Ex-Muslim: ‘I have to pretend to be something I’m not at the UU when other Moroccans are near’

The person on the photo is not the person in the article . Photo: 123RF

“When I was a Muslim, I could say with certainty that there is a God,” says 23-year-old student Bilal. “I just knew. That’s why I prayed five times a day, never touched drugs, didn’t go anywhere I knew alcohol would be served, and I wanted to be a virgin until my wedding day. I was a good Muslim, who defended his faith when it was criticised, for instance after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. But after I’d delved into Islam, I found more and more things I couldn’t defend. Like the idea that a large part of the world’s population would be punished after death, because they had the wrong faith. Or the way women’s rights are handled within Islam. Additionally, I became interested in science, and I noticed science clashes with Islam a lot. I can’t believe in evolution and the story of creation at the same time. Some Muslims do. They’ll try to find texts in the Quran that imply God started evolution, but to me, it doesn’t make any sense.

‘During my studies, I learned to critically evaluate my doubts’
Cognitive dissonance, Nadia calls trying to find such explanations. “When you see or hear something that clashes with your own standards and values, you experience tension. People don’t like that. So what we do is adjust our standards and values so it fits with what we see or hear, or the other way around. There are verses in the Quran that imply men are allowed to have harems. That doesn’t fit with my idea that men and women are equal. So I looked for interpretations that did match with my world views. So I’d say, for instance: “Yeah, but those were women who didn’t have any income. So it was good for those women, really”. Or: “It’s true that it says you’re allowed to have slaves. That was common in those days, but if you read it this way, it’s really advised against.” I always tried dancing around in such a way that I created my own version of Islam in my head that fit with my standards and values. But why would the Quran say you’re allowed to have four wives, if God actually means you shouldn’t have more than one?”

Nadia and Bilal (not their real names) questioned their faith more and more. “During my studies, I learned to critically evaluate my own doubts. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t believe anymore.  It felt like a weight was lifted when I was finally honest with myself about the fact that there are quite a few things in Islam that I dislike. I was no longer embarrassed that I’d always sort of hated Mohammed, because I didn’t think he was a good role model as he was married to a nine-year-old girl.”

'I don’t think I’ll ever tell my parents I no longer believe'
Similarly, Bilal also felt the belief in a God fade away as his questions about Islam multiplied. “It felt freeing to accept those doubts.” The moment he realised he didn’t feel like a Muslim anymore is one he says he experienced as a moment of coming out. It gave him freedom, he says, but that freedom is still limited to his thoughts. For most people, he’s still a practising Muslim. “I try to keep up appearances. So when it’s time for prayers, I’ll sit in my room for three minutes and play on my phone, mussing up my prayer rug so it looks as though it’s been used. Or when I come home from class, I’ll splash some water around in the bathroom so it looks as though I’ve done the ritual cleansing. And sometimes, on Friday afternoons or on Muslim holidays, I’ll visit the mosque. I’ll pray for appearances’ sake, but in my mind, I’ll be somewhere else entirely. That doesn’t feel weird, but it does feel unpleasant. It feels like a waste of time to me, but it’s my choice to endure it, so I can say I’ve been to the mosque, and my family have seen me there.”

Bilal will probably never tell his parents he’s no longer a believer. “They’re quite old, never went to school, and their faith is all they have. If they found out I don’t believe anymore, it’d break them. I wouldn’t want that to happen. I don’t want their last thought before they die to be the idea of their youngest son going to hell. In Islam, it’s the biggest sin imaginable to stop believing. My parents would think they failed. My mom would doubtlessly be incredibly sad, perhaps even depressed. I can’t remember ever seeing my mother as sad as during the last Ramadan, when she found a food wrapper in my trash can. She said: “Bilal, aren’t you fasting?” That was a scary moment. I lied and told her it was a snack I’d eaten before going to bed.”

'My mother pretends I’m an open-minded Muslim woman'
Still, Bilal can imagine his parents will realise something’s up. He’s faced many questions in the past three years. He was reprimanded a few times because his prayer rug was always folded the same way. “Are you still praying?” his mother asked. “I felt caught,” Bilal says. “It’s possible my parents suspect something. Beut maybe they don’t want to question my faith, just like I never used to want to question Islam.” The idea your child is not religious is “a surreal idea” to Muslim parents, Nadia adds. Even if they know you’re committing “grave sins” because you drink alcohol, have sex before marriage, or cheat on your partner. “In my family, there are several women with bad reputations, like myself, but we’re all still seen as Muslim women. My mother pretends I’m an open-minded Muslim woman who sometimes drinks beer. The same goes for a few Moroccan friends of mine whose parents know they’re gay. It never occurs to our parents we’re non-believers, too.”

It’s a delicate balancing act, Nadia explains. On the one hand, she wants to be herself, and on the other, she doesn’t want to hurt her parents – but the latter seems impossible to achieve if succeeds in the former. The most painless solution she’s thought of is, like Bilal, to lie about her lack of faith as long as she lives in her parents’ home. “If I’m living in the Netherlands, I’ll have to spend the rest of my life taking them into account in order to make sure I don’t hurt them by confronting them with the way I live my life.” It’s why she may want to emigrate in the future.

It’s painful to distance yourself from your parents out of love, the 23-year-old says. Especially as you’ll never be able to explain why you’re creating the distance, and they might view it as a rejection. “But it’s one thing or the other. And it wouldn’t make me happy having to pretend to be something I’m not for the rest of my life.”

