At the end of faith
Family and community ostracism, depression, suicide and in some cases violent death are some of the consequences of rejecting religious belief. It’s often a lonely and dangerous path to tread, so why is apostasy increasing worldwide?
Family and community ostracism, depression, suicide and in some cases violent death are among the consequences of rejecting religious belief. So why is apostasy increasing worldwide?
Call it Islam’s dark secret. The world’s second-largest religion (after Christianity) is generally seen as one that commands total commitment from adherents. But there’s a growing worldwide network of free spirits who have broken away from Islam and want to give others the courage to do the same. Two defectors spoke to the Listener recently in the cafe of a Wellington hotel. One was a visitor from London, 29-year-old Imtiaz Shams, the co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people who have renounced Islam and other strict religious codes. Shams was in the country to address an Auckland conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which champions human rights and secularism.
With him was a New Zealand man of Pakistani descent who wishes to be known simply as Mohammad (not his real name). His request for anonymity shows that even for those who have made the break from Islam, there are potential consequences in being publicly identified. In Mohammad’s case, his atheism is a sensitive subject within his family and he doesn’t want to aggravate matters.
Both Shams and Mohammad talk of “being in the closet” and “coming out”. As with gay men and women, being in the closet is a metaphor for the isolation experienced by Muslim apostates who remain hidden for fear of ostracism and hostility. Coming out may be liberating but it carries risks. In fundamentalist Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, apostasy can mean a violent death.
Shams and Mohammad encountered each other online through Faith to Faithless, which provides a digital haven for refugees from Judaism and Christian churches as well as Islam.
“Imtiaz was one of the first people who came out openly as an ex-Muslim,” says Mohammad. “I saw his video clips online and I thought, ‘This guy is either extremely brave or
naive’, and it turns out he’s very brave.”
MAKING NO SENSE
The two men’s stories are similar. Both were brought up in close-knit and intensely devout Muslim families. Both were once fervently committed to Islam but found themselves asking awkward questions about their religion that no one could answer.
Shams, an instantly likeable man who speaks with a Cockney accent and peppers his speech with very non-Islamic expletives, was born into a British Bangladeshi family and spent 10 years of his childhood in Saudi Arabia, where his father was then working.
As a child he devoured Islamic books, but in his late teens he started having doubts – “questions about the actions of the Prophet, who he married, the history of the Islamic empire, all of these things”.
“That was okay, because religion has structures for dealing with doubts, but then the answers stopped making sense to me.”
For a time, he blamed his doubts on his own arrogance. He would look at his devout and much-loved uncles and ask himself how they could be wrong.
All the while, he would vigorously defend Islam to outsiders. “This is very common – people who are particularly defensive of Islam are often having serious doubts.” He says that when he eventually walked away from Islam, a shocked family member said to him: “You, of all people.”
Muslim apostates remain hidden for fear of ostracism and hostility. In fundamentalist Muslim countries, apostasy can mean a violent death.
Mohammad relates a similar story. He first came to New Zealand as a child with his
High-profile former Muslims: from left, actors Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani.