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.