Earlier this week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme about the experiences of ex-Muslims in the UK, ‘Leaving the Faith’. You can still listen to it here. Everyone interviewed expressed some degree of anxiety about their apostasy becoming public knowledge. Maryam Namazie described the death threats many vocal ex-Muslims faced. Others had less dramatic, but still clearly painful, worries. The fear of being disowned by one’s family, the distress experienced by those to whom this had already happened, loomed large in the programme.
Isolation was another recurrent theme. Aisha described how, even as a child, religion made no sense to her. She now feels unsure whether any of her friends and contemporaries agree with her, because these things cannot be discussed freely. (I was reminded of the way women in the oppressive theocracy described in The Handmaid’s Tale have to sound out each other’s views with extreme caution; the hope of finding an ally balanced against the fear of being exposed as a dissenter.) Aziz had memorized the Qur’an, a mark of special piety and learning, but pointed out that, if it meant nothing to you inside, it was hopeless. No one in his family knows that he is an ex-Muslim.
The need for secrecy was emphasized repeatedly, and I found myself comparing the double lives these ex-Muslims led with the situation facing British LGBT men and women in earlier times (and to some degree today of course). This analogy was then made by one of the interviewees, who spoke of being “in the closet”.
Different attitudes towards Islam/Muslims were expressed. One man had changed his name by deed poll, because he hated having a name which sounded Muslim. Another said he avoids Muslim friends, ‘even brown friends’ (this last observation was challenged by the interviewer), because of ‘uncomfortable conversations’. Another ex-Muslim was a little more dispassionate; he said that, unlike others, he avoided describing Islam as an evil cult, instead thinking it was just another religion being followed more rigidly, at this point in history, than other faiths.
The issue of Islamic punishments for apostasy, not surprisingly, was raised. Usama Hasan asserted that Islam teaches there is ‘no compulsion in religion’, although he readily conceded that others disputed this, and that the legal picture in many Muslim countries is bleak. Even if the death penalty is rarely applied for apostasy, blasphemy laws and social pressures have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express their thoughts freely, even here in the UK.
Apostasy is the topic of a report (pdf) which has just been released by the Council of Ex-Muslims, Political and Legal Status of Apostates in Islam, which offers a survey of the punishments meted out to apostates (and blasphemers) in Muslim countries. In 11 countries the penalty is death; elsewhere floggings, child custody restrictions, imprisonment and fines are imposed. It is noted that such penalties are not (historically) unique to Islam (p. 7). However in the 21st century it is overwhelmingly Muslims who are persecuted for abandoning their faith.
This report offers a view which seems to contrast with that of Usama Hasan:
There is dishonesty in the statement that the punishment of death for apostates is not in the Quran and is therefore not-Islamic. Even if there was no mention of apostasy in the Quran, Islamic law includes not only that which is in the Quran but also what is in the Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence (p.11)
Of course, Islamists will often say that “there is no compulsion in religion” (II.256). Again this is another one of their dishonest attempts at duping the public because this verse is applicable only to Christians and Jews who have not converted to Islam and is not applicable to Muslims (p13)
I assume that at least some of those Muslims adducing the ‘no compulsion’ stipulation (like Usama Hasan) in support of complete freedom of conscience sincerely believe their more liberal interpretation to be correct. But many obviously do not share this perspective, and view apostasy and blasphemy as crimes worthy of punishment. Sometimes Muslims express irritation at the way ex-Muslims want their voices and experiences to be heard, insisting they have no wish for them to be punished, just to be quiet. But it is the taboos around apostasy which compel ex-Muslims to identify as ex-Muslims, not simply as atheists (and this was another topic touched on in the radio programme) and to seek support from one another in order to share experiences which may not be unique (some Christian sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses also insist that dissenting family members should be shunned) but which still set them apart from those of most culturally Christian or Jewish atheists today.