It should come as no surprise that atheists in many Muslim countries face persecution. In 2011, 20 countries across the globe still prohibit their citizens from apostasy -- making it a criminal offense to abandon Islam1. Saudi Arabian schoolbooks include chapters justifying the social exclusion and even execution of apostates2. And a Pew Research Center poll from 2010 indicates that an appalling 84% of Egyptian Muslims believe that those who abandon their faiths should be put to death3.
And yet, despite the immense pressures to adhere to their faiths, more and more Muslims are turning away from Islam. They risk physical safety and ostracization from family, friends and neighbors. But they do it for the same reason that atheists around the world have abandoned their faiths: Because they have questions religion cannot answer, because they have discovered the inherent fallacies in religion, and because their religion advocates violence and oppression.
As atheists in the west, I feel that we owe it to our fellow atheists in Islamic countries to do what we can to lend our voices to their cause. Ex-Muslims can find their voices strengthened by the support of secular organizations and atheist individuals in non-Muslim countries.
We can lend our freedom and resources to make significant changes in communities with very limited freedom of expression. Atheists have been at the forefront of social causes, like women's rights, gay rights and freedom from religious discrimination. We can help to bring about these same changes in Islamic countries -- but only if we do our part to seek out the ex-Muslims in those communities.
The Loneliness, The Isolation And The Need For A Community
The issue of Muslim apostasy is one very close to my heart. After a long period of questioning, I finally left Islam around the age of 18. For me, this was an emotional time. I had lost connection with what I thought was both my creator and my best -- sometimes only -- friend. Losing my god left me feeling alone and empty. I also felt painfully out of place.
I assumed that I must be one of a very few atheists in my country, that I would never meet another atheist.
Of course, I was wrong.
On a whim I opened an online community for fellow atheist Iranians. Within weeks, hundreds of people had joined. This came as a shock to me and also to most of the other Iranian atheists that found the online community. We all felt a feeling of belonging -- as if we had found a family.
This led to the foundation of Atheist Republic, where we talk every day with people who have gone through a similar experience. And I can't help but think of all of those other people there, the atheists who are still struggling with isolation, who suffer in fear of religious tyranny, who truly feel alone.
Muhammad Syed, the president of Ex-Muslims of North America told me, "The most persistent line we get when interviewing ex-Muslims 'I thought I was the only one'... and that's in the west." Just imagine how it must be for those living in Islamic countries.
Why Does It Matter?
Reaching out to ex-Muslims and showing them that they have a place in a greater world community of atheists is a noble deed, but it's not the only reason that western atheists should be concerned with their fellow atheists in Islamic nations. There are strategic benefits to making these connections as well:
-- We can have a real impact on social causes in Muslim countries. We've seen time and again that secular organizations are at the forefront of human rights campaigns in the west. People are fighting for these same causes, like gay rights, women's rights and religious discrimination, in other parts of the globe. Thanks to the power of social media, we can reach out to these movements and organizations and lend our support, having a similar impact in other countries as we're accustomed to having locally.
-- We can speak from a position of safety. While there are many people in Muslim nations who are interested in combating dogma and oppression, they are often silenced by fear. As atheists and ex-Muslims who live in countries with free speech, we can raise these issues with relative immunity to threats on our well-being. This can become a true asset to our ex-Muslim allies who need help speaking out about their situations.
-- We are reminded that there is still so much to fight for. It can be easy to fall into a position of complacency, convinced that religion is now less of threat to our well-being, when you are isolated from the dominating influence of religious oppression in other places. It's valuable for us to remember that there are people living today feeling isolated, demonized and vilified. Just because we have won many battles at home doesn't mean the fight isn't still raging elsewhere, and it's within our power to lend aid -- or at least a listening ear -- to our fellow atheists.
-- Given that many ex-Muslims have the same cultural and ethnic background as many Muslims, they are in a unique position to separate religion from culture and ethnicity. Many people are hesitant to speak out against Islam for fear of backlash against their so-called "Islamophobia". It's become an accepted view among many Muslims that all critics of Islam are bigots. By reaching out to ex-Muslims, we can focus the issue on the dogma rather than the people, recognizing that Islam is, at its heart, a flawed and ultimately false ideology, and taking steps to reduce the influence of the ideology's effect on the rights and well-being of a country's inhabitants.
Right now, a lot of the world's attention is on Islamic countries. It's more important than ever to be careful about how we raise criticism of Islam. We must take care to explore the issues in a way that is neither bigoted toward the people nor apologetic toward the ideology. Reaching out to ex-Muslims living and fighting in these communities will help us to develop that insight. Taking advantage of the worldwide secular community's diversity and critical thought will help us refine the message and boost its reach to a worldwide audience.
Another important reason to reach out to ex-Muslims is that it provides a channel through which secularism and skepticism can be introduced to others who are on the fence or beginning to question their religion.
Due to cultural influences, it's all too easy to dismiss the criticism of an outsider as just another western ideology trying hijack reform movements. But when that criticism is raised by people from your own country, someone who has lived in the same culture and knows the history and nuances of the religion and its associated lifestyle, it can have a more powerful influence. Empowering ex-Muslims to speak up when they can in turn allows them to reach out to people in the community who might otherwise have had no idea where to turn or what to do about their doubts.
I See Your Point, But This Is Not For Us
In my experience, these are some of the concerns secular groups when it comes to reaching out to ex-Muslims:
#1 - "We can have the highest impact locally."
With the Internet and social media on our side, this is less relevant. In the Information Age, we are no longer merely residents of a single place on the map -- we are citizens of the world. We can communicate and collaborate with others from around the globe, reaching more people than ever and spreading information at an astonishing rate. With the efficiency of the Internet on our side, there is no reason to keep a myopic focus on local issues alone.
