Muhammed Syed is one of the founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), a recently formed independent group that supports people trying to leave Islam and those who have already. They work to provide a welcoming community and help during the difficult transition ex-Muslims face. He recently sat down with us to discuss his journey.
RDF: Few atheists doubt the need for a group like yours. Islam is an even
more difficult religion to leave than Mormonism. How did you group get
Muhammed Syed: We started as an independent entity in D.C. about a year and
a half ago and a similar group started in Toronto. We weren't sure about how
successful we would be but it turned out both groups are doing really well,
so about 6 months ago we reached out and contacted them to form the
Ex-Muslims of North America.
Muhammed Syed: We were hoping to replicate that success in other areas
around the country, both in the U.S. and Canada. In the past 6 months we've
extended to Austin, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, New York,
Chicago and we're working on establishing groups in Los Angeles,
Philadelphia, and Oregon. We're proud of the success we've had so far.
Muhammed Syed: The EXMNA is initially focused only in North America but one
of our long term goals is to reach out internationally and promote change
and reform in Muslim countries too.
RDF: Are you yourself ex-Muslim?
Muhammed Syed: I am. What happens with Islam, as with any group, is you'll
have a wide spectrum of where people stand. You have those that are very
liberal and those that are very conservative. My family is very liberal.
Muhammed Syed: If you plot it on a graph, more people will show on the
conservative side of that curve, but for me, personally, it wasn't that big
of an issue. My family accepted it; we had a few weeks of arguments about
atheism and what it means. But in the [ Ex-Muslims of North America ] we
have many members that haven't left and can't leave because of the
consequences they'd have to face. We have people who, when their families
found out, were kicked out of their home, beaten, and threatened.
RDF: Wow. Here in the United States?
Muhammed Syed: Yeah, here in the US.
Muhammed Syed: Generally, even if you talk to liberal progressive Muslims,
they have a similar reaction because everybody has blinders on from their
own perspective, "I view the world as I live the world", and experiences are
very divergent. Somebody who comes from a liberal Muslim background will not
realize that there are people that are in actual danger — it's often
dismissed — but there are lots of people that are struggling through that
all the time. What we're hoping to do is give them space, let them know that
there's someone out there who understands and will stand by them when they
Muhammed Syed: There are people who have contacted us, joined the group, and
they'll confess they've not talked to anybody at all about what they
actually believe for 8 years, 10 years, because they're worried about the
consequences. We've had people break down and cry because for the first time
in a decade they felt like they belonged.
RDF: What kind of services do you provide? Or is it mostly a social group?
Muhammed Syed: Primarily, it's just a social group at the moment. We're
hoping, as the group grows, we'll have more resources, we're hoping to
expand and provide other things as well. We individually have done things
like provide a place to stay when a member is in danger, and things like
that. But it's usually been a collective effort where members pitched in and
provided the resources necessary.
RDF: Tell us someone's story. What is it really like for them?
Muhammed Syed: There was a case of 3 siblings who joined our Canadian branch
in Toronto. The eldest left Islamism and she didn't tell anybody, because of
the consequences this would bring. Multiple years passed and her younger
brother started going to college and at some point the subject came up and
it turned out they were in the same page. The other sister was still a
practicing Muslim and when she found out about her siblings, she was hurt
that they'd keep something like that from her. Over the course of a year
they had multiple conversations and discussed religion and by the end of the
year she'd left Islam as well.
RDF: What advice would you give to the average Joe to be respectful of
Muslims and ex Muslims?
Muhammed Syed: The first thing would be to consider their opinion. Here's a
diversity of opinions on what Islam means. You have the scriptural truth of
it, what it says in the books, versus what people are actually practicing.
If you follow literally, I should be killed. I have Muslim friends who joke
about how if they killed me they'd go to Heaven… and that is a part
of Islam. But then there are other people who understand that this is not
acceptable and we need to work on pushing them to stand up. Any change that
has happened in the past has happened through an alliance: you need
secularists from the West, you need progressive Muslims, and you need
ex-Muslims. You need a broad coalition that stands up and says that certain
things are unacceptable, regardless of what the scripture says.
