Family and community ostracism, depression, suicide and in some cases violent death are some of the consequences of rejecting religious belief. It’s often a lonely and dangerous path to tread, so why is apostasy increasing worldwide?
Two defectors spoke to the Listener recently in the cafe of a Wellington hotel. One was a visitor from London, 29-year-old Imtiaz Shams, the co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people who have renounced Islam and other strict religious codes. Shams was in the country to address an Auckland conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which champions human rights and secularism.
With him was a New Zealand man of Pakistani descent who wishes to be known simply as Mohammad (not his real name). His request for anonymity shows that even for those who have made the break from Islam, there are potential consequences in being publicly identified. In Mohammad’s case, his atheism is a sensitive subject within his family and he doesn’t want to aggravate matters.
Both Shams and Mohammad talk of “being in the closet” and “coming out”. As with gay men and women, being in the closet is a metaphor for the isolation experienced by Muslim apostates who remain hidden for fear of ostracism and hostility. Coming out may be liberating but it carries risks. In fundamentalist Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, apostasy can mean a violent death.
Shams and Mohammad encountered each other online through Faith to Faithless, which provides a digital haven for refugees from Judaism and Christian churches as well as Islam.
“Imtiaz was one of the first people who came out openly as an ex-Muslim,” says Mohammad. “I saw his video clips online and I thought, ‘This guy is either extremely brave or naive’, and it turns out he’s very brave.”
Making no sense
The two men’s stories are similar. Both were brought up in close-knit and intensely devout Muslim families. Both were once fervently committed to Islam but found themselves asking awkward questions about their religion that no one could answer.
Shams, an instantly likeable man who speaks with a Cockney accent and peppers his speech with very non-Islamic expletives, was born into a British Bangladeshi family and spent 10 years of his childhood in Saudi Arabia, where his father was then working.
As a child he devoured Islamic books, but in his late teens he started having doubts – “questions about the actions of the Prophet, who he married, the history of the Islamic empire, all of these things”.
“That was okay, because religion has structures for dealing with doubts, but then the answers stopped making sense to me.”
For a time, he blamed his doubts on his own arrogance. He would look at his devout and much-loved uncles and ask himself how they could be wrong.
All the while, he would vigorously defend Islam to outsiders. “This is very common – people who are particularly defensive of Islam are often having serious doubts.” He says that when he eventually walked away from Islam, a shocked family member said to him: “You, of all people.”
Mohammad relates a similar story. He first came to New Zealand as a child with his family after his father won a Commonwealth scholarship to study here. His father later got a government job and became influential in the New Zealand Islamic community, which was then still small (it’s now estimated at about 48,000).
When Mohammad was nine, the family moved back to Pakistan, where he grew up immersed in the Islamic faith.
“I was taught to read the Quran [which was written in Arabic], but the emphasis was very much about rote learning and memorising. My aunties and uncles could all recite the Quran and would pray in Arabic, but they had no idea what they were saying.
“I thought, ‘I need to understand this’, so I started to read the translation of the Quran. I’m quite analytical and my father brought me up to ask questions and think about things.
“We used to have a hafiz, someone who has memorised the entire Quran. This man was extremely highly regarded within the Islamic structure. It’s said that when a hafiz dies, he gets to take 10 people to heaven with him.
“He would come to teach us how to recite the Quran, and I remember as a young boy asking him, ‘What does this verse mean?’ And he had no idea.”
Mohammad decided that if he was going to base his life on a particular belief system, he needed to know what it was about. But it was only after he returned to New Zealand to study at university that his curiosity hardened into doubt.
“I mixed with people from other faiths – Hindus and Christians and Jews and stuff. I would argue with them and then one day I decided that I would apply to my own faith the same critical questions that I asked about their religions. And when I started applying those same questions to Islam, things started falling apart.”
Even then, he still conscientiously prayed five times a day. “I would talk to God at the end of my prayers, as you’re supposed to do – it’s called supplication, or du’a – and I would sincerely ask the question, ‘Please show me what the real Islam is.’
“When you belong to a particular faith, you’re given only one side of the story and you’re not encouraged to find out about other things. It got to the point where the other side was making more sense to me, so I said to God, ‘Well, you’d better show up or send me some sort of signal.’ And I didn’t get any response. God never showed up.”
Mohammad wasn’t prepared to hang around. “I was sitting on the prayer mat and I said, ‘I’m going’. I folded up the prayer mat and it honestly felt like the lights went on.”
