By Mustafa Akyol
March 25, 2018
The antigovernment protests that erupted in Iran in the last days of 2017 showed that millions of Iranians are now disillusioned with the Islamic Republic. Moreover, there are signs that quite a few Iranians are now also disenchanted with Islam itself. Often silently and secretly, they are abandoning their faith. Some opt for other faiths, often Christianity.
This trend is being observed and reported, with understandable excitement, by Christian news sites. “Despite Regular Targeting and Imprisonment, Christianity in Iran Is Spreading,” the Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News reported recently. The Christian Broadcasting Network, which transmits globally from Virginia, even declared, “Christianity is growing faster in the Islamic Republic of Iran than in any other country in the world.”
While a 2015 study by two researchers, Duane Alexander Miller of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and Patrick Johnstone of WEC International in Singapore, estimated Iranian converts to Christianity from Islam from 1960 to 2010 at 100,000, it is hard to know the exact number. But the trend seems strong enough to worry Iran’s religious establishment — and make it turn to a solution it knows well: oppression.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that since 2010 more than 600 Christians in Iran have been arbitrarily detained. Iranian authorities have also raided services, threatened church members and imprisoned Christians, particularly evangelical Christian converts.
As a Muslim who is not happy to see my coreligionists leave the faith, I have a great idea to share with the Iranian authorities:
If they want to avert more apostasy from Islam, they should consider oppressing their people less, rather than more, for their very oppression is itself the source of the escape from Islam.
This trend is certainly not limited to Iran. Authoritarianism, violence, bigotry and patriarchy in the name of Islam are alienating people in almost every Muslim-majority nation. On Twitter, a campaign titled #ExMuslimBecause lists plenty of such reasons — for example, the despotism of the Saudi religion police, the attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh, the demonization of gay people in Malaysia.
Even in officially secular Turkey, my country, the growing assertiveness of religious conservatives pushes the young generation toward deism — belief in a god, but no religion — as one concerned Turkish theologian and commentator on religion, Mustafa Ozturk, has written in the newspaper Karar.
Authoritarianism at the communal level is also similarly self-defeating, as observed by Simon Cottee, a British scholar who interviewed dozens of ex-Muslims for his book, “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.” The process of abandoning Islam accelerated in most cases, Mr. Cottee told me, when young Muslims who had begun questioning religion faced rigid reactions from their families. “The narrow-mindedness they encountered, especially on privately airing doubts to those they trusted,” he explained, “just served to intensify their doubts.”
The core problem is that traditional Islamic jurisprudence, and the religious culture it produced, were formed when society was patriarchal, hierarchical and communitarian. Liberal values like free speech, open debate and individual freedom were much more limited. Hence Muslim jurists saw no problem in “protecting the religion” by executing apostates and blasphemers, and by enforcing religious observance. Some of them, like Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, whose ninth-century teachings were a precursor of modern-day Wahhabism — also championed blind faith, a notion of believing “without asking how.”
Modern society, however, is a very different place. People are more individualistic and questioning, and have much more access to diverse views. Questions cannot be answered by platitudes, and ideas cannot be shut down by crude dictates. And those who insist in doing so will only push more people away from the faith they claim to serve.
That is why, if Islamic authoritarianism persists, it is likely to produce mass secularization in Muslim societies. Islam may still count as the fastest-growing religion in the world, thanks to high birth-rates, but it will lose some of its best and brightest. Worse yet, such influential apostates will probably become not merely post-religious but anti-religious, bringing more conflict to Muslim societies and deepening the crisis of Islam.
Luckily, the Islamic tradition has means other than coercive power with which to present itself. The medieval Muslim theologians and philosophers employed reason to articulate the faith, and wrestled with foreign ideas like Greek philosophy, rather than banning them. Meanwhile, the mystical Sufi orders focused on developing virtue, which allowed them to spread the faith through inspiration and example.
It is those civil traditions that the “Ummah” — the global Muslim community — needs to revive today, while putting an end to religious violence, bigotry and dictatorship.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of “The Islamic Jesus” and a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.