The East London Mosque in Whitechapel, England.
Islam is Britain's fastest growing religion by a long shot. According to one survey, the number of converts to the faith in the country jumped from 60,000 to 100,000 between 2001 and 2011—nearly two-thirds of them were women and 56 percent of them were white.
Media outlets have awarded the conversion phenomenon a generous amount of column inches over the past few years, because Western people converting to a religion that's been demonized in the West for decades is clearly an interestng story, especially when the phenomenon includes many prison inmates apparently converting because they believe they'll end up receiving better food and treatment during their incarceration.
Less acknowledged, however, are the number of Muslims who have decided to leave Islam. This is partly because it's difficult to derive data that specific from census reports, but also because—as former Muslim Shahid Abbas* tells me over Skype—"Many young people won't define themselves as agnostic or atheist, usually out of fear they’re doing something morally wrong." Shahid told me that from his own experience he'd estimate that "around 20 to 30 percent" of UK-based Muslims have atheistic or agnostic tendencies.
Shahid, a 19-year-old economics student, is one of them. Born into a devout Muslim family—his father is referred to as "Hajji" (one who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and his mum works as a Qu’ran teacher in an Islamic school—he told me that he forced himself to suppress his doubts about the religion when they arose in his early teens, even choosing to spend all of his free time studying Islamic texts in an effort to bind himself to the faith. "Growing up in that kind of environment put a lot of pressure on me," he said, "especially as I was always reminded of my family’s reputation. My dad was even encouraging me to become an Imam."
Shahid lost his belief in Islam when he took a philosophy course in college. "After studying a lot of continental thinkers, as well as more contemporary work about scientific rationalism, there came a point when I realized how flawed Islamic justifications were," he said. "I tried to talk about these concerns with the Islamic society, and even the local Imam. But both were very dismissive—they said that the Shaitan [devil] was trying to manipulate me."
Maryam Namazie of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain.
That lack of dialogue forced Shahid to find other ways to fill the spiritual void left in his life, namely his university's humanist society, in which he now plays an active role. However, despite his hobby as a secularist debater, he still hasn't told his family he's left the faith for fear that they'll "disown [him] or worse." That's a story that is "all too common among the UK's ex-Muslims," according to Iranian-born journalist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie.
Maryam, now a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain (CEMB), left Iran in 1980, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power and tore down decades of secular rule in the process. "It was the first time I saw just how political Islam could be," she said.
While Maryam said she was "astonished" when she found out how many Muslims there are with atheistic, agnostic, and secular tendencies, she admitted that it's tough for groups like the CEMB to attract them, as most are afraid of airing their beliefs in public. "Muslims are not homogeneous," she said, emphasising that they don't want their identities to be defined by restrictive labels. Unfortunately, due to to fears like the possibility of their families disowning them, they often end up falling into line publicly rather than admitting their true beliefs and doubts.
At a CEMB event I attended earlier this week, Maryam noted that the fear of defining yourself as an "ex-Muslim" is still prevalent. However, she also highlighted the progress the group has made since its inception in 2007—it now boasts over 400 members and a network of affiliated groups all over the world.
A member of the assembled press pack asked Maryam if her group was a front for "militant atheism and Islamophobia," and she replied that "the CEMB doesn't act as the voice of any group—we aren't like Islamist organizations who feel they have the right to speak on behalf of all Muslims." She added that while most of the CEMB is run by ex-Muslims, every effort is made to respect the diversity of the people who approach them for guidance. "We are there for people who have left Islam, [as well as] Muslims who are currently questioning it."
She then introduced me to a number of CEMB members, who shared their experiences of "coming out" as ex-Muslim with me.
US-born 28-year-old Maha Kamal grew up in a religious family in America, but showed signs of apostasy at a young age, which culminated in her getting kicked out of her local mosque for trespassing onto the side reserved for male worshipers. After she "came out" in high school, her parents disowned her. She has put herself through college and confidently told me that she has "no regrets," although she admitted that the situation may be a lot more difficult for British ex-Muslims as they're often stuck in smaller, more tightly-knit communities and lack the opportunity to leave it all behind for a life abroad.
The same warning was expressed to me by Muz, a 24-year-old software engineer. He advised me that anyone wishing to leave Islam should "pick their battles carefully—remembering that families do come first and that leaving Islam is just as much an issue for them as it is for you."
Muz wasn’t ostracized by his parents, but he told me that family and culture are the biggest obstacles that prevent people coming clean about their belief: "The fear of losing your family is by far a greater consequence than any form of cultural isolation."
But it’s not just familial sensitivities that ex-Muslims should be concerned about. As Halima, a 28-year-old student, told me, "It’s also important that you’re financially stable and you have a good support network." Halima's story was one of the most remarkable I heard, a transition from being militantly devout to losing her faith entirely over the course of a decade.
When she was a Muslim, Halima played an active role in Dawah (proselytizing), and became a supporter of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) in London before eventually became disillusioned with the brand of strict Salafism that continues to dominate the group. Initially simply searching for an alternative way to practice her faith (including converting to a different denomination of Islam in her teens), she eventually found solace after communicating with ex-Muslim groups online.
Regardless of her current situation and the changes she's made in her life, Halima remains cautious about professing her personal beliefs to her family. "I haven’t told my parents yet, but hopefully I will when the time is right," she told me. "Plus, my sister is active in HT, and they still know who I am. And I'm sure some in that group wouldn’t be too pleased if they found out [about my choice to leave Islam]."
Britain’s ex-Muslims are growing in number, but even with a greater presence they remain on the fringes of the UK's national discourse on Islam, much to the disappointment of many secularist campaigners. Ignoring their crises of faith can have tragic consequences. In September, a CEMB member named Irtaza Hussain took his own life shortly after citing his loss of religion as a considerable source of distress. CEMB spokesperson Nahla Mahmoud received death threats from Islamists after appearing in a televison interview about Sharia law.
As I headed home from the event, another ex-Muslim—a student from Pakistan—thanked me for taking the time to interview them. "We don’t want to dominate any type of debate or tell people what they should and shouldn’t believe," she said. "We just want our voices to be heard."
*name has been changed to protect identity
Follow Hussein on Twitter: @HKesvani
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