A furtive, fearful group -- Muslim unbelievers -- gets a massive, 3,200-word spotlight in The Guardian, with, however, mixed effectiveness. The indepth details the plight of people who are rejected by their families and communities, and sometimes threatened with death.
“If someone found out where I lived,” one Sulaiman Vali says, “they could burn my house down.”
A woman, who gives only the pseudonym of Nasreen, adds that "it's almost normal now to get threats."
And when a Kenya-born Muslim abandoned his faith, one of his brothers told him that "the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment," the Guardian says.
The process of radicalization has been studied extensively, the newspaper says, but it adds that those who leave Islam itself are hardly noticed:
Although it is fraught with human drama – existential crisis, philosophical doubt, family rupture, violent threats, communal expulsion, depression, and all manner of other problems – the apostate’s journey elicits remarkably little media interest or civic concern.
No one knows what numbers are involved, few understand the psychological difficulties individuals confront, or the social pressures they are compelled to resist. As with many other areas of communal discourse, insiders are reluctant to talk about it, and outsiders are either too incurious or sensitive to ask.
Actually, the Guardian does get a rough estimate of numbers with the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, which says it advocates for some 350 people a year. The newspaper also interviews the leader of Faith to Faithless, a joint voice for former believers.
Although the Guardian doesn't try to say that every Muslim would kill someone who left the faith, it does bring up the hacking murder of a secular blogger in Bangladesh last week, the third in that nation thus far this year. "And in an era in which British Islamic extremists travel thousands of miles to kill those they deem unbelievers, an apostate’s concern for his or her security at home is perhaps understandable."
The newspaper gives lots of room to the fears and complaints of its interviewees. Much of it -- a whopping 17 paragraphs! -- comes from Nasreen, probably because she wrote an anthropological dissertation on "the ex-Muslim reality" for the University of London.
She says unoriginally that the headscarf is "a form of control" because it inhibits one from visiting pubs or staying out late. More interesting is her complaint that multiculturalism actually works against diversity; her own Bengali community is being absorbed by Arabian culture, she says.
Multiculturalism also damages individualism, Nasreen adds, because "the 'Muslim community' is seen to be homogenous. Therefore dissenters and freethinkers are deemed invisible." Which is pretty much what Irshad Manji, a Canadian author, told me a decade ago.
For all its virtues, the Guardian story has a number of soft spots.
For one, it's puzzling to read the claim that little public attention has been focused on leaving Islam. Mr. Google could furnish more than enough resources. And here's a story by my GR colleague Julia Duin, which she wrote for the Washington Times 12 years ago.
For another, this article concentrates on Muslims who become atheists or "freethinkers." It's not hard to find ex-Muslim Christians, but they apparently don’t blip on the Guardian's radar.
And somehow, the newspaper finds a way to connect this story to the great cause celebre of mainstream media:
Like the gay liberation movement of a previous generation, Muslim apostates have to fight for the right to be recognised while knowing that recognition brings shame, rejection, intimidation and, very often, family expulsion.
This despite the fact that no one quoted in the article mentions gays. In fact, the Guardian later says that the situation of ex-Muslims is "markedly different" from that of gays, because they lack support from "other progressive movements."
Finally, as long as the newspaper was writing a lengthy, multisource indepth, why not get a reaction from a Muslim leader or two? Someone from the Muslim Council of Britain or the Muslim Law Shariah Council, or maybe a major mosque in London. With the charges of ostracism and death threats, a response would be a reader service.
In a way, the Guardian article is ironic: It tries to coax the ex-Muslim movement into the light, yet leaves it partly in the shadows.
Video: Ex-Muslims tell their stories in a promotional video from the Faith to Faithless organization.