Friday, June 19, 2015

Interview with an Ex-Extremist: "Osama Bin Laden Was one of my Heroes." Pt. 2

Previously, I shared the beginning of my conversation with a young Pakistani ex-extremist, now an atheist ex-Muslim. Do check it out if you haven't already...his story is an important one. 

He once wanted to join Hamas and die for Allah, and he now fears for his own life at the hands of people who think like he used to. 

We shared an enlightening conversation, we spoke about Harry Potter, Breaking Bad, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, sexuality, burqas and much more. Most ex-Muslims are hesitant to speak out because the Islamic punishment for apostasy (leaving the faith) is death. Despite these fears he has been brave enough to share details of his life with me, ones that truly paint a picture of what that life is like, was like. 

Being an apostate is lonely, especially in a Muslim majority country. You cannot be open about your non-belief, for fear of shunning - or much worse. You lose friends and family or you live in fear of being found out. It's incredibly important that we start speaking about these issues, so they the very least, acknowledged. Even within many progressive Muslim circles, this reality is denied or excused away.  A good first step would be for people to accept that attitudes towards apostasy are a problem in Islam. 

The interview below is only meant to express this person's view. It is not meant to depict *all* Muslims as terrorists or extremists. I am well aware that majority of Muslims interpret Islam in a peaceful, less literalist way. But that doesn't change the fact that the raw material to justify such extreme, intolerant and violent thoughts can be extracted directly from scripture. 

Here is our conversation:

How old are you? 

I am 22.

Are you from a large city in Pakistan, or a small town? 

My father moved around a lot, because of his profession. We moved with him. So, I've lived in almost every provincial capital and in nearly every major city in the country. I've always been in big cities. I come from a privileged family, I am very lucky in that regard.

What started you on the track of extremism, thinking violence was ok, dying for religion was an honour?

Well, as far as I can remember...I have been anti-Semitic and anti-West, anti-non-Muslim in general.
The same narrative was repeated in mosques, at home, in school, in congregations such as weddings, going out with friends etc. Every single one of our problems is blamed on Western imperialism. We are taught in schools about the glorious past of Muslims, "our" victories in wars with infidels.. and our conquests of infidel lands in the past, how division among the Ummah (community) brought about the defeat of Muslims. I was taught that it is the duty of every Muslim to try and recapture that glory. All Muslims must unite and thwart the evil infidels. My father has been an influence on me, I must say. He always mentioned Hitler in adoration of his efforts to rid the world of the source of it's problems - namely Jews. 

He used to tell me, "Hitler did his best to kill them all, but they still escaped”. 

My father used to force me to come pray with him in the mosque, and beat me if I didn't want to come. By age 11, I was leading prayers at our local mosque, with adults behind me!

Devout Muslims pray five times a day. They repeat several times in prayers that, "Show us the right path, not the path of those who went astray nor of those that incurred Allah's wrath”. The ones who went astray refers to Christians, the ones who incurred Allah's wrath refers to Jews. Evidently, Allah hates Jews, and hating what Allah hates and loving what Allah loves is the epitome of the Muslim faith.

I was indoctrinated and brain-washed, I like to think. I was fed the same narrative over and over again, since I was old enough to form words. No other worldview or philosophy was made available to me. Reading literature other than Islamic literature was forbidden in our home.

By the time I was a teenager, all I wanted to do, all I lived for, was to die for Allah's sake. I didn't even care for the virgins, I just wanted to die for Allah, to prove my devotion.

What are your feelings towards Jews/Israel now?

I believe that if any group of people deserves to have a state of their own based on religion, it's the Jews. They have been mercilessly persecuted and massacred throughout history in various cultures. The Holocaust is a grim reminder of that. I believe all Muslim majority countries should recognize the sovereign state of Israel. I am horrified and deeply ashamed how easily I could have killed innocent Jews. It makes me sick to the stomach when people speak in adoration of Hitler, like my father does at times.

On the other hand, I do condemn the Israeli Occupation as well as Hamas. Israel has every right to self-defence, but it's not really a war Israel is fighting there. A war is supposed to be between two armies. One side in that conflict clearly has superior military power. Having the right to self-defence does not excuse keeping Palestinians low on nutrition.

