Another Evening with Ex-Religionists

A few months ago, I spent a very interesting evening listening to Ex-Muslims recount their story. I actually made two friends from the panellists and learnt a lot from their narratives. I am a believer in the Quran and its divine origin and I stand for the Ex-Muslims freedom of conscience. To me, they should be free to believe in any path they choose for howsoever long they choose and for whatever reason they choose. It is their lives and no one should have a say in it. Instead, they should be supported in transitioning to whatever their new identity is.

Tonight’s event with a lot wider that just Ex-Muslims though. There was one Ex-Muslim on the panellist of speakers but really, not quite (I’ll get to that later). The rest were Ex-New Ager, Ex-Catholic, Ex-Jehovah’s Witness and Ex-Hindu. Quite a mix indeed. The evening opened with an officer of the Atheists and Secular Humanists society, introducing the programme. I particularly appreciated his nuanced wording, claiming that various strains in religious traditions had negative elements. I appreciated this because discerning analysis helps get to the truth of the matter. While there are strains in various traditions which are oppressive (like Islamofascism), there are also strains which counter oppression.

My friend Imtiaz then took over as host/mc. Imtiaz has been instrumental in getting the ‘Faith to Faithless’ concept off the ground and it has been growing from strength. The speakers then took turns delivering their stories.

I am deeply sympathetic with the violence suffered by these Ex-Religionists. The violence came in the physical form but also mental and emotional. Some are driven by guilt to embrace their faith. Others by social pressure. Some had to suffer abuse from their own parents. Others faced social and ethical dilemma. It could not have been easy and I am happy that these individuals found paths which feels right for them.

Now comes the not so supportive part…

This evening, however connective it was on a human level, did not provide sound critiques of religion and theism. Yes we can see how people of religion ultimately drove their own away from various faiths but religionists could easily reply that there are many strains in each religious tradition. Adding their personal narratives into the act of leaving merely gives religionists the excuse to say ‘ah see, they suffered traumas. This is why they left’. It connects us to their struggle, yes but it also gives the religionists a good counter argument.

The next issue is using people who were not quite of a particular faith. The Ex-Muslim guy, as it turns out, only left Islam because his Christian mother drove him away from it. In all fairness, this is not a strong reason at all and I wonder why this person was chosen. Nevertheless, he did give some theological reasons about the Biblical God but he did not show that he went into it in any great depth. Perhaps it was time limit.

The Ex-Catholic woman talked about her social experiences but also her theological and ethical dilemma. There were some issues raised but she did not disclose any kind of discussion from the point of view of her opponents. Yes she said that she did not understand why God needed to die for our sins but is it not important to know the answers from various quarters. Same with her ethical dilemmas.  The Ex-Hindu chap also raised some salient points about the social structures within Hinduism but failed to mention the mystical and socially democratizing movements as well.


Surely it is important to analyse the variety of answers as well. I’m not saying that one needs any kind of reason to disbelieve. I support any kind of reason as long as it is that person’s choice. I just think stronger cases could have been made if these folks delved more deeply into theology and philosophy of religion.

Positive Dissent: An Evening with Ex-Muslims

When I was growing up, my best friend wanted to leave Islam. He had every reason to. His family were only officially Muslims due to the draconian laws in Malaysia which forced anyone who married a Muslim to convert to the faith. Consequently, even though they did not want to be Muslims, legalities forced them to remain officially so. My friend was also a constant target by religious teachers who wanted to instil ‘true faith’ into him. Islam had become the bane of his existence and he naturally wanted to leave.

Being a Conservative Traditional Muslim at the time, I was horrified at this confession. I believed that anyone who left Islam would be executed under Sharia law but Malaysia did not have such a law in place. My friend would still burn in hell forever though. I loved my friend dearly and did not want him to suffer this fate.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and after much thought and contemplation, I now know that I should have supported him in his decision. I believe it is Allah himself who gave my friend his freedom and that Islam (by which I mean the religio-culture) is not the only means to the Divine or perhaps, for a more palatable term to atheists, to human evolution.

