Sarah Haider | Ex-Muslim Activism

This interview was conducted in February 2022 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

About Sarah Haider
Sarah Haider was born in 1991 in Karachi, Pakistan. Her family, which was a practicing Shia Muslim family, moved to the USA when she was seven years old. Haider was a devout Muslim as a child, but as she became older her faith started to decline. It was in high school she started came across religious criticism and atheism for the first time. In order to disprove her atheist friends’ claims about Islam, she started to study the Quran more carefully. This however, only increased her doubt in the religion and at the age of 16 she became an atheist. In 2013, Haider co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America together with Muhammad Syed. Their non-profit organization advocates for acceptance of religious dissent, promoting secular values, and aiming to reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam.

What are the challenges Muslims face when deciding to leave Islam?
– Leaving any faith can be challenging, depending on what that faith provides you and how the community treats dissent. In the case of Islam, dissenters are punished fairly heavily. It’s usually through social means, which is an extremely effective way to get people to fall back in line. Even if you can manage to walk away from an ideology, you still want the people close to you in your life, your mother and father and the community that you’ve grown up in. It can be very hard to think about the fact that you will hurt the people you love the most, and in addition to that, they’re going to hurt you, depending on how they are absorbing the news about your disaffiliation.

Sarah Haider, ex-Muslim, famous for her activism and work in the ex-Muslim community.
Sarah Haider at the International Conference on Free Expression and Conscience, London 2017.

– In the case of ex-Muslims, this can sometimes mean abuse of various kinds. Often manipulative tactics, a sort of emotional manipulation and sometimes threats. It can be a very painful thing for an individual to go through, and sometimes even life-threatening. Our organization’s core mission is to make dissent acceptable and to normalize it within Muslim communities. We do that in a variety of different ways but one of the ways is to just promote the idea of dissent, to share dissenting ideas and to promote people who hold different ideas from within an Islamic context.

Do you think Islam is unique among religions when it comes to this?
– This is not something that is shared by every religion equally. I would say that we, as ex-Muslims, can best understand the trials and tribulations of people who are from ex-fundamentalist communities. When it comes to Christianity or Judaism, we see most similarities with the more extreme and fundamentalist groups. I think there are doctrinal differences that reflect onto how the believers treat dissent.

“We don’t just want to be a tourniquet that stops the bleeding. We want to be a force that changes the atmosphere in a way that would allow for less suffering in the future, and I think that we have succeeded with that.”

– There’s also the more sociological aspect of it that creates an important distinction between Ex-Muslims in the West and Ex-Muslims in Islamic countries. In Islam, there is a hostility towards ideological dissent based on what the Quran and the Hadiths say. But when you look at Muslims in the West, there’s an additional element that has to do with tribal and social dynamics, If you are an atheist in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, it’s not like you’re no longer a Pakistani or a Saudi. You don’t feel distant to your ethnic community and to the culture outside of the faith tradition. But that is something that the ex-Muslims in the West often feel and which makes it even harder to leave the faith. They can feel excluded from their ethnic and cultural community, which is a minority in the country they live in.

Next year, Ex-Muslims of North America is celebrating 10 years as an organization. Looking back, what are you most proud to have achieved during the past decade?
– I’m very proud of the way we were able to successfully bootstrap a movement of ex-Muslims. We have of course helped a lot of individuals and that matters a lot. It matters to me personally and of course it matters to those people whose lives are now transformed, or even saved, depending on what their circumstances were. I always wanted to have a change that would last, and that would grow beyond the organization. As we were growing, we started thinking about what can we do to make a real change. We don’t just want to be a tourniquet that stops the bleeding. We want to be a force that changes the atmosphere in a way that would allow for less suffering in the future, and I think that we have succeeded with that.

Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider, the founders of Ex-Muslims of North America.
Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider, the founders of Ex-Muslims of North America.