Have your parents always been deeply religious? 

Yes, my parents have always been deeply religious. Having devoted Muslim children was always more important to them than having normal, decent children. There is a sense of peer pressure here in our society i.e. my parents want to show other parents in the neighbourhood how their children are good, devout Muslims. Reciting the Quran, praying 5 times a day, these were the things they worried about most. And for a time, I was the example other parents wanted kids to abide by.

I wanted to read Harry Potter when I was 14 years old, because other kids in my class talked about it a lot. I wasn't allowed to read it at home, because it's un-Islamic. My siblings were never allowed either. Instead, my parents told the Imam in our mosque to tutor me after Asar (afternoon) prayers in religious matters.

Do you plan on coming out to your parents as an ex-Muslim? 

No I don't plan on coming out to my parents as an ex-Muslim, ever. That would hurt them a lot, that all their hard work into making me a good Muslim was wasted. Also, they'd be worried sick that I'm going to hell. I don't want to harm them in that way.

Can you see your parents justifying Jihad? Have they ever sympathized with Bin Laden? Do you think they would have been ok with you joining Hamas, participating in holy war? 

I like to think that my mother wouldn't approve of me indulging in armed Jihad, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking. My father most definitely would urge me on. They have sympathized with Osama Bin Laden. From time to time, they praised his ‘achievements'. They never condemned any of his actions. When he was killed, they were sad, like I was. 

What was it about Bin Laden that you idolized, admired? 

I idolized Bin Laden because he personified all that I wanted to be as a young Muslim i.e. fighting against the evil Western infidels, also that he was fighting against insurmountable odds. America has much greater power than Al-Qaeda.

Has your relationship with your parents changed since you lost faith? 

My relationship with my parents has changed, noticeably I might add. They keep saying “Mashallah”, "Subhanallah” etc. (praising Allah) during normal conversations. These words are meaningless for me. When I don't say them as much as they do - they tell me to say these words, which is awkward. They begin praising Allah sometimes at the dinner table and expect me to join in, as I used to.

They think staying in university away from their supervision has made me immoral, because I used to be a good Muslim. My mother thinks I must have had some immoral liberal girlfriend in my university that's corrupted me (I don’t, I'm single).

Do you still have to do things to keep up appearances, like praying and fasting for example? 

Yes. When I pretend to pray, I don't pray for as long as I used to when I was a Muslim. I don't offer the "Nafal" prayers, that *aren’t* obligatory. This, to them, is a sign of weakness of my faith. So, there is some level of tension between us.

Ramadan is approaching, are you going to have to remain hungry all day because you are not open in your disbelief? 

Yes, I'm going have to stay hungry and offer those long "taraweeh" prayers in Ramadan.
I hate this month.

What kinds of things do you hear from the pro-Taliban pro-Hamas members of your class? 

My pro-Taliban classmates say things only psychopaths would say. For instance, the Peshawar school massacre was not really a massacre, according to them. Teenagers above 12 years of age are not really kids, they are men and thus, can be killed. The Prophet Muhammad didn't spare anyone with pubic hair when Bani Qurayzah got slaughtered, and most victims in the Peshawar attack were aged 12 to 14. They also believe that anyone who dies in Jihad by way of collateral damage goes straight to paradise, so Muslims should not worry about collateral damage. They think that girls who wear jeans, who let their hair run down their shoulder "on display for the world”, who go out of the house without the permission of their husbands or guardians are sluts, and worthy of reprimand or punishment.

They are stuck with ideas a thousand years old. I could go on and reiterate how they've harassed female classmates of mine because of these ideas, but let's leave it at that.

Can you identify a turning point for yourself? What encouraged you to explore the other side, to explore arguments against religion, Islam?

When I found out the Prophet had married a 6-year old, that was the major turning point. No explanation by my parents or Imams made any moral sense. The biggest turning point was when internet connection was installed at home. I initially looked up criticism on Muhammad marrying a six-year old, then I began reading a lot of criticism on Islam, listened to lectures by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. They set me free.

What do you say to those who say the age of Muhammad's bride was not 6? 

