|Imtiaz Shams (right) has set about combatting the intimidating atmosphere|
for nonbelieving Muslims on campuses by holding several Faith to
Faithless meetings in universities around the UK.
The penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment.
Sulaiman Vali is a softly spoken 33-year-old software engineer. A natural introvert not drawn to controversy or given to making bold statements, he’s the kind of person who is happiest in the background. He lives alone in a modest house on a quiet street in a small town in East Northamptonshire. He doesn’t want to be any more specific than that about the location. “If someone found out where I lived,” he explains, “they could burn my house down.”
Why should such an understated figure, someone who describes himself as a “nobody”, speak as if he’s in a witness protection programme? The answer is that six years ago he decided to declare that he no longer accepted the fundamental tenets of Islam. He stopped being a believing Muslim and became instead an apostate. It sounds quaintly anachronistic, but it’s not a term to be lightly adopted.
Last week the hacking to death in Bangladesh of the blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was a brutal reminder of the risks atheists face in some Muslim-majority countries. And in an era in which British Islamic extremists travel thousands of miles to kill those they deem unbelievers, an apostate’s concern for his or her security at home is perhaps understandable.
“Oh yeah, I’m scared,” agrees Nasreen (not her real name) a feisty 29-year-old asset manager from east London who has been a semi-closeted apostate for nine years. “I’m not so worried about the loonies because it’s almost normal now to get threats. What worries me is that they go back to my parents and damage them, because that’s not unheard of.”
The danger is confirmed by Imtiaz Shams, an energetic 26-year-old who runs a group called Faith to Faithless, which aims to help Muslim nonbelievers speak out about their difficult situations. Shams has a visible presence on YouTube and has organised several events at universities. “I am at physical risk because I do videos,” says Shams. “I don’t like putting myself in the firing line, but I had to because no one else is willing to do it.”
As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”
Like the gay liberation movement of a previous generation, Muslim apostates have to fight for the right to be recognised while knowing that recognition brings shame, rejection, intimidation and, very often, family expulsion.
Vali comes from a strictly religious Indian-heritage family. He was born in Kenya and moved with his parents and six siblings to England when he was 14. As outsiders, his family stayed close – “I always knew if I wanted anything they’d be there for me,” he says.
His father is an imam who follows the puritanical Deobandi scholastic tradition of Islam that has influence over a third of Britain’s mosques. All through his teenage years, when adolescents typically rebel, and even at university, Vali dutifully followed his father’s faith. Occasionally some of what he calls the more “barbaric punishments” found in sharia law troubled him, but he put his discomfort to one side. “I would just think, if God wants it, fine.”
It was when he left his home in Leicester to work in Cambridge that he first encountered an intellectual challenge to his worldview. He found himself working alongside non-Muslims and atheists, and inevitably questions of faith arose. Initially he began researching criticism of Islam online and in the books of people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as a means of defending his faith. But in the process the suspicion took root that his opponents had the stronger arguments.
Nevertheless, he kept his reservations to himself when he returned to live in Leicester, where an arranged marriage awaited him. “She was very religious from a religious family,” he says, still pained by the memory. But he couldn’t go through with it. “I wasn’t going to lie and carry on with a marriage knowing that I didn’t believe in God.”
His decision went down very badly. His family would have forgiven him, though, as long as he remained a Muslim. That’s all they really asked. And it was the one thing he couldn’t do. He was perfectly happy to be a cultural Muslim, take part in celebrations and observe traditions, but he couldn’t pretend a faith he didn’t possess.
“This idea of belief,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t make yourself believe what you don’t believe.”
So he confessed his atheism to his horrified family. One of his brothers reminded him that the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment.
“I don’t think he would have any qualms about me being killed,” says Vali, although he emphasises that he doesn’t believe anyone from his family would seek to do him physical harm or encourage others to do so. Instead he was ousted from the family. He was disowned.
There has been a great deal of public debate in recent years about what drives young Muslims towards radicalisation. It’s an urgent subject of study in various disciplines of academia, has spawned a library of books, and is the focus of well-funded government programmes.
What is much less known about, and far less discussed, is the plight of young Muslims going in the opposite direction – those who not only turn away from radicalisation but from Islam itself.
Although it is fraught with human drama – existential crisis, philosophical doubt, family rupture, violent threats, communal expulsion, depression, and all manner of other problems – the apostate’s journey elicits remarkably little media interest or civic concern. According to Cottee, there is not “a single sociological study… on the issue of apostasy from Islam”.
No one knows what numbers are involved, few understand the psychological difficulties individuals confront, or the social pressures they are compelled to resist. As with many other areas of communal discourse, insiders are reluctant to talk about it, and outsiders are either too incurious or sensitive to ask.
In this sense the struggle of ex-Muslims is markedly different from that of early gay rights campaigners. Where gays and lesbians could draw support from other progressive movements, ex-Muslims are further marginalised by what Cottee calls “the contested status of Islam” in western societies.
Imtiaz Shams has set about combatting the intimidating atmosphere for nonbelieving Muslims on campuses by holding several Faith to Faithless meetings in universities around the country. The idea is to enable ex-Muslims to speak about their experiences publicly. The events, which can be seen on YouTube, have been tense as Islamists have staged protests, but they feature heart-rending tales of familial rejection and suicidal thoughts that have at least stimulated debate.
Shams comes from a Bangladeshi background but grew up in Saudi Arabia. He says that in many ways he found the ex-pat compound in which he and his family lived in Saudi Arabia more progressive than Britain. “It was when my mother came here that she got really radicalised.”
He believes Muslims face an identity crisis.
“We don’t know who we are. There’s a feeling of insecurity as a brown person, often for good reason. I went to school in a really white school. My nickname was “Terrorist”. The kids didn’t know better. I grew up in that narrative. I was very religious. I believed there was a caliphate and we should fight for that. I had a strong sense of justice. One of the things that people do not understand about radicals is that they’re often guided by a sense of justice.”
He lost faith because his sense of justice could not be reconciled with the manner in which he was taught to believe other religions were bad.
“At 20, I actually thought I was the only Muslim atheist in the world. You just don’t know about it. I didn’t know you could leave. There’s not a concept of it. It’s hard to explain. It’s like knowing the world is round but you can’t see it.”
Fully aware of the mental stress so many dissenting Muslims suffer, he has been working to get appropriate therapy for those going through the emotional dislocation of leaving Islam.
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Source: The Guardian, Andrew Anthony, May 2015
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