The secret atheism of former Muslims

“I always had a thing about asking questions,” recalled Shamim Khan, who was born and raised as a Muslim in Bangladesh. However, these religious questions didn’t sit well with his authority figures, particularly when he was practising a ‘strict rules-based religion’ at boarding school.

“Often the response would be, ‘You are not meant to ask these questions. If you ask these questions, you will end up in hell. That means you are questioning the authority of God. That shows weakness in your belief.’” Shamim told us.

“I always inquired, ‘Why is it this way? Why does it have to be this way?’ I think homosexuality is one example of where I thought many times, ‘Why is it wrong? What is the moral justification for it?’ I can remember that even from a young age I would ask, ‘What is wrong with it?’”

However, Shamim said that the given answer was just, “Because, the religious texts say so.” Yet, this response wasn’t good enough for him. “I was never happy to do things when people just said to me, ‘That is how it is.’” Though, as a child, what choice did he have?

Sadia Hameed, Spokeswoman for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), told Artefact, “Every single one of the individuals we support [has] been made to feel like they are stupid. That there is something fundamentally wrong with them simply for asking questions rather than just sitting back and accepting what they are being fed.”

As a non-profit organisation, CEMB seeks to provide support to apostates while also campaigning and lobbying on their behalf. Sadia transitioned out of Islam and now supports others who are making that potentially life-threatening change.

Shamim’s family-centred upbringing was interwoven with culture and religion. Bangladesh bustles with sound, from the tuk-tuk taxis to the market holler. Silence is scarce. The country prides itself on its many festivals and traditions. Music, dance and feasts are central to these celebrations. Yet, religion for many is at the centre of it all.

Family in Bangladesh

More than 89% of the Bangladeshi population identifies as Muslim [Unsplash: Theodore Goutas]

The CIA World Factbook reports that around 89% of the Bangladeshi population identifies as Muslim. Freedom of religion is constitutional in Bangladesh. As such, it is technically legal to practice any religion and convert as you wish. However, on numerous occasions, outspoken atheists have been killed by militant groups.

According to the 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom, Bangladesh has laws in place which protect religious sentiment, however in 2018, further legislation was passed that “could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression” as claimed by human rights groups within the full report published by the UK parliament.

Another issue with apostasy is that abandoning Islam is considered shameful. It doesn’t only affect the individual leaving the Muslim faith but stains their whole family name. This factor is Shamim’s primary concern. “In the culture I am from, how religious you are is part of how your upbringing has been and how good your parents have been at bringing you up,” Shamim explained. “Not having a belief puts the parent forward in a negative light.”

“Generally family is everything in Muslim families, and it is expected the children will grow up following the same religious views as their parents,” Olivia Djouadi, an accredited psychotherapist and counsellor, explained to Artefact.

Olivia goes on to say that, “Western families are together but have an awareness of each having individuality. Muslim communities and families see themselves as an extended family that [is] together, so even unrelated people will be known as brothers and sisters.”

“As a result,” Olivia states, “if something different is occurring, other local families may question which may be felt [like] shame. It is very hard to leave something like a religion that will result in the parents being questioned. Even if said gently, it won’t always feel that way.”

Within the Muslim faith, Allah has many attributes and names, all of which were taught to Shamim. From a young age, he learned that God is the ‘ultimate judge’: “If you follow His rules, He likes you. If you don’t follow His rules, He doesn’t like you.”

But Shamim felt that God “was, on the one hand, so-called as merciful and someone who you are a meant to see as the only one to have [the] power to decide and change everything. But at the same time someone who would punish you if you did not follow, if you did not do what you were asked to do of God.”

As such, he participated in religious practices with all of the other children. “You would wake up […] during sunrise, you would pray five times a day, you would fast during Ramadan, you would have to dress in a particular way, and you would have to refrain from eating certain things.”

Child praying in group

“You would pray five times a day, […] fast during Ramadan, […] dress in a particular way, and you would have to refrain from eating certain things.” [Unsplash: Masjid Pogung Dalangan]

Shamim explained that at boarding school, he merely had to abide by the rules without worrying about the right or wrong implication. He recalled, “If someone was giving a sermon, which now I would consider bigot and perhaps discriminatory to certain race or religion, I did not have the moral infrastructure to judge right or wrong at that age.”

