apostasy

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

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:

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What drives hard choices made by ex-Muslims? BBC coverage stays on the surface

What drives hard choices made by ex-Muslims? BBC coverage stays on the surface

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.

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From Muslim to Christian: The Atlantic offers sensitive look at Berlin community

From Muslim to Christian: The Atlantic offers sensitive look at Berlin community

When you share lentils and rice pilaf with people; when you attend church with them and talk to their pastor; when you pay a follow-up visit weeks later; you naturally convey a more intimate feel for your topic.  This traditional wisdom of journalism is used to great effect in The Atlantic's feature on Muslim converts to Christianity in Germany.

The writer, Laura Kasinof, talks to three Iranian refugees in Berlin. She gets an overview with their pastor, a Lutheran minister, as well as an interchurch leader. She conveys the jubilant mood at a worship service. And she attempts to hint at the size of the trend of conversion, although she doesn't get comprehensive figures.

Kasinof did the story on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Whatever the sum, it was well spent. Her article is sensitive and thoughtful, and vastly superior to a similar piece in the Daily Beast this spring. As my colleague Julia Duin said then, the Beast somehow managed to link the trend to the U.S. presidential elections. Almost like clicking a nation-level selfie.

Astonishingly, the Daily Beast article has no quotes from any actual refugees, except those it borrowed from a newspaper. The Atlantic article doesn't neglect that vital facet:

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Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

Mariam goes free, at last, while some questions linger

Other than editors trying to figure out the correct spelling of her name, there were very few journalistic questions this past week when the long-suffering Mariam Ibraheem Ishag was finally spirited out of Sudan to freedom.

Several people sent me notes to coverage of this event, with one stating the obvious in a note that said: "Okay, so nothing to do with press a critique -- I've just got to share with you the news! Hallelujah!!!!"

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was -- well -- just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her "crime." Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

ROME -- Mariam Ibraheem Ishag, a Christian woman whose death sentence in Sudan for refusing to renounce her faith set off an international protest, arrived in Rome ... to a hero’s welcome and a private audience with Pope Francis.

The pope spent a half-hour speaking with Ms. Ishag; her husband, Daniel Wani, who is an American citizen; and their two young children, Maya, born in prison just days after Ms. Ishag’s conviction two months ago for apostasy, and Martin, a toddler. Apostasy carries a death sentence in Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has imposed Islamic law.

Here's the question: Is it accurate to bluntly state that apostasy carries a death penalty under "Islamic law" or is the matter more complex than that?

However, I did notice two rather interesting wrinkles in some of the coverage. The first was rather subtle and the second was — well — just a puzzling hole in many stories.

First, there was the issue of how to describe her “crime.” Here is the top of the solid report in The New York Times.

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BBC: Another generic, mysterious 'honor killing' (updated)

This time the bloody honor killing took place in a public place, for all to see — outside the Lahore High Court. The short BBC report noted: Police said 30-year old Farzana Bibi died on the spot after being attacked with bricks and sticks. Her father handed himself in, but police say her brothers and former fiance, who also took part in the attack, were still free. …

Farzana Bibi’s parents accused her husband, Muhammad Iqbal, of kidnapping her, and had filed a case against him at the High Court. However, she testified to police that she had married him of her own accord. Police said the couple had been engaged for a number of years.

Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:

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Attention liberals: Blasphemy cases on the rise in Egypt

As I have said numerous times, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring in a land as complex as Egypt, especially in news articles of a thousand words or less.

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