Kiwi Muslims who have checked out of Hotel Islam

You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

-lyrics hotel California

I have followed the Council of ex-Muslims of New Zealand Facebook page for a while now. I contacted them November last year and offered them the opportunity to submit a guest post. This was their response.

Thanks for your interest in the Council of Ex-Muslims of New Zealand and for your article on us. It’s nice to know that people are interested in ex-Muslims and the challenges they face.

At the moment we are focusing on the group itself – we’re still in the early stages of organising things and we have a way to go before we’d feel ready to do anything publicly. This is something we’ve been having discussions about and we definitely plan to so something in the future.

Thanks for following our Facebook page and for liking and sharing some of the content. It’s really helpful to have ex-Muslim perspectives get more exposure

-Council of ex-Muslims of NZ

I am really pleased that they have managed only 8 months later to get an article published on Stuff. Unlike other religions and political ideologies, Islam is not something that you can leave without serious consequences. The article is a long one but it gives valuable insights into how even in a free and peaceful, non-Islamic country like New Zealand, it is very hard for a person to leave Islam.

New Zealand Muslims making the difficult – and potentially dangerous – decision to leave their faith are finding support in each another…

“I called up the guy and I said, ‘How many of us are there?’ He said, ‘You’re the first one to call’. It was a council of one.”

The council Hassan* called was the council of ex-Muslims of New Zealand.

These days, the organisation is no longer a council of one. Now it serves as a support network for New Zealand’s growing number of ex-Muslims who have found themselves isolated from friends and family after leaving Islam.

There is a legitimate fear involved in leaving Islam; turning your back on the faith is referred to as apostasy. It is punishable by death in several countries, sometimes by law, and sometimes through mob violence.

Even in countries where the threat of physical harm or imprisonment is not a factor, many ex-Muslims stay in the closet for fear of being disowned by the people they love the most.

For Hassan leaving Islam resulted in years of estrangement from his family.

Hassan was born in New Zealand to Muslim parents and completed his schooling both in New Zealand and abroad.

He was a golden child of his community. Devout, with strong ties to the mosque and plenty of western friends, he was seen as a well-balanced Muslim.

His slow move from faith started during his university years.

After challenging Christian friends about what he saw as inconsistencies in the Bible, he then decided to analyse the Koran from an unbiased view.

“I read the Koran in English to understand, not just recite it. I remember my aunties and uncles telling me, ‘Don’t go too deep, ignorance is bliss. Just do as you’re told rather than really trying to understand it because it will complicate things in your mind.'”

But, as Hassan read the Koran, he said his faith in it started to unravel.

“I had real issues with some of the stuff that was in there like beating your disobedient wife and having sex with your captives of war.”

He found the answers Islamic scholars gave to his questions unsatisfactory.

“For instance, with the wife-beating thing I said, ‘I have a real issue here because I’ve been brought up by my father and I’ve been told you shouldn’t beat anyone, let alone a woman, no matter what the situation is.’

“All I got was excuses. Trying to play it down, ‘Don’t hit them too hard’, ‘Don’t leave a mark’, ‘Use a toothbrush or a hanky’, ‘It’s symbolic’. I thought, that’s not good enough for me. I’m not buying that.”

Hassan was not prepared to remain part of a religion he couldn’t agree with. So he left.

At first, his family hoped it was a stage he was going through. This changed when he and his non-Muslim wife were expecting their first child.

“I said, ‘Look dad, this is quite a happy time for us, we’re about to have our first child, you’re about to have a grandkid and you haven’t even acknowledged my wife is pregnant.’

“He basically said to my face, ‘I’ve decided when your child comes I will have nothing to do with them. There is no role for me in your child’s life.'”

Despite Hassan assuring him that he wanted his child to know their culture and language, just not be subjected to religious indoctrination, his father was resolute. Without Islam, there would be no relationship.

“I guess they wanted to punish me for being like this. They also didn’t want me influencing my other siblings. What they did was try to punish me and push me aside – ostracise me.”

LEILA

Leila* was heavily pregnant when she suspected her Muslim husband, Ibrahim*, was having doubts about their religion.

“I knew there was something going on but when I would question him he would not really communicate with me. For a month I was a mess because I was thinking what’s going to happen to us? Is the marriage going to separate? Is he going to leave Islam? I was telling him he needed to see some scholars and get back on to the path.”

