Rifqa Bary, the apostate child…

UPDATED ON 18 OCT. 2009

Rifqa Bary: threatened child, or hormonal wolf crier?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel the US and track this story. After shooting interviews, talking to her friends, and hearing both sides of the argument I’ve come to a few interesting, personal “observations.” A story interesting to Christians and Muslims alike, both sides loudly weighing in with their opinions. What are these opinions? Why is it a fascinating story that strikes the hearts of American Muslims? And why is this one small, teenage girl causing all this commotion? Let’s lay out the details…

It’s late July in Columbus Ohio, and Rifqa Bary, not unlike other girls her age, is having a quarrel with her parents. But unlike most of those other girls, Rifqa Bary is Muslim-raised and from Sri Lanka. And she’s arguing with her parents about Christianity…

Rifqa had been exposed to Christianity after moving with her parents to the states. Rifqa, out of fear, hid her conversion from her parents, seeing as they both were practicing Muslims. Her parents didn’t make Rifqa (pronounced Rif-ka) wear the traditional garments, or even abstain from usual American activities (she was a cheerleader for her school’s football team). But they did force her to attend mosque with them. Slowly, Rifqa decided that hiding her newfound Christianity was safest. For two years she hid it from her parents. Which brings us to July of 2009.

Rifqa’s dad walks into her room, empty, to find her laptop sitting out on a desk in the corner. He glances at the glowing screen, noticing an internet page left open. It’s Rifq’a Facebook profile. Out of curiosity her dad scrolls the page, reading the wall comments and profile info. It doesn’t take him long to notice that Rifqa is using the social networking site Facebook to profess, and communicate her faith in Jesus Christ to fellow Christians. Her dad, in anger, calls Rifqa into the room. Upon entering he confronts her about her Christianity.

In traditional Islam, especially outside the US, fundamental followers of Islam practice what’s called “honor killings.” In Islam, much family pride and respect is placed on the women in the family. Additionally, converting from Islam to Christianity (in traditional circles) is considered a very great dishonor to the family; one of the biggest sins a person can commit. Because of this, honor killings take place. Often rare here in the US, its entirely too common in nations with a Muslim majority. To spare the family honor, the girl will be killed. This act is often overlooked criminally, and the girl is forgotten, pictures burned, and name never spoken of again.

Rifq’a dad, after letting the impact of what her Facebook page says, lets his anger get the best of him. He smashes the laptop on the floor, forbidding Rifq to EVER use Facebook again. He storms out of the room leaving Rifqa on her bed, crying. The fighting continues for weeks.

In a dramatic fashion, the fights get worse. Rifqa tries to find solice in scripture, but her outlet to fellow believers was smashed with her laptop. She calls a friend, a youth pastor in Ohio who has a similar background in Islam. He suggests that she run away if things get bad enough. She does exactly that. In the middle of the night she sneaks out, heads into downtown Columbus, and purchases a one way, red-eye bus fare to Orlando, FL. She arrives in Orlando, and a Christian couple takes her in.

This is when the courts got involved.

As of this writing, after several hearings, investigations, rulings, and testimonies, a Florida judge is ordering Rifqa to return to Ohio. She will be placed under foster care, after already living with a foster family in Florida for the past few months. But how did this become an invisible war between Christianity and Islam? Is she simply an angry teenager, or someone who’s life is in danger? As things are moving now, media is saying it looks more and more like an angry teenager. But I’ve been there, interviewed leaders at her parent’s mosque, interviewed her friends, her pastor, the family she ran away to, and visited where she grew up. I interviewed her lawyers, and the parent’s lawyers. And to be honest, I still don’t know where I stand.

I’d like to think your average female teenager, however hormonal or rebellious, wouldn’t claim her parents want to kill her. I’d also like to ignore the statistic from the Worldwide UN Population Fund (5,000 women are killed from honor killings worldwide). I’d like to ignore the fact that her parent’s were controlling, had anger problems, and believed in a more conservative form of Islam. But I can’t. While her parents may very well not intend to kill her, they haven’t set themselves up well.

On the flip side, multiple investigations were launched by agencies in Florida and Ohio (for detailed reports search Time’s article, they list all the agencies). No one has found a shred of evidence to support Rifqa’s claims. Additionally, her parents let her become a cheerleader, and claim they are westernized, hardly the type of people that would consider killing their own daughter. And would they really go through all of this public limelight, just to get a daughter back whom they want to disown anyway? Why even fight for her back? Both sides have very strong arguments. Beyond the actual case, though, the cultural, religious, and philosophical war that wages is upsetting to say the least.

How can so many different groups: Christian activists, Muslim activists, cultural centers, parent groups, abusive child groups, how can they all take up this case with such fervor? They may claim interest in Rifqa’s case, but what they are doing is stealing the best interests of this poor girl, and driving a hijacked version to suit their own causes. Both sides are doing it, and it reveals human’s fear of the unknown. A clashing of cultures. Between western civilization, and Muslim nations. People are so busy trying to push their own agenda, that Rifqa’s best interest gets lost in the confusion.

I held a camera in front of a courthouse in Orlando as two men almost came to blows arguing over the Koran. Is Rifqa’s court case about this? Different opinions on the translation of verses? Or is it about finding the real truth behind her claims? Is it about Christian groups using this as a way to point angry fingers at a religion they know nothing about, about a practice that many Muslims do not believe in? Or is it about a seventeen year old girl, caught in a crossfire between self-interested groups; groups who are angrily shaking their fists at one another, trying to prove that the other one is the enemy. It would appear that this case blew open underlying tension between different cultures–which is okay. It makes sense that it would. That groups of people would take interest to push their own insecurities, this bothers me. We often are so afraid that the “devil” is in the opposite of what we believe. We come to blows with confusion and anger, beating our chests with those that are different than us. We further alienate those that are in fact different than us, we use rhetoric in circles and specific to only us, to attack those in a confusing and belittling manner. We hate instead of love.

There may indeed be justification to what Rifqa Bary claims is going on at home. She may indeed be in danger: physical and emotional. Her parents may indeed love her. We’ll leave the child courts established in this country to figure it out. But to allow hate for those different than us to contaminate this case, to soil it with indifference and fear of the unknown, this is a disgrace to humans alike, regardless of the side.

In reality, I don’t know why her lawyers don’t just encourage her to get emancipated (or legally separate from her parents guardianship before 18). It confuses me why they keep throwing the case around in juvenile court. Some paperwork filled and it would be done. She could do what she wanted. But instead, she’s being dragged around by courts in Florida and Ohio. I guess the easy way out would leave all those groups with agendas feeling dissatisfied.

Rifqa, by some off chance you read this, know I pray, as a Christian, that those around you would love one another. Muslim and Christian alike. I know you’ve forgiven your parents, and that you simply want to praise Jesus, as is in your free will to make that choice. I just wish those around you wanted to same thing too.

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