The damage done
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Mohammad has married a New Zealand schoolteacher and they have two children. He works in a senior job with a government department.
Unlike many ex-Muslims, he was open with his family. His father acknowledged the validity of his reasons for leaving but couldn’t accept his decision. One of Mohammad’s brothers asked him why he couldn’t just carry on and do what his family expected of him. “I explained that I had to live my life according to my own values. Things had to make sense in my head.”
Things came to a head when Mohammad got married. He defied family expectations by not insisting that his fiancée become a Muslim and by refusing to have an Islamic wedding. Then his wife became pregnant, at which point Mohammad’s father said he wanted nothing to do with their child.
It’s clear that the process of reconciliation with his family, who are all now living in New Zealand, has been slow and difficult.
There were tears and guilt trips. “Not wanting to hurt their families is one reason a lot of ex-Muslims stay in the closet,” says Mohammad.
In the end, his two young children played a crucial role in breaking down the barriers. Mohammad’s mother wanted a relationship with her grandchildren and Mohammad, for his part, was eager for his kids to grow up knowing their wider family.
The children enjoy Muslim festivities with their cousins, Mohammad says, but they also celebrate Christmas with his wife’s family. He describes himself as still culturally a Muslim. “Family and hospitality are parts of my culture that I quite like.”
But even now, “acceptance” doesn’t quite describe his family’s attitude. “It’s taken a very long time, but over the years we’ve just mellowed, kind of, and I want my family to realise that just because you don’t believe in God, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Coming out of the closet
For Shams, revealing his atheism to his family was tricky. How did he do it? “I used a very solid ex-Muslim strategy, which was not to tell them,” he says with a boyish laugh.
He felt shame and guilt, the more so because he sensed that his family suspected something was up. “There was a lot of emotional distance because I’d been withdrawing for a long time and I think they knew that. It made things tense.”
He was becoming well known in the British ex-Muslim community at the time and felt like a coward for encouraging others to come out despite not declaring his apostasy to his own family.
“I was getting involved in a documentary for Vice [a digital media and broadcasting channel] and I wasn’t out yet, right? It was crazy. At the time I was broke and had moved back home. Ramadan happened and it was the hardest fast I had ever done, because I was forced to do it.
“Then what happened, long story short, was that I accidentally came out, which is very common, particularly after an intense religious time.”
He’s fine with his family now, but the reconciliation took four years. “One of the things I do with ex-Muslims is help them understand what their families are going through. They’re just people trying to figure the world out, too. You forget what this means for them – someone they love dearly doing something that’s unheard of.
“That’s changing today; lots of families know about ex-Muslims.” He says that at the end of last year, 2000 families of ex-Muslims turned up for an event in London called Losing Your Religion. “I went with my own family – that’s how cool we are now.”
But the flip side is that many ex-Muslims remain closeted, living a lie for fear of being rejected by the people closest to them.
Into the void
The way Shams tells it, isolation is one of the most challenging aspects of leaving one’s religion because often it’s the only social environment they have known. Islam so completely defined his existence that for a while it didn’t occur to him that he could leave.
“Religious communities provide a safety net, but it’s only there as long as you’re in the group.
“I had a loving family growing up. We had problems, but when the shit hit the fan, you knew where you could go. When there’s a risk that you’re not going to have that any more, that’s deeply disturbing. You’re totally isolated.
“There’s a reason why people try to kill themselves. Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses will get letters from their mothers with tears on them, saying, ‘I can’t talk to you any more because of how much I love Jesus.’”
So the isolation and ostracism can reach a point where some people are tempted to commit suicide? “Oh, yeah, and not just tempted – they do.”
He cites a case in which a 30-year-old former Hasidic Jewish woman leapt from a 20th-storey rooftop bar in Manhattan. She left friends an emotional email detailing her struggles after leaving the faith and railing against the rigid rules governing the lives of her younger relatives.
Mothers who leave Hasidic communities often have to surrender their children – a heart-breaking situation depicted in the documentary One of Us. Shams says Hasidic women typically have large families and the stress of separation can be overwhelming.
“People leaving religions suffer in a specifically, acutely oppressive way. If you’re an Exclusive Brethren [whose families are required to shun any member who leaves the church], you have no one. Who’s your new family going to be?”
He describes his own experience on leaving Islam as a sensation of feeling alone in a black void. “My whole existence was defined by Islam. I didn’t know what humanism was, I didn’t know you could leave Islam.
