Hugh Fitzgerald: An African Witness to “Compulsion In Religion”


One of the two Qur’anic verses most favored by Muslim apologists is 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” This is quoted with deep sincerity — “why would I lie?” — to unwary Infidels who undoubtedly are impressed. For many of them do not know, and are never told, that despite this seemingly unambiguous verse, there most certainly is, in the Islamic world, “compulsion” in religion. That compulsion is of two kinds. The first kind is the compulsion experienced by non-Muslims in a Muslim state. For though they are allowed to practice their religion, as dhimmis they are subject to a host of onerous conditions, including payment of the infamous Jizyah, a tax that protects them from attack by Muslims — in other words, the Jizyah is a form of extortion. Over the centuries, tens of millions of dhimmis who converted to Islam did so not out of religious conviction, but were prompted, rather, by the desire to escape from the wretched condition of the dhimmi. Surely that desire to escape mistreatment as a dhimmi by converting constitutes “compulsion in religion.”

The second kind of “compulsion in religion” in Islam is that experienced by ex-Muslims. For these people live in fear for their lives. The penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. Muhammad himself makes this clear in a famous hadith: “Whoever changes his (Islamic) religion, kill him.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 9.57). We read endless accounts of ex-Muslims who publicly embraced Christianity, and were murdered as a result. As a result, former Muslims often keep secret their own spiritual trajectory, and continue outwardly to present themselves as Muslims. They may not even tell their own family members of their current beliefs, for fear of the punishment that might result from the more fanatical among them.

Recently a Ghanaian ex-Muslim, now an atheist, wrote an Open Letter to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria. It helps make clear how empty is the Qur’anic pledge that “There is no compulsion in religion”:

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It is my pleasure to use this medium to inform you about the concerns of the humanist/atheist community in Nigeria. We just finished a historic event here in Abuja that focused on the risks and challenges that people who renounce religion face in the country. It may interest you to know that these risks are mainly due to how muslim religious believers treat those who renounce Islam. And to mitigate these dangers, there is a need for a conversation with religious establishments such as the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA). I recognize the fact that this proposal may come to you as a surprise, that your agency might be hesitant and unwilling to join in a conversation with a humanist association or with those who self describe as unbelievers.

However, it is a well known fact that the NSCIA is an important voice in the Nigerian muslim community and a stakeholder in the inter-religious dialogue. Surely, dialoguing with unbelievers and apostates can help the NSCIA in tackling widespread abuses in the name of Islam including dispelling the fears and anxieties that are associated with apostasy and blasphemy.

I want to draw the attention of the NSCIA to the persecution of ex muslims across the country. Persons who are born into the Islamic faith and who no longer subscribe to Islamic faith are unable to openly and publicly identify as ex-muslims due to very legitimate concerns. Such persons could be attacked and killed by sharia state or non state actors. These persons could also be accused of blasphemy and of being an enemy of Islam, which is a form of death sentence. This oppressive trend underscores the compulsive nature of the Islamic faith as practiced in the country. This jihadist islam provides a sub soil for the ravaging forces of muslim extremism and hatred. In fact many ex muslims could not attend the just concluded humanist convention in Abuja due to concerns over their safety and security. They feared that family members or the sharia police could prosecute or persecute them. If Islam as practiced in Nigeria is actually a peaceful religion and people are not forced to embrace, profess, and remain muslims, why are ex muslims living in the closet?

Why are those who criticize or renounce religion attacked and killed? Why are ex muslims not allowed to voluntarily leave the faith? Why are ex-muslims living in fear and are forced to operate underground especially in muslim majority states?

If actually there is no compulsion in the Islamic religion, ex muslims should be free to express themselves, free to meet and associate, free to question and criticize the Islamic doctrines, without fear of losing their jobs or lives, without being imprisoned and harassed. Look, a family in Kano sent an ex-muslim to a mental hospital after he renounced Islam. So these fears of ex-muslims are real. They are not forms of islamophobia, but rather currents of islam-based, Islam-motivated and Islam-sanctioned hatred that have plagued the country since independence. In Gombe, Kano, Zamfara, Niger and other places there have been recurrent attacks and killings of persons in the name of Islam. The sharia police have been operating with impunity targeting religious and sexual minorities. The hijab campaign has been another clear demonstration of Islamic privilege and exceptionalism, not of equal rights, dignity and justice for all. It must be recalled that when sharia was first introduced in early 2000, Islamic theocrats said that the law was for muslims only. Is that the case today in Kano, Jigawa and Gombe? Hence I use this medium to invite the NSCIA to partner with the humanist/atheist movement and to join in tackling religion-motivated violence in all its forms-psychological, structural and physical. The NSCIA should become co-campaigners for a Nigeria where mosque and state are separate and where individuals can freely embrace or renounce Islam.

