Compelling topic, imperfect execution: About that article on rising number of ex-Muslims

The headline grabbed me: "The number of ex-Muslims in America is rising."

My curiosity stirred, I clicked the link to the recent article from the U.S. print edition of The Economist.

A subhead noted that "even in the land of the free, apostasy isn't easy," so I was hoping to find both factual data and real-life stories from former Muslims.

I read the lede and noted this dramatic scene:

AS SOON as he stepped off the plane on a family holiday to Kenya, Mahad Olad knew something was wrong. His mother, a “very devout, very conservative, very Wahhabi” woman, was acting strangely—furtively taking phone calls when she thought he was out of earshot. His suspicions would soon be proved correct. Mr Olad’s family, Somali immigrants to America and devout Muslims, had discovered that he had not only renounced Islam but was also gay. The holiday was a ruse, an intervention to save his soul.
Mr Olad was told he would leave college and be turned over the next day to the care of Muslim clerics who would restore his faith. “I was aware of the horrors of these camps,” Mr Olad says. “They operate them in the middle of nowhere, where you cannot escape. They subject you to beatings, starvation and trampling.” He tried to contact the American embassy, but it could not send help because of recent terrorist attacks nearby. Luckily, he also managed to reach a Kenyan atheist group. In the dead of night he sneaked into his mother’s room, stole his passport and was whisked away by taxi to the embassy, which eventually returned him safely to America. He has not spoken to his family since.

Then comes the "nut graf" — journalistic lingo for the part of the story that boils down the essential essence/takeaway:

Though few have such harrowing stories, hundreds of thousands of American Muslims might recognise something like their own experience in Mr Olad’s tale. As the number of American Muslims has increased by almost 50% in the past decade, so too has the number of ex-Muslims. According to the Pew Research Centre, 23% of Americans raised as Muslims no longer identify with the faith. Most of them are young second-generation immigrants who have come to reject the religion of their parents. Some, however, are older when their crisis of faith arrives, already married to devout Muslim spouses and driving children to the mosque to study the Koran at weekends

So far, so good as far as The Economist offering factual information with named sources. At this point, I felt like I was at the beginning of an in-depth news piece that would peel back more layers of the onion and reveal more details and insight — and even perhaps different perspectives — as I kept reading.

But then the article suddenly shifted gears. Sources became anonymous (an unidentified son who confessed to his father that he was an atheist, an unnamed person "still deep in the closet," another unidentified ex-Muslim "who stopped praying at the age of eight" and an unnamed female ex-Muslim "who is not out to her family). When The Economist finally got back around to quoting a named source, it was the head of an advocacy organization called Ex-Muslims of North America.

No independent scholars were quoted.

No current Muslims who study trends in that faith were asked for their assessment.

In other words, this wasn't really a new story. It was some hybrid of quasi-news and advocacy. It had an intriguing headline that I'll admit (in fact, I already did) pulled me in. I'll allow, too, that some of what the anonymous sources said was interesting. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that such sources can't afford to go public. But when your story is based almost entirely on anonymous sources, it loses credibility in my view.

That and the one-sided nature of those quoted made this a less-than-satisfying read from a journalistic perspective.

Bottom line: It's a compelling topic. However, the execution in this case was far from perfect.

 

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