The Qur’an grants freedom of religion, so why are ex-Muslims so stigmatised?
By Elizabeth Arif-Fear
“There is no compulsion in religion” (2:456) – the words stand loudly and clearly. In chapter two, verse 456 of the Qur’an – the holy book for Muslims – it’s declared that we all have the freedom to believe as we wish. Through these words, we are reminded that submission to Allah (God) is for His sake alone. However, in reality, things aren’t as clear cut.
In the US, whilst the number of converts to Islam is rising, so too is the number of people leaving Islam. According to a 2014 study, around a quarter of those raised as Muslim no longer identified as Muslim. Here in the UK, the Council of Ex-Muslims has over 5,700 members.
However, whilst in recent years public discussion around leaving Islam has increased, attitudes do not have appeared to have developed much in the process. Instead, the topic of leaving Islam still remains a taboo, shrouded in silence and “shame” for those who choose to no longer identify as Muslim.
Despite the Qur’anic ruling on freedom of the belief, with Wahhabi-style teachings based on the hadith: “Whoever changes his religion, put him to death” (Bukhari), along with additional socio-cultural attitudes and political tensions, leaving Islam more often than not ceases to be a personal decision around belief and identity. Instead, for many ex-Muslims, leaving the faith becomes a nightmare filled with stigma, rejection and even the threat to one’s life.
In 12 countries across the globe, leaving Islam is punishable by death, with blasphemy in Pakistan a capital offence. Whilst here in the UK, we are protected by law, those leaving Islam can often still face isolation and abuse.
Wanting to find out more, we spoke to three ex-Muslims from different national and cultural backgrounds to see how their “transition” had been received by their loved ones and community and to understand the challenges they face (d). Here are their stories.
Khaled was born in the Maghreb, where he grew up and has to-date spent most of his life. He now lives in the UK after spending further time in Europe. This is his experience as a new ex-Muslim, having recently left Islam.
I am a North African Arab-Amazigh man who was brought up in a very conservative family. From a very young age, I had doubts about Islam. I remember my uncle talking to me about a very angry God who would punish me with hellfire if I didn’t believe in him.
After thinking carefully about this picture of God, I believed He was evil – so I wanted to kill him and stop the utter misery I believed He was causing. Those doubts later “calmed down” because I had no option but to conform otherwise I’d have been deemed a kafir [translated in their case as “infidel”].
My inner “wake-up moment” then happened when I moved to Europe and met many non-Muslims – who I realised were just human beings like us. This was contrary to what the clerics told me: that Europeans are kafirs who would all be in hell because they didn’t say shahadah [the Islamic declaration of faith]. Whilst in Europe, I investigated Islam further and later came to the conclusion that I believed Islam to be a man-made religion.
For me, being a Muslim was unfortunately an experience of losing myself to please a hypocritical society. Some Muslims face a lot of challenges in terms of coercion and pressure. Now, having only recently left Islam, I’ve found that the transition has not been easy because I still can’t tell any of my family or friends (except a very few trusted people). I instead have to pretend that I’m Muslim otherwise I’ll be disowned. However, it’s not a fear of rejection that is holding me back from telling them but the fear of losing my family forever. I instead wish that every child in the world could decide what to believe for themselves and that their parents wouldn’t dictate what they should or should not believe in.
Since I left the dogmatism of my community, I now feel much closer to the universe/God/ Goddess – more than I have done so before in fact. I’m also glad to be living in the UK because in my home country, being an ex-Muslim can be incredibly challenging. In order to not offend my parents, I have to pretend to pray [in the traditionally Sunni-Islamic way]. I also still have to go to the mosque to pray, yet I try to get over the distress that not having a choice causes by doing my own personal prayers there – prayers which appeal to my new beliefs.
Here in the UK however, I have the freedom to be who I want to be. This is impossible in such a very conservative society where extremist beliefs are encouraged by the totalitarian regime.
