there seems to be an increasing incidence. We are now seeing cases among Muslim immigrants in the U.S. We should not forget cases of recent well-publicized honor killings in Texas, Ontario, and New York. For example, in Lewisville Texas, Egyptian-born cab driver Yaser Abdel Said allegedly murdered his two daughters, Sarah and Amina because, according to the Dallas Morning News, he felt "Western culture was corrupting the chastity of his daughters." While their mother denies it was an honor killing, evidence stated otherwise. Mr. Said remains at large to this day, wanted for their murder.
The Texas case was preceded by what appeared to be another honor killing in Mississauga Ontario of 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez last December. Aqsa was another young woman who was not allowed to live a normal American life by her abusive father, Muhammad Parvez. Aqsa fought with her father about wearing hijab and ran away from home a week before she was attacked. She did return home and was then strangled by her own father in an honor killing. Aqsa's 26-year-old brother Waqas was also charged with obstructing police. Both of these cases, while rare among American Muslims, cannot help but make us take Rifqa's fears seriously. As Cinnamon Stillwell notes, those cases were responded to with irresponsible apologetics like that from an ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) imam, Alaa El-Sayyed, who claimed "it's a domestic violence issue." We are seeing similar responses unfold from leading Islamists in the Bary case. Also, do not forget the horrific plight of Aasiya Hassan, the wife of so-called moderate CEO of Bridges Television network Muzzamil Hassan, who was found beheaded in their studios after she asked for a divorce. Her case was also preceded by warning signs of physical abuse by her husband. Mr. Hassan was arrested for her murder and his case is still pending in court.
The Bary case is much different in one very significant way – it is actually addressing the problem before the fact under suspicion that a murder may happen. An ABC News story notes that Rifqa alleges significant physical abuse from her father and sexual abuse from an uncle. The evidence may confirm Rifqa's claim of abuse though her parents deny that. The other honor killings also had evidence of previous abuse. If this is true, it makes the case for her placement away from her parents real and compelling.
As we wait for due process and evidence, the rule of law additionally mandates that while we ensure the safety of children, we also not prematurely convict or malign her parents or the community of a crime – both before a crime has been proven to have occurred within this family and before due process has finished. The challenge here is that in our legal system individuals have a right to be innocent until proven guilty. The state must protect Rifqa while maintaining respect for this fact with all those involved. Most importantly, by the words and fears of Rifqa, neither Florida nor Ohio have room for error, since Rifqa may not have a second chance. And as with any child protective services case, there are both the rights of the child and the rights of the parents that our legal system need to respect.
At this point the Florida or Ohio courts will hopefully do what's right for Rifqa's best interests and safety.
Many of those concerned about Rifqa's safety have correctly pointed to concerns regarding the status of apostates according to prevalent interpretations of Islamic law (Shar'iah). Those fears are justified as long as the adjudication of the case proves such an understanding, behavior (i.e. abuse), and intent of her parent(s). The other important aspect to this case is the fact that Rifqa is quite near the age of maturity and in many medical cases, for example, is free to make her own decisions free of her parents. This is not to mention being easily emancipated if pregnant. Curiously, one must ask, if the parents look at all these options and the limited time until she is 18 anyway, why they do not just publicly voice her freedom and ask her to come home as she wishes but not by mandate of the court.
The Realities of Islamic Law and the Treatment of Apostates
The very important debate over the theological underpinnings for the mistreatment and abuse of apostates in some Muslim communities and families around the world is real and long overdue. This case and others highlight the dire need for modernization and reform which many of us have been championing for some time now. As a devout Muslim, I do believe that it is about time that Muslim leadership demonstrates unmistakable clarity in addressing apostasy laws – both academically and free of apologetics. There can be no gray areas.
We either stake out a position against any and all laws endorsing any punishment whatsoever for apostasy or we end up deservedly being tarred as excusing those Muslims who act to punish their children for apostasy.
A careful review of the interpretations of Shar'iah of experts around the world will show the need for deep seated reform. This reform can only happen when there is a "separation of mosque and state." In the short term, we must remain credible and approach honor killings or the threat thereof with the protection of victims while approaching apologetics for apostasy with a methodical, forceful, and persistent rejection. The contest of ideas is between American universal principles of religious liberty and established Shar'iah interpretations which countenance the punishment and at times murder of apostates. The scholars I will review are not marginal ones. These are popular scholars among many American mosques and Islamist groups like ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations).
Muslim leaders, especially Islamists, may be growing tired of assumptions and sensationalism. But their efforts have only provided empty apologetics. Non-Muslim Americans need answers to these questions and more.
What is the House of Islam's response to Religious Freedom in the context of apostasy? Who and what is really being dishonored in "honor killings?" If the Islamic state can prove it is dishonored by an apostate, doesn't that countenance punishment for apostasy? This is what Jamal Badawi and Imam Yusuf Qaradawi say. What is the consensus of Islamic scholars (ulemaa) on all this? Do the opinions of most Muslims who we have heard speak out on this and other cases related to "honor killings" matter at all if they are non-scholars? Who can do ijtihad (reform through modern reinterpretations) on apostasy laws and punishments? Unfortunately, those Muslims who deny the realities of the legal treatment of apostates are preventing any reform and shirking their Islamic responsibility to repair ourselves. We cannot succumb to the consensus (ijmaa) of the scholars (ulemaa). If we do, we are going to continue to blindly ignore the deeper root cause of militancy, barbarism, and other pathologies which lead to violence and acts which punish apostates in the name of our Islam.
