Afghan Christian's Trial Is a Trial for Islam Too

Whether diplomats and politicians find a solution that will spare the life of Abdel Rahman, an Afghan man who could possibly face the death penalty for his Christian faith, the perception of Islam in the West may have already taken a hard hit.

Rahman, 41, converted to Christianity 16 years ago. Under Islamic law, apostasy -- the abandonment of Islam -- is a crime that can carry a death sentence. There were unconfirmed reports today that the Afghan government may spare Rahman, but the controversy has already become an international crisis.

Conservative Muslims in Afghanistan see Rahman's conversion as an act of treason against Islam and its communal identity. For Americans and others in countries that have spent money and precious lives to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, Rahman's trial is itself a betrayal not of religious values but of the values of human rights.

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said they are deeply distressed that Rahman is being put on trial for his faith. World leaders from Australia to Canada have reacted similarly, making their own appeals for Rahman's release.

That sentiment is shared by many Westerners with roots in the Middle East, like Egyptian-American Michael Meunier.

Meunier, who is a Coptic Christian, believes it's a "disheartening fact" that the Islamic world takes the billions of dollars of Western aid but does not accept human rights and religious freedom.

Jeff King, president of the human rights and Christian advocacy organization International Christian Concern, expresses a similar sentiment. "When we have a hand in forming a country that we paid for in blood and paid for in dollars, then we have the right to speak up," King says.

"If they're going to form a version of 'Taliban light,' then we need to reconsider that we're propping these countries up."

What Does the Koran Say About Conversion?

The trial of Abdel Rahman may also affect American opinions of Islam and the Muslim world in general. "It's not any different from the unfortunate incidents we've seen -- beheadings, kidnappings -- that have created negative perceptions of Muslims," says Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Muslims around the world have grown accustomed to how current events can affect their reputation and popularity. "We're always at the mercy of international events. There's not much we can do to control that," says Hooper. "All we can do is present an accurate face of Islam to the public."

The Koran does not specify the death penalty for people who convert, but it does call conversion a criminal sin. It is up to the interpretation of clerics and judges to decide whether the punishment should be execution.

Hooper sees this as a crucial distinction. "Obviously we don't think it's a good thing to leave Islam. But judgment is left to God in the next life, not up to people in this life."

The fact remains, however, that since the 1980s converts from Islam to other religions -- Christianity, Bahai and others -- have gone to trial in a handful of countries governed by Islamic law. In some cases, they have been executed.

Meunier and others believe those cases show the need for reform. "The intolerance of hard-liner Islamic law is something that Islam needs to look deeper into," he says.

Members of his own religion, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, have been persecuted and brought to trial for their faith. "Muslim scholars need to review these policies that go not only against non-Muslims but also against the basic rights of their own people."

Hooper insists "the real face of Islam" is that of the millions of Muslims who live ordinary lives and shun violence. "That's [not] what makes news -- you don't report on the ordinary Muslims, you report on the aberrations," he says.

But Hooper acknowledges that the trial of Abdel Rahman will not make it easier to convince others that he is right.