Muhammed Syed: So far we haven't been embraced by progressive Muslims. The
big issue within the Islamic community, generally, is that the vast majority
of them are biblical literalists so it's hard for them to criticize certain
aspects of Islam.
Muhammed Syed: The way they do it is that they hope is the best. For
example, in the Quran it says that you can beat women. If your wife is
disobedient, you first chastise her, then you sleep in separate beds, and
then you beat her. So progressives will say, "Oh no, the translation only
means you can strike her lightly." The bottom line of the entire verse is
misogynistic, you're talking about your wife being disobedient, you're
talking about separating her to make her obedient, and the end of the verse
says if she becomes obedient, do not pursue this further. The relationship
between a husband and a wife is closer to a master and slave thing, rather
than equals. Muslims need to confront and accept that there are problems,
that a reform needs to happen.
Muhammed Syed: The first step towards fixing any problem is accepting that
there is a problem and we're currently at that stage where we're trying to
get people to understand and realize and look at things critically to start
the process of reform.
RDF: So the first stage would be "everything is absolutely true", the next
stage, a bit more liberal, is "everything is true but we just interpret it
in a different way" and the next stage is "okay, we accept that at least
some of the stories are myths"… A lot of Christians are already there.
They might say, "We don't take Noah's ark literally."
Muhammed Syed: So, we want to get to that stage within the Islamic community
as well but right now I'd have to say we're a couple of hundred years behind
on that. If you look at the Inquisition, it is similar to where we stand
right now. Take a look at what's happening in Saudi Arabia: you can't say
anything. I was looking at a TV show today, from Pakistan, and they were
talking about how horrible the Big Bang Theory is and how the Islamic view
isn't and that we need to create an Islamic science that actually counters
the influence from the West.
Muhammed Syed: Basic sciences are being rejected because they contradict the
Quran, which is supreme, and everything else is irrelevant.
RDF: What drove you to start something like this?
Muhammed Syed: Personally speaking, Carl Sagan was a big influence for me,
because he inculcated critical thinking. Growing up I was always interested
in Astronomy, the potential of humanity and what they could achieve. Reading
his books opened my mind to the possibilities of what we can achieve if we
just sit down and rationally try to understand the world. Later, when I
directed that same rationality towards religion, it was inevitable that the
entire edifice will crumble.
Everybody wants their families to be successful, everybody wants a bright
future for their children. Ultimately, we need to make people understand
that the way forward is by rationality and that is how you will save your
own family, your own children. When somebody talks about Islam and its
problems it's often portrayed as how it is affecting the West but the
primary victims aren't the ones living in the West but the ones living in
Muslim countries. With the help of progressive thinkers, atheists,
secularists, and ex Muslims we can start pushing the government for more and
more equality to help those who need it the most, like Muslim women in
Muslim countries. It sounds like a huge task — and it is.
We need to confront the Muslims and help them understand there are
consequences for an action and there are consequences for denial. By saying
that these problems don't exist, by not confronting them, they're actively
taking a part in the mistreatment of others.
A couple of weeks ago a Muslim woman was murdered by her husband in Canada.
Her parents had arranged that marriage for her, they got married in the
Middle East and then went back to Canada where she wanted to attend school
and her husband didn't want that. He killed her and left their kid crying
right next to her body for hours. Of course her parents grieve the loss of
their daughter, but by having arranged that marriage for her they
contributed to this unfortunate thing to happen.
RDF: So you're saying that even the most liberal Muslims are sort of
enablers for this kind of thing. Where do you stand in the whole burka thing
– the French government banned the wearing of burkas in school. Are you pro
Muhammed Syed: No, banning something is counterproductive. Education is the
answer. If you're using a scripture to force something upon people that is
wrong, if you're using any mechanism to make someone do something is wrong.
We need to promote autonomy.
You can learn more about the Ex-Muslims of North America, which is not just for ex-Muslims — anyone can join and contribute — at www.exmna.org.
Written By: RDFRS