Sulaiman Vali is a softly spoken 33-year-old software engineer. A natural introvert not drawn to controversy or given to making bold statements, he’s the kind of person who is happiest in the background. He lives alone in a modest house on a quiet street in a small town in East Northamptonshire. He doesn’t want to be any more specific than that about the location. “If someone found out where I lived,” he explains, “they could burn my house down.”
Why should such an understated figure, someone who describes himself as a “nobody”, speak as if he’s in a witness protection programme? The answer is that six years ago he decided to declare that he no longer accepted the fundamental tenets of Islam. He stopped being a believing Muslim and became instead an apostate. It sounds quaintly anachronistic, but it’s not a term to be lightly adopted.
Last week the hacking to death in Bangladesh of the blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was a brutal reminder of the risks atheists face in some Muslim-majority countries. And in an era in which British Islamic extremists travel thousands of miles to kill those they deem unbelievers, an apostate’s concern for his or her security at home is perhaps understandable.
“Oh yeah, I’m scared,” agrees Nasreen (not her real name) a feisty 29-year-old asset manager from east London who has been a semi-closeted apostate for nine years. “I’m not so worried about the loonies because it’s almost normal now to get threats. What worries me is that they go back to my parents and damage them, because that’s not unheard of.”
The danger is confirmed by Imtiaz Shams, an energetic 26-year-old who runs a group called Faith to Faithless, which aims to help Muslim nonbelievers speak out about their difficult situations. Shams has a visible presence on YouTube and has organised several events at universities. “I am at physical risk because I do videos,” says Shams. “I don’t like putting myself in the firing line, but I had to because no one else is willing to do it.”
As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”
Like the gay liberation movement of a previous generation, Muslim apostates have to fight for the right to be recognised while knowing that recognition brings shame, rejection, intimidation and, very often, family expulsion.
Vali comes from a strictly religious Indian-heritage family. He was born in Kenya and moved with his parents and six siblings to England when he was 14. As outsiders, his family stayed close – “I always knew if I wanted anything they’d be there for me,” he says.
His father is an imam who follows the puritanical Deobandi scholastic tradition of Islam that has influence over a third of Britain’s mosques. All through his teenage years, when adolescents typically rebel, and even at university, Vali dutifully followed his father’s faith. Occasionally some of what he calls the more “barbaric punishments” found in sharia law troubled him, but he put his discomfort to one side. “I would just think, if God wants it, fine.”
It was when he left his home in Leicester to work in Cambridge that he first encountered an intellectual challenge to his worldview. He found himself working alongside non-Muslims and atheists, and inevitably questions of faith arose.Initially he began researching criticism of Islam online and in the books of people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as a means of defending his faith. But in the process the suspicion took root that his opponents had the stronger arguments.
Nevertheless, he kept his reservations to himself when he returned to live in Leicester, where an arranged marriage awaited him. “She was very religious from a religious family,” he says, still pained by the memory. But he couldn’t go through with it. “I wasn’t going to lie and carry on with a marriage knowing that I didn’t believe in God.”
His decision went down very badly. His family would have forgiven him, though, as long as he remained a Muslim. That’s all they really asked. And it was the one thing he couldn’t do. He was perfectly happy to be a cultural Muslim, take part in celebrations and observe traditions, but he couldn’t pretend a faith he didn’t possess.
Nasreen: ‘I’ve had bouts of clinical depression. The thing is, Islam teaches you to grow up with a lack of identity. Without the collective, you’re lost.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/Observer.
“This idea of belief,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t make yourself believe what you don’t believe.”
So he confessed his atheism to his horrified family. One of his brothers reminded him that the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment.
“I don’t think he would have any qualms about me being killed,” says Vali, although he emphasises that he doesn’t believe anyone from his family would seek to do him physical harm or encourage others to do so. Instead he was ousted from the family. He was disowned.
There has been a great deal of public debate in recent years about what drives young Muslims towards radicalisation. It’s an urgent subject of study in various disciplines of academia, has spawned a library of books, and is the focus of well-funded government programmes.
What is much less known about, and far less discussed, is the plight of young Muslims going in the opposite direction – those who not only turn away from radicalisation but from Islam itself.
Although it is fraught with human drama – existential crisis, philosophical doubt, family rupture, violent threats, communal expulsion, depression, and all manner of other problems – the apostate’s journey elicits remarkably little media interest or civic concern. According to Cottee, there is not “a single sociological study… on the issue of apostasy from Islam”.
No one knows what numbers are involved, few understand the psychological difficulties individuals confront, or the social pressures they are compelled to resist. As with many other areas of communal discourse, insiders are reluctant to talk about it, and outsiders are either too incurious or sensitive to ask.
In this sense the struggle of ex-Muslims is markedly different from that of early gay rights campaigners. Where gays and lesbians could draw support from other progressive movements, ex-Muslims are further marginalised by what Cottee calls “the contested status of Islam” in western societies.