Ibrahim eventually shared his doubts in what Leila described as a massive vent.

“He was saying, ‘Did you know Mohammad married a 6-year-old and consummated the marriage when she was 9?’ It just came all spewing out and at that point I was still devout, I was still wearing the hijab, I was still practising, so I was in shock.”

Leila began to research what her husband had told her and was horrified by some of what she found.

“I found a fatwa which was about an apostate’s children, I had just had the baby. The fatwa was when they had reached the decision-making age – 10 or 12, then they had to choose and if they don’t choose Islam they should be killed as well. It was just really traumatic to read this.”

While Leila said the fatwa she found represents a minority view within Islam and wouldn’t apply to countries not operating under Islamic law, the belief apostate adults should be killed is widely-held in some countries.

A 2013 Pew Research Centre study on sharia law found that in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Malaysia, the majority of those who favour sharia law also favour the death penalty for those who leave the faith, like Ibrahim.

“I still felt like he was a good person, he was a good husband, good with the kids. I love him and the idea that he would be killed under sharia law was really disturbing.”

The rise of Isis also affected her thinking.

“In Islam, it’s not just your family, it’s the whole community you’re leaving.”

“If there was anything that seemed off in Islam, Muslims would say, ‘But you know in an Islamic state it would make sense’, – magically. This was also in the context of Isis and we were seeing they are inventing an Islamic state, and they are implementing hudud punishments [punishments specified by Allah in the Koran] and it’s horrific.”

Leila describes her transition from being a devout Muslim to being a non-believer as an incredibly lonely and disorienting time. She said, for her, everything shattered.

“I was crying all the time. I couldn’t go behind my husband’s back and throw him under the bus by talking to his family or community. I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it.”

Ibrahim eventually announced leaving Islam to his family. His father’s immediate response was to inform him his blood could be spilt. The next day his father and brother went to a lawyer to remove him from the will.

Leila said other responses were variations of “I never want to hear from you again, you’re dead to me”.

For Leila, letting friends know she was leaving the faith resulted in painful conversations.

Some didn’t want to hear, some defended the issues Leila raised as to why she was leaving. One conversation ended with denial of the Holocaust.

“It was just hard. I was overwhelmed by the thought they all felt like we were evil and because I was still getting out of that belief system myself, I knew how strongly they felt about us.

“Ex-Muslims are the worst, because it’s not just like a non-Muslim who maybe you can say, ‘Oh, they just haven’t seen the truth’. If you’re an ex-Muslim you’ve seen the truth and you’ve denied it.”

Leila found the New Zealand ex-Muslims group through Google and emailed Safwan – the same man Hassan phoned.

By this time more ex-Muslims had made contact and a private online group was created to make conversation among everyone easier.

“It was so nice. It was just amazing. Just someone that got it, that knew where we were coming from. I think if you’re coming from a non-fundamentalist Judaeo-Christian background or from a secular background from New Zealand, it’s just totally different. In Islam, it’s not just your family, it’s the whole community you’re leaving,” said Leila.

SAFWAN

Safwan*, the creator of the council of ex-Muslims of New Zealand, had been an active member of the Muslim community for many years when he began to research Islam more deeply.

His research led him to question his faith.

“The moment you begin picking it apart the whole thing falls apart in a very comprehensive way and there’s no way you can resolve it.”

He felt unable to talk to his wife, a practising Muslim, about his doubts.

“I couldn’t talk to anyone at the mosque because you would then be regarded as a kaafir, or a doubter, you’ll get in trouble and you don’t quite know where that’s going to go. I simply had nowhere else to turn to…

An attempt to discuss his thoughts with a western co-worker ended badly with rumours spread about him within the industry he worked in.

“I caught sight of colleagues taking sneaky photos of me from behind screens. It was impossible to concentrate on my work, I just freaked out wondering what the hell was going on. I couldn’t sleep, I lost weight.

“Suddenly I was a leper, a total outcast from the Muslim community and the western community. It was utterly horrendous. There’s simply no one you can talk to.”

In the hope he might find others in a similar position, Safwan set up the Council for ex-Muslims New Zealand website.

Two long years later, a New Zealand based ex-Muslim, Hassan, called him and they agreed to meet at a café.

