The first thing you need to know about ex-Muslims is that the best term in Arabic to describe us is basically a swear word: murtadd, meaning someone who "turns their back" on Islam. The word has a dirty, spit-on-the-ground feeling to it, with a rolling "R" and a sharp drop at the end. This is where you need to start if you want to even begin unpacking the ubiquitous, systematic discrimination we face that can pervade all aspects of our lives.
One key form of discrimination is the erasure or downplaying of our experiences through stereotypes, the most common of which is, "You probably weren't a real Muslim." I spent half my life growing up in Saudi Arabia, travelling to Makkah every year for Umrah, a holy pilgrimage. My first book was a gorgeous red and gold-trimmed copy of the Riyad us-Saliheen, a compilation of hadiths (transmitted sayings and actions) of the Prophet Muhammad and his Sahaaba (companions). I've been praying, fasting and memorizing the Quran since as long as I can remember and would devour books proving Islam's truth through scientific miracles and its moral code.
My family moved to the UK just before 9/11, and many Muslims will understand what I mean when I say the atmosphere changed after that day. At school boys gave me the nickname "terrorist" and to this day I still own a shirt where some of them drew explosives and bombs on my last day of high school. That discrimination didn't affect what was then a deep and abiding love for Islam — it just strengthened it.
So what happened? If everything was geared towards me spending my life as a practicing Muslim, why would I leave? One of the key tenets of orthodox Islam is its perfect nature and the infallibility of the Quran, two claims I unwaveringly held on to for two decades. But as I grew older and my critical thinking developed, the accepted truths about the morality of the Prophet's actions and the miracles described in the Quran got harder to swallow.
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I stopped believing mountains were "stakes" or "pegs," protecting the Earth from earthquakes. Ironically, mountains are actually most common where earthquakes are most plentiful: in tectonic zones.
I no longer believed that Islam had come down to slowly phase out the loathsome institution of slavery. Instead I began to feel that the institutionalization of slavery in Islamic scripture under the auspices of "prisoners of war" allowed for millions of Africans and other non-Arabs to be taken as slaves by the various Caliphates, in some places exceeding even the horrific Transatlantic slave trade.
I had thought that Islam had given women equal rights to men, and this may or may not have been true if we were talking about 1,400 years ago. However, taken literally the same scripture can be used to reduce the inheritance and legal rights of women, enforce certain ritualistic clothing and practices on women but make them either a choice or non-existent for men, ban women from marrying non-Muslims but extend that right to men… the list went on and on in my mind.
Yet through all this I could not internally accept I had left Islam because I didn't know I could leave. The very idea that one could be a practicing Muslim but then leave Islam was completely and utterly alien to me. I was finally forced to accept I no longer believed in Islam at the beginning of 2012, but I had no identity to go to and nobody who understood what I was going to speak to. My friend Aliyah described this stage as being like an "alien in your own skin," and I felt like a complete outcast.
Another feeling that hovered over my leaving Islam was fear. Islam had presented itself as a complete and objective blueprint for my life, in charge of dictating my role in this world and my relationship to death and an afterlife. This left me believing that without the religion, even if I lived life making a difference in this world I would no longer be abd Allah, a slave of Allah, and thus my life would be aimless. It told me that that apocalyptic Yawm al-Qiyamah (day of judgement) would come when I would be judged as an apostate, one of the worst of sins, and put into Jahannum (hell). The language around hell in Islamic scripture can be terrifying — is it any wonder many new ex-Muslims have to cope with the anxiety it creates?
This period of fear and isolation did not last very long as I quickly found others out there when I stumbled on a Reddit group called /r/exmuslim. Suddenly I had access to thousands of active ex-Muslims, their stories, advice and experiences of discrimination. Almost all of these Redditors were anonymous because of the inherent physical and social risks to leaving Islam, so I began to reach out. I came up with a vetting protocol, carefully checking people out one at a time and hosting private ex-Muslim socials of sometimes up to 60 people. Sharing your story for the first time with another ex-Muslim is exhilarating, and there were so many of us to share with! Sure we still felt like aliens, but there were a lot of us aliens and we felt more comfortable in our own skin.
Around this time, I had a chance meeting with two gay lawyers who gave me some advice: what really changed for LGBTQ people in Britain was not just that they organized into communities but that they began to come out publicly. This resonated strongly with me so I joined forces with Aliyah Saleem, a feminist ex-Muslim activist, and we started what grew to become "Faith to Faithless," an organization that creates online and offline platforms to promote apostate voices.
The very first Faith to Faithless event was a year ago at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Although we had members of the QMUL Islamic society and some da'wah (preaching) groups leafleting our event, it was a massive success. Some of the ex-Muslims we met there have since spoken at other events. Although we received support from the wider public (including Muslims), we also received plenty of hate mail and abuse. I've had people spit on the ground and call me a murtadd, while insults to female Faith to Faithless speakers are always framed in disgustingly sexist terms. Even worse is that we've often been let down by the very people who should be helping us, including some feminist and leftist activists who have used racialized terms like "native informant" to describe us, undermining our agency as a minority within a minority.
As you would imagine, many ex-Muslims contact Faith to Faithless for advice or urgent help and have faced abuse in different forms. Some, although accepted as members of their family, are constantly told that they are going to "burn in hell" and should repent. Others are forced out into the streets with no financial support whatsoever. Some are physically abused, such as one ex-Muslim girl who was kicked in the stomach by her brother and then locked into her room by her parents.
It's important to note that not all Muslims have treated ex-Muslims in this way. Some of the most important voices to me were my Muslim friends who privately messaged me giving me their support and love. We need to be able to stand together to fight both anti-Muslim and ex-Muslim discrimination, which can often go hand-in-hand. If you're a young ex-Muslim who has left their faith and feels alone or isolated, get in touch. You are definitely not alone.
Follow Imtiaz Shams on Twitter: @imtishams