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In early January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman named Rahaf Mohammed Al-qanun barricaded herself in a hotel room in the Bangkok airport. There, she started pleading for help on social media, saying she would be killed by her family if she were deported back to Saudi Arabia. Her passport had been taken away and Thailand appeared willing to send her back, at the request of Saudi Arabia. Her story went viral, and with the help of journalists and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (Hereafter UNHCR), she was able to attain refugee status. The refugee agency considered several countries, including Australia, but Ms. Al-qanun had expressed her preference for Canada, where she eventually was granted asylum. In Saudi Arabia, women “are treated as an object, like a slave,” she told CBC. Now in Canada, “I will learn things I didn’t learn, I will explore life. […] I will have a job and live a normal life.”
The media worldwide covered her story closely and she received overwhelming support and sympathy. She became a posterchild of the terrible situation many Saudi women find themselves in. The media especially highlighted the abusive family she had, as well as the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia.
Both charges are certainly true. Her family often beat her, and once locked her up for six months because she had cut her hair short. Saudi Arabia has an abysmal women’s rights record. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia ranks 141 out of 149 countries. Even though it was lauded by some for letting women drive recently, it still holds male guardianship laws, which prevent women from traveling outside their home without male permission. It also has arrested, sexually assaulted, and tortured women’s rights activists with electric shocks, flogging, and waterboarding. However terrible this may be, this was not the main reason why Rahaf’s life was in danger. It was because she had left Islam. “They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism, […] They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Despite the centrality of apostasy in her struggle, the New York Times devoted merely two sentences to this subject. Many other news organizations have treated the story similarly. Islam was curiously missing.
Ignoring the religious dimension of this affair is like treating a homophobic incident as a simple battery. There are many women like Rahaf in the Middle East and in Europe who face death threats because they no longer believe in the religion. This important issue cannot be shied away from, for otherwise it will never be solved. I spoke to Sadia Hameed, the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, to talk about the plight of the ex-Muslims and the failure of the international community to speak up for their rights.
Sadia was born in England to a Pakistani Muslim family. She lost her faith when she was 15, mainly because she found it sexist and boring. Though she wanted to distance herself from the religion, she still wanted to maintain her relationship with her family and friends. Her community, however, did not tolerate her choice. When she confessed her lack of faith, her mother told her “Don’t tell anyone, because we’ll have to kill you.”
Of course, not every Muslim parent is the same, and coming out as an ex-Muslim can result in widely different experiences, depending on where you are and who your family is. Sadia explains that there can be two extreme reactions. On one end of the spectrum, the parents simply accept it and move on. On the other end, they will, or at least try, to kill their children. Both are rare, but the latter is more common. “In Pakistan, or various Muslim countries like Iran, Bangladesh, it may be that your family actually tries to carry out that murder and also the state will be quite happy to support your parents in that decision, or the state will carry out that murder.” In 2011, a Pakistani atheist was kidnapped on his way home and sexually abused for six hours. It turned out that his mother had arranged the kidnapping to force him back to the religion. When he still refused to accept Islam, his mother had the local imam issue a fatwa calling for his death. He remains in hiding. Secular bloggers are routinely lynched or murdered in Bangladesh. They are often arrested and jailed for years in Saudi Arabia. In Britain, mental abuses and physical abuses are more common than honor killings. Ex-Muslims are often ostracized by their family or the community.
Like many other cases of abuse, consequences tend to be harsher for women. “There is definitely a gendered aspect to it as well. So, women experience much more of a backlash than men do. Ask any female activist. She is more likely to face a death threat, more likely to face a rape threat,” Sadia says. In many Islamic households, honor, and morality depends on women’s purity or modesty. Many women who leave Islam are thus considered impure and accused of doing so out of a desire to be promiscuous. “It’s not like leaving any other religion. [There are] ex-Christian, ex-Hindu, or ex-Buddhist, or people who have left every single religion, an ex-Jew, or whatever. The only person likely to be killed for leaving their religion still to this day is an ex-Muslim […] Over [a] dozen countries that have a death penalty for disbeliever are Muslim.”
