By Shazia Hobbs
I had never heard of the term ‘ex-Muslim’ until a few years ago and it was thanks to social media I discovered there were many others who thought like me, who no longer identified as Muslim.
Many of these ex-Muslims were anonymous on social media, hiding their true identities for fear of being disowned by their families and the wider community. For many more there is the fear of being beaten and even death for leaving Islam and proudly shouting that they no longer believe.
Yes, as difficult as it may be for some of you to understand, these people are living in the UK. You would think they would be safe here to stand up and say they have left Islam; it seems not. Death for apostates is in Islamic teachings, no matter where you are living in the world and the fear of death is very real for many who have left Islam.
As always you need to say NOT ALL Muslim families will disown their children, beat them or threaten them with death for leaving Islam; there are Muslim families who do not care what their children believe or do not believe.
I guess I am an apostate even though Islam was a religion that was forced on me as was the label ‘Muslim.’ I did not have any choice and I was not allowed to question anything. I was taught to read the Qur’an in Arabic, even though I spoke no Arabic. I was taught to pray in Arabic and again I had no idea of what I was saying in my prayers. I hated my visits to the mosque, every day after school I would go for a few hours to learn something I did not understand nor had any interest in.
When I refused a second forced marriage, my Muslim father disowned me and the Pakistani community, as is often the case, also shunned me. I tried to hold onto my religion as it was all I had known and also I did not know I could leave it. It was difficult living among non-Muslim people and keeping a hold of ‘my religion.’
For the longest time I would tell people I was Muslim just not a very good one or a practicing one. Like many other Muslims, I drank alcohol, I dated, I took drugs and I ate non-halal meat. I avoided eating any meat from a pig. Madness, I know, and unless you have grown up in a Muslim home the pig fear will never be understood by you. It took me at least ten years of being ostracised from my family before I ate my first ever bacon sandwich. The guilt would mean it was something I would not eat on a regular basis even though the taste was divine.
I did all the things that were deemed as ‘haram‘ – forbidden – so why not eat the flesh of the pig? I never felt even a twinge of guilt in doing all the other haram stuff but the pig would have me guilt-ridden for the entire day after eating it and I would swear never to do it again. I met many other Pakistani women and men who, like me, smoked weed, drank alcohol, and dated but the flesh of the pig was something they would never consider eating. Some of them would eat non-halal chicken but never touch the pig.
I have connected with many ex-Muslims on Twitter and there are a few with whom I DM (direct messages) regularly. They come from different cultural backgrounds and yet we connected because of our reasons for no longer believing.
Georges Ahmed, who initially began tweeting his opinions, focusing on apostasy and free speech, mainly in French, set up @ExMuslimTV. His reasons for doing so were for other ex-Muslims, closeted or not, to know they were not alone.
I used to think that many Pakistanis were living double lives, one for inside the home and one for outside, safe from the prying eyes of the family and community. I now believe that they live no life. A life full of lies, a life where they cannot be their true selves. Hiding their sexuality and the fact that they no longer believe. Pretending to be someone they are not must take a toll on them emotionally and mentally. And this is another topic that is often not discussed, mental health issues, because for some reason the Pakistani community believes they are immune to this.
Omar* is from a Wahhabi family and had memorised the Quran, in Arabic, by the age of seven. He had little understanding of what he had learned to recite, as he spoke no Arabic. This is true for so many other Pakistani children. He cannot pinpoint the exact moment when he started questioning but for as far back as he can remember he was taught that his shortcomings were due to him not being a good enough Muslim and that’s why bad stuff happened or it was because “Allah wanted to test us.”
Omar remembers asking the question: “Why would Allah test those who are already Muslim, especially those who are so dedicated?” He was told: “Allah loves to test those he loves” and that “He tests them to see if they’d be same under hardships.”
There are always excuses and reasons for any questions and for many a slap soon shuts up any further questioning.
For me personally, it was the burning in hellfire that made me really question Islam. When the hellfire kills your nerve endings so you are no longer in pain, Allah, our creator the all Merciful and Forgiving, replaces the skin with fresh skin so you burn for eternity. Why would Allah, who claims to love us more than our mothers, punish us so severely? I would never dream of punishing my children so why would our creator punish us like this? This, along with many other things, did not make sense to me.
Omar had what he calls a ‘rude awakening’ when he went to university and was exposed to a wider Muslim community.
