Lance Frizzell-Reynolds, 36, converted to Islam about two years ago because he fell in love with the simplicity and beauty of the religion.
“There were no elaborate and highly decorated rituals,” he said. “It was a community submitting to Allah.” Frizzell-Reynolds, a graduate student from Western Massachusetts, left Islam three months later because of his sexuality–he was gay. “I came into Islam knowing it was contentious, but I left because I felt I was excluded, unwanted, and I felt threatened,” he said. “I am still struggling with not being part of the [Muslim community], and I regularly miss it.”
Frizzell-Reynolds said he wished that the community would have left his sexuality between him and Allah rather than condemning him and telling him he should be stoned. “I threw in the towel because I felt like I was abandoned and seen as a threat to other’s [religion],” he said.
Although this phenomenon has not been investigated in-depth, there is “anecdotal evidence” of Muslims in North America leaving Islam, beginning with disengagement from the community, said Sameera Ahmed, a clinical psychologist from Columbus, OH and director of the Family and Youth Institution.
“Disengagement may occur for varying reasons depending on the individual circumstances, but is most often due to lack of relevance. For some individuals it may be due to the lack of cultural relevance because the masjid community is based on specific ethnic community cultural norms, which may not be welcoming to many [for example] second generation immigrant, African-American, Latino, and Caucasian, non-dominant ethnic groups,” she said. “For other people disengagement may be due to a community’s ideological application of Islam more often erring on more conservative interpretations when there may be alternative, more lenient scholarly opinions, or the lack of discourse relevant for the congregations, for example, a failure to address everyday struggles.”
Kiran Opal, an information technology consultant, is one of the co-founders of Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA). She believes being Muslim or leaving Islam is a religious choice, and ex-Muslims should not have to hide their beliefs.“Just like anyone can join Islam, anyone can leave Islam,” she said. “The freedom of religion that Muslims enjoy in the West goes both ways.”
According to Opal, EXMNA is a safe place for people who no longer believe in Islam to come together and feel comfortable with their choices. “We are mostly atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists. We do not wish to convert Muslims to atheism or anything else,” she said. “We only exist to provide a space for people who already do not believe, but who have been forced to pretend like they do. They finally have a place where they can relax and just be themselves among others who understand what that apostasy stigma is like.”
Opal said more and more people are leaving not only Islam, but Christianity and other religions, as they are become more comfortable questioning leaders in the community.” People are reading the Quran and hadiths [words of the Prophet Muhammad] and tafsirs [Quran interpretations] for themselves instead of relying on others to get all their information about the religion they’re taught to follow,” she said.
“People are gaining knowledge and thinking for themselves. And with the growth of the Internet, this will continue to grow throughout the word. Even in countries where governments are trying to censor people’s access to knowledge, people are finding amazing, creative ways to get around those restrictions,” Opal observed.
Opal said many people from Muslim families often pretend to be Muslims out of fear of being stigmatized in the community. “I have known many people from Muslim backgrounds who do not believe in Islam but who are silent under threat because leaving Islam is seen as a kind of treason to “the community,” she said.
Sadaf Ali, 22, a college student from Toronto, is another co-founder of EXMNA.
She left Islam at the age of 18 for a several reasons. “One of the major reasons I left Islam was the idea of an omnipotent deity. Secondly, I was not satisfied with the idea of genders being “equal but not equal.” I reject any text or philosophy that does not give equal footing to any genders,” Ali said. “Traditionally, there are only two genders. I do not subscribe to the notion of gender binaries. I do not feel any duties or responsibilities for any specific gender.”
When Opal left Islam, many of her relatives disowned her. “My parents were more understanding, but many family members seemed to care more about their image among the community than about the very valid questions that I raised about Islamic scriptures, beliefs, and practices,” she said.
Although EXMNA members openly question and disagree with the religion of Islam, hadiths, Islamic history, and Islamic scholars, they don’t support bigotry towards Muslims, Opal insisted. She said EXMNA has several hundred members in North America. “People have rights, including the right to question and join and reinterpret and change and leave any religion,” she said.
“We at EXMNA, and our British affiliates, are proof that you can be an Ex-Muslim and completely disagree with Islam, and still be an advocate for the human rights of Muslims, and of all people, everywhere. I respect people’s right to believe in things that I may not believe in. I don’t have to respect what they believe, but I respect that they have the right to decide that for themselves,” Opal said. “And I expect the same courtesy from others in return.”
Ahmed believes there are other reasons members disengage from Muslim communities. “Religious texts, such as the Quran and Sunnah, are often not presented in a way that incorporates the American context or with the spiritual and intellectual depth that many people crave. Instead, the scriptures receive a simplistic, ritualistic, rote application devoid of context,” she said.
“Many other do not attend the Masjid [Mosque] due to lack of meaningful religious, educational, and social programming and activities that are reflective of the needs of varying components of the religious congregations–specifically female, family, children, and elderly friendly programs are in greater need,” Ahmed said. “Finally, many people have difficulties forming meaningful connections, including friendship with fellow congregants, which also serves to decrease the communal connection and safety net that would normally help connect the individual to the masjid.”
Ali said the Muslim community should be more tolerant of those who choose to leave or question Islam. “Unfortunately, apostasy is something that is usually not tolerated by many communities and I’ve been witness to one too many instances where people have been alienated, harassed or disowned for simply saying that they have doubts or that they are agnostic, atheist, deist, etc,” she said. “It’s even worse when family or community members berate them and try to convince them of something. Most of EXMNA’s members are well versed in Islamic traditions, practices, and texts. One must be informed of something before one chose’s to reject it and that has been the case nearly 100 percent of the time with our member base.”
Opal insists that ex-Muslims in North America are not the enemy of Muslims. “We love our Muslim families and friends. We are often blended in with Muslims, counted among the numbers of Muslims; we get racially profiled, and “randomly” checked at airports too. We are hated by far-right xenophobes too. The only difference is we don’t believe in Islam,” she said.
“We have the right to not believe in Islam and we hope that more Muslims will stand up for our right to be ex-Muslim as we stand with Muslims for their right to be Muslim,” Opal said. “We support freedom of religion for all, as well as freedom from religion. Just like Muslims don’t wish to have their religious freedoms trampled, ex-Muslims would like to be able to leave Islam and not face the stigma and violence that often accompanies that move. I think more and more Muslims are actually open to the idea that religion should not be like a mafia – that you can leave it if it doesn’t suit you and nobody will harm you for it. At least in North America, we all enjoy the privileges of freedoms that many in the world do not have. And we stand in solidarity with Muslims who are being marginalized and oppressed anywhere in the world. We stand with all people who stand up for justice and fairness and the right to choose for ourselves.”
Ahmed said Muslim communities should tackle issues of member disengagement by assessing the community’s needs. “This would include understanding the needs of those who regularly attend the masjid as well as gain insight as to who does not attend the masjid. For example, if there used to be many children in the Sunday school program, but very few middle or high school students attending the masjid programs, it is most likely the community does not offer relevant programming for this age group,” Ahmed said. “Similarly, if the community is set within a diverse setting, but congregants are mainly from a specific ethnic community, then the congregational culture should be explored and attempts and programs to be more inclusive must be undertaken.”