By Counselling Psychologist Dr Savin Bapir Tardy
This report delves into the dynamics and experiences of participants in three monthly support groups. The support groups cater to individuals who have left Islam and are grappling with the challenges and transformations that come with such a departure. The report outlines the structure of these groups, highlights recurring themes in discussions, and explores the profound impact of the support groups on participants. Please be aware that, in order to maintain confidentiality, the subsequent report excludes any particular cases to safeguard the privacy of individuals participating in the group.
Support group structure:
A total of three support groups convenes each month. The initial Monday and Tuesday of the month see the participation of both male and female attendees. Additionally, a dedicated women’s support group assembles on the second Monday. The number of participants in each support group typically ranges from 2 to 9 individuals. Attendance patterns vary, with some participants attending regularly and others joining intermittently.
Participation in these support groups is offered free of charge to all attendees by the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The inception of online support groups coincided with the onset of the pandemic in June 2020. On average, approximately 25 individuals attend these sessions each month, contributing to an annual aggregate of around 300 participants. In total, spanning the period since the inception of the support group, there have been 115 support group sessions, and the cumulative count of attendees has reached 950 individuals up to the present date.
It is noteworthy to acknowledge that for certain participants who have recently arrived in the UK, these support groups serve as their sole avenue for social interaction. Others are not recent arrivals but in geographic regions where it is challenging to interact with people with similar experiences. Among them are individuals who have sought refuge in the UK to evade persecution rooted in their nonreligious convictions, and they refrain from socializing out of apprehension regarding potential identification. Attendees who might need substantiating documentation for their immigration proceedings receive letters of attendance as a provision. For others in attendance, these support groups represent a unique space where they can openly articulate their religious convictions without the burden of scrutiny or allegations of Islamophobia.
Support group participants:
Several support group participants have disassociated from Islam many years ago, with some having departed approximately two decades back. A significant portion, however, have more recently left the faith and are grappling with the intricacies of their departure. Additionally, a subset of participants still resides with their families and harbours apprehensions about revealing their attendance due to familial concerns. This cautious group can only join the sessions when they perceive it safe, as they fear their family members discovering their involvement.
The age range of the participants spans from 18 to 60 years old. While the majority of participants are based in the UK, it’s noteworthy that during the initial year of the support group’s establishment, attendees also hailed from various European countries.
Originally, an equal number of male and female participants were present. However, presently, there is a greater representation of females, as some women opt out of mixed-gender sessions.
Structure of the support groups:
Upon receiving an expression of interest from a potential member, an email containing the support group’s guidelines is dispatched to ensure the preservation of confidentiality and a secure environment for every participant. Individuals are requested to adhere to the designated group timings, and a tolerance of no more than 5 minutes for lateness is upheld, given the closed nature of the group. Participants are also advised to be in a private setting with their cameras activated. Furthermore, they are reminded to communicate in a respectful manner, refraining from any language that could be deemed offensive to fellow members. Once these terms are accepted, participants are provided with the pertinent link for accessing each support session.
Monthly, I initiate communication with the members, inquiring about their preferred attendance day. While some group members communicate specific topics they wish to delve into during a session, these suggestions serve as loose guidelines rather than rigid structures. The support group commences with a grounding exercise, followed by introductions from each participant. Moreover, participants are encouraged to share their experiences since the last support group meeting, should they wish to do so.
Within this section, I will outline the prevailing themes that have emerged from the discourse within the support group. These themes revolve around the challenges encountered upon departing from their religious beliefs, the deliberation involved in reaching this decision, and the benefits garnered from participating in the support gatherings. It is important to acknowledge that certain themes exhibit overlaps, underscoring the multifaceted nature of the discussions. To enhance clarity and ensure comprehensive coverage, I will list these themes. It is worth noting that while there exist other common themes, this compilation centres on those that hold particular prominence within the support group dialogues. Notably, some participants expressed profound astonishment upon realising the shared experiences and similar journeys of their peers.
