The gifts were mostly what used to be forbidden: liquor, condoms, even a framed portrait of Arabic calligraphy that read: “There is no God.”
The exchange of presents was held at a holiday get-together of Ex-Muslims of North America [EXMNA], a support group for those who have left the faith. It was a lighthearted way of asserting their newfound identity, a contrast to the hostility, including threats of death and disownment, that many say they faced after their exercising freedom of conscience in the United States.
Changing religion or abandoning it altogether is so common in America that according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, 28 percent of Americans have left the faith they were raised in. And while all major creeds have lost adherents, those who abandon Islam can face particular hardships.
“We even had a few times when people threatened their own kids that they would be killed,” said Muhammad Syed, a co-founder of the group.
Major polling organizations have not published data on how many ex Muslims there are in the United States. But Syed said EXMNA has expanded since its founding in 2012 from two initiating chapters in Washington, D.C., and Toronto, Ontario, to more than a dozen across the U.S. and Canada.
In a separate interview, Mohamed Magid, an imam at one of the largest Washington area mosques and former president of the Islamic Society of North America, said Muslims must accept the fluidity of American faith and heed the teaching, in the Surat al-Baqarah of the Quran, that there is “no compulsion in religion.”
“We have people in the United States, who do not believe in God,” Magid said, “who came out of Judaism, who came out of Christianity, and Islam is not immune.”
EXMNA is open to all former Muslims, but focuses on atheists who may not have access to the support networks of a faith community.
The group invited VOA to talk to some of its members, under an agreement to protect the identities of those who fear retaliation. Syed said the Internet has made it easier for former Muslims to find each other and encourages them to come out of the closet.
“The more people that speak out, the more people that are out there, you realize that there is nothing really wrong with this,” he said.
Sarah Haidar, who was born in Pakistan, said that growing up in Texas, 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 said, adding that people who are pulled in the other direction 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 said. “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.”
According to Syed, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan, being a former Muslim is not a shield against prejudice.
“My name is Muhammad,” he said. “I’ve had people scream at me to go back home, even though I was born here.”
He made a distinction, however, between criticizing Islam and having a problem with Muslim people.
“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,” he said.
Samira Mukhtar, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, said she became an atheist after moving to the United States and hearing a talk by British-Iranian secularist Maryam Namazi.
“You feel safe with these people,” she said, looking around at the others at the party.
Magid, who is imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Virginia, said the Quran talked about people who have changed their faith multiple times and were not put to death. He has challenged Muslims who believe in capital punishment for apostasy.
“I’m asking those people, what are you teaching? Are you telling the person, he has to pretend to be Muslim to be safe? What kind of religion is this?” he asked, rhetorically, and added a message for ex-Muslims in America: “Rest assured that I will not allow anyone to harm you.”