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Muslims Leaving Islam

Believers in the crucible of secular pluralism and religious authoritarianism

A strong, confident Islam within the West is a bête noire of conservatives, but The Economist says that Muslims living here are dealing with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — and even outright apostasy — too. Excerpt:

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.

The vast majority, whether young or old, are silent about their faithlessness. One Muslim college student, who came home drunk one evening, was confronted by his father. Not thinking clearly, the son confessed to his father that he was an atheist, whereupon the father revealed that he too had lost his faith many years ago. Yet he still admonished his son for not hiding his secret well enough.

Publicly leaving Islam is difficult because many Muslims live in tight-knit communities. Many apostates are left closeted, afraid to put at risk their relationships with their parents, on whom they may still depend, or with their siblings and their friends. Non-believing Mormons, Hasidic Jews and evangelical Christians find themselves in a similar predicament. Within Somali enclaves in Minneapolis and Pakistani ones in Dallas, renunciation of Islam is tantamount to renunciation of an entire social circle. “The most frustrating part is living knowing that my life has to be guided by the rules I don’t agree with,” says one still deep in the closet.

Apostasy is different from apathy, but that is also growing among Muslims. Among believers aged 55 or older, 53% say they perform all five of the mandatory daily prayers—no easy feat, considering that the first must be done before dawn. Among Muslim millennials, that proportion falls to 33%. Few would be ostracised for missing a prayer, or not fasting during the month of Ramadan—so long as those misdeeds were not made public.

That’s in America, where liberty and diversity make it much harder to hold on to traditional faith. In Iran, and within other Muslim countries, the force driving some Muslims away from their faith is too much oppression and politicization of religion, writes Mustafa Akyol. Excerpts:

The antigovernment protests that erupted in Iran in the last days of 2017 showed that millions of Iranians are now disillusioned with the Islamic Republic. Moreover, there are signs that quite a few Iranians are now also disenchanted with Islam itself. Often silently and secretly, they are abandoning their faith. Some opt for other faiths, often Christianity.

This trend is being observed and reported, with understandable excitement, by Christian news sites. “Despite Regular Targeting and Imprisonment, Christianity in Iran Is Spreading,” the Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News reported recently. The Christian Broadcasting Network, which transmits globally from Virginia, even declared, “Christianity is growing faster in the Islamic Republic of Iran than in any other country in the world.”

While a 2015 study by two researchers, Duane Alexander Miller of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and Patrick Johnstone of WEC International in Singapore, estimated Iranian converts to Christianity from Islam from 1960 to 2010 at 100,000, it is hard to know the exact number. But the trend seems strong enough to worry Iran’s religious establishment — and make it turn to a solution it knows well: oppression.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that since 2010 more than 600 Christians in Iran have been arbitrarily detained. Iranian authorities have also raided services, threatened church members and imprisoned Christians, particularly evangelical Christian converts.

As a Muslim who is not happy to see my coreligionists leave the faith, I have a great idea to share with the Iranian authorities:

If they want to avert more apostasy from Islam, they should consider oppressing their people less, rather than more, for their very oppression is itself the source of the escape from Islam.


The core problem is that traditional Islamic jurisprudence, and the religious culture it produced, were formed when society was patriarchal, hierarchical and communitarian. Liberal values like free speech, open debate and individual freedom were much more limited. Hence Muslim jurists saw no problem in “protecting the religion” by executing apostates and blasphemers, and by enforcing religious observance. Some of them, like Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, whose ninth-century teachings were a precursor of modern-day Wahhabism — also championed blind faith, a notion of believing “without asking how.”

Modern society, however, is a very different place. People are more individualistic and questioning, and have much more access to diverse views. Questions cannot be answered by platitudes, and ideas cannot be shut down by crude dictates. And those who insist in doing so will only push more people away from the faith they claim to serve.

Read the whole thing. I have several thoughts.

1. There is no escape from modernity. There is nowhere to hide from secularism, in the Charles Taylor sense: the awareness that we might believe something else, or nothing at all. This is the modern condition. It hit Christians much earlier, but it is hitting Muslims, and will continue to hit Muslims.