You would think people in such danger would receive more support, but that is not the case. Ex-Muslims often fit the progressive westerner’s “ideal” profile of the 21stcentury citizen. They are secular, often liberal, and against racism. Most value science and are likely to be pro-LGBT+ and pro-women’s rights. But because they criticize their own community and do not think the way “brown people should think,” ex-Muslims receive attacks from all sides. They are still subject to racism and anti-Muslim hatred, because of the way they look or their names. At the same time, they are rejected by their own community and certain sects of the regressive anti-west left. The same people who constantly berate the West for not being open, equal, and liberal enough accuse ex-Muslims of being an Uncle Tom or a native informant, when these particular left-wing adherents apply the same standard to their own society. Sadia says that “people think this is a new movement. [A] few years ago, there was no support, but there were still ex-Muslims. […] When Mohammed was around, there were ex-Muslims saying to Mohammed’s face “we do not believe you” […] so this is not the case of something we have learned from white people or westerners. Absolutely not. […] It is very patronizing when we hear from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Easterners and Westerners alike, people of color and white people alike, saying to us that this is internalized colonialism or imperialism, this is a western concept. Absolutely not! We have existed since the beginning of the time. We just weren’t able to elevate our voices to the degrees we can now.”
Even people who do criticize religious fundamentalism have a blind spot, she says. They are able to criticize religion in places like the United States, Israel, or Saudi Arabia, because they have wealth and are seen as powerful, but the same people won’t condemn religious fundamentalism in poorer countries like Pakistan. This is problematic because “when you start tackling religious fundamentalism, you also open up the path for gender equality, racial equality, equality for minorities. So, they’re actually doing [other marginalized people] a disservice, by not challenging” these forms of religious fundamentalism.
International organizations like the United Nations are not only silent, but can be accused of being complicit in protecting religious fundamentalism. In March 2009, the UN adopted a resolution, introduced by Pakistan, which condemned the “defamation of religion,” which amounts to an international blasphemy law. It decided to “protect the religion over people,” Sadia says.
UNHCR has also been failing to protect religious refugees. “We [the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain] deal with hundreds and hundreds of cases. We also know for a fact that there are hundreds and thousands of cases where the UNHCR hasn’t been as effective, hasn’t moved as promptly and only treated one Saudi case.” The UNHCR only acted in Ms. Rahaf’s case because of the media pressure. Since then, there have been hundreds of people who have contacted the UNHCR or Amnesty International to help other ex-Muslims, yet all have been ignored. “If there is enough public attention behind something, the UNHCR acts quicker to make it look like they are doing a lot, but on the whole, behind the scenes, they are adopting religious defamation resolutions, which is prioritizing ideas over individual… those countries that have [the]death penalty for various things, homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy are even given a human rights table at the General Assembly. If [the United Nations] are not willing to talk about religious persecution, at the very least, as a human rights organization, you shouldn’t be giving those individuals a seat at the table, who agreed with murder, a state-sanctioned murder.” These acts make it much harder for people who are fighting religious tyranny.
How has the UK behaved in this matter? Sadia says it has “pandered to religious fundamentalists.” Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who had been on a death row for eight years for drinking the same water with Muslims and blasphemy charges, was recently acquitted. Hundreds of thousands of protesters showed up in numerous Pakistani cities, calling for her to be hanged. If anybody deserves asylum, it is her. Some British Muslim organizations also called on the government to give her a safe haven, but the UK has refused to give her asylum, because of “security concerns,” arguably at the behest of not upsetting religious fundamentalists in the UK. Asia Bibi remains in hiding somewhere in Pakistan. Sadia says that we should “not be thinking about the perpetrators continuously. […] At what point [does] the country grow some bollocks, take seriously the plight of the people and stop colluding with the perpetrators? Be it religious fundamentalists or far-right groups, why are we even entertaining a discussion about the impact on them? […] The fact that there is more emphasis nowadays on perpetrators or potential perpetrators means that the people who need the support are sidelined.” Sadia has worked with female victims of sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), and honor-related crimes, and she often saw more effort to protect the identity and feelings of the perpetrators rather than caring for the victims. “It’s hugely offensive. I’m fed up of safeguarding the potential perpetrators. I want to be talking about the victims.” There are laws against FGM and sexual violence in Britain, and these laws should protect women coming from a minority background as well.
