In 2017, N. Lewis and I co-researched and co-wrote ‘Hate Crimes in the UK against ex-Muslims: Experiences, Effects & Recommendations’ . The full report is enclosed at the bottom of the page.
Given recent attacks in France and ongoing, divisive violence, I wanted to draw attention to religious and other minorities silently suffering in communities where heterodoxy is not encouraged. In times of terror, the world has a tendency to become tribal and individuals are guilty by association. We often forget about those who live in fear that members of their own family, religious groups and communities could kill them for not wanting to stay within the remit of inherited circumstances.
‘Abdul Aziz’ (Pseudonym, Gujurati background)
Summary: ‘Abdul’ left Islam for a Buddhist-influenced spirituality as a teenager, and he has kept his status as an ex-Muslim secret for over a decade from all bar a handful of people outside of his ‘analogue’ life. The reasons are fear of violence or death from extended family and others, fear of what the shame would do to his ailing mother, and fear of ostracism. He is unmarried because he fears it will compromise his secrecy, leading to tensions. He maintains a facade of Islamic observance, but it has a psychological toll, and he hopes one day to gain the inner strength to ‘come out’ publicly.
‘Abdul’ is a Gujarati ex-Muslim, whose pursuit for a spiritualist Islam led him to abandon the faith 11 years ago.
‘I left Islam in 2006. I was 15 years old then. I tried to practise it before then and found it very hard but I did try. From 2004 onwards, I started to become interested in spirituality, initially Sufism -I used to think Sufism was Islam – you have to practise meditation and pray. At that time, I wanted to be a good Muslim, a proper Muslim and I was on a spiritual path – but I ended up leaving Islam due to this one friend, who was more my mentor. I used to believe in anything he would say, he used to talk about meditation and prayer, but I started to notice contradictions in what he preached. One day something clicked inside me and I asked him, ‘’Do you believe in God?’ He said no. I just broke down, mentally broke down because I used to believe in anything he would say. He would go on to explain, ‘’this in Islam isn’t true, neither is that.’’ Obviously, I believed him, but after that stopped talking to him and hanging out with him for half a year. During that time, I was coming to terms with it – the idea there is no God: my whole belief in Islam fell down.’
For the first time in his life, ‘Abdul’ found himself at a loss regarding his belief and commitment to Islam.
‘The moment there’s one thought, then the whole thing is questionable, because you’re taught there is nothing wrong with your religion; can’t be anything wrong with it because it’s the word of God . But the moment there’s one thought, it’s questionable. I started reading articles online and there was this ex-Muslim from Canada – posting quotations from the hadiths, all of which were referenced. That’s the moment I left.’
Yet in spite of leaving Islam over a decade ago, ‘Abdul’ strongly fears and recognises the immediate dangers to openly living as an ex-Muslim.
‘The moment I left I knew I couldn’t say anything. I used to be like them. I know what Muslims are like and obviously I’ve experienced the anger, I used to be like that. I used to be Muslim when in 2006, the cartoons of the prophet came out and you saw the anger. I knew I couldn’t come out, it’s very risky. ‘I want to come out but the risks are too great right now – I feel I’m not strong enough to handle it. I want to be free but at the moment I won’t be able to handle it, so I’m still trying to wait it out. I do self -help mediation to give me confidence and stuff like that, cause it’s all in the head. I do it to better myself and it will come out because time is running out for me – my mum keeps telling me I need to get married and I can’t do that, I believe if I get married everyone will find out through the moment I get married. I have a lot of things lying around in my bedroom which proves I’m not a Muslim – I’ve got a lot of Buddhist material I’ve collected and bought over the years, so I believe it’s going to happen and I believe that for me to be happy I’ve got to set myself free.’
‘Abdul’s’ personal situation and family life provides another factor in his concealing of his ex-Muslim status.
‘The most I fear about is getting attacked physically, by cousins, uncles because they’re not nice people, they can be quite violent -at least their past suggests [that]. I’m more scared of mostly being attacked, beaten up and also concern for my mum and the mental and physical impact it would be on her. She’s on her own now, my Dad’s dead. I’m the oldest, I have one younger sister and that’s it – my mum isn’t strong mentally, she has health problems – she has high blood pressure, she lacks iron in her body so gets tired very easily and she suffers from physical panic attacks. So I’m worked about the impact on her. I have a feeling she won’t abandon me if she finds out but it would kill her on a physical level but also, what people will think. I don’t want to tarnish my family’s reputation.’
These fears spur ‘Abdul’ into going through the motions of Islam, to avoid suspicion or questions by those who know him. He stated that there are probably only six other people that know he has left Islam, scattered across the globe. He is aware of one other ex-Muslim in person, someone he credits for his leaving Islam – yet feels he is not as mentally and physically secure as his other ex-Muslim example, to emancipate himself from the Islamic system of life.
‘There’s some things I can’t avoid. I have to go to the mosque. I don’t go during the week – I used to years ago up until early 2012 – but now it’s just on a Friday. When Ramadan comes it’s a bloody nightmare! Not only do I have to fast and starve yourself but I have to lead the Ramadan prayers. That’s because when I was younger I learnt the whole Quran off by heart. It’s an absolute nightmare because now I don’t believe in all this.’
‘Abdul’ is largely exempt from any contempt he may face from family members, friends or the wider community as he chooses not to mention it all, but he recounts an incident where he was verbally abused for leaving Islam.
‘I usually don’t talk to anyone about it, all my friends are Muslims anyway. If they find out I probably won’t have any friends. But I used to talk to one girl online and I told her I left Islam. She was shocked: ‘’No it’s not true, you have a beard!’’ She told one of her friends who I also talked to online. At the time I would refer to myself as Buddhist back then. Now I refer to myself as a general spiritual cultivator. So this other girl came online, swearing at me: ‘’you Buddhist mother******, you bastard!’ . Straight away I blocked [and] said to the first girl ‘’what did you say to her?’’. She told me ‘’I didn’t say anything , just that you’re a Buddhist.’’ This was in 2008, where I wasn’t even 18 at the time. ‘
‘Abdul’ traces this type of abusive, contemptuous behaviour to the example of Muhammad. ‘The prophet of Islam was like that and when so many people for so many years copy that, they become that person. He was like that, it was a cult, almost a mafia thing.’
‘Abdul’ continues to live as a secret non-believer, but with the intent to one day come out, whether that be through flight or confessing to his loved ones – he is uncertain.