Islamist presidential candidate declares conversion permissible

Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, an Islamist presidential candidate and reformist member of the Muslim Brotherhood, dropped a bombshell Sunday by stressing freedom of belief and unequivocally condoning conversion between Islam and Christianity. 

“Nobody should interfere if a Christian decides to convert to Islam or a Muslim decides to leave Islam and become Christian,” Aboul Fotouh said in an interview with a widely-viewed nightly talk show broadcast on a private satellite channel. “Forcing people to adopt a particular faith will lead to the rise of hypocrites.”

By acknowledging the right to convert from Islam to another religion, Aboul Fotouh sets himself at odds with most Islamists and Muslim jurists, who hold that ridda, or apostasy, is punishable by death.

“Freedom of belief should be guaranteed and invoking the capital punishment for apostasy is irrelevant. This punishment is not a penalty for converting from Islam,” he said. 

Aboul Fotouh hinted at arguments advanced by some Muslim reformers that studied the historical context of such an injunction and came up with the conclusion that apostates were killed during the early years of Islam not because they quit the religion but because they carried arms against Muslims upon conversion. To Abouel Fotouh, in contemporary times, this particular injunction can be applied  to those who commit “high treason” against their state or societies.

Abouel Fotouh broached this incendiary issue after he was asked to comment on sectarian clashes that erupted last week in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba after fundamentalist Salafis Muslims allegedly attempted to break into a local church under the pretext of rescuing a woman rumored to be held captive after converting from Christianity to Islam. At least 15 people were killed, more than 200 injured, and a local church was set on fire.

Women who allegedly convert from Christianity to Islam have been at the heart of most sectarian incidents in recent years. In most cases, radical Islamists took it upon themselves to protect new Muslims against the church, which they say “forces” them to return to their original faith.

“What happened has reasons and it could be cured if freedom [is respected],” said Abouel Fotouh. “The state should be responsible for protecting freedom of belief and neither the church, Al-Azhar, Islamic groups, the Muslim Brotherhood nor Salafis should be in charge of that.”

Last week, Abouel Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, announced that he would run for president as an independent in a clear act of defiance against his group’s decision not to field a presidential candidate. For the last few years, the relationship between the 60-year-old doctor and the nation’s oldest Islamist organization has been strained due to Aboul Fottouh’s liberal views. His acknowledgement of women’s and Copts’ right to run for president coupled with his full endorsement of a democratic, civil rule antagonized many of the group’s hawks and culminated in his exclusion from the organization’s Guidance Bureau in early 2010.

His decision to engage in the presidential contest is expected to exacerbate the tension. Many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leaders have already announced that the group will not back Abouel Fotouh’s candidacy.

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