Many of us have long thought the world had become liberal enough to stop execution of persons for practicing their religion.
Yet, modernity is confronted with this religious issue because Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian convert to Christianity now faces a governmental threat of execution. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt by Muslim groups is another troubling, if less dramatic example of intolerance towards Christianity in Islamic countries. while in the United States, Mormonism is held suspect and Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have adopted positions denying American Muslims of equal rights in this country. We hold religious freedom as a nearly sacred right. But what happens when practicing your religion prevents someone else from practicing theirs? When two sets of religious rights clash, deciding between them usually requires the Wisdom of Solomon – but a “cut the baby in half” approach (1Kings 3:16-28} often results in tragic decisions.
Mr. Nadarkhani, it needs be said, is not just any Islamic apostate to Christianity, but a pastor working to convert Muslims to his Christian faith. In other words, not only has he rejected Islam personally, he actively works to convert other Muslims to Christianity. It is hard to imagine a Christian pastor doing otherwise since the Gospel must be preached “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and “all nations” (Mt. 28:16-20) must come to accept faith in Christ as Divine Savior. And although the Koran offers no earthly punishment for practicing another religion (al-Baqarah, 256), proselytizing by apostates was held in a Hadith to so damage the body of believers as to merit execution.
Death to apostates, therefore, has clearly been interpreted by many throughout time as a teaching in Islam, but not of its essence. Muslims can quote the Koran against the mullahs and join us in opposing the execution of Nadarkhani.
Does this case of the Christian pastor in Iran compare with the need for civil disobedience for religious purposes, such as preached by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr? Remember the in-your-face religious zealotry of the axe-wielding Carrie Nation to force the ironclad temperance rule of her brand of Christianity on all of 1920’s America? So how does one reconcile state protection for the freedom to practice different religions with the encroachment of one religion on the practice of another?
One suggestion is to avoid hypocrisy, such as condemning the possible execution of someone in Iran, while staying silent about the state-ordered execution of Troy Davis in Georgia when there is reasonable doubt about his guilt. Second, is to admit that a country like the United States places limits on the practice of religion: no polygamy is allowed to Muslims or Mormons; Jehovah Witnesses must submit to court-ordered blood transfusions; and no marijuana for Rastafarians. And if civil authorities can arrest people who violate the Amish rule of not cutting hair doesn’t that mean that Robert Finn, the Catholic Bishop of Kansas City who allegedly violated the law on reporting pedophilia can be punished in civil court for cover-up of clerical pedophilia? Or are we to argue that polygamy, rejection of medical attention, smoking marijuana and protecting pedophiles are protected by religion?
Upon examination, then, even the plight of Mr. Nadarkhani in Iran is more complex. Civil guarantees of religious freedom are always conflictive. The task for the believer in a multicultural and pluralistic society is to constantly adapt religious words to the religious spirit. But the success of this liberal tradition in curbing religious excesses is no protection against relapse back into the rigidity of religious extremism. That is one reason the right-wing religious call to teach creationism rather than evolution and to base all this country’s laws on the Ten Commandments is as dangerous as the Taliban effort to rule with Sharia law. After all, both religious codes can be interpreted as calling for death in a (woman’s) case of adultery.
Ironically, secular liberalism comes to the rescue of religion by requiring limits on some aspects of religious practice in order to preserve the over-all mission of faith. Just as Catholics in America need a healthy dose of the purpose-driven behavior that puts us on the liberal side of issues, so too is liberalism needed within Islam.