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Meting Islam: A Guide for Christians

Today's Church in America
by Phyllis Tickle

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April 4, 2006:

What Does Conversion Mean Today?

by Jon M. Sweeney

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 his faith.

Clerics 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 released.

The case of Abdul Rahman is an interesting one, and reflects the enormous difference between how conversion is perceived in different parts of the world.

Rahman 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.

All 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.

We 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.)

So, conversion seems beside the point to what it means to be living a spiritual, or even religious life today.

Similarly, 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.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: THE SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.

More by Jon Sweeney.


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