As a liberal, many of the readers must have talked about the human rights violations on religious minorities, but there is one minority among all the minorities which we never talk about: the Ex Muslims. There are many countries where atheism is punishable. In some countries, it is punishable by death, while in some countries, it is liable to a fine or a jail term or both. While we talk about the freedom to follow and profess every religion, we are not given the freedom to leave the religion. The rampant human rights abuse that ex Muslims suffer are never discussed, and the majority of them continue to suffer in silence.
In this article, I am going to convey to you, the story of an Egyptian ex Muslim atheist, and his brave journey of attaining freedom. Mohamed Hisham came out openly on Egyptian TV channel to represent all the atheists of Egypt, and since then has been on the hit-list of the authorities and the religious fanatics alike.
I am sure this interview will open your eyes, and make you think in a newer, more open perspective about life and atheists.
Arpita Gupta (AP): I read about your story, and I was really inspired by your grit and determination to uphold your ideas. When did you feel that you don’t belong to Islam?
Mohamed Hisham (MH): I renounced Islam at the age of eight for a short period. My early reflexes towards religion mostly came out of having too much Islam in my life since a very early age. Like I used to go to the mosque four or five times a day when I was six. By the age of eight, I had already memorised significant portions of the Quran, and I started to feel that there is no real evidence that supports any of the Islamic claims. I started to doubt the validity of everything I learned from religion. But I kept it to myself because I knew that I would be met with punishment for daring to think rationally. So I became an agnostic in secret.
One day, I was at Friday’s prayers, it’s like Sunday church gathering for Christians. The Imam said at his speech if you asked Allah for anything before dawn he will answer. It felt like a good experiment. So I woke myself up right before dawn and I said to Allah, “if you are real, please make Ms Gehan, my math teacher absent tomorrow because I didn’t finish the mathematics homework.” I went to school the next day to find Ms Gehan absent. Later I got to know that she had resigned and we remained for about two weeks without a math teacher. However irrational it is, this was enough for the eight-year-old me to believe again, and to actually be a strict Muslim in my teenage years—until I started to learn English and be open on the western culture. Then I started to learn science and philosophy, and everything changed.
AP: Interesting story, I must admit. I am getting more curious now. How difficult was it for you to digest so much of contradictions in Islam and the Western information?
MH: Initially, it was a culture shock. I met the new world with dismay and repulsion, but soon, I fell in love with knowledge, evidence-based science, western philosophy, and I became an atheist.
AP: Even though you knew, that the society and the laws are not accepting towards atheists and agnostics, yet you dared to come out as an atheist on an Egyptian TV channel. What made you do so?
MH: Since I was a teen, I just couldn’t live with the fact that Islam is actually destroying my country and my culture. For instance, Islam currently brainwashes women and objectifies them in unimaginable ways, Imams used to encourage people not to use birth control methods, and the result is overpopulation destroying our economy. Also, the human rights abuses inflicted to atheists and the LGBT+ community is enormous.
AP: Now let us talk about the interview on that TV show. I have seen the show where you were talking to the host as well as the imams calmly while they were screaming. What made you remain composed in the show even when it was clear that they were trying to humiliate you?
MH: I felt like I was representing the atheist community in Egypt. People back home don’t get the chance to voice their opinions, let alone talk in front of millions. So I had to be rational about the whole situation. Playing his game and screaming back at him or getting angry wouldn’t have been a productive thing. My objective is to normalise leaving Islam, and he created an aggressive environment that made this impossible at the moment. Trying to calm him and continue a civilised conversation was the best course of action, in my opinion; however, unfortunately, this was unachievable.
AP: After the interview, there was a huge uproar in Egypt, with the people as well the authorities wanting to nab you, how did you approach for help?
MH: After appearing on the interview, many activists and organisations contacted me and offered their help and expertise. Even my family did not support me; their reactions were extreme. It had been a hard struggle to get me out of Egypt and getting me asylum in Germany, but many notable people such as Armin Navabi, Troy Garnaut, Zara Kay helped me to rescue. The process took over ayear to complete.
AP: Wow, it must have been very difficult to keep your hopes high in those desperate situations, yet you managed to keep such patience and were able to taste freedom at last. What do you think about Islam and Muslims?
MH: Islam is simply a dark ages ideology. But what sets Islam apart is the way it manifests itself. From ISIS to Al-Qaeda to the persecution of women and minorities in Islamic countries, there are widespread evils caused because of Islam. I hope that it gets neutralized and eradicated as I hope for any other religion. Regarding Muslims, I really wish that they see the truth and stop antagonizing themselves and their children over destructive delusions. I will do my best so that it becomes true. However, it might not happen in our lifetime.
AP: How has atheism changed your perspective of the world issues?
MH: Leaving Islam and becoming an atheist made me lose all the irrational hate that I had for myself for being a sinner and for other minorities for being different. It also helped me to incorporate the scientific method of thinking in my decision-making process. I became a more rational and open person. And definitely more loving.
AP: Wow, that is a great change. So moving on to the next question, what do you think is the solution to Islamic extremism?
MH: Raising awareness. Making good, rational arguments against the nonsense of religion, and rehabilitating any person who incites violence. This doesn’t guarantee the elimination of Islamic extremism, but they would be winning if we lost our civility in the process of fighting their criminal behaviour.
AP: If I were you, I would not have been able to keep my humanitarian face towards extremists, and it is especially commendable that you still don’t propagate violence, even though the extremist society has given you a lot of hate. Last thing that I would like to ask you, what would be your message to the ex Muslims who are trapped in Islamic countries?
MH: Stay safe. If you are an activist, try to push for reforms smoothly. And if you can, find other atheists or people with common intellect. It will help a lot to gain emotional and mental strength.
It was great talking to you. I wish you all the best for your future endeavours, and I wish you all the luck and success, I said as we wrapped our conversation.
The point of telling this story is not to make people against Islam or trying to convert people to atheism. The real point is to make people understand that just like following all religions should be allowed, leaving religion and criticising it should be allowed as well; we should be able to do it without fears. People should be respected; not the ideologies. All ideologies should be criticised—because that is what pushes it to become better and more peaceful and adaptable to modern times.