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Islamic and Christian proselytising
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
Mohammad Ahmad Hegazi, the young Egyptian man who converted to Christianity and wants his conversion recognised in law, could be put to death for apostasy. This is one way for the Muslim world to protect itself against conversions; another one is through laws that exalt Muslim propaganda but ban that by other religions. In Egypt about 10,000 Christians become Muslim every year but rarely for religious reasons. However, Islam is sick from the lack of spirituality and the reduction of religion to its ethnic, sociological and political element. Here is the second part of an analysis by Fr Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit and Islam expert.
Islam protects itself against conversions by putting apostates in prison or by killing them. But its obsession with conversion includes a series of privileges it claims for itself. So much so that in many Muslim countries, even those that are supposedly secular, the right to promote the Islamic faith is taken for granted and is not enshrined in law. Conversely, the right to promote any other religion is considered de facto and de jure unacceptable.
Islamic propaganda is part of the state’s mandate. In Egypt for example public institutions disseminate songs, prayers, movies and written material that praise Islam and denigrate Christianity. Inevitably this favours conversions to Islam. By contrast, Christian propaganda (tabshīr) is banned by law.
Recently in Algeria, a new law was approved that condemns anyone promoting the Christian faith and anyone who converts to Christianity. Of course, some might say that this kind of law is directed only at Protestant proselytising. True! But Muslims proselytise as well? Should the law not be the same for everyone?
Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly the country where double standards in matter of religion are the most glaring. One example: Saudi Arab Airlines’ website explicitly warns its passengers that Bibles, crucifixes, and any other non-Muslim religious symbol are prohibited on board. If any are found they are confiscated. Another example is when two pieces of wood happen to end up across one another. However inadvertently that may have come about, the resulting cross becomes ipso facto a religious symbol and police are known to have ordered people who happened to be nearby to step on them.
Anti-Christian propaganda is also found in how words are used. In Arabic Christians are called Massihi. In Arabia they are also called Salībi, crusaders, and Nasrami, Nazarenes. Interestingly, at the time of the Crusades Christians were by and large referred to as Faranj or Franks. But the most commonly used word today is kuffar, unbelievers who must be killed. For the past 30 or so years, its use has increasingly spread around the Muslim world.
By some estimates, the number of Christians who convert to Islam in Egypt is around 10,000, usually prompted by practical reasons like the need to divorce, or to marry a Muslim woman (or man), or to get a job. Rarely does faith come into the picture.
More recently there has been some talk about thousands of Muslim converts to Christianity. Protestant missionary centres, based in the United States (the Zwemer Institute has been mentioned), are said to offer money, apartments, passports, etc in exchange for conversion to Christianity. Such charges have often found their way into the Muslim press in relation to the Hegazi affair.
In Arabic Tabshīr means ‘evangelisation’ and has taken on negative connotations. In Egypt and other countries anyone guilty of Tabshīr can end up in prison or pushed out of the country. On the other hand, daˤwah, which means a call to join Islam, has positive connotations and is seen as duty for every Muslim. In some Muslim countries daˤwah has its own ministry (or Ministry of Islamic Propaganda, a bit like the Vatican’s dicastery De propaganda fide).
When shall there be a spiritual Islam?
Leaving Islam is seen as a religious, social and political outrage.
From a religious point of view, converts abandon the true faith for a false one. Indeed, the Qur’an itself warns that “The only religion approved by GOD is ‘Submission’ (Qur’an 3:19),” and “Anyone who accepts other than Submission as his religion [. . .] will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter, he will be with the losers” (Qur’an 3:85).
From a social point of view, someone who converts to Christianity and encourages others to follow him or her becomes a cancer on society.
From a political point of view, anyone leaving Islam is a traitor, a spy against his own nation who deserves death, because Islam is always viewed as a community, the Ummah.
For the Egyptian government for example, anyone who converts to another religion “threatens national unity.” Although Egyptians authorities are not likely to put any apostate to death, they will certainly try to hush up the whole thing or attempt to push the apostate to emigrate. This is exactly what befell Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, a writer forced into exile in the Netherlands after a fatwa was pronounced calling for his death.
Still a French Muslim scholar, Abdennour Bidar, has recently published a book**, in which he writes that “Islam must reach the point where it is no longer a religion but is instead a spiritual movement and a matter of personal choices.”
Undeniably the real problem with Islam is that becoming a Muslim today means joining a political and sociological group. It no longer means making a religious and spiritual choice.
This is what most ails Islam today. If this profound conversion is not made, Islam shall always be the enemy of the modern world, a world that is based on individual liberties, on the individual person rather than the group, on freedom of conscience, etc. Muslims want this as well but they do not realise that it is all interconnected. As long as Islam is seen as a group or partisan issue rather than a matter of personal choice, it will lag behind.
Until now Islamic teachings have been based on the notion of ‘submission’ (Islam). This kind of submission is against freedom. I as a Christian do submit to God but I remain a son who is free! Christ, too, obeyed (Philippians 2, 8) and any man religious, too, takes his vows of obedience, but does so fully aware of his freedom of conscience.
Conversely, in the Muslim world the most common teaching that is spreading inside families and in the mass media is that submission must be total, obliterating one’s personality, removing all differences.
As Christians and as Westerners, we must help Islam take a step in the right direction and make Muslims understand that personal freedoms are against neither Islam, nor God; that they are instead for Him. Unlike the rest of creation God endowed man with the power to understand and choose because without the right to choose there is no love. As Christ said to his disciples: “I no longer call you slaves, [. . .]. I have called you friends” (John 15:15).