A Humber College student is helping create a safe haven for Muslims seeking to distance themselves from religion.
The student established a Toronto chapter of Ex-Muslims of North America which has since spread to Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Va.
The group made it clear that they “do not wish to promote hatred in Muslims,” and are not an anti-Islam organization. Nonetheless, the Humber student has requested not to be identified, and Humber News has agreed to this request.
“The organization started, quite humbly, in the ex-Muslim communities which began in Toronto in 2011, and Washington in 2012. Today, we have member groups operating and growing in regions throughout North America.
“Ex-Muslims of North America is largely composed of local groups with a large degree of autonomy united organizationally under the umbrella of the Ex-Muslims of North America,” the student told Humber News.
The group has grown to over 70 people in Toronto, with another 50 to 60 in D.C., while also beginning to spread to Texas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Virginia, and Quebec. The student explained that the group expanded through getting in touch with the D.C. group, which was independent before the cross-border connection was made. Only recently did a conference in D.C. lead to the official launch of the Ex-Muslims of North America.
“The primary focus is to create a safe space exclusively catered to ex-Muslims,” said the student. “There is a lot of stigma attached to who we are, and the unfortunate side effect of this stigma is that it’s not easy to come out and discuss issues that effect us. To find a community where you can come out and, essentially, be yourself and say things that you would not under any other circumstances be able to say around your family and friends who are of a religious nature.”
The student, who said any description of his background would have to remain vague, stated he was born into the Muslim community in the south Asia, and subsequently raised around the Middle East. It wasn’t until several years ago that the student began to question his belief in Islam.
“I spent a couple years in a state of cognitive dissonance, not truly believing, but not willing to pull the rip cord, as it were, and break away,” said the student. “I believe one of the galvanizing factors for me was a few years ago when there was a death in my family. I did notice the reaction from a lot of my closest family and friends was to become more into religion. I did go that way for a short amount of time, but I started to read more into the actual texts and supporting documentation of Islam because it was where everyone else was turning.
“Unfortunately, the more I researched, the more I felt it wasn’t true, in a sense, and that pushed me in my quest to find the truth, if you will.”
The student said that now, as he has renounced himself from the religion, he must deal with trying to understand what the reaction would be within the Muslim community if he were to “come out” about his beliefs.
“As far as what would happen, I can’t say with 100 per cent certainty,” said the student. “My family is really religious, however, they are liberal minded and not prone to overreaction. However, there would definitely be a certain shunning from the community at large and there would be repercussions for my family themselves as well.”
In addition, there is the possibility that the student revealing his choice to renounce the religion could result in consequences for his family in “other parts of the world,” he said. It is one of the main reasons he has yet to speak about his beliefs.
Sadaf said some who leave Islam fear for their lives. She also asked that we not use her full name, and Humber News has granted that request.
“Obviously, not all families want their family members to die for renouncing the religion,” said Sadaf. “It’s very intertwined with culture, so when you renounce the religion it’s very heartbreaking for families to hear, especially if your family cares about it a lot.”
“The fear is going to vary with everyone,” said the student. “Some people whose families we’ve dealt with have cut off all relations with them, and because Islam as a religion does tend to reach into cultural values as well, a lot of communities that are Islamic do not in any way, shape, or form appreciate (those who renounce religion).”
Sohail Raza, director of Toronto-based Muslims Facing Tomorrow and recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, said that political factions of Islam view those who leave the religion as heretics and find the offense punishable by death.
“In liberal democracies, it may not be that much of an issue,” said Raza, a Shia Muslim originally from Pakistan. “However, in Muslim majority countries obviously it is a grave issue. Nobody can [renounce Islam] and live to tell the tale. Over here, we don’t even know they’ve renounced unless someone is vocal about it. But you can’t speak for the looney tunes who may take it upon themselves to carry out this Islamist agenda of punishing people who leave the religion.”
In order to maintain privacy for the ex-Muslims of North America, each new member must complete a vetting process. Sadaf said it’s important to keep the group secure because members are fearful of “coming out.”
“We’re worried about people trying to come in,” said Sadaf. “We only let ex-Muslims come in. We do have quite a few members come from abusive families. . . . The families would be devastated, and (the new members) would be in legitimate harm.”
The student stressed that the aim of the group is not to target Islam or practice “Islamaphobia.”
“We did not leave because we felt like eating pork, we did not leave because we felt like drinking,” said the student. “We left because of either academic or intellectual reasons, or because we had been effected negatively by the consequences of this religion.”
(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared on Humber News Online on Oct. 12, 2013.)