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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, January 24, 2015)

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ He goes by a false name so he’s not found and killed. I just met him. I’ll call him Ahmed in this, his story. He recently shared it around our dinner table.

Ahmed was born into a successful family in the Muslim world, grandson of a high-ranking politician, son of a successful businessman. It was when he went for studies abroad and observed the life of an African friend that Ahmed grew intrigued by Christianity.

Later, back home, he tried to find a Bible. That’s always risky in Ahmed’s country because there it’s illegal to share any faith beside Islam, even privately.

When he eventually found someone to help, the man said no. He feared Ahmed was a government spy. Ahmed returned later. No. Then a third time, desperate. “This is my last time. If you don’t give me a Bible, my blood will be on your neck,” Ahmed said. Secretly, a Bible was given.

Ahmed read it in private until two family members discovered it and made plans to kill him. This, to keep the family’s honour.

With just the clothes on his back, Ahmed then ran. He left everything: his wife, several children, money, and a business worth more than you’d imagine. In a neighbouring country, he went under self-imposed house arrest with a friend when Muslims there suspected he was apostate, a criminal against the Islamic state for the simple act of leaving the faith.

Shortly later, Ahmed landed in East Africa to study theology and wait for a country – Australia and Canada are possibilities – to open its borders to his future.

My children listened to Ahmed’s story, eyes wide. Then we moved to the living room where newspapers lay strewn on the floor. Headlines of bloodshed – Gulf War II – and other disturbing events of the day faced us while I shared memories from my family’s own time in the Muslim world. I had worked in Sana’a at the Yemen Times for four years.

One story was from the first year, when three Americans were murdered in a hospital in the Yemeni city of Jibla. Martha was an obstetrician, Kathy was a purchasing agent, Bill, the hospital administrator.  They were our friends, serving in a place of healing.

My wife, also an obstetrician, knew Martha well. After slaying our friends with a semi-automatic, the killer screamed “Allahu Akbar!” that is “God is great!”

My wife, originally scheduled to be in that blood-soaked hospital meeting, had somehow escaped death. Then the rumours of western journalists on a hit-list. Every time I started the car I wondered if it would blow up.

This is the world, our world, a dangerous and deluded world, religious or otherwise. The headlines scream at anyone who bothers to notice. Two days before Ahmed’s dinner visit, more than 30 were killed at a police academy in Sana’a. That’s the day the Charlie Hebdo massacre bloodied Paris. The rest of today’s headlines, you know.

The morning of this writing, Ahmed’s story came up during coffee at my kids’ international school. It’s a safe place, as safe as any place, anyway. I sat with another parent, a Muslim friend, a Ugandan who had lived in Canada for years. He talked about his faith.

I shared Ahmed’s story. My friend said Ahmed’s family misinterpreted true Islam. This is it, I said. Why are Muslims – not terrorists, but common Muslims in this or that country – so radically misinterpreting their faith?

If Islam is a religion of peace, and I believe it can be in some places, this is the unflinching and reasonable question for any of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It’s a question to work though together with no less measure of critical-thinking and nuance and soul-searching than the measure of respect deserved by the Muslim community.

Because while Islam may be getting hijacked by relatively few radicals, the disturbing news is also that entire swaths of people groups, an ocean of souls personified by Ahmed, live cradle-to-grave without a fragment of free choice, let alone the dignity of free speech.

Why such bounding fears over freedoms that are so inherent to our humanity, that were given at the beginning?

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