To them [Muslims], it doesn’t really matter if you do the praying stuff, because to them it seems that you just don’t care. But it’s a big deal if you say, ‘yeah I’m not a Muslim’. It changes nothing in your actions or in what you do. But to them it means everything. Because it’s an attack on their life. It’s not ‘Oh, he’s just a bad Muslim’ kind of thing. It’s like, ‘s***, he doesn’t believe’. (‘Hanif’ in Cottee 2005: 11)
The 2008 Channel 4 Documentary, ‘Dispatches, Unholy War’ stated that there is an estimated 3,000 underground ex-Muslims currently in Britain, yet the figure stands to be higher given that apostasy remains at the discretion of the individual. However, although the chapter examines the lives of a few British apostates, this is largely due to the stigma and shame attached to the renunciation of the Islamic faith and the necessity to maintain silence as an ex-Muslim living in the shadows. The chapter fundamentally will highlight and conclude that all case apostates do not feel free to state their apostasy openly, as doing so results in disownment, a sense of no belonging in wider society; leading to –in extreme cases- suicide.
5.1 Confessions of an ex-Muslim
The publication of Simon Cottee’s (2015) The Apostates: When Muslims leave Islam broke the tide of silence and ignorance enveloping the Apostasy Question in academic literature and policy making, through releasing the first major study of apostasy from Islam in a Western, secular context. Cottee (2015) examines the apostate ordeal primarily through a sociological lens, yet there largely remains a stifling of the internal struggle ex-Muslims undergo within the wider framework of Muslim orthodoxy. Cottee’s (2015) publication must be also placed in the context of the rise of ex-Muslim forums, most notably in Mina Ahadi’s January 2007 founding of the Central Council of ex-Muslims in Germany, Maryam Namazie’s June 2007 co-founding of the Council of ex-Muslims in Britain (CEMB) and Imtiaz Sham’s co-creation of Faith to Faithless; which propelled these formerly marginalised figures into the limelight, thus publicly breaking the taboo of even addressing the Apostasy Question and establishing both public and underground channels of communications for fellow ex-Muslims to share their individual experience and be encouraged in the knowledge they are not alone.
The British ideologue and boasts of freedom of religion was severely destabilised and doubted in the publically documented suicide of 22 year old Pakistani Irtaza Hussain, who abandoned Islam when arriving to the UK for staunch atheism upon the discovery of rationality and science. As an active member of the CEMB he wrote:
Islam quite simply did not provide enough answers at all and was fairly credulous. What is absolutely appalling is the state of ignorance within Muslims and how many of them make claims about Islam’s monopoly on knowledge, yet still being miles away from having a proper appreciation of academia (Irtaza Hussain CEMB, 2013).
Cottee (2015) recounts his personal interview with Irtaza, recalling his statements preceding his suicide: ‘I hate not having psychical company…I hate how I’m completely alienated from society and will never find a way to fit in’ (Cottee 2015: 12). The overwhelming lack of acceptance and subsequent loneliness was sensed by Cottee, throughout the case-study interviews he conducted, prompting him to state:
There is a lot of pain and torment in the lives of ex-Muslims, This is to do, in part , with feelings of shame: the sense that they’ve failed their families and the wider Muslim community, that they’re not right, that they’re wrong. Not normal. To do, also, with feelings of alienation, a sense of being out of place. Not belonging (Cottee 2015: 13).
Irtaza’s final Facebook post in 2013, entitled ‘Just a Jump Away’, depicts him sitting in a tree, his camera lens pointing downwards and a rope in the distance. Faraz Talat, facebook friend to Irtaza, highlights the lack of freedom of belief for those who abandon the Islamic faith in his reminiscent tributary post:
22 year old Irtaza Hussain, an ex-Muslim, had cried bitterly for months about being alienated and rebuked by his ultra-conservative British Muslim family. The abuse and unremitting depression led him to his death, while his online friends and I tried helplessly to support him. Battling Islamophobia is a very worthy thing to do, but our empathy is usually too limited to reach deep to the minorities-within-minorities; those we leave behind in the dark, because we can’t figure out a politically correct way to address a situation where a minority community is also an oppressor in some way; not all of them, obviously, but that brutal culture clearly persists. (Faraz Talat Facebook, 2015).
