It’s one of those columns you have to read a couple of times to make sure your mind isn’t contorting the words into the travesty it appears to be. But after reading Nesrine Malik’s latest piece in The Guardian for the third time, I can say without hesitation that it is one of the most shameful apologias for Islamic theocratic oppression written in the English language.
At issue are draconian decrees recently handed down by Saudi Arabia's tin-pot Wahhabist dictator that crack down on dissent by equating it with terrorism and deeming it punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Such acts of "terrorism" include, "Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."
Naturally the diktats have been widely condemned in the West, but it would seem not universally so.
Enter Malik, with an argument so repulsive that its application to any other human rights struggle in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere would result in a public shaming presumably followed by a heartfelt recantation. In her column she downplays the effect of this direct and deliberate oppression of atheists because, you see, all that atheists in Saudi Arabia need to do is keep their nonbelief to themselves and they'll have no reason to fear official retribution:
"Despite the prominence of the image of a hunted apostate supported by western atheists and villified by Islamic institutions, there are atheists of Muslim heritage who would not necessarily identify with this stereotype…
"In my experience, when it comes to atheism in the Muslim world, there is a conspiracy of sorts, akin to the 'don't ask don't tell' principle on homosexuality in the US military –if a Muslim has lapsed, and no longer believes in God, there is no censure of that as long as one does not proselytise."
Invoking the repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy used by the U.S. military to keep gay soldiers in the closet to understate the threat posed by Saudi Arabia's anti-atheist law is morally repugnant and an assault on freedom of conscience and identity. Malik's argument could quite easily be adapted to defend or at least downplay a litany of deplorable and discriminatory laws around the world. Uganda's infamous anti-gay law enacted this year, for example, could be dismissed on the same principle: Yes it's true that homosexual activity is a crime in Uganda, but if you do it stealthily you should have nothing to worry about.
Imagine what the reaction would be if Malik had written that column. Or how about if she wrote that a law discriminating against transgender people need not be of any great concern so long as they can "pass" as cisgendered.
It goes without saying that Malik would've been rebuked with extreme prejudice by the liberal blogosphere. But not a peep has been heard from it concerning her piece because that would mean questioning the multiculturalist orthodoxy which holds that Islam must be respected even when it means restricting freedom.
For one fleeting moment, Malik's argument flashes a glimmer of hope before she extinguishes it with an all-too familiar refrain:
“But just as Muslims need to expand tolerance for non-belief into the public sphere by challenging the structures that define this space, westerners energised by the ex-Muslim's fate need to see that there is more than one model of not believing in God.”
Once again, moral relativism driven by an I'm-ok-and-you're-ok attitude rears its ugly head to defend measures designed to insulate Islam from critique. Malik's argument is clear enough: Westerners just don't understand that sometimes it's acceptable for people to suffer in silence or go to prison because, well, not everyone believes in a free and open debate. And that's ok.
But it's not ok. And yet this is her other "model" of not believing in god -- one where you don't take your atheism out in public, but that if you do, you should wrap it discreetly in a brown paper bag before imbibing and hope you're not arrested for public renunciation.