To raise the subject of apostasy is to risk demonising an embattled minority. Some will see it, almost by definition, as Islamophobic or even racist. To be a “Muslim” in 21st-century Britain is no longer simply about religious affiliation; it also suggests membership of a cultural entity that receives far more than its fair share of scare stories and alarmist reporting. So it’s vital to be aware of the discrimination that many Muslims encounter. But what of the minority within the minority who have to deal with fear, guilt, shame and isolation? Must they remain invisible as a mark of religious respect?
Vali has seen his mother just once for a few minutes four years ago. “She didn’t want to touch me,” he says. “She thought her God would be angry with her if she treated me kindly.”
What saved him from isolation was the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, an association set up in 2007 by the Iranian-born secularist Maryam Namazie that campaigns to end “religious intimidation and threats”. The CEMB assists about 350 people a year, “the majority of whom” says Namazie, “have faced threats for having left Islam – either by their families or by Islamists.”
She believes this number represents just the tip of the problem because the consequences of coming out deter many more from doing so. Many of the cases the CEMB deals with concern forced marriages, which Namazie says have been used to control those seeking to leave Islam.
For Vali, CEMB provided the reassurance of shared experience. “That was great. You just knew that you weren’t alone. Before, I didn’t know how many people there were out there, what sort of people, how they were thinking. I’ve probably [now] met 100 ex-Muslims and I keep hearing stories of depression. I can understand it.”
It is the same mental and emotional struggle Cottee observed when researching his book. “The majority of ex-Muslims I interviewed said they were profoundly lonely and isolated, and they related this directly to their apostasy and the secrecy and shame attached to it,” he says.
One of those was 22-year-old Irtaza Hussain, originally from Pakistan, who hanged himself in September 2013. He had written on the CEMB forum: “I hate how I am completely alienated from society and will never find a way to fit in.”
Of course it’s an unfortunate truth that there are young men from all walks of life who feel alienated, and some take their own lives for a variety of reasons. Yet it’s also true that Hussain felt trapped and lost between two worlds – the one he was attempting to leave and the one he couldn’t find a way to enter. If anything, it’s a predicament young Muslim women more often find themselves in.
“It’s more difficult for women,” says Nasreen. “You’re much more visible as a woman. You’re conditioned to behave in a certain way with a headscarf. I mean, you’re not going to go to a pub with a headscarf, are you? You’re not going to stay out late with a headscarf. It’s a form of control.”
Her family was not particularly religious – “cultural Muslims who prayed and would want you to dress modestly” – but her sister was scouted at university by Hizb ut-Tahrir, a proselytising Islamist group. The then 15-year-old Nasreen soon followed her sister. “I felt empowered as a teenager. It was this kind of pseudo-intellectualism. Spiritual religion gets a bit boring as a kid, so I liked the idea of politics too. It felt like a social movement and I was excited by that.”
It was immediately after 9/11 and she turned up at school demanding to wear a long black dress instead of the school uniform. “I said if you don’t let me, you’re breaching my freedom of expression as a Muslim, and they accepted it.”
She loved the sense of rebellion her pronounced Muslim identity conferred. That was largely the extent of the politics. When she looked at Islamic countries, she didn’t care about human rights atrocities. “There were women wearing scarves, that was what was important.”
But slowly she began to address the rhetoric and assumptions that she’d been filled with. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” she says. Most apostates don’t. Instead it’s usually a long and often painful process of questioning. At first she tried to crush her doubts. “I was scared. What was wrong with me? Why do I have these feelings and thoughts, they’re so haram [forbidden].”
She felt unable to speak to those closest to her, and was too ashamed to consult an imam. Like Vali, she researched online and the more she read, the more difficult it became to maintain her Islamic beliefs. But losing her religion has exacted a toll.
“I’ve had bouts of clinical depression,” Nasreen says. “The thing is, Islam teaches you to grow up with low self-esteem and lack of self-identity. Without the collective, you’re lost. You’ve been taught to feel guilty and people-pleasing as a woman, and you do that from a very young age. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I want to wear short skirts? That’s so disgusting!’ No, it’s not disgusting. It took me a long time to appreciate my sexuality and my femininity. There was a lot of stress. I lost my friends. You’re very lonely and you’re ostracised.”
However, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents. And nine years later, she still hasn’t informed them. Her compromise has been to let them know she doesn’t pray or wear a headscarf. That’s been problematic enough – her parents, like many Muslims, have become more religious over the past decade or so.
She blames the ghettoisation of multiculturalism and identity politics for this shift, the tendency to view individuals as members of separate cultural blocks. Or as Namazie puts it: “The problem with multiculturalism – not as a lived experience but as a social policy that divides and segregates communities – is that the “Muslim community” is seen to be homogenous. Therefore dissenters and freethinkers are deemed invisible because the ‘authentic’ Muslim is veiled, pro-sharia and pro-Islamist.”
One success of the Islamist movement in Britain has been to define the cultural identity primarily in terms of religion.
“We went from a Bengali to a Muslim community. It’s almost as if we’re suffering a second colonisation, the Arabisation of Asian cultures. Even my brother wears long Arab dresses.” As a consequence, she thinks Muslims have been encouraged to police other Muslims.
