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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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.