It is now more than a year since British music star Zayn Malik revealed that he no longer considers himself a Muslim. Malik has not had to become Salman Rushdie. He has not become a ‘famous apostate’. Someone who may be Britain’s most famous Muslim left Islam and nothing happened. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
This has been a year filled with bad news. It is a season that cries out for good news. So perhaps I could end the year with a reflection on something that for me has provided — in a difficult and contested era — a small source for optimism. It is really a story of something that didn’t happen. A story, as Sherlock Holmes would put it, of the dog that did not bark.
It is now more than a year since Zayn Malik revealed that he no longer considers himself a Muslim. Some readers will wonder who Malik is. He is not a religious scholar, or a leading clerical authority of any kind. For young people around the world, however, he is far more famous. Malik is a young British man, now in his twenties, of Muslim parentage who came to fame as a member of the British boyband ‘One Direction’. When the group met — in the talent show ‘X Factor’ in 2010 — the group was hailed, among other things, for its diversity. However, this was obviously not the primary reason why stadiums full of largely young women screamed themselves hoarse as the band’s members sang and danced on stage around the world.
Malik never especially pushed his faith, but there were occasional glimpses of it. As I mentioned here in 2014, during the Israel-Gaza conflict of that year, Malik sent a Tweet saying, ‘Free Palestine’ to his 13 million Twitter followers. Now of course one may be a non-Muslim and start pushing ‘Free Palestine’ messages around the web. Britain was only recently saved from having a Prime Minister who indulges in such pseudo-simplistic yet actively bigoted rhetoric. But it did seem to be pushing a religious viewpoint from someone who had — by then — considerable cultural reach.
Other than at such moments, there was little-to-no pushing of religion from Malik any more than there was of other band members for their faith.
In November 2018, however, more than a year ago, Malik gave an interview with what would once, until recently, have been deemed remarkable. In an interview with British Vogue, he confirmed that he no longer identified as a Muslim. In the interview, he said that he longer believes in ‘any’ religion. “I’m not professed to be a Muslim”, he said; and when asked if he considered himself to be a Muslim, he responded “No, I wouldn’t.” When pushed, he said, “I believe whatever people’s religious beliefs are is between them and whoever or whatever they’re practising. For me, I have a spiritual belief of there is a god. Do I believe there’s a hell? No.”
Some people may regard this as entirely unexceptional and uneventful. But for anyone who is familiar with Islamic history — and anyone who has been familiar with events in the West over the last two decades — this is a singular and noteworthy statement. In the last twenty years, it has often been — and certainly been presented as — exceptionally dangerous for Muslims to apostasise (that is, leave the Islamic faith), especially publicly. Certainly from The Satanic Verses affair (1989) onwards, there was a growing awareness in the West that Islam appeared to be unlike other religions in this respect. While all religions in their history have made leaving difficult, and although some still make it communally difficult or shaming, Islam is correctly seen as being the religion which it remains most dangerous to leave.
Each school of Islamic jurisprudence has taken the view that there must be a punishment for apostasy and most of these interpretations (all by some accounts) mandate the worst sentence of all — death.
Knowledge of such severe strictures has washed across Western countries, in particular since 9/11. For almost twenty years, the West has heard repeated stories of people who have been sentenced to death, imprisonment or other punishments for having left Islam or having been perceived to have left Islam. Prominent critics of Islam have been chased into hiding or made to live lives behind security guards. A general air of silent terror has dominated around the whole subject.
One can lay out with considerable detail what the reaction would have been if Malik had made his announcement even ten years ago. Back then — in 2008 — his interview would have been a huge splash across a media eager to run stories about Islamic extremism but remiss in their efforts to show solidarity. What happened in those days, as Nick Cohen and others observed, was that the media almost always used such stories to cover for their own cowardice. They would seize on the tiniest morsel or hint of apostasy or other criticism of Islam and immediately turn it into a huge deal. Then, as night followed day, they would call up the most extreme cleric in the country and put the alleged offence to him. Always ‘him’. In the early 2000s, this would be Omar Bakri, but after he fled to Lebanon in the middle of the decade, his disciple, Anjem Choudary, took on the mantle of fire-breather in chief.
In 2008, the papers would have telephoned some extremist cleric and put the Malik quote to him. The cleric might make sure to say the most incendiary and dangerous thing possible, whilst remaining, broadly speaking, within the UK’s laws on incitement. He might, for instance, have said that those who leave the ‘deen‘ of Islam know what they are doing and know what the punishment is. The journalists could ask him to confirm that this was death and he might say so whilst being careful not actively to call for the murder of Zayn Malik. The journalists would then have their story.
The headlines the next day might have blared ‘Clerics warn of death for One Direction singer’, ‘Murder for Malik?’ and the like. They would be read with trepidation, by readers up and down the country. Muslims who were themselves in any way doubting their faith would be fearful. And non-Muslims would have their worst fears about Islam confirmed.
But that is ten years ago. Since then, Anjem Choudary has happily gone to jail and is now out on an exceptionally tight license.
I have deliberately left off writing this article for a year because I wanted to confirm the silence. I wanted to confirm that there was no barking in the night. And across 2019, there has not been. Malik has got on with his life and career. So far as I know there has been no serious threat to him other than from the hordes of young women around the world who often appear as zealous in their feelings as some of the most ardent Islamic clerics are in theirs. Malik has not had to become Salman Rushdie. He has not become a ‘famous apostate’. Someone who may be Britain’s most famous Muslim left Islam and nothing happened.
I should make it plain that in highlighting this story I am not saying that there is no threat to Muslims who leave Islam anywhere in the world. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many other places, almost nothing could be more dangerous. Nor am I saying that it would be desirable for all Muslims to leave Islam. I only say it because it is possible — and if so it is very good news — that in 21st century Europe there are positive movements that we are not noticing — because they involve nothing happening.
The hope of most of us in a country such as Britain is not that everybody leaves their faith, but simply that people have religious freedom and that this should include the freedom to leave a faith if you wish to do so with no repercussions against your person. It is, in short, the essence of that Enlightenment which Europe gave the world three centuries ago. We hear plenty of news of assaults on that Enlightenment. But this story of a non-event suggests that aspects of that Enlightenment may be more solid — and attractive –than we are sometimes given to think.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England. His latest books, international bestsellers, include “The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” and “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity.”