SIDEBAR: Muslims embracing unbelief often face a lonely journey

NEW YORK — There was a time in his life when Ibrahim Abdallah thought he was the only Muslim-turned-atheist in … Continued

NEW YORK — There was a time in his life when Ibrahim Abdallah thought he was the only Muslim-turned-atheist in the world. Then, at a party, he met a fellow Egyptian and former Muslim, and while the other guests danced, they sat and talked.

And talked and talked.

“I was so happy, and so shocked,” Abdallah, 33, said. “We both felt,’I am not the only one.’ It was huge.”

Now, several years later, Abdallah is on a mission to create the kind of safe space for questioning Islam and all matters of faith that he wishes he could have had.

Last May, he founded “Muslim-ish,” a support group for questioning and former Muslims that meets under the auspices of Manhattan’s Center For Inquiry, a humanist organization. The group has about 50 members, both cradle Muslims and converts, and meets twice a month in a secret location.

“Most of these people never saw another ex-Muslim before,” Abdallah said near his Midtown office; bringing a reporter to a meeting was considered too dangerous for some members. “These are people who don’t believe anymore and who have no support.”

It’s support they very much need, Abdallah said, because Muslims who abandon their faith face challenges not faced by those who leave other religions. Divorce and disowning are common, as is the threat of physical violence. Some more conservative Muslims believe Islam sanctions the killing of apostates (those who abandon the faith) and blasphemers (those who belittle Islam, the Prophet Muhammad or other Muslims).

The argument for the death penalty is usually based on a section of the hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad. One hadith states, “The Prophet said: whoever discards his religion, kill him.” But some Islamic scholars vehemently disagree, and point to the Quran itself, which says, “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

There are currently eight countries that punish apostasy with the death penalty, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran. And while the U.S. protects freedom of conscience and religion, some Muslims who emigrate from countries with no similar guarantees discriminate against, or seek to punish, the atheists in their communities.

There have been several high-profile incidents targeting atheists in the Islamic world. In 2010, Walid Husayin was arrested by Palestinian police after posting anti-Islamic statements on his “Proud Atheist” blog. He spent 10 months in jail after his family turned him in. Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan remains in jail after he was attacked by a mob for writing “God does not exist” on his Facebook page.

Still, Muslims who have become atheists are beginning to speak out. In 2007, the Council of Ex-Muslims was established in England to support those leaving Islam. It encourages ex-Muslims to go public to lessen the stigma of unbelief, and works to educate local police and social welfare workers about the threats they face. There are similar groups in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Muslim-ish is growing beyond its New York birthplace. A new group was recently established in Dearborn, Mich. — home to the largest population of Muslims in the U.S. — and other groups are forming in Chicago and Washington, D.C. An online version now meets via Google+ and is drawing people from Alabama, Florida and overseas.

“They are having the kinds of conversations that I would have liked to have had,” Abdallah said.

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  • Rongoklunk

    In the old days Christianity was compulsory too. And you couldn’t walk away from it. You could be tortured to change your mind, and burnt alive if you didn’t. When Christianity was in charge violence was common.

    It was only when secularism finally took over that we could choose ‘not to believe’. It was thanks to The Enlightenment that we were able to break free from superstitions and live as we wished to live. In Europe religion is finished as a power. After two world wars it became obvious that there were no gods. And scientists too are coming to the same conclusion – there’s nobody up there.

  • cs9243

    Abdullah is lucky to live in the US, in muslim countries he will be dead by now. Even in the US his group is meeting in a secret location in Manhattan. Anyway this is not worth,your life is precious than anything else. This is foolish and stupid, there are enough athiests in other religions to carry his message. Abdulla’s mission is a suicidal mission.

  • Secular1

    In my humble opinion Islam of mid twentieth century was on the ropes. By and large the post-colonial islamic countries gained their independence not because of religiously inspired freedom movements but by secular nationalist movements. It started with Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, followed by Gamel Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Shah of Iran, Sukarno of Indonesia, Assad of Syria, Boumédiène of Algeria the Islamic world was swinging with the human zeitgeist, as with the rest of the world. However, these leaders were for most part influenced by Fabian socialism, which was the intellectual nourishment for the progressive movement of early 20th century Europe and especially Britain, Not only that these men also slowly turned out to be dictators who believed in their own propaganda and surely slipped into corruption, as night follows day. These leaders along with the other social doyen of the third world Jawaharlal Nehru of India, & Marshal Tito of then Yugoslavia formed the non-aligned movement which supposedly was going to be the third world view, along with the Capitalist group led by US and the western Europe and teh Socialist order led by Soviet Union. Despite the stated goal of teh non-aligned nations, their national imperatives were in collision with the capitalist nations, as they were mostly made of the ex-colonial masters. This pushed the non-aligned movement into the laps of the Soviets. This dried up the inflow of capitals into these islamic countries from the west and the dictatorships became more and more despotic thus giving an opening to the dying islamist movements afresh lease of life. This was also buttressed by the west’s (shortsightedly) refusal to help these dicatorship’s economies. This is the genesis of the political islam’s resurgence in the fourth quarter of teh 20th century. In short the biggest villains of political islam’s resurgence are the secular dictators of the post colonial Islamia, followed by the West’s refusal to support secularists.