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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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times