– It’s really surprising to me when I hear from young ex-Muslims and the reality that they live in, because it’s so different from what faced me when I left the religion. I was alone. There were not many public ex-Muslims around. I didn’t even know the word ex-Muslim. It wasn’t an identity that I knew anything about. I thought of leaving religion as something that Westerners do, like Christians and Jews, and that it was not something for people from my background. But now, young ex-Muslims, they have a sense of that there’s others like them and that they are not crazy. There are resources and communities that they can reach out to. There are even communities outside of what Ex-Muslims of North America has built. I hear all the time now from Muslims who know someone who is an ex-Muslims, their cousin, their nephew, their son. This was the kind of openness that didn’t exist back when I left the faith 15 years ago. The normalization of leaving faith has definitely increased a lot. So I’m really proud, because I think we played a role there.

“Visiting parts of the Muslim world is now dangerous to me. I even have to be careful with my identity when going around in some places in the West.”

How has this work affected you personally?
– Well, activism is not a usual profession. It’s something that forms you while you are trying to form the world. Certainly, there’s the reality of threats and violence that exists in the periphery of my work and even in my day-to-day life. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to deal with that, or even think about it. However, over time it has gotten a little bit better, or at least I perceive it to be that way, and that is a mark of success to some degree.

– But I can’t go back to Pakistan for example. Visiting parts of the Muslim world is now dangerous to me. I even have to be careful with my identity when going around in some places in the West. I’m more cautions about revealing things to strangers that I wouldn’t have been if it wasn’t for my kind of work. But at the same time, when you do something like this, just knowing that I can change things in the world is a very good one. It’s an important feeling to have for me.

Did you know already from the beginning what you were getting yourself into, in terms of the risks?
– I knew right from the beginning about the security risks and the danger of it. There were examples, like Salman Rushdie and then Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Around the time we were starting this, in 2013, the world had been through many years of Islamist terrorist attacks. They are still going on around the world by the way, but it seems like the news media has stopped focusing on it. Anyway, we decided to be more public, to give talks and be on panels to educate people about ex-Muslims and fight for our rights.

“I could see that people around me were afraid, both for my safety but also for their own. Working with me became a safety risk.”

Chaotic scenes after the islamic terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices in Paris 2015.
Shortly after the shooting at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris 2015. Photo: Thierry Caro / Jérémie Hartmann

– Around that time, the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. I could see that people around me were afraid, both for my safety but also for their own. Working with me became a safety risk. I remember going to panels where I would be one out of many controversial guests and all the enormous police presence they would have was all for me! We were all controversial in different ways but I was the one they needed police presence for. For everyone’s protection. I had mixed feelings, because of course I don’t want to put other people in danger due to my own presence, but that’s a reality too.

You’ve been an ex-Muslim for almost half your life now. To not throw out the baby with the bathwater, is there anything in Islam that you find value in and that you keep with you, even after leaving the faith?
– Not really anything from Islam in particular. There are things about Islam that I think are positive and that I would commend, the element of charity for example. But I think religion as a whole is more valuable than Islam in particular as a specific ideology. I think religion gives you grounding and a sense of rootedness. It gives you belonging and helps you to make sense of the world. Those are all valuable things. Of course, as an atheist I think that the way religion helps you to make sense of the world is false, and maybe even harmful in various ways. But I don’t doubt that there’s a powerful psychological benefit to faith and belief. I wouldn’t say that I miss it, but I do value it, even though I don’t share it any longer.

Image of Muslim praying in from of Quran.

One word that you have heard a lot is Islamophobia. Can you talk about your relationship to the word and also help to explain what it is and what it is not?
– I have been fighting that word since it started to become more prevalent in society. I’ve always seen its use as a way to distort the conversation in a very harmful way. That word gets people to spend more time throat-clearing and explaining that they’re not hateful, instead of talking about the issue at hand, which is if this ideology deserves criticism. However, having spent years fighting it, unfortunately I don’t think I’ve succeeded.

“There are are a lot of compassionate voices, normal people, who don’t hate their Muslim neighbors and don’t want them to be kicked out of the country, but are concerned about various practices in Islam, maybe about the elements of intolerance or gender equality.”