In terms of moving forward, I would therefore like all Muslims to learn to accept ex-Muslims – we’re not evil people. My advice to other ex-Muslims is also to be at peace with Muslims. I hold no negativity for my Muslim brothers or sisters. Before, I had very ignorant thoughts about LGBT+ and Jewish people but now I believe in “live and let live”, so I’ll make sure to make friends from all walks of life without judging anyone as I carve out a new future.
Jimmy is a gay ex-Muslim human rights activist. He is British-born and of Pashtun heritage. Jimmy is now spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and contributing author to the book ‘Leaving Faith Behind’. Additionally, he is the resident life coach at Free Heart Free Minds where he provides one-to-one coaching and mental health support to ex-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries.
For many gay men in Muslim communities, coming to terms with their sexuality can be a harrowing experience. My experience is typical of many others.
Homosexuality is espoused as a major sin in mainstream Islam and much of the community espouse the death sentence for this criminal behaviour. After such death, a lifetime of eternal torture then awaits gay men, whilst during their mortal life one must fear violence and intimidation at the hands of their nearest and dearest; including direct family. Frequently, a forced apostasy takes places where the person is told they are “not Muslim” if they are gay.
Those, like myself, who manage to avoid any physical violence are often shunned and disowned. We are cast out from the community and told that we will only be welcomed back if we subscribe to a heterosexual life. This shunning – which is an act to coerce conformity –can, in the West, afford the individuals space away from Islam (a faith they no longer believe in and therefore do not wish to live by).
When I was disowned by my family, I was able to place Islam under scrutiny in a way that I could not when I was within the Muslim community. I asked questions such as: “Why would an immortal being choose to torture people for eternity?” and “Why would an omnipotent being [supposedly] place a verse in the Qur’an which sanctions beating your wife in certain conditions?” [Editor’s note: We do not share this view]. These are questions that would be silenced within the community or satiated (with what I considered to be) nothing more than apologist answers. Far away from community indoctrination and threats, I was able to see that for me the religion was nothing more than a patriarchal mechanism, designed to control people.
Stepping out of the closet as a gay man and into an authentic identity, living a life full of integrity – for being true to myself and my sexuality – caused the wrath of my community to descend on me. Stepping out of the closet again and declaring that for me Islam was false and that it had many sinister, misogynistic and homophobic teachings was no different.
No one should have to live a single closeted life – let alone two.
Religious adherence is rendered meaningless if the consequence for apostasy is violence, intimidation and death.
Amir is a British-Pakistani male who was born and bred in the UK. He does not identify as ex-Muslim but instead as culturally Muslim. He shares his story of theological change which led him – after being brought up as a Muslim – to no longer believing in God.
I was brought up by two Barelvi-leaning Sunni Muslims parents. As a child, I was taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic by an elderly British-Indian Muslim lady. Whilst I learnt how to read Qur’anic Arabic, I never understood anything I was reading.
Even as a child, I use to question my parent’s decisions. They always said to me when I asked about Islam: “This is what God wants”. Years later, I then found out that my grandfather was upset that I was taught the Qur’an by a woman – and not a man.
I later remember at the age of about ten or 11, learning about Shia Muslims and asking my mum how as Sunnis we were different from Shia Muslims. She explained the Sunni-Shia divide the best a mother could do with a 10-year-old. It is important to note that she didn’t tell me about the Shia commemoration of Ashura and events in Karbala. It was here that I remember thinking, well both sects can’t be right at the same time! I, however, didn’t pay much attention to this and carried on with my life. I wasn’t a particularly religious child – I only ever prayed on Fridays (on days I wasn’t at school). Nobody ever forced me to pray. If I was at home from school on Fridays, my mother would simply tell me to pray.
It was later at the age of 15 when I learnt about the details of Karbala and Ashura and how this differed in teachings of Sunni Islam. For me, Ashura is about our link to Moses [as part of one Abrahamic family]. I was therefore saddened to hear that we Muslims killed the grandson of our Prophet. I remember reading about it and trying to find out every bit of information I could. I became obsessed. It was then at the age of 16 that I came to the conclusion that – to my mind – both sects were wrong and that the real Islam died with Hussain ibn Ali. It was during this time that I also found it difficult to believe in Qur’anic stories such as Jonah and the Whale and Moses splitting the Red Sea.