Leo Igwe

Leo Igwe dares to address such remarks — as a self-identified ex-Muslim, who now calls himself an atheist — to the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, only because he is a Ghanaian, living in the majority-Christian state of Ghana. Thus, for now, Muslims eager to enforce the punishment for apostasy cannot reach him.

The Open Letter describes the calvary endured by ex-Muslims in Nigeria, and pleads for their decent treatment, even tracking the language of Qur’an 2:256: “If actually there is no compulsion in the Islamic religion, ex muslims should be free to express themselves, free to meet and associate, free to question and criticize the Islamic doctrines, without fear of losing their jobs or lives, without being imprisoned and harassed.”

But they are not free to express themselves on matters of faith, not free to meet and associate with likeminded ex-Muslims, not free to question and criticize the Islamic doctrines, as Leo Igwe knows all too well, from his contacts among fellow ex-Muslims, now humanists and atheists who dare not declare themselves, in Nigeria. With his Open Letter, Leo Iqwe is appealing  to two different audiences. The first consists of members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, who he hopes — a forlorn hope? — might see the error of their ways, might be shamed into decency, and might even join him and other apostates as co-campaigners for a Nigeria where mosque and state are separate and where individuals can freely embrace or renounce Islam.

His other intended audience for this Open Letter consists of the many Unbelievers who have a very imperfect understanding, he knows, of what happens to apostates under Islam. So he, Leo Igwe, has spelled out the grim consequences: the fear of expressing one’s true beliefs, the fear of meeting with fellow ex-Muslims, the constant worry about being found out and then the likelihood  of  losing one’s job, losing one’s family (who want nothing more to do with the apostate who has shamed them), and even losing one’s life. Treatment of apostates in Islam is not the kind of thing that Omid Safi, or Hamid Dabashi, or Mustafa Akyol, or Robert Azzi are eager to discuss. Certainly none of them has ever done so publicly. Nor have any of the others on the well-trodden circuit of “Ask-A-Muslim-Anything” performers.

The ex-Muslim Leo Igwe is a prolific writer — more than 400 articles — and has a special interest in the treatment of ex-Muslims.  For a few days, Google gave Igwe’s Open Letter to Nigerian Muslims top billing on the subject. And at the very same time, a drama was being played out at the Bangkok Airport, featuring Rahaf Al-Qunun (now Rahaf Muhammad), a young Saudi woman who was, like Igwe, an apostate from Islam who feared for her life. Her story had a happy ending; she’s now safely in Canada, free to think and believe as she wishes. Already there have been many interviews with her, and surely a book — “I Am Rahaf” — is in the works. The story of the ex-Muslims in Nigeria, on the other hand, doesn’t look as though it will have a satisfactory resolution, and the lack of any response to Leo Igwe’s Open Letter surely means that the persecution and terrorizing of ex-Muslims in Nigeria will continue. But at least he has managed, thanks to finding favor, surprisingly, with Google, to push the subject of Muslim apostates into the consciousness of a great many people.

The next time you hear a Muslim apologist insist that “there is no compulsion in  (the Islamic) religion” — “it’s Qur’an 2:256” — before an audience of Ask-A-Muslim-Anything non-Muslims, you could read out, by way of answer, the Open Letter of Leo Igwe. The fact that he’s a black African makes his islamocriticism more palatable to the kind of political “progressives” most likely to attend these gatherings. Perhaps you could even distribute copies of his letter to others in the audience. And be sure to ask the apologist how he squares Igwe’s account of what ex-Muslims endure in Nigeria with what Qur’an 2:256 appears to promise.  That’s one more way to spoil things for those who had so been looking forward to an evening of unchallenged taqiyya. With Rahaf and Leo helping, keep up the good work.

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