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Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Women talked about “coming out,” being open with their families, leaving “the closet” at a conference here this month. But the topic was not sexuality. Instead, the women, attending the third Women in Secularism conference were talking about being atheists. Some grew up Catholic, some Jewish, some Protestant — but nearly all described journeys of acknowledging atheism first to themselves, then to loved ones. Going public was a last, often painful, step.

Anyone leaving a close-knit belief-based community risks parental disappointment, rejection by friends and relatives, and charges of self-loathing. The process can be especially difficult and isolating for women who have grown up Muslim, who are sometimes accused of trying to assimilate into a Western culture that despises them.

 

“It was incredibly painful,” Heina Dadabhoy, 26, said during a discussion called “Women Leaving Religion,” which also featured three former Christians and one formerly observant Jew, the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “My entire life, my identity, was being a good Muslim woman.”

Ms. Dadabhoy, a web developer who lives in Orange County, Calif., and who often gives talks about leaving Islam, said the hardest part of the process was opening up to her family.

“The sense they got was where I was turning my back on them,” Ms. Dadabhoy said. Her parents accused her of thinking that she was better than her grandparents and other ancestors. “You think what you have is better than what we have? You think you’re like those white people,” Ms. Dadabhoy recalled them saying.

There are few role models for former Muslims, and although the religion’s history contains some notable skeptics, very few of them are women. Today, Muslim feminists like Irshad Manji and Amina Wadud advocate more liberal attitudes toward women in Islam, but neither has left the faith. And many atheists resist identifying with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American (by way of the Netherlands) whose vehement criticism of Islam is seen, even by many other atheists, as harsh.

One group that seeks to bridge that gap is Ex-Muslims of North America, which had an information table in the exhibition hall. Members of the group, founded last year in Washington and Toronto, recognize that their efforts might seem radical to some, and take precautions when admitting new members. Those interested in joining are interviewed in person before they are told where the next meeting will be held. The group has grown quickly to about a dozen chapters, in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco.

One of the group’s founders who was at the conference, Sadaf Ali, 23, an Afghan-Canadian, said that she had once been “a fairly practicing Muslim.”

During childhood, she said, “I was always fairly defiant.” As she grew older, she struggled with depression, and she thought that praying more and reading the Quran would help. She became more religious and looked forward to a traditional life. “I thought my life was sort of set out for me: get married, have children,” Ms. Ali said. “I might go to school. I’ll have a very domestic life. That’s what my family did, what my forefathers did.”

But as a university student, her feelings began to change.

 “As I started to investigate the religion, I realized I was talking to myself,” Ms. Ali said. “Nobody was listening to me. I had just entered the University of Toronto, and critical thinking was a big part of my studies. I have an art history and writing background, and I realized every verse I had come across” — in the Quran — “was explicitly or implicitly sexist.”

Quickly, her faith crumbled.

“So in 2009, I realized there probably is no God,” she said. “What is so wrong in having a boyfriend, or having premarital sex? What is wrong with wanting to eat and drink water before the sun goes down during Ramadan? What is so wrong with that? I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance anymore.”

For the next three years, Ms. Ali thought of herself as an agnostic. She stopped practicing Islam. She still had Muslim friends, and her brother married into a religious Muslim family. Slowly, younger friends and relatives figured things out. “They didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t Muslim,” Ms. Ali said. “But I didn’t go around telling my parents.”

Eventually, her parents heard.

“They were incredibly upset, as they believe in an eternal hell,” Ms. Ali said. “They are O.K. with me for the most part being irreligious,” she added. “But we don’t talk much about it anymore, and that’s fine.”

The members of Ex-Muslims are adamant that they respect others’ right to practice Islam. The group’s motto is “No Bigotry and No Apologism,” and text on its website is inclusive: “We understand that Muslims come in all varieties, and we do not and will not partake in erasing the diversity within the world’s Muslims.”

But they are equally adamant that it is still too difficult for Muslims inclined to atheism to follow their thinking where it may lead. Whereas skeptical Christians or Jews can take refuge in reformist wings of their tradition, religious Muslims generally insist on the literal truth of the Quran.

“I would say it’s maybe 0.1 percent who are willing to challenge the foundations of the faith,” said Nas Ishmael, another founder of the Ex-Muslims group who attended the conference.

So those who do challenge the foundations can feel isolated. According to Ms. Ali and her colleagues in Ex-Muslims of North America, they frequently hear from others, who say, “I thought I was the only one.”

When Ms. Dadabhoy “came out” to her parents, “it didn’t go so well,” she said. “They reacted the way they knew how, which was to freak out. They had never heard of anybody leaving Islam. We were raised with the idea you can’t leave, that nobody can leave. Leaving Islam was something somebody incredibly deranged would do. Or if forced at sword point or gunpoint.”

Critics have accused her of being part of a Zionist conspiracy to make Islam look bad. “I say, ‘If I am, where is my paycheck?’ ” Ms. Dadabhoy said drolly.

For a time, Ms. Dadabhoy’s parents took her to imams, hoping to talk her out of her apostasy. “And they would just give me tautological beliefs,” she recalled. “ ‘You are blessed to be born with Islam.’ And I would say, ‘But if I had been born a Christian, you’d be saying the same thing, but for Christianity.’ Once I spent four hours talking with this imam, and his conclusion was, ‘Just have faith because you should have faith.’ ”

At this point, Ms. Dadabhoy’s absence of belief is as ineluctable as the imam’s faith: “It’s less that I won’t buy it, which sounds really woeful, than that I can’t.”

 Source: New York Times