What looks to many Muslims like a family squabble between Muslim parents in Columbus, Ohio, and their runaway daughter in Orlando has become something of a new crusade by evangelical Christians.
"We feel frustrated because this is a family problem of a certain family, and the way it has been portrayed is defaming Islam and giving a way, way negative picture of our religion," said Imam Tariq Rasheed, director of the Islamic Center of Orlando.
In their advocacy of the 17-year-old girl, her defenders contend that Bary's fears of being beaten or killed because she converted to Christianity are real. The fundamentalists lobbying the state to allow Bary to remain in Florida cite instances of "honor killings" where women and girls who have shamed their families have been killed.
"There is a significant population, a growing population, of extremist Muslims who take the Quran quite literally and apply it as they have on this case," said Bary's attorney John Stemberger. "My concern is she is literally a dead girl if she is sent back to Ohio. It's only a matter of time until she disappears into the night."
Quran vs. lawSuch a contention is a blatant misrepresentation of Islam, Rasheed said.
"There is not a single verse in the holy Quran that stops a person from exercising the freedom of choosing his or her religion. There is nothing about a punishment if you change your religion," Rasheed said.
Though there are Muslim nations where "honor killings" are condoned, it is not for leaving Islam, said Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, assistant professor of religion at the University of Florida. Non-Muslims often confuse "honor killings" with a provision in ancient Islamic law that calls for capital punishment for Muslims who leave the religion. But that law is applied by a court, not by individuals or family members, as is the custom with "honor killings," which usually involve adultery or fornication by unmarried women.
"They assume the law and the Quran are synonymous, and they are not," Simmons said. "The Quran is not a law book."
Fathima Rifqa Bary herself may be confused about the difference between capital punishment under Islamic law and honor killings, Simmons said.
Not all Muslim countries operate under Islamic law and not all Muslim countries permit honor killings — just as not all states in America have the death penalty. Sri Lanka, where Bary's parents are from, does not use Islamic law in its judicial system, Simmons said.
'Islamophobia'The custody battle between Christian evangelicals in Florida and her Muslim parents in Ohio comes at the same time an evangelical church in Gainesville posted a sign that said "Islam is of the Devil" on its property. Several children were sent home the first week of school for wearing T-shirts with that message.
Both cases — equating Islam with evil and contending that Muslims who convert to Christianity will be killed — feed into what Simmons calls "Islamophobia."
"This plays into an irrational sense of fear among people who aren't familiar with the tenets of the faith," she said.
The portrayal of violent Muslims who want to kill their daughter and devoted evangelical Christians who want only to save the soul of a innocent child only perpetuates stereotypes of both Muslims and Christians, said Claudia Schippert, associate professor of humanities at the University of Central Florida.
"What is shameful in this entire ordeal is the way in which those who should know better, and who profess quite different values otherwise, are willing to repeat stereotypes and fuel fires of ignorance and violence," she said of the Christians at the center of this controversy.
On Aug. 21, Muslims began their monthlong observance of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims turn inward away from the distractions of the everyday world that, these days, include the tug-of-war over a teenage girl who has placed their religion on trial.
"With other communities, when an individual does something, it's that individual," Rasheed said. "When it's a Muslim, it's Islam that is the motivating factor."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.