Leaving Islam, though a markedly long and difficult process, can often come with a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Freedom, authenticity, and a more meaningful life are all among what ex-Muslims state to be the best consequences of leaving the faith.
But these are also tradeoffs for other difficulties as an open, or even partially closeted ex-Muslim. Relationships with family and loved ones may change or break altogether, and, depending on where ex-Muslims live, a host of threats from strangers and governments can make life difficult and even dangerous.
So what are the worst things about leaving Islam?
1. THE THREATS AND RETRIBUTION
Undoubtedly, the worst thing about leaving Islam is everyone else’s reaction to it. These threats can come from family, strangers, or government agents. While some may allow for atheists to pass through as long as they feign compliance, others pose an immediate–and often deadly threat. But even independent adults living in the US and Europe, safety is often fragile as an open ex-Muslim. Such was the case for Kahaa Dhinn, a Somali-Norwegian atheist and women's advocate active in secular Somalian networks, who received multiple death threats for her work, and for her apostasy.
While some families can be supportive, many times they are not. Sometimes, those closest to ex-Muslims are the first ones to punish them when coming out. Such was the case for 15-year old Amed Sherwan, whose father’s reaction to him coming out as an atheist was to report him to the police–who in turn arrested Amed in the middle of the night, and policement “hit me with belts, kicked me with jackboots and tortured me with electric shocks.”
“Visiting Pakistan seems too risky.”
“Getting beaten down and hospitalized by Islamists.”
“Loss of family. Loss of that safety net, and the people you love. Most of all, I can’t talk to my nephews and nieces because my sisters treat me as toxic. Also death threats if I ever go back to a Muslim majority country. I have bounties on my head and it’s not a safe way to live.”
“My family put me in jail twice just to stop me from leaving. It’s just scary how Islam can control families to hurt their own kids.”
2. THE STRESS OF CONCEALMENT
Freeing yourself from religion may feel like a victory, but not everyone will see it that way.
For their own mental and sometimes physical safety, ex-Muslims often have to go to great lengths to hide their true beliefs. Maybe they’re still living with their parents, and coming out could make their living situation unsafe or compromise it altogether. Even in a situation that’s physically safe, ex-Muslims can feel pressured to choose between authenticity and potential alienation–a top reason many force themselves in the closet is fear of losing friends. This precarious balancing act, lying to friends and family, compounds into stress that takes a heavy mental toll.
“Constant stress about leading a double life and trying to make my parents happy. It’s incredibly emotionally draining.”
“I cannot be myself around Muslims. I have to teach my kids to lie when seeing my parents.”
3. BECOMING ALIENATED FROM COMMUNITY
Even when people start to question the faith, the idea of fully leaving Islam is daunting because it can mean being severed from one’s foundational community. Even if beliefs change, religious communities are a place of solidarity, ritual, and belonging–especially for ethnic minorities.
After coming out, ex Muslims often find themselves isolated or outright ostracized from either from their family, friends, or Muslim community as a whole.
“I lost my entire family, with the exception of three cousins and my two brothers. After I married my non-Muslim husband, I was cut out from both my mother and father’s side of the family. No one speaks to me and I am not in their lives at all.”
“I am very disconnected from my past, which is painful. I had a very hard time connecting with others immediately after leaving the faith. I still feel a lot of sadness around holidays related to family and coming together (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Eid, etc.)”
“Becoming ostracized and disconnected with the social circle that I spent 18 years around. I basically had to build a new family, a new system of friends, and a new support network.”
-22 year old female
4. THE LOSS OF MARRIAGE AND CUSTODY
Apostasy is believed to taint not just the individual, but everyone around them. When a Muslim leaves the faith, this is considered not just a personal failing, but a slight against one’s own community– so much so that it is a codified part of Islamic law. Exacerbating the loneliness of apostasy alone, ex-Muslims can find themselves literally and legally abandoned. If an ex-Muslim is found out, they lose all rights to inheritance, they may have their marriage annulled, or their spouse may leave them. According to sharia, religious law, the ex-Muslim parent – male or female – also loses all claim to their children.
“I divorced before leaving, and ended up in a custody battle with [my children’s] father who was trying to save the children’s souls from my influence.”
“Was accused of abuse to get my daughter away from me because I was an atheist and my ex does not want that influence on her.”
So the worst things about leaving Islam? The worst things have less to do with the individual ex-Muslim, and more with the unfriendly, often hostile environment around them.
Despite this, many ex-Muslims are able to live happy and fulfilled lives after coming out. But for all too many, this still isn’t the case–and until it is, we can’t stop fighting for their rights and dignity.