2. Laissez-faire is going to cause Muslims to drift from their faith. This is the lesson from the first example above. Modern secular society is not neutral about religion, and exclusive religious claims. If you think your kids are going to hold on to the faith (Muslim or otherwise) without real work on your part, you’re deceiving yourself. You must in some sense inculcate into your kids a sense that the religion teaches authoritative truth, not just one “truth” among others.

3. Authoritarianism is not enough — and in fact, it could make things worse. This is Mustafa Akyol’s point, obviously. “Because I said so” simply won’t cut it. Religious authorities — including parents — have no choice but to enforce the religion’s rules, or the religion will dissipate. This kind of negotiation is going to end up with atheism. I’ve written before about how I, as a 17 year old agnostic, defied my father by telling him that I wasn’t going to go with my mother and sister to Easter services, because I wasn’t sure that I believed in God. He was furious, and said that he would make me go. “If it’s so important, why are you going hunting instead?” I said. He had no answer to that, so he let me stay at home if I promised to read the Bible for an hour while he was in the woods and my mom and sister were at church. I made good on my promise, but I knew from that point on not to take anything he said about religion seriously, because he didn’t.

On the other hand, had my father compelled me to attend church, even if he had come along with us, it would have increased my respect for him, but not changed my skepticism about God one bit. You cannot compel belief. In fact, I can easily see that his compelling me to attend services might have hardened my heart against Christianity, because it would have given grounding to my then-belief that there were no good reasons to believe in Christianity, only the force of habit or compulsion.

4. The mosque — like the church — must propose, not impose. I see no other effective way to pass on faith in the modern world. We make the best arguments we can for the faith, but we do so with the understanding that faith is not the sum total of syllogisms. There is no such thing as an entirely rationalistic religion, and if you try to turn religion into that, you’ll kill it. More important than making arguments is to fully incarnate the faith into our personal lives, our family lives, and the lives of our communities. We bear the most effective witness to the truth of our faith by the lives we live. (This, by the way, is the main point of The Benedict Option). Kierkegaard said that “truth is subjectivity,” by which he meant not that truth is relative, but that the kinds of truths for which one lives and dies are only really known by committing oneself to them. It’s the difference between knowing God, and knowing about God.

We all know about the savage ethnic slaughter in Rwanda in 1994. In 2004, The New York Times wrote about the religious effect that was having in that country. Excerpt:

When 800,000 of their countrymen were killed in massacres that began 10 years ago this week, many Rwandans lost faith not only in their government but in their religion as well. Today, in what is still a predominantly Catholic country, Islam is the fastest growing religion.

Roman Catholicism has been the dominant faith in Rwanda for more than a century. But many people, disgusted by the role that some priests and nuns played in the killing frenzy, have shunned organized religion altogether, and many more have turned to Islam.

”People died in my old church, and the pastor helped the killers,” said Yakobo Djuma Nzeyimana, 21, who became a Muslim in 1996. ”I couldn’t go back and pray there. I had to find something else.”

Wearing a black prayer cap, Mr. Nzeyimana was one of nearly 2,000 worshipers at the Masdjid Al Fat’h last Friday. The crowd was so large that some Muslims set their prayer mats on the dirt outside the mosque and prayed in the midday heat.

The Muslim community now boasts so many converts that it has had to embark on a crash campaign to build new mosques to accommodate all of the faithful. About 500 mosques are scattered throughout Rwanda, about double the number that existed a decade ago.

Although no accurate census has been done, Muslims leaders in Rwanda estimate that they have about a million followers, or about 15 percent of the population. That, too, would represent a doubling of their numbers in the past 10 years.

I would like to know where those numbers stand today. If anybody is knowledgeable on that front, please post something in the comments section.

I find this entirely credible, though. What many religious people don’t realize is how fragile faith can be. Those Rwandans who abandoned Christianity for Islam didn’t go because they were convinced by rational argument of the merits of Islam over Christianity. They were shaken by horror. If Mustafa Akyol is right, something similar is happening to some Muslims within the Islamic world.

Again, our problem with traditional religion in the West is primarily (overwhelmingly!) the first example: the difficulty passing on the faith in a secular, pluralistic culture. The problem in Iran (and other Muslim countries) is more from the second example. Walking the tightrope of staying faithful to tradition in modernity is an incredibly difficult task. But we have no choice.



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