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The US secretary of state, John Kerry, sparked controversy on Tuesday after referring to Daesh as “apostates” while speaking in Rome. His unusual word choice did not go unnoticed, and it was not long before both Muslims and non-Muslim scholars, journalists and political commentators were voicing their opinions on why it was problematic.
“Daesh is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves,” Kerry said. “And they are also above all apostates, people who have hijacked a great religion and lie about its real meaning and lie about its purpose and deceive people in order to fight for their purposes.”
A senior US official accusing a group of people of being “apostates” is pretty much unheard of. An apostate, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “someone whose beliefs have changed and who no longer belongs to a religious or political group.”
Leaving one’s faith can be a very difficult and dangerous decision, especially in the Islamic world where laws concerning apostasy can be particularly harsh, with some countries imposing the death penalty as punishment for the crime.
Charges of apostasy are often used by Daesh—the very group Kerry was referring to in his comments—to justify the killing of those who disagree with them.
Some have argued that Kerry ought to stay away from the word as it is used often by extremists, while others have suggested that he may have called them “apostates” in order to justify US military action against them—so as not to be accused of killing Muslims.
However there is another group of people very critical of Kerry for calling the extremist group apostates: Real ex-Muslims.
Former Muslims often face extreme persecution for leaving the Islamic faith, with some suffering ostracization by their family, and even death threats. So perhaps it is understandable that they are not best pleased at being compared to an extremist group such as Daesh.
We reached out to some of those former Muslims to see what they had to say about John Kerry’s controversial word choice.
Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born former Muslim. She is an author, campaigner for human rights and secularism, and spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.
“The use of the term [...] legitimises the concept of apostasy that leads to the murder and imprisonment of so many freethinkers (ex-Muslim, Muslim and non-Muslim) not just in Syria and Iraq but also Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere,” she told Al Bawaba, via email.
“Apostasy from Islam is a “crime” punishable by death in more than ten countries; in many more it’s a prosecutable offence. Even in the west, where apostasy is not deemed a crime, many face threats and intimidation.
“Kerry and western governments would do well to concern themselves with challenging Islamism rather than using the Islamist narrative to defend Islam and their many theocratic friends.”
Imad Iddine Habib is the founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco.
“Al-Azhar, the well-known Sunni religious authority, refused to consider them Kuffars/Apostates and for once I agree with them,” he said.
“Calling DEASH (sic) apostates is absurd. We, real apostates, believe in Universal Human Rights, secular democracy and stand up for enlightenment values against the religious-right. Many of us have been jailed and even killed for merely advocating and expressing our views.
“Considering DEASH (sec) as an isolated ideology from other mainstream Islamist ideologies is the elephant in the room. DAESH is part of larger right-wing political movement that instrumentalises violence, Human Rights, Democracy, wars, politics, education and anything else for their own agenda."
Namazie also provided us with a response from Kiran Opal, another ex-Muslim.
“Who could have guessed that John Kerry is in the business of Takfir: declaring who is and is not an 'apostate'?” she said.
“It's interesting since 'apostate' is what ISIS (Daesh) – and the original ISIS-like state, Saudi Arabia, that Kerry & Cameron keep selling bombs to – call all the people they murder & enslave.”
The views of these ex-Muslims show that Kerry’s word choice is potentially far more damaging than he had perhaps considered.
Not only does Daesh use the term to justify killing its opponents, but real “apostates” are persecuted by their governments, communities, and even families for their choice to leave the religion.
Ex-Muslims would arguably do well not to be compared to an extremist group in addition to that.
By Kane Hippisley-Gatherum
The views expressed in this article are the author and contributors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Bawaba's editorial policy.