Published by Hurst & Co. on April 1st 2015
The Apostates is the first major study of apostasy from Islam in the western secular context. Drawing on life-history interviews with ex-Muslims from the UK and Canada, Simon Cottee explores how and with what consequences Muslims leave Islam and become irreligious. Apostasy in Islam is a deeply controversial issue and features prominently in current debates over the expansion of Islam in the West and what this means. Yet it remains poorly understood, in large part because it has become so politicized-with protagonists on either side of the debate selectively invoking Islamic theology to make claims about the 'true' face of Islam. The Apostates charts a different course by examining the social situation and experiences of ex-Muslims. Cottee suggests that Islamic apostasy in the West is best understood not as a legal or political problem, but as a moral issue within Muslim families and communities. Outside of Muslim-majority societies, ex-Muslims are not living in fear for their lives. But they face and must manage the stigma attached to leaving the faith from among their own families and the wider Muslim community.
Few things strike a raw nerve among fervent believers like apostasy. Beyond a sense of betrayal and moral outrage perhaps, there lurks a ghost of existential insecurity: another’s ceremony of disavowal impugns the self-evident certainty of one’s own sacred universe. Converts to the cause, conversely, often elicit a sense of elation, even euphoria – their journey vindicating the faith of pre-existing devotees. Yet, with reference to Islam, this latter phenomenon has been the subject of academic study far more than the former, both from historical (see, for instance, the worthy studies of Humayun Ansari, Ron Geaves or, most recently, Jamie Gilham) and sociological (Ali Köse, Kate Zebiri, Leon Moosavi) perspectives. Other than Pauha and Aghaee’s analysis of ‘de-conversion’ based on 100 Iranian ex-Muslim narratives, and Kevin Brice’s tentative attempt to quantitatively gauge the phenomenon in the UK, the Anglophone cupboard, as per this reviewer’s knowledge, is strikingly bare.
Simon Cottee’s work thus makes a definitive contribution to a fledgling yet important field of study. Based on 35 interviews with British and Canadian ex-Muslims, conducted between 2011 and 2013, Cottee anatomises the social dynamics of the process in painstaking detail. His interview sample is largely male (20 men, 15 women), predominantly ex-Sunni (8 ex-Shias), relatively young (aged between 18 and 48, with a generous dosage of millennials) and mainly British (9 Canadians). Though he doesn’t specify this, it appears most are the diaspora-born second or third generation offspring of immigrants. A few are married, with children, while most are single, some still living in the parental home. All except one (an erstwhile convert from Hinduism) were born and raised in a Muslim home. It would have been useful for Cottee to elaborate on the ethnic make-up of his sample more but, beyond occasional incidental references which indicate a diversity of Arab, African and (seemingly a majority of) South Asian origins, this is glossed over. Due to practical difficulties of access, respondents were sourced entirely from the online forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) though this, as Cottee readily concedes, makes the findings unrepresentative. For instance, unlike Ali Sina’s Faith Freedom International which attracts considerable numbers of ex-Muslim converts to Christianity, Cottee’s sample is overwhelmingly atheistic. Lastly, unlike those Cottee terms ‘career apostates’ (p. 9) peddling ‘atrocity narratives’ (pp. 26-27), all his respondents are ordinary in the sense of not having embarked upon high-profile crusades against their former faith à la Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ibn Warraq.
Given the barbed nature of his topic, Cottee clarifies from the outset that he has no ideological dog, so to speak, in this fight. He has no interest in championing apostates as mascots of freedom lucky to escape the repressive barbarity of an anachronistic Islam bent on confronting modernity, nor does he seek to heal the sick souls of the disenchanted by bringing them back into the fold. Rather, as a purportedly disinterested social scientist, he seeks to analyse the phenomenon of apostasy socially, much like a natural scientist might dissect a dead lizard in a laboratory to reveal the inner workings of its anatomy. Thus the truth claims of Islam are outside Cottee’s purview of study, as are its theological positions on the penalty for apostasy. Yet, given that the achievement of unimpeachable objectivity has largely been discredited by the canons of a post-positivist social science, some self-reflexivity on the part of the author would have been welcome. For instance, it seems reasonable to wonder what moved Cottee, a criminologist from the University of Kent whose only other book examines the pugilistic politics of notorious contrarian Christopher Hitchens, to devote several years to the study of this particular epiphenomenon of contemporary Islam. In the tradition of John van Maanen’s ‘realist tale’ though, Cottee expertly expunges himself from the text.
