x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Where I stand on apostasy

When people get an opportunity to encounter an Islam that is ideology-free, it tends to strike a chord.

Look, my being a Muslim is not in order to satisfy some deep-seated itch to chop people's heads off. In fact, what originally attracted me to Islam was what I perceived in it as a vehicle to securing human rights. At least that's what I understood from my first Muslim influence,Malcolm X. This is how he saw it, this is what he put in his open letter to the American people from the Hajj, and this is how I see it to this day.

But it is the spiritual dimension of Islam that enables it to be that universal system to secure and defend human well-being. This is what touches the heart of an activist and inspires her or him. It is the spiritual coupled with a framework for right and wrong that steels her resolve, no matter what end of the Earth she comes from. It talks to her soul and asks her about courage. But at the very same time, Islam is meant to be free of ideology; it is about truth, soul, and balance.

When people get an opportunity to encounter an Islam that is ideology-free, it tends to strike a chord. After all, everyone has a soul; and balance is symmetry, and symmetry is the essence of beauty: we all find ourselves drawn to the beautiful. But it's when Islam is "ideologised" - used for political gain - that it turns to extremes, as any religion does. Extremes of violence and intolerance can be found in the Christianity of Northern Ireland or the Inquisition, or the messianism of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, or the Zionist fringe of Judaism.

Leaving Islam, however, is also seriously frowned upon; but so is the invasion of privacy. Gossip and neighbourhood espionage was soundly reproached by the Prophet. Allow me to think well of my neighbours, as we are taught. Peoples' private convictions are none of my business, nor should they be fodder for the One Hour News Hour. One can't help but shudder to think of the dangerous outcomes of Western hyper-tech governments that would insist on conditioning their populace to accept privacy as an endangered species. You, too, can become a reality television star in all the wrong ways.

But the infamously "dire" apostasy policies of Islam are exclusively governed by the "rule of law" and remain the sole purview of the state. They are none of our business as citizens. The source literature is explicit that they apply to prisoners of war who have denounced the religion and joined an armed force intent on visiting suffering and destruction on the Muslim community. Not the standard breakfast table fare for most of us.

At the heart of this prohibition and penalty is a deterrence for anyone who would be crude enough to politicise their conversion out of Islam. The politicisation of faith is never an act of conscience; it is a shameless utilitarian ploy to manipulate hearts and minds for opportunistic or otherwise political advantage. Just as using religion for ideological gain is wrong and dangerous (because it toys with things dearest to peoples' hearts), so, too, is the politicisation of conversion out of Islam.

It's just dirty, and simply base. It's informed by the same motivation of the extremists. And it belies an inability of the person to commit themselves to the neutrality of the secularism that they claim. Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi.