Leaving Islam: The Story of an Ex-Muslim
I am a Christian. Catholic, to be specific. But that has not always been the case.
While walking through Times Square in the spring of 2006, I happened to glance at the headlines streaming by on the ticker. Al-Qaeda had bombed Iraq’s Al-Askari Shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam.
The news made me nauseous. I had read plenty of news articles reporting sectarian violence, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. But this particular story was the last straw: I vowed to never call myself a Muslim again.
After that day, I began to consider all religions poisonous. I saw them as just another excuse to divide humanity into “us” vs. “them.” Religion was for stupid people; it was just a means to control them. Little did I know that I would be baptized in a Christian church just one short year later.
Although I formally disavowed Islam after the Al-Askari bombing, I could hardly have called myself a practicing Muslim during the months leading up to that event. In fact, my faith had been waning for a number of years. There were many moments in which I could feel my beliefs eroding, but one in particular stands out.
The setting itself was rather mundane: I was in the passenger seat of a car. Someone very close to me, a bookish type and a Muslim, had mentioned the Banu Qurayza in passing. He went on to explain that the Banu Qurayza was a Jewish tribe in Medina that had fallen victim to a wholesale massacre under Muhammad’s direct orders. As a child, I had been indoctrinated to revere Muhammad. But in this otherwise ordinary moment, I wondered for the first time how a spiritual genius could act so ruthlessly. I tried to explain it away by considering the circumstances, but that only spawned more questions. Why would a perfect person’s actions need to be justified?
As I was only 16 or 17 at the time, I kept my questions to myself. After all, I could get in trouble for doubting Muhammad’s integrity. But the deed had been done. Those unsettling seeds of doubt had been planted.
Only in retrospect did I realize that I had been surrounded by the legacy of the Banu Qurayza Massacre throughout my entire childhood. The mosque my family attended in North Carolina was heavily influenced by the Salafi Movement (an extremist undertaking that passes for official doctrine in Saudi Arabia), as are countless mosques across the United States. My own family was moderate, but there were very few alternative places of worship for Muslims in Raleigh. Khutbas (the equivalent of a sermon or homily) during the Friday prayer service were often obsessed with politics. The tone was typically anti-American – even venomously so. In 2005, during the last khutba I ever attended at that Raleigh mosque, the speaker publicly criticized the American government for preventing young Muslims from serving jihad in Iraq.
But there was one country that we hated above all: Israel. The Jews were the penultimate “them.”
As a child, I was taught that Israel’s founding could be summarized as the Jews’ migrating en masse after the Second World War, expelling the Palestinians from their homes and wreaking havoc on every neighboring nation. I frequently heard calls for justice against Israel. Many in the Muslim community, especially those in leadership, were migrants who probably never met a Jew before they moved to America. But that did not deter them from painting an ugly picture for us, the Muslim youth, of sadistic Israeli soldiers in the West Bank; of Baruch Goldstein; of the Israel Defense Forces viciously attacking neighboring nations without warrant or regard for collateral damage.
We were often told about how the Jewish-controlled media lied to the public and of how Jewish lobbyists bribed and manipulated our government. Our family friends often shared wild conspiracy theories. One of my favorites was that the Jews (which make up approximately 15 million people worldwide) were in the planning stages of genocide against Muslims (a billion and a half people). One Pakistani man actually told me that he admired Adolf Hitler for having killed so many Jews.
We impressionable young people heard these sentiments everywhere: from our Sunday school teachers to our family friends; at the mosque and in our close friends’ homes. They were ubiquitous, and we believed them.
Bigoted statements from the mouths of fellow Muslims were just as commonplace in Michigan, where I went to college, as they were back home. I myself even once joked, “Come on. Don’t be a Jew!” to a fellow Muslim student when he left a rather miniscule tip at a restaurant (my jab worked: he ended up leaving a much better tip). My prejudice resonated with him.
I believe that what saved me was the fact that I always felt more affinity for my country than for my family’s faith. When I was 6, I cried and cried when my mother broke the news to me that the Russians had beaten the United States in the race to outer space. The demonizing of our country during Sunday school and the Friday khutbas – with the thinly veiled message that I could not be both patriotic and pious – went a long way toward the undoing of my faith. My country – the United States of America – made it clear that I could practice any faith, but my faith demanded that I hate my country. In the end, it was an easy choice.
It was not until I was in my early 20s that I bothered to learn the other side of the story: that Jews had been migrating to Israel for several decades (without much controversy) prior to Israel’s founding (and raising the standard of living for everyone in the region). About the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan that Israel accepted and that Arab states rejected. About how many of Israel’s Arab neighbors had exacerbated the Palestinian issue during their failed 1948 invasion. That the Six-Day War was a legitimate, preemptive strike. About the wild contrast between citizens’ rights under the Israeli government and in the PLO-administered regions. About the very generous concessions the Israeli government had been willing to make in exchange for recognition. That Israel had served as a haven for Jews across the world, particularly the Soviet-controlled states. About how Yasser Arafat and the PLO had repeatedly stalled the peace process. About the great lengths the IDF went to protect the Christian community in Lebanon. That some Muslims actually served in the IDF.
The fact that Israel was a stable democracy surrounded on all sides by tyrants bent on its destruction made me begin to feel something very foreign for this tiny state that did everything it could to survive: sympathy.
It is difficult to gauge how far such intolerant attitudes against Israel and the United States permeate the Muslim community, both here and abroad. After all, who in Islam will honestly answer a survey on anti-Semitic attitudes? I am certain that such venomous attitudes are alarmingly high, and may very well be in the majority among Muslims.
For that reason, my support for Israel relies more heavily on subjectivity than objectivity. It took me years to realize what all of the “demands for justice” really were: hatred parading itself as justice. It is very important to respect other people’s faith – but never their hatred.
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