Ever since I stopped being Muslim 12 years ago, I haven’t been able to let Islam go. Just not in the sense you might be thinking. Islam was a major part of my identity and day-to-day life for my entire childhood. When I realized I didn’t believe anymore, I felt like I’d released a burdensome rock I’d been dragging for as long as I could remember, convinced it was part of me.
I lead a much happier secular life now. I don’t believe in an afterlife or God. I’m focused on the present and finding happiness in the one life I know I have for sure. But Islam has always lingered in my thoughts – I can’t help noticing its damaging influence on my family and on hundreds of millions worldwide. A few years ago, I decided to write a book about why I left Islam. Earlier this year, I also started sharing my story online @LeavingIslam.
Whenever I mention these projects to anyone, the first thing they say is: “Why are you doing this?” It’s followed by another question I’ve been asked often even by irreligious friends and family who accept my atheism, but who’re likely tired of my many rants on the subject: “Why are you so focused on Islam, or religion for that matter?”
Their argument basically goes something on the lines of “Islam is an ideology like any other, religious or secular, from Scientology and Buddhism to capitalism and communism. Ideas can be good or bad. It’s the way people interpret and act on them that’s the issue.”
This argument is a popular one with religious apologists like Muslim scholar Reza Aslan – it also makes no sense. For many Muslims, especially largely secular ones, Islam’s core is about peace and the pursuit of a transcendent communion with an essentially undefinable God. That it definitely is, but anyone who’s read the Quran can’t deny there’s much more to Islam than that.
Islam is the underpinning of the worldview of nearly two billion Muslims. What does this entail? Islam teaches that one, and only one (the Islamic God is a jealous god), all-powerful and all-knowing God (Allah) created everything in this universe, including us. Why? So we could know and worship Him with good deeds, to thus be one with Him. Our reward for doing so is an eternal afterlife in Heaven (Jennah) with our loved ones, enjoying every conceivable pleasure. But there’s a darker side to the story: if we are too sinful, or even if we simply do not follow God, we will be punished with eternal torture in Hell. So in that sense, this mortal life we lead for 80-odd years, if we’re lucky, is merely an ephemeral testing ground for an eternity of pleasure or pain that begins after our deaths. I know all this because this used to be my worldview. It’s this worldview that the vast majority of Muslims believe, not the abstract transcendental notions apologists often espouse, that I direct my criticisms at.
What’s so wrong with this Islamic worldview, you might ask?
When I was Muslim, I understood that the only point of my existence was worshipping God – my loved ones, even myself, were secondary. My life was subordinate to the one that existed after my death. The world was overrun with devils, as well as the fallen angel Iblis (basically Satan), constantly seducing me to sin. The God I believed in preached love and kindness, but if you didn’t follow Him, all you got was hate and torture.
My childhood was filled with feelings of spiritual inadequacy, self-loathing and guilt. I was terrified of Hell and the apocalyptic Judgement Day. I was self-conscious about angels and other spirits watching my every action. Beyond the psychological trauma I endured because of Islam’s worldview, its lens distorted my perception of everyone else. My parents were hypocritical sinners, non-Muslims were infidels with doomed souls, LGBTQ people were abominations of nature. It’s only when I left Islam’s bubble that I realized I held all those beliefs for no reason beyond being told I had to believe them.
So why did I hold those beliefs, despite the fact I had no convincing reasons to do so?
Islam is a system of ideas interpreted by people just like any other philosophy. But the difference is nobody is claiming secular ideas like capitalism or materialism come from an all-powerful, all-knowing creator who is the purpose for our existence and who will punish us with unbearable torture – for eternity – if we don’t follow him. That’s what makes Islam and other religions so effective and nefarious. Muslims like I once was are taught the subjective interpretations of authority figures, but they’re presented as the commands and tenets of faith of that God. Questioning those ideas is tantamount to questioning your very purpose.
Those ideas are also often non-negotiable, the same way capitalism’s ideas are non-negotiable for all of us who decide to participate in society (and with, arguably, more tangible consequences), but there’s another key difference. Islam and other religions seek to solve the mysteries of why we exist and what happens after death. They confidently present themselves as the true answer, while other answers are dismissed as false and misguided. Because they deal with core universal issues and are assigned to the creator of everything, an active agent present in our everyday life, it inevitably extends to (or infects) everything we do, from how we treat ourselves and others to what we do for a living and whether we have kids or not.
I sometimes get overwhelmed thinking of all the unnecessary harm religions like Islam cause – we already have enough problems and things out of our control in the world, from debilitating cancers to destructive natural disasters. Do we really need further anxieties about otherworldly punishment and being able or unable to wear certain clothes up to certain lengths? I can’t stay silent thinking of all the women who’ve been convinced that the hijab, something that literally erases them, is actually empowering and fights the objectification of women (why do women have to adjust their dress for what men might think or do?!). I can’t stay silent thinking about the LBGTQ people taught to hate who they are, when the roots of that hatred stem from 7th century prejudice and ignorance.
When I was young, I noticed other Muslims had this passive fatalism about things like climate change – it was God’s will after all, and if it ushered in the Apocalypse, wasn’t that a good thing if we were true believers? In that and many other ways, Islam diminishes the here and now for the sake of an unproven afterlife. It also assumes the worst of people: I was taught that if we didn’t have God or an afterlife, we’d have no incentive to do good or care for each other. Our Godless human natures would succumb to selfishness and cruelty.
But what I can’t stand the most about Islam is how it steals people’s agency. It commands us to trust in God for guidance in all things and appeal to Him for help, as much as Muslims say God helps those who help themselves (whatever that means).
Because I’ve experienced all these harmful aspects of Islam, I’ve come to believe I have a duty to be the voice for those who can’t speak out. So many ex-Muslims stay silent out of fear, all while Islam’s damage spreads like an uncontrollable wildfire. I live in Canada – a safe country – and yet I’m still apprehensive about using my full name when I criticize Islam’s ideas. This fear is real. It isn’t Islamophobia. But we all have a responsibility to be the change we want in the world. That’s why I speak out against Islam.