Where are all the ex-Muslims?
How many people do you know who used to be Muslim, but no longer believe?
I thought so. Me neither. I know plenty of ex-Christians, even ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and former Reformed Protestants from the Dutch Bible belt. I also have a number of liberal Muslim friends, who believe in Allah and in the afterlife, but who read the Qur’an in historical context and with a hefty grain of salt. Most of us know religious converts too: people who didn’t use to have any faith, but then converted to Islam (or Christianity). But I don’t know a single person among my friends and acquaintances who moved in the opposite direction: from believing Muslim to atheist.
Isn’t that remarkable? Ex-Muslims surely exist in Belgium as elsewhere. Every belief system has its renegades: people who used to embrace it but no longer do. Believing or failing to believe is involuntary. We don’t choose our own beliefs – they impose themselves on us. And sometimes they slip away. One fine day you can no longer bring yourself to believe in homeopathy or UFOs or the existence of Allah, and there’s no going back even if you wanted to.
But for some mysterious reason, ex-Muslims stay below the radar. On April 1 we organize a symposium in Ghent entitled “Ex-“, with testimonies from renegades of various groups and belief systems: religions, cults, ideologies. For one group in particular it proved virtually impossible to find an ex-member who was willing to speak out in public, even though we tried very hard: Islam.
In the end we found one rare bird, not coincidentally the same one who is being interviewed in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen today: playwright Sam Touzani, ex-Muslim, fan of Richard Dawkins, self-professed member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If you read Touzani’s story, you begin to understand why outspoken ex-Muslims are such a rare breed: hundreds of death threats, harassments, fatwas, vandalism, incitement to hatred and violence. To out yourself as an non-believing ex-Muslim is still exceedingly risky, even in Europe. In many Islamic countries, it is effectively a death sentence. Touzani is a very brave man indeed.
Ex-Muslims are nowhere perfectly safe. Following the example set by that perfect man to be emulated by all Muslims, the Prophet Mohammed, Islamic sharia law dictates that apostates of the One True Faith should be put to death. The Pakistani apostate Ibn Warraq was forced to assume a pseudonym when he published his book Why I am not a Muslim, for fear of being murdered by radicals. The ex-Muslim and ex-Dutch writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been living with round-the-clock personal protection for years, after her friend Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death in the streets of Amsterdam, with a note attached to his corpse threatening her that she would be next. Literally thousands of religious fanatics would gladly slit her throat, if given the opportunity. In Bangladesh atheist and secular bloggers are being systematically hacked to death with machetes by Muslim radicals. In more than 10 countries – every single one of them Muslim-majority – apostasy is officially punishable by death. More disconcertingly still, in many countries this draconian punishment is supported by comfortable majorities among the population at large. Is there anyone who dares to utter the cowardly and hypocritical phrase “Islamophobia” in this context?
Belief systems are often equipped with clever tricks to entrap adherents. Harsh punishments await those who abandon the group: traitors are ostracized, shunned and tarred by their former co-believers, even by family members and friends. Naturally, the most extreme form of punishment is death. Several belief systems have ‘discovered’ this brilliant strategy to perpetuate themselves – see the book Deuteronomy in the Bible – but at this moment in history, Islam is about the only belief system which manages to make this threat real and credible. Even Scientologists, though they are infamous for harassing and blackmailing their ex-members, generally don’t stab them to death. And Megan Phelps-Roper, former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, about the most extreme Christian cult on the planet, recently gave a TED talk about her journey as an apostate, and had a conversation with atheist Sam Harris on his podcast. Their experiences leaving faith were surely horrible and traumatic, but at least they don’t have to fear for their life.
So hence my call to ex-Muslims: speak out in public if you can. Become a member of one of the various organizations for Ex-Muslims. There’s more of you than you think, and there’s strength in numbers. If you are willing to participate in our symposium in Ghent, contact me via e-mail (email@example.com). When I published this piece in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen yesterday, I was flooded with e-mails from ex-Muslims, deists, agnostics and liberal Muslims, all of them acknowledging the gravity of the problem. Tellingly, most of them did not want to disclose their identity, and thus far no one was willing to talk at our symposium. I also received English e-mails from ex-Muslims who arrived in Belgium as refugees, forced to flee their native countries because they were hunted down as apostates. That’s why I decided to translate my piece.
But the tide is changing. In Western countries and elsewhere, more and more ex-Muslims dare to speak out. If you want to read more about their stories, watch this documentary about ex-Muslims in the UK, check the hashtag #ExMuslimBecause, or read the wonderful new book The Atheist Muslim by the Canadian-Pakistani writer Ali Rizvi.
And to my liberal Muslim friends: please support your former comrades in faith. Apostates are like canaries in a coal mine. If you don’t see one escaping once in a while, there must be something seriously toxic going in inside. And of course it’s never too late to embrace a rational worldview yourself. Groucho Marx once quipped: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." Would you want to belong to a club that refuses to accept your membership resignation?