The murder of a former interpreter for the United States military who allegedly abandoned his Muslim faith has revealed the strain facing Iraq’s fragile laws, where a respect for Islamic creed can conflict with a duty to protect human rights.
Hameed al-Daraji was shot dead on Wednesday, June 14, in the Sunni Arab city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. According to security officials, his son confessed in custody that he had killed his father over his conversion to Christianity.
Another son and a nephew are wanted over the attack. All three men are suspected of links to a domestic insurgent group allied to al-Qaeda.
Hostility towards converts is widespread in Iraq, as in much of the Muslim world. While the country’s laws guarantee the rights of its sizeable religious minorities, they also yield to Islam as an ultimate authority.
Many Iraqis – including residents of Samarra and Baghdad and senior clerics from the Sunni and Shia sects – said the former interpreter deserved to be killed in accordance with strict Islamic rules against conversion.
Some said they approved of the motive behind the murder, but felt it ought to have been carried out by the man’s tribe, rather than his son.
Several religious and political leaders said they could not condemn the killing of converts as it was sanctioned by Islamic scripture.
However, a significant minority of Iraqis – including a Christian lawmaker - said they were appalled by the crime.
Iraq’s laws have strict penalties for murder and make no allowances for the killing of converts from Islam.
However, the constitution describes Islam as a fundamental source of legislation, and adds that no law may be passed that contradicts the principles of Islam, or democracy.
IWPR reporters could not reach any members of the dead man’s family for comment.
The son accused of the crime has yet to face trial and, despite his reported confession, is presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise.
Though a verdict in the case may be some way off, the issues it raises reflect the grave challenges confronting the country’s battered legal system.
While conversions from Islam are rare in Iraq, the reaction to the Samarra killing illustrates the difficulty of balancing ancient articles of Islamic faith against a democratic obligation to guard religious minorities.
Lack of legal clarity
Legal experts interviewed by IWPR said judges were free to reflect religious beliefs in their rulings.
Ahmed al-Abbasi, a judge and a senior ministry of justice official, said religious teachings were followed where the law offered no guidance.
“There is no law to deal with a convert, so in such cases we have to go to the Islamic rules, because Islam is the main source of legislation,” he said.
He conceded that the lack of clarity in the legal system concerning conversions could be problematic.
“I don’t know how we deal with such cases, given the new democracy and the absence of relevant laws,” he said.
Another expert argued that lighter sentences may be awarded for crimes that were driven by Islamic doctrine.
“In Iraqi life, we have a religious verdict and a legal verdict,” said Dhiya al-Saadi, a former head of the union of Iraqi lawyers.
“The two may not match each other – but the religious verdict can be seen as a mitigating factor when the judge looks at the motive.”
Daraji’s killers could have had a range of motives. Samarra is a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency, which regards Iraqis who have worked with the US military as traitors.
Initial reports by news agencies, quoting police officials, had indicated Daraji was killed on the orders of insurgents because of his ties to American forces. He had worked as an interpreter with the US military periodically since 2003.
However, security officials and several residents of Samarra told IWPR Daraji was killed because he had recently converted to Christianity.
While the hardline ideology of many insurgents is broadly hostile to Christians, animosity towards converts from Islam, known as murtads or religious renegades, is far more widespread across the Muslim world.
A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press, said Daraji’s son had confessed he killed his father because of social pressure.
“He could not bear the shame of his father’s conversion,” the officer said.
Sheikh Talal Hamdan, a local leader of the Sahwa militia, which fought against al-Qaeda, confirmed the account, adding that Daraji had received threats from his nephew over his religious conversion.
“It seems the whole tribe agreed on the man’s killing,” said Hamdan, who is involved in the inquiry into the crime.
Those who adopt Christianity would be especially vulnerable in Iraq, where the conflict with US forces was portrayed by insurgents as a holy war against a crusading Christian army. Cases of such conversions are almost unheard of, except in the relatively stable Kurdistan region.
“I saw [Daraaji] wearing a chain with a cross on it, which is forbidden in Islam,” said Alaa Dakheel, a farmer and neighbour of the dead man. “It is a religious duty to kill infidels.”
Thabit Salah, a barber in his thirties, said no one blamed the son for the murder.
“The man who wore the chain with the cross deserved to be killed,” he said. “He was a spy for the Americans and they taught him to leave his religion.”
Sarab Emad, a grocery store owner in Samarra, said he agreed with the killing of a murtad. However, he said, “he should have been killed by his tribe, not his son”.
“Even the Prophet Abraham did not kill his father, who was an infidel,” he said.
Iraqi religious and political leaders of both sects agreed that the killing of converts was sanctioned by Islam.
“It is every Muslim’s duty to kill the murtad,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghreri, a Sunni cleric based in al-Ali al-Adhim mosque in southern Baghdad’s Zafraniyah neighbourhood.
A senior Shia cleric who did not wish to be identified by the press confirmed to IWPR that the Prophet Mohammed had said those who changed their faith ought to be killed.