“I saw Pakistani girls who wore revealing clothes, had boyfriends and even drank alcohol,” he told me. “It was the first time I had come across Muslim women who were, and wanted to be, sexy. The guys by and large were total idiots. Racists. They hated the ‘goray (white people)’ but were happy to take advantage of white girls.”
Seeing all the double standards made Omar realise Muslims really weren’t what they made themselves out to be. He ignored it and continued praying five times a day and being the best Muslim he could be. Even though he knew Islam treated women differently and viewed them as cheap and unworthy of respect if they dared to have an opinion, talk too loudly, didn’t cover their hair or talked openly with other men he continued believing in Islam and Allah.
All the while there were doubts starting to play on his mind — why should women be treated like this? Why were women not as important as men? Why should there place be at home, to cook, clean, look after the children and ensure the men were served?
He said: “I never saw a problem with this before. This type of thinking had been handed down through generations and had gripped me for years.”
Slowly and gradually he began to change his thinking and his views of women and thanks to the Internet and social media and access to thousands of people who were beginning to question he found himself on forums that discussed Islam.
The more time he spent on these forums the more he was beginning to learn about Islam, things he had not been taught at home, like many other Muslims. Omar did not even know whom Aisha was never mind that the Prophet had married her at such a young age. When he found this out and studied the Hadiths that someone linked to him he could not believe his eyes.
“Not my Prophet, my beloved prophet, he was a mercy to mankind, my role model,” said Omar. ” This totally destroyed me. I began to search and listen to scholars to put some perspective on it. It was nothing unusual in the 7th century, it happened all the time. Girls matured quicker in hotter climates, life expectancy was low so girls often married young.”
All of these reasons given suited his thinking for a while, yet the doubts continued, and every night he prayed to Allah for mercy until he came across a new community, a community of ex-Muslims. At first he thought they were ‘silly kaafirs (non believers)’ but soon he had uncomfortable questions he could not answer. It was the story of Safiyah and the Battle of Khaybar that made him leave Islam. Safiyah’s family were slain, murdered and tortured to death and she was taken captive. Chosen by the prophet for her beauty, she was made to convert, marry and consummate the wedding that night.
Omar said: “This actually made me physically vomit as I read about her ordeal. The poor Jewish girl. Obviously someone who just had her husband and people killed in front of her wouldn’t willingly change her religion and marry the murderer.”
Omar has been a non-believer for over a year now although he still has to pretend to his family; he continues to pray five times a day and is married. He is attracted to men although he has never acted on this attraction. His strict and religious upbringing meant that this was not something he could be open and honest about. His cousins and friends were openly homophobic and hated gay people so it was not something he felt he could discuss with them either.
Dealing with the double life takes its toll on Omar and the indoctrination runs so deep that he still has guilt and prays to Allah for mercy even though he knows it is nonsense.
He says that his only real escape is social media, mainly Twitter, where he can speak with other like-minded people.
Nazir* is 21 years old and when he first started to have doubts about Islam he would skip prayers at the mosque, choosing to spend a few hours in a derelict warehouse. He didn’t think much of his doubts about Islam at that age, just something that had to be done to keep his parents happy. As he got older this got harder do to and he began self-harming by cutting himself because:
“It was the only control I had of my own life. My parents wouldn’t even let me have my own haircut; it had to be Islamically correct. This takes a massive blow to my integrity and self worth. I’ve only just realised that it slowly and subtly affects my self-esteem. Living a double life makes you 10x better at telling lies, that’s literally the only goodness that’s came out of it. I’ve got the gift of the gab.”
I hear many stories like these and my heart breaks for those having to live a double life, a life full of lies and deceit and a life where they cannot be who they truly are because for them their family place ‘honour’ before their child’s happiness. Families where the prophet and Allah are more important and loved more than their own children, families where what the community thinks of them is more valuable than the feelings of their own children, families where there is no unconditional love.
The ex-Muslim community is growing and our voices are being heard, not just in the UK, but worldwide and the bravest ones are those who are shouting in countries where they can be put to death for becoming an apostate, for criticising Islam and for questioning.
For now the UK is a safe place for ex-Muslims and the real threat comes from the Muslim communities we have left behind. The way people are being punished for criticising Islam makes me worry that, one day we, too, will be jailed or worse for choosing to be apostates.
Shazia Hobbs is the author of The Gori’s Daughter, her debut novel, and is currently writing her next novel, The Gori. Shazia is a full-time mum and her days are spent doing the school run, after-school activities, cooking, cleaning and walking the dog. Somewhere in between all of these chores she finds the time to write.
Follow her on Twitter.