Sarah Haider on Leaving Islam, Changing Liberals’ Minds, and Ex-Muslims of North America

| by Malhar Mali |

Sarah Haider is the Director of Development for Ex-Muslims of North America. She has appeared on such shows as The Rubin Report, The David Pakman Show, and has given talks for the American Humanist Association. I interviewed her about her process to apostasy, discussing Islam without getting labeled a bigot, and her hopes for the future of this discussion.

The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.

Malhar Mali: Can you tell us about your journey from being a believer to leaving your faith? 

Sarah Haider: As with most people who leave, it started long before I knew it had begun. I started questioning parts of the faith, but I thought that was just the natural process of getting to know my religion, and I blamed a lot of my misunderstandings on the way I was taught Islam. I thought I just needed better teachers, books, and resources so that I could understand it correctly. In that sense I didn’t know I was on the path to leaving religion. I thought I was on the path to better understanding it.

But then I started looking into the scripture myself, which is to say, I read the Quran directly and I read the Hadith directly. Judging for myself I realized it really wasn’t the religion I thought it was. It wasn’t a lot of the things I had been taught — I was taught it was a religion that promoted women’s rights, for example, and that it was more beneficial to women than any other religion.

MM: Sure. Like the articles which show up on The Huffington Post, Mic., etc.

SH: You get that viewpoint everywhere. You get it from Muslims if you grew up within Islam. And you’re right, Huffpost and a lot of the Leftist media is telling you that, too. So I believed it. I just ignored anybody that would come from the Right, because that’s not how I aligned politically, and I thought that they were racists, bigots, so I didn’t take their criticisms seriously.

Everybody that I was paying attention to was telling me that this was a wonderful humanist religion. But when I looked into it, it was clear that it wasn’t.

MM: So, then, what were some pivotal moments for you in this process?

SH: From the time I began to really question, my main goal was to figure out whether or not the religion was moral. That process was very short. When I honestly looked at it with a critical eye, I left in a couple of months. I remember when an atheist friend showed me a list of Quranic verses which were truly awful. He handed them to me and said, “Explain this.” At the time I thought his gesture was very obnoxious and that he was misunderstanding and taking things out of context.

But when I looked up the verses, and factored in the context, the verse became worse. It became less humanistic and it became less understandable. So there was really no question about leaving after that.

MM: In the Leftist circles of the western world, any criticism of Islam is likened to “Islamophobia” — perhaps spurned by the narratives of information outlets like The Hufftington Post, Salon and The Daily Show, etc. What in your mind is the best way to discuss this topic and apply the appropriate criticism?

SH: This is a good question, but I don’t know if there’s a definite answer — which is to say I’m not sure who is defining what is “appropriate” here. If you’re talking to people on the Left, in general, they will not accept any negative critique about Islam, no matter how nuanced, no matter how well-researched it is.

People ask me this question pretty often and I can’t think of anyone who is a critic of Islam — a very loud and vociferous critic of it — who has gotten away without being called a bigot or an “Islamophobe” by some segment of the population.

MM: The Souther Poverty Law Center’s decision on Maajid Nawaaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali…

SH: Yes. So, I judge Muslims by the same standards that I judge anyone else. In many cases this is a damning standard for Muslims. We can look at how Muslims practice their religion over the world and we can see that it is less tolerant, less accepting of religious minorities, more misogynistic, more homophobic.

 MM: One of the most disappointing phenomenons I’ve seen in the western world is that individuals who call themselves “liberals” usually bury their heads in the sand when it comes to discussing the human rights violations in Islamic countries because they’re unable to see past the idea that “criticizing brown people is racist.” To me this has effectively opened up a vacuum where those on the far and extreme-right are taking control of this conversation in often bigoted ways. How do we make this conversation less taboo?

SH: When I started looking into the problems we have with discussing Islam, I found that there was a difficulty in getting past the idea that criticizing brown people is inherently racist. People are very quick to throw around labels like “bigot” or to promote the idea that you are actually a hateful person by virtue of holding controversial opinions. That’s a broader problem within our culture — we use social shame as a mechanism to control people.