Process prior to self-acceptance of ex-Muslim/atheist status
Intense religious involvement:
Many participants recounted a phase during which they oscillated between adherence and detachment from religion before ultimately acknowledging their status as non-believers. According to their accounts, when they posed questions about various aspects of Islam to their families, they were met with accusations of ‘not grasping’ or ‘misunderstanding’. Such inquiry was deemed haram and dishonourable, leading some to be labelled as causing discord (‘fitnah’) and subjected to verbal abuse aimed at silencing them. This period commonly transpired during their early years, typically between the ages of 9 and 17. The participants expressed that this experience often left them grappling with a sense of wrongdoing or internal fault for harbouring these questions. Consequently, they found themselves adhering more steadfastly to Islamic practices, intensifying their prayers, fasting, and other rituals. Others adopted increased rigidity as a coping mechanism against the rejection stemming from their questioning of religious beliefs, attempting to counteract the distress they caused.
Psychological theories elucidate this phenomenon reported by the participants. For instance, their questioning of religious tenets generated cognitive dissonance due to the disjunction between their doubts and the religious teachings instilled in them. To alleviate this inner tension, some turned to more stringent religious observances, aligning their behaviour with their initial beliefs, despite their current doubts. The rejection and verbal abuse they encountered when scrutinising their faith could trigger feelings of insecurity and attachment-related distress. Consequently, some clung fervently to their religious identity as a means of seeking emotional stability and security.
The age range (9 to 17) at which this process unfolded coincides with adolescence, a phase characterised by identity formation and exploration. The reported experiences align with Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, where adolescents grapple with identity questions and adopt varying strategies to forge a sense of self. This process bears several consequences, as illuminated by the participants’ narratives. Adolescence is a pivotal juncture for constructing a coherent self-identity. When individuals at this stage confront accusations of ‘not comprehending’ or causing discord due to questioning religious beliefs, it can foster confusion about their identity. Balancing genuine curiosity and doubt with the expectations of their religious community becomes a struggle. This internal conflict may erode self-esteem and induce a sense of inadequacy. Moreover, adolescents who experience rejection, verbal abuse, or blame for their questioning might develop heightened levels of emotional distress and anxiety. The apprehension of isolation or alienation due to divergent beliefs can lead to persistent stress and emotional turmoil.
During adolescence, cognitive faculties, including critical thinking and reasoning, undergo development. Yet, if questioning religious doctrines is met with hostility or condemnation, adolescents might learn to suppress critical thinking to avoid conflict. Consequently, their capacity for independent and critical evaluation, both within and beyond religious contexts, can be hindered. This final point intersects with another theme unanimously reported by all participants – the pivotal moment of accepting the validity of their questions and the legitimacy of questioning religion, encapsulated under the theme of ‘critical thinking’.
All participants recounted a pivotal moment in their lives when they began to explicitly question the teachings of the Quran and the religion as a whole. For the majority, this critical moment emerged during their 18th year or beyond, often coinciding with their university experiences. The participants noted that this turning point provided them with an opportunity to thoroughly explore their doubts within a non-judgmental and critical-thinking-embracing environment. Instead of facing suppression due to their questions being perceived as problematic and punishable, they found themselves engaged in open dialogue. This represented a significant moment for most participants, and the specifics varied between those born in the UK as well as those who arrived in the UK at a young age, and individuals who sought refuge in the UK as adults to escape religious persecution.
This juncture held substantial significance in the participants’ lives. Beyond acknowledging their departure from religious teachings, it compelled them to scrutinise the nature of familial love. Many participants reported that this pivotal moment prompted them to recognise the conditional nature of the love bestowed by their families. Conditioned love, as termed by the participants, signifies that familial acceptance hinges on adherence to religious rules and norms. Any deviation from these norms, as they found, led to rejection or even being labelled as apostasy. Some support group members disclosed conversations with their family members, particularly their parents, where they directly asked if their non-belief warranted their death. The responses from their families, indicating that death would be preferable to having a non-believer in the family, were deeply hurtful. Many participants expressed disbelief that their families, especially parents, who would be more accepting if their children were criminals and believers of Islam rather than non-believers. For many in the support group, this moment shattered illusions – they recognized that their acceptance by the family hinged solely on conformity to religious rules and norms, irrespective of their character or actions. This realisation further solidified their decision to embrace atheism/non-belief.
