IDENTIFYING Muslims who have renounced their faith is tricky. Few are open about doing so, even in safe and secular Britain. But among the country’s Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, who overwhelmingly describe themselves as Muslims, the numbers are growing, albeit from a tiny base. According to official statistics, between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of Bangladeshis who say they have no faith has more than tripled, from 0.4% to 1.4%. For Pakistanis it has doubled, from 0.5% to 1.1%. Some who explicitly identify as ex-Muslims are becoming more vocal. Groups such as the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain (CEMB), set up in 2007, are helping.
Former Muslims’ reluctance to admit to their lack of faith rarely stems from a fear of violence, as in countries such as Sudan where laws make apostasy punishable by death. Rather the worry in Britain is about the social stigma, moral condemnation and ostracism that follows, says Simon Cottee of the University of Kent, who has written a book on the subject.
Many do not divulge their unbelief to their families, let alone the wider community. At events organised by the CEMB, some come straight from the mosque. Women say they continue to wear their veil at home to conceal their change of heart. Those who are openly godless often use the language of gay rights, talking about “coming out” to those close to them.
Despite such difficulties, the internet is making life easier. Muslims questioning their faith can talk to others online. The CEMB’s forum has over 4,000 users, says Marayam Namazie, the group’s founder. In the past would-be atheists had to sneak off to libraries to explore their doubts. Doing so online is easier and more discreet. Nonetheless the CEMB also offers guidance on concealing such activities, advising those with doubts to erase e-mails and search histories and to use a computer to which others do not have access.
Ibrahim Mogra, an imam in Leicester, says that he has heard of only a handful of cases of Muslims who have openly renounced their religion over the past 30 years. More common, he says, are those who abandon many of the practices of Islam—regular prayers, the dietary laws and dress codes, for example—but still identify as Muslims. This group, which is culturally but less spiritually committed to Islam, is getting larger, suggests Mr Mogra. Growing up in secular Britain leads people, especially the young, to drift away. But many grow out of their doubts, he reckons, and return, especially when they have children.
Religious leaders certainly try to draw them back into the fold. Sermons on Friday, when more backsliders may appear, are an opportunity to boost their faith. Ramadan is a chance to recharge the spiritual batteries of people who will only return again 11 months later for a top-up, says Mr Mogra. But a culture in which youngsters could express their uncertainties openly and discuss them with scholars would be good, he argues. “If, after that, they still have doubts, that’s up to them.”
The difficulty for Muslims with misgivings, at least in revealing them, is the politicisation of Islam. Many British Muslims have become more overtly religious as they perceive their faith to be under attack. Islam has become a greater part of their identity. That makes it harder for doubters to come out—and leaves them in a quandary. Some interviewed by Mr Cottee were wary of putting their testimonies online, anxious to avoid giving ammunition to those who would vilify Islam. Until Muslims feel more at ease in Britain and Britons more relaxed about Islam, the number coming out will be small.
A comment at the article:
I know dozens of Iranian expats who are atheists. In fact, I don’t know any that are still practicing.