“Some people self-harm – I didn’t do anything like that, but I knew I wasn’t in a happy, healthy place. But then I started meeting other people and I could see outlines in the darkness.” A world started to take shape again.
The privilege of helping
Shams says that when he first left, in his mind he was the only person in the world to have done it. “Imagine that – 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, give or take a few, and I honestly thought that no one had ever done this before, because you never hear about it.
“And I thought, no, that can’t be right. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. And then I went online and realised, wait – there are other people [like me]. Then I realised, holy shit – there are so many of us, we’re in every walk of life.”
He started meeting other apostates in Starbucks, initially with extreme wariness for fear of being lured into a trap by Muslim zealots. He jokes about mentally preparing himself to plead not to be killed.
“The first meeting I remember was at Kings Cross, St Pancras. It was a young boy who was struggling with his sexuality; he was bisexual as well as ex-Muslim. He was just as nervous as I was.
“I told one of my non-Muslim friends to sit opposite where I was going to be and to call me up on my phone and tell me what the guy looked like, and did he seem dodgy? I was terrified it was a trap.”
That contact must have been similar to opening a door into a hidden world. “Since then I’ve become the first person that many ex-Muslims have come out to. That privilege is what keeps me going.”
Shams has set up Faith to Faithless groups in Australia as well as Britain and says the number of ex-Muslims worldwide is snowballing as the word spreads.
In the United States, it’s estimated that more than 20% of people who have been raised as Muslims leave the religion. In Britain, the proportion is far smaller – he thinks about 2%. But more are coming out all the time.
“When I first joined a Reddit group for ex-Muslims, it had just over 2000 members. Now there are 35,000, all in the space of five years. It’s not going to stop. It’s going to become normalised – it has to.”
But there can be a cost to coming out as an atheist in a Muslim society. Ex-Muslims have been attacked in Britain – Shams says Islamic ghettos in British cities can be “really unsafe places” – and the risks are far greater in Islamic countries such as Bangladesh, where apostate bloggers have been hacked to death in the streets with machetes.
Control and surveillance
Mohammad made his first contact with another ex-Muslim after his wife found the Council of Ex-Muslims of New Zealand website online. There was a contact name. “I messaged him and ended up calling him,” Mohammad recalls. “I said, ‘This is fantastic – how many of us are there?’ and he said, ‘You’re the first one to call.’
He says he’s now in touch with about 30 other former Muslims in New Zealand. “We have a little secret Facebook group to give them a bit of community support – just letting them know that they’re not alone and there are others who have been through this.”
How many of them are out? “Hard to say. Probably fewer than half. Some of them might be out within a small circle but not the wider community.”
Mohammad says some women still wear the hijab when they’re on outings with their families even though they’ve mentally disengaged from Islam.
Control and surveillance can be an issue even for young Muslim men. He knows of men in their twenties, working in professional jobs, who are expected to be accountable – usually to anxious mothers – for their every movement.
In two instances, Mohammad and his wife have been able to help young Muslim women who were in crisis situations. One was experiencing mental-health problems due to an oppressive domestic environment; she was living with very conservative religious grandparents and needed someone to talk to. “We were able to help her.”
Another woman, aged 19, was about to be taken out of New Zealand and forced into an arranged marriage. In desperation, she contacted Mohammad’s group through Facebook, explaining that she was going to be flown out of the country the following morning and was considering harming herself to avoid getting on the plane.
Mohammad and his wife put her in touch with Shakti, a women’s organisation that provides support for Asian, Middle Eastern and African women who are victims of domestic violence. Shakti found her a safe house, a case worker and a lawyer. “They do some great work,” says Mohammad.
Shams thinks it would help the cause if more ex-Muslims went public about their renunciation of religion. High-profile former Muslims include the Pakistani-born Kumail Nanjiani, star of the 2017 movie The Big Sick, and the Golden Globe-winning comedy actor Aziz Ansari of Parks and Recreation fame.
But neither of them talks about it much, he says – “too much risk”.
Nonetheless, Shams is an optimist. He describes Faith to Faithless as an organisation that is in the business of putting itself out of business. “It’s my hope that we won’t exist in 15 years.”
A key reason for his optimism is that he has seen so many ex-Muslims reconciled with their families. He believes that ultimately, family bonds are more powerful than religious decrees and shunning doctrines. “The Prophet said if your mother is non-religious, she’s still your mother.”
So there’s a bit of wiggle room? “There’s always wiggle room in religions, because religions are man-made.”
Ex-Muslims can contact the Council of Ex-Muslims of NZ via its Facebook page.
This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.