Balancing Two Lives: The Struggle of Concealing Identity
This phenomenon of leading a dual life was a shared experience among all participants. Fuelled by the fear of being ostracized by family members, extended family, or the larger community, many participants felt compelled to maintain a hidden identity as closeted ex-Muslims or atheists. Nearly all participants emphasised that this duplicity was one of the most difficult and challenging aspects they encountered.
This issue carries significant weight as it involved a perpetual apprehension of being observed by family members, extended relatives, or even community members while engaging in behaviours deemed inconsistent with familial expectations. Some participants acknowledged a keen awareness that any discovery of actions contradicting community norms would not only lead to their own rejection and punishment but also result in the alienation and chastisement of their entire family.
Presently, certain support group members continue to reside with their families, paralyzed by an overwhelming dread of the potential consequences of revealing their true beliefs. These individuals find themselves ensnared in a web of apprehension, unable to contemplate leaving due to the anticipated backlash from family members.
Participants who shared their experiences of leading dual lives while still residing with their families recounted an undeniable lack of freedom in terms of personal choices. This is a significant psychological concept that can be explained through various theories.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory: The participants’ effort to reconcile their true beliefs with the expectations of their families and community may generate cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort caused by holding contradictory beliefs. To alleviate this discomfort, individuals might compartmentalize their lives, leading to the experience of a double life.
Social Identity Theory: The participants’ concealment of their true beliefs can be seen as an attempt to preserve their social identity within their family and community. They may fear losing their sense of belonging and connection if their true beliefs are revealed, leading to the adoption of a dual identity.
Fear of Rejection and Isolation: The fear of rejection and isolation, deeply ingrained in human psychology, can drive individuals to adopt behaviours that align with the group’s norms, even if those behaviours contradict their genuine beliefs. This fear can contribute to the participant’s choice to lead a double life to avoid the potentially devastating consequences of being shunned. In essence, the struggle of leading a double life for fear of repercussions is a profound psychological conflict between personal authenticity and the preservation of social bonds and belonging. This internal tension is intensified by the participants’ profound desire for acceptance within their family and community, even at the cost of stifling their true selves.
Shunning as an Instrument of Coercion and Control: It is imperative to acknowledge that shunning stands as a recognised and active form of persecution with historical roots tracing back to ancient Greece. Positioned as one of the earliest sanctions employed in response to behaviours deviating from group norms or unsettling the equilibrium of a collective, shunning emerges as a potent mechanism for fostering social compliance. Its efficacy resides in the pervasive threat it poses to an individual’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being. In essence, shunning serves as a formidable deterrent. Notably, shunning embodies a manifestation of social death—a state wherein individuals undergo a profound state of exclusion and isolation from their social milieu, resulting in the erosion of identity, belonging, and communal bonds.
The concept of social death, an extreme manifestation of social maltreatment, profoundly compromises an individual’s emotional and social integrity. The systematic adoption of shunning within meaningful relationships precipitates not only a social condition, but it also engenders a salient influence on an individual’s psychological processes. This, in turn, manifests in heightened accessibility to and persistence of death-related thoughts.
A noteworthy instance that highlights the impact of shunning pertains to members of a particular group, facing ostracism for merely questioning Islamic teachings or renouncing their religious beliefs. The process of shunning, in such cases, is far from silent, often accompanied by verbal and physical abuse prior to its execution. Notably, these instances transpire among members residing in the UK. Those subjected to shunning recount the withholding of social interactions, communication, and even recognition by their families and communities. Intriguingly, accusations abound; individuals are accused not solely of forsaking religious beliefs but also of renouncing their ethnicity. The narrative extends to allegations of embracing an ‘unrestrained’ lifestyle, particularly pervasive among female members, who also bear allegations of disgracing their families and communities.
In brief, shunning’s historical origins and contemporary manifestations underscore its gravity as a coercive tool, inflicting social death-like consequences on individuals. The intricate interplay between shunning, social death, and psychological ramifications surfaces as an intriguing facet warranting further exploration within the realms of social and psychological studies.