Still, when her doubts about her faith started, and she became – in the eyes of her parents – more and more rebellious, she tried to find a different solution first. “When I was nineteen, I almost married a Muslim guy. Not because my parents wanted me to, but because I did. I hoped marriage would make my life easier. I thought a man could give me boundaries I’d have to adhere to. I expected it to end the fight I’d been having with myself about everything I wanted but couldn’t do.”  It would ensure her critical questions, doubts, and her rebellious behaviour no longer had any space to exist, she hoped.

'I had a panic attack about the idea of losing my virginity before marriage'
“Quite a lot has changed for me since I stopped being Muslim,” 23-year-old Master’s student Nadia continues, “but I notice it’s quite slow. When I quit Islam when at age twenty-one, I was a virgin. The idea of losing my virginity before marriage nearly gave me a panic attack. I had completely internalised the idea that an unmarried woman who’d had sex was worthless. Just like the idea that as a Muslim woman, you should marry and have children as soon as possible. I notice I’d still feel like a lesser person if I’m thirty and childless. You could say I had a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s incredibly intense to come to the conclusion that the ideals you’ve been raised with for 21 years are a lie. It’s as if you need a total re-programming. The talks I had with my therapist that first year mostly dealt with the question of who I was now that I was no longer a Muslim.”

It’s a process that’s not over and done with in three years, she says. “I see that I’m still developing myself, but I do allow myself to do things I used to be afraid of because I was a Muslim.” For Bilal, too, finding a new balance is an ongoing process. On the one hand, his first symbolic act as non-Muslim was buying a quarter pounder with bacon at McDonald’s, but on the other hand, as a non-believer, he still feels the fear of God sometimes. “It’s really strange. As a test, I once yelled profanity at God, but it still scared me. I also once gave the finger to the sky, aimed at God, but that didn’t feel comfortable either. Afterwards, I could only think: Bilal, what if you’re wrong? Then you’ll be punished so severely after death. While logically, in my head, I feel: ‘There’s nothing after death, what are you worried about?’, yet it still feels scary. Perhaps because I’d always believed in God.”

'I’m always afraid people will tell my family'
Continually keeping up appearances while trying to find your new identity isn’t ideal for your studies. It’s a huge drain of energy, Nadia says. “You’re constantly thinking about it, because at university, too, I have to pretend to be different when other Moroccans are near.” Bilal feels the same pressure, although he isn’t studying in the city his family lives in. “Last year, during Ramadan, I was in the university library and I’d brought some food. At a certain moment, a friend of my nephew’s came to me to say hi. Thankfully, I was able to hide my water bottle in my bag just in time. Because I know in that moment, if he’d seen it, he would’ve told my nephew, and my nephew would tell my sister, and my sister would confront me. And then my other brothers and sisters. Then my family would be known as the one where the son is an ex-Muslim. It’d be a disgrace.”

It’s an image Nadia recognises. “I’m always a little afraid people will tell my family. Even my Moroccan friends don’t know. Because women don’t go out, they’re often immersed deeper in the faith than men, and my male Moroccan friends didn’t understand either. When I told them, they all distanced themselves from me. Some of these guys, I’d been friends with for more than eight years. One of my friends said: “I hadn’t expected you to stray so far from the path.” Still, she’s not bitter. “I don’t have to make people question their faith, because I see how some people find a lot of support in their religion. That it can help to believe in a God when, for instance, they’re in mourning. I think everyone finds their happiness in different things. But if you’re like me and you think: The sky is the limit, then I don’t think religion will make you happy. Then you won’t feel the freedom within your faith to go travel, do internships abroad, or just attend a school party. But if I look at my mother, I think religion is actually her kind of freedom.”

The reason Nadia and Bilal share their stories isn’t to convince others to leave Islam. Nadia: “If people are happy with their faith, I don’t have any problem with that.” Bilal: “The only thing we want to achieve is to open up discussions about this subject. That it’ll one day be possible to be both Moroccan and secular. I have no ill intentions. I just want to live my own life, and I don’t see how that’s such a big problem.”

'It’s too simplistic to say apostasy in Islam leads to the death penalty'
“In the Muslim world, apostasy – leaving your faith – is generally taboo,” says Nico Landman, senior lecturer of Islamology and programme coordinator for the Bachelor’s programme Islam & Arabic Studies and the Master’s programme Religions in Contemporary Societies. “But there are few who dare to openly reject Islam for fear of negative response from government or social circles. Even in the Netherlands, stories told by ex-Muslims often face intense reactions. Among Christians, after five decades of leaving the church and apostasy, it’s a massive moment, and people are used to it. It’s only in closed Christian communities that apostasy leads to severe social consequences, such as repudiation from the community.”

“You need to beware for explaining that difference as a consequence of the essence of the religions (Islam versus Christianity), instead of analysing sociological and historical factors. The idea that apostasy in Islam is punishable by death is far too simplistic, and is generally rejected by mainstream Muslim theologists, who refer to the Quran verse that says ‘there is no force in religion’. Furthermore, I think among Muslims in the western world, just like what happened among Christians, there’s an ongoing process of habituation: they’ve seen ex-Muslims in the media so often by now that it doesn’t really scare them as much.”

The names of Nadia and Bilal are pseudonyms. Both candidates’ identities are known to the editors.