“There are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.” – Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
Taking the Plunge and Living Authentically
I consider myself a lucky ex-Muslim. When I came out to my family about my apostasy, I did not face violence or hatred. I was not ostracised. Certain family members and friends expressed sadness, but they never stopped loving me. They simply told me to stay silent, to move through the world as quietly as possible. But how could I find solace in silence when my experience put me in the auspicious position to create positive change?
Words matter. As a writer I truly believe that words have an impact in the global trade of ideas. Words, however, are not all that matters when it comes to making a meaningful impact. We are familiar with the expression, “actions speak louder than words.” Actions are often mobilised by words, and to silence ex-Muslims while Muslims have the freedom to speak is an action against not only ex-Muslims but free-thinkers of all identities.
Finding a Support System
As a teenager, I did not have the luxury of hearing the stories of sincere ex-Muslims as we have today. Leaving Islam, for many, means leaving behind a community. I wanted to know I was not alone in my beliefs or lack thereof. At the time, I did not know any outspoken ex-Muslims personally. The goal was to find like-minded individuals. I wanted to know that there were people like me.
One evening, I decided to search the key term “ex-Muslim” and look for videos by ex-Muslims. I was inundated by videos that were essentially commercials for evangelical churches. This was problematic for me for two main reasons. First, the videos seemed to suggest that the discomfort of leaving Islam could only be alleviated by becoming a Christian. Second, the orientalist theme in many of these videos as well as the testimonials of the ex-Muslim Christian converts seemed insincere. Would these apostates have been lauded had they not chosen Christianity? After all, ex-Muslims choose to risk their safety and overall well-being to leave an ideology that denies basic human rights and promotes violence on a global scale. To me, the social dynamics of the evangelical Christian community does bear a resemblance to the Muslim community, which is too close for comfort.
The Magic of Reality and the Importance of Secular Education
Eventually I came across educational content by atheist social media personalities. The videos I found were not made by former Muslims, but they did address the ideology of Islam. They cited empirical evidence, allowing the viewer to trace the content of these videos to learn for themselves, directly from the source. I was in sheer awe at the scientific explanation of our existence. Reality touched me in a way I was taught religion should have made me feel. I am now amazed by the beauty of the universe. I feel a sense of inner peace where there was once inner turmoil. As Carl Sagan once said, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
I invited in this abundance of empirical information with open arms. I did expect initial resistance at my end. After all, I was still getting used to the idea of shedding Abrahamic ideology from my intellectual framework. Eventually I became even more public about my apostasy. I shared and continue to share my musings publicly on social media and other outlets to add to this collective voice. Today, I am thrilled to see how many outspoken ex-Muslim, atheist, free-thinkers are present in the social arena. I regularly receive messages of support from ex-Muslims from marginalised social groups who essentially live a double life as a means of survival. This lets me know that I am doing the right thing by being the voice I yearned to hear when I was in the early stages of questioning and eventually leaving Islam.
The War on Free Speech and the Detriments of Censorship
One thing I did not initially take into account was cyber bullying and harassment. I expected it and still do, but not to this extent. I found myself suddenly bombarded by a barrage of hate mail. I was called a “token ex-Muslim,” an “angry ex-Muslim,” I was accused of “profiting off of the ‘islamophobia industry.’” One stranger publicly claimed that they knew me from childhood and that I actually grew up Jewish and never was Muslim to begin with. I consulted other outspoken ex-Muslims with a social media presence who told me they were familiar with those accounts spewing harassment and informed me that these cyber bullies had multiple social media accounts and regularly harassed ex-Muslims or created petitions to have ex-Muslim online platforms disabled or removed altogether by means of mass reporting on the grounds of “hate speech.”
These bizarre fabrications are very telling of the mentality of Muslims who obsess over apostates. Somehow, our existence as ex-Muslim free-thinkers are a threat to their existence. Our stories that we share, free of charge, are a change from the scripted ex-Muslim stories of a decade or more ago. “Finding Jesus” stories are often easy to debunk because in many cases it is highly likely that the stories were fabricated. Even if the speaker is sincere in recounting their personal experience, the esoteric factor is enough to deter a rational thinker. However, you cannot “debunk” a true story or the exchange of empirical evidence, which is why I believe that the harassment of ex-Muslims has evolved from hostile theological debate into using censorship to silence ex-Muslims.
Conspiracy theories about ex-Muslims, used to discredit their voice, are also common. The go-to methods of silencing such voices typically range from calling the apostate a liar to calling them an employee of some larger organisation, hellbent on slandering Islam and Muslims. These cyber bullies garner support from liberals and leftists by using misleading and politically charged buzzwords such as “islamophobia.”
Many Muslims tell me my beliefs should be kept to myself. I agree to some extent. I do not wish to impose my personal beliefs onto people. My beliefs, however, just as their beliefs, will make an appearance in the public sphere whether it is intentional or not. Muslims regularly and openly use Islamic expressions or share their religious views in the sociopolitical arena. I, too, have the freedom to express myself as a critical thinker, secularist, and free speech advocate.
I do not subscribe to the notion that I should “just keep [my apostasy] to myself.” There are countless ex-Muslims around the world who are forced by law or by their communities to live in silence or face persecution. I use my geographical and social privileges as a second-generation Iraqi-American ex-Muslim. I am lucky enough to live in a safe environment where I may hopefully inspire closeted free-thinkers, who remain silent for the sake of self-preservation. Openness about apostasy from Islam is not a coordinated malevolent conspiracy against the Muslim community. It is a story that needs to be told, a voice that needs to be heard, and a movement that must continue.