Andrew Anthony has an excellent long piece in the Graun about ex-Muslims.
It starts with the fact that leaving Islam can be dangerous.
The danger is confirmed by Imtiaz Shams, an energetic 26-year-old who runs a group called Faith to Faithless, which aims to help Muslim nonbelievers speak out about their difficult situations. Shams has a visible presence on YouTube and has organised several events at universities. “I am at physical risk because I do videos,” says Shams. “I don’t like putting myself in the firing line, but I had to because no one else is willing to do it.”
As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”
To be fair, that’s also true of ex-Christians, at least in the US. It’s less true of exes from liberal versions of either religion, and more true of exes from the illiberal versions. The problem of ostracism and loneliness is an issue for both. That’s why Vyckie Garrison has been such a help to women who leave the Quiverfull movement, as Maryam has to ex-Muslims.
[Sulaiman] Vali comes from a strictly religious Indian-heritage family. He was born in Kenya and moved with his parents and six siblings to England when he was 14. As outsiders, his family stayed close – “I always knew if I wanted anything they’d be there for me,” he says.
His father is an imam who follows the puritanical Deobandi scholastic tradition of Islam that has influence over a third of Britain’s mosques. All through his teenage years, when adolescents typically rebel, and even at university, Vali dutifully followed his father’s faith. Occasionally some of what he calls the more “barbaric punishments” found in sharia law troubled him, but he put his discomfort to one side. “I would just think, if God wants it, fine.”
See that’s what makes religion so very dangerous. It’s not the religion is the sole source of terrible cruel laws and punishments, it’s that religion can tell people to think that way. There’s no real secular substitute for “I would just think, if God wants it, fine.” There’s no real secular equivalent of “God wants it” to justify sadistic punishments.
Eventually he had to tell his family he’d become an atheist.
One of his brothers reminded him that the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment.
“I don’t think he would have any qualms about me being killed,” says Vali, although he emphasises that he doesn’t believe anyone from his family would seek to do him physical harm or encourage others to do so. Instead he was ousted from the family. He was disowned.
There again – sharia stipulates it, therefore, get out of the family.
[T]he struggle of ex-Muslims is markedly different from that of early gay rights campaigners. Where gays and lesbians could draw support from other progressive movements, ex-Muslims are further marginalised by what Cottee calls “the contested status of Islam” in western societies.
To raise the subject of apostasy is to risk demonising an embattled minority. Some will see it, almost by definition, as Islamophobic or even racist. To be a “Muslim” in 21st-century Britain is no longer simply about religious affiliation; it also suggests membership of a cultural entity that receives far more than its fair share of scare stories and alarmist reporting. So it’s vital to be aware of the discrimination that many Muslims encounter. But what of the minority within the minority who have to deal with fear, guilt, shame and isolation? Must they remain invisible as a mark of religious respect?
Vali has seen his mother just once for a few minutes four years ago. “She didn’t want to touch me,” he says. “She thought her God would be angry with her if she treated me kindly.”
And again. There’s no secular equivalent of that, not least because secular equivalents don’t have supernatural powers to watch our every move no matter how private.
What saved him from isolation was the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, an association set up in 2007 by the Iranian-born secularist Maryam Namazie that campaigns to end “religious intimidation and threats”. The CEMB assists about 350 people a year, “the majority of whom” says Namazie, “have faced threats for having left Islam – either by their families or by Islamists.”
She believes this number represents just the tip of the problem because the consequences of coming out deter many more from doing so. Many of the cases the CEMB deals with concern forced marriages, which Namazie says have been used to control those seeking to leave Islam.
For Vali, CEMB provided the reassurance of shared experience. “That was great. You just knew that you weren’t alone. Before, I didn’t know how many people there were out there, what sort of people, how they were thinking. I’ve probably [now] met 100 ex-Muslims and I keep hearing stories of depression. I can understand it.”
I think I’ve told you before about that moment at Women in Secularism last year, when I was sitting talking to Taslima and then all the ex-Muslims came up in a group to talk to her. It was a very good moment. Stacy was there; we agreed about the moment.
It’s probably worse for women, Andrew says.
“It’s more difficult for women,” says Nasreen. “You’re much more visible as a woman. You’re conditioned to behave in a certain way with a headscarf. I mean, you’re not going to go to a pub with a headscarf, are you? You’re not going to stay out late with a headscarf. It’s a form of control.”
She was in Hizb ut-Tahrir as a teenager.
She loved the sense of rebellion her pronounced Muslim identity conferred. That was largely the extent of the politics. When she looked at Islamic countries, she didn’t care about human rights atrocities. “There were women wearing scarves, that was what was important.”
But slowly she began to address the rhetoric and assumptions that she’d been filled with. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” she says. Most apostates don’t. Instead it’s usually a long and often painful process of questioning. At first she tried to crush her doubts. “I was scared. What was wrong with me? Why do I have these feelings and thoughts, they’re so haram [forbidden].”
She felt unable to speak to those closest to her, and was too ashamed to consult an imam. Like Vali, she researched online and the more she read, the more difficult it became to maintain her Islamic beliefs. But losing her religion has exacted a toll.
“I’ve had bouts of clinical depression,” Nasreen says. “The thing is, Islam teaches you to grow up with low self-esteem and lack of self-identity. Without the collective, you’re lost. You’ve been taught to feel guilty and people-pleasing as a woman, and you do that from a very young age. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I want to wear short skirts? That’s so disgusting!’ No, it’s not disgusting. It took me a long time to appreciate my sexuality and my femininity. There was a lot of stress. I lost my friends. You’re very lonely and you’re ostracised.”
Meanwhile her parents have become more religious over the past decade or so. It’s a trend.
She blames the ghettoisation of multiculturalism and identity politics for this shift, the tendency to view individuals as members of separate cultural blocks. Or as Namazie puts it: “The problem with multiculturalism – not as a lived experience but as a social policy that divides and segregates communities – is that the “Muslim community” is seen to be homogenous. Therefore dissenters and freethinkers are deemed invisible because the ‘authentic’ Muslim is veiled, pro-sharia and pro-Islamist.”
One success of the Islamist movement in Britain has been to define the cultural identity primarily in terms of religion.
With lashings of help from the BBC and the New Statesman and…the Guardian.
She took a degree in anthropology at the University of London. “And I started to do my dissertation on ex-Muslim identity. My supervisor was this Muslim guy and he told me that it was rubbish, there’s no academic purpose to it.”
She had to complain to get another supervisor, who was very supportive, and, undaunted, continued with the research. “I succeeded in completing an original piece of empirical research on the ex-Muslim reality,” she says. “I even went on to achieve a special award for this very dissertation. I felt quite vindicated by that.”
Nevertheless, she detects a strong reluctance at universities to confront the concerted efforts by Islamist groups to lay claim to Muslim students. Not only are Islamic societies often run by extremists, with groups like the Islamic Education and Research Academy seeking to impose gender segregation, but the terms of academic discourse tend to endorse their brand of grievance politics.
“Go to your average sociology class,” says Nasreen, “and it’s very much about making Muslims victims of Islamophobia – a terminology I disagree with. It’s anti-Muslim bigotry. I dislike Islam – that’s OK, it’s an ideology, but I don’t dislike Muslims. They are two different things.”
I wish more people would agree to that distinction.