Vice News is one of the very few News channels and websites that documents the individual ex-Muslim experience within Britain. In his article Leaving Islam Behind Is a Scary Prospect for Britain’s Ex-Muslims, Kesvani (2013) cites the ordeal of former Muslim Shahid Abbas (pseudo name) in which he forced himself to supress his doubts concerning Islam, as he succumbed to family pressure; particularly his father who encouraged him to become an Imam. However,
“after studying a lot of continental thinkers, as well as more contemporary work about scientific rationalism, there came a point when I realised how flawed Islamic justifications were. I tried to talk about these concerns with the Islamic society, and even the local Imam. But both were very dismissive – they said that the Shai’taan [devil] was trying to manipulate me.” (Kesvani 2013: 1)
Abbas’ decision to keep up appearances in relation to the Islamic faith, for fear that his family would disown him is a reoccurring factor within British apostasy. The Independent reports the case of British-Somali, Amal Farah who not only left Islam for atheism but also married a Jew.
‘“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – telling my observant family that I was having doubts. My mum was shocked; she began to cry. It was very painful for her. When she realised I actually meant it, she cut communication with me,” said Ms Farah. “She was suspicious of me being in contact with my brothers and sisters. She didn’t want me to poison their heads in any way. I felt like a leper and I lived in fear. As long as they knew where I was, I wasn’t safe (Independent 2014).
The BBC interviewed Ayisha (pseudo name) ,who was 14 when she began doubting Islam after reading the Koran. Her initial battle to wear the hijab culminated in the decision to leave Islam, thus endangering her life at home:
“My dad threatened to kill me by getting a knife and holding it against my neck and saying: ‘We might as well do it if you’re going to bring this much shame to the family… when I came out to my family my auntie told me my brothers and sisters wouldn’t be able to get married because their honour would be tarnished. And it would all be my fault. I used to live in Bradford for a time and I’d be very quiet about it because there are Muslims everywhere. I still have this innate fear, it’s hard to explain. You just want to keep quiet about it. It’s just safe to stay quiet (BBC 2015).
In its 2016 documentary Rescuing ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam, Imtiaz Shams, one of the six participant apostates stated that he was unaware he could even leave Islam but upon the revelation that he wanted to, started the London underground Faith to Faithless ex-Muslim network in which they deal with apostates suffering from
emotional abuse, people getting kicked out by their families, a lot of psychological trauma – as an example, in this last Ramadan I had to deal with five different suicide attempts. On the extreme side, things like kidnappings, forced marriage [occur] and risk from the family or wider community (Imtiaz Shams, Vice News 2016) .
To conclude, the fact that there are only a few, select apostate cases to report on and the fact the Apostasy Question is poorly understood and underreported is that it heavily relies on the apostate him or herself to overcome their paralysis of fear, in order to leave not just a religious ideology but a systematic way of life – everything they have ever known. The utilising of freedom of religion is almost oxymoronic, as the case studies demonstrate a lack of freedom for those apostates who reveal their faithless status to their families and wider communities; forcing them hide or flee and use pseudo names when publically discussing their experiences, for fear of the repercussions on their personal security should those who are intolerant of their decision should ever find them.
This notion of ‘coming out’ -this departure from the Islamic faith as an apostate carries the same undertones and connotations of shame and dishonour as the issue of open homosexuality, another taboo across Muslim communities. The case studies highlight the fear, ostracisation, and abandonment apostates commonly feel, driving them to feel alone, ashamed and deprived of a sense of belonging, resulting in suicide in extreme cases. These individual apostate experiences directly contravene Britain’s guaranteeing of freedom of religion and instead is indicative that perhaps the Muslim Cultural Defence prevails over British and European human rights ideals, which seem to be shunned in the orthodoxy-heterodoxy paradigm of the Islamic communitarian beliefs.