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Saturday, April 22, 2017

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

"Sulaiman Vali is a softly spoken 33-year-old software engineer. A natural introvert not drawn to controversy or given to making bold statements, he’s the kind of person who is happiest in the background. He lives alone in a modest house on a quiet street in a small town in East Northamptonshire. He doesn’t want to be any more specific than that about the location. “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. He stopped being a believing Muslim and became instead an apostate...

As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. 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 confessed his atheism to his horrified family. One of his brothers reminded him that the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment.

“I don’t think he would have any qualms about me being killed,” says Vali, although he emphasises that he doesn’t believe anyone from his family would seek to do him physical harm or encourage others to do so. Instead he was ousted from the family. He was disowned.

There has been a great deal of public debate in recent years about what drives young Muslims towards radicalisation. It’s an urgent subject of study in various disciplines of academia, has spawned a library of books, and is the focus of well-funded government programmes.

What is much less known about, and far less discussed, is the plight of young Muslims going in the opposite direction – those who not only turn away from radicalisation but from Islam itself.

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”.

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.

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. To be a “Muslim” in 21st-century Britain is no longer simply about religious affiliation; it also suggests membership of a cultural entity that receives far more than its fair share of scare stories and alarmist reporting. So it’s vital to be aware of the discrimination that many Muslims encounter. But what of the minority within the minority who have to deal with fear, guilt, shame and isolation? Must they remain invisible as a mark of religious respect?

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”...

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. You’ve been taught to feel guilty and people-pleasing as a woman, and you do that from a very young age. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I want to wear short skirts? That’s so disgusting!’ No, it’s not disgusting. It took me a long time to appreciate my sexuality and my femininity. There was a lot of stress. I lost my friends. You’re very lonely and you’re ostracised.”

However, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents. And nine years later, she still hasn’t informed them. Her compromise has been to let them know she doesn’t pray or wear a headscarf. That’s been problematic enough – her parents, like many Muslims, have become more religious over the past decade or so.

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”...

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”...

Shams comes from a Bangladeshi background but grew up in Saudi Arabia. He says that in many ways he found the ex-pat compound in which he and his family lived in Saudi Arabia more progressive than Britain. “It was when my mother came here that she got really radicalised.”

He believes Muslims face an identity crisis.

“We don’t know who we are. There’s a feeling of insecurity as a brown person, often for good reason. I went to school in a really white school. My nickname was “Terrorist”. The kids didn’t know better. I grew up in that narrative. I was very religious. I believed there was a caliphate and we should fight for that. I had a strong sense of justice. One of the things that people do not understand about radicals is that they’re often guided by a sense of justice.”

He lost faith because his sense of justice could not be reconciled with the manner in which he was taught to believe other religions were bad...

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...

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...

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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