A question that comes up with some regularity is: "Why do you identify yourselves as Ex-Muslims?"
It is a good question, because the answer explains so much about the need for the voice of Ex-Muslims to be heard.
To begin with, the simple fact is that Ex-Muslims face issues that few dissenters from other religions face. The immensity of the taboo against leaving and critiquing Islam means that Ex-Muslims are bullied, intimidated, threatened, ostracised and persecuted for their conscience.
Whilst in many Muslim countries this is enforced by laws, even in secular western countries Ex-Muslims face real fear when they leave Islam. For speaking out, Ex-Muslims are subject to violent threats including, not infrequently, death threats.
Harassment, marginalisation, bullying and guilt shaming are other common practices. Ex-Muslims want to show other doubters and rejecters of Islam that it is possible to leave the religion: that despite the pressures and coercions of family and community, and despite the demonisation and intimidation of apostates by orthodox Islam, leaving Islam is achievable and morally and ethically positive.
So, Ex-Muslims need a common space to discuss issues they face. But why does Islam judge those who leave it so harshly?
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, considered by many to be the leading Sunni scholar and a senior voice of al-Azhar seminary in Cairo, categorises Apostasy from Islam in two ways - minor and major.
Minor apostasy is leaving Islam but not doing anything to criticise Islam. An apostate like this should be allowed to repent.
Major apostasy is leaving Islam, and drawing attention to your apostasy by criticising Islam and freely discussing your free conscience. For this, the apostate deserves to be killed.
It is true that some Muslim theologians dissent from this interpretation, but it is also true that the benchmark of this ruling sets a tone. That makes leaving Islam, and speaking freely on the reasons why, an act of unspeakable heresy with frightening social and personal consequences. That this benchmark hangs in the air is, in its own right, enough to stifle dissent.
Even many supposed moderate Muslims observe this demarcation between minor and major apostasy. Tariq Ramadan has said:
“My point of view, a minority point of view in historical terms but justified in religious terms
...is to recognise the right, but to ask of those who change their religion what one asks of all human beings: ‘Change your soul and your conscience, but do not insult or cause prejudice to those whom you leave behind. Wherever you go, whoever it is you forsake, leave them in a noble and dignified manner.”
In other words, you can leave Islam without talking about it (minor apostasy), but don’t freely express your conscience regarding why you left Islam (major apostasy).
Instead of threatening death, Tariq Ramadan couches this apostasy taboo in the language of contemporary multiculturalism and anti-racism, suggesting that to leave Islam and discuss the reasons for doing so is akin ‘causing prejudice’ to Muslims.
Here comes the most striking reason why the Ex-Muslim voice needs to be heard. Whilst many Muslims believe that leaving and criticising Islam is the breaking of an omerta code so outrageous that it warrants bullying, persecution, threat and a morally justifiable death taboo, others express the Ex-Muslim free conscience as constituting an offence against Muslims through the criticism of Islamic ideas and beliefs.
However, Islam is a proselytising religion that seeks to expand through evangelism. Every other religion that is liberal enough to allow for free conscience is ripe to be targeted for converts to Islam - but Islam considers that leaving Islam itself is a mortal sin.
At the heart of this is a central hypocrisy – the notion that Muslims must be free to criticise all other belief systems and religions and seek to convert others to Islam, whilst stifling and snuffing out the free conscience of those who would leave Islam and express their free conscience openly.
This is not acceptable in contemporary liberal and secular societies. It is a double standard that is menacing in its hypocrisy.
So ultimately, Ex-Muslims self identify as such because of the unique issues that they face in expressing their free conscience. They also identify this way because breaking the taboo against criticising Islam, in the face of Islamic hypocrisy and double standards on this matter, is much needed.
Under these circumstances, asking the question "Why don’t you be quiet and just leave Islam?" can be seen for what it is – an attempt to de-legitimise the voice of ex-Muslims ( “You’re obsessed” “You need to see a psychologist” ) through belittling their experiences and conscience, emanating from the same impulse that deems leaving and criticising Islam to be the great, unspeakable, mortal sin of ‘major’ apostasy.
Big oaks grow from little acorns. Even if the experiences of Ex-Muslims are marginalised today, that can change only if apostates speak out. Most importantly, future generations will be able to see a path out of Islam that has been cleared by the articulated experiences and sympathy of those who, around the world, have walked this path.
That is why ‘Ex-Muslim’ is just one of the many multiple identities that apostates from Islam use to freely express themselves: because free conscience should never be snuffed out by religious taboos against heresy.
Because bullying should never be allowed to prevail.
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