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Valar Qringaomis

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Losing their religion: The hidden crisis of faith among Britain’s young Muslims

Losing their religion: The hidden crisis of faith among Britain’s young Muslims

"“If someone found out where I lived,” he explains, “they could burn my house down.”

Why should such an understated figure, someone who describes himself as a “nobody”, speak as if he’s in a witness protection programme? The answer is that six years ago he decided to declare that he no longer accepted the fundamental tenets of Islam...

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...

As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”

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...

He kept his reservations to himself when he returned to live in Leicester, where an arranged marriage awaited him. “She was very religious from a religious family,” he says, still pained by the memory. But he couldn’t go through with it. “I wasn’t going to lie and carry on with a marriage knowing that I didn’t believe in God.”

His decision went down very badly. His family would have forgiven him, though, as long as he remained a Muslim. That’s all they really asked. And it was the one thing he couldn’t do...

He confessed his atheism to his horrified family. One of his brothers reminded him that the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment...

He was ousted from the family. He was disowned...

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. According to Cottee, there is not “a single sociological study… on the issue of apostasy from Islam”...

In this sense the struggle of ex-Muslims is markedly different from that of early gay rights campaigners. Where gays and lesbians could draw support from other progressive movements, ex-Muslims are further marginalised by what Cottee calls “the contested status of Islam” in western societies.

To raise the subject of apostasy is to risk demonising an embattled minority. Some will see it, almost by definition, as Islamophobic or even racist...

Vali has seen his mother just once for a few minutes four years ago. “She didn’t want to touch me,” he says. “She thought her God would be angry with her if she treated me kindly”...

“The majority of ex-Muslims I interviewed said they were profoundly lonely and isolated, and they related this directly to their apostasy and the secrecy and shame attached to it”...

“It’s more difficult for women,” says Nasreen. “You’re much more visible as a woman. You’re conditioned to behave in a certain way with a headscarf. I mean, you’re not going to go to a pub with a headscarf, are you? You’re not going to stay out late with a headscarf. It’s a form of control”...

“I felt empowered as a teenager. It was this kind of pseudo-intellectualism. Spiritual religion gets a bit boring as a kid, so I liked the idea of politics too. It felt like a social movement and I was excited by that.”

It was immediately after 9/11 and she turned up at school demanding to wear a long black dress instead of the school uniform. “I said if you don’t let me, you’re breaching my freedom of expression as a Muslim, and they accepted it.”

She loved the sense of rebellion her pronounced Muslim identity conferred. That was largely the extent of the politics. When she looked at Islamic countries, she didn’t care about human rights atrocities. “There were women wearing scarves, that was what was important”...

“I’ve had bouts of clinical depression,” Nasreen says. “The thing is, Islam teaches you to grow up with low self-esteem and lack of self-identity. Without the collective, you’re lost”...

She blames the ghettoisation of multiculturalism and identity politics for this shift, the tendency to view individuals as members of separate cultural blocks. Or as Namazie puts it: “The problem with multiculturalism – not as a lived experience but as a social policy that divides and segregates communities – is that the “Muslim community” is seen to be homogenous. Therefore dissenters and freethinkers are deemed invisible because the ‘authentic’ Muslim is veiled, pro-sharia and pro-Islamist.”

One success of the Islamist movement in Britain has been to define the cultural identity primarily in terms of religion.

“We went from a Bengali to a Muslim community. It’s almost as if we’re suffering a second colonisation, the Arabisation of Asian cultures. Even my brother wears long Arab dresses.” As a consequence, she thinks Muslims have been encouraged to police other Muslims.

“I’ll give you a couple of examples,” she says. “The other day I ordered some food online – pork buns – and afterwards a guy called me up from the company and he said ‘Nasreen, do you know it’s not halal?’ I said yes, I’m not a Muslim, but afterwards I wish I’d said ‘Who are you to police what I’m eating? How dare you call me up to remind me.’ But that’s how people think: you’re a Muslim, you’ve got a Muslim name.”

She took a degree in anthropology at the University of London. “And I started to do my dissertation on ex-Muslim identity. My supervisor was this Muslim guy and he told me that it was rubbish, there’s no academic purpose to it.”

She had to complain to get another supervisor, who was very supportive, and, undaunted, continued with the research. “I succeeded in completing an original piece of empirical research on the ex-Muslim reality,” she says. “I even went on to achieve a special award for this very dissertation. I felt quite vindicated by that.”

Nevertheless, she detects a strong reluctance at universities to confront the concerted efforts by Islamist groups to lay claim to Muslim students. Not only are Islamic societies often run by extremists, with groups like the Islamic Education and Research Academy seeking to impose gender segregation, but the terms of academic discourse tend to endorse their brand of grievance politics.

“Go to your average sociology class,” says Nasreen, “and it’s very much about making Muslims victims of Islamophobia – a terminology I disagree with. It’s anti-Muslim bigotry. I dislike Islam – that’s OK, it’s an ideology, but I don’t dislike Muslims. They are two different things”...

Shams, who seems remarkably self-possessed for his young age, agrees that there are particular gender issues that afflict disillusioned Muslims. To this end he has tried to link up with feminist societies at universities. “But there’s a real problem in this country,” he says. “People don’t want to touch anything to do with leaving Islam. Especially in universities, where the politics are insane.”

He has a point. In recent times the National Union of Students have refused to condemn Isis on the grounds that this would justify Islamophobia. Shams believes that this kind of gesture and the NUS decision last month to lobby alongside Cage, the militant Islamic prisoners pressure group, undermines the position of dissenting Muslims. “What it does is to say to reformists and secularists, you’re not really Muslims”...

“One ex-Muslim I know went to get therapy from a white female therapist and in the end she referred him to a Muslim support network.”

Too often, he believes, non-Muslims are unable or unwilling to see beyond the religious identity of Muslims. They are increasingly trained to understand religious needs but are frequently flummoxed by those who reject those needs.

“If you’re a secular or atheist Jew,” says Shams, “no one is going to say you’re not allowed to say anything about your community. Of course you are. But with Muslims it’s different – white people think you’re not really Muslim. That’s exasperating.”

It certainly seems perverse that while there is no taboo on the discussion of Islamic radicalisation, the mention of Islamic apostates still occasions widespread discomfort. We can publicly accept that there are Muslims that are so estranged from western society that they prefer to live as fundamentalists, but have far more trouble recognising that there are Muslims who are so estranged from their religion that they prefer to live as freethinkers.

Nasreen, Vali and Shams all agreed that it will only be by bringing greater attention to Muslim apostates in British society that their predicament will improve. It would also help, they say, if they could rely on the progressive support that was once the right of freethinkers in this country.

“Attitudes need to change,” says Cottee. “There has to be a greater openness around the whole issue. And the demonisation of apostates as ‘sell outs’ and ‘native informants’, which can be heard among both liberal-leftists and reactionary Muslims, needs to stop. People leave Islam. They have reasons for this, good, bad or whatever. It is a human right to change your mind. Deal with it.”"
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