I’ve met Maryam Namazie (the spokesperson for Iran Solidarity, One Law for All, and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain) several times now. I will be speaking at her conference in London in October. Namazie is one of the leading proponents of adopting the label “ex-Muslim” as one’s principal identifier, in preference to, say, “atheist” or “humanist.” She argues for this because atheists or humanists who come from a Muslim background face great difficulties that other atheists or humanists might not. Of course, those living in Muslim-dominated countries face greater difficulties still.
I think I agree with her partly in principle. I hail from a Muslim-dominated country (Iraq), where I faced extensive discrimination and even death threats. Thirteen countries prescribe the death penalty for atheists, all of them Muslim-dominated: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. I would add Iraq to the list as well; although Iraqi law does not define atheism as a capital offense, atheists (Christians and secular Muslims too) are constantly targeted by the militias that pretty much control most of the country.
But part of me disagrees with choosing “ex-Muslim” as one’s primary identifier. I am uncomfortable with it because of my general opposition to tribalism and favoritism. Some might accuse me of suffering from “big city” syndrome (I was raised in Baghdad and now live in Washington, D.C.; in between, I lived in cities such as Beirut and Kuala Lumpur), but I see cosmopolitanism as a virtue. Because of it, I prefer to identify myself with atheism and humanism as parts of a larger national and global movement, rather than identifying principally with people who happen to come from the same religious background that I do. Another way to express it is that I would rather identify with what I hope to accomplish, not just with the circumstances I came from.
Another reason not to embrace the label “ex-Muslim” uncritically is that from research and also from personal experience, I know that a great many atheists of Muslim background still hold attitudes toward LGBT issues and women’s rights that aren’t far removed from those of still-practicing Muslims. Not long ago, I had a conversation with someone who identifies as an ex-Muslim from Kuwait. He told me matter-of-factly that he believes women should be stoned to death for not being virgins. Yes, he actually believes that, in the twenty-first century. He lives in New York City. And he’s far from alone. Since I came to the United States, I’ve traveled to more than twenty-five states and met great numbers of ex-Muslims. Quite a few of them may be atheists, but they have a long way to go before they will be considered rationalists or humanists.
For that reason, after weighing the arguments I’ve decided that describing myself primarily as an ex-Muslim is not for me. It’s a label that captures only the past and speaks nothing about one’s code of ethics or one’s vision for the world. The focus of my work has always been on what’s next.
I believe in advocating for rational and critical thinking, for skepticism, human rights, and the importance of the scientific method because I think these things lead to a better world in a way that just being an ex-Muslim does not. Additionally, if men and women of reason can unite under one umbrella regardless of our backgrounds of faith, we can achieve much more and present a more united front to our opponents than if we remain divided by our religions of origin.
Speaking of divisiveness, I’ve found that ex-Muslims in the United States tend to be divided by ethnicity. There are two main ex-Muslim groups in North America, one mainly consisting of and led by Pakistanis and the other mainly consisting of and led by Arabs. (Nothing I’ve said here should be read as disparaging Namazie, whose groups operate in the United Kingdom. Namazie is doing great work; she is a close friend and in my opinion a wonderful person.)
If one is an ex-Muslim, that does not mean that one is a rationalist or humanist. One can be an ex-Muslim and yet be deeply sexist, antigay, or a racist who favors only people from one’s own religious or ethnic background. Skeptical of my claims? I urge you to do research and investigate for yourself. At the end of the day, I am an advocate for skepticism and critical thinking. That’s way more important than the fact (true as it is) that I’m an ex-Muslim.
Free Inquiry’s newest columnist, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, is an Iraqi-born writer, public speaker, community manager, web designer, and social activist currently living in the United States. He is an advocate for science, reason, and the free market of ideas and economy. Al Mutar is the founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post. He is a community manager at Movements.org, a division of Advancing Human Rights.