When we first started using Twitter as a medium to promote our forum and our ideas, we tweeted a few prominent journalists to enquire as to whether they could consider supporting us. One of the journalists, Mehdi Hasan, who writes for the Guardian, New Statesmen and Huffington Post, and appears on the BBC and Al Jazeera, responded as follows:
Mehdi Hasan has in the past written in support of ex-Muslims being persecuted for leaving Islam, so it was quite sad to receive this response.
In a 2011 report produced by the Council of Ex-Muslims and One Law For All titled 'Enemies Not Allies', the bigotry, threats, violent rhetoric and anti-Muslim hatred of groups like the EDL was highlighted. It also described how they used concerns over extreme interpretations of Islam and the desire by some Islamists to institute forms of sharia arbitration courts in Britain to demonise all Muslims and foment an atmosphere of collective hatred.
The Forum of Ex-Muslims saw the EDL for exactly what it is from the moment it was born. In 2009 the EDL started its campaigning and were given short shrift by ex-Muslims on our boards. The attitude of collective guilt and punishment radiates from the rhetoric and assumptions of the EDL. Innocent Muslims and non Muslims felt intimidated and frightened by the aggression and demonisation that was their defining character. They made the atmosphere of society worse – both provoking a fearfulness in Muslims and emboldening Islamists and Salafis who posited their aggression as a useful threat to increase their own righteous power. Tensions in cities escalated as a result.
So you can understand how absurd and dismissive it is to be likened to this bigoted firm of hooligans.
But it was not surprising.
Accusing ex-Muslim voices critical of Islam as being motivated by Islamophobia and 'EDL-esque' hate is today a standard reflex amongst many to the free expression of ex-Muslim conscience. And it isn't just some Muslims who seek to use this line of ad hominem to essentially render criticism of Islam as being in and of itself a form of bigoted hate speech. Its often a reflex response amongst non Muslim liberals too.
Ex-Muslims believe that there are aspects of Islam that like any religion need to be scrutinised and criticised. To assert this is not to say that Islam is 'evil'. It is to say that Islam is a man made religion created at a certain time and place in history that requires certain beliefs and precepts to change to make it compatible with modernity, liberal ideas and free conscience. To describe Islam as 'evil' is to utilise the rhetoric of religion itself – to engage in a simplistic way of thinking.
Religions are products of societies – and just as societies can change, so can religions. Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism have all had reformist movements that sought to change aspects of belief and dogma inimical to what reformists believed was just and truthful in modern times.
And religious change includes ending blasphemy taboos, notions of heresy, the persecution and demonisation of apostates, and theological assent to the idea that those who leave a religion and criticise it deserve to have violence or death inflicted on them.Describing Ex-Muslim critique in this way is to try to impose, effectively, a new kind of blasphemy taboo against criticism of Islam by associating it with bigotry and hate speech.
Ex-Muslims understand profoundly the agenda of bigoted far-right organisations. To try to stifle the free conscience of ex-Muslims in this manner is not just unfair, it is perverse.
People from the Forum of Ex-Muslims make criticisms of aspects of Islam from within an inclusive, secular, universalist cosmopolitan tradition that utterly rejects the parochial simplicities and demonisations of nationalism. As such any group or ideology that projects collective guilt narratives is inimical to it. In fact for this reason the far-right EDL stands beside the far-right Islamists and Salafis in the target of this critical vision.Ex-Muslims are situated, in many ways, in a treacherous position.
Not only do Islamists wish to silence their voices, but so do some moderate Muslims.
Parts of the Left are frightened to support apostates, fearing the response of Muslims and accusations of Islamophobia, whilst others on the Left sympathetic to general Islamist sentiment are actively hostile to the expression of free conscience by ex-Muslims.
The far-right nationalists either view ex-Muslims through the prism of racial / ethnic nationalism, or as individuals who, in their secular cosmopolitanism and inherent repulsion to the collective guilt projection they indulge in, are not obedient or malleable enough to serve their politics.From this treacherous position comes perspective though.
For example, secular Ex-Muslims are able to see how the unchallenged ideology of Salafis and Islamists, so often given a free pass in the name of 'multiculturalism', hiding behind accusations that critiquing them is 'Islamophobic', not only feeds into the system and opposition of far-right nationalism, but also how these ideological rigidities mirror and need each other.So we know that a failure to subject Islam in its political form as well as its theology has resonances beyond the persecution faced by apostates.Some might call the perspective that ex-Muslims have on these issues a curse – but in reality it is a blessing.
Ex-Muslims see too much, understand too much, know too much, and that is why they seem to cause so much disquiet.
But conscience never sits still and never stays silent. Despite the multiple layers of distortion thrown at ex-Muslims, and the competing agendas that seek to co-opt or snuff out their voice, that voice is only going to gradually, steadily grow louder.
The question will become not of what ex-Muslims must do to make themselves heard, but how those who are disquieted by what they say can respond with dignity and honesty in a manner that does not end up making them complicit in the marginalisations, and various chauvinisms at play around Islam from both within the religion, and externally to it, across the political spectrum of Left and Right.
This is the profound disturbance and introspection that free conscience causes. It is why the ex-Muslim voice is, ultimately, irresistible.