25 February, 2015
In 2012, Muhammed Syed helped launch an organization for former Muslims. It is called Ex-Muslims of North America, or EXMNA. The group offers support to people who have given up on the religion and no longer feel required to follow its teachings.
No major organization has published information on how many former Muslims live in North America. But Muhammed Syed says EXMNA has grown over the past three years. The group started with chapters in just two cities: Washington, DC and Toronto, Canada. Today more than 10 EXMNA chapters are spread across the United States and Canada. Membership is open to all former Muslims, but mainly to those who do not believe in God at all.
Mr. Sayed says the group is important because some former Muslims face difficulty when they say they will no longer practice Islam.
"We even had a few times when people threatened their own kids that they would be killed," says Mr. Sayed.
At one party, EXMNA members exchanged gifts that celebrated their new identity. Gifts included things that Islam bars: alcoholic drinks, condoms and a picture that said in Arabic "There is no God."
Sarah Haider attended the party. She was born in Pakistan but grew up in Texas. She says she never imagined someone could want to leave Islam.
"I thought it was sort of a one-way street. You just found your way into Islam and you stayed there," she says.
Ms. Haider adds that people who reject the religion are afraid to talk about it.
"Many Muslims take it as a personal insult when you step out and step away from their religion," she says. "And I understand why that is, but I think it creates a situation where people are afraid to speak their minds, where dissent is not really respected on any level."
Samira Mukhtar grew up in the United Arab Emirates, but later moved to the United States. She says she lost her belief in God after she heard a talk by an activist who believes religion and politics should be separate.
Ms. Mukhtar says that attending events such as the EXMNA party and being with other former Muslims makes her feel safe.
However, Muhammed Syed warns that former Muslims can be victims of anti-Muslim prejudice, even in the United States.
"My name is Muhammed," he says. "I've had people scream at me to go back home, even though I was born here."
Mr. Syed points out the difference between criticizing Islam and having a problem with Muslim people.
He says, "Unless this anti-Muslim bigotry is challenged and pushed away, there is no way for Muslims to actually start signing up and pushing back against the problems that exist within our cultures."
Losing religion in the U.S.
Changing religion or giving up on religion is common in the United States. The Pew Research Center found that more than one in four Americans leaves a religious faith. The study also found that all major religions lose some U.S. members.
Mohamed Magid is a religious leader at one of the largest mosques in the Washington, DC area. He says Muslims must accept how faith can change and follow the teaching of the Quran that says there is "no compulsion in religion." In other words, religion is not required.
Mr. Magid says the Quran talks about people who have changed their faith many times and were not put to death. He criticizes people who want to kill former Muslims.
"I'm asking those people, what are you teaching?" he says. "Are you telling the person he has to pretend to be Muslim to be safe?"
Mr. Magid adds that he will not let anyone harm former Muslims in America.
I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.
Jerome Socolovsky reported this story from Washington. Kelly Jean Kelly wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
practice – v. live according to the customs and teachings of a religion
dissent – n. public disagreement with an official set of beliefs
prejudice – n. unfair feeling of dislike for a person or group because of race, sex or religion
bigotry – n. hatred or refusal to accept members of a particular group