#2 - "Our members are more concerned with local issues."
This may be true only because many members of the group have not yet considered the alternative. If reaching out to ex-Muslims has never been an option, why should members be interested in it? With time, this view can be changed. We can make people care about the lives of people living halfway across the world. In fact, given the opportunity, you may be surprised at how interested many people truly are to understand the impact that they can have. Given the news and current events, many people are curious about what's happening in the Middle East and are hungry for a more nuanced side to the story being shown on the television -- and reaching out to ex-Muslims in these countries provides precisely that opportunity.
#3 - "We don't want to get involved in something we don't understand."
I think this response often comes from a fear of being labeled as a bigot. Having ex-Muslims in your communities can actually assuage this problem by providing first-hand experiences rather than generalized accusations. You don't need 100% understanding or familiarity with a situation to be compassionate toward the people who live it, and allowing them to share their experiences with a wider audience.
Just reaching out to someone from one of these communities can be incredibly beneficial. It opens channels of communication where none had previously existed and opens the forum for valuable discussions that you otherwise could never have had.
What Can We Do?
If you are convinced of the need and value of inviting more former Muslims into your community, here are some suggestions for ways to accomplish this goal and maximize the effectiveness of the messages you share:
-- Get in touch with organizations like Ex-Muslims of North America and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Plan joint events with them or just reach out for guidance. If you're not sure where to start, these organizations are a fountain of knowledge and experience.
-- Share personal stories from ex-Muslims both inside and outside of Islamic countries. This can provide a forum for the ex-Muslim to speak out about his or her experiences and also helps to create personal connections with the audience. These personal stories and anecdotes can often have a more powerful impact than bald statistics and reports.
-- Understand and discuss atheist movements and challenges for each Islamic country on an individual basis, rather than grouping them all together. Diverse countries have differing priorities, cultures, values and challenges. Recognizing this helps to make the ex-Muslims in your community feel more understood, and it also helps to show that we are not viewing them all in the same way. Bringing attention to the unique struggles of a specific atheist group within a country is something that many of these groups really need and would greatly appreciate.
Real People, Real Stories
To reach out to more people, we need people to care and to get their attention. And the best way to do so is through the simple act of storytelling. Sharing a story elicits a personal connection that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. We want to empower them to take action. A request for action could be as simple as asking for personal experiences. Even small, seemingly inconsequential actions -- like taking a photograph -- can ripple out into significant and powerful effects.
Atheist Republic received this message from an atheist girl living in Saudi Arabia, showing her solidarity with a global atheist community from Kaaba:
When we shared the image, our Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with some hate messages from offended Muslims and also with an outpouring of admiration and respect for the girl. These messages of support came from fellow atheists from around the world, living in free countries and under oppressive regimes:
- Mostafa Elsayed: “Hugs from Alexandria, Egypt.”
- Sam Haines: “So much respect...”
- Becks Hamd: “She not alone ...keep going sis.”
- Shabbir Shah: “yes ! u not alone , me from paksitan !”
- Austa Hansen: “Pictures like this really speak to me! Everyone says that religion is not oppressive, and that it is a personal choice, especially when they defend islam's practices, and yet they neglect to mention the fact that the people posting these pictures are at risk of being put to death if they're caught! If that's not an oppressive religion, I don't know what is!”
Here are some other images that are sent to Atheist Republic from Muslim countries:
Marouan from Morocco. Message: I wish I could show my face! :(
Jessy from Lebanon
Farooq from Pakistan
You can send us your own photo here:
The responses to these have been similar. As people send us these messages, the support becomes more vocal and unified. Then, bolstered by these kind words, others become brave enough to speak out as well. It’s a small step, admittedly, but it is a step – and for many people living in Islamic nations, it’s a step that takes a tremendous amount of courage which can only be justified by the rewarding sense of belonging to a larger community and the warm responses from other atheists around the world.
Telling a story or sharing a photograph, on its own, is not going to change the world. But together, they can be significant steps toward attracting more attention to a cause.
Through Stories, We Can Bring People Together
It's easy to think that Islamic countries are too religious to do anything about. But it’s harder to dismiss these countries when we start caring about more people who live there. Atheism and secular activism isn't new in Islamic countries. It's just been forced underground and could use some help gaining attention -- and boosting their signal is precisely what we can accomplish when we share their stories.
It's easy sometimes for apostates to feel forgotten or ignored, especially if they are not in a position where they can feel comfortable vocalizing their views. Seeing fellow ex-Muslims receive positive feedback and support can bolster their confidence, empowering them and helping them see that there's a group of people in the world who truly care about them. A few comments might not seem like much, but to a struggling atheist in an oppressive environment, it can mean the world.
Add Your Voice
If you want to share your story or add your message of support, click here:
You don't have to provide a name or any identifying information. Your comments, experiences and stories can be completely anonymous. But whatever you send to us, wherever you are, we can broadcast it to our audience around the world -- sharing your story with our community.
It's important to us that your voice be heard. When you speak up, you're not just speaking for yourself -- you're raising a call to action to others in your same community or situation who may themselves be searching for the courage to speak up. You are announcing to ex-Muslims and those questioning their faith: You are not alone. You are not evil. Your experiences matter.
Update: We are now publishing our voicemails under the podcast called Atheist Republic Voicemail Podcast. Thank you to everybody who left a voicemail and supported us in making this project happen!
For consulting or speaking inquiries, feel free to contact me directly.
1. "Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and Defamation of Religion are Widespread". Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. 21 November 2012. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
2. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, International Religious Freedom Report for 2012: Saudi Arabia (May 20, 2013), page 1-2
3. "Global Attitudes Project : Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah". Pewglobal.org. Retrieved 2013-11-29.