While Christians who turn to Islam are feted, the 200,000 Muslims who turn away are faced with abuse, violence and even murder
The first brick was thrown through the sitting room window at one in the morning, waking Nissar Hussein, his wife and five children with a terrifying start. The second brick went through his car window.
It was a shock, but hardly a surprise. The week before, another brick had been thrown through the window as the family were preparing for bed in their Bradford home. The victim of a three-year campaign of religious hatred, Mr Hussein’s car has also been rammed and torched, and the steps to his home have been strewn with rubbish.
He and his family have been regularly jostled, abused, attacked, shouted at to move out of the area, and given death threats in the street. His wife has been held hostage inside their home for two hours by a mob. His car, walls and windows have been daubed in graffiti: “Christian bastard”.
The problem isn’t so much what Mr Hussein, whose parents came from Pakistan, believes, but what he doesn’t believe. Born into Islam, he converted eight years ago to Christianity, and his wife, also from Pakistan, followed suit.
While those who convert to Islam, such as Cat Stevens, Jemima Khan, and the sons of the Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, and Lord Birt, the former BBC Director-General, can publicly celebrate their new religion, those whose faith goes in the other direction face persecution. Mr Hussein, a 39-year-old hospital nurse in Bradford, is one of a growing number of former Muslims in Britain who face not just being shunned by family and community, but attacked, kidnapped, and in some cases killed. There is even a secret underground network to support and protect those who leave Islam. One estimate suggests that as many as 15 per cent of Muslims in Western societies have lost their faith, which would mean that in Britain there are about 200,000 apostates.
For police, religious authorities and politicians, it is an issue so sensitive that they are accused by victims of refusing to respond to appeals for help. It is a problem that, with the crisis of identity in Islam since September 11, seems to be getting worse as Muslims feel more threatened.
Muslims who lose their faith face execution or imprisonment, in line with traditional Muslim teaching, in many Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Yemen. In the Netherlands, the former Muslim MP Ayan Hirsi Ali had to go into hiding after renouncing her faith on television.
The Prince of Wales recently held a meeting with religious leaders to consider ways to stop former Muslims being persecuted in other countries, but Britain itself is also affected.
Mr Hussein told The Times: “It’s been absolutely appalling. This is England — where I was born and raised. You would never imagine Christians would suffer in such a way.”
The police have not charged anyone, but told him to leave the area. “We feel completely isolated, utterly helpless. I have been utterly failed by the authorities. If it was white racists attacking an Asian guy, there would be an absolute outcry,” he said. “They are trying to ethnically cleanse me out of my home. I feel I have to make a stand as an Asian Christian.”
Yasmin, who was raised in the North of England, has been forced out of her town once, and is now trying to resist being chased out again. Brought up in a Muslim family, she converted after having a vision of Jesus when she gave birth to her youngest son, and was baptised in her thirties.. “My family completely disowned me. They thought I had committed the biggest sin — I was born a Muslim, and so I must die a Muslim. When my husband found out, he totally disowned my sons. One friend tried to strangle me when I told him I was converting,” she said.
“We had bricks though our windows, I was spat at in the street because they thought I was dishonouring Islam. We had to call the police so many times. I had to go to court to get an injunction against my husband because he was inciting others to attack me.”
She fled to another part of Britain, but the attacks soon started again as locals found out about her. “I wasn’t going to leave again,” she said, adding that it was the double standards of her attackers that made her most angry. “They are such hypocrites — they want us to be tolerant of everything they want, but they are intolerant of everything about us.”
With other converts, Yasmin has helped to set up a series of support groups across England, who have adopted a method of operating normally associated with dissidents in dictatorships, not democracies. They not only have to meet in secret, but cannot advertise their services, and have to vet those that approach them for infiltrators.
“There are so many who convert from Islam to Christianity. We have 70 people on our list who we support, and the list is growing. We don’t want others to suffer like we have,” she said.
Although some are beaten “black and blue” for their faith, others suffer even more. The family of an 18-year-old girl whomYasmin was helping found that she had been hiding a Bible in her room, and visiting church secretly. “I tried to do as much as possible to help her, but they took her to Pakistan ‘on holiday’. Three weeks later, she was drowned — they said that she went out in the middle of the night and slipped in the river, but she just wouldn ’t have done that,” said Yasmin.
Ruth, also of Pakistani origin, found out recently that she had only just escaped being murdered. When she told her family that she had converted, they kept her locked inside the family home all summer.
“They were afraid I would meet some Christians. My brother was aggressive, and even hit me — I later found out he wanted me dead,” she said. A family friend had suggested taking her to Pakistan to kill her, and her brother put the idea to her mother, who ruled against it. “You are very isolated and very alone. But now, my brother is thinking about changing and a cousin has made a commitment to Christianity.”
Noor, from the Midlands, was brought up a Muslim but converted to Christianity at 21. “Telling my father was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I thought he would kill me on the spot, but he just went into a state of shock,” she said. He ended up almost kidnapping her.
“He took drastic actions — he took the family to Pakistan, to a secluded village with no roads to it. He kept us there for many years, putting pressure on me to leave my Christian faith. I endured mental and emotional suffering that most humans never reach,” she said. Eventually, her father realised that he could not shake her faith, and released her with strict conditions. “In desperation, my father threatened to take my life. If someone converts, it is a must for family honour to bring them back to Islam, if not, to kill them.”
Imams in Britain sometimes call on the apostates to be killed if they criticise their former religion. Anwar Sheikh, a former mosque teacher from Pakistan, became an atheist after coming to Britain, and now lives with a special alarm in his house in Cardiff after criticising Islam in a series of hardline books.
“I’ve had 18 fatwas against me. They telephone me — they aren’t foolhardy enough to put it in writing. I had a call a couple of weeks ago. They mean repent or be hanged,” he said. “What I have written, I believe and I will not take it back. I will suffer the consequences. If that is the price, I will pay it.”
The most high-profile British apostate is Ibn Warraq, a Pakistani-born intellectual and former teacher from London, who lost his faith after the Salman Rushdie affair and set out his reasons in the book Why I am not a Muslim.
He recently edited the book Leaving Islam, but finds it hard to explain the hostility. “It’s very strange. Even the most liberal Muslim can become incredibly fierce if you criticise Islam, or, horror of horrors, leave it.”
He himself has taken the precaution of using only a pseudonym, and lives incognito in mainland Europe. He thinks that Islamic apostasy is common. “In Western societies, it is probably 10-15 per cent. It’s very difficult to tell, because people don’t admit it.”
Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Barnabas Trust, which helps persecuted Christians around the world, said that it was finding increasing work in Britain: “It’s a growing problem. Today, conversion is seen as linked to Bush trying to convert the world — democratisation is confused with evangelism.
“The difficulty in Britain is the growing alienation between the minority Muslim communities and the mainstream Christian one. Christian mission work in inner cities is seen as an assault,” Dr Sookhdeo said. “We are only asking that freedom of religion should be applicable to everyone of every faith.”