Islam is a difficult religion to leave, probably the most difficult. As with others, children are indoctrinated as soon as they begin to use words.1 But Islam also demands an extraordinarily high level of commitment—praying five times a day, for instance—unquestioning faith, unmitigated obedience, and constant attention. For many Muslims, it becomes a nearly inextricable part of who they are.
In addition to the psychological difficulties of leaving Islam are social and legal difficulties. A Canadian woman named Stephanie (her last name is cautiously omitted in sources about her) learned this the atrociously hard way after converting to Islam in her teens and marrying a Muslim from Libya.2 In his tribe, women are allowed to work, but their options are incredibly limited. Stephanie explains:
I remember one time my daughter asked something of her father, and he told her “no, you can’t do this.” And she looked at him and said, “that’s because I’m a girl, right?” My kids were young at that time, not even three, the eldest. But I was like, what am I turning them into? What am I doing to them, to their opportunities in the future?
When she began expressing discontent with the burdens of Islam, her husband convinced her to move to Europe where he would pursue a PhD. Instead, they entered Libya, where sharia aspects of the law gave him immediate and total control over Stephanie and their kids. When she left Libya for a trip back to Canada, he revealed that he would never allow her to see her kids again unless she renounced her Canadian custody of them, which would most certainly seal them within Libya forever. It’s been more than five years since Stephanie has held her kids, but she refuses to give up custody—because it would require giving up her hopes for their future.
Stephanie considers her husband’s treatment of her as mild. According to Islam, she says, “I deserve either exile or death, usually death.” Apostasy is punishable by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.3 Apostates are also commonly murdered in Muslim-majority countries where the law does not call for it. In Bangladesh, twenty-eight-year-old student Nazimuddin Samad—who posted secularist messages on Facebook—was hacked with machetes and shot. He was among the many who were killed there after Muslims posted a list of secular bloggers. “Talented youths are killed one after another,” says Kabir Chowdhury Tanmoy, president of the Online Activist Forum, “but there are no visible measures against these heinous acts.”4
Of course, leaving Islam is legal in the civilized, Western world—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy or even safe. Many face social ostracism if not much worse. Recent headlines announced that two Afghani men living in London were arrested for plotting to kill a young female apostate.5 Ex-Muslim co-founder of Faith to Faithless, Imtiaz Shams, reports that being an ex-Muslim is one of the hardest things that those who renounce the faith will ever do. “I’ve even spoken to people who are from a Muslim background and gay, and sometimes they say that it was harder for them to be ex-Muslim than to be gay.” The experience of many apostates, he says, is that “your family, your community . . . will shun you and treat you like absolute scum.”6
“In the West, our existence is not a crime, but we still face isolation, threats, and abuse by our own families and former faith community,” says Muhammad Syed, president of Ex-Muslims of North America. “Unsurprisingly, many former Muslims choose to hide their lack of belief. But the first step to gain acceptance is coming out openly, without shame or fear.”7
Syed and Sarah Haider formed Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) in 2013 to advocate acceptance of religious dissent, promote secular values, and reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam.8 Syed says, “There’s a huge stigma among Muslims about leaving the faith, and we’re trying to erase that stigma, making it normal. People should have the freedom of conscience to believe whatever they want, live their lives however they want.”9
The non-profit organizes support communities where mentors share their experience of leaving Islam, hosts ex-Muslim events, and grants aid to “apostates in need.” In 2017, EXMNA launched a campus tour, enabling ex-Muslims to share their stories with young people all over the country. In early September 2019, EXMNA unveiled billboards in Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta reading: “Nearly one in four Muslims raised in the U.S. have left Islam. Godless. Fearless. Ex-Muslim.” Sadly, getting these billboards up required an incredible act of persistence. Company after company refused to work with EXMNA for fear of offending Muslims. EXMNA’s site reports:
Unfortunately, the process diluted our message quite substantially. Our billboards went from challenging religious claims head-on to a simple declarative sentence about our existence. Many of our first versions were rejected. Even the proposed hashtags were rejected, and fearing a longer delay in publishing, we decided to remove the “Awesome Without Allah” hashtag entirely from the billboards.10
Nonetheless, EXMNA has carried on with its planned social-media campaign, inviting ex-Muslims to share their stories about leaving Islam and using the hashtag #AwesomeWithoutAllah. Although the campaign just began, the results are already impressive. For instance, Ali Rizvi, author of The Atheist Muslim, tweeted “We normalized lapsed Catholics, secular Jews, and ex-Mormons. Now it’s time to normalize ex-Muslims. To think Muslims are somehow immune to reason, secularism, and Enlightenment is a form of bigotry.”11
Of course, renouncing one’s irrational beliefs is only a first step in rebuilding one’s life, something Imtiaz Shams alludes to when trying to answer the question, “Why use the word ‘ex’[muslim]? Isn’t it a negative thing? It’s such a negative word, isn’t it?” He says:
Leaving Islam was supposed to be about exploring the world and enjoying the one life I have, that I know I have, versus this kind of Islamic immortality where you “live forever” and so this world kind of doesn’t matter. So for me, ex-Muslim felt a bit negative when I wanted the positive of the world.12
Recognizing that one’s beliefs are irrational requires some grasp of the rational. But building a flourishing life requires systematically replacing irrational beliefs with rational, life-promoting ones.13 It requires a rational philosophy, without which, many attempts at ditching religion fail.14
Nonetheless, ditching Islam is a necessary step toward a truly human life for millions of Muslims all over the world, and EXMNA is helping many to take that step. “We want closeted ex-Muslims to know they are not alone,” says Sarah Haider, EXMNA’s Executive Director. “We also want them to know that while the prospect of coming out as nonreligious is frightening, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can make it to the other side, you can rebuild your life and find joy in the freedom from religion.”15
If you care about fostering a peaceful, secular, civilized world, please help EXMNA share its beautiful message. “Hopefully, this will lead us toward Enlightenment within the Muslim world,” says Syed. “And we’re marching towards that.”16