By Andrew Anthony
Sulaiman Vali is a softly spoken 32-year-old computer engineer. A natural introvert not drawn to controversy or given to making bold statements, he’s the kind of person who is happiest in the background. He lives alone in a modest house on a quiet street in a small town in East Northamptonshire. He doesn’t want to be any more specific than that about the location. “If someone found out where I lived,” he explains, “they could burn my house down.”
Why should such an understated figure, someone who describes himself as a “nobody”, speak as if he’s in a witness protection programme? The answer is that six years ago he decided to declare that he no longer accepted the fundamental tenets of Islam. He stopped being a believing Muslim and became instead an apostate. It sounds quaintly anachronistic, but it’s not a term to be lightly adopted.
Last week the hacking to death in Bangladesh of the blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was a brutal reminder of the risks atheists face in some Muslim-majority countries. And in an era in which British Islamic extremists travel thousands of miles to kill those they deem unbelievers, an apostate’s concern for his or her security at home is perhaps understandable.
“Oh yeah, I’m scared,” agrees Nasreen (not her real name) a feisty 29-year-old asset manager from east London who has been a semi-closeted apostate for nine years. “I’m not so worried about the loonies because it’s almost normal now to get threats. What worries me is that they go back to my parents and damage them, because that’s not unheard of.”
The danger is confirmed by Imtiaz Shams, an energetic 26-year-old who runs a group called Faith to Faithless, which aims to help Muslim nonbelievers speak out about their difficult situations. Shams has a visible presence on YouTube and has organised several events at universities. “I am at physical risk because I do videos,” says Shams. “I don’t like putting myself in the firing line, but I had to because no one else is willing to do it.”
As real as the potential for violence might be, it’s not what keeps many doubting British Muslims from leaving their religion. As Simon Cottee, author of a new book The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, says: “In the western context, the biggest risk ex-Muslims face is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes so many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy.”
Like the gay liberation movement of a previous generation, Muslim apostates have to fight for the right to be recognised while knowing that recognition brings shame, rejection, intimidation and, very often, family expulsion.
Vali comes from a strictly religious Indian-heritage family. He was born in Kenya and moved with his parents and six siblings to England when he was 14. As outsiders, his family stayed close – “I always knew if I wanted anything they’d be there for me,” he says.
His father is an imam who follows the puritanical Deobandi scholastic tradition of Islam that has influence over a third of Britain’s mosques. All through his teenage years, when adolescents typically rebel, and even at university, Vali dutifully followed his father’s faith. Occasionally some of what he calls the more “barbaric punishments” found in sharia law troubled him, but he put his discomfort to one side. “I would just think, if God wants it, fine.”
It was when he left his home in Leicester to work in Cambridge that he first encountered an intellectual challenge to his worldview. He found himself working alongside non-Muslims and atheists, and inevitably questions of faith arose.Initially he began researching criticism of Islam online and in the books of people such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as a means of defending his faith. But in the process the suspicion took root that his opponents had the stronger arguments.
Nevertheless, he kept his reservations to himself when he returned to live in Leicester, where an arranged marriage awaited him. “She was very religious from a religious family,” he says, still pained by the memory. But he couldn’t go through with it. “I wasn’t going to lie and carry on with a marriage knowing that I didn’t believe in God.”
His decision went down very badly. His family would have forgiven him, though, as long as he remained a Muslim. That’s all they really asked. And it was the one thing he couldn’t do. He was perfectly happy to be a cultural Muslim, take part in celebrations and observe traditions, but he couldn’t pretend a faith he didn’t possess.
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