[Source: National Post] In many Muslim-majority countries, renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death. But even in the liberal West, some ex-Muslims continue to fear leaving their faith. Although reformists point to the Qur’anic ruling,”there is no compulsion in religion,” they hide their disbelief or risk being ostracized by their families and the wider ummah (community) of believers. In extreme cases they believe their status as “apostates of the faith” puts them in danger. Simon Cottee, a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University, England., interviewed 35 former Muslims in Britain and Canada as part of the first major sociological study of ex-Muslims in the west. He based this piece on fieldwork in Canada.
Halima is an 18-year-old biology student from a strict Muslim family in Ontario.
Although she continues to wear the hijab and dresses conservatively, Halima no longer prays or fasts. Nor does she abide by the restrictions against alcohol and pork, and she has all but forgotten the Qur’an — the holy book she once had committed to memory.
“They think I’m a bad Muslim,” she says of her family, “but I doubt if they’d ever think I’m an ex-Muslim.”
She adds she cannot imagine what would happen if she told her father, a well-known religious leader. “That would be the end. He would never accept my apostasy.”
Halima, who asked that her real name not be used, has good reason for concern.
“There was a lot of pressure to be completely religious,” she says of her childhood. And any and all deviations were vigorously punished.
She remembers one incident in particular.
“There was a tear in a page and my father assumed I’d ripped it,” she says. “He got my hand — and put it on the stove.”
After a teacher noticed the burn, the Children’s Aid Society interviewed her parents, who said it was an accident. CAS didn’t pursue the matter, but this did little to placate her father, who castigated her for bringing “kaffirs” (unbelievers) into the house.
‘I just couldn’t agree with most of the stuff, especially with the treatment of women — that got me out of Islam’
Halima still spent up to three hours a day studying Arabic and the Qur’an into her teen years, and rarely missed the five daily prayers that are obligatory for Muslims.
But ultimately, she says, “I just couldn’t agree with most of the stuff, especially with the treatment of women — that got me out of Islam.”
In her mid-teens, she also discovered the online forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, which gave her the courage to finally admit to herself she didn’t believe anymore and wanted to leave the faith. Before that, she “had never even heard of apostates.”
In the past few months, Halima finally had to take action.
Last year, her father started proceedings to bring a friend over from Yemen, a man in his mid-50s, to marry his daughter. Under immense pressure, she agreed to the engagement and signed the sponsorship papers to enable him to settle in Canada. But she couldn’t go through with it and fled her home.
“I just filled in two bags of my papers and stuff and told my brother, ‘I have to take out the trash,’ and there was a cab waiting for me and I went straight to the shelter.”
Her flight has confused as well as enraged her parents.
“Come home — or you’ll regret it,” her father recently warned her on Facebook.
Zain, 27, is one of the few who has disclosed his apostasy to his family. Born in Britain to Pakistani parents, he came to Canada at age 20.
“As a kid I really believed with all my heart, but my faith just kind of went away,” he says. “It flickered out. I stopped feeling the presence of God. And that’s when I took seriously the possibility of Islam being wrong.”
Discovering philosophy — now one of his passions, especially the iconoclastic works of Friedrich Nietzsche — led him to conclude “there really isn’t a defence for any of it [religion].”
It also opened his mind to different points of view. “I realized that I don’t want to stick to just one way of looking at the world.”
By 19 he was agnostic — and in love with Mel, a Winnipeg woman he met online. They decided to elope and she flew to Britain.
But somehow Zain’s family found out and intercepted them at the airport. An uncle was especially furious: “He’s a tough guy who likes to throw his weight around and he was saying, ‘I could chop you up into little pieces and put you in the Thames right now and no one will find out.’” His father also was angry, telling him not “ruin his life for a girl.”
“Terrified and distraught,” Mel flew home a few days later. Soon afterward, Zain also boarded a plane — to Pakistan with his uncle. The purpose of their trip became clear when they went to a mosque where an imam took a glass of water, began to pray over it, then switched to broken English.
Zain asked what he was doing and another man replied, “Oh, you don’t know? You have an evil spirit inside your body that has clung on to you in London and the spirit is in love with you and is refusing to leave your body. And he’s talking to her right now in English, telling her to leave.”
The young man was asked to drink some of the water and walk around the room before being asked how he felt. “I lied and said, ‘Yeah, I feel better, thank you very much.’”
I wanted to say, ‘I’m an ex-Muslim, you are not alone, you are not the only apostate in the world’
After a month, Zain returned to London, but the first thing he did was book another flight. “I came back on Boxing Day and on Jan. 3 I took my guitar, some clothes and a small backpack and I left for Canada.”
Within months he and Mel were married. Zain wishes he had told his parents face to face and sooner about his loss of faith.
But “I was such a coward.” This is why he later decided to come out fully and post his testimony online, attaching his real name and picture.
“I wanted to do my part for the apostate community, I guess. To normalize the process of apostatizing … To say, ‘I’m an ex-Muslim, you are not alone, you are not the only apostate in the world.’ There’s such a taboo surrounding apostasy in Islam.”
He is well aware of how far the normalization process has to go. When his extended family discovered his online testimony, they “collectively shamed my parents for being bad parents” and refused to socialize with them.
Many former Muslims speak of the loneliness they experience after renouncing Islam.
“Leaving your faith is the worst thing that you can do and I knew [my family] would never understand it,” says a young British-Bengali woman. “So there was a lot of guilt and shame and self-hate.”
She recalled feeling “lost, as though I don’t know who I am anymore.” And there was no one she could turn to for support, least of all her family. “It was rough and I could barely pull myself together … because I knew they wouldn’t accept me.”
But ex-Muslims are not entirely alone or without support. EXMNA: Ex-Muslims of North America was set up in 2013 in Toronto and Washington.
It has expanded rapidly and now has about a dozen groups, including in Ontario and Quebec. Although members can communicate with each other on its Facebook page, its primary aim is to facilitate “meet-ups,” get-togethers in person.
‘[Men] can go through the motions. But if we want to be free, we have to leave. There is no middle ground for women’
The group is opposed to bigotry of all stripes. It is also opposed to the shielding of religion, and particularly Islam, from critical scrutiny, whether by cultural conservatives or multicultural relativists. Hence its motto, “No Bigotry and No Apologism.”
“There’s great animosity towards ex-Muslims,” says Kiran Opal, one of the group’s founders and a human rights activist.
“You’re treated like a traitor, just for not believing the same thing. And you’re expected to keep your mouth shut and not criticize the religion.”
But the EXMNA activists refuse to be silenced. As former Muslims, they know how important it is to create a reference-point for others, “because you think you’re the only one.”
The Pakistan-born Ms. Opal, who came to Canada with her family as a refugee, tells a familiar story.