Thirty-three year old financial manager Amal Farah, who lives in Britain, believes she would have been dead if she continued to reside in Mogadishu, Somalia after renouncing her Islamic faith.
“Within my community, that’s a capital offense… They believe you deserve to die,” she said while speaking in favour of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese doctor who was sentenced to death earlier this month on grounds of apostasy for refusing to renounce Christianity and revert to Islam.
All of these years, Farah has maintained a low profile, believing that was the safe way to be after she renounced Islam but when Ibrahim’s case picked up momentum and received support from international quarters, Farah said, “I had to do something… I am so fortunate to be here and I am in a position to be able to shout and scream and say this is wrong.”
Ibrahim is currently awaiting her fate, shackled in a cell in Khartoum, because a local court refused to recognize her marriage to a Christian man Daniel Wani of American citizenship. Reportedly, Ibrahim renounced Islam after her father abandoned the family and her mother brought her up as a Christian thereafter. Following her sentence, Amnesty International circulated a petition globally to have her sentence quashed; even though the petition has received signatures from more than 640,000 people, unfortunately the rights group continues to be banned in Sudan since 2005.
While recalling her own story, Farah said despite her father being very secular, her mother grew more religious after his death, urging the daughter to pray more frequently and dress more conservatively
“It wasn’t that I disliked Islam per se. But I disliked being told what to do, like being forced to wear the hijab. I dreamt of having control over my own life,” she said.
The turning point for Farah was her mother’s decision to have her circumcised, a practice that is now viewed as barbaric and often referred to as female genital mutilation.
“I was really scared, and she was talking about how it was religious purification – an essential rite. I asked if there was anything I could do to change her mind, and she said no. I think that’s when I realized that I hated this feeling of powerlessness,” said Farah.
When Farah was 18, her family fled from Somalia and she went on to pursue a degree in molecular biology in Britain, where she realized she could no longer call herself a Muslim if she wanted to be true to herself.
“It was a revelation… I met atheists, staunch Christians, Jews, Hindus – they challenged me about my views, and I about theirs. It was an incredible sensation to be able to ask questions, and discuss ideas without fear, without looking over my shoulder. I had been in a cocoon – unquestioning, with everyone told they had to think the same way.”
When she finally dared to broach the subject with her family – saying she was “having doubts about Islam” – her mother was “heartbroken.”
“My mother’s first words were: ‘But you’re going to hell!’” she said.
Initially, her extended family tried to pursue her with her cousins and uncles attempting to clarify her doubts but in the eyes of the highly conservative Somali community in Leicester, to which her family belonged, renouncing Islam was an act potentially punishable by death.
“It became more threatening. My mother felt incredibly guilty – she was also very, very angry… She blamed herself for the exposure to corrupt Western ways, and said, ‘I knew it was wrong to bring you here. It was like putting you in the sea and asking you not to taste salt,’” recalled Farah.
Farah has not spoken to her family since 2005 and she believes the problem is not with Islam but one of intolerant societies.
“If you look at the Old Testament, there are some shocking things there. But Jewish society realizes that it’s no longer acceptable to stone someone to death, or to cut out their eyes, or enslave them. And the vast majority of Muslims realize that too… It’s just the extremists in Pakistan or Saudi or Sudan who fail to see the message of humanity behind the words,” she said.
Apostasy, the crime for which Ibrahim has recently been sentenced to death, is the renouncing of one’s religion. While certain divisions of Christianity also view apostasy as a sin, it is essentially seen as an Islamic crime. Despite several scholars pointing out that the Koran does in fact guarantee freedom of belief to its adherents, a certain Hadith suggests death to those who change religion.
According to Nina Shea, director of Centre for Religious Freedom, apostasy is criminalized in many but not all Muslim states. For instance, Turkey does not criminalize it but Saudi Arabia and Iran do imprison converts. However, executions for conversion are almost unheard of today.
“In the case of Ibrahim, the government of Sudan is adopting the practice of Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria… All of those groups do put Christian converts to death,” said Shea.
Farah’s mother returned to Somalia with her remaining children shortly after Farah walked out of their family home in Britain to ensure the others did not follow suit and abandon their faiths as well.
Photo Credit: Warren Smith