Muslims who argue that Ayesha's age was not 6 when she got married desperately want to believe that the best example to live life by was not someone who married a child. This is understandable. The evidence is largely to the contrary though.

If these Muslims can convince 1.6 billion Muslims with their evidence, then kudos to them. They should be working towards convincing other Muslims who justify child marriages because they believe Muhammad did it.

Clearly, these Muslims are not convincing enough or there's insufficient evidence for their viewpoint. If they were, we would be seeing fatwas everywhere in the Muslim world banning child marriage. They can try and make themselves feel better about their beliefs, but they ought to try and convince the rest of the Muslim world with whatever evidence they have for this assertion, that Muhammad's child bride was not actually a child.

Did religion have an impact on your views on sexuality, did reading my blog help to counter? 

Your blog affected me a lot, in a positive way. I've never had any sex-education, other than your blog. So, thanks :)

My views on sexuality were warped and distorted, partly because sex-ed is non-existent here and partly because of the way religion is practiced here: talking, discussing sex is equivalent to engaging in adultery.

Do the women in your family wear hijab (head scarf)/niqab (face veil)? And what are your thoughts on that? 

One of my sisters wears hijab, the other one wears the niqab and burqa. I think these articles of clothing are an over-obsession with modesty and the ideas behind them are deeply offensive to both men and women: that men are animals waiting for a chance to pounce on a woman should they see the smallest hint of flesh, and women are shameful if they show their face or hair in public. It's bronze-age, it's pathetic, disgusting.

Have your sisters felt pressured to wear hijab (head scarf)/ dress modestly? What were the reactions in your family, to one of your sisters wearing a niqab (face veil)?

The pressurizing of my sisters into wearing the niqab/hijab was benign at first. They were told since since age 8 to observe the niqab or at the very least, the hijab, because Allah likes it, supposedly. As they got older, they were pressurized more and more. From being scolded and called immoral by my parents to getting threatened with hell-fire, the pressure/indoctrination never really stopped. I am ashamed to say that I also put pressure on them when I was a Muslim. I used to reprimand and scold my sisters, when they made the rare mistake of going out of the house without covering their heads. I wish I could take it all back, but I can't now. They are probably going to live with it all their life, thinking it's a good thing...convinced they had a choice all along.

My whole family was proud of my sister for becoming unrecognizable in public. She is the role model for my younger cousins and other girls in our neighbourhood.

What are your thoughts about women, especially in the West that seem to advocate for burqas as some sort of feminist tool of bodily autonomy?

Some ‘feminists' in the West are ignorant. That's the only word for them. They have never experienced what it's like to be discriminated against conservative-orthodox Muslim-style: they are not considered immoral sluts by society for just showing their face in public.

Ask them to live like that for a month and I guarantee they'll change their mind about the burqa.
If only they knew what it's like being shamed for having a face in public, for showing your wrists in public, for showing your feet in public, they'd shudder at the thought of supporting the burqa.

Do you plan on getting married some day? Do you think it will be hard to find a like-minded partner in Pakistan?

I'd rather live and die alone, instead of marrying a Muslim girl. It's against a Muslim woman's faith to marry a non-Muslim, so the marriage would be based on a lie. On top of that, how would the kids be raised? Would they be atheist or Muslim? There are ex-Muslim atheist girls, but we are an unrecognized minority who have to hide. Ex-Muslims must be careful while talking to other ex-Muslims as well, because you never know if the other person is trust-worthy. So, there's hardly any chance of meeting a like-minded girl here. It's not impossible, but highly unlikely.

Is your university a known Islamic one, or is it just a regular university? Is religion preached in class? 

My university is a regular one, but has a very conservative environment, with "Tableeghi jamaats” (evangelicals) quite active. They knock on your door and invite you to come to the mosque. I've only met one non-Muslim, a Hindu studying in my university. We Muslims made life hell for him here, discriminating at every chance we got. Nobody greeted him, because here it is believed that Muslims aren't allowed to say "assalamu alaikum” (May you be blessed) to non-Muslims. The guards at the university gates harassed him the most. One course on Islamic studies is compulsory here - but for non-Muslims, there's a course on ethics to compensate the credit hours.

