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NEW YORK — There was a time in his life when Ibrahim Abdallah thought he was the only Muslim-turned-atheist in the world. Then, at a party, he met a fellow Egyptian and former Muslim, and while the other guests danced, they sat and talked.
And talked and talked.
“I was so happy, and so shocked,” Abdallah, 33, said. “We both felt,’I am not the only one.’ It was huge.”
Now, several years later, Abdallah is on a mission to create the kind of safe space for questioning Islam and all matters of faith that he wishes he could have had.
Last May, he founded “Muslim-ish,” a support group for questioning and former Muslims that meets under the auspices of Manhattan’s Center For Inquiry, a humanist organization. The group has about 50 members, both cradle Muslims and converts, and meets twice a month in a secret location.
“Most of these people never saw another ex-Muslim before,” Abdallah said near his Midtown office; bringing a reporter to a meeting was considered too dangerous for some members. “These are people who don’t believe anymore and who have no support.”
It’s support they very much need, Abdallah said, because Muslims who abandon their faith face challenges not faced by those who leave other religions. Divorce and disowning are common, as is the threat of physical violence. Some more conservative Muslims believe Islam sanctions the killing of apostates (those who abandon the faith) and blasphemers (those who belittle Islam, the Prophet Muhammad or other Muslims).
The argument for the death penalty is usually based on a section of the hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad. One hadith states, “The Prophet said: whoever discards his religion, kill him.” But some Islamic scholars vehemently disagree, and point to the Quran itself, which says, “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”
There are currently eight countries that punish apostasy with the death penalty, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran. And while the U.S. protects freedom of conscience and religion, some Muslims who emigrate from countries with no similar guarantees discriminate against, or seek to punish, the atheists in their communities.
There have been several high-profile incidents targeting atheists in the Islamic world. In 2010, Walid Husayin was arrested by Palestinian police after posting anti-Islamic statements on his “Proud Atheist” blog. He spent 10 months in jail after his family turned him in. Indonesian atheist Alexander Aan remains in jail after he was attacked by a mob for writing “God does not exist” on his Facebook page.
Still, Muslims who have become atheists are beginning to speak out. In 2007, the Council of Ex-Muslims was established in England to support those leaving Islam. It encourages ex-Muslims to go public to lessen the stigma of unbelief, and works to educate local police and social welfare workers about the threats they face. There are similar groups in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
Muslim-ish is growing beyond its New York birthplace. A new group was recently established in Dearborn, Mich. — home to the largest population of Muslims in the U.S. — and other groups are forming in Chicago and Washington, D.C. An online version now meets via Google+ and is drawing people from Alabama, Florida and overseas.
“They are having the kinds of conversations that I would have liked to have had,” Abdallah said.
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