Confessions of an ex-Muslim

Over 100,000 people in Britain converted to Islam between 2001-2011, yet it is believed that up to 75 per cent may have since lost their faith. Who are they - and how do they feel about the way of life they embraced then quickly abandoned?

Islam is often perceived as a religion antithetical to British, secular values. But between 2001-2011, more than 100,000 British people converted to Islam. This may come as a surprise, especially considering the virulent climate of Islamophobia supposedly pervading the country in the shadow of 9/11. Yet, while Muslims may rejoice at the news of many British people flocking to Islam, little is known about the large proportion of converts who later become apostates.

“Many converts leave the faith. We don't have exact statistics but some stats say 50 per cent will leave within a few years,” says Usama Hasan, a part-time Imam and a senior researcher at the counter extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

The internet, in particular, Twitter, provides ex-Muslims, often with pseudonymous accounts, a safe haven to challenge, criticise and mock Islam. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), founded six years ago, was set up by a group of non-believers and acts as a community for those who have renounced their faith.

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why someone might become an apostate after converting. Many British women convert when marrying a Muslim man, but, when the relationship ends, they sometimes leave the faith. (The same rarely happens in reverse, as the consensus of scholars believes a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man is against the Sharia.) Some converts don’t receive the community support upon entering the faith. While others can be referred to as “drifters”: they experiment with different lifestyles. However, many ex-Muslims cite bad experiences with Muslims in their stories of how they came to renounce the faith.

Pepe, 39, is an ex-Muslim who was born in London but now lives in Canada with his Muslim wife and two children. He converted at 20, after discovering the religion through Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. He remained a fairly practising Muslim for 15 years but he often struggled with certain aspects of the faith, which he shrugged off as “satanic thoughts”.

In his early 30s he became disillusioned with the hardline views held by many Muslims and joined the Chisti Tariqah, a Sufi Order originating from Afghanistan.

He agrees to an interview over Skype from his home. “The more I got involved with the Tariqah, the more cult-like it was becoming. I had to get permission from the Sheikh [religious teacher] to do a lot of things, like if I wanted to leave town. When I questioned things, they told me to completely stop reading books and only read what they gave me,” he says.

After his Sheikh interpreted one of Pepe’s dreams to suggest that his father didn’t care about him, he became disaffected with the Tariqah and soon left the faith altogether.

“I was confused when I first left the religion but I came to the conclusion that none of it is real. I was very angry at the time,” he says.

“I would call myself an atheist but even if there is a higher power, I don’t think it affects the way I am with people. If anything, I would say I’m a more compassionate person now, because I know how people’s minds can be manipulated,” he says.

How has it affected his marriage? “When my wife married me, she married a Muslim guy, so I don’t stop her from teaching Islam to our kids,” he says. “We have a deal: I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol in the house or in front of the kids. And I can’t tell my wife’s parents that I have become an apostate because they are orthodox and would see the marriage as annulled.”

Other ex-Muslims, however, paint a slightly brighter picture of the religion. Goran Miljević, 19, from London, converted in 2010 after being kicked out of college. “Converting to Islam was somewhere I could belong, a brotherhood, somewhere you can go where you’re listened to and supported,” he says.

Miljević comes from a Serbian Christian family and when he converted, his parents were angry. “My father thought I was joking. I slept at the Mosque for a couple of nights because my parents were so upset with me. If I wasn’t so young, my parents would have kicked me out the house,” he says.

“I was really practising at one point, proper hard core. But what I realised is that you can’t be a convert and be moderate, you have to be extreme because that’s how you distinguish yourself,” he says.

However, after three months of being a Muslim and feeling the disapproval from his family, Miljević realised Islam wasn’t for him. “Even though I left the faith, I know Islam isn’t what people think. I will even correct people who think of Islam in a certain negative way. It’s a good religion but at the end of the day, religion is politics. People like bin Laden and Anjem Choudary use the religion to stir people and make them do things,” he says.

75 per cent of all British converts to Islam are women. And, according to one study in Leicester, Between Isolation and Integration, a large percentage of female converts were attracted to the faith because of the status it affords them. Many believe the religion provides them with a high spiritual status and a type of dignity our modern, secular country can’t.

But, the majority of British women who convert report feeling confused due to the conflicting ways Islam is introduced to them. “The reason why some converts leave the faith or become confused is not only because of the narrow-mindedness of many Muslims. But also because of the dominance of culture: some Muslims will insist on Pakistani, Saudi or Iranian culture and say it is Islamic,” says Usama Hasan.

It is not just converts who are leaving the faith but also Muslims born into the faith. “I've noticed certainly after 9/11 that a growing number of young Muslims in the UK have lost their faith, and many have become Christian, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist,” Hasan says.

While many apostates travel a lonely path once leaving the faith, as friends and family often marginalise them, far too many also feel the rage of Muslim extremists.

Saif Rahman is the author of The Islamist Delusion: From Islamist to Cultural, Humanist Muslim. He was born to a Muslim family of Pakistani-Indian origin but abandoned Islam around a decade ago. He now regularly criticises Islam. It comes at a wretched price: he has received almost 150 death threats in the past five years.

“9/11 was a critical moment for many ex-Muslims,” says Rahman, “We felt we could no longer relate to these people [the terrorists],” he says over the phone.  

“The death threats used to get to me but once you cross the 100 mark, it becomes a bit of a joke. Some are so ludicrous. I’m one of the biggest figureheads for the hate. But because they’re done by the net, I can be a bit more blasé about them,” he says.

Some Islamic scholars believe that apostates should be killed, especially if they go on to attack the faith, and cite as evidence a couple of Prophetic sayings in Islam. However, there is no Quranic justification for this stance and other scholars believe that killing apostates is a pre-modern tradition that no longer applies today.

Although Rahman regularly attacks Islam on Twitter, he concedes that there is much “beauty” in the religion. “I do think Islam is a bad religion but I’m not blinded to its beauty. Some of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad leave me teary-eyed. I would even argue that the sense of family, hospitality and other ethical values are actually Islamic,” he says.

The Council of ex-Muslims recently tweeted: “The internet has made our voices louder, for the first time in history ex-Muslims can speak freely, by-passing death, fear, blasphemy [and] taboos.”

But do ex-Muslims have the right to mock religion? Faith, after all, gives people meaning, hope and provides answers to existential questions. Helen, an ex-Muslim from Scotland, who says she was forced to convert to Islam and later mistreated by the family believes it is a good thing to mock religion. “The truth will push you off before it sets you free. People have to toughen up, instead of relying on an imaginary deity to give them meaning,” she says.

Pepe says many ex-Muslims behave with a kind of reactive defiance once apostasising. “People who left the religion at the angry stage, they want to hit back at it, to kind of feel some kind of satisfaction. But when they do it too much it just has a negative effect overall.”

Usama Hasan, however, is hopeful for the future of Islam, despite the threat of ex-Muslims. “On a positive note, I have come across Muslims who have lost their faith but regained it after they have come across different interpretations, deeper, wider and more generous of the Quran and Prophetic traditions which accord well with the modern world,” he says. “It’s up to the people of knowledge to dig those interpretations out. And once they provide those insights people are attracted back to the faith because faith is something beautiful. God is beautiful and He is loving and merciful and waiting to be discovered and known,” he adds.

For some, Islam manifests itself as a religion of beauty and peace, either when people convert to the faith or when they discover the “different interpretations”. But, for far too many, especially those with bad experiences with Muslims, the religion reveals itself to be the way Islamophobes negatively caricature it to be.


Prayers at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, London in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.