Prominent among the contemporary criticisms of Islam is the concept of apostasy and its prosecution as a crime in Muslim majority nations. The opinion I have formed through my personal knowledge of the Quran is that it does not support punishment for apostasy.
However, I do not aim to focus on a theological rebuttal of these arguments in this post. I would prefer to leave that to scholars of the Quran and Sunnah (traditions of Prophet Muhammad), who I hope will take this issue up at some point. Who will address it not to humor bigots, but as a necessary step to correct an exegetical anomaly.
The Stigma of being an Ex-Muslim
I will start with a frank general assessment of the issue. While executions for apostasy are extremely rare occurrences in Muslim majority countries, at least 13 prescribe capital punishment for it.
While there are a small number of publicly-professing atheists in nations such as Turkey, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Indonesia, in most of the Muslim majority world atheists and agnostics tend to keep their lack of religious belief secret, in most cases even from their families.
The primary emotional and ideological outlet for such individuals is through social media. Most use pseudonyms and when discussing faith on public forums tend to couch their criticisms in ambiguous terms meant to be understood only by like-minded people. Despite the discretion there have been repeated crackdowns on secular activists in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries.
For this reason most ex-Muslim writers and bloggers today are found in the West. Even within Western Muslims there is tremendous stigma attached with leaving the faith, and while fear of physical retribution is not a factor, many such individuals restrict the airing of their beliefs to social media circles to avoid serious rifts with family and friends.
To put it very simply, this is a serious issue encompassing freedom of thought, conscience and speech. From any prevailing ethical stand point this is an immoral and untenable position. The most commonly heard argument heard in favor of punishment for apostasy posits this: That apostasy is tantamount to treason, which is a capital crime in most nations in the world, including secular Western ones.
This argument can be rejected outright based on the fact that Muslims throughout the world are already divided into nation states that have their own treason laws, as well as into sects and intra-sectarian denominations. In the absence of a global community or leadership there is no rational basis for a treason argument.
It is also necessary to make a distinction here between adherence to faith and perceiving personal slights. Taking cues from tyrannical regimes and power-hungry clerics, many of us have come to expect our sensitivities to be constantly pandered to.We must recognize this emotional frailty when it comes to religious matters. A choice someone else makes is not a personal affront to us. The destructive enmeshment of notions of nationalism, religion and personal “honor” leads to many a social ill Muslim societies are afflicted with.
In recognizing the rights of others and separating them from our own choices we are not weakening our faith. It is in fact necessary to do so in order to prevent personal faith becoming an idolatry of the ego.
The Recognition of Subjectivity in Human Experience
I want to focus here on aspects of religiosity and irreligion that are usually omitted from discussions but which I feel are crucial to creating empathy and acceptance. First some groundwork: Neuroscientific evidence increasingly points away from the Aristotelian conception of man as a rational being.
All human behavior is a combination of both nature and nurture — and as a part of the Hominid family of the Primate species, we are not free from the power of instincts such as survival, aggression and sex. What our species has tried to do is to tame these instincts and sublimate them to facilitate productivity and coexistence.
The intellect has succeeded to the point of making civilization possible. But as war and our other ceaseless acts of destruction testify, the Id (to use Freud’s term for the reservoir of biological drives and impulses in the unconscious) is very much still in charge. With this recognition in mind, let us also acknowledge that neither religious faith nor the rejection of it can be detached from the biological, the psychological or the environmental.
Most religious individuals were born into their faith and grew up surrounded by its creed and cultural reflections. Their identities grew from those of the religious parents they experienced, idealized and introjected from infancy to adulthood. There is many an emotional tie that binds us to our faith.
Similarly, for those who reject religious faith, it is likely that there was an emotive seed. A trauma, an abandoning parent, directly or vicariously experienced acts of religiously-themed violence, witnessing a corrupt society professing piety – there are many things that can cause a person to leave their faith.
The human psyche does not repudiate the pleasurable, the needed, the adored or the comfortingly familiar. It is fear, sadness and ambivalence that the mind cannot reconcile itself too and attempts to escape.
It is in this humility of recognizing our emotional motives and the limitations of knowledge and reason that I hope we can also begin to find empathy and respect for others. Not just empathy and respect for those who uphold the faith we love and cherish but also those who choose to leave Islam and seek purpose and morality elsewhere.
The Quran has stated in its singular eloquence “There is no compulsion in matter of faith: distinct is the way of guidance now from error” (2:256). It is time, we as Muslims, lived up to that ideal.