– Some people have adopted the term anti-Muslim bigotry instead, which I think is more in line with the spirit of what most people are trying to capture when they say Islamophobia. Unfortunately, when Islamic apologists use the word Islamophobia, they mean it in two senses. They mean bigotry and hate against Muslims as well as criticism of the religion. That is a very disruptive way of approaching an ideological debate. The consequence of today’s use of the word is that fewer people dare to speak about Islam. The only people who do it are either feeling very strongly about the topic, like me, or they actually don’t care if they’re hateful towards Muslims. It distorts the discourse in a way that is in the end harmful to everyone, but I think especially harmful to Muslims.

– There are are a lot of compassionate voices, normal people, who don’t hate their Muslim neighbors and don’t want them to be kicked out of the country, but are concerned about various practices in Islam, maybe about the elements of intolerance or gender equality. These people should be a part of the conversation, because if they’re excluded you lose the moderate, tolerant center, and the conversation is instead taking place in the extreme spaces. That is what I think the word Islamophobia is doing. I think it’s a terrible word. It makes the conversation a hard one to have for normal and compassionate people, unless they’re comfortable with being villainized.

A protest march in Paris 2019 against Islamophobia and hate against Muslims.
Protest march against Islamophobia in Paris, France 2019.

Is the Ex-Muslims of North America in contact with Islamic leaders to discuss the problems you see, with how dissenters and apostates are being treated?
– No, we have found it very difficult to get in contact with the Muslim community. We’ve tried to speak in Muslim conferences but they really see us as their enemies and not as members of their community. But it’s important to distinguish between religious leaders and other leaders of the Muslim community. There are for example well-known media personalities or movie stars that happen to be Muslim. That kind of person is more likely to speak to us and to do it in a non-combative way. Religious leaders on the other hand see us as these devils who are trying to lead their children away from religion. For religious communities in general it is a top priority to reject criticism, because they’re afraid of the effects it might have on their community and to the ideology they believe in. So it’s very difficult.

Islamic reformism is one way that some argue is the only possible way forward solution for Islam and Western culture to find common ground. Others claim that reforms are completely impossible. What are your views?
– I think reforms would be ideologically incoherent and this is why many consider it impossible. If you know Islam, you know that it’s intolerant of innovation. Innovation is a dirty word in the faith. To the extent that you can have reform, you can only reinterpret existing texts and try to be creative in how you interpret them. Depending on the issue, you can make some small degree of progress, but if the language is clear and direct, it’s very hard to achieve anything.

– In my opinion, even if reformism would be successful, and I highly doubt that it can be successful, you are still dealing with a 7th century ideology. You will always have to justify modern day ethics and human rights considerations using these old texts. The people who lived at that time couldn’t even imagine our modern conceptions of ethics. It’s like a different planet today when you compare it with texts from back then. The fact that the texts are as old as they are will always be a limit. It’s always going to pull in one direction, namely towards the conservative 7th century mindset.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a former muslim, not atheist and ex-muslim activist who advocates for a reformation in Islam.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ex-Muslim and proponent of Islamic reformism. She is the author of Heretic – Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now.

– I don’t see the small, modest gains that reformism potentially could achieve being preferable to getting people to doubt their faith all together. To help people to go from 100% certainty in the truth of their faith to 99% certainty, and then to 95% certainty and so on. Those degrees might seem like they’re nothing, only a few percentages. But actually, those few percentages can constitute the difference between killing someone and not doing it. With 100% certainty, you feel that you know that this is right and I’m going to kill this person because I know they’re wrong. 99% is still a very powerful certainty, sure, but it is not powerful enough that you’re willing to do something so extreme like taking someone’s life base on it. As you go down that ladder, you lose certainty in your faith. It doesn’t mean that you lose your faith entirely, but just certainty in it. You will be less and less willing to do extreme and harmful things in the name of the faith.

What book would you like to recommend?
– The one I’m currently reading, which is called Proust and the Squid. It’s a book about how humans developed literacy, our written language, the alphabet and how it changed the way we think. It’s a really interesting deep-dive into a fascinating topic.

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