Leaving Islam Behind Is a Scary Prospect for Britain's Ex-Muslims

Except for the ones who are totally OK with their families disowning them. Those guys are fine.

Oct 17 2013, 12:55pm

The East London Mosque in Whitechapel

Islam is Britain's fastest growing religion by a long shot. According to census data, around 40,000 people converted to the faith between 2001 and 2011 – nearly two thirds of them women and 70 percent of them white British citizens.

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 largely stigmatised in the West for an entire decade is clearly an interesting story. Especially when the phenomenon includes swathes of prisoners 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 – as former Muslim Shahid Abbas* tells me over Skype – because "many young people won't define themselves as agnostic or atheist, usually out of fear they’re doing something morally wrong". Shahid continued, telling me that – from what he's gathered in his own experiences – it's likely that "around 20 to 30 percent" of UK-based Muslims have atheistic or agnostic tendencies. Other reasons for the lack of stats include death threats, which are often issued to Muslim apostates when they go public with their loss of faith, and the very real prospect of familial and social abandonment.

Shahid, a 19-year-old economics student, is one of that number. 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 Islam 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 says, "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 an elective in philosophy at university: "After studying a lot of continental thinkers, as well as more contemporary work about scientific rationalism, there came a point when I realised how flawed Islamic justifications were," he says. "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 Shai’taan [devil] was trying to manipulate me."

Maryam Namazie, from the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain

That lack of explanation 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 on campus. However, despite his hobby as a secularist debater, he still hasn't told his family about leaving Islam behind for fear that they'll "disown [him] or worse" – a story that is "all too common among the UK's ex-Muslims", according to Iranian-born journalist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie.   

A spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain [CEMB], Namazie left Iran in 1980, shortly after the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini came into power and removed decades of secularist rule in the process. She recalls how, "It was the first time I saw just how political Islam could be."

While Namazie was "astonished" when she found out how many Muslims there are with atheistic, agnostic and secular tendencies, she admits that groups like the CEMB find it difficult to attract them, as most are deeply worried about airing their beliefs in public. "Muslims are not homogeneous," she says, emphasising how – like basically every human in the entire world – they don't want their identities to be pre-defined in narrow terms. Unfortunately, owing to fears like the possibility of their family completely disowning them, they often end up falling into line publicly rather than admitting their beliefs lie somewhere else on the Kinsey scale of faith.

At a CEMB event I attended earlier this week, Namazie 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.

At one stage, a member of the assembled press pack asked Namazie if her group is merely a front for "militant atheism and Islamophobia". Namazie was quick to stress that "the CEMB doesn't act as the voice of any group – we aren't like Islamist organisations who feel they have the right to speak on behalf of all Muslims". She continued, saying 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, and Muslims who are currently questioning it."

Namazie then introduced me to a number of CEMB members, who shared their experiences of "coming out" as ex-Muslim with me.

Maha Kamal.

US-born 28-year-old Maha Kamal grew up in a religious family in America, but showed signs of reluctance 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 "coming out" in high school, her parents disowned her. Despite the rejection, she has put herself through college and confidently tells me that she has "no regrets", although admits that the situation may be a lot more difficult for British ex-Muslims as they're often stuck in smaller, more tight-knit communities without 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 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 ostracised by his parents, but he tells 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," he says.

But it’s not just familial sensitivities that ex-Muslims should be concerned about. As 28-year-old student Halima says, "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 while at the event – a transition from being militantly devout to losing faith entirely over the course of a decade.

Having obeyed Islamic practices, playing an active role in Dawah (proselytising) and becoming a supporter of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) in London, she eventually became disillusioned with the brand of unrepentant Salafi Islam that continues to dominate the group. Initially searching for an alternative means 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.

However, regardless of her current life and the changes she's made, 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 says. "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 around Islam, much to the disappointment of many secularist campaigners. Ignoring their crises of faith can have tragic consequences. In September, an active CEMB member named Irtaza Hussain took his own life shortly after citing his loss of religion as a considerable source of distress. Another CEMB member – spokesperson Nahla Mahmoud – received death threats from Islamists after appearing in an interview about Sharia law on Channel 4.

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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