The “Ex” in Ex-Muslim
“I don’t personally know anyone who has died from cancer, so why do you oncologists waste so much time talking about it? I mean, plenty of people have gotten cancer and then done just fine, right? I think you should leave well enough alone.”
We call ourselves Ex-Muslims. And there’s a reason for that.
I remember the first argument I had with my parents about Islam at the age of 12. They refused to give me permission to attend a birthday sleepover party because, as a female, I needed to have a Muslim guardian present. My friend, Jessica, and her family, are Christian; it just wouldn’t do. Enraged at not being allowed to be myself and have fun with my peers, I told them I no longer want to be Muslim. It was in that moment when my mother took her dusty apron off and threw it on the kitchen counter.
“You listen here,” she said. “I didn’t leave Afghanistan so that my children can be Canadian. We brought you and your brothers here because of the war. Do you understand? You have to be Muslim. You are Muslim. Your grandfather is Muslim and your father is Muslim. No child of mine will be anything else.”
My mother crouched over me and stuck her finger in my face. Her words and her tone permanently shook me. In the minds of most Muslims, including people in my own family, Islam is something you can never leave. Islam is in you. You are forever a beacon of Islam. Islam is intrinsic to your being and your identity, much like your race. In most cases, “Muslim” often is treated as a monolithic race by Muslims and Non-Muslims. But, I’ve broken all the rules: in 2009, I left Islam. For good.
For many years, I struggled with depression and anxiety, unable to communicate my troubles to anyone, whether it be my mates or my parents. My parents enforced strict rules and curfews on me because they were afraid that I would stray from the deen. I assume my parents thought, “Why join a volleyball team or school paper when you can learn to cook, clean and make tea for your parents before they arrive home in the evening from work?” Of course, the restrictive gender roles irritated me. At school and outside of the home, I saw no difference between myself and my male peers. At home, it was a different story — there was a restrictive, gender-based, overarching ideology and social structure that I could not accept.
By the time I moved out to attend university – against the wishes of my parents – I took up reading the Quran. Having been demoralized and alone with my depression, I tried to find solace in faith. I thought if Islam is the true path to a prosperous life as Muslims preach, then why not educate myself on the faith?
But as it turned out, reading the Quran was what led me away from Islam. I could not bear to identify as a Muslim when verses like 4:34 stated that should I disobey my husband, he has God’s permission to strike me. And as I read on, I realized that it is only women who need a mahram – a guardian whom she cannot marry (e.g. her brother); men are never required or advised to have a mahram. Just like when I was 12 and I wanted to attend a sleepover, I had been told that I needed a mahram. I realized that in Islam, women are never independent people but property to be escorted, handled, and watched. And in Quranic verses like 4:34, women are seen as perpetually in an arrested state of adolescence. If wives disobey then husbands are permitted to corporally punish them, like one would with a misbehaving child.
Within two years, my idea of an omnipotent and just deity evaporated. I moved from agnostic to atheist but I kept this to myself. I wished not to disturb other people’s beliefs. I wished not to preach. I only wished to find happiness and be a good person. I now knew that it was possible without religion. So, I explored. Leaving the faith taught me that I am not merely a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife or a Muslimah. I am a person with the agency to decide for myself who I am and who I am not.
Following these revelations, I found the Ex-Muslim community of Reddit, the social news website, in 2011. There, former Muslims came together and discussed their apostasy and the struggles of living double lives. Many came from ultra-orthodox families where they were forced to wear a hijab or even niqab or pray five times a day with their parents. The community was not only a forum for discussion but it became a place for support and a place for recovery. In fact, three large ex-Muslim communities formed there and took to meeting offline.
In 2011, the Ex-Muslims in London came together and created an underground community. A mere two months after, Toronto followed London’s lead and created a community of their own.
It is here that I was introduced to the path I am on now. I attended my first Ex-Muslims meet-up in a pub on a chilly January afternoon in the northern part of Toronto. Five other people and I sat at a table, drinking cider and beer. It felt surreal. Ex-Muslims are not just people on the internet. They are in Toronto. They are in Mississauga. They are in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver. And across the border, they are in Washington, D.C., Austin, Dallas, Houston, Southern California, New York City, Seattle. We are everywhere. We are in the hundreds and in the thousands, globally. With one search of “Ex-Muslim” on Google, one will find organizations abroad, from New Zealand to Morocco.
Among those voices, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain stands out. The CEMB is something we in North America look up to, or at least, I do. Earlier this year, in May, a collective of the CEMB forum — one of our co-founders Kiran, being one of them — collaborated to write, “The Importance of Being Ex-Muslim”. While my story is an example of a personal reason why I call myself an Ex-Muslim, the article I’ve linked to gives a far greater analysis that goes in depth and brings historical context.
With great work coming from the likes of the CEMB and its members, these communities serve as proof that one can leave Islam in spite of the stigmas and with strong justifications. Both in the Quran and the hadiths the punishment for apostasy is clearly outlined: death. So, with the use of the term “Ex-Muslim,” we employ it to show solidarity with those who still do not have the privilege to leave, like in Muslim majority nations where secularism is treated as a Western colonialist tactic to tear their social fabric. And with that, I realize what privilege I have to be Canadian and to leave my faith without the fear of death. Until Islamic republics strike down apostasy laws and until it is safe for former Muslims to abandon their faith without the repercussions of alienation and abuse, I will continue to call myself an Ex-Muslim.