The conversion of Muslims to liberalism, secularism or atheism has become something of a meme in the West, with arguments raging among scholars, in the press and on social media about the possibility of Islam’s undergoing a “reformation” or becoming “modern,” for which the history of Christianity is supposed to provide a universal blueprint.
It is the almost religious tenor of such transformations that justifies the term “conversion” for them. The single-minded adoption of such profane identities may even be more theological than Muslim conversions to Christianity and other faiths, suggesting that they have now replaced churches and temples in representing religious forms of belief.
Europe’s refugee crisis has seen a spate of conversions to Christianity among Muslim migrants. While numbers are difficult to obtain, The Guardian reported last year about a church in Berlin whose congregation increased from 140 to 700, the newcomers being Muslim converts from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and mass baptisms held at a municipal swimming pool in Hamburg, Germany. The Telegraph reported from Beirut, Lebanon, that hundreds of Syrian refugees in the country have converted to Christianity at least in part to benefit from aid distributed by Christian charities and for better chances of having their asylum applications accepted in Europe.
Whether the converts are repulsed by the violent forms Islam has taken in places like Syria and Afghanistan or are backing up their claims for asylum, the conversions occur quietly and rarely as a result of proselytism. Nor do they tend to be accompanied by any transformation in the appearance, behavior or language of the convert. Analyzing the news reports suggests that these conversions are characterized by multiple quotidian and ambiguous motives.
In parts of the Muslim world, but also non-Muslim countries like India, converting from one religion to another may invite legal punishment as well as social censure. Nevertheless, conversions still occur in these places and tend not to follow the theological model of transformation we have inherited from Christianity.
In recent years, a number of poor Muslims, as a Los Angeles Times article reported in 2014, have accepted Hinduism, their “homecoming” staged for the media by groups seeking to proclaim India a Hindu nation. Not only was there no talk of transformation in these cases, but also no attempt by Muslims to persecute these converts.
Muslims are also increasingly becoming atheists. A 2015 article in The New Republic reported on the spread of disbelief in the Arab world, citing over 250 web pages or groups about atheism with memberships ranging from a few hundred to thousands. There have always been atheists in the Muslim world, including some famous medieval scientists and philosophers.
The Muslims among whom I was raised in East Africa included many who refused to pray or fast and were openly critical of religion. It would never occur to them to renounce Islam and proclaim atheism as a new identity or mission, which would have catapulted them back into a theological narrative.
In the West many of these men and women call themselves ex-Muslims and since 2007 have been organized into a loose network across more than half a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany and New Zealand. The identity they have chosen models the renunciation of Islam upon that of addiction, alcoholism or even crime.
By retaining “Muslim” in their name, ex-Muslims are recognizing the theological character of their renunciation. This year a young woman described her loss of faith in the North American journal The Ex-Muslim. She had been a pious believer, like many ex-Muslims, who tried to convince herself of Islam’s truth by reading the Quran and other religious texts while redoubling her devotions. Her theological reading and practice left her with unanswered questions and doubts, eventually leading her to forsake Islam.
Yet before printing and literacy made it freely available, the Quran was read by only religious authorities or recited by bored schoolboys. It was never considered a unified narrative with a single meaning and was consulted only for specific ritual, juridical or mystical purposes that required training.
But like the Bible, the Quran today is either often read to inspire belief or rejected as unbelievable, as the testimonies of faithful and faithless Muslims demonstrate. In both cases the procedure involved is identical, and indeed it appears as if it is mostly pious Muslims who become ex-Muslims. Already secular or indifferent believers are unlikely to incline toward one or the other group.
Conversion remains commonplace in the Muslim world. But while numbers are difficult to come by, conversions to Christianity are probably more than matched by internal ones between Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi and other forms of Islam in countries like Egypt and Pakistan, often involving grave risks for converts to minority sects. In Iran the Bahai Faith made deep inroads into Shiism during the 19th century. While these changes sometimes involve violence, they continue to occur and so belie the idea of an immobile Islamic society.
There is also a new movement of atheists in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which takes the form of secret societies. A 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll showed that 5 percent of Saudis identified as atheists — more than in the United States — while 19 percent did not consider themselves religious, in a country that punishes unbelief with death. An average of 22 percent expressed doubts about religion elsewhere in the Middle East.
These men and women meet in internet chat rooms and unnamed physical locations, like the mystics of old. Fear drives them to secrecy, but we should not dismiss the esoteric dimension of the new atheists. They appear to reject the theological obsession with a singular revelation and universal mission. They tend to focus instead on the kind of knowledge that dissents from popular as much as authoritative opinion, instead of merely replacing it with a more “correct” one. Such views are clearly visible on atheist web forums and were also broadcast in a BBC documentary on Pakistani atheists last month.
In recent times the most spectacular refusal to identify as Muslim, if not to reject Islam altogether, came during the terrorist attacks in Bangladesh last year. Storming a restaurant in Dhaka, militants claiming allegiance to ISIS held dozens of people hostage and killed 20. When Muslim hostages were asked to identify themselves and be released, a young man and a young woman decided not to do so, and died alongside their non-Muslim friends. Their refusal involved neither doctrine and belief, nor mission and conversion. Perhaps they could be true to Islam only by appearing to forsake it.
Faisal Devji is the author, most recently, of Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea and teaches history at Oxford University.