“It means a huge amount to me to realise that I am not alone in this, and I am sure it means a great deal to others too. We all have different backgrounds, but much in common.”

“We realised we knew all the same people in the community but all through the conversation I kept thinking, really, is he some sort of plant trying to trap me? It took a long time for me to trust him.”

Hassan was not a plant and since that meeting the group has grown from a one-man council with a website, to a group that meets up regularly with a public Facebook page and private online group.

Privacy is a concern and Safwan said new members are screened before they can join the group.

“In New Zealand, we’ve got it easy with great personal freedoms and people are still fearful.”

…”It means a huge amount to me to realise that I am not alone in this, and I am sure it means a great deal to others too. We all have different backgrounds, but much in common.”

Politically the group has no goals although the council’s website takes pains to point out they are not a right-wing, or racist, group wishing to attack Muslims.

“It’s moral support; we’re here for you to have a chat about it,” said Safwan.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED AMIR

[Muslim scholar] Amir said if someone came to him with questions about Islam he would try to offer clarification.

“We will try to explain it to them but it is not up to us to convince them. It is something that is their right and freedom to choose whatever they want to choose.”

A person leaving Islam in New Zealand would “mean nothing”, Sheikh Amir said as the death penalty for apostasy only applies in countries following Islamic law.

Contrary to the experiences shared by Hassan and Leila, Sheikh Amir said cutting children off for leaving Islam was not common.

“It varies from individual to individual, but if the family decides not to speak to the person or ban him, or not have any relationship, that is up to the family.

“If they [the family of the person who has left Islam] choose to do this because of religion, perhaps it is creating issues or problems because that person comes to the house and starts speaking and the environment of the house doesn’t seem to be very good because of his presence. If they feel, well, let us cut him off. Let him be at peace without interrupting and interfering with him, if they choose it, it’s up to them.”

In other words, Muslim scholars like Amir are not going to counsel the family to love and accept their family members no matter what their beliefs are in the way that mainstream Christian religious leaders would. That failure to counsel the family to accept their children is tacit approval of the horrendous tactic of cutting people off from not only their family but their entire community.

“It is something that is their right and freedom to choose whatever they want to choose.”

So no moral or religious disapproval from Amir. He doesn’t think there is anything wrong with treating your children this way.

As Muslim parents struggle with their child’s choice to leave the religion behind, they often blame themselves, he said.

“When children make mistakes, when they do things that cause shame to the family, of course [parents] will feel some degree of guilt that maybe there were some defects, some lack in their upbringing. That there may be some shortfall in their care.”

Sheikh Amir said if one of his own children chose to leave Islam he would maintain a relationship with them.

“It would be a very, very unfortunate situation and it would be very concerning. All we can do is try to explain to them. If after this we are unable to convince them, we pray for them – for their guidance.

“We would not cut them off because without the contact how are we going to fix them?”

Those comments say so much. To Amir, a person who makes the difficult decision to leave Islam is broken and needs to be fixed. He may not cut his children off personally but that is not because he will accept their decision but because he needs access to them in order to ” fix them.”

HASSAN

Hassan, whose phone call to Safwan started the growth of the ex-Muslim council, now has two children.

He said he wanted to share his story of leaving Islam to give hope to others.

“I guess mine is a positive story. Most of the ex-Muslim stories we hear are pretty horrible, being rejected by the family and then it’s just miserable. They suffer from all of these issues, depression and things like that. For me it seems like things might be getting a bit better.”

After years of estrangement his father has again become involved in their lives.

Hassan’s children are growing up knowing their Muslim grandparents; at family gatherings, they play with Muslim cousins.

With a community of more than 46,000 with 25 per cent born in New Zealand, the number of New Zealand-raised Muslims is increasing.

Hassan said Muslim children being schooled in New Zealand will, just as he did, ask challenging questions about religion.

In the Muslim country where Hassan completed some of his schooling, questions were discouraged.

“I remember being told by the teachers – don’t even ask those kind of questions, it’s a sin to think about those kinds of things.

“Kids, born and raised here, they are asking some difficult questions already, like, ‘Why is Allah letting kids in these countries suffer?’ Their parents don’t have the answers for the difficult questions they’re asking.

“I don’t think they will be easily satisfied with stupid answers – or being told don’t think about that.”

– Newsroom


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