Leaving Islam in North America

(Photo: Dreamstime)
Apostates can face death threats from Muslims and scorn from the left.

Leaving Islam can be notoriously difficult in many Muslim-majority countries. Certain countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have laws that make apostasy an offense punishable by death. In others where apostasy is not explicitly criminalized, accused individuals can still face charges through religious courts.

Prosecution at the hands of the judicial system, however, is relatively rare. The main costs that apostates face come from family members and others in the community. A 2013 PEW study found widespread support for the death penalty for leaving Islam in many countries. In several of them, including Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the majority of Muslims held this view. In the Palestinian Territories, 89 percent of those surveyed thought Sharia ought to be the law of the land, and within that number, 66 percent supported the death penalty for apostasy.

The widespread nature of this conviction means that in many cases, it can be a life-threatening proposition to publicly state one’s secularism or atheism. Bangladesh, for example, has seen several cases of secular bloggers being hacked to death with machetes. In Pakistan, a high-profile politician was killed by one of his guards for his opposition to blasphemy laws. Salmaan Taseer, the former governor of Punjab, had opposed the persecution of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. The politician’s son, Shaan Taseer, who has also spoken out against blasphemy laws, now fears for his life after a recent fatwa issued against him.

While apostates are relatively much better off in the U.S. and Canada, leaving the religion does not come without its challenges even here. To help create a community and support group for such individuals, Sarah Haider and Muhammad Syed formed the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) in 2013, as a nonprofit foundation. A year earlier they had started organizing covert events to meet other people like themselves.

“To our surprise,” Haider told me in an interview, “some people drove hundreds of miles to attend, and we began to realize the vital role these get-togethers played in the lives of those who felt they had nowhere else to turn.” She explains:

Given the dangers associated with leaving Islam, many apostates never “come out,” and thus have to live a life hiding their true beliefs. Our communities give this hidden and persecuted population a space where they can be true to themselves — where they can share their struggles, receive advice, and temporarily escape any struggles awaiting them at home.

The events are not open to the public, and prospective attendees have to be screened in advance to ascertain whether their intentions are genuine.

Running the organization comes with a unique set of challenges. “From a management perspective, running a group for apostates means taking into account a multitude of security and privacy concerns,” Haider says. “Day-to-day administration tasks require extra care and consideration, and simple jobs can quickly become complex ones.”

Obaid Omer, a network operations coordinator working in Quebec, told me:

Groups like EXMNA are an absolute necessity for those who have left or wish to leave Islam. For those of us who have left Islam, EXMNA provides us with a place to meet people with similar experiences. For those who have left and are still hiding their apostasy EXMNA provides a place where the can be themselves and openly discuss why they left Islam and get support if they are having difficulties with family or friends.

Omer says that he had a relatively easy time with leaving the religion. At the age of 16, he stopped believing, inspired in large part by the original Cosmos TV series with Carl Sagan. “The way Sagan talked about discovery and evidence-based thinking struck a cord with me. The more science I learned, the more it made sense to me and the less religion did.” Omer became open about his apostasy at 22. “My family was not happy but they came to terms with my decision,” he says. “I did not worry about what others thought about my apostasy and decided that if someone wanted to cut off communications with me just because I had stopped believing in Islam, then I was better off without them.” He considers himself lucky, compared with others. “The stories I have heard from others of either having to live a double life and keep quiet to those closest to them about their real identity or they have been cut off from their families amaze me.”

Reem Razek, a translator and writer living in New York City, has had a harrowing experience leaving Islam. She did so in her teens, while she was in Egypt, where she was born. “Most of my friends and family stopped talking to me, some would mock me and basically call me psychotic,” she told me, adding:

My father tried pressuring me into recanting [my] views using any method he felt he could get away with. He tied me up and beat me and cut off my Internet, and when that didn’t work, he used his ties as a physician to get [me] locked in a psychiatric institution where I was given electroshock and told I’d come out of it a believer. I was only released after I pretended to believe in Islam again.

When her family moved to the U.S. temporarily in 2012, Razek applied for asylum. Her writing and activism led to “many threats of rape, torture and murder,” she explained in a statement describing her asylum process. “I was afraid I would be denounced to the police and arrested as an apostate, in which case I would be raped, tortured, and possibly killed in jail.”

Given the challenges associated with leaving the religion, Sarah Haider regrets that people like her do not receive more support from the left, as she detailed in a 2015 address given to the American Humanist Association:

I always expected feeling unwelcome from Muslim audiences, but I did not anticipate an equal amount of hostility from my allies on the left.

For example, when I first published a piece fact-checking Reza Aslan, who is a prominent Muslim scholar, on his dismissal of female genital mutilation as only an African problem, not a Muslim one, I got many responses from people unhappy with what I wrote, almost all of whom questioned my motives rather than addressing my claims. To my surprise, most of my critics were not Muslims. Rather they identified as liberals and sometimes even atheists. Some darkly alluded to my “agenda” and others claimed that as a former Muslim, there was no way I could be trusted with fair criticism. Now remember, I published a fact-check. It seems to me that it would be easy to verify my claims, fact-check the fact-check, so to speak. But instead, Muslims and some people on the left preferred . . . to throw around suspicions about my character and my intentions.

One common method of dismissing her aims, Haider said in the speech, is to assume that she is “pro-war” or that she broadly supports the far-right agenda in some way, though neither is the case. “Sometimes I am called an Uncle Tom or a House Arab. Another term thrown around at ex-Muslims and other brown critics of Islam is ‘native informants.’”

She argued that there was an inconsistency in this:

Those who oppose Christian authoritarianism will find that the broad majority of liberals, religious or non-religious, side with them and will offer their support in the fight to push religious morals out of our politics and public life. . . . But when the same scrutiny is applied to Islam, you find that inexplicably some people on the left begin to align instead with the Islamic religious Right.

“The biggest help that the general population in North America can do is stop obfuscating the issue,” Omer tells me. “With some notable exceptions, for the most part, we are faced with bigotry from the right and accusations of the same from the left.” He has a plea for the broader North American public:

Let us tell our stories and experiences. Let us in the debate and let us bring our view to the table. We are not asking for a license to slander and attack at will but we are asking that we not be attacked and slandered for speaking our minds.

Given the current political and social climate, Haider tells me, she is keenly aware of the personal costs her activism brings:

Personally, the impact it has on my parents is the most challenging aspect about running the organization. As more people from the community hear of my activities, my parents face shame for their association with me and are blamed for my choices. I was ready to face the consequences of my activism myself, but the effect on my parents is difficult to bear.

“Further, I know this activism will haunt my career for many years to come (if not forever),” says Haider. There are few things more “politically incorrect” than criticism of Islam, in her experience. “There is no doubt in my mind that this activism significantly damages my career prospects.”

Despite the many challenges she and her fellow apostates face, Haider tells me she is hopeful about the future. “The Internet and rising levels of scientific literacy are chipping away at religious indoctrination, and I hope we can be a part of a change to a less dogmatic world.”

— Hrishikesh Joshi writes on politics and public policy. 


The Latest