There’s a large group of people who have negative feelings about The Religion of Peace and there’s no way to approach that topic in a “polite and educated society.” The worst part about it is those who are the most compassionate and nuanced — the liberals — who are the most effectively silenced by the label of bigot or “Islamophobe.” They don’t want to accidentally contribute to a dangerous atmosphere for Muslims, so they stay out of it. Those are the people who should not be silent, their voices are needed the most.

Those who are actually bigots are going to keep saying what they want because the label is not a deterrent to them to the same degree it is for compassionate liberals. So we have these two sides — the actual bigots and Muslims — which are extremely polarized in their views, and there is no real discussion by those in between.

MM: Moving on, what does Ex-Muslims of North America do and what are the organization’s goals?

SH: We started with the goal to build communities for ex-Muslims and that remains one of our main goals. As you may know, it’s difficult for apostates to be open about their lack of belief. They face a lot of social stigma from friends and families and from their broader communities. Many of them are immigrants themselves so it’s difficult for them to fit into the broader American culture.

When you leave religion there is a loss of both your religion and to some extent your cultural identity. We wanted to mitigate this sense of loss, so we decided to have in-person meetings to foster community. We screen people before they come in to protect privacy and provide anonymity. The goal is to provide them with a support network where they can feel comfortable being themselves. Since then, more people are coming out and being open about their apostasy. Recently, we’ve embarked on a project to make videos about people who want to come out as open apostates and share their experiences. We want to show the wide variety of ex-Muslims and their experiences.

MM: Where would you like the state of this conversation — about Islam — to be like in 5 years in the United States and the western world? 

SH: Ideally I’d like to move past the idea that all religions are exactly the same and have exactly the same kinds of impact on people. This sounds like a basic idea, but in many liberal circles this is something people haven’t moved past, even though the truth of it is obvious. Of course all religions don’t have the same impact on people; they don’t have the same consequences; they don’t train us to look at the world in the same way. We have to be able to at least start with that and face up to that directly. If we get there, we’ll be able to have more honest conversations.

But, unfortunately, at this point, we’re not there — we’re not looking at it honestly.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali

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Comments

comments

14 Comments

  1. malharmali

    Thanks for your comment, Rita. I’m very sorry to hear that you’re being treated that way. Please know that there is a community of people online who are liberal Muslims, ex-Muslims, agnostics and atheists who will talk with you and hopefully serve as a support network for you

  2. Rita

    I have been questioning Islam alot lately. I feel like it ruined my life. I grew up in a muslim Country where my parents beat me because they found out I was talking to a guy online. I was not even allowed to go to school for a few days. I was also punished and not allowed to go out or wear makeup because guys hit on me. I had no friends and got very depressed and I developed an eating disorder, just to make things worse. There was a fight or argument everythime we were going out because of my clothes although I wore the hijab. I had no selfesteem rebelled alot. I made bad decisions And had no guidance. My parents always justified Thier behavior by Islam.and I don’t belive a religion should cause this much harm!

  3. Muhammad Ali

    As an atheist from a Muslim background I can only speak of my experience. At 14 a new girl joined our class..she had been been placed in foster care. Some of the kids were horrible to her but, as a Muslim I became her friend and helped her fit in….some months later, her foster mother noticed she was pregnant. She was naive my friend didn’t know what was happening. She’d been lovingly accepted at my Mosque where everyone was good to her. Then on hearing of her pregnancy, they changed…call her a whore and threw her out.

    I was horrified and then when they told me to have nothing to do with her and tell all my school friends to do the same….I exploded…..said they weren’t real Muslims…not following Quran’ doctrine of live and kill infidels..they called me a wicked girl and threw me out.

    I was so shocked…How could these people throw my friend out just when she needed her friends’ support? I remember the look of hate on their faces and my nice safe, comfortable world fell apart. They crossed over in the street when they saw me and said I wasn’t welcome until I apologized and broke my friendship with the who’re!

    I was 14……these brothers were grownups….many in their 60s….How could they think that way….What about hating the sin…not the sinner?

    It later transpired that the 18 yr-on old son of the foster father who had raped her. She hadn’t been taught about sex and didn’t understand.

