“How did you become an atheist?”
The question took me by surprise. I was prepared to answer why atheists and other minorities were under threat in the Maldives, but I hadn’t really thought about exactly how and when I chose to leave my faith. Leaving a cult is not something that suddenly happens, it’s a gradual process of coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to question the very foundations of your entire life.
I rambled on about different situations I had encountered and the extreme cognitive dissonance one experiences trying to be religious while simultaneously trying to be a decent human being. About the disconnect between this apparently “beautiful” religion and the realities of my lived experience. It was quite a lot to get off my chest at once.
With this article I hope to once and for all express these feelings. There are so few stories about apostates such as myself. Mostly because even writing this is scary. It is not an easy thing to do. I know there will be consequences. I know that there will be people who will defend my murderers even if I do end up being killed for simply expressing my views. I know that there will be people who will dismiss whatever violence that is carried out in the name of Islam as not being representative of the “true Islam”.
I am sick of it! I too used to make excuses for Mohammed and his religion. Before I became an atheist, I thought of myself as an “agnostic” Muslim. I thought there probably was a god, and if this god was real, then it was probably Mohammed that was his prophet. When extremism started to grow in the Maldives I’d make statements like how the “prophet would be ashamed” of the behaviour of radicals. I too was a part of the honour brigade; hell bent on protecting the name of this apparently glorious religion that was so misunderstood.
But the atrocities kept piling up. Not just in the Maldives but globally. Then I learned uncomfortable truths like the true story of how the Maldives became a Muslim nation. There was no sea monster, no rannamaari, no mystical men saving our souls. There was just rulers and politics. There was death and slaughter. My Buddhist ancestors were murdered in the name of Islam hundreds of years before the “slandering infidel media of the West” even existed. Peaceful monks, gathered up and beheaded. Violence in the name of Islam, and indeed all religions, is not some new phenomenon. The proof was in the copperplates.
Soon I began to view Mohammed in a different light. Not as some innocent desert dweller who god was communicating with in order to selflessly save all our souls, but as a cunning politician. Perhaps witnessing firsthand the saturation of contemporary Maldivian politics with religion had something to do with this. Either way, once I began to view him in this light, it was hard to go back to my innocence; or should I rather say, ignorance?
It all just seemed far too convenient. Allah seemed to communicate with Mohammed whenever Mohammed needed something. Even the initial reluctance of Aisha’s parents were washed away once it was “revealed” that he had foreseen the marriage in a dream.
I started to see patterns to the preaching, patterns to the revelations. This is most evident when comparing the changing tone of the Quran as Mohammed gained more and more followers after fleeing to Medina. The Meccan verses in contrast, appear as if they were written by someone else entirely. Indeed it is from these Meccan verses that the majority of peaceful interpretations of Islam stem from.
I began to notice inconsistencies. For example Mohammed smashed the idols in the Kaaba without any regard for the existing culture; yet when it comes to slavery and child marriages, the excuse if often made that such practices are a “part of the culture” and would thus be difficult for Mohammed to completely change. If Mohammed can so brazenly destroy thousands of years’ worth of culture when he smashed those idols, why didn’t Allah command Mohammed to ban slavey? Is there any human concept more disgusting than slavery? Of course many apologists make the claim that Mohammed was kind to slaves. But why simply be kind when you have the supreme authority from the creator of every goddamn thing in the universe to simply ban and dismantle the entire concept all together? Did he not do the same thing to the concept of “idol worshipping”? Yet Saudi Arabia – the so called birthplace of Islam, and the place where all Muslims are expected to journey to at some point in the lives – banned slavery less than a century ago.
More and more I began to notice that this great universal religion seemed to hold some sort of grudge against women; almost as if had been conceived of by a man. Many of the Islam teachers I have had (Islam is a mandatory subject in the Maldives from grades 1 to 12) told us about the “fact” that the majority of the inhabitants of hell are women. That this was because women were inherently untrustworthy and more likely to lie than men.
In the 90’s and early 2000s’ the hijab was a rare sight in the Maldives. It was almost always worn by older women – maama’s (grandmas) who seemed more concerned about greying hair than some lofty vision of “modesty” – and it was rare to see it worn by younger generations unless they were attending some special religious school. These schools were an invention of the Egypt trained dictator and “religious scholar” Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom. Although Maumoon is viewed by many radicals as being “anti-Islam”, I firmly believe that it was his 30 years of dictatorship that moulded the Maldives into the hotbed of intolerance and extremism that it currently is. He hammered in the myth that the Maldives is “100%” Muslim – a made up statistic that many people repeat to this day. This is despite the fact that he had a ban on the niqab and tortured religious scholars whom he perceived as radical – no doubt afraid of the competition. After all we are talking about a dictator who took the religious conditioning of his subjects so seriously that he personally led many Friday prayers.
