#exMuslimBecause: Popular Terminology Among Islam’s Non-Believers
|Date:||01 March 2019|
What is at stake in the terminology of (non)belief? Drawing on recent fieldwork with former Muslims in the Netherlands and Great Britain, Maria Vliek reflects on the politics of declaring oneself 'ex-Muslim.'
These are just some of the headlines commenting on the recent case of Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who fled her family and country in fear of her life because she had rejected her faith. Via Kuwait and Thailand, she has been granted asylum in Canada after having captivated a global audience from her Twitter account by stating that if she were to be returned to her family, she would probably be killed. A friend reported to The Guardian: “She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family. They’re using violence with her (…) her cousin wants to kill her.” Al-Qunun’s case has raised questions about the oppression of women and apostates in Islam (in general) and the Saudi regime (in particular), which are juxtaposed against the welcoming arms of the West and the freedom it supposedly provides.
In Europe, similar tropes concerning the supposed incompatibility of Islam with Western values have informed public debate in recent decades. Self-styled ‘ex-Muslims’ like Ayaan Hirsi Ali have on occasion used their transition from ‘the Darkness of Islam’ to ‘the Enlightened West’ to feed this dichotomy, contrasting the dogmatic oppression of backward Islam with the freedom and modernity of the secular West. In such contexts, the term ‘ex-Muslim’ has been frequently and rather uncritically used by media and social media alike to denote people who were born and raised in Islamic families, but no longer subscribe to or identify with the religion.
The term gained global attention in 2016 when the hashtag #exMuslimBecause began trending on Twitter, as those who had left Islam behind sought to raise awareness of the challenges facing them as a non-believing minority in Islamic environments. It was in the context of these debates and contestations over the status of Islam, as well as international ex-Muslim activism, that I began to conduct research among people in the Netherlands and Britain who no longer believe in Allah.
Initially, like the popular media above, I also used the term ‘ex-Muslim’ to describe my interlocutors. It seemed logical and fitting: people who are no longer Muslim. However, during the course of my fieldwork, it began to seem insufficient. It did not cover all non-believers among or from Islamic communities, and it was a more complex issue than terminology alone. By exploring the elaborate discussions among the people I met during my fieldwork, I found that the term ‘ex-Muslim’ straddles various dichotomous discourses in contemporary Europe through which Islam’s compatibility with Western secularism and democracy are questioned. Acknowledging this divide, not many of the people I spoke with actually identified as such. They often had quite strong opinions about it, too. Some reckoned that ‘ex-Muslim’ assumed a problematic binary between ‘what one was’ and ‘what one is,’ when it was simply not experienced as such. Others thought that it hijacked their personal experience of leaving religion, in aide of anti-Islamic sentiments by ‘secular crusaders.’
This is not to say that every former Muslim rejected the term. I also met people who did identify as ‘ex-Muslim,’ including activists who did so publicly. They reckoned that leaving Islam was often considered a taboo subject, not only in Muslim-majority countries, but also within Muslim communities in the Netherlands and Britain. Most agreed that ‘work’ still needed to be done, really, to open the subject up to discussion and acceptance. Regardless of identifications, many families and communities were not ready to unquestionably accept those who adopted a non-religious way of life. Therefore, according to some of my interlocutors, identifying as a group was the first step towards emancipation of 'the minority within the minority.’ The identity ‘ex-Muslim’ was useful: it made visible a community whose specific needs could then be advocated for.
I met Abubakar on a windy mid-winter evening in a pub in central London. He had been active online by making videos and posting threads on Facebook for years in order to open up discussions among Muslims and former Muslims about doubt and religion. He explained: “I don’t really like the label, but it is a useful label, you know? And I took it on a little bit unwillingly, not because I wanted to be called an ex-Muslim, but because I knew it was useful.” Those who found the term useful, carefully weighed the pros and cons of using it. The benefits of the term were that it allowed them to claim a space, to be recognised, to make a statement: we are here. Indeed, this is also the context in which the hashtag #exMuslimBecause has surfaced.
However, there was also resistance towards the term. I met Salim at an ‘ex-Muslim’ meet-up in London but he did not like the label as an identity, because he did not wish to define himself as a negative: “I don’t need religion to define my identity, as ex-Muslim or anything else. I am many things, I’m a guy, I’m black, scientist of some sort, I’m a learner, curious, yeah.”
Raised in a conservative community in the north of the UK, Haroon felt uncomfortable with positioning himself against Islam, the religious tradition that he felt still a part of. In a noisy coffee house in Sheffield he elaborated: “If I were to completely reject it, my identity would just be further weirded the hell out. I would not want to be someone who did a full circle (…) Islam is still a part of me, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t.”