I asked her if she is optimistic about Britain’s future. “If the ideas are being challenged, and honestly so, then possibly. But, in fact, we are pandering to those ideas.” Islamists and fundamentalists have been emboldened in the UK. “I don’t think it is going to get better unless we impose and ask very vehemently that we have one standard for everybody… we don’t prioritize anyone’s religion or culture… I don’t think we want people to not be able to do the lovely things in their culture… it enriches our community, but if they want to kill their daughters, force them into a marriage, impose sexual violence, beat their wives, we can’t tolerate that.”
She mentions the case of Heshu Yones, an Iraqi Kurdish girl who was stabbed to death in west London by her Muslim father for dating a non-Muslim man in 2003. In the court, though he received a life sentence, the judge considered his religious and cultural background in sentencing and made sympathetic comments. “That wouldn’t happen in a white case,” Sadia says. Conversely, there have been cases in Britain where the rapists received additional sentences for assaulting Muslim women because, apparently, being raped brings more shame to Muslim women than white women. For Sadia, they are both instances of racism. In the former, Heshu’s life was considered less valuable because she was Muslim. In the latter, a Muslim girl’s life was considered more valuable than a white girl’s. What is the implication here? Is being raped not as painful for white women? Having separate legal standards for Muslims is not compatible with democratic ideals, and it won’t be sustainable when Muslims are the fastest growing demographic in this country. And why shouldn’t they be held to same standards? Are they less capable of being law-abiding citizens than white people? This is a bigotry of low-expectations and Muslims should be outraged. We need to stop being hypocritical and stop fetishizing harmful practices just because dark skinned people commit them.
It could be argued that Muslims have a different cultural background and we cannot apply our western standards to them. What may look like oppression to us may not feel like oppression for them. Plus, many Muslim women say they are not oppressed. The truth is, cultures change. It was only a few generations ago when the University of Oxford did not accept female students, and if you asked British women at the time, they would have said that they are happy to stay home and raise children. Does that mean there was no patriarchy in Britain? Since then, Britain has made progress in gender equality and now, women often perform better in school than men. I grew up in South Korea and my grandmother didn’t finish elementary school because education was mainly reserved for men, but she does not complain. She thinks it is a woman’s role to take care of domestic affairs. Since then, the Korean society went through a rapid change, and now, more women register at universities than men. “Go back to the kitchen!” is just as much of an insult in Korea as it is in the West. Did South Korea “internalize western imperialism?” Should Korean women go back to our traditional ways, stay home, and cook? In terms of religious toleration, the West has also made progress. A few centuries ago, it was acceptable to refuse university admission based on religion. Although antisemitism is returning, it is not like the 1930s. Europe has gradually done away with blasphemy laws and reduced the authority of the church. You can openly mock Christianity in public, and nobody is killed for it. Why is progress only laudable when westerners benefit from it? The rest of the world deserves the same freedom. “Not less or more, just the same” rights are what Sadia wants, and I concur. Of course, people should have the freedom to practice their religion, but being a minority among a minority, ex-Muslims are oppressed, not free, and threatened. They are still persecuted in so many countries, including in Europe. We cannot look away any longer.
Sadia pleads that more people need to know that ex-Muslims exist, and that if you are living in a Muslim community, there definitely will be people who don’t necessarily believe in the religion, but don’t come out because of the shame associated with it. She asks the rest of us to be engaged in this issue and stop making religion a priority over people.
To find out more, visit https://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/or watch Deeyah Khan’s documentary Islam’s Non-Believers https://youtu.be/rjVhjbLy2qEorVice News’ Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam https://youtu.be/O1lnxUXWGgE