Americans raised in a conservative Christian environment know that open rejection of the faith can be difficult, potentially causing painful family conflict and social difficulties. The experience for American Muslims who reject their religion, however, can be even more intense, compounded by several factors: Islamic theology itself, which harshly condemns apostasy; an American culture that has difficulty understanding Islam, let alone those who now wish to shed Muslim beliefs and identity; and severe pressure from family and communities, often of immigrant status, that expect members to maintain cohesion.
These factors and others make Ex-Muslims of North America an important resource for those who wish to leave Islam to embrace a non-theistic, secular worldview. In my conversation with the group's founder, Muhammad Syed, I learned that EXMNA does much more than provide community for those making the difficult transition away from Islam. Its very existence is a reminder to young Muslims that there is an alternative, that freethinking and secularity are indeed options in modern life, and that following a religion is ultimately a decision and not an unalterable fate.
Syed describes his journey away from religion as fairly typical. “I grew up in Pakistan, which like most Muslim countries has a distinct lack of religious and intellectual diversity,” he explained. “The educational framework is sanitized to remove any topics that would lead one to doubt. Therefore, I was only exposed to topics which largely reinforced Islamic viewpoints.” This, he says, resulted in his being a "devout and practicing Muslim," in his youth. But despite this environment, elements reached him that caused him to question his faith, one of them being the works of American scientist Carl Sagan. “My only exposure to liberal thought was in the form of sci-fi American television shows and the rarely accessible Western books I could get my hands on,” he explained. “Fortunately for me, one of those books was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which explained evolution in a simple and interesting manner. Despite not challenging my faith directly, Cosmos helped ground my worldview in rationality and science. It was very similar to the stories of those who were confronted with their own dissonance and chose rationality over belief.”
Not only would Syed leave Islam behind but he would go on to found EXMNA, which now serves as a beacon of hope for others who have made the difficult decision to leave Islam and embrace personal secularity. Below is an interview with Syed, edited for clarity and length.
David Niose: EXMNA focuses on supporting Ex-Muslims who now have a secular worldview, not those who have left Islam for another religion. Why that sharp focus?
Muhammad Syed: That's right, EXMNA runs support communities exclusively for non-theists: those who have moved on from a religious worldview. Usually joining another religion provides a significant source of support from the new religious community. This is relatively hard to come by for nonbelievers, particularly when they’re immigrants in a new country. We aim to help those who are in need and lack any support systems. While we make common cause with all who are persecuted by religion and who share our human rights ideals, we wanted to create a space exclusively dedicated to Ex-Muslim nonbelievers.
DN: But I understand EXMNA does more than provide supportive community.
MS: Yes. In addition to running support communities, EXMNA also works to normalize apostasy and fight for the rights of Ex-Muslims both nationally and internationally. We’ve launched multiple successful online campaigns for free speech, for encouraging Ex-Muslims to speak up about their struggles as well as protests and vigils for imprisoned dissidents and murdered atheists. We’ve also stood against the proliferation of Islamist preachers on campuses and religious apologists that use persecution of Muslims as a tool to defend against criticism of Islam.
As we expand we’re hoping to empower more members of our support communities to speak up about their experiences publicly. In order to facilitate that, we’ve launched the site www.theexmuslim.com and will be launching a podcast as well as video interviews of Ex-Muslims later this year.
DN: Can you explain more about your personal experience leaving Islam?
MS: The jolt that forced me to re-examine religion was witnessing the growing conservatism of multiple friends, including a childhood friend with whom I had been close to for over a decade. He started believing in torture in the grave and talked to me about eyewitness accounts of demons tormenting the dead. This was completely opposite to my perception of Islam as a humanistic and rational religion. I started studying the religion in more detail to rebut his perspective. . . In the course of my studies, I discovered multiple errors, immoral commandments, as well as the oft-discussed violent elements within Islam. This included fantastical elements such as a space-faring version of Pegasus, genies and black magic and immoral elements like wife-beating, slavery and even the sanction for murdering an irreligious child.
However, the most damning to me was the fact that Islamic scripture contained numerous incorrect claims about the reality of the world which were clearly derived from ancient Greek understanding. For example, Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology of seven heavens is clearly listed within the Quran as an understood fact, as is the idea that mountains prevent tectonic shifts when in fact mountains are a consequence of tectonic shifts.