In middle-school, high school and college, religious studies have always been compulsory.

Do you have any thoughts about how Pakistan could work towards de-radicalizing youth?

I have given some thought to how the country can de-radicalize the youth. First, all mosques and what's taught there must be regulated. No one should be allowed to build a mosque without the government's formal permission. At the same time, all Imams must be vetted before getting hired. There has to be some authority within Islam that decides what to teach youngsters. As things stand, there are sects within sects in Islam, and some of these sects are violent, because no *one* interpretation of Quran & Hadith exists.

Secondly, something must be done to inform people that all of our problems are NOT the fault of Western foreign policy. A more detailed and nuanced education of the masses about the history of Muslim countries and especially the Middle East is required for that.

Hatred of the West gives credence to theological grievances…and religious solidarity among Muslims increases hatred of the West. It's circular, and the circle is spinning faster and faster as days go on. It's only going to get worse, if we don't do anything about it.

Ah yes, tribal hate. It certainly is cyclical...and on the western end it's fuelled by right wing nationalist groups, xenophobes. It's this feeling of superiority over the other, both Western and Eastern extremists keep feeding off of each other. But only one of those groups wants to directly kill the other, sadly. 

So do you think speaking out against the problematic parts of Islam only encourages anti-Muslim bigotry in the West? 

In principle, speaking about problematic parts in Islam shouldn't increase anti-Muslim bigotry. What's wrong with having a discussion about ideas?

I agree, this is the distinction many fail to make. The one between ideas and groups of people. All ideas should be open to criticism, but the adherents of an ideology should be recognized as diverse. The two things are conveniently conflated by those wishing to stifle conversation.

It's only the apologists and Western liberals on the ‘Islamophobia' bandwagon that equate criticism of bad ideas in Islam to anti-Muslim bigotry. Of course, there is anti-Muslim bigotry. There is anti-Christian bigotry in Muslim majority countries, anti-Jew bigotry, anti-Atheist bigotry: bigotry is universal, it is not reserved for Muslims alone, yet people who are quick to label others as Islamophobes seem to suggest that Muslims are especially discriminated against. These people are exploiting genuine anti-Muslim bigotry to silence criticism of the ideology that makes people want to join ISIS and Taliban etc.

Absolutely, there is this 'exclusive' victimhood status that many Muslims and Islam-apologists seem to take on. And I'm not sure there is any validity to this claim at all. Bigotry is awful, and it does exist for lots of groups of people, not Muslims alone. 

Re Internet: Do you remember to clear your search history? Do you have to google your godless infidel articles/videos in hiding? Are you afraid of being caught? 

I use VPN. I use private window in browser. I clear my browser and chat history. Yes, I'm afraid of getting caught. A few weeks ago, one of my pro-Taliban classmates found out my anonymous twitter profile where I had described myself as an ex-Muslim. He walked in on me while I was unaware. I had to delete that profile immediately. It was conclusive proof of my apostasy. My apostasy is popular gossip among my classmates.

I think being on university premises is what keeps me safe. Out on some lonely street, things would be different.

What are your thoughts on critics of Islam from other Abrahamic faiths?

Harsh criticism isn't bad in itself. The problem is that criticism of Islam from followers of other faiths makes it an inter-faith conflict. When a Christian criticizes Islam, even if the criticism is valid, in the minds of devout Muslims it's a crusade against Muslims by Christians. So, these criticisms aren't that helpful. Only Muslims themselves can bring about change in the Muslim world.

Do you see any similarities/differences in hating the ‘other’ between Muslims who propagate hatred towards non-Muslims and Non-Muslims who propagate hatred towards Muslims? 

Yes, there are behavioural similarities in hating the ‘other’ between Muslims who propagate hatred towards non-Muslims and Non-Muslims who propagate hatred towards Muslims - though the causes/reasons are different. For Muslims, it's a theological grievance as well as socio-political. The theological aspect of hatred is harder to get rid of, I think. I do wish people would stop taking religion seriously. The world would be a much better place if it were so.

Do you have any friends you are comfortable and open about your disbelief, or has this journey been a lonely one? 