    The family were still welcomed into the mosque…..having been told that the wicked girl had seduced the boy!

    It was then I realized that for a long time nasty little things were going on in the mosque…six elderly women in particular were very self-righteous and downright vindictive. They had even sent a letter to my school about my wicked behavior. They were very judgmental of everyone who didn’t measure up to their nasty cold “values”

    I have been an atheist now for sixty years. I treat people as I would like them to treat me…..it works very well for my large family and, unlike what I was told, …..that atheists cannot experience love, we all love each other very much and I would give my life for any of them.

    In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t obey my mosque and do something alien to my nature.

    I wish you success with your ex-Muslim organization. If I can help, please let me,know.

    Ali Atheist

  4. five68

    This is the tragedy of our time, or put it differently ‘there is no point being specific if you have no idea what you’re talking about’

    Plus, the author’s point was about Islam, not muslims.

    Which confirms your research was most likely just as sloppy as your reading of this article.

  5. Teed Rockwell

    I spend a lot of time combating genuine Islamaphobia by doing the most careful research I can on the subject – a topic I knew essentially nothing about before 9/11. My conclusion after all that research is that Muslims are rather like Mormons or Catholics: they believe a lot of things I could never believe myself, but they are not a crazed death cult trying to take over the world. There are a lot of people who are describing Islam that way, and it is important not to enable those people when criticizing Islam. But it is equally important to respect the rights of those who criticize Islam from within and/or choose to leave it.

  6. Oscar Santos

    Satan (The Devil Is In The Detail)

    Forget the scriptures – they are unreliable. If Satan does exist, what can we deduce about Him?

    Firstly, He does not have the power to do whatever He wants. Something or someone must be keeping Him in check, or the lives on Mankind would be far worse than they are. Religious believers, of course, claim it is God who is restraining the evil that Satan can do.

    Secondly, because Satan does not have the power to do whatever He wants openly and without restriction, He has to behave in a more underhand, deceitful manner.

    Thirdly, if God exists then He could use His superior power to stop Satan having any influence on Mankind’s affairs; but He does not. God’s purpose must, therefore, be to use Satan’s temptation and misdirection of Mankind as a test of our goodness and righteous characters.

    Fourthly, if it were obvious to people when Satan was at work trying to corrupt us and lead us down the wrong path, then it would be easy to reject. It would hardly be a test at all. To really test people’s ability to choose right from wrong, good from evil, the two have to be mixed.

    Fifthly, Satan’s best tactic would, therefore, be to insert His influence into God’s messages to Mankind. Because no copy of a scripture was produced and put on Earth directly by God Himself, but all came via prophets and messengers and all were remembered, written, copied or translated by people, Satan had ample chances to mix His messages with those of God.

    Lastly, God must have been aware of this, but allowed it to continue because this, He realised, would be the best test possible to distinguish the good people from the rest.

    It is easy to follow instructions and commands. If people are motivated by the fear of punishment or the promise of great rewards, they will do as they are told; but that is no sort of a test. It is as if we are told in advance what the correct answer is and we only have to write it on the exam paper in order to pass. God would certainly want more than this. He would want us to have to distinguish right from wrong and then, using our free will, to choose the former and reject the latter.

    In other words, religious believers have the same problem as non-believers; how to choose the best way to behave in any given situation. Believers cannot rely on mechanical responses by simply referring to the commands and examples in their scriptures. These might be the work of God or of Satan. Moral and ethical judgements have to be made. It is not as easy as the literalists and fundamentalists claim.
    Religious believers should not deceive themselves (or in reality, allow Satan to deceive them) by thinking that blind adherence to scriptures will result in correct behaviour. The bad is mixed with the good. The right path is disguised by misdirection and dead-ends. Messages of hatred and violence, domination and exploitation, are clearly not the work of a loving God, but of Satan. They have to be recognised and rejected.

    Non-believers, who lead good lives, have nothing to fear. Standing before God, or His assistant, they would be completely justified to claim that the large number of competing and contradictory religions in the World, each claiming to be the one true version, made it impossible to know which one to choose.