Initially I was able to push these issues to the back of my mind, presuming instead that there was an explanation that simply eluded my limited human intellect. A few months later during a conversation with a devout friend I realized that I had already left religion behind and was in effect lying to myself about my disbelief. He made a comment about Allah saving him from leukemia, which to me was simply a matter of falling within the large group of survivors, not divine interference. It was obvious to me that he was using the same sort of self-deception that I had been employing in a futile attempt to hold onto my now-absent faith.
DN: So how did this religious skepticism lead to EXMNA?
MS: The idea of Ex-Muslims of North America was born from my attempt to find and connect with other Ex-Muslims. I set up a few local casual get togethers within the Washington, DC, area. The results were far beyond what I anticipated. The personal traumas Ex-Muslims had undergone and the lengths people were going to attend our events astounded me. We had one participant travel six hours in each direction to attend a short meeting, and almost every event included someone breaking down and crying due to finally not feeling alone.
I resolved to expand the endeavor to other cities and established EXMNA as a non-profit. Since that point, we have support groups in about 18 different cities and have helped multiple Ex-Muslims escape abusive situations. Most importantly, the value of a shared sense of purpose is incalculable. Interacting with others who have walked the same path and succeeded in carving out a positive life empowers them to do the same.
DN: I'm sure you must have seen some horror stories of people who have met resistance trying to leave the faith. How common is it for young people trying to leave Islam to be met with hostility?
MS: I’d like to emphasize that experiences vary dramatically and depend on socio-economic status, education, and devoutness of both the individual and their families. . . We’ve had cases where families have accepted a child that had left Islam but as a result they themselves have been ostracized by the larger community around them.
It’s relatively rare for people to come out to their families, and this is particularly true for those conservative and devout. Often people stay in the closet in order to remain a positive influence for younger siblings, or out of fear due to their rebellion their siblings will face an even stricter household. For example, one of our members has a younger sister, and in order to ensure that the sibling would still be permitted by her family to attend college, he has decided to maintain appearances of religiosity.
On the more extreme side of things, in one case a 16-year-old with a love for science reached the conclusion that Islam didn’t make sense. Most people presume that their family is unconditionally loving, caring and will understand their intellectual disagreement. While in some cases they’re absolutely right, but this was not the case for him. After he shared his opinion with the family, he was immediately disowned and kicked out of his home. Usually the thinking amongst abusers is that by cutting off other forms of social support they can better control behavior. Pushing children to the point of desperation would allow them to pull the child back into the faith.
As a particularly smart and tenacious young man he was able to get part-time jobs and finish high school. He landed a full-ride scholarship at a university. When his family found out, they apologized for their behavior and asked him to come home during the summer. Convinced that they were truly regretting their behavior, he accepted the offer and moved back home. Upon coming back home he found his entire extended family waiting for him. They locked him up and beat him regularly to force him to "come to his senses." Fortunately he was able to escape a few weeks later and has not maintained contact with his family since.
In another instance, one of our community members, a young mother, wanted to separate from her abusive husband. Islamically a wife does not have the “right” to a divorce, but may request it from her husband and he may choose to grant it. If he refuses she is allowed to appeal to a higher authority - a cleric or religious judge. As a believer, she attempted to obtain divorce in an Islamic way and requested his “permission.” Her husband denied her divorce request, so she subsequently sought permission from the local religious leadership, which was again denied. Eventually, upon leaving Islam she pursued divorce through our secular legal system. After her divorce was granted and it was revealed that she was no longer a Muslim, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap her children since a non-Muslim is not allowed to raise a Muslim child. In order to forestall a repeat attempt she has moved to a different city and been forced to eliminate contacts with her prior community.
DN: Is it your belief that there are many closeted atheists and agnostics in Muslim communities, at least in North America?
MS: Absolutely. When we launched EXMNA we were surprised by the sheer pent-up demand. Although we don’t have any statistical data, the same forces which are rapidly inciting a disaffection from Christianity are also at work within Islam. While closed societies and communities have been very successful in the past in withholding information and presenting a history stripped bare of the cost and damage of Islam, this has now changed primarily due to the Internet. This is particularly true in North America, where there is no state-sponsored persecution of dissenters.
