I first interviewed ‘Jaleel’ in early March, as part of a joint-venture with the British Pakistani Christian Association. Our project entailed scouting out as many ex-Muslims across Britain within a set timeframe, recognising them to be an extremely marginalised group within minority Muslim populations; yet also acknowledging that little is known of their existence – let alone their harrowing ordeals. Almost everyone I interviewed were ascribed pseudonyms for safety reasons.
‘Jaleel’ is a British Pakistani whose subscription to fundamental Islamic doctrine during his years at University, exposed him to a literal and blatant interpretation of Islam, unlike anything he had previously been indoctrinated with.
‘ As I went to university I got involved straight away with the Islamic society and I was very much Muslim and practising, but the things that didn’t sit well with me was the inequality regarding women – it did bother me a bit. But my white friends would come along to our events and ask questions like ‘’why are the women kept in separate rooms?’’ and I would say ‘’they just are’’. But that kind of got me thinking, well why are women kept in separate rooms and why are women not allowed an opinion, or if they have an opinion, why are they assumed to be of a certain character?’
Jaleel shoved such thoughts to the back of his mind, justifying that this treatment of women was how it was in Islam, that women should be covered up and separated from men.
‘I was very much tuned up into this fundamental kind of talk -all these kinds of Mufti men – I would listen to these kinds of lectures and go to these kinds of lectures, was very much tuned into these Wahhabi kinds of movements. I had no idea what Wahhabi was before, I grew up in a culture of , oh Wahhabis aren’t proper Muslims and they bring something else – I grew up in a Barelvi environment. So when I got to uni I thought this is actually the pure Islam – the ‘’ are you Salafi or Wahhabi?’’ – I was quite hard core.’
Jaleel would still struggle with Islamic opinion regarding women, in spite of efforts to pacify himself. It wasn’t until the events of 9/11, where an explosion of scrutiny and exposure of the Islamic ideology dominating social media, that Jaleel found himself studying a religion he previously thought he was already aware of.
‘After 9/11 there was this bug: who are Muslims and what do they believe? When really we just grew up learning how to pray and what to do and what not to do. It was dogma more than anything, we were narrated Hadiths about how wonderful the prophet was and why he did such things. He was so beautiful and his lifestyle was amazing, but we never read the Bukhari texts or any of the hadith books. But after 9/11 I still had these niggling doubts, but I still believed Islam was peaceful. Then I’d visit a lot of forums -social media was becoming a big thing and people were posting a lot of stuff – I’d go to these pages where the majority of these people were racists or bigots who didn’t like anybody else other than themselves. They held arguments against the Muslims and I would read a couple of times that the prophet was a paedophile and that really hurt me so I didn’t want to go back, but slowly I did keep going back and maybe I did kind of like reading those kind of things. I didn’t want to believe it was true but I saw that someone had posted a link to authentic Bukhari texts regarding the life of Muhammad. We had all those books at home so I looked these verses up.’
Jaleel’s research into the life of a Prophet he had been led to believe was a solely a moral figure destroyed him mentally. He recalled his pain during attending an Islamic lecture with his friends , whilst grappling with his fresh discovery, yet continued to pacify and justify certain actions of Muhammad.
‘I read that he married Ayesha at 6 then consummated it at 9, it didn’t sit well with me at all. I would watch programmes and people online trying to defend it : ‘’oh it was the norm back then, 7th century Arabia, nothing abnormal about it as this is what happened then’’. But once I opened that can of worms, I couldn’t turn back. Again, I read about the Battle of Khaybar where Saffiyah was taken and the marriage was consummated that very night and that didn’t sit well with me at all. My whole life I had been told the prophet married his wives to make ties with them, to make ties with these various tribes and people but really she didn’t have a choice- she was forced to convert to Islam after her whole family had been killed – so how could that have been consensual? It made no sense, so suddenly from then I was on a rocky road.’
Jaleel eventually made the move to leave Islam in August/September of last year after a long struggle.
‘These doubts would keep coming and I’d pray and pray – I still do, I still feel guilty – the indoctrination isn’t something that you can leave so quickly. It’s an amalgamation of these things and the actions of Muhammad that led me to think this can’t be the truth. Wife beating is considered ok, a woman’s witness is only half of a man’s. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain good things in the Quran, Muhammad did some good things but he also did some very terrible things which I can’t then say he’s the role model of society – or my role model.’
Jaleel isn’t fazed by the theology side of things, as his agnosticism ensures he isn’t bothered by whether God does truly exist. However, as a Muslim he would find himself feeling the need to justify God’s existence to himself. Jaleel currently chooses to remain closeted and remains happier for doing so.
‘The only place I’m out is social media to people who don’t know me. I would attend these meet- up groups, free thinkers, ex -muslims groups – with others of like mind. But coming out to my community, there is absolutely no way for the absolute obvious reason. It’s not a huge community but a close-knit one and it would destroy everything I love. I love my family: there’s this assumption that you have to leave your family once you’re an ex-Muslim, but that’s not true. My family are not bad people , they just happened to grow up with this, but I can’t come out with it because it would literally destroy everything and I wouldn’t want to do that to my family, my parents. The easier way out is not to say anything – yeah I may have to go through the motions but it doesn’t hurt me in any way. But what does bother me sometimes is when people praise Muhammad so much and I think ‘’ if you were to read this and that you might change your mind’’ .’
Jaleel’s convictions towards his former faith is largely due to the spotlight shone on Islam in current times. ‘Islam was not under the microscope back then, like it is now. What it means to be a Muslim now comes more from ‘’the Quran says this, the Hadith says that’’. It goes beyond the basics – whereas Muslims generations ago would have no idea what was in the Quran. They were taught to read it and eloquently so, but they couldn’t understand it. I mean, I could read the Quran yet didn’t understand it. But back then, being taught how to pray, how to fast was what Islam meant generations ago. Islam is not a religion anyway, it’s a cult where so many things are dogmatic. Give me a reasonable reason – when kids are being butchered in Syria – why Allah would care which foot I step into the toilet with or which hand I wipe myself with? It’s totalitarian – you’re told about what to do and how to do it and you cannot leave. I suppose it’s the same in all religions but not to this effect, there’s a death penalty for apostasy and there’s a lot of people who believe that openly which is very scary. There’s all these British people who have all these kinds of views.’
Yet whilst Jaleel has formally abandoned his prior ideological belief, the psychological scarring is very much a thing of his present.
‘I don’t think it’s an easy thing to change – that’s the problem. You can’t and it’s passed down and its how people learn. So many of these people come from places like Pakistan, where Islam is the be all and end all and that’s all they know. They come here and preach it and it’s what kids learn. I still feel so guilty , it really messes you , you really need to speak to someone. I feel guilty for questioning and leaving it, but also guilty for ever believing it; this man took sex slaves, married children and killed innocent just because he wanted to spread his ideology. Your mind is imprisoned by this and psychologically you can’t really move on even leaving it. I still can’t bring myself to eat non-halal food, it’s a big thing for me at the moment as I’m still a new ex-Muslim. The indoctrination isn’t just a word, but a real thing that affects people. I have nothing against Muslims, there are some great Muslims! But Islam is cultish and makes you do some crazy things, so rightfully people are starting to leave. This one book ruins many people’s lives.’
Jaleel continues to live as a closeted ex-Muslim to his family and close community, but feels happier for choosing to do so, as he is convinced open admission of his agnostic status would severely hurt his loved ones. Given that he believes nobody knows what the heart believes anyway, he doesn’t see the point in coming out of his closet any time soon.