Restrictions and punishments against those converting from Islam to other faiths are common in Muslim countries, but increasingly the issue is being played out in the U.S. and other Western countries, reportsCommentary magazine (February). “Muslim apostasy” is forbidden both by religious and political authorities in most Islamic nations, sometimes under penalty of death or imprisonment.
Those who convert to other faiths (often through intermarriage) often face strong family and community pressure, especially from Islamic radicals, writes Daveed Gartensein-Ross. “Converts from Islam, especially those who become involved in Christian ministries, often use assumed names, or only their first names, in order to protect themselves and their families.”
Pressure coming from the family are the greatest for Western converts, Ross writes. Some immigrant converts have had their lives threatened by relatives still living in their home countries. Family ostracism, common for converts from all faith backgrounds, exerts a special toll on immigrants who depend on family networks for their livelihood. Some North American Muslims are even trying to make the case that Muslim apostasy should be discouraged by law.
In Canada, Syed Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims, has argued that Canada’s policy of granting multicultural group rights to ethnic groups should allow Muslims to sanction apostasy and blasphemy in their communities (although Mumtaz adds that recognizing Islamic law does not necessarily entail enforcing the “Islamic punishment” of death for blasphemy and apostasy within the Canadian jurisdiction.) Washburn University (Kansas) professor Ali Khan has likewise argued that Islam has the “right of integrity“ in safeguarding the “protected knowledge [of Islam] from…repudiation, internal disrespect and external assaults.”
The strong opposition to Christian conversion from Islam stems largely from Muslims’ encounter with missionaries from colonial times– a fear that, if anything, has increased in recent years. In the British journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (January), H.J. Sharkey writes that the use of the term “crusader” to describe Western and American power in Islamist literature is often still directly tied to the fear of past and present missionary influence, even though these efforts have yielded few converts. Although Muslim apostasy has been an age-old taboo in Islamic societies, the current evangelical interest in Muslim evangelism may well be intensifying this concern.
A look at the figures of actual Christian mission efforts to convert Muslims suggests that cases of “Muslim apostasy” are far from widespread both in the U.S. and abroad. The International Bulletin of Missionary Research(January) found that only 13 percent of the world’s missionaries work in Muslim areas. Of this percentage, the majority of missionaries work mainly with non-Muslim tribal groups or with existing Christian communities, not with the 95.9 percent of the population who are Muslim.
Todd M. Johnson and David R. Scoggins add that social betterment projects are more essential to missions in this region rather than planting Christian churches (often because of anti-proselytizing laws). Additionally, the country sending the largest number of missionaries to Muslim nations today is the Philippines, challenging the perception that Christianity is a Western religion in opposition to Islam.
Johnson and Scoggins adds that Muslims are not doing much better in missionary work among Christians and other non-Muslims. They estimate that 85 percent of the Muslim efforts to extend their faith are directed toward other Muslims, particularly those in the Diaspora. Missionary groups sponsored by multiple foreign governments (or by usually the Saudi government) and by voluntary independent groups are often the most influential.
Johnson and Scoggins conclude that “Christians and Muslims both send the bulk of their missionaries to people of their own faiths. In this sense, the foreign missionary enterprise of the world’s two largest religions is largely an attempt to renew their own traditions.”
(International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 490 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511; Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations, 325 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19106)