Some Muslims may try and dismiss those interpretations which are inconsistent with modernity as we sit comfortably in our residences here in America. The reality is that we need to look again at what exactly drives leading imams to opine (issue fatwas) against apostasy before they complain about being tarred and feathered by "sensationalism" in the media firestorm over the Bary case.
Islamist Groups Strategize for Islamism Rather than Rifqa
There have been reports that Islamist groups like CAIR are employing a strategy which seeks to impugn the character of this 17-year-old teen and blame the Church for seeking her out through a prayer group on Facebook. Responses from CAIR thus far confirm this strategy. Ahmed Rehab from CAIR-Chicago chimed in to the Orlando Sentinel:
Note that Rehab makes no mention of the primary driver of this firestorm – the fears of a 17-year-old girl. He makes the assumption that she is being manipulated or that she is not credible. Note also that there is no mention of the realities of Shar'iah's prescription for apostasy. Note the significant absence from the Noor Islamic Cultural Center's leadership on the realities of Shar'iah. If they had the best interests of their "community" at heart, they would use this teaching moment to educate the community about the dangers of political Islam and a pre-modern Islam which carries and empowers these barbaric laws against apostates.
CAIR and other Islamist groups again prove how much of a liability they are for American Muslims. While some of us are gathering balanced assessments of how Muslims should respond to individual cases like that of Rifqa Bary, Islamist groups like CAIR prove that their whole victimization agenda is to serve only the furtherance of political Islam and the cause of Islamists and Muslim Brotherhoood front groups. In all their media discourse on the Bary case, I have yet to find a serious acknowledgement of either the fears of Rifqa or the real abandonment of religious freedom by many scholarly interpretations of shariah with regards to apostasy.
MPAC's Salam Al-Marayati responded at the Huffington Post with more denials on apostasy laws in shariah. He stated,
For the life of me, as an American Muslim, I cannot understand the wisdom of a leading Muslim mimicking an argument over theology with a teen in a patronizingly sarcastic manner. The reality is that while he correctly states that the Koran does not address apostasy, according to some scholars (ulemaa) the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) does in fact say so, "the one who changes his religion kill him." (Sahih Bukhari, 9,83 and 9,84) which is then bolstered with Islamic texts I will discuss later. Now, some Muslims, including me, believe that particular Hadith (saying of the Prophet) to be falsified. But that knowledgeable – but yet lay – assumption has yet to become the overwhelming opinion of the scholars (ulemaa). Marayati later cites an appropriate distinction between treason and apostasy in Islamic history American Islamic Forum for Democracy discussed more clearly during the 2006 apostasy trial of Afghani Abdul Rahman. But Marayati completely avoids any mention of the need for reform or modernization of these laws, as if his conclusions are standard for Islamic scholars which I will prove they are not. He also entirely avoids the central argument necessary which is the need to entirely delegitimize the Islamic state. For as long as the idea of the Islamic state exists and is put forth, apostasy punishments can never entirely disappear since departure from Islam and blasphemy will always be interpreted in one or another as weakening the sovereignty of the state.
The public relations strategy of Islamists thus far has been to their own detriment. Wahhabi media has advocated for islamists groups in this case calling Rifqa's advocates "hate groups" as the Arab News (Saudi press) put out on September 13, 2009. Her parents are also pushing forth the story that "she was brainwashed."
Lastly, CAIR-Ohio responded on behalf of the Noor Islamic Center and Muslims in Columbus. CAIR-Ohio head, stated,
Again, CAIR responds to criticism reactively, not proactively. Patrick Poole has been chronicling the ties and ideologies of the Noor Islamic Center in Columbus for years. If CAIR and other local leading Muslims had any substantive responses they would have had the Noor Islamic Cultural Center publicly respond and distance themselves from the likes of Salah Sultan, Ahmed Al-Akhras, Christopher Paul, Khalid Yasin, Siraj Wahhaj, and Wagdi Ghoneim. But they did not in the years of Poole's reporting. They did not have a response published anywhere to this report by Erick Stakelbeck on NICC and central Ohio connections. CAIR-Ohio would have had an explanation as to why the Columbus Police Department earlier this year permanently disinvited them from leading any training seminars with their squad. They do not. So the next time my fellow Muslims complain about the "sensational" reaction of the media and various activists about cases like Rifqa Bary, perhaps they can decrease that impact by actually addressing the ideological concerns rather than claiming hate and victimization.
While no one is denying the profound stress teenage conversions can have on pious parents of any faith, this case highlights one of the cornerstone challenges which face the modernization of the Muslim community in America and the West. They can either hold blindly onto tradition, victimization, tribalism, and obfuscation or they can use these cases as teaching moments to highlight the reform necessary within our communities and quickly dismiss naysayers with an acknowledgement of the need to generate a new (ijtihad) consensus (ijmaa) on the complete equality of apostates. But don't hold your breath.
Part Two will conclude with further discussion on apostasy.