Years ago, I did a lengthy news piece on Muslims who leave Islam for other religions. Most of the ones I met turned to Christianity but there was a respectable amount who believed in nothing at all.
Most of these sources were afraid for their lives, so I had to stage cloak-and-dagger encounters in places where no one would spot us talking.
Shariah law decrees that leaving Islam is a punishment worth of death and that it’s incumbent on the observant Muslims to carry this out. There are, of course, different forms and interpretations of Shariah law, but the pattern is harsh punishments and death threats for ex-Muslims.
So it’s amazing that BBC found enough people to go on the record about their lives as ex-Muslims in the United States. Granted, the venue was a tour of several college campuses, but it is tough under any circumstances to get anyone in this movement to let their names be used on the record. BBC reported:
Muslims who leave the faith often face abuse and violence - but a grassroots group that's touring American colleges is trying to help.
Ten years ago, Muhammad Syed became an ex-Muslim. Born in the US, he grew up in Pakistan believing "100 per cent" in Islam.
"You don't encounter doubt," he says. "Everyone around you believes it."
And then, in 2007, he realised something. He didn't believe at all.
The piece details more of Muhammad’s spiritual journey and then:
Muhammad calls his family "relatively liberal". "Mom in particular was very open-minded," he says. So he decided to tell them he was an ex-Muslim. Not immediately, but "within a few weeks, certainly a month or two".
And what did they say? "They were obviously traumatised and shocked," he says.
For some Muslims, leaving the faith is a religious crime. A 2016 report found atheists can -- in principle -- be sentenced to death in 13 Muslim-majority countries.
Really? These ex-Muslims wouldn’t have a chance at survival in many parts of the world. When I researched my piece, I found Pakistanis most fearful as being found out as atheists because even overseas, there were spies among them. The Iranians were the least fearful, possibly because hatred of the current regime in power united U.S.-based Iranians more than a difference in faith divided them.
The lack of a riposte from actual Muslims in the piece was a big gap in BBC's coverage. What would the typical American imam say about them? Of those newly minted atheists who are immigrants, what chance of survival would they have back home?
I was surprised there wasn’t more context to the piece, as ex-Muslims aren’t new to this decade. Ibn Warraq’s 2003 book “Leaving Islam” is a classic in its field and one of the first books out ever to compile what ex-Muslims think of their former religion.
Looking about to see who else has covered this phenomenon lately, The Atlantic had a much more detailed piece that profiles the author of a new book called “The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason.”
The National Review did a piece earlier this year pointing out how political liberals agree with ex-Muslims about pushing religion out of the marketplace but are quite reluctant to take on Islam in the same way they take on Christianity.
Ex-Muslims seem to be a homeless group. They don’t quite belong to the Left or Right and they’re not at home with atheists, nor do atheists understand them. Says BBC:
Parts of the right use ex-Muslims to demonise brown people, Muhammad and Imtiaz say. At the same time, parts of the left white-wash Islam's faults so they "don't upset a minority"
While Muhammad criticises Islam -- "When people talk about how feminist (the Prophet) Muhammad was, they should be ridiculed, they should be laughed at" -- he praises parts of it.
I still don’t think many of these writers get the dangers these folks are up against. To be “apostate” in a Muslim sense carries a lot more baggage with it than “agnostic” or “atheist.” The former means that one was part of a belief system that’s since been repudiated. And to repudiate Islam is not a recipe for long life in some parts of the world.
I wrote in 2009 about some ex-Muslim groups asking the U.S. government for protection of ex-Muslims in the country. My quote from Nonie Darwish, a founder of Former Muslims United, sums up these folks’ situation perfectly:
Mrs. Darwish said she had reported personal threats to the FBI but that nothing was done.
“We in America are scared for our lives,” she said. “No other religion on earth demands the death of those who leave it - except the mafia. And at least you choose to enter the mafia. But you are born into Islam.”
They are politically incorrect but worth decent coverage. Instead of waiting for BBC to do a quickie few interviews with a group during its sojourn in Washington DC, how about something more expansive? I traveled all over the DC area and New York to do my piece and surely more can be done by other media. Like: What would be the response if this ex-Muslim group visits Detroit, the closest thing America has to a Muslim center?
There are several ex-Muslim groups out there. Do they oppose each other or work together? And if BBC is jumping in there, why aren't American TV stations in the mix? There's a lot more work to be done here, for sure.