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Threat of apostasy

23 May 2014

DESPITE reassuring noises from a Sudanese official, it is not much comfort to know that you are not going to be flogged and then hanged for another two years. There is talk that the sentence pronounced on Meriam Yahya Ibrahim is likely to be commuted; but, again, she has few reasons to celebrate, having been forcibly separated from her husband, the father of her 18-month son and the child she is carrying, soon to be born in prison. There is little wonder that members of the public and politicians around the world have protested about Mrs Ibrahim's treatment. The absurd brutality of apostasy laws in Sudan and elsewhere in the Islamic world, however latent, have been pointed up by the particulars of Mrs Ibrahim's case: she was brought up in a household headed by her Christian mother, but because her absent father was a Muslim, she is deemed to have abandoned her faith for another. And her marriage has been annulled, since a Muslim, which the court has concluded she is, cannot marry a Christian.

Accusing somebody of apostasy is, in the main, a political act, despite the terminology used. The charges laid against Mrs Ibrahim serve the triple purpose of subduing the Christian minority in Sudan, reinforcing the ideological border with the country's new neighbour, the mainly Christian South Sudan, and demonstrating to the government's critics that it can give the radical Islamists a run for their money. When in economic difficulty, it is a standard move for a government to create a distraction. Even better if it can be seen to be standing firm against hostile forces outside the country. Religion is one of the key adhesives in a society, and its enforcement is common when political tensions rise. The victory of the BJP in the Indian elections last week has prompted expressions of disquiet among religious minorities, in case the seeds of religious fanaticism seen over the border in Pakistan find fertile ground under a Hindu nationalist government. Such developments are not unknown in the West. In England, the perceived military threat from the Pope and his allies in the 16th century cast a long shadow over Roman Catholics in this country, though the physical threat was later commuted to disenfranchisement.

There is one aspect of this process, however, that remains a religious matter. Apostasy is the politicisation of doubt. A society must reach - and maintain - a degree of stability and maturity before it can tolerate radical religious dissent. The Early Church discovered this quickly, and Jews down the ages have known this only too well. Rejecting a religion by adopting another makes a public act of the doubts that are usually dealt with in private. The judicial sentencing of Mrs Ibrahim stands at the end of a process that begins with the mishandling of doctrinal disagreement, something of which no faith group, Christianity included, is innocent.

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