So when the tsunami of 2004 hit our shores, it was the uncovered hair of women that took the majority of the blame. The combination of the fear of god’s wrath and the growing global Islamic conservatism since September 11th 2001 has created a Maldives where now women without the hijab are in the minority. If you want to see the difference for yourself just compare any photographs of any current public gatherings of those from the last century.
How does this affect my apostasy though? Well first of all it began to dawn on me the ridiculous importance placed upon this garment by this all powerful being known as Allah. Why does Allah care so much that he would cause natural disasters simply because someone’s hair is exposed? Of course the tsunami was also attributed to other causes as well such as people not praying enough, having pre-marital sex, people losing faith, and of course the existence of homosexuals. Which just begs the question even more. Why does this all powerful being care so much? What is the end game here? Heaven?
The very concepts of heaven and hell began to bother me. At first the logic seems simple, be a good Muslim and you go to heaven, be a bad Muslim and you go to hell. Of course this meant that all non-Muslims were also going to hell. This isn’t some casual thing. The terrors of hell were hammered into our brains since we were children to the point of desensitization; from all those Islam classes, sermons and even from adults who used the concept to scare us into behaving. A hell so hot that we would be eternally parched but would only have fruits made of pus for hydration.
So I was expected to believe that the majority of the human population were going to this hell. Even the people that seemed perfectly fine and whose only crime was not believing in Allah. It all seemed a bit extreme.
Then there was heaven. The reward for all the prostrating, for saying bismi before eating something, for making sure I never touched the Quran without performing full ablutions, for reading the entire Quran end to end, for reciting the shahaadahi’ before sleeping, for the endless list of neurotic behaviours that form the basis of a lived religion. What awaited me there? What would be my reward for being such a good Muslim?
I still remember the glee in my grade 9 Islam teachers eyes when he described the virgins. They will be so skinny and fair skinned that you will be able to see their bones and veins, he described joyfully. His expression was such that it was almost as if he was picturing himself surrounded by such a harem. There would be rivers of wine; which would of course be non-alcoholic for some perplexing reason. There would be all the dates and olives you could ever want. And riches as far as the eyes could see.
The more I was taught about it, and the more I researched it myself, the less it sounded like some ultimate transcendent nirvana and the more it sounded like the fantasy of some dessert dwelling Arabian warlord trying to convince his followers that they were doing the right thing; that it would all pay off in the end.
More and more the whole operation began to sound like a scam. A cult.
I still believe the people who know the most about Islam are the ex-Muslims and radicals. Both mind states exist from knowing too much about Islam. It is almost as if you have to be ignorant to a certain level in order to blissfully believe that you are truly beholden to this “ultimate truth”.
The only way for me to remain a Muslim would be to be ignorant in such a manner. To be ignorant of the various interpretations of nasty verses such as 4:34 – where the almighty god appears to sanction domestic abuse. You could argue about the “metaphorical” nature of this verse and how it’s not “what it sounds like” till the end of time; it doesn’t cancel out the fact that it exists in a book that is supposed to be some sort of ultimate guide for humanity. There are even many new age arguments for “Muslim feminism”, yet these feminist themselves also seem more concerned about the reputation of Islam rather than the lives of women – and as a result never even mention the matter of ex-Muslim women; and LGBT women are treated as some fanciful myth. Why is god so consistently ineloquent? Why do we humans constantly have to make excuses for god?
So even though I could view the Quran and the Hadith strictly in their historical context, even though I could view the Quran as some metaphorical tome of the ultimate philosophy for life, to do so would be to lie to myself. To be intellectually dishonest. To live in a state of constant cognitive dissonance.
Indeed the more you study the life of Mohammed in its historical context the more it becomes apparent that he was no prophet but a politician. An extremely smart politician who knew how susceptible people are to the claws of religious dogma. A great story teller. A great warrior and tactician. A great leader even. But no prophet. And certainly not someone I would want to base my entire life around.
