Religious Freedom for the Muslim World: The Unlikely Activism of Kamal Fahmi

Kamal Fahmi sat with Mazen, a Yemeni teenager, at a community center in Taiz, the country’s third-largest city and cultural capital. Mazen's father was there and had arranged the meeting.

Impressed with the boy’s intelligence and demeanor, Fahmi learned of their troubling problem: Mazen didn’t want to study Islam in school. This story was a familiar one to Fahmi. As the Middle East Director of Operation Mobilization (OM), he had heard it before. Converts in Yemen were considered Muslim by birth and in all official paperwork and, for those who were underage, Islamic education was ‘part of the package’, regardless of if they believed in it or not. Fahmi was sympathetic to the problem. Born into a Christian family in Sudan, he had also studied Islam in school. As a result of his experience, he often counsels people to “hold onto their faith” even while hurdling the educational tests they inevitably faced.

“Over 1.3 billion Muslims in the world don’t have the freedom to change their religion. We have to push for the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” - Kamal Fahmi

Yet there was something about this boy that stirred him.  He was intrigued by the nature of his family. Mazen was not a convert and neither was his father. His grandfather was the one who accepted Christ three decades earlier. Three generations of Christians who were still considered Muslims. The injustice gnawed at him. “They love their country, they are not criminals, they are not spies,” Fahmi said. “If anything, they have become better citizens. They should be free to follow what they believe.”

Within two years, Fahmi left his 35 years of formal missionary work, trading it for a new cause: Religious freedom. But he did not leave the field. Operating from Egypt, he founded Set My People Free, a Swedish-registered NGO dedicated to fight the blasphemy and apostasy laws that ironically limit the rights of Muslims.

“Over 1.3 billion Muslims in the world don't have the freedom to change their religion,” Fahmi said. “We have to push for the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Article 18 of the declaration includes the freedom to publicly change religion and promulgate the choice. But a common interpretation of Islam holds that a convert from the faith must be put to death. Right or not, according to the Pew Center, 18 of the 20 nations in the Middle East and North Africa criminalize blasphemy and 14 criminalize apostasy.

The issue is not only with Muslims. Worldwide, 26 percent of nations criminalize blasphemy, including Russia, Italy, Myanmar, and the Bahamas. But apostasy law is more characteristically Islamic, with only India and Nigeria as non-Muslim-majority countries.

There are courageous Muslims who challenge these laws domestically, and some like Pakistan’s Salman Taseer and Sudan’s Mahmoud Mohammed Taha paid with their lives. But Fahmi is unusual as an international religious freedom advocate who lives in the Muslim world.

“I was surprised to learn that he was from Sudan and was shortly moving to Egypt,” said Paul Marshall, Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, who first met Fahmi while advocating in Sweden. Marshall’s book Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, is available for free download in Arabic at Set My People Free.

Fahmi met his Swedish wife in Sudan and gained his citizenship through her. But he chose to remain in the region. “I am a national of the Middle East,” he said, “and I thought it would give my work more credibility. If you speak from outside it is not the same.”

In spite of that, he still faced a steep learning curve. Though he had firsthand experience with the difficulties of converts, the bureaucratic human rights establishment was completely foreign to him. Several Christian organizations helped him along the way and he proved to be a quick learner.

“I was immediately impressed by his personal and theoretical knowledge of the people and issues and his careful manner in addressing them,” said Marshall. “He always stayed close to those with whom he worked. We need more like him.”

Staying close is a holdover characteristic of his missionary days, which emphasized love and strength of relationship. At age 19, Fahmi had a salvation experience and soon heard God’s call to serve on the OM ship Logos, docking in ports throughout Africa and Asia to sell Christian literature and share about Jesus. His most recent service was primarily in Sudan. Though he now advocates religious freedom for all, Christian jargon has not left him. Traveling extensively to meet diplomats from the UN, EU, and Arab League, his earlier zeal is evident.

“We are in a fight for hearts and minds, so we have to bring the issue up,” he said. “We are speaking a gospel message in the public arena, it is evangelism. But at the same time, it is spiritual warfare, so we need the church to pray and realize there is a problem.” he said.

A significant part of Fahmi’s burden is to raise awareness among Christians. But though his vocabulary is unusual in diplomatic circles, it has not hindered his work. 

“What is most important—and unique—is that he approaches these issues from a moral, not a legal-technocratic position,” said Aaron Rhodes, president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. “In doing so he goes to the heart of human rights, which is a moral concept. His message thus has the potential to move people on an emotional and spiritual level.”

But success is hard to quantify, especially given the enormous goal of abolition. In 2016 he interacted with the office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The first Asian, Arab, and Muslim to hold the post, the inquiry was met with rejection.

“I was told they cannot do anything on this issue,” Fahmi said. “They speak out on Trump, on homosexuality, but not on a policy directly contradicting Article 18.”

Whatever frustration he faces, Fahmi's love and faith shine through. Rhodes says that may be the most inspirational thing of all. “I have worked with Kamal and his wife, approaching or trying to approach diplomats at the UN in Geneva to discuss abolishing apostasy and blasphemy laws,” he said. “He can talk to officials from states that egregiously abuse religious freedom without a trace of acrimony or aggression, or moral condescension.”

Yet for all his faith, Fahmi is not immune to fear. Although he has not faced direct opposition in Egypt, even though he organized a brief but visible protest at the Sudanese Embassy for the jailed Miriam Ibrahim, Fahmi has sometimes feared that he was being followed. In fact, he’s often questioned if he is afraid to die for his beliefs. Fahmi's reply almost always references his heroes – the martyrs of faith and religious freedom. He says what is actually more oppressive is the Muslim world's cultural sense that what he is doing is wrong and that converts and their advocates should not speak out.

“For many the culture of abuse of ex-Muslims is so pervasive and intimidating that it imposes acquiescence and silence on free people, who ought to know better,” said Mark Durie, an Anglican pastor in Australia and research fellow on Islam at Melbourne School of Theology who sits on Fahmi’s board of directors. “There are far too few people like Kamal Fahmi, and that in itself is a sign of his greatness.  It takes special courage, calling and vision to do what he has done.”

Which includes encouraging former Muslims to join in demonstrations, which has been challenging. But Fahmi values the example of Martin Luther King and recognizes the strength of protest when it comes to confronting a complacent and uncertain public.

“We feel guilty because of how people speak of this issue, as if we are breaking the law,” he said. “But they have not committed a crime, it is their right to choose their faith. The ones breaking the law are the ones applying apostasy and blasphemy codes. We are setting people free from fear.”

Now 64-years-old, Fahmi may no longer have to live in this tension. He plans to retire in Sweden and search for a new director for Set My People Free – preferably one not from the Arab world. The board of directors is keen to transition from his ad hoc, spirit-led leadership into a standard European model of organization. Fahmi sees the need for structure though wonders if the “organic” nature of the organization will be lost. Regardless, he will continue to serve as a volunteer for the organization, speaking to as many diplomats as will listen. He hopes that perhaps one day it will make a difference.

“We rolled the wheel, and now it is moving,” Fahmi said. “But you have to continue to push.”

NewsJayson Casper