Imagine a woman – let's call her Beth – who has been an unthinking atheist all her life, just because her family and her friends are, too. One day, she decides to convert to Islam. As soon as she dons the hijab, her neighbours start to swear and spit at her in the street. A brick is thrown through her window; while she is sleeping, her car is torched.
When she speaks out publicly, the death threats come. She is a "whore" who will be "raped to death". All the other converts to Islam are receiving the same threats. Some have been beaten. Some are on the run. When they approach the police, they are wary-to-hostile. The officers ask suspiciously: what have you been doing to anger these Muslim-bashers?
If this was happening this way, it would – rightly – be a national scandal. There would be Panorama specials, front-page fury and government inquiries into Islamophobia. But it is happening – only in the reverse direction. All over Europe, there are Muslims who are exercising their right in a free society to change their religion, or to become atheists. And they are regularly being threatened, beaten and burned-out, while the police largely stand by, inert.
That's the opening of Johann Hari's powerful piece in Thursday's Independent, on the plight of Muslims who wish to renounce their religion. He describes the experience of Maryam Namazie, founder of the British Council of ex-Muslims:
She was immediately flooded with calls from frightened people who wanted to join but were too intimidated. Endless phone threats inform her that she will soon be beheaded – but she has learned that the police just aren't interested. "They have never been very helpful," she says. "They act as if it's your fault for 'provoking' these people, when in fact the Islamist movement uses threats and intimidation as a tool to silence their critics."
Hari also mentions Mina Ahadi, who leads a similar organisation in Germany:
Women such as Mina expose a hole in the stale logic of multiculturalism. She shows that secularism is not a "Western" value: she thought of it all by herself, in a rural village in Iran. Yet the attitudes that lead to the persecution of apostates are widespread even within British Islam, because we patronisingly assume it is "their culture" and do not challenge it. Some 36 per cent of British Muslims between the ages of 18 and 24 think apostates should be murdered. The younger British Muslims are, the more they believe it – a bad sign for the future, unless we start arguing back. This isn't just kids sounding off. Some act on it: a Despatches documentary this year, Unholy War, found dozens of cases of apostates having their cars blown up, their kids threatened and even being beaten and left for dead, on British streets.
Freedom of belief must include the freedom not to believe. And faith that depends on fear to keep it in line is not real faith. Surely that's something that all of us, believers and sceptics, can agree on. Secularists will certainly echo Hari's support for Muslims (and Christians, and those brought up in other faiths) who wish to change their beliefs, just as they support the right of individuals to espouse whichever form of religious belief they choose, however outlandish. Will liberal-minded Christian and Muslims join them?