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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.