When I asked Ayat, a young Dutch student, about connotations she had with the term ‘ex-Muslim’, she explained: “I find it over the top, I would never want to be a part of that. (…) Like: ‘I am an ex-Muslim, and you, you can also go for freedom!’ No. just let people be who they want to be.” Note that Ayat associated identifying as ‘ex-Muslim’ both with a fight for freedom and with the desire to free others; something she herself did not aspire to.
Others reckoned that calling yourself ex-Muslim could have an alienating effect. For some families, it not only stood for a proclamation of disbelief, but might also denote an active rejection of the values and upbringing that they had given their child. Whilst some were happy to challenge existing dogmas and religious sensibilities, others worried that calling themselves ‘ex-Muslim’ would unnecessarily draw a permanent line between them and their loved ones. Having ordered our second round of coffee, Murtaza explained: “within the Muslim community, it’s one of the worst things one could be identified as. It could be an instant way of like ruining a friendship, or even ruining an interaction with someone.” In Amina’s words: “If you put it like that? You explicitly place yourself on the outside, and that is different. It may be ok not to believe, but placing yourself outside the community is different.”
Relatedly, it was sometimes considered a politicised term, which had its roots in stereotyped ‘Islam-bashing ex-Muslims’: people from the Islamic community who had, at times aggressively, spoken out against Islam. Abubakar reflected on when he first had doubts: “I was scared, and it was the first time I thought about that, because I heard about these apostates, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who get vilified by Muslims, and they get called all sorts of names.”
Eymen, a passionate Antifa activist, further explained how politics could hijack the narratives of people leaving Islam: “They can present themselves as the good guys: ‘we can support those poor people [ex-Muslims]. See, we have no issue with foreigners, it is Islam which is the problem!’” When I asked Yedder, a lively thirty-something who regularly spoke to the media with regards to issues in the Moroccan diaspora, about speaking publicly about his non-belief, he replied: “Currently the climate around the debate on religion and politics, it is mostly Islam-bashing, and I don’t feel like that. I don’t want to be used as gunpowder for that.”
Whilst ‘ex-Muslim’ was an important and useful identity for some, allowing them to create a space in relation to but outside of their former religion, others saw it as a potential secular claim on their identity. Let me contextualise this a bit further. From a secular perspective, especially in Europe, the term cleverly denotes how one was formerly of the contested Other, the Muslims, and now is not. Whilst not explicitly stating one is now part of the modern secular, it does so indirectly and in its opponent’s shadow: one is no longer part of the Islamic ‘they,’ and is thus implicitly part of the secular ‘us.’
The term further suggests positioning against what one was as well as an inside view from someone who has crossed over the incommensurable divide of the religious and secular. This has a purpose: it gives a certain authority to Islamic non-believers to testify about their former religion, especially in the context of dichotomous constructions where Islam is oppressive and violent, and secularism stands for freedom and enlightenment. This is precisely what Eymen, Yedder, and others tried to avoid when saying they did not want to be used as “gunpowder” for anti-Islamic political or media interests. In other words, the opposition implied by the term was sometimes, but certainly not always, desired.
As my interlocutors’ reflections suggest, the term ‘ex-Muslim’ straddles both sides of contemporary Europe’s Islam/secular divide. The language we use deserves careful consideration, not only in light of the people we study, but also in our designation of contested Others to one side or other of the divide, as in the case of al-Qunun. Whilst the term ‘ex-Muslim’ can be experienced as beneficial in terms of activism and self-identity, it is not always appropriate nor embraced by those who have left Islam.
More importantly, the popular use of ‘ex-Muslim’ has the power to politicise individual negotiations over belief, behaviour, and belonging, of people who do not necessarily wish to be designated to either side of that seemingly incommensurable divide. Whilst it is important to recognise the plight of those experiencing oppression because of their convictions, whether at home or abroad, the political purchase of the term ‘ex-Muslim’ should not be underestimated. Rather than reproducing simplistic insider/outsider or religious/secular dichotomies, it is crucial to engage with the lived realities of moving out of Islam - including contestations and conflicts over belief, behaviour and belonging. This may create spaces for this ‘minority within a minority’ to be seen neither as traitors nor freedom fighters, but as individuals with desires and subjectivities that transcend such simple preconstructed dichotomies.
Maria Vliek is a PhD candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies with the department of Islam Studies. Her current research focusses on the experiences and testimony of people moving out of Islam in the Netherlands and Britain.
 Hirsi Ali, Ayaan (2007) Infidel New York: Free Press.
 All names have been anonymised.
 I extensively address the differences between the Netherlands and Britain in this regard elsewhere. Vliek, M. (2018) Challenging secularities, challenging religion. ‘Secularist ex-Muslim voices’ in the public debate on Islam and freedom of expression in Britain. Journal of Religion in Europe, 11(4) 348 - 377.
 Mahmood, S. (2009) Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide? Critical Inquiry 35. 836-862.