Navigating the Disclosure: Revealing Non-Belief in Islam to Family
For participants who choose to depart from their faith, informing their families about their new beliefs is a complex and daunting process. This decision often leads to a prolonged period of contemplation on how to approach this sensitive topic. The participants reveal a range of strategies they employ to convey their non-belief to their families.
Gradual Approach: Some participants opt for a gradual transition, which might involve acquiring a house to move out or finding work-related reasons to relocate away from their family’s city. This approach allows for a subtler separation, minimizing immediate conflict but offering the space to establish new boundaries. Gradual approaches and avoidance of confrontations can be seen as coping mechanisms to mitigate immediate emotional distress. These strategies provide individuals with the time and space to prepare emotionally for the potential fallout of their disclosure.
Direct Confrontation: Others choose a more direct approach, initiating conversations with their families about their change in beliefs. However, these conversations often escalate into arguments, resulting in extended periods of non-communication. While many eventually reconcile, discussions about religion are studiously avoided. Relationships no longer resemble their previous form; they become a mere formality. Parents might engage to ensure their children’s well-being, using this interaction to quell their own feelings of guilt.
Gender Dynamics: The process of disclosure differs between genders. For female participants, declaring their non-belief carries implications beyond apostasy. It can imply engagement in promiscuous behaviour, leading to a tarnished reputation within both the family and the community. These participants adhere to stringent rules, are forbidden from having male friends, and are expected to preserve their virginity until marriage. Modesty in dress is enforced to avert unwanted male attention. Shockingly, two participants disclosed incidents of child sexual assault and rape to their families. When these incidents were shared with the family, blame was unfairly attributed to the victims. Family members’ discussions suggested that victims of such violence brought it upon themselves by not adhering to the religious/community’s norms. It is of utmost importance to underscore that females accused of bringing dishonour are exposed to a profound threat, one that entails severe ramifications. The most extreme manifestation of this repercussion is encapsulated in the practice of ‘honour’ killing. This punitive action is sanctioned within the community as a means of reinstating perceived ‘honour’ both within the familial context and the broader social milieu. The departure of a female from the situation does not equate to an exemption from this punishment. In fact, family members and the larger community are poised to diligently pursue any avenue to exact retribution upon the individual, all in the name of restoring honour.
Similar consequences are encountered by individuals who identify as gay. In the discourse within these groups, members frequently deliberate on the implications of divulging their sexual orientation to their families. They are acutely aware that such revelations would be met with outright rejection by their kin, potentially culminating in the gravest outcome – death. Many members hail from regions where the act of taking someone’s life due to their sexual orientation is both legally sanctioned and socially endorsed.
Rediscovering Self and Identity after Leaving Islam:
Once individuals decide to distance themselves from Islam, whether openly or privately, they embark on a transformative journey that significantly shapes their sense of self and identity. This process, as reported by participants, encompasses various stages that play a pivotal role in their personal growth.
Questioning Belonging: An overarching theme expressed by all participants is the exploration of their sense of belonging. They grapple with the intricate interweaving of religion with their culture and ethnicity, which leaves them feeling disconnected from any specific group. This concept is further explored in the ‘Being Visibly Muslim’ theme. For some, this journey begins with a rupture in their self-concept. They engage in actions that challenge established religious norms, breaking free from limitations that were previously defined. Others describe a sense of being adrift, accompanied by emotions of depression and frustration. A participant aptly expressed, “I battled deep depression and took antidepressants for over two years, but what truly helped was finding acceptance for my path and recognizing that being a non-Muslim is valid.” This sentiment resonates profoundly with all participants.
Challenging Established Beliefs: In addition to grappling with their sense of belonging, participants also confront the theological doctrines, dogmas, and teachings they previously adhered to. This inquiry sparks an intellectual exploration that delves into philosophical and spiritual realms. They reconsider fundamental concepts such as the nature of the divine, the afterlife, and the purpose of human existence.
