Case of runaway convert leads to Muslim-Christian clash

Fathima Rifqa Bary alleged that her Muslim father threatened to kill her after she converted to Christianity. The case has set Muslim and Christian activists at odds.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In an Aug. 21 file photo, Fathima Rifqa Bary enters the courtroom of Judge Daniel Dawson in Orlando, Fla., holding her Bible.
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The case has been painted as a clash of civilizations: a girl who ran away from home to convert to Christianity tells reporters she will be killed by her Muslim family for apostasy if she returns home.

But the plight of Fathima Rifqa Bary, the Ohio teenager who says her Muslim father threatened her life after she converted to Christianity and ran away to Florida, is also part of a new and growing challenge to Western jurisprudence: How to reconcile restrictive Eastern cultural and religious codes with Western freedoms of religious expression and guarantees against gender discrimination.

"[M]any Muslims who leave the Middle East for the West thinking they are being protected, we discover when we're in America [that] we are not protected, because radical Islam follows us here," said Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-American human rights activist and former Muslim, in a September conference call on Fathima's case.

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A Florida judge ruled Tuesday that Fathima must return home to Ohio, though she will stay for the time being with a foster family. In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) has stood up for the Bary family's right to get their child back, while in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has expressed reservations about her safety at home.

Two police investigations – one in Florida and one in Ohio – have found little basis for Fathima's assertion that she'll be killed upon returning to Ohio. The family attorney claimed Fathima was a cheerleader and her siblings were Westernized. The Florida police report found Fathima's concern "remains a subjective and speculative concern," and concluded that there exists "no conspiracy" among family members to commit violence against her.

But Fathima's fear reflects a cultural reality that Western courts have a responsibility to confront, say some experts.

They refer to the practice of honor killings in some traditional Islamic and Eastern societies, in which women who break the cultural norms are killed for bringing to dishonor to the family. Such killings are usually carried out by family members and often relate to expectations governing female chastity and marriage, though apostasy has been linked to some cases, too.

The United Nations Populations Fund estimates that there are 5,000 honor killings worldwide every year.

In recent years, Western countries with growing Muslim immigrant populations have begun to see honor killings, as well. US and Canada together have seen at least 20 such murders in the past decade.

Usually such crimes are treated as homicides, but British prosecutors have now started looking deeper into the cultural relevance of certain murders.

"The problem is that honor killing is a result of perverted cultural context, a mind-set that people bring with them," says Amin Muhammad, a psychiatrist and expert on honor killings at Memorial University in Canada's Newfoundland province.

"The [legal system] should not give any leeway or pardon or relief or consideration to [Islamic culture]" when addressing crimes or even threats of violence, Mr. Muhammad says.

However, some Muslim groups say that the notion that honor killings is a part of Islam is a conceit of Western media – an argument the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) made to the Florida judge. Romin Iqbal, the Bary family's attorney and a CAIR employee, told Judge Daniel Dawson that such killings are "cultural and tribal" and are not related to "the Islamic religious practice."

Fathima's case has become a focus of religious tension, with Muslim groups defending the family and Christian groups rallying to the teen's cause. Holding Bibles, protesters supporting Fathima gathered outside the Orlando courtroom during hearings of the case, at one point engaging in a yelling match with an angry Muslim man from the area.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Dawson ultimately set aside the cultural war implications of the case and focused on deciding what was best for the teenage girl. Fathima's return to Ohio is contingent upon the judge receiving legal immigration papers from her Sri Lankan parents, which they have not done so far. If the case turns into a deportation proceeding, Fathima might be able to seek political asylum in the US.

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