Apostasy is not just something that scandalises people in far off lands. Harriet Alexander hears the story of a British woman whose life was turned upside down when she left Islam - echoing the plight of Meriam Ibrahim, who awaits a death sentence in Sudan for the same "crime"
Photo: WARREN SMITH
If Amal Farah were not living in Britain, she believes she might well be dead.
For the 33-year-old financial manager had carried out an act so heinous, her family felt she deserved to die.
Her crime? She had renounced her Islamic faith – “and within my community, that’s a capital offence,” she said. “They believe you deserve to die.”
Mrs Farah, who was born in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but now lives in Britain, has never told her story before.
She was too afraid; told that, even in the UK, it was safer for her to keep a low profile.But when earlier this month the case of Meriam Ibrahim came to light – an eight-month pregnant Sudanese woman, sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith – Mrs Farah felt she had to speak out.
“I had to do something,” she said. “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.”
Her voice quavering, fighting back tears, she said: “I read her story and thought: 'That could so easily have been me.’”
Meriam Ibrahim with her husband Daniel Wani
She told the court that her Muslim father abandoned the family when she was young, so as a child she had been brought up a Christian.
A petition to quash Ms Ibrahim’s sentence, organised by Amnesty International, has been signed by 640,000 people so far – but the rights group has been barred from Sudan since 2005.
For Mrs Farah, many of the parallels between her own life and Ms Ibrahim’s are striking.
Both women are pregnant with their second child. Both were born in the Greater Horn of Africa region. And both lost their fathers when they were young girls.
Ironically, Mrs Farah’s father was very secular. A high-ranking general in the Somali army, he served under Siad Barre, the military dictator, before going into exile in Ethiopia, where he campaigned for democracy. When Mrs Farah was aged just three, he was killed by a landmine.
“After that, little by little, my mother became more religious,” she said. “We were all Muslims, of course, but the older I got the more I was told to pray, to wear conservative clothes and so on. 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.”
A turning point came, she said, when her mother prepared her for circumcision, a practice now widely viewed as barbaric, and better known 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 realised that I hated this feeling of powerlessness.”
When Mrs Farah was 18, the family fled Somalia – her mother, who had remarried, her stepfather, and her four half-siblings.
And it was when she began her degree in molecular biology at a British red-brick university that a new world opened up for her.
“It was a revelation,” she said. “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.
“It happened very organically for me. Initially I started exploring my own faith, reading all I could on the Koran – different translations, historical perspectives, listening to cassettes of various Saudi or Egyptian imams.
“At first my Mum thought it was wonderful. And I really did see the goodness in it; the sense of generosity, of speaking the truth, and not back biting. I don’t think it is a terrible religion at all.”
But she felt in her heart that it was not for her – and that, to be true to herself, she could no longer call herself a Muslim.
Yet finally she dared to broach the subject gently 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!’ They see that life is a test, and that my decision was but a challenge to my faith, and one which should be overcome.”
At first they tried to persuade her. Cousins telephoned her constantly, and an uncle was dispatched from Saudi Arabia to spend three days “answering her questions”.
In the eyes of the deeply-conservative Somali community in Leicester, of which her family was part, 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.’”
Mrs Farah has not spoken to her relatives since 2005.
She is adamant that it is not a problem with Islam, but rather one of intolerant societies.
“If you look at the Old Testament, there are some shocking things there,” she said. “But Jewish society realises 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 realise that too.
“It’s just the extremists in Pakistan or Saudi or Sudan who fail to see the message of humanity behind the words.”
The crime of apostasy – for which Ms Ibrahim has been sentenced to death – is defined as the renouncing of your religion.
Some divisions of Christianity – among them Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists – believe apostasy is a sin. But it is mainly seen as an Islamic crime, based on a Hadith – saying - from Prophet Muhammad who said, “Whoever changes his religion kill him.” But many scholars point out that numerous verses in the Koran guarantee freedom of belief.
Nina Shea, director of the Centre for Religious Freedom at New York’s Hudson Institute, said that apostasy from Islam is criminalised in many, though not all, Muslim-majority states. Turkey does not criminalise it, but Iran and Saudi Arabia do imprison converts. Actual executions by governments for conversion are virtually unheard of today.
“In the case of Meriam 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,” she said. “All of those groups do put Christian converts to death.”
Mrs Farah tries not to think about her estranged family.
Her mother moved the family back to Somalia shortly after they last spoke – fearful that more of her children would abandon the faith. For her own safety, the Telegraph is not revealing particulars about where she now lives in Britain.
“I try to focus on the positive things,” Mrs Farah said. “I craved my freedom, and it took me a long time to be brave enough. I try not to think of my family, as it upsets me too much. I just wish, idealistically I suppose, that it didn’t have to be like this.”