“I’ll give you a couple of examples,” she says. “The other day I ordered some food online – pork buns – and afterwards a guy called me up from the company and he said ‘Nasreen, do you know it’s not halal?’ I said yes, I’m not a Muslim, but afterwards I wish I’d said ‘Who are you to police what I’m eating? How dare you call me up to remind me.’ But that’s how people think: you’re a Muslim, you’ve got a Muslim name.”
She took a degree in anthropology at the University of London. “And I started to do my dissertation on ex-Muslim identity. My supervisor was this Muslim guy and he told me that it was rubbish, there’s no academic purpose to it.”
Sulaiman Vali: ‘This idea of belief… You can’t make yourself believe what you don’t believe.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/Observer
She had to complain to get another supervisor, who was very supportive, and, undaunted, continued with the research. “I succeeded in completing an original piece of empirical research on the ex-Muslim reality,” she says. “I even went on to achieve a special award for this very dissertation. I felt quite vindicated by that.”
Nevertheless, she detects a strong reluctance at universities to confront the concerted efforts by Islamist groups to lay claim to Muslim students. Not only are Islamic societies often run by extremists, with groups like the Islamic Education and Research Academy seeking to impose gender segregation, but the terms of academic discourse tend to endorse their brand of grievance politics.
“Go to your average sociology class,” says Nasreen, “and it’s very much about making Muslims victims of Islamophobia – a terminology I disagree with. It’s anti-Muslim bigotry. I dislike Islam – that’s OK, it’s an ideology, but I don’t dislike Muslims. They are two different things.”
She believes there needs to be secular spaces within Muslim communities. “Women within minority communities suffer massively because their only recourse is to go to some religious person, whether for counselling or any issue.”
Shams, who seems remarkably self-possessed for his young age, agrees that there are particular gender issues that afflict disillusioned Muslims. To this end he has tried to link up with feminist societies at universities. “But there’s a real problem in this country,” he says. “People don’t want to touch anything to do with leaving Islam. Especially in universities, where the politics are insane.”
He has a point. In recent times the National Union of Students have refused to condemn Isis on the grounds that this would justify Islamophobia. Shams believes that this kind of gesture and the NUS decision last month to lobby alongside Cage, the militant Islamic prisoners pressure group, undermines the position of dissenting Muslims. “What it does is to say to reformists and secularists, you’re not really Muslims.”
Shams has set about combatting the intimidating atmosphere for nonbelieving Muslims on campuses by holding several Faith to Faithless meetings in universities around the country. The idea is to enable ex-Muslims to speak about their experiences publicly. The events, which can be seen on YouTube, have been tense as Islamists have staged protests, but they feature heart-rending tales of familial rejection and suicidal thoughts that have at least stimulated debate.
Shams comes from a Bangladeshi background but grew up in Saudi Arabia. He says that in many ways he found the ex-pat compound in which he and his family lived in Saudi Arabia more progressive than Britain. “It was when my mother came here that she got really radicalised.”
He believes Muslims face an identity crisis.
“We don’t know who we are. There’s a feeling of insecurity as a brown person, often for good reason. I went to school in a really white school. My nickname was “Terrorist”. The kids didn’t know better. I grew up in that narrative. I was very religious. I believed there was a caliphate and we should fight for that. I had a strong sense of justice. One of the things that people do not understand about radicals is that they’re often guided by a sense of justice.”
He lost faith because his sense of justice could not be reconciled with the manner in which he was taught to believe other religions were bad.
“At 20, I actually thought I was the only Muslim atheist in the world. You just don’t know about it. I didn’t know you could leave. There’s not a concept of it. It’s hard to explain. It’s like knowing the world is round but you can’t see it.”
Fully aware of the mental stress so many dissenting Muslims suffer, he has been working to get appropriate therapy for those going through the emotional dislocation of leaving Islam.
“One ex-Muslim I know went to get therapy from a white female therapist and in the end she referred him to a Muslim support network.”
Too often, he believes, non-Muslims are unable or unwilling to see beyond the religious identity of Muslims. They are increasingly trained to understand religious needs but are frequently flummoxed by those who reject those needs.
“If you’re a secular or atheist Jew,” says Shams, “no one is going to say you’re not allowed to say anything about your community. Of course you are. But with Muslims it’s different – white people think you’re not really Muslim. That’s exasperating.”
It certainly seems perverse that while there is no taboo on the discussion of Islamic radicalisation, the mention of Islamic apostates still occasions widespread discomfort. We can publicly accept that there are Muslims that are so estranged from western society that they prefer to live as fundamentalists, but have far more trouble recognising that there are Muslims who are so estranged from their religion that they prefer to live as freethinkers.
Nasreen, Vali and Shams all agreed that it will only be by bringing greater attention to Muslim apostates in British society that their predicament will improve. It would also help, they say, if they could rely on the progressive support that was once the right of freethinkers in this country.
“Attitudes need to change,” says Cottee. “There has to be a greater openness around the whole issue. And the demonisation of apostates as ‘sell outs’ and ‘native informants’, which can be heard among both liberal-leftists and reactionary Muslims, needs to stop. People leave Islam. They have reasons for this, good, bad or whatever. It is a human right to change your mind. Deal with it.”