    Even if just one were thought to be the right one, how could it be possible to know that nothing in that scripture had been misunderstood, corrupted or inserted? Given this confusion the non-believer would say that the wisest course of action was to look for all the most humane and enlightened aspects of all religious and all other works produced by Mankind and to live by them. A loving God would understand.

    The literalist or fundamentalist, who thinks they are carrying out God’s wishes by following every command and example in their chosen scripture, will have a different fate. All the prayers, obedience and posturing will count for nothing when contrasted with the lack of moral judgement, the failure to think and decide for themselves, to use free-will and good moral values to navigate a positive path through life.

  7. Syed Rasel (@_syedrasel)

    Sarah Haider, looks like you were never a muslim at all. You just want to get attentions. Normally, people just leave their faith, they no longer practice that’s it. There is something fishy in you.. There is a huge difference between xhindu/xchrisitan and xmuslim. Nobody cares about xhindu or xchristians but why with xmuslim??

  8. five68

    Dear Miss Haider,
    It takes a lot of courage to walk the path you chose. I’m always surprised to see how mundane were the events leading to such drastic changes, maybe they take us off guards, the abscence of confrontation leaves a door open into thinking ‘it’s going to take a minute to disprove’. Then a minute calls for another, then another one until we realized we’ve walked too far to turn back.

    Anyway, I wanted to share with you this brillant essay: http://www.alhewar.com/sadek_sulaiman_origin_and_essence_of_ethics.htm

    Something the likes of Averoes would welcome with open arms.

    I suppose the author would end up in prison in most of what the Muslim world is today, or at best he would have to look over his shoulders for quite sometime. That’s the world we live in.

    I disagree with the author, that there is room in monotheistic religions for religious ethics, which he himself at times, seems to recognize. Maybe wisdom is to accept that wisdom is always possible, no matter what, or when?

    Hence, your choice moving ‘past the idea that all religions are exactly the same’, is a wise one, albeit history teaches us a more pragmatic – and depressing – approach.

    Protect the people, while being critical of ideas, as you said once, is a very courageous statement, which the author makes (admittedly in a more convoluted way). So I’m sure you’ll like it, if you haven’t read it already.

    These days, where even the wisests among us would shout ‘SOCRATES!!!!’ to the top of their lungs, hurling Plato’s republic left AND right…. just to have some breathing space.

    Good luck!

  9. MO WOODS

    As an atheist from a Christian background I can only speak of my experience. At 14 a new girl joined our class..she had been been placed in foster care. Some of the kids were horrible to her but, as a Christian I became her friend and helped her fit in….some months later, her foster mother noticed she was pregnant. She was naive my friend didn’t know what was happening. She’d been lovingly accepted at my Baptist chapel where everyone was good to her. Then on hearing of her pregnancy, they changed…call her a whore and threw her out.

    I was horrified and then when they told me to have nothing to do with her and tell all my school friends to do the same….I exploded…..said they weren’t real Christians…not following Jesus’ doctrine of live and forgiveness..they called me a wicked girl and threw me out.

    I was so shocked…How could these people throw my friend out just when she needed her friends’ support? I remember the look of hate on their faces and my nice safe, comfortable world fell apart. They crossed over in the street when they saw me and said I wasn’t welcome until I apologised and broke my friendship with the who’re!

    I was 14……this congregation were grownups….many in their 60s….How could they think that way….What about hating the sin…not the sinner?

    It later transpired that the 18 yr-on old son of the foster father who had raped her. She hadn’t been taught about sex and didn’t understand.

    The family were still welcomed into the church…..having been told that the wicked girl had seduced the boy!

    It was then I realised that for a long time nasty little things were going on in the church…six elderly women in particular were very self-righteous and downright vindictive. They had even sent a letter to my school about my wicked behaviour. They were very judgemental of everyone who didn’t measure up to their nasty cold “values”

    I have been an atheist now for sixty years. I treat people as I would like them to treat me…..it works very well for my large family and, unlike what I was told, …..that atheists cannot experience love, we all love each other very much and I would give my life for any of them.

    In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t obey my church and do something alien to my nature.

    I wish you success with your ex-Muslim organisation. If I can help, please let me,know.

    Mo Atheist Ma and Grandma

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