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Flights From Islam

Journeys away from Islam are just as dramatic, and in some cases perilous, as those toward its violent fringes.
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Muslim veiled women in the heart of downtown Istanbul in 2013. (Photo: meunierd/Shutterstock)

Muslim veiled women in the heart of downtown Istanbul in 2013. (Photo: meunierd/Shutterstock)

Last month, a group of activists and charity workers in Britain expressed concerns over the exploitation—"grooming," as they put it—of young people. But this group wasn't talking about pedophiles and the sexual abuse of children; they were talking about jihadists and their Islamic State sponsors. This is part of a broader consensus, within scholarly and especially liberal-left circles, that jihadists are psychologically normal, and that jihadism must be contextualized, rather than simply condemned.

If only ex-Muslims—people who once believed in Islam and identified as Muslims but who no longer do—attracted nearly as much sympathy and explanatory patience for their similarly dramatic and contentious journeys.

Apostasy, the act of renouncing one's faith, is a sin in classical Islam. Though it doesn't mandate a worldly punishment for apostasy, the Quran threatens eternal torture and damnation for Muslims who leave the faith: "Those who disbelieve and die will not be saved even if they offer enough gold to fill the entire earth. Agonizing torment is in store for them, and there will be no one to help them."

The four leading classical schools of Islamic law on which the sharia is based—the Shafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Hanafi—go even further, stipulating that unrepentant apostasy is a crime punishable by death. This ruling is incorporated into the criminal code of a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen. Apostasy is also illegal in Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Maldives, Qatar, and Oman.

"My family thinks that I'm crazy. My step-mum told the imam everything that had happened. And the imam said it sounded like I'd gone crazy. So I was declared, like, insane."

The story is different in the secular West, where freedom of religion is a foundational human right. Yet even here, apostasy remains a stigma within Muslim communities.

I have spent the past five years talking to ex-Muslims in Britain and Canada as part of a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Britain's largest organization for funding research on social issues. The overwhelming picture that emerges from my research is one of trauma and suffering: Leaving Islam, for the unknown numbers who leave, is a prolonged and psychologically costly process.

Ordinary ex-Muslims in the West, I have found, are not living in fear for their lives. There are, no doubt, some notable exceptions, like the Somali born, United States-based human rights activist and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who lives under armed guard as a result of the death threats she has received. One young woman I interviewed, from Canada, relayed to me how she was stripped naked by her father and a group of his friends and violently shaken and spat on as part of an exorcism carried out to purge her of her "waywardness." Another young British-Pakistani woman said her parents threatened to kill her if she didn't recant her apostasy and return to the fold. Other ex-Muslims have spoken about the countless online death threats they have received.

For most ex-Muslims, however, the greatest challenge lies in facing down threats not to mortal life, but to emotional well-being, ranging from everyday insults and barbs to severe moral condemnation, even ostracism from loved ones.


One interviewee, a man in his late thirties from the North of England, said that when he anonymously disclosed his apostasy in a Muslim online forum, the response was uniformly negative, and he was accused of never having been a "true" Muslim in the first place. "I still don't understand how you could leave Islam," said one commenter. "I just don't get it. To me it's like you never had Islam in your heart, because if someone understands the true meaning of Islam (and this life) and the beauty of Islam, they will not be able to leave it. You can give me an explanation and all that, but like I said—I will never understand."

Among the younger contingent of ex-Muslims I spoke with, many said their parents had dismissed their apostasy as youthful rebellious exuberance, something they would grow out of once they'd regained their senses. One interviewee, an Iraqi-born doctor based in Scotland, said his parents "thought I was going through a phase. They didn't think that it was going to be something permanent."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali in May 2011 at the University of St. Gallen. (Photo: Denniss/Wikimedia Commons)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali in May 2011 at the University of St. Gallen. (Photo: Denniss/Wikimedia Commons)

Other ex-Muslims said that when they disclosed their apostasy to relatives, not only was their knowledge of Islam held up to scrutiny, but so was their very sanity. "My family thinks that I'm crazy," one British woman told me. "My step-mum told the imam everything that had happened. And the imam said it sounded like I'd gone crazy. So I was declared, like, insane."

And nearly everyone I interviewed expressed their annoyance at having their motives assailed: "They think that you just want to live a life of sin, that you want to sleep around and get drunk and go hedonist," said a young German-Afghan interviewee, referring to his family and friends.

My book on apostasy is full of life stories. But it begins, sadly, with a death story: the suicide of one of my interviewees. Irtaza Hussain was just 22 when he took his life. He was born in Pakistan, and came to Britain when he was 16. The Irtaza I knew was intelligent and intense, with a seemingly limitless curiosity about the world. He was also morally courageous and spoke openly about his atheism. He even went on national television to defend his views, which he did with passion and eloquence.

Irtaza Hussain was not, to use Deepa Kumar's demeaning expression, a "native informant," meaning a sell out. He was someone who changed his mind, and he did not want to remain silent about this. He was not disclosing dangerous secrets against Muslims. He was engaging in self-criticism. And he knew all about bigotry, because he himself had to put up with it from the white racists in his East London neighborhood.

If there is such a thing as Islamophobia, as there no doubt is, there is also such a thing as ex-Islamophobia. But unlike its outsider-propagated sibling, ex-Islamophobia is hardly ever publicly discussed or even credited. It is a depressing irony that it finds expression among those who know all too well just how wounding and detrimental prejudice can be.