Reflections on Six Years of the Ex-Muslims Forum
OP - February 19, 2013, 09:51 AM
Reflections on Six Years of the Ex-Muslims Forum
In 2007, a group of people who met on websites sceptical of religion and Islam decided to create a forum specifically focussing on the many issues facing ex-Muslims in the modern world.
They felt uncomfortable with the atmosphere and attitudes of many existing forums which were critical of Islam. Too often these websites existed to service Christian proselytising, or a political agenda that fitted into wider far-right nationalism.
It was felt that there was a lack of a space sympathetic to the experiences of those whose free conscience rejected Islam, who wanted to express this rejection in the spirit of secularism, humanism, feminism, individual rights, atheism, science and rationalism.
In some ways, the need to create this space suggests the dilemma of those who reject Islam in liberal, secular non-Islamic countries. Despite having members from around the world, those who founded the forum were ex-Muslims from the West, and the general orientation of the forum originates from this experience.
To be critical of Islam, and to reject Islam in a society like Britain, is to be assailed by immense pressures and contradictions.
On the one hand, certain reactionary values and precepts of Islam, and the violent, often murderous hostility towards those who leave Islam can crush an individual. These pressures emanate from family, peers, and the wider Muslim community.
But another pressure exists externally, the pressures caused by those whose concern for Muslim apostates is rooted in an agenda that seeks to assert general hostility to Muslims collectively.
The rise of organisations like the EDL and other far-right xenophobic movements in Europe and America presents an extremism that mirrors the extremism of Islamist identity-politics. In so many ways these movements feed off each other, and ex Muslims are caught in a paralysing bind by these tendencies.
So navigating this landscape is difficult, and doing so presents moral dilemmas and inhibiting pressures that can be intimidating and silencing.
It is not surprising then that the voice of ex Muslims is so stifled, both by the theological and socially sanctioned hostility towards apostasy within Islam, and by the treacherous waters of modern multicultural politics.
Because one of the tragedies of the ex Muslim experience is that too often a section of the social tendency that should be their natural home is either tacitly or actively hostile towards them.
There is a sense that some parts of the Left would rather ex Muslims, and their criticism of Islam, did not exist. This is understandable in some ways.
Instinctively, the Left seeks to be inclusive and sympathetic to minorities, especially in the face of far-right activism.
But this means that sub-minorities, in this case dissenters and apostates from Islam, are neglected, and sometimes betrayed by those who should be their natural friends.
The values that should be fought for by the Left as inviolable; of secularism, the struggle against misogyny, free speech, free conscience, scepticism towards clerical power, are the values that ex Muslims are fighting for.
The rigidities of religious identity politics in a complex world all too often negate the religious dissenter and apostate.
And so it is that often even in societies like Britain, taboos against apostasy, and the open rejection and criticism of one particular religion, Islam, prevail.
This is despite how the freedom to criticise and reject religion is one of the foundations of our rights as Britons. The idea that the rights of the individual must be privileged over the rights of a collective has been established after centuries of slow, incremental struggle, and this struggle had central to it a rejection of the taboos of the Christian church.
To be part of a secular, liberal society, to be equal in this society, then, is to have the same freedom to participate, without being the victim of coercive silencing, in the kind of dissent against religious authority that ex Christians and dissenting Christians take for granted.
Given this brew of pressures and difficulties it is no wonder that the founding members of the forum of the council of ex Muslims felt the need to create a safe space for those whose voices are silenced by taboo, coercion, bullying, demonisation and neglect.
How classical Islam considers that those who leave it are the very lowest of the low, worthy of death, is often difficult for non Muslims to comprehend.
It is such a starkly brutal attitude, totally at odds with every value that liberal, secular societies believe in. Despite there being voices from within Islam who believe that this attitude is inimical to ‘true’ Islam, the fact remains that mainstream opinion within Islam considers apostasy to be a crime of such gravity that it warrants punishment and theoretically an ultimate sanction of death.
This reflects in social attitudes in which even the notion of leaving and questioning Islam is a petrifying taboo. It can be dismissed as being merely an abstract issue, and that in the day to day life of Muslims and non Muslims it has little relevance.
But this misunderstands how the dynamics of this attitude affects individuals and the mechanisms of fear and demonization such an official belief imposes.
The atmospherics it perpetuates is defined by fearfulness and tyranny. Fear leads to ethical and theological paralysis and an attitude of petty inquisition.
Psychologically it signals to believers the immensity of the dictate of Islam. To be deemed to betray it is to be worthy of being vilified, neglected and dehumanised.
And so it imposes a psychological oppressiveness and inhibited silence, becoming a living taboo that regulates individuals and their conscience, and makes of dissent a possible crime worthy of mortal punishment.
Tariq Ramadan, who has a high profile as a supposed moderate reformer of Islam amongst parts of liberal opinion in Britain, has said of the issue of apostasy:
“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, leave Islam, but be quiet, or you will hurt the feelings of Muslims. A plea for immunity from criticism, and an attempt to guilt-shame ex-Muslims into silence, and position them as vessels of 'prejudice' simply for following their free conscience.
In the five years of its life, the forum of the council of ex Muslims has been a sanctuary for many people from a world that is hostile to their conscience and beliefs.
The forum functions as a refuge, as a place of debate, discussion, for the sharing of experiences, and as a lighthouse for those dissenters from Islam who feel isolated. Its mere existence tells them they are not alone.
As a space of refuge and safety the forum isn’t just devoted to serious discussions surrounding Islam, religion and apostasy.
There is a sense of community and mutual understanding, and much of the forum is devoted to discussions of everyday life, light heartedness and simply shooting the breeze.
This is an important therapeutic aspect of the forum’s existence, to provide a place where ex Muslims and liberal Muslims can hang out with people of a similar background who understand them and the issues they face.
Most markedly though, the forum has produced incisive and powerful testimony and perspectives about Islam. These are displays of free conscience in the raw, uninhibited by taboo or fear, hot and fresh as forum discussions tend to be, conversational and un-edited, unrefined and truthful. These are testimonies of examined lives, of individual voices shattering a muzzle that has been placed over their mouths for too long. They are straight from whichever part of the body in which the free conscience resides, and they are utterances of liberation, of snuffed out, repressed conscience regaining its dignity by expressing itself.