Skip to content

Haidar, Syed, and Shams, and Support for Ex-Muslims


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Personal)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/10/28

Through BBC News, there was some good, but older, reportage on the nature of ex-Muslims building community for having a voice and protection for themselves.

It was stated that many Muslims who leave the faith then face a protracted period of abuse and violence. This creates a situation in which individuals must deal with the difficulties of the family and the community not only rejecting them but also doing so aggressively.

One man, Muhammad Syed, left Islam years ago, which means becoming an ex-Muslim. It seems like an interesting commentary to me. That is, the ones who leave the religion and form councils around the world with national representatives play by the rule book of the definitions and terms of the religious.

People who leave Christianity, except maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses — who become ex-JWs, rarely become ex-Christians in North America and Western Europe. Rather, they amount to the individuals who are atheists or non-religious in general.

They do not, and not as a smart and conscious tactic, leave the religion and then become a title related to the conceptual framework of viewing the world with the religion. But rather, they are then something entirely other or mostly different than the original title of Christian.

When Syed left, he opines on something intriguing: the lack of doubt within the immediate community because everyone believes in the ideas and morality of the religion. In 2007, Syed then realized that he did not believe in Islam at all.

As a young lad, he had an interest in the sciences, especially astronomy and the space sciences including an interest in the television portrayals of science fiction in Star Trek and Star Wars. He identifies as a liberal. His parents had PhDs.

In his early 20s only a few months prior to the tragedy of 9/11, he went back to the United States. America entered war-time. His Pakistani friends became very conservative in orientation.

Syed stated, “There was one guy in particular… I knew him through high school… We were in the same college. We were similar people — he was liberal like me. Then he grew this foot-and-a-half long beard…. He was talking about torture in the grave (an Islamic belief in punishment after death)… And he was talking about it being a real thing that people have witnessed — a very superstitious type of thinking.”

With his own scientific interest and background, Syed found this bizarre. He began to study the religious texts, including the Quran and the hadiths, and the secondary texts of Islam. He considered Islam humanistic and scientific.

He was intent on showing his friend wrong. He then realized, starkly, the friend had the correct view. He had the wrong view, on Islam. Skip to another scene, Syed is having dinner with some friends. One survived leukaemia earlier in life.

The man was praising God for the recovery from the highly lethal disease. However, within the mind of Syed, he was considering the probability of surviving from leukaemia. Then he thought, “How do you know that God is the one that saved you — versus you being in the percentage that is saved generally?”

Then Syed had an epiphany about the absurdity of some of the claims of the friend. It becomes a matter of the odds, a coin toss, or a throw of the die and hoping not to — so to speak.

“From there I thought: ‘I understand this is all false, and I’ve understood it for a while, I just haven’t self-acknowledged it.’… It’s not that you want to, or don’t want to, believe it anymore… It’s like you understand Newton’s equations for gravity — if you understand them, you understand them. You can’t not understand them afterwards,” Syed explained.

His family is a liberal family with the mother being quite open-minded. Within a few weeks, he decided to tell the family that he was an ex-Muslim. The family was noticeably shocked or surprised by the announcement of their son to them.

In fact, he elaborates that the shock was, indeed, connected to surprise about the coming out. It sounds as if Syed was a gay man in the 1940s coming out in America. For some Muslims, 13 nations around the world, the death penalty is applied to them.

When you read or hear of the different punishments of a severe form such as lashings, whippings, and death — even purported “gnashings of teeth” in the afterlife, there may be associated cascade effects inside of the societies in which these punishments emerge out of the underbelly of Islamic theocratic law.

The family and the community punishments can precede or co-occur with these punishments and legal threats for those who leave the religion. Syed noted wanting the best for those one loves in their life.

“If you believe that by going down a certain path a relative will — say — burn for eternity, it’s hard not to push back… A lot of that pushback comes from a place of love. It’s not from a place of hate,” Syed opined.

He then spoke to friends about the change in the personal worldview. Then he began to know other ex-Muslims. One of them was Sarah Haidar. She was born in Pakistan and then raised In Texas. Haidar left Islam to become an ex-Muslim at the age of 15 or 16.

She never met another ex-Muslim. Part of this is demographic, living in Texas — joke aside, the loneliness for ex-Muslims remains palpable.

Haidar remarked, “When I found out Muhammad was an atheist, I didn’t believe him… I thought maybe it was a joke. When I realised it was the case, it really was astounding to me.”

