BANGKOK – Most, but certainly not all individuals who follow a Pagan path come to one of the faiths within that umbrella through a different faith. The faith of origin is often Christian for those in nations with close ties to European immigration or colonization. But it is, of course, not exclusively the case. Regardless, the process of abandoning one’s faith of origin and practice to a new faith is formally an act of apostasy. Most of us in the West do not see or even recognize the idea of apostasy as having any serious consequence. Freedom of religion serves as a guarantee that the act of a adopting a new belief or dogma may have personal social consequences like estrangement, but nothing more serious in nature.
This week, however, an 18 year-old Saudi woman drew international attention by raising the sobering consequences of rejecting a dominating patriarchy and engaging in apostasy. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun had reportedly been on vacation in Kuwait with her family when she sneaked away from them and boarded a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. Upon arrival, her passport was apparently confiscated, and she was denied a flight to Australia, what would have been her ultimate destination where she had hoped to seek asylum.Then for over 24 hours on Saturday into Sunday, she took to Twitter from the Bangkok airport and pushed her messages out to the entire world. What followed was a stunning 24 hour exposure into Saudi expectations of women in their society and the serious consequences to abandoning Islam. Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun wrote in Twitter “I’m the girl who run away from Kuwait to Thailand. I’m in real danger because the Saudi embassy trying to forcing me to go back to Saudi Arabia, while I’m at the airport waiting for my second flight.” Hours later she would barricade herself in a hotel room to prevent her forcible removal to Saudi Arabia. Viewed still as a minor and unaccompanied by a male, Thai officials were planning her extradition to her home country but after a series of relentless tweets from Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun begging for help on social media, the world noticed her calls. From that hotel room at the Bangkok airport, she with the help of a friend, shared a stream of pleas that she would be killed if returned to her family and home country.
Then, in a self-filmed video posted also to social media, she stated “I, Rahaf Mohamed, am formally seeking refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harassed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family.” She added in a tweet, “I can live alone, free, independent from anyone who has not respected my dignity and has not respected me as a woman.”She kept pleading to see the officials from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees insisting that “I am in real danger because the Saudi Embassy is forcing me to go back to Saudi Arabia.” Her relentless social media campaign broke through to the attention of media outlet. She even appealed directly to Western leaders. Once journalistic attention turned to the situation, Thais officials relented and granted her a stay.
She told the BBC that she is in mortal danger because she ran away from Saudi Arabia and shared her story with the entire world but more importantly because she renounced Islam.So, is she really in danger?
The answer is yes. Freedom of religion is not guaranteed in her home country – and several others – but it is only one of Ms. Mohammed al-Qunun’s transgressions.
I asked some Saudi colleagues about the reality of a death penalty to a Muslim apostate. They said that apostasy is serious and punishable by death. But they also added that they could not remember the last time a court executed someone for that crime. Amnesty International notes that apostates can received the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. “These discretionary punishments are known as ta’zir. Crimes that wouldn’t be considered serious enough to allow the death penalty under international law – such as drugs offences and armed robbery – all fall under this group of ta’zir crimes, as do the ‘crimes’ of adultery, apostasy, witchcraft and sorcery.” The Independent reported cases of individuals, including Saudi dissident Ahmad Al Shamri, were sentenced to death. Although sentencing an corporal punishments have been exacted, it is not clear whether pending executions have occurred.
Add to the crime the exposure Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun brought the Saudi government about the male control of women in that society and they agreed the future for Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun would be problematic if she returned to that nation. Women are expected to surrender their lives to guardianship of male family member, usually a father, brother or uncle until she is married. If she is widowed with a male child, her son would take control of her life.
For context, the list of Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun’s in Saudi society is significant. She violated civil law because she disobeyed the will of her father, did not obtain the consent of a male guardian for any of her activities, and she further traveled without male supervision or permission. Add to that the renouncement of Islam and it would not be inconceivable for the family to take matters into their own hands. The torture of female activists is well documented.
The UNHCR says that it has granted Ms. Mohammed Al-Qunun’s petition. It is not clear where she will go, though she is now reported to be in Australia.
So where is apostasy illegal?
First, apostasy is the formal disaffiliation from a religious group and an abandonment or renunciation of a previously practiced religion’s doctrine. Second, there are slight variations between apostasy as disaffiliation from a religious group and apostasy as a legal or criminal infraction.
Generally, from a religious perspective, apostasy is a form of rebellion, a turning away from doctrine or deity. Buddhism has no consequence for apostasy and Hinduism sees changes in paths as different approaches leading to the same deity; so it too has no consequences.
The Abrahamic faiths recognize apostasy as a more serious condition. Judaism understands apostasy as a transgression against Israel, as well as God; and in the latter sense so do both Christianity and Islam. The consequences in these faiths range from shunning to death by a variety of means including stoning. Recently, film maker Daniel Kokotajlo explores the act of disaffiliation and its emotional and social weight in his 2017 film Apostasy about an 18-year old woman who “disfellowships” from Jehovah Witnesses.
As for nations with legal consequence for apostasy, most of them are Muslim-majority nations. Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen all have the death penalty as a possible consequence for apostasy. Others like Malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria and Pakistan result in loss of citizenship or imprisonment with varying periods of time, typically 3 days, afforded for recanting.