The book nevertheless makes several significant contributions and provides unparalleled insights into the process of leaving Islam. Cottee is systematic and meticulous, even forensic, in the treatment of his subject which infuses the text with a refreshing clarity. Very usefully, the book is structured around three fundamental stages: pre-apostasy, apostasy, and post-apostasy. The first of these is characterised by doubt, further subdivided into epistemological, moral and instrumental categories. Such issues as the existence of God, theodicy, the divinity of the Qur’an, evolutionary biology, the eternality of hell, or the ostensibly intrinsic harshness, misogyny or irrationality of Islam’s moral code all feature here. Significant personal events (such as the death of a loved one), an exposure to alternative world-views (particularly the vehement atheism of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens), a deeper scrutiny of Islamic scriptures (sometimes piously motivated), a sense of spiritual alienation (no presence of God in prayer) or major political events (such as 9/11) can all bring the latent doubts into sharp focus. This precipitates a period of existential crisis as the sceptic begins to probe the fundamental assumptions of her existence.
Cloaked in the anonymity of a pseudonym, the internet surfaces as a major source of information here as attempts to elicit face-to-face answers from family members or knowledgeable Muslims usually result in derision, silence or intellectually unsatisfactory apologetics. An internal, and often “punishingly lonely” (p. 44), ‘jihad’ thus ensues as both ‘halal’ and ‘haram’ voices vie for primacy in subjective consciousness. The intensity of this experience correlates both to the sceptic’s prior investment in Islam (those who took it seriously have a more tortuous path to traverse) as also the level of familial and community expectations on them to be a good Muslim. Things come to a head when the painful prevarications can no longer be tolerated: the doubter must decide whether he can, in good conscience, continue to subscribe to a set of values which, by this stage, appear intellectually or morally repugnant. A ceremony of disavowal – charged with the same emotional intensity frequently reported by converts on taking the shahaadah – usually follows in which the now ex-Muslim privately testifies: I do not believe in Islam; I am not a Muslim.
This milestone of momentous personal significance comes freighted with an attendant dilemma: to reveal or not to reveal – and if to reveal then to whom and how? Respondents were under no illusion as to the serious repercussions disclosure would occasion among those for whom Islam is a self-evident certainty; they thus thought very carefully about who they could take into their confidence. Hints were dropped to test the waters: hijabs removed or beards cut, pious terminology excised from everyday lexicons, prayers and other Islamic prescriptions flagrantly disregarded, and a mounting vocalisation of liberal views that criticised aspects of Islam. Finally the bombshell was dropped – usually verbally, but sometimes in writing – in a hierarchy of disclosure that saw friends (Muslim and non-Muslim), siblings then parents find out. Despite their efforts to prepare the ground, reactions were almost universally visceral and negative forcing the apostate to confront a tsunami of trenchant and vehement (though never, in this sample, violent) criticism. While some were castigated – by both friends and family members – as venal dolts incapable of grasping the subtleties of Islamic doctrine, others were lambasted for bringing shame upon the family, emotionally blackmailed or, in some cases, forced to undergo humiliating exorcism rites. One also detects, at places, a subtle dynamic of intergenerational conflict exacerbated by the diaspora-born child’s vastly different experiences of socialisation. Here, for instance, is Farhad speaking about his mother:
“I don’t think she would understand because she’s been brought up in Islam from an early age. That’s all she’s ever known … and for me to tell her that I don’t believe in Islam, that I don’t believe in God … I don’t think she even knows what atheism is. I don’t think she’d understand where I’m coming from or that I could even explain it to her since my Bengali isn’t good enough to explain those sorts of things to her” (p. 127).
What becomes clear from Cottee’s narratives is that the path to apostasy is far from an abstruse exercise in metaphysical parsing; the journey, by contrast, is ensconced in a whirlwind of emotional and psychological turmoil. Respondents described the onset of doubt in terms akin to contracting a painful disease – neither welcome nor enjoyed. Rather, many desperately wanted to believe – hear, for example, Wahid: “Even when I became an atheist I still wanted to be a good Muslim” (p. 54). Yet, in the dock and subjected to clinical cross-examination by a modern, liberal rationality, faith quailed under pressure. Compounding their frustrations though, respondents frequently reported the dilemma of double marginality:
“…ex-Muslims in the west feel marginalised not only from their families and the wider community of Muslim believers but also from a predominantly white and non-believing secular world which shows little interest in, still less understanding of, their situation” (p. xiv).
The social and personal costs of disclosure, then, are inordinately high which is probably why over half of Cottee’s sample remain in the closet, privately disbelieving but unwilling to run the gauntlet of censure that open disavowal will bring. Yet this too carries its own costs. Appropriating experiences from the voluminous literature on the gay closet, Cottee outlines how clandestine atheists consciously cultivate a number of personas to conceal their disbelief: the lazy Muslim, liberal Muslim, irreverent Muslim, confused Muslim or even pious Muslim. These variously provide subterfuges to explain away lax behaviour. Omar, for example, strategically deploys his diabetes to explain his inability to observe the Ramadan fast, Masood blames his depression for his drinking while Amir camouflages criticisms of Islam in outrageous jokes. Complete concealment, like complete disclosure, is rare though; most respondents selectively mask their apostasy from friends, family or strangers based on judgments of trust or the presumed piety or ethnicity of a given interlocutor. Just over half of Cottee’s sample, for example, had told a sibling but not their parents.
