On Saturday, September 1st, Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) volunteers were forcibly expelled from a Starbucks within a Hilton hotel in Houston, Texas, after refusing to change out of T-Shirts stating “God Love is Greatest” and “I’m an Ex-Muslim, Ask Me Why”.
The EXMNA volunteers were taking a coffee break at the Starbucks after a day of handing out flyers and speaking with and interviewing attendees at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)’s annual conference. Without warning, they were informed by staff that they must leave the establishment.
“I was surprised. I was simply drinking my iced coffee and scrolling through my phone, and they told me I needed to leave, so I asked why”, says Lina an ex-Muslim Syrian woman who had traveled to the conference on behalf of EXMNA. “I was told that they are not allowing protestors at the property, I assured the woman that I was not a protestor. She then asked me if I was part of the event or a guest at the hotel. I was neither. I was then told that even though I was a paying customer, I was not allowed to be on the premise as it was reserved for guests and event members for the weekend and that they will not be allowing anyone else on their private property. However, I noticed the Starbucks was still open to the public and I didn’t see anyone else being asked to leave.”
Upon additional inquiry after leaving the premises, the hotel employees stated on video that the EXMNA group was not welcome due to their T-shirts, and repeatedly claimed the group was “protesting”, a charge which all volunteers explicitly denied multiple times.
“This appears to be a case of discrimination,” says President of Ex-Muslims of North America, Muhammad Syed. “We were asked to leave the premises and informed that we could only enter the premises if we removed the shirts, none of which stated anything inflammatory. The treatment was unjust and especially cruel considering the plight of ex-Muslims. We are killed and abused all over the world for our disbelief. It is unconscionable that companies like Starbucks and Hilton acquiesce to conservative religious sensibilities”.
As of 2018, over a dozen Muslim-majority countries prescribe the death penalty for Muslims who leave the faith. Muslim leaders from across the world, including most recently, Pakistan, have called for international cooperation in penalizing content considered blasphemous in Islam.
“I don’t expect much of the media to cover what happened here. Previously, we have faced discrimination at the hands of employees at other companies due to our apostasy, and the coverage was minimal,” continues Muhammad Syed. In 2016, Wegmans refused to bake Ex-Muslims of North America an anniversary cake, allegedly due to the offense the cake design was causing the bakery’s Muslim employees. The design of the cake rejected as “offensive” by the bakery contained only the statement “Congrats on 3 years” alongside the organization’s name and logo.
“The gay wedding cake issue was gaining a lot of coverage back then, so one would have assumed that our discrimination would be very relevant,” continued Muhammad Syed, “but sadly, people are divided by politics instead of sticking to their principals. Freedom of religion and from religion are non-partisan issues we should all be fighting for. Most ex-Muslims are progressive or broadly on the Left, so it is especially discouraging to see the lack of solidarity from progressives.”
Armin Navabi, an Irani atheist activist, was in Houston on behalf of EXMNA. “Our goal was to see how tolerant Muslims can be, to our delight, we found many Muslims were tolerant”, he stated. “On the other hand, we found that many Westerners were intolerant. It seems that “saviors” of Muslims are more sensitive about anything that could potentially offend Muslims than Muslims are themselves.”
Hazar, another Syrian ex-Muslim who was in Houston for ISNA, states “I expected negative pushback of our presence by ISNA itself but in fact, most Muslims we talked to were welcoming. And so I certainly didn’t expect to be discriminated against on American soil by the Hilton staff for refusing to be closeted about my ex-Muslim identity. It was important for me to represent ex Muslims at ISNA because we are some of the lucky few that are able to do so with minimal consequences in comparison to those of us who aren’t privileged enough to live in a democratic society. And yet today, the treatment we received by the staff at the Hilton felt just as dehumanizing.”