Shamim’s inquisitive nature continued throughout his childhood as he transitioned into six to eight years of Sofism, his mother’s belief. “When I moved to a more spiritual-based practice of religion, I was at liberty to ask those questions but perhaps, never received a satisfactory answer,” he said.

“That may be that I didn’t look around hard enough, or that there isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer for me. Such as, if a God is kind and merciful, why does this text say that certain people will always be in hell? What is the mercy in that?

“The dissonance of, on the one hand calling oneself merciful, and the other hand, talking about dragging someone into [a] fire and bursting their skin and the very next sentence calling themselves, exalted, mighty and wise. That wasn’t a kind of superpower I was willing to live for,” Shamim concluded.

“I don’t think there was one moment where I decided to leave the faith,” Shamim told us. “I think it was more of a gradual process. It was more of a case of admitting I have left the faith rather than making a conscious decision that I am not part of this faith any more.”

“You doubt different aspects of the faith. You go in a swing from one end to another, thinking, ‘at this moment I believe this all makes sense’ and then go to the other extreme where none of it makes sense,” he said. “At the initial stage, you do certain things, for example, for me, eating pork. You eat it, and you feel guilty about it. And slowly, the guilt fades away. When that happens, I think it’s a big point when you start to think[ing], ‘What does this mean anymore? What am I doing? If I don’t even care if it is right or not, then am I being authentic if I just call myself Muslim for the sake of it?’

Holy-Scripture

“If you follow His rules, He likes you. If you don’t follow His rules, He doesn’t like you,” [Unsplash: Ashkan Forouzani]

“In the back of my mind, I would still say, ‘I’m still of this faith’. Yeah, that’s in terms of eating pork, and I think every action that you took that was not according to the faith or what the faith required you to do, you would have the same feeling of guilt.”

For many of Sadia’s clients who were indoctrinated, the process takes a long time: “Even after having left religion ten years later, they have these ‘religious hang-ups’ that they struggle with, but it really is dependent on the family’s behaviour towards them.”

“I think there were bigger conflicts and there were smaller conflicts,” Shamim said. “At a bigger level, there were more fundamental questions I was asking because of the area I was studying in; the work I was doing. I could see more and more people not being cared for. And I think I saw a fair amount of injustice which did not make sense to me.

“How could someone who is meant to be omnipotent and have control of everything, induce things like that? And when you start to ask questions like that and not get answers back, at least not a satisfactory one, you start [to] think, well this doesn’t make sense to me. And this is not making a difference to me in my life, in my day to day life.”

“When your life, on a bigger level, is shaken, then doing the day-to-day acts, like praying, that goes away. So you feel more distant from it. When you feel distant from it, you start to feel less guilty.”

“I would rather be relying on things that are within [my] control and take actions on things that can make a difference in people’s lives who are having a hard time. Instead of waiting on this supernatural force to make an introduction and say, ‘well there you go’ or pray to a supernatural force to make this a more just world. Instead of doing it to make it one,” Shamim said.

“On a smaller level, I think it was a lifestyle choice. When your life, on a bigger level, is shaken, then doing the day-to-day acts, like praying, that goes away. So you feel more distant from it. When you feel distant from it, you start to feel less guilty. It’s [a] cumulative fact of these small acts that you have.”

During that initial stage, Shamim found it difficult to ‘accept that there is nothing’ and that ‘there is no bigger plan in play’. However, Shamim observed that “at the end of it, you think, it does not make much of a difference to my life whether or not I am part of a faith, which is one of the biggest fears you have when you’re deciding whether to leave.”

“I don’t think I have told many people, especially family, relatives or anyone for that matter, that I don’t believe in a religion or a God anymore,” Shamim confesses. So far, he has never brought up his new-found atheism with them and claims he can only ‘speculate on their reaction.’

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a vibrant, noisy place [Unsplash: Ahmed Hasan]

However, Shamim remarked, “when I have had a discussion in or around the topic, it is not a discussion which is taken with an open mind, with this is an option, it is always ‘How dare you! How dare you consider. What would people think that someone from our family does not believe in God?’ So I think that sort of discourages you [from] going and labelling yourself.”