At the age of 17, I subsequently came to the conclusion that for me all of these stories in Islam were not something I believed in and that religion was not for me. I remember telling my father that I no longer believed in God and that religion was not real for me. He looked at me and told me: “That’s fine, just be a good person”. My mother, on the other hand, was upset but then after a week or so of not talking to me, she told me that she still loved me and would pray for me.
As her son, my mother will love me no matter what religion I choose to follow (or not) and whether or not I believe in a god. This is the crucial reason why I DO NOT identify as an ex-Muslim at all. Today, I still practise Islam four days a year – I celebrate the two festivals of Eid, as well as Ashura and Mawlid [the birthday of Prophet Muhammad].
I was brought up by two loving parents who supported the fact that I don’t believe in God and all my positive qualities come from them – and of course, some of those positive qualities were inspired by Sunni Islam. I, therefore, cannot deny my Muslimness, as to do so would be like denying my parents. I am a Muslim and will always be a Muslim.
Whilst this has been a positive experience for me, I am however also very ashamed of the way apostates are treated in Muslim countries. Muslims need to accept that religion – or their faith – is not for everybody. Right-wing Islamist and ultra-orthodox Sunni and Shia narratives need to be challenged. Islam is an ever-growing construct and the Islam we see today is not the same as 100 years ago. As with all religions, our concept of Islam is always evolving and must continue to do so. We, therefore, need to make sure that the Islam we live takes a progress route as we head into the future – a route to a place where apostasy is no longer a stigmatised (even deadly) taboo.
With faith such a personal and individual matter, it’s abhorrent that leaving Islam remains such a difficult challenge. Often met with discrimination and abuse, what should be a personal individual period of reflection has become for many a transition of trauma.
Experiences outside of the UK undoubtedly often differ and – as this article has highlighted – there are also more positive experiences which can provide guidance for families and communities – as well as critical hope for those who wish to leave Islam yet fear the repercussions.
Nonetheless, significant change is required on many levels. This includes critical socio-cultural reforms worldwide (including here in the UK) and legal changes in countries which discriminate and propagate violence against non-Muslims/ex-Muslims. Finally, this also includes a review of how theology is approached, interpreted and defined in certain circles.
For both our brothers and sisters at risk of violence and abuse within legal systems that fails to protect the human rights of individuals, and those closer to home suffering in silence, the overarching attitudes to “apostasy” rely on the same “othering” narratives, negative attitudes and sense of “stigma” and shame. As a global community, we therefore need to support ex-Muslims (and cultural Muslims) as much as possible – starting by having some difficult conversations and not shying away from the issue(s) at hand.
As Muslims, this will require deep introspection and the will to call out ills such as homophobia and misogyny which continue to plague our community. For non-Muslims, this means helping to support and include those who are often left to carve out a new identity and social circle by themselves or with few allies from a similar background.
Whatever our faith or belief system, we need to most-immediately ensure that for people who identify as culturally Muslim or as ex-Muslims, there are sufficient safe spaces, sources of community and support mechanisms to help them in their transition. At the same time – and for the long-term benefit of everyone – we also need to maximise efforts to ensure we carve a more tolerant, safe and inclusive sense of Islam and community which holds space for ex-Muslims, cultural Muslims, non-Muslims and all people alike.
No one should be questioned or made to suffer for their (change of) beliefs. It’s time to start talking and start tackling this critical issue. And: it’s also time to narrow the divide between Muslims and ex-Muslims.
Thank you to all our interviewees for sharing your stories. We stand with you.
A further insight into the experiences of ex-Muslims – including Jimmy’s story – can be found in: Mughal, F. and Saleem, A. (2018) “Leaving Faith Behind: The journeys and perspectives of people who have chosen to leave Islam”, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
The views expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Faith Matters.
*Names and images have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities