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?

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Karl du Fresne

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.

CRIT­I­CAL QUES­TIONS

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.

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