Authorities from both sects said converts may be killed after following a series of steps, overseen by a religious authority. The steps included warning converts of the consequences of their actions and offering them the chance, within a limited period, to revert to Islam.
“The murtad should be killed – there is no mercy in such matters,” said a Sunni religious leader, asking not to be named. “But the man who carries out the killing should be authorised by a senior cleric.”
Fears for minorities
An Iraqi Christian lawmaker said he was saddened by the crime in Samarra, which went to the heart of a conflict in the judicial system.
“This is a contradiction in the Iraqi constitution,” said Emad Yohanna, from the Rafidain list. “One of its main sources is Islam, which imposes the duty to kill a murtad.”
“At the same time, the constitution is obliged to protect human rights and religious freedom. It really is a mess.”
A former Yezedi member of parliament agreed. "In Iraq we have two laws: Islamic laws and human rights laws. The constitution states that both should be taken into consideration, but sometimes it is not possible to apply both, and in such a case, in Iraq, Islamic laws win," he said.
Yohanna said the constitution needed to be amended in order to protect the rights of converts.
“I respect Islam but I also believe it’s fine for someone to choose their own religion,” he said.
Although many Iraqis said they understood the motives behind the killing of converts, a few said they were appalled by the murder in Samarra.
“Killing a man is a sin and killing one’s father is an even bigger sin,” said Sami, a man in his twenties shopping at a music store in the central Arasat district. “Let God judge such a person who converts. Why should we act as Gods?”
Waddah, an engineer from Baghdad in his twenties and a devout Muslim, said he felt Islam did not allow the killing of those who had converted out of a genuine belief.
“Islam is very clear about freedom of religion,” he said. “I think those who support such killings have been misled by powerful political and religious figures.”
Hanan, a Christian woman studying at a medical college in the capital, said the crime defied belief.
“The tribe could expel such a man – but why should he be killed? And by his son? It’s horrible!” she said.
Most of Iraq’s judicial codes have yet to be updated since the days of the largely secular government of former leader Saddam Hussein.
In areas of ambiguity, judges are expected to seek guidance from the constitution, formulated after the US-led invasion in 2003. While the constitution says religion is a private matter beyond the remit of the state, it also describes Islam as a supreme authority in jurisprudence.
The law seems particularly stretched when dealing with a bureaucratic necessity that would follow any religious conversion – the alteration of personal details on identity cards.
Identity cards carried by all Iraqis list the owners’ religion, though not their sect. In theory, people who change their faith can apply to court for their identity cards to be amended.
However, according to Saadi, the former head of the Iraqi lawyers’ union, anyone who converted from Islam could have their appeal rejected by the court.
Under the constitution, the law must reflect Islamic doctrine, which regards such conversions as an offence.
“In such cases, the judge would rule against the convert,” he said. “It’s a complicated situation. In this respect, the Iraqi constitution does not agree with human rights.”
Saadi said the murderer of the interpreter in Samarra would not escape punishment. “A killer is a killer,” he said.
“But the period of jailing is up to the judge, who will look at the circumstances of the case.”
Tarik Harb, a legal expert with strong ties to the government, said the minimum jail sentence for murder was five years’ imprisonment and the maximum was 15 years. The death penalty was applied for crimes where imprisonment was deemed inadequate.
Harb also argued that religious approval for the killing of a convert was not universal.
“There are many clerics who believe there is no sanction for such a murder, as God will punish the murtad,” he said.
Saadi acknowledged that Islam endorsed the killing of a murtad but argued that it would not always be easy to prove that a dead person had been a convert.
Both Saadi and Harb said the judge in the Samarra case might be inclined to give a relatively short sentence for murder if it were proven that the victim’s conversion had provoked the crime.
However, Abbasi, the justice ministry official, said he did not believe the killer in the Samarra case would be shown any leniency.
Yohanna, the Christian legislator, warned that a relatively mild sentence in the Samarra case might encourage more attacks on converts.
Several people interviewed by IWPR in Baghdad said they broadly understood the motive behind the crime.
“The murtad should be killed, according to Islam,” said a teacher in his fifties who gave his name as Abu Ridha.
“I would not kill him myself,” he added, “because I would rather be sinful in the eyes of God than become a killer.”
Alaa Sadiq, a municipal employee in Baghdad’s Sadr city neighbourhood, said a murtad was “more sinful than an infidel because he left the right path, having known it”.
However, he said, killing such a person ought to be the responsibility of the tribe rather than a son. “Why should a son do it, when there are others who can do so?” he said.
Sabree Ala, a shop-owner in the capital’s Karrada district, said each man was free to choose his faith but it was forbidden to switch between faiths, “If [the dead man] was Christian from the beginning, it would be okay. But conversion is a sin.”
He added that he would personally avoid any dealings with such a person, but would stop short of killing him.
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR’s senior local editor in Baghdad. Neil Arun is IWPR’s Iraqi Crisis Report editor in Baghdad. Mahmud Salih, an IWPR trainee reporter, provided additional reporting from Samarra.