Does Conversion Mean Today?
What happened to Abdul Rahman, and how did he come to be such
a threat to the Afghani way of life?
Little more than a week ago (on
March 26), the Pope was pleading with the Afghan president,
Hamid Karzai, asking that he dismiss
the case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghani who converted from Islam
to Christianity. Rahman faced the death penalty for his “crime” but
has now been exiled to Italy, where he will be free to practice
in Afghanistan were adamant in their calling for the proper
punishment for Mr. Rahman. “The Qur'an is very
clear and the words of our prophet are very clear. There can
only be one outcome: death,” said cleric and Supreme
Court judge Khoja Ahmad Sediqi last week before Rahman was
case of Abdul Rahman is an interesting one, and reflects
the enormous difference between how conversion is perceived
in different parts of the world.
is 41 years old and says that he converted to Christianity
when he was 25 and working as a medical aid worker for an international
Christian group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. After
leaving Pakistan, he lived for many years in Germany and only
returned home to Afghanistan in 2002. Less than a month ago,
he made his conversion public and showed that he owned and
carried a Bible. He was publicly denounced even by his own
parents and arrested under Islamic Sharia law, charged with
abandoning Islam. He was given the opportunity to revert, or
face sentencing and punishment.
Aljazeera, the international Muslim-run
news outlet, wrote at the time, “Virtually everyone
interviewed in a small sample of opinion in several parts
of the deeply conservative,
Muslim country on Friday said Abdul Rahman should be punished.
Several clerics raised the issue during weekly sermons in Kabul
on Friday, and there was little sympathy for Abdul Rahman.
Britain, Australia, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Canada and the
UN also voiced their concern, threatening to drive a rift between
Afghanistan and the Western countries it relies on to rebuild
after 20 years of war.”
What happened to Mr. Rahman that
so enflamed the passions of conservative Muslims in Afghanistan?
(We have yet to hear
from progressives in Afghanistan. They dare not speak.) What
change occurred in his life that caused such a threat to a
republic—a threat that would require capital punishment
to root it out?
Rahman “abandoned” Islam,
in the words of those who wanted to punish him. Yes, he became
a Christian, which
is, strictly speaking, a crime in medieval Afghanistan, but
more importantly, he was perceived by all who were interviewed
in the country as a traitor to Islam, the state religion.
of this is remarkably difficult to understand for post-Enlightenment
Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or whatever
else—which is what you very likely are, if you are reading
these words right now. With rare exception, we have come to
accept that you cannot irrefutably convince, let alone force,
others to believe, or to hold certain tenets as truth for life.
In fact, we’ve taken this distancing from commitment
even further to the point where conversion is something rarely
talked about. Even in churches and synagogues—with the
exception of fundamentalist and ultra-Orthodox ones—conversion
has left our vocabularies. We are interested in the annual
number of baptisms and confirmations and bar/bat mitzvahs,
but rarely do we discuss conversion strategies as a means of
growing in numbers.
who live in the post-Enlightenment world are made nervous
by conversion talk. Most of us do
the majority of our spiritual
thinking, living, and imagining within the safe boundaries
of the Internet, reading, and interacting with nature and culture.
The Internet, most of all. Some of these resources are put
together beautifully, in ways that completely replicate what
churches had always hoped to be. Explorefaith.org is full of
these spiritual tools, as are other websites such as Gratefulness.org. (If you haven’t visited there and lit a candle, you should.)
conversion seems beside the point to what it means to be
living a spiritual, or even religious life today.
why would conversion be necessary when there are so few rules
today as to what
makes a person Christian, Jewish,
Muslim? In 21st Century America, England, South Africa,
Japan and elsewhere, people don’t so much “abandon” a
religion as they wander away, disinterestedly, from it. This
is because we don’t so much “convert” to
a religion as we simply start practicing it. If we take on
the ideas and practices of another religion—non-native
to our earlier practices—later on down the road, no one
but our closest friends and family think much about the changes.
All of this is probably for the
best. It marks us as people who respect the rights of other
people to believe as they choose.
It’s also just the way it is for those of us who live
in the post-Enlightenment world of faith.