It was a very lonely, depressing journey, for a long time. I was going insane. I had been contemplating suicide. I thought I was the only ex-Muslim in all of history.

Thank Goodness I have found other ex-Muslims online and two in my class as well! So, I have some semblance of solidarity now, the knowledge that I'm not alone helps me sleep at night. Though it saddens me that not all ex-Muslims are willing to speak out like I am. They want to stay quiet, live safe, die without making noise. I think that if we put society, culture and human rights ahead of ourselves, we get motivated to speak about these issues. It's imperative that we speak out. I don't want the next generation of ex-Muslims to live in fear like I do.

What does a 22 year old like yourself, who has had such a radical change in mindset do for fun? 

I like to read books. Book-reading is the greatest pleasure there is. Most of my leisure time is spent reading books; I want to make up for all those years I wasn't allowed to read Harry Potter.
Other than that, I play video games as well, watch movies sometimes.

And yes, I do watch Western TV shows. My favourites are Breaking Bad and True Detective. 

Ironically, my roommate also likes Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, yet he hates the West at the same time. I don't know how this compartmentalization works in his brain, but he's not unique in this. My pro-Taliban classmates love to watch Game of Thrones and then curse the 'immoral Westerners' for the explicit nudity there is in it. If there ever was a definition of hypocrisy, this is it.

Is there something you’d like to say to moderate/progressive Muslims, who say they want a more peaceful, tolerant Islam?

My message to moderate Muslims is this: please don't be afraid of admitting that part of your theology is not applicable today as it was 1400 years ago. It takes courage to admit that. You must accept that some teachings of your religion are unacceptable within the context of the 21st century, especially the teachings that prescribe killing people like me who managed to break away from indoctrination. Rejecting the doctrine altogether is implausible; reinterpretation and contextualization is the only way to move forward.

I defend your right to practice religion. Please, I beg you, defend my right to be free from religion as well.


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  1. What an impressive young man. All the best to him.
    (I too was worrying about his browser history, before you asked that question.)

  2. What a fantastic interview. Props to this brave young man.

    I don't understand one thing however - what is this university where there is such a weird, mixed environment? Conservative environment, discrimination against a Hindu, guards who harass without consequences, forced Islamic Studies... yet western books/games/TV available, ex-muslims in class and "safe" university premises. I don't get it, it's the one part of this interview that doesn't add up for me.

    1. Fahad, through the internet, almost anything is possible. Even sitting in a Pakistani village you can download western shows. Pakistan also has a large electronics and piracy, dvds, music, even porn are readily available. You just have to know where to go. Same goes for books, in some of our more progressive bookstore chains, you will even find Dawkins books I hear (though in the fiction section).

  3. Great interview, I hope that the online community can give you enough moral support, as form what I understand, getting such support in real life Pakistan is impossible.
    Take care, atheist from Israel.

  4. Hats off to this young atheist friend from pakistan. I have never seen so much courage at such a young age. His thoughts are very clear and mature.
    On side note, do not consider that vpns are fool proof. Authorities can coax vpn providers to divulge information. Consider using tor browser as it is built for the specific purpose of providing anoynymity.

    --Happy and safe atheisting:)

  5. Great interview. It brought me back to another former extremist I read about, although the reason he quit was after reading "Animal Farm" by George Orwell.

    At the end, is education the only way out, however, if children are receiving indoctrination, instead, it's quite difficult. Only very few can get out of such thing.

  6. Amazing interview.This was really helpful.

    I hope more and more ex-muslims, who just want to be human beings - free from a label they were (and in many ways still are) forced to own - find each other and support each other, and find like-minded people: atheist, secularist, liberal, humanists, throughout the rest of the world. I hope the ex-muslims, now part of humanity as a whole and not a tribe of "chosen people" will help free the mind of their fellow men and women still oppressed by ideas that put them in chains, by letting them now that life can be beautiful, romantic, poetic, amazing and prosperous when freeing oneself of shame and guilt and negative and oppressive thoughts.

    There is great freedom to be found in atheism and humanism, where peace and respect and equality is genuine, where morals and good deeds and common decency towards others are true intentions and feelings and not precepts for rewards or punishments; when realizing that life is rare and every day an opportunity to do something, to experience something, to learn something, to create something and to help somebody.

