Inside the Secret World of Ex-Muslims

Even in America, these ‘apostates’ must meet in private.

In April, a defiant group of self-identified “apostates” convened in downtown Portland, Oregon, to revel in the joys of brew culture, bacon burgers, and atheism. Nine ex-Muslims from several states in the region gathered for a local meeting of the Ex-Muslims of North America.

EXMNA is a nonprofit that provides support to individuals who have left Islam. Some of its members have faced disownership and death threats from family members for renouncing their religion.

Chapter gatherings across the United States and Canada are closed-group meetings for safety reasons. Individuals who wish to join the organization go through a screening process to authenticate their identities, explained Sarah Haider, who co-founded EXMNA in 2013. “Unfortunately, it is not paranoia that requires us to be careful,” Haider said. “In the Muslim world, we are openly persecuted and regularly meet grisly ends. In the Western world we are safer, but even here open meetings can be a big risk.”

In traditional interpretations of Islam, apostasy — the act of leaving one’s religion — is punishable by death or imprisonment. Across the globe, apostasy from Islam remains a capital offense in 13 Muslim-majority countries.

Haider, who immigrated from Pakistan as a child, said that the unique experiences of ex-Muslims often leave them beyond the reach of typical secular or atheist support groups. “We have specific needs in terms of security and privacy,” Haider said. “Some ex-Muslims have more to fear from their local Muslim communities and families than others, so EXMNA provides a space for those who do not feel safe attending any public event.”

Sarah Haider is scheduled to speak at Portland State University on May 26. “Yazid” (not his real name), a PSU alumnus, organized the local chapter meeting. He explained that a pub setting was intentional. “It’s actually symbolic,” he said. “A bar represents all the things that were haram [forbidden] to us when we were Muslim.”

The vast majority of Muslims view the consumption of alcohol or pork as deeply haram. In Saudi Arabia, where Yazid is from, drinking or producing alcohol is punishable with fines, lashings, and imprisonment.

Underneath the laughter and lighthearted chatter of the evening laid a somber reality: Each person, though a freethinker, had a religious identity or family to return to at the end of the night.

“Shadi” is a 39-year-old immigrant from Egypt. He became an atheist about a year ago, but his wife only recently found out. “She begs me to pretend to pray in front of the children,” he said with a mournful look.

This was the first time he had seen so many ex-Muslims together, as it was for nearly everyone at the event.

“Amina” is a 27-year-old graduate student from East Africa. She held on to her boyfriend’s arm while they ate a slice of banana cream pie. “I haven’t told my family about him yet,” she said with an uneasy smile. Amina’s green-eyed American boyfriend spoke with a soft southern drawl. He stands in stark contrast to the type of man her family expects her to marry, she lamented.

Across all schools of jurisprudence in both Shiite and Sunni Islam, marriage between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim male is prohibited. Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but their children are traditionally assigned their father’s faith.

At the end of the night, Amina pulled up her Facebook profile. Barely recognizable in her old photos, Amina showed how she used to wear a hijab that draped over her torso, a practice she was pressured to adopt at the age of 12. “In so many ways it was me,” she said. “But it also didn’t feel like me. I should have been myself a lot earlier.”

“Abdulrahman” is an international student from Pakistan. He is concerned for his young child and explained that social pressure to conform to a religious identity is so intense that his child will not be able to escape indoctrination. “I have to send my kid to the school where they teach bigotry, violence and hate,” he said. “You have to pretend to be religious or you can’t survive.”

Abdulrahman wants to encourage creativity and critical thinking for his child but is afraid it will lead to an inquisitive spirit, especially toward religion, which carries many risks in the South Asian country. In Pakistan, blasphemy is a capital offense under the penal code, and dozens of individuals accused of blaspheming have been murdered through mob violence since the ’90s. “It’s hard for a father to deliberately make his own child less creative,” he said.

On April 13, Mashal Khan, a Pakistani journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University, was killed on campus by an angry mob of students after he was accused of blasphemy during a debate about Adam and Eve.

Graphic video of the murder shared on social media shows a motionless Khan being stomped on and beaten by dozens of furious men shouting “Allahu akbar.”

The pressure to believe is so intense that 22-year-old junior software developer “Mahmoud” still goes to Friday prayers with his family. Mahmoud’s father is an immigrant from the West Bank, and his family worships at the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington. “You feel like you’re constantly lying,” he said.

Mahmoud used to be extremely devout, even waking up at dawn every day to perform fajr, or morning prayer, but began to have serious doubts after reading the Koran and the hadith — attributed sayings and actions of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

“The more ex-Muslims go public, the more societies will tolerate us,” Yazid said. “We are not yet there.”

“Ozan” is a 23-year-old Turkish American with dual nationality. He recalled his youth as a fierce proselytizer — commanding right and forbidding wrong of the Muslims around him. “Any dogmatic belief system becomes a source of problems,” he said. After leaving Islam, he lost his community of friends and family. He moved to Seattle to start a new life.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum, which gave him sweeping powers, has made Ozan more sure than ever that he won’t return to Turkey. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party entered Turkish politics in the early 2000s, campaigning as moderate Islamists. Detractors of Erdogan accuse him of weakening state secularism (a founding principle of modern Turkey) and using democratic means to consolidate authoritarian control.

In the small ex-Muslim gathering, the attendees’ backgrounds reflected the wide diversity of Muslim heritage in the United States. A refugee from Iraq, a settled Iraqi Kurdish-American, and an H1-B visa holder from India rounded out the group’s profile.

While most of the attendees didn’t know one another earlier in the evening, they appeared to bond quickly over their shared experiences of isolation and fear. For Yazid, the event was one small step in normalizing the idea that no one should be perpetually tied to his or her birth religion.

“The more ex-Muslims go public, the more societies will tolerate us,” Yazid said. “We are not yet there.”


Leaving Islam in North America

American Security and Islamic Reform

As Islamism Marches West, Pluralist Muslims Must Stop Its Advance

— Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University.


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