But the stories of apostasy still resonate. Westerners don’t know that apostasy laws were common at the time when they were promulgated in Sharia. The Economist is sometimes reasonable, but other times indistinguishable in its resort to lazy clichés about Muslims. The new issue of the Economist has a long article about “Atheists and Islam.” In the article, all the familiar clichés are squeezed in to draw a most dramatic picture that is worthy of movies about medieval Europe. It operates under the classical premise: that one story about one Muslim suffices to tell the story about all Muslims. And in singling out a story or two about Muslims in the West, the writers don’t know that they often fall victim to deception.
In the last few decades, Western governments developed asylum laws which permit a person to obtain legal status if she/he can establish real concern for safety in his/her homeland. I have served as a consultant to many lawyers and law firms in the West and saw the most bizarre stories by people who are desperate to stay legally in the US. Some people talk about how their tribes (even when “the tribe” does not even apply in Damascus or Beirut) will kill them, because they once told a cousin that they are secular. Another claims that his tribe – again – kills its members if they exhibit effeminate tendencies. And many have stumbled on the legal premise of fear of apostasy. They tell a judge (with no background or knowledge of the Middle East) that governments there typically behead apostates.
The Economist’s article belongs to this genre. It talks about how only in Turkey and Lebanon atheists can live safely, but only quietly. Where do they get this information from? This doesn’t seem to be from someone who know people in the region. I, for one, became an atheist in my teens. My friends and comrades in Lebanon (Lebanese and Palestinians) were also vocal atheists, and none of us faced persecution or even harassment for our views. There is no evidence for any such persecution. Many of my “Facebook friends” are young Arabs who identify their religion as “atheists.” And no one is persecuting them. The Saudi government is a rare exception in this case. But Saudi Arabia is often the exception, although it gets good press here in the US. TheEconomist says that eight states in the region have apostasy punishment on the books, but does not say that no one can find one case of implementation of the law in this case, even if you go back decades in time. There is a clear concoction of a dramatic alarmist sensationalism that does not conform to the facts.