    When you realize that when you die you will be non-existent for eternity, life becomes valuable to you, but you also realize that life is as valuable for others from this new perspective, since we all come from nothing and all will return to nothing. So to make life as great as possible for yourself you realize the necessity to make life great as a whole for everybody. Your planet, your country, your society, the people around you, the better for everybody the better life you will have on this planet. A better and more beautiful world of love and peace and inspiration and creativity and progress is a better world to live in for everybody, now and for the next generations. That is why atheism brings good things to life because we atheists want this life to be as good as possible since we believe 'this is it' and want to make the best of it. And we want to do the same for our children and the people we love.

  7. For a moment there , i thought i had given u this interview while sleeptalking something. Electrical engineer: done, became athiest at 21 in univ: done, Once thought of joining alqaeda: done, Leading prayers while i was a kid: done, Having only 1 non-muslim in univ(hindu): done (Though we were all so nice to him), Having evangelists in univ: done, Move around a lot as wella as having lived in all provinces and capitals: done,

    1. I'm hearing from quite a few ppl who can relate to this story a lot....

    2. The thing i still dont understand is that 95 % of the info that led me into being an athiest was infront of all my buddies while i was in univ and what was it that clicked in my brain to actually start listening to opposite arguments. I was quite into the conspiracy stuff. I was a hafiz (pretty shitty one but still one nonetheless). My father was all like 'start reading the translation to understand it as well. You will find so much benefit blah blah '. So during one of my semester break while i was at home, u decided i would study the quran and inspect every verse carefully and try to provide a counterargument and see if the verse can hold its own.

      Somethings jumped out to me pretty easily like why 2 women equal 1 man in many matters and i asked my father about it who replied with his standard 'we humans cant understand the working of god. So accept and leave it. I wasnt going to just leave it.

      So i continued and to find a counterargument to something (my brain wasnt open enough at that point to point out even simple fallacies. I was so brainwashed that even simple stupidities in plain sight didnt jump out to me) i would search on google. Two websites (both blocked) would jump out for counterargument : answering islam and faithfreedom. Answering islam was run by christians and they were as blind as muslims of ignoring fallacies in their religion while pointing out the same in others. So i went with faithfreedom. This website really opened my eyes and was one of the most important tool in changing my reality. I learned about so many lies and hoaxes and mistakes and attrocities and what not about islam. I really scavenged the website during the vacation. I read ali sina's book.

      I was almost 99% converted but still i had vowed that i would reach the final conclusion based on my findings and observations and not on other people's influence. So i continued on my journey of researching the holy text and finding things that seemed wrong to me from translations. When i was about 10 chapter, i was done. I didnt want to go any further to support my final conxlusion.

      Life had changed.

    3. That's cz many people move around a lot and many families indoctrinate kids like that.
      Being around 20,that's the age where we get away from our parental supervision and have the chance to learn about life for ourselves.Not surprising many people leave the religion around this age.
      oh and he didn't say he wanted to join Al-Qaeda;Just Hamas,

  8. Rather a depressing read, but good luck to this young man. It emphasizes for me the need for Westerners to keep up the very highest level of culture - the canon - and fight hard against, well, pretty much all postmodernist art and philosophising. 19th century novels, piano playing.. must be our way to support people like this. It must be doubly depressing to see, from Pakistan, the Eurovision-culture, carelessness and relativism we're soaked in here.

  9. It's...overwhelming. I don't know how you do it Eiynah without breaking down in tears. Thanks so much to this young man for having the courage to say what needs to be said. I wonder how anyone manages to cut through the layers upon layers of lies and brainwashing... and then I look at myself and am amazed I did it, though was less systematically indoctrinated into cultish Christianity. There is so much to lose, family and friends not the least, but what we gain is ourselves. I simply can't envision coming to the end of my life feeling I had lived some script someone else set out for me without ever making authentic choices based on truth. I wish him all the best and I do believe things will change. Societies aren't static. They do evolve, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and he is not alone. There are more hidden atheists and liberal theists who question in Pakistan than he might realize. I'm friends with a few and admire them.