His relationships have also been affected. Shamim gave an example of his cousins as Islam is ‘a core part of their identity’. They grew up together and shared most of their belongings for a long time. Shamim’s cousin’s made it clear that their religion is ‘the most important thing for them.”

“When you suddenly don’t share this core part of their identity anymore,” Shamim said, “you start to distance yourself.” He started to think “what do I have in common with you? Or you will see me differently. And other people will make comments if they are a believer, and how they perceive unbelievers. Even if they are unaware of it, they are talking about me. Which then further discourages you from bringing it up because you don’t know what the reaction would be.

“I think, perhaps, there is a continual fear now, is when I eventually do come out to my family and say I do not share your belief system anymore, how will they take it?” Shamim told us.

“People still just presume I still believe in the faith it’s just more that I don’t practice, which is still fine with them. It’s when you tell people, ‘I actually don’t believe in any of this’, that’s where it becomes difficult to understand.”

 “I think, perhaps, there is a continual fear now, is when I eventually do come out to my family and say I do not share your belief system anymore, how will they take it?” Shamim Khan 

It appears that this fear is not unfounded. According to Sadia, the CEMB sees two extreme responses from parents who find out their children have forsaken the Muslim faith.

“One is parents who are absolutely, unconditionally supportive and loving them regardless, which is very, very rare,” Sadia explained. “Because if that is the case, they don’t really need any help or support or alternative community.”

“The other end of the extreme is parents wanting to kill or harm their children for leaving Islam,” Sadia stated. “That is quite common in our international case, but it does also happen here [in London]. There have been cases with young people who have this ideological difference to their parent’s and their parent’s then attempt to kill them or do actually kill them.”

A 2016 statement from the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) highlighted the ‘fundamental human rights’ which Bangladesh has pledged to uphold. Additionally, Bangladesh has committed to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The combination of these commitments provides the citizens of Bangladesh the right to freedom of speech, expression, conscience and religion. Equally, these signed documents ‘protects the right to life’ and ‘to not be discriminated against on various grounds’.

“These rights include the liberty to adopt or not adopt a religious belief, to change or leave a religion or belief, to observe and manifest one’s religion or belief, either individually or in community, and to speak freely and engage in public discourse about one’s beliefs, ideas, or convictions – without fear of reprisal attacks or government crackdowns,” claims the CEMB.

Bangladesh Bloggers News Coverage

Reports of murdered Bangladeshi bloggers were rife throughout 2015 and 2016. News outlets reporting on these incidents included the BBC, Guardian and Al Jazeera. [Kezia Farnham]

When Shamim was asked if he ever worries about the wrong person finding that he is now an atheist, he responded, “possibly, yes,” with an abrupt and nervous chuckle. “But then, I think perhaps because of the circles that I’m in, and because I’m not in the country anymore, I can only speculate.

“There were a number of attacks in my home country for the last few years for people being labelled as atheists, for people who have been writing blogs because they are an atheist,” Shamim stated. “There have been cases of them being attacked and slaughtered because of their belief.

“The bigger fear is because of how the society is structured and how important […] society is, if you do seek protection from the state, if you do seek protection from people around you, the reaction is, well they had it coming, why did they not believe in Islam, so they had it coming,” Shamim explained.

“There have been cases of them being attacked and slaughtered because of their belief.”

“A state-sponsored group will still endorse these actions by saying that these people deserved it because they did not believe in God, or at least the God that we believe.”

In 2015, Niloy Neel was hacked to death in the capital of Bangladesh. Niloy is but one of the many individuals who has been killed for publicising atheist views, for example, through blogs. Shortly after, the BBC reported: “He is the fourth secularist blogger to have been killed this year by suspected Islamist militants in Bangladesh.”

Candles-Death-Bangladesh-Bloggers

“Human rights groups have warned that its provisions are poorly thought through and could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression,” Human Rights Watch. [Unsplash: Zoran Kokanovic]

In response to the murder of Niloy Neel, Prime Minister Hasina stated, “You can’t attack someone else’s religion. You’ll have to stop doing this. It won’t be tolerated if someone else’s religious sentiment is hurt.” Both the Huffington Post and Vice have reported these words.