Slowly but surely the false sense of kinship I felt with other believers, other “peoples of the book”, began to fade. The notion that even the Abrahamic faiths are worshipping the “same god”, and the comfort that one feels from that notion, started to sound ridiculous. The loathing towards the “idol worshippers” began to sound disgusting.
On top of it all was this fear. The sheer terror I feel even when writing this. Apostates have never been treated kindly in Islam. It is firmly a one way street. You are free to enter but you may never leave. Even now apostates such as myself represent a minority within Islam – a minority within a minority if you will – that often gets neglected because of the world’s obsession with saving the face of the entire concept of “Islam”.
The Maldives is not a safe place for one to be an apostate. The world is not a safe place to be an apostate from Islam. So called intellectuals and “moderates” can weave an apologist narrative full of metaphors, culture and “historical contexts” as much as they’d like; it doesn’t change the fact that by writing this I am putting my life in danger. I am putting my family’s life in danger. So much so that many Maldivian apostates and peoples from other minorities are simply told to shut up and deal with it.
No more! I am sick of it. While minorities such as myself are told to be quite by “moderates” these same moderates do not lift a finger to question the words of extremists. The extremists are free to do as they please, preach what they please. If they commit some atrocity it is dismissed as “warping” the “true” Islam. The people who have attacked minorities in the Maldives walk free; under Maumoon’s, Mohamed Nasheed’s , under Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s. Apostates and other minorities are seen in a worse light than heroin addled gangsters who’d murder their best friend for a hit. Meanwhile politicians bark about religion from podiums and pray for the demise of their opponents as if the almighty is going to swoop down from the heavens and stuff ballot boxes for them first hand.
To top it all off the entire basis of all of this, the quran and the hadith, are incredibly sketchy sources. Was Mohammed even a real person? Or an invention of some smart politicians who thought their global domination plans required a figurehead? Is the one Quran really the one true Quran for eternity? More and more evidence is emerging of different versions existing. So despite them being documents of immense historical value; they in my opinion are not something worthy of basing your entire life upon. It is frankly quite depressing to hear well-meaning people endlessly try and come up with new interpretations to make do with the rapidly aging texts. For example the mental hoops that a practicing LGBT Muslim will have to jump through to rationalize their faith with their sexuality is just mind boggling. Which is why in my opinion the billions of people who follow Islam are good people not because Islam is inherently ethical, but because all humans have an inherent capacity for empathy. In other words, these people are “good” not because of Islam but despite of it.
Why do I need to refer to such dodgy texts to know whether or not another human being has the right to freedom of conscience when my capacity for empathy and critical thinking can let me arrive at the same conclusion? If you asked me when I was a believer whether or not apostates should be killed I would have said no, not because it says so in Islam, but because the concept of murdering someone for their lack of belief is something that I found disturbing, disgusting and vile. When you look into the scripture, the answer is not as clear and often leans towards sanctioning this murder. Why muddy our mirror neurons with such nonsense? Tell someone to kill another like themselves and he will hesitate, tell someone to kill someone who differs from themselves for their god and they will do it with gusto.
Despite all of these grievances I still like to think of myself as a cultural Muslim*. There were good things about eid. There were good things about Ramadan. Such activities really do bring communities together and I would still like to take part in them. Yet even the most cherished memories seemed to exist despite of Islam and not because of it. Most of the cultural activities carried out during Eid in the Maldives for example have no basis at all in scripture and are fast disappearing as a result of their perceived relations to our “infidel” past. Roadhamas now seems like a practical exercise in Stockholm syndrome. There is nothing commendable about forcing people to starve. Let’s not forget that being caught eating something during Ramadan will get you arrested in the Maldives.
Such is the existence apostates and other minorities are forced to live in the Maldives. Like rats we are left to scramble for crumbs. For the sake of people who would want us dead at the hands of an angry mob we keep our silence. For the sake of a people who are so insecure in their faith that they use the Maldivian constitution itself to outlaw diversity and faithlessness.
No more! I am sick of it! It is time to wake up from this bad dream.
Update August 2016 - I no longer think of myself as a cultural Muslim.
*Update March 2019 - Also, if you’re the western right wing equivalent of Maldivian extremists who hate diversity and want to use my experience of Islam in the Maldives to hate on the Muslims of the world, or are just looking for an excuse to hate brown skinned immigrants, please kindly go fuck yourself. This wasn’t written for you or other racists. This was written for other Maldivians and other exMuslims around the world who have had similar lived experiences to myself. Not for Western racists who look at someone like me and see a terrorist.