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Apostates: penalties and asylum

Most readers will already be aware of the plight of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger accused of apostasy. More recently, a Mauritanian man, Cheikh Ould Mohamed M’Kheitir, was arrested for showing a ‘lack of respect’ to Muhammad and for apostasy.  This latter ‘crime’ is punishable by death in Mauritania.  Those who like to assert that ex-Muslims are over reacting to sanctions against apostasy may point out that no death sentences have been carried out in Mauritania since the 1980s.  However this fact should not be used to minimise the impact of legislation and taboos surrounding blasphemy and apostasy on (ex)Muslims around the world.  It is particularly chilling to read an extract from the letter, signed by M’Kheitir’s family members, in which he is denounced.

The blogger also reportedly criticized Muhammad and his companions for some of their decisions during Islam’s holy wars. Despite the fact that he issued a public written apology in which he insisted that he never meant to denigrate the person of the prophet, the blogger could not escape the wrath of public outrage.

First, his family members wrote and co-signed a letter in which they basically disown him unless he repents. The letter reads:

“It does look like the foolish modernists, secularists and atheists are still attempting to derail us from the true path after their Jewish and hypocrite masters failed to do so. […] The author of the article must be sponsored by some outside forces. He equated his infallible religion with the rest of humanity’s beliefs and falsely accused our prophet of racism and favoritism. This is not surprising from someone who seeks knowledge from those who hate Allah and his prophet peace be upon him. […] We call upon society to denounce any individual who adopts a similar stance.”

Free Arabs editor Zouhair Mazouz goes on to describe how angry mobs protested that the courts were being too soft on the blogger. One preacher has offered a 4000 Euro reward to anyone who kills M’Kheitir.

The decision to grant asylum to an Afghan citizen, on the grounds that his atheism/apostasy would put his life in danger if he returned to Afghanistan, is very welcome:

[Lawyers] said the man’s return to Afghanistan could result in a death sentence under Sharia law as an apostate – someone who has abandoned their religious faith – unless he remained discreet about his atheist beliefs.

But because every aspect of daily life and culture in Afghanistan is permeated by Islam living discreetly would be virtually impossible, they said.

The case was prepared by second-year law student Claire Splawn under the supervision of clinic solicitor Sheona York.

Ms Splawn said: “We argued that an atheist should be entitled to protection from persecution on the grounds of their belief in the same way as a religious person is protected.”

This is the first time that atheism has been recognized as grounds for asylum. But it seems absolutely right to protect atheists from being persecuted for their (lack of) belief. Although many religious minorities face discrimination, persecution and murderous attacks (Christians and Ahmadis for example) apostates are, as far as I know, the only group who are officially threatened with the death sentence in some countries unless they manage to conceal their atheism (or their new faith).