Apostasy can feel like a dirty word. Ex-Muslims who leave Islam often feel like outsiders, rebels, and without community. Naturally like any group ex-Muslims are not homogenous. We are of different ethnic backgrounds and hold varying political views. Some left Islam after the death of a loved one when they began to question the validity of a moral God that oversees a cruel world. Others like myself were unable to reconcile ideological differences with the religion that we were raised in. Atheists and agnostics of Muslim heritage are under threat and facing isolation in many places in the world including Britain. The recent horrific murders of atheist bloggers Avjit Roy and Washiqur Rahman in Bangladesh has highlighted the necessity for those of us who consider freedom of belief as a fundamental human right to raise our voices.
Many ex-Muslims in the UK are from countries where sharia is part of the penal code. Prison sentences, the annulling of marriage contracts and execution is a reality for those like us born to Muslim parents who choose our own beliefs. Although apostates in Britain are not subjected to these inhumane practices, the taboo of apostasy is severe enough that some apostates live in fear that their families may find out. I have spoken to ex-Muslims in Britain as young as sixteen who struggling with the potential backlash to their loss of faith. One told me that she feels alienated and depressed even though her family do not know about her irreligious views. Just like other closeted ex-Muslim women she still has to wear hijab which she finds suffocating.
There are different reasons why ex-Muslims keep their beliefs hidden. A common fear is that parents may be upset or mocked within the community. Some ex-Muslims are at risk of violence from their families or forced marriages in the case of female ex-Muslims which could be used to control their ‘rebellion’. Others face the reality of ostracism or the breakdown of their marriages. We have all seen self-fashioned spokespeople for the Muslim community speaking on national television who say that there is no real issue here as apostasy laws do not exist in Britain. Those same people are often unable to confirm that they oppose the killing of ex-Muslims under sharia when the question is put to them.
I am part of an organisation called Faith to Faithless which was set up by Imtiaz Shams in order to increase the visibility of ex-Muslims. We hold events at British universities where ex-Muslims tell their stories and answer questions about their experiences. I debated a group of friends for an hour after an event we held at Surrey University. Amongst the five men was one who kept his gaze averted for most of the conversation. I finally asked him whether he agrees with the death penalty for apostates to which he gave a very vague answer. I then clearly asked him if I had said something blasphemous such as the Quran is not the word of God in a country like Pakistan does he agree that I should be put to death. At this point he looked me in the eye and said that he does agree.
Earlier at the same event a young Muslim women in hijab turned to face a man who had said that we are blaming Islam for our negative experiences, and defended us completely. I know that others like her exist within the Muslim community but they are a minority. I believe that the reason why more Muslims are unwilling to fully support us is because of an ambivalence about our right to blaspheme which goes hand in hand with apostasy. After all a popular interpretation of orthodox Islam does not allow a Muslim the right to leave Islam without some form of punishment. The question which needs to be asked is whether the Muslim community in Britain wants to continue supporting a societal standard which encroaches on the human rights of their own members, and causes parents to be estranged from their children.
It is no secret that some Muslims in Britain do support the death penalty for apostates and their excuse that it is only acceptable in a sharia state is nothing more than ill-disguised venom for us. I believe that the most important thing that needs to be done is for the wider Muslim community in Britain to first accept that there is a problem. Only after this we can move forward so that we can create tolerance and harmony between those of faith and non-faith within the Muslim context. For those of you willing to cross the bridge and stand with us in solidarity you will find that we were never strangers to begin with.
This article has been authored by Aliyah Saleem and she can be followed on Twitter @Ali_Jones89