January 19, 2014
Amal Farah, a 32-year-old banking executive, is laughing about a contestant singing off-key in the last series of The X Factor. For a woman who was not allowed to listen to music when she was growing up, this is a delight. After years of turmoil, she is in control of her own life.
On the face of it, she is a product of modern Britain. Born in Somalia to Muslim parents, she grew up in Yemen and came to the UK in her late teens. After questioning her faith, she became an atheist and married a Jewish lawyer. But this has come at a cost. When she turned her back on her religion, she was disowned by her family and received death threats. She has not seen her mother or her siblings for eight years. None of them have met her husband or daughter.
It can be difficult to leave any religion, and those that do can face stigma and even threats of violence. But there is a growing movement, led by former Muslims, to recognise their existence. In more than a dozen countries people who espouse atheism or reject the official state religion of Islam can be executed under the law, according to a recent report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. But there is an ongoing debate about the “Islamic” way to deal with apostates. Broadcaster Mohammed Ansar says the idea that apostates should be put to death is “not applicable” in Islam today because the act was traditionally conflated with state treason.
“The position of many a scholar I have discussed the issue with is if people want to leave, they can leave,” said Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. “I don’t believe they should be discriminated against or harmed in any way whatsoever. There is no compulsion in religion.”
Baroness Warsi, the Minister of State for Faith and Communities, agreed. “One of the things I’ve done is put freedom of religion and belief as top priority at the Foreign Office,” she said.
The Ex-Muslim Forum, a group of former Muslims, was set up seven years ago. Then, about 15 people were involved; now they have more than 3,000 members around the world. Membership has reportedly doubled in the past two years. Another affiliated group, the Ex-Muslims of North America, was launched last year.
Zaheer Rayasat, 26, from London, has not yet told his parents that he is an atheist. Born into a traditional Pakistani family, he said he knew he didn’t believe in God from the age of 15. “For a lot of older Muslims, to be a Muslim is an identity, whereas, for me, it’s a theological, philosophical position. They might feel they have failed as parents; some malicious people might call them up, gloating about it. Some would see it as an act of betrayal. My hope is that they will eventually forgive me for it.”