Haidar was raised by parents who were conservative compared to the parents typically found in the West. Her parents were liberal relative to the standard Muslim parents. One may assume compared to those in Pakistan, as an example. Many North Americans consider Texas conservative central, by North American standards.

“They never abused me… But they were never happy with my choices. I got pushback every step of the way… It was a long process for them to understand this was an intellectual choice, and to have some mild respect for it. But they did get there, and many ex-Muslims’ parents would not have…” Haidar continued, “I know ex-Muslims who have no contact with their family at all — either for fear of physical abuse or retribution, or because the family have shunned them.”

Syed and Haidar went on the hunt, the prowl, for other ex-Muslims. In the underbrush of the online world and through the word of mouth, they began to garner a small and informal, but also growing, network of those who have renounced Islam.

Risks can ensue for those individuals. Their — Syed’s and Haidar’s — lives become augury’s for the lives of others. People can palter and speak in the cant necessary to get information about those trying to save the lives of others.

They have to be mulish and discerning in this, as a result. Some false calls may act surly; however, the goal is to help others and not simply leave them vulnerable to attack. It is a network after all. A slip of the tongue can mean an identity revealed and a life taken away prematurely.

The threats are real. Theo van Gogh remains one prominent example but a European, so people notice this. There are others of equal worth and value in the world, who will never have a name known or a face seen by the wider public with the ability to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Think about that. It is not a tree in a forest this time.

The reportage continued, “‘Sarah thought she was the only one,’ says Muhammad. ‘We thought there were probably others like that.’ Through word-of-mouth, and online forums, they built a small, informal network of ex-Muslims. Then came the next step: meeting in real life.”

Syed worked to speak with people o the phone and took necessary precautions for safety because of the potential for violent Muslims finding them out. Haidar remembers this as a scary period in time. That is, the tension and the excitement was nerve-racking for her.

The risk in simply coming out to a public place was an issue. They began to meet others and spread the word. There were meetings in bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and so on. Starting in the Autumn of 2013, Syed and Haidar decided to create the Ex-Muslims of North America.

It was an organization devoted, in the public eye, to support and provide coverage for the ex-Muslims — ahem — in North America. There was a large demand for their support system and networks.

Syed stated, “You have to assess the risk. You have to figure out whether this was worth it. But there was no other way. Somebody had to take that chance. Somebody had to make that happen… I didn’t honestly see another way… There were no other people that were doing this, even around the world. We were in the right place, the right time, and I had the right mentality.”

He remarked that his upbringing inculcated the desire to help those in need.

The report stated, “Four years on, Muhammad and Sarah’s network — which is run by volunteers and relies on donations — has around 1,000 ex-Muslims in 25 cities in North America. People often call in the middle of night. Sometimes they’re suicidal.”

These are people in desperate circumstances with many, likely, losing not only their family and friends but also their will to live without them. Few people are capable of the isolation necessary to live in solitary confinement or something closely resembling it — outside of a jail cell: open-air isolation.

One individual after stating to the family that he intended to leave Islam had a gun placed to his head. One person was forced to take part in an exorcism. This makes for fallow psychological ground for feelings of betrayal, resentment, and then self-imposed isolation and potential suicidal ideation.

“If they want to talk, we usually connect them with somebody — similar age group, somebody that can understand them…Often it’s ethnic — so, for example, Saudi people can understand Saudis better. We have people from 40 different ethnic backgrounds,” Syed stated, “We had a young girl, her parents weren’t letting her study… Home schooled at high school, expected she would get married, she can’t go to college, she wanted out. She wanted to live her life. We were able to connect her to someone else, someone who had a spare couch. It’s not much — but for somebody who has nothing, it’s huge.”

The organization can get both threats as well as cries for help. Many of them come through social media or emails. Then there is a random person on the internet who is giving some form of legitimate threat. First, they used to call the police. Now, they connect with the FBI who understands it.

Another individual is an ex-Muslim from London who founded Faith to Faithless, Imtiaz Shams. It is a British group to help the ex-religious regardless of their personal background. He is younger. Syed and Shams argue those — for shorthand — on the Left use racism and the Right uses demonization of brown problem.

Each comes at this with a stereotyped lens in other words with different negative consequences and few positives, especially with the reduction in communication and the shunning of people. The article concludes on the tour and how they feel heartened when hearing stories of triumph in spite of the problems from leaving their respective faiths. The people who go through Faith to Faithless or EXMNA get support that they have been dying for.


Amos, O. (2017, November 29). Ex-Muslims: They left Islam and now tour the US to talk about it. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: