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Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka (EMSL) is an organisation devoted to the representation of a minority within a minority – ex-Muslims. This is an educational interview with direct, frank answers on serious questions for a widely unacknowledged persecuted community: the ex-religious, and in this instance the ex-Muslim. I feel personal impetus to research, interview, and present these minority within a minority interviews. So here we are.
Scott Jacobsen: Within the ex-Muslim community, there are so many stories discussing the discrimination, prejudice, hate crimes, physical violence and attacks, and so on, against the ex-Muslim community, usually from the Muslim community at large. What is the state of irreligious freedom in Sri Lanka?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka is a non-Muslim country, and being irreligious (even though there are only a very few individuals) is not considered as a serious crime by the majority i.e. the Buddhists and the Hindus. Yet Muslims are concerned, of course, as it is considered the ultimate betrayal of and attack against the community and the religion. As far as our members are concerned, knowing these realities that happen everywhere, most of them have chosen to remain closeted. Very few of them have decided to openly discuss their non-belief with the family and friends. They have to face physical violence, discrimination and isolation, and these have taken a considerable psychological toll on them.
To our surprise, while working towards forming the Ex Muslims of Sri Lanka, we found out that there is not even a single irreligious, atheist organisation for the Ex-Buddhists or Ex-Hindus existed in Sri Lanka, even though the two religions do not prosecute those who desert the faith, unlike Islam. So, we are the first of this kind to be formed as an organisation / group at the national level.
Jacobsen: Maryam Namazie is an articulate, passionate, and insightful voice of ex-Muslims in Britain. Has she been a beacon of hope and inspiration for the Ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka? Also, has she helped the Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka in any way?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Yes indeed, she has been a considerable motivational strength as far as Sri Lankan ex-Muslims are concerned. When the founder of the EMSL decided to form the group, he contacted many ex-Muslims around the world and she was one of the very few who responded and provided guidance. We are very grateful for being accredited as one of the affiliated bodies of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). We were also invited to participate in the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century. But unfortunately we were compelled not to submit our visa applications in order to protect our identities from being exposed, considering the British visa applications are handled by a VFS office (third-party entity), not by the British High Commission.
Jacobsen: There is a foundational need for equality and universal rights, including the right to criticise religion, the right to atheism, the right to secularism, the right to freedom for women, to protection of children, and from intimidation tactics by religion. What success stories have there been in relation to each of these fronts for ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Since none of our members have declared themselves publicly as ex-Muslims (except the few exposed themselves to their intimate family and friends), we are not in a position to provide a definitive answer to this question. But we can recall an incident when a female Muslim writer named Shameela Seyyida was forced to flee the country in the face of violence after expressing her liberal views whilst being interviewed for BBC radio with regard to protecting the rights of the women who are involved in prostitution.
Here in Sri Lanka, Muslims marriages and divorces are governed by a special law that is in accordance with Sharia law, known as the Muslim Personal Marriage Act. The law allows Muslims to marry little girls, girls even lower than the age of 12. There are voices against the law and demanding to amend the law on par with present day civil societies, but the clergies-controlled local Islamic Authority, All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulam, refuses to accept the necessary changes to the law – including defining a minimum marriage age for Muslims. Many of the educated Muslim women are unhappy with the law, but they are afraid to raise their voices in the fear of being labelled as either women with “loose characters” or “evil and wicked women” or even slut-shamed by local clerics.
Jacobsen: What have been notable murders of ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka for their renouncement of the faith? Does this happen as often with another religion’s faithful becoming faithless? Or does this happen mostly with Islam?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Even though we have received a substantial amount of death threats online, So far we have been fortunate enough not to have encountered any lynchings, beheadings or torture so far. It is so disheartening to recall that one ex-Muslim from the state of Tamil Nadu, India, named Farook – a 32-year-old father of two – who was brutally murdered a few months back by pious, bearded Muslims for becoming an apostate. We have not heard anyone being punished or murdered in this century for leaving a religion other than the religion of Islam.
As far as we know, Islam is the only religion that commands to kill those who leave the religion. But it is widely witnessed that Muslim apologists (apologists often identified as moderate Muslims) try to twist the matter by bringing up some earlier Qur’anic versus to show the world that Islam has no compulsion. They do their best to bury the fact that Islam has barbaric law against those who leave the religion.
We have to understand something important from the history of Mohamed to understand the whole picture clearly. The apologists ask us not to take Qur’anic verses out of context, but it is they who cherry pick the peaceful verses to mislead people.
At the time, Mohamed claimed he was the prophet of God, he was 40. He spent the first 13 years in his hometown Mecca, gradually inviting people to follow him, but the vast majority rejected him. After 13 years of failure in his home town, he moved to another city named Medina, situated 450 km away from Mecca. In Medina he became a success as he gained more followers and unlimited power. He lived his next 10 years in Medina till his death at the age of 63.
His prophetic career can be divided into two parts. The first one is the 13 years he spent in Mecca with no power plus his first two years in Medina. The second part is his last 8 years in Medina as a powerful leader, ruler and warlord. The first part is 15 years, while the second part is 8 years – a total of 23 years.
During the first part of his prophetic career, he had lived a non-violent and generally peaceful life, and his preaching was primarily about tolerance, non-violence, and peace. He had lived only with two wives during this period. He married his second wife only after the demise of his first wife. He did not even have two wives at the same time during the first phase of his religious career.
The second part of his prophetic career spanned around 8 years until his death. Having gained all the necessary power in Medina, he started to exhibit his true colours during this period. He even had 10 wives at a time, until his death, including a few teenage girls and an underage child. He waged wars against non-Muslim and Jewish tribes. He carried out mass murders, genocides, lootings, sex-slavery, slavery-trading, and other violent and disgusting crimes.
Now let’s come back to the subject of killing apostates. During the first part of his prophetic career, he did not command any such punishments, but the second and the last part of the career he clearly gave orders to assassinate those who leave Islam. According to Islamic principles, when a new rule is introduced which contradicts an earlier one, the earlier one would be invalidated even if it remains in the Qur’an or Hadith. A good example of this principle is the Qur’anic verse about prohibiting alcohol consumption. The earlier Qur’anic versus ordered Muslims not to drink alcohol while praying, but later on the order was overruled by the complete prohibition of consuming alcohol. Both these orders are found in the Qur’an to date and they are recited by Muslims all over the globe, but it is the second rule that is accepted by Muslims.
So we understand that if there is an order or guidance that is contrary to the earlier one in Islam, the latest one would be the valid one. Muslim apologists have successfully misguided the world by using the preaching from Mohamed’s first part of the prophetic career to build up a fake image of Islam that finds expression in that old chestnut “Islam is the religion of peace”. In reality, of course, the religion is not a “religion of peace”.
Jacobsen: How can people be protected from being misguided by using only the preaching of the first phase of Mohamed’s Islamic life?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: People should be either educated or made aware of the two parts of Mohamed’s religious career, at least in brief. We are not certain that every Muslim understands this so seldom-discussed fact. We believe that if they really know this, the real peace-loving Muslims would have to make a strong decision about continuing to follow and view Islam as a “religion of peace”.
Jacobsen: What can improve the state of free speech for ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka? What can build the ties for those ex-Muslims in other countries?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: We feel within the Sri Lankan context, as well as the world in general, we need to promote questioning, challenging, opposing ideas and tolerate and respect opposing ideas. Moreover, we need to cultivate open-mindedness and critical thinking from a young age to accept self-criticism. According to a survey by the Daily Telegraph, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, it is one of the top 5 countries in the world with a ratio of 99% of people who think that religion is very important. With this background, improving free speech in our society is an uphill task.
Jacobsen: What seems like the best argument for atheism and against Islam to you?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: To be frank, we do not promote atheism as an alternative to Islam. Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka is a platform for those who have left Islam under various circumstances and not following any other faiths. They can be atheists, agnostics or irreligious.
But with regards to Islam, we clearly think Qur’an is a not a divinely revealed book. Instead, we think it’s a man-made one. Likewise, we also think Mohamed is not a perfect role model for humanity. Our best argument against Islam is Mohamed and his life. If you understand the timeline of events about his life, you will see him as the person he really was.
Jacobsen: For those that renounce the faith outright, have family and friends disowned them? What were the most hurtful comments that you’ve heard? How do they cope?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: As we said earlier, many of our members remain closeted. Despite that their obvious irreligiousness itself has caused them emotional distress. The rest who are courageous enough to admit their faithlessness to their close family and friends are forced to endure depression, isolation, and at certain instances even physical abuse.
The common accusation is that we are conspiring against Islam and Muslims for monetary objectives with support of Zionists and the west. Furthermore, we have been labelled devilish and other not-so-favourable names.
Jacobsen: Are these typical responses to leaving Islam?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Yes indeed, and you find this only among Muslims.
Jacobsen: Why is the reaction so seemingly disproportionate – against even a son, a brother, or a friend?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Nearly all children born in Muslim families are indoctrinated with religious beliefs from a very tender age. Starting with evening religious schools (Madrasa), regular general preachings, Friday’s Jummah preachings, sponsored programs on state own media – including hours of preaching on national radio etc., all brainwash Muslims, especially children. They are taught to think, act and live in a particular way – approved by Islamic teachings. The local Islamic Authority, All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama, and foreign-funded (Specially Arabic countries and Turkey) Islamic movements, make this scenario even worse.
Jacobsen: What is the best way to combat far-Right ideologies such as ethnic nationalism and Islamism?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Nowadays, here in Sri Lanka, we are experiencing politically motivated Buddhist extremism, but luckily most of the Buddhists did not rally behind such extremism. Providing a secular-based education would be the best way to encourage critical thinking and inquisitiveness. Moreover, teaching children to respect each other’s views and to promote secular humanitarian values would start a better tomorrow.
Jacobsen: What do the most technologically advanced and democratic, and developed, societies take for granted with respect to free-speech?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: In the majority of Western countries, free speech is more or less guaranteed by a constitution and they have learnt their lessons during the Enlightenment era. There was no such thing, even remotely, experienced by people in countries such as Sri Lanka. Though free speech is nominally mentioned in the Sri Lankan constitution in writing, religion, at the same time, has also been given prominent place. Therefore, religious beliefs overpower free speech.
Jacobsen: Waleed Al-Husseini of the Council of Ex-Muslims of France wrote on the conspiratorial perspective of some Muslims. That is, individuals leaving Islam can be seen as an agent of a Western or Jewish State. What seems like the source of this conspiracy view?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: Scott, once again, we have to go for an answer that is similar to the one of Waleed Al-Husseini. The Qur’an and the Hadiths are the main reason for this conspiracy standpoint. There are a lot of Qur’anic versus and Hadiths said by Mohamed during the latter part of his prophetic career that spread hatred towards Jews and Christians.
Muslims are made to believe that every failure they experience and every failure within the religion can be explained by pointing by Jews, Israel or Mossad. Most Muslims can’t even think that a Muslim can leave the religion by his or her own will.
We are often accused of working for Israel, but we are the only ones who understand the struggles in operating the EMSL. For the past three months, we are struggling a lot to find a place to have a meet-up for our members, but we are still unable to locate a place that is convenient and safe for us. Also, a general look at our official website will make anyone aware that it needs a lot of development and updates, but we are not even in a position to do the necessary developments. Muslims are made to think that people of Israel do nothing but sit and spend their whole time thinking of ways to conspire against Islam. Let’s be honest, we had the same mindset during our days as Muslims.
Jacobsen: How was the organisation formed? Why was it formed? What are its current educational initiatives and social activist works?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: It started as one man’s idea. Originally, it was meant to be a meet-up with his old friend who had also become an ex-Muslim a few years ago. Once they realised that both of them were in the same boat, they strongly felt the need to meet each other. But the plan took a different shape when the founder felt a responsibility to bring all other individuals who had left Islam under one umbrella. That was when EMSL was formed, in December 2016.
Following months of online and live discussions, social media campaigns were carried out to create the dream of forming Sri Lanka’s first irreligious organisation at a national level. The funniest situation was when some hardcore Islamists who were well-known by some of our members tried their level best to join us as spies by pretending to be ex-Muslims. We had to give them cold shoulders and ignore them completely.
We have many plans for online activities and we will do them when the time and resources permit us. Currently, we share other’s materials on our official Facebook page.
Jacobsen: There are a series of planned resolutions from the Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka (or, maybe, they have come out, but in any case). What is the state of them? What will be their content and purpose? What is the most important one? How will these improve the livelihoods of ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka, especially with the political activism pointed at the Government of Sri Lanka?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: With regard to the proposal, they are still at the draft stage. Our objective in bringing such a proposal is to ensure equal rights of irreligious people, atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers, and LGBTIQ communities, and also to enlighten the public with regards to the very existence of such people and communities in Sri Lanka.
“The present system of segregating the schools on the basis of race and religion should be abolished. The mind of the children should not be poised with racist and religious fanaticism.”
We think the above one is the most important resolution. If the minds of growing children are not poisoned with racist and religious ideologies or when the idea of either following or not following a religion is made as freedom of choice, children will view the world around them differently. That would improve everyone’s lives, including ex-Muslims – at least in the long run.
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: We have made steps to prepare video testimonies of some of our members. We have also prepared a message to Sri Lankan Muslims. We hope that message would have reached the media by the time this interview is published.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the discussion today?
Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka: We are grateful to Conatus News for giving us this great opportunity. Scott, we appreciate your time and efforts in making this interview a success. We hope that this interview would make awareness about Ex-Muslims among local Muslims.
Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to invite Sri Lankan ex-Muslims who have not yet joined us. We know there are a few players in Facebook & Twitter with their own identities as well as concealed identities. We are hopeful that they also join us.
Thank you very much.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time.