What happens when Muslims leave Islam?
A new book brings sensitivity and empathy to an intensely polarised debate.
The Apostates: When Muslims leave Islam (Hurst) by Simon Cottee
The Apostates by Simon Cottee claims to be "the first major study of apostasy from Islam in the Western secular context" and the book will no doubt become a useful text for other academics who might wish to study this or related subject matter. It includes an exploration of what it means to be an “apostate” - not just in Islam but in general - and provides interesting insights into the reasons why people apostatise. But the real focus of the book is on the stories of the 35 apostates from Canada and Britain who Cottee interviewed as part of his research.
Cottee addresses the fact that apostasy in Islam has become intensely politicised and polarised. He asserts that the right often portray apostates as "brave dissidents who live in fear of violent reprisal from fanatical Muslims" whereas, for the left, "the question of apostasy barely registers and … concern over apostates is typically derided as Islamophobia". Cottee claims that “ex-Muslims deserve better” and his book is certainly an invaluable contribution to making sure that the experiences of ex-Muslims in the West will be better understood.
A large part of the introduction is devoted to pre-emptively making excuses for what might be considered the shortcomings of the book as a work of sociology. The author describes the difficulties he encountered in trying to conduct his research: like many of the "ex-Muslims” I know, most of his interviewees are "closeted" and “actively conceal their disbelief". Cottee found all of his interviewees through the CEMB Forum, an online "self-help" forum set up by The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Relying on a single source like this makes the data unrepresentative and in my opinion, Cottee doesn't provide a convincing argument otherwise.
It is disappointing that Cottee’s sample is too small for him to make any meaningful statistical statements or address any empirical questions such as "do ex-Muslims share any characteristic traits and drives?" but it is clear that collecting data from anything more than his self-described "modest sample" would present difficulties to any researcher. I have no doubt that Cottee is correct that "large social surveys on [Islamic] apostasy would … be deeply problematic from a practical point of view".
Any shortcomings sociologists might find with The Apostates should be forgiven because this is undeniably an important book, focusing on "the lived realities of apostates and how they subjectively make sense of their situation and the world in which they live". Of course, there are other books about apostasy from Islam - I’ve written one myself and there are more famous examples of the genre from the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq. But these voices are often those of people who Cottee describes as "career apostates", activists with an axe to grind against their former religion. Cottee stresses that "it is undoubtedly important to recognise the legitimatory role of activist apostates. But it is also essential to attend to the lived experiences of the ordinary men and women … whose aim is not to take on, still less to ‘take down’, their former groups, but to live autonomously beyond them and on decent terms with their members".
I suppose I am one of Cottee’s "career apostates", although I would argue that very little of what constitutes my career revolves around my apostasy, and I’ve gone to some lengths to stress that my agenda when I do write about religion is not anti-Islamic as much as it is pro-humanism. One of the reasons why I wrote my book was the hope that it would be read by other ex-Muslims and help them know that they were not alone. But The Apostates would be a better book for such people to read because they are far more likely to relate to the stories in Cottee’s book than mine. I am in the minority as an ex-Muslim: I am free to be open and honest about my rejection of Islam, the faith of my parents and the community in which I grew up. As I already knew, and as the research in The Apostates suggests, most ex-Muslims do not have this liberty. As Cottee found, “the overwhelming picture which emerges from the stories recounted … is that 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”.
Cottee has done a great service to the community of ex-Muslims out there in imploring his readers to “lend an empathetic ear to the voices expressed in these pages”. It’s a pity that The Apostates is published as an academic text as I suspect it would have reached a larger audience, and done even more good, if it had been published in a form that championed what it really is: a collection of stories. This is by no means a criticism of the book - in fact, as Cottee himself writes, "stories are all we have, the only means by which we can understand one another, so we must attend to them with the greatest possible care".