Ex-Muslims in India Find Solidarity Online as They Face Social and Family Rejection


MUMBAI, India (RNS) – Arif Hussain Theruvath used to fast in Ramadan, study in a madrassa in Kerala state in the south of the country, follow fundamentalist Islamic preachers online and pray five times a day. But over time, he grew disillusioned with Islam and officially released online as an “ex-Muslim” in 2019.

“I left Islam for two reasons: slavery is still accepted in religion, and when you look at the way he treats women, it’s horrible, ”Theruvath said. (The question of whether slavery is practiced in Islamic countries today is a point of contention.)

Its rejection had consequences. His wife has left him and he cannot see his children. But Theruvath, 35, does not regret the move and has now become an active member of the ex-Muslims of Kerala Facebook community, which emerged from a larger atheist group in 2019. He participates in online discussions and posts YouTube videos criticizing religion. .

“In Kerala, we have had a strong rationalist movement over the past few years,” he said. “And social media has given us more opportunities to network and find each other. Leaving a religion can make you a black sheep, so you need confidence and support to do so. ”

Theruvath’s is one of at least three online groups to have sprung up in India in the past five years. Established in 2019, the group of ex-Muslims in India, which met in Hyderabad before the pandemic struck, has around 100 members, who were admitted after a verification process. A group of ex-Muslims from Tamil Nadu of around 300 members has been active since 2016.

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“In India, Muslims mainly focus on survival issues, but Muslims educated enough to read Dawkins and other rationalists certainly question what they see as contradictions in the Qur’an and other theologies,” said Sultan Shahin, founding editor of New Age Islam, a progressive Islamic site. “I would say the internet does to Islam what the printing press did to Christianity … so think Muslims are exposed to all kinds of ideas all over the world.”

At least 138 million Muslims live in India, a constitutionally secular country, but where atheists and outspoken rationalists have often been attacked by right-wing groups. In 2017, H Farook, a man of Muslim descent, atheist and member of the Tamil Nadu ex-Muslim group, was killed in what appeared to be retaliation for his outspoken views.

Arif Hussein Theruvath. Courtesy photo

Theruvath and MR Shahabas of the Tamil Nadu group say many of their members are online under fake names, fearing to come out publicly. Shahabas said Farook’s death delayed them but they were trying to regroup.

“Ex-Muslims live in greater fear of their society than rationalist Hindus,” Shahin said. “Atheism is an accepted part of Hinduism; not so, Islam. Among Hindus, problems arise when Hindus publicly propagate against certain irrational cultural beliefs or practices. Among Indian Muslims, the mere expression of disbelief can lead to accusations of apostasy and social boycott. ”

At the very least, it could lead to arguments with loved ones, being denied, or straining relationships with family.

People of all faiths have always debated and doubted their beliefs, but the term ‘ex-Muslim’ gained momentum in the 2000s, when some Muslims felt motivated after 9/11 to distance themselves from extremist factions. . In 2007, after the formation of a former Muslim council in Germany, the international social movement began to take root in the West.

A Pew Research report released in July this year found that 6% of Indian born Muslims surveyed did not believe in God. But only a tiny minority actively identify as ex-Muslims in India, a relatively new term in the country. Those who do use etiquette for a variety of reasons – some are disillusioned with the texts, while others are put off by die-hard clerics or religion in general.

“I feel like I’m free, free to think whatever I want and believe in anything,” said Tauseef Ahmad, 19, a student in Patna, northern India, who started rejecting religion in his early teens and recently joined an online group. “I would ask how is this religion so hypocritical?” “

While some ex-Muslims were once deeply religious, others were never particularly religious. Many left after a gradual process of reading and debate. “At first, when I had doubts about my faith, I was afraid and tried to suppress it,” said Saquib Mohammed, 31, a mathematician and teacher based in Rajasthan. His family were not devout, so they were surprised when he became an observer after starting college – sporting a beard and skullcap, reading the Quran, and praying up to eight times a day. The phase lasted about six years. “The more you read and study, if you’re rational, the more you’ll want to go out,” Mohammed said. “I was studying science. I knew how it worked.

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Ex-Muslims have a particular need to articulate their disentanglement from their religion and not simply become atheists.

“Because the Muslim identity itself has a hold on you and is present in all aspects of your life, so you want to dissociate yourself from anything related to Islam,” said Hina, founder of the group Ex. -Muslims of India, who goes by a pseudonym because she does not go out with her family.

His initiative to build a community arose out of such circumstances. “We needed a place to belong, a safe space to be ourselves,” she said. When she started questioning things, she thought she was alone. “It was a journey of isolation. I didn’t know anyone else, “she said.” When I met other people, I felt more secure in my thoughts and my identity. ”

India has had a history of rationalist movements, but atheism is not officially recognized – only 33,000 people declared themselves atheists in the last census. Yet rejecting religion is not a crime, unlike some predominantly Muslim countries with apostasy laws.

“India is relatively safe because the state is not chasing us,” Hina said. But, she said it was “a frustrating and invisibilizing position to be an ex-Muslim in India”. This is particularly the case today, in a country ruled by the right-wing Hindu party Bharatiya Janata.

“Muslims will not accept us and the Hindu right sees us as an opportunity to suppress Islam and Muslims,” she said. “It’s frustrating because we don’t identify with them.

This is a particular problem for ex-Indian Muslims: having to assert their distance from the Hindu right and face resistance from liberals and those who say now may not be the right time to criticize Islam, since its followers in India are not safe. minority.

“We are facing allegations that we are funded by Sangh Parivar (Hindu law),” Theruvath said. “We are against Islam; we are not against Muslims. Likewise, we criticize Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), but we are not against Hindus. ”

However, being an ex-Muslim does not protect these men and women from the occasional Islamophobia and baggage of bearing Muslim names. The world considers them to be Muslims.

“Renting a house was difficult, dating non-Muslim girls was not easy and I am sometimes wary of my safety,” Mohammed said.


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