But the closet is a stultifying and claustrophobic place to inhabit and the onerous weight of living a lie becomes, over time, crushing. Hence the dilemma which Cottee tersely captures: “The Catch-22 of Disclosure: Outed and Ostracized or Closeted and Crazy.” The closet is also a lonely place; deeply felt emotions must often be processed in isolation and meaningful relationships with others can become strained by the burden of concealment. If social (friends, peers) and emotional (family, spouse, children) intimacy is a basic anthropological need of the human creature, then the act of apostasy drives a stake into the heart of each perhaps explaining why tears and depression seem almost endemic to the overarching experience. This also helps explain the hallowed status assumed by the internet; deprived of the comforts of face-to-face communion, many respondents sought companionship with like-minded ex-Muslims online. In particular the self-help forums of the CEMB played a central role as a redoubtable refuge where frustrations could freely be vented (often with unabashed profanity) and a virtual camaraderie cultivated.
Cottee, usefully, also includes details of the post-apostasy phase. The primary long-term challenge facing most respondents concerned navigating the tightrope of a cognitive exile from Islam’s truth claims with an ongoing proximity to its cultural traditions. Disowning their families is not something apostates relish and, over time, a détente is usually reached which involves compromises on both sides. More practically, the apostate must also learn to inhabit a cultural world free from Islamic inhibitions. Such basic questions as which type of wine to drink or how to organise a date press hard upon them, more the women than men. By far, the most profound ‘ritual of disavowal’ though involves the consumption of pork given its egregiously taboo status in Islam. Respondents usually had to psyche themselves up for this portentous task and, even years after their apostasy, found cultural and physiological reflexes would make them flinch unexpectedly when indulging the haram. Despite enduring the travails of biographical disaffiliation then, the ghost of Islam continues to haunt the post-Muslim mind.
Cottee’s book, in essence, is a moving and empirically rich collection of tales of human suffering. Beyond the intergenerational incomprehension hinted at by Farhad above, one also senses the basic tension of the autonomous post-Enlightenment subject struggling against the structures and strictures of religious conformity. Yet the epiphany of disavowal proves to be a double-edged sword; the liberating wave of relief and exuberance (sometimes accompanied by bouts of gung-ho hedonism) reported by many respondents soon gives way to an aching farrago of angst. Beyond searing stabs of guilt (for the pain caused to loved ones), festering anger (for “a crushing awareness of lost time and missed [sexual] chances” (p. 68)), frustration (at ongoing inhibitions and damaged relationships) and residual anxiety (what if I’m wrong, after all?), the prospect of inhabiting a godless universe stripped of all metaphysical telos proves, for many respondents, daunting. Jean-Paul Sartre’s pithy maxim can well be paraphrased here: “[The ex-Muslim] is condemned to be free.” Or, in the anguished cry of Nietzsche’s madman: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” The apostate’s existential co-ordinates, which had once seemed so precise and immovable, are now scattered across the distant reaches of nameless galaxies.
This, in conclusion, is a riveting read. By carefully and meticulously organising his material, Cottee succeeds in humanising his respondents allowing their complex and often contradictory impulses to take centre-stage. One of the great virtues of the text is his insistence on avoiding needless academic jargon; the book is thus eminently readable. The prose, however, is laden with one too many tautologies that become annoying, if not a tad condescending:
“Nubia’s fear is exposure. Which is of course precisely why she covers: so as not to expose herself. So as to conceal herself…” (p. 135).
There are also a few typos and minor theological errors that perhaps betray Cottee’s lack of intimacy with Islam as lived tradition; but it would be churlish to unduly dwell on them. The book is also thin on macro-theory. While Cottee’s sociological theorising is for the large part shoehorned into the second chapter, and draws upon a standard stock of material on social control, deviancy and the interactional dynamics of ‘in-groups’ and ‘outgroups’, a more ambitious work might have sought to explicate the structural dynamics undergirding the transformation of meaning-systems in contemporary societies. Triangulating Cottee’s findings with studies of apostasy in Muslim-majority countries would also be an interesting exercise as would a comparative analysis of the phenomenon among other minority faiths in Britain (such as Sikhism or Hinduism) which share a common migratory history with Islam (as also would juxtaposing the findings with analogous studies conducted among more established traditions – for example, Lynn Davidman’s Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews). But none of this was Cottee’s aim. He set out to document, with unrivalled precision and empirical richness, the lived experiences of British and Canadian apostates from Islam. And this he achieved with a flourish.