We are already seeing encouraging changes. In 2013, the discourse centered on denying our existence, often smearing Ex-Muslims as CIA or zionist-sponsored. By comparison, in 2015 major Islamic conferences had multiple talks focusing on the growth of atheism. Of course, their focus was on the errors of disbelief and preventing impressionable Muslim youth from being misled to disbelief.
DN: What about around the rest of the world?
MS: Yes the same forces are at work globally as well. There are active underground atheist movements in every Muslim-majority country, including the recent establishment of the first atheist organization within a Muslim country. Additionally there are now multiple online video channels dedicated to atheism aimed at audiences within Muslim countries.
While most of this is underground and disorganized due to the danger associated, the numbers are rapidly increasing. A 2012 WIN-GALLUP poll showed a doubling of atheists within Pakistan in a seven-year period. The same poll also indicated five percent of Saudi citizens were convinced atheists and 19% were irreligious, shocking the Saudi authorities into branding all atheists as terrorists.
DN: What do you think of the anti-Muslim sentiments that have emerged recently in American politics, perhaps most notably in the Trump campaign? On one hand your group is opposed to Islam, but on the other it seems that some of the anti-Muslim sentiment in American politics might be directed toward you, even though of course you personally have left Islam.
MS: I believe Trump’s pandering to xenophobic fears is further harming the integration of Muslim communities within the broader American fabric. Ex-Muslims are living proof that certain religious ideas are not inherent to a people. Many of us spent a significant part of our lives as Muslims, and have loved ones who still call themselves Muslims. Further, many of us still appear to be Muslim and still have Islamic names. Anti-Muslim bigotry affects us deeply, and makes our work with normalizing dissent in Muslim communities increasingly difficult. Hateful rhetoric instigates a defensive response by those targeted, and they are consequently much less receptive to our message, often conflating legitimate criticism from us with the bigotry from the far right.
DN: What kind of events and activities do local EXMNA chapters host?
MS: We focus on providing alternative communities in an informal and casual environment. Our aim is to arrange social events similar to what one would participate in with any other group of friends. Obviously, this varies city to city dependent on the demographics - age and ethnicity - of the local communities. Some of our events are simple dinners and brunches, while others involve trips to vineyards, amusement parks, attending lectures and conferences, visiting museums amongst others. . . Attendance can vary from just five or six people to 50 or 60 people at our larger events.
As with any budding community, we have established our own rituals and traditions as well as converting religious events to secular alternatives. We hope that as the rate of those leaving Islam accelerates these new traditions will be replicated elsewhere as well.
For many Ex-Muslims there’s nostalgia associated with Eid, similar to Christmas. In a few of our larger cities we’ve arranged alternative secular Eid events, including ones with communities from various cities coming together in a larger celebration. There’s a certain amount of catharsis associated with flouting tradition and even creating blasphemous traditions of our own.
As we’ve grown we’ve gotten enough members in a few cities to also engage in Ex-Muslim related activism and host speakers. We’ve invited secularists from Muslim countries as well as authors such as Ibn Warraq (Why I am not a Muslim) to private Ex-Muslim-only events.
We’ve also worked with other organizations to raise awareness for prisoners of conscience and victims of Islamism. We were actually in the process of arranging an event with Avijit Roy before he was murdered in Bangladesh. Multiple members were close friends with him and a few blogged on his website. EXMNA and our Bangladeshi members were able to work with a DC-local Bangladeshi organization Drishtipat DC to put together a vigil for Avijit Roy.
We’re hoping that as we grow, we can leverage the sheer diversity of our communities to bring secularists from around the world together to work for our common civil liberties.
DN: You've said that trust is a big part of the reason for EXMNA's success. Can you explain what you mean by that?
MS: In order to join any of our communities we have an extensive screening process to ensure everyone’s safety and privacy. Each member has personally been spoken to, one-on-one, by our team of screeners, who have verified their identity. The arduous process to attend the events in our organization is not a luxury, but a necessity. I don’t believe that our growth would be possible without it. The trust ex-Muslims have placed in us to safeguard their privacy and anonymity is what has allowed our continued success. Due to this trust, we’ve expanded rapidly from our initial two communities - in Washington and Toronto - to our current presence in 18 cities in less than two years.
Learn more about Ex-Muslims of North America at its website: www.exmna.org.
David Niose's books and more: davidniose.com.