This evening, I attended an event organised the Council of Ex-Muslims. A Conservative Traditionalist Muslim might ask me, why on earth would I attend such an event? Have I lost faith at last? Since I am a Quranist, some Traditionalists assume it is simply the last stop before complete atheism. Well if it is, then I have been at this ‘last stop’ for nearly 20 years!

No, I was there for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am interested in the Ex-Muslims as a social phenomenon. Why are they emerging into public life now? What are their narratives like? Where do they go after Islam? These are fascinating questions for me. Secondly, I consider this a test of my faith. Ex-Muslims would ask some difficult questions to challenge my faith. These are the fires which purify the steel of one’s faith. If you cannot listen to dissenting views, then is your faith really that pure to begin with?

The panel members were chosen well. They represented a diverse set of narratives and when combined, emanated a very balanced view of the Ex-Muslim experience. The first was very well-spoken lady with whom I had a chat earlier. She had been through the rigmarole of the Traditional Islamic education and had even spent a year in Pakistan studying Quranic exegesis. However, she had questions brought about through learning various other modes of philosophical analyses. She felt that Islam could not answer these questions and that the notion of a god was untenable in the fact of the vastness of the universe.

The second speaker was also a woman who recounted her traumatic conflict with her parents who prevented her from having a normal social life. It was a very moving story about how she came close to even ending her life. After a long battle with her parents during which she left home, returned and left again, in the end what was the final straw was her consuming non-halal chicken! Such trivialities can cause a severance of family ties? What a world we live in!

The third speaking was from a more liberal background. She had no overt cultural compulsion to practice Islam although Islam remained her religious identity. However, at a certain point in her life, she had some complex theological questions which were simply unanswerable. I especially liked her open attitude about her own Muslim friends. She was like ‘to you your religion, I have my own beliefs’. That should sound very familiar to Quran readers.

The final panellist was the only male and was very affable. He was from a strict Salafee background and was fed fundamentalist diatribe as a child. Although he had doubtful periods, he quickly quelled them and become radicalised and even attended a training camp. However, he began to question some of the harsher beliefs in Islam. His own sexuality made him wonder why Allah would create homosexuals then condemn them to hell (I don’t believe Allah condemned homosexuality but that’s another story). The fourth panelist did become a Progressive Muslim though before leaving Islam altogether.

All in all, I had a very enlightening evening. Do I agree with their critiques of Islam? Partly yes. I do feel that Muslim’s attitude with regards to Islamic education is less than healthy. Very unhealthy in fact. Islamic education is seen a mechanism of identity transference. ‘I am a Muslim, my children must be Muslim’. Little thought actually goes into it. It is a didactic experience and the facilitators are generally rote learners themselves (Ghulam Ahmed Parwez called them medieval librarians). Forget any kind of philosophical thought. That stuff’s haram (forbidden). Big time.

I also disagreed with the Ex-Muslims on some issues. Well obviously. If I agreed with them fully, I would be an Ex-Muslim myself. I basically disagreed with their arguments concerning God’s existence. From the little that was mentioned, it was due to a material conception of the universe. I do feel that there is much to be said for inner explorations and the unity of mysticism and science (Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics is a good place to start). Secondly and more importantly, I do feel that their statements regarding the Quran weren’t accurate although I would not fault them for it. They were only repeating the Traditionalists’ understanding which is so prevalent that it is difficult to see anything else.

Having said the above, it would be extremely patronizing to claim that these Ex-Muslims left Islam because they ‘misunderstood’ or for the treatment they experienced. We must respect the fact that they decided that Islam (whatever its form) was simply not for them. And that’s fine. They have lives to live and should do so in the manner in which they find most comfort. As the first speaker said, when she was pretending to be Muslim, she felt like an alien in her own skin. No one should have to live like that. To me, as long as they continue their earthly journeys positively and find fulfilment and happiness, then as a muslim, I bid them peace.