The government’s reaction was described as ‘disappointing’ by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the European Humanist Federation, to name a few. Sadia claims that ‘today is a very different game’ in contrast to the events that unfolded in 2015 and 2016: “There is no commitment to religious minorities, there is no commitment to freedom of speech or bloggers on anything like that. They have been incredibly brutal to anyone who doesn’t fit the states sanctioning of what it means to be Muslim.”

In May 2018, the Human Rights Watch claimed, “Scores of people have been arrested over the past five years in Bangladesh under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act for criticising the government, political leaders, and others on Facebook, as well as in blogs, online newspapers, or other social media.”

The current prime minister of Bangladesh recently participated in a filmed interview with Deutche Welle, saying, “In this country, everybody has freedom of speech.” PM Sheikh Hasina also confirmed that she supports freedom of expression 100% and that it is a basic need.

In response to whether critical voices are part of a democracy, PM Hasina replied, “If you work more you will hear more criticism. You should ask my people whether they are satisfied or not, what they think, whether they are getting all they need, whether I can provide this.”

fear-of-death-bloggers-bangladesh

Apostates are often displaced from their homes and friends [Unsplash: Olesya Yemets]

However, there are now concerns regarding the Digital Security Bill which was passed during the Autumn of 2018. “Within days [of completion], the government established a Rumour Identification and Removal Centre which is tasked with monitoring social media sites,” stated in the ‘Bangladesh: November 2018 Update’. The document, from the House of Commons Library, goes on to say, “Human rights groups have warned that its provisions are poorly thought through and could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

“I think it has been largely a very personal process,” Shamim declared, calling the process an individual issue, and concluding, “I have to do the reasoning myself.”

Shamim has not been outspoken about his new-found atheism. Rather, he says, “I am pluralistic and accepting of other people’s right to believe in something, so I do not have the uncontrollable urge to share with people that I do not believe in anything.”

However, many of the individuals who seek help from CEMB do have the urge to share their stories. Sadia explained that the people who go to them want to speak out as “some people are killed for not believing. Also, if you’ve lived in an oppressive environment for a long time, you are dying to process that,” Sadia quickly added. “Now some people process things quite quietly, others process quite loudly and either way, that is their right. I see people in all situations, some wanting to talk quite a lot and others just not feeling comfortable talking. And that’s their […] personal journey.”

Sadia claimed that many clients seeking help through CEMB are suffering from mental health issues. “The most common one we see is, depression and anxiety absolutely, but we also see a lot of PTSD, a lot of complex PTSD, a lot of personality disorders […] all of those factor into it.”

She says it will take these individuals, “at least a very, very, minimum of ten to twelve years to overcome some of the trauma that they would have experienced as a result of religion.” However, Sadia emphasises that the process “depends on every individual case.”

When Shamim was at the peak of his doubt, he went to see a psychologist. “At this point,” Shamim begins, “I was asking a lot of big questions about the meaning of religion, [the] role of God and seeing the failure of God to deal with the big problems.”

Shamim said, “The psychologist told me, ‘You are putting to much pressure on yourself to figure this out,’” However, he argues that he didn’t feel the pressure on his mental health because of the liberal influences on his moral belief system.

Having left Islam, Shamim felt ‘liberated’. He went on to say, “I think there is a feeling of unshackling yourself from flawed reason and having the pressure to get it right and do the right thing.”

Despite Shamim’s decision to leave the Muslim faith, he was still able to say “I’m happy I reached this place [and] for the process I have been through.”

 

 

 

 

 

* Shamim Khan’s name was anonymised to protect his identity. If you are a former Muslim who is planning on telling your family that you have left Islam, please read this advice from Sadia Hameed, Spokeswoman for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain:

“Only do it when it’s safe to do so, and consider creating a safety plan, get in touch with us. We are more than happy to talk you through a safety plan. Before having those conversations, you need to know that you are safe.”

“First and foremost, what you need to consider is that you are safe during that process and that no harm comes to you as a result of it. And consider every single aspect, […] sometimes you have to think about things that may feel unrealistic. Nobody wants to think their family are going to harm them but think about the worst-case scenario.”

“Create hypothetical questions and talk to [your family] about it. [For example,] ‘I have a friend who has come out of Islam and their family have done this, what do you think about it?’ Ask questions in a roundabout way so that you can figure out what your family’s feelings, thoughts and likely actions are going to be should you come out.”


Featured image by Nouman Younas via Unsplash.