Transformation of Moral Perspective: A pivotal aspect of this journey involves a profound shift in their moral compass. Departing from religious teachings prompts participants to no longer rely solely on them for ethical guidance. This transformation leads them to adopt personal ethical principles that resonate deeply with them—values such as compassion, justice, integrity, and empathy. This transition enables them to navigate life through a lens that aligns with their genuine beliefs.
In summary, departing from Islam initiates a multifaceted process of rediscovering self and shaping one’s identity. This process entails questioning not only religious beliefs but also the sense of belonging and ethical values. Each stage of this journey contributes to personal growth, as individuals navigate a path that aligns with their true selves.
Challenges Encountered When Leaving Islam:
Identity Crisis: Departing from Islam prompts a profound re-evaluation of personal identity. The fusion of religious and cultural elements ingrained during upbringing becomes evident, leading to an identity crisis. As participants strive to redefine themselves and their beliefs, a sense of uncertainty and emptiness emerges. The familiar identity they relinquish gives way to uncharted territory, fostering feelings of unease.
Loss and Grief: Almost all participants experience a sense of loss and grief upon leaving. They navigate a grieving process for familial bonds, cultural ties, and their sense of belonging. Even in cases where the religious environment was unhealthy, strong emotional attachments persist.
Emotional Distress: Despite leaving strict family environments, all participants endure significant emotional distress. Guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety surface due to religious and cultural taboos associated with their decision. Navigating these emotions becomes an intrinsic part of their journey.
Depression and Anxiety: The challenges of departing contribute to the emergence of depression and anxiety for a majority of participants. The loss of familial support, the weight of family rejection, and uncertainties about the future contribute to these mental health struggles.
Self-Worth and Self-Esteem: Departure leads to a struggle with self-worth and self-esteem. Family and community often tied individuals’ value to their adherence to religious beliefs. Leaving prompts feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-esteem as participants grapple with redefining their value outside of religious conformity.
Parental Rejection: Experiencing rejection or disownment by one’s family due to their departure carries profound emotional pain. This form of rejection evokes feelings of betrayal and abandonment, generating emotional turmoil and deep-seated hurt. This theme is universally echoed by all participants.
Financial and Practical Challenges: Another significant hurdle is the practical challenges participants encounter upon leaving. Financial instability and a lack of practical life skills are common. These challenges compound the stress associated with this transition.
Being Visibly Muslim (Name, Surname, Ethnicity): A challenge shared by all participants is the visibility of their Muslim background through their names, surnames, and ethnicity. This visibility becomes an issue for some, causing distress. Misconceptions arise, assuming their adherence to Islam based on their appearance. This situation becomes distressing when engaging in actions contrary to Islamic teachings, leading to questioning and judgement. For instance, if they are seen eating during Ramadan, they are met with unwarranted shame and questioning, even in the UK.
Benefits of the support groups:
All participants report all or some of the below-listed benefits in attending the support group:
Validation and Understanding: The majority of attendees in the support group express a common sentiment – they initially believe they are alone in their situation. Upon discovering the CEMB support groups and joining them, they often do not anticipate encountering like-minded individuals. Consequently, the support group offers an unexpected safe haven where they can openly share their experiences without fear of criticism. Being in the company of others who have undergone comparable struggles validates their emotions and provides the reassuring realization that they are not solitary on their journey.
Reduced Isolation: Isolation emerges as a significant concern for many participants, as they experience a sense of detachment following their departure. Particularly for certain individuals, they find themselves being initially perceived as Muslims before their individual identities. This situation compounds their feeling of not fitting in anywhere. However, the participants note that joining the support groups serves as a remedy to this isolation. By connecting with others who have undergone similar circumstances, they counteract this sense of detachment. Some participants even share their previous attempts at individual therapy, noting that due to a lack of comprehension about the leaving process or the religion, therapy sessions often revolved around explaining religious intricacies and the implications of departure.
Shared Knowledge and Resources: The support groups also have the purpose of enabling the sharing of practical advice, information, and resources among participants. This aspect proves to be highly valuable for most members. Within these groups, participants provide valuable insights on various subjects, including legal concerns, mental health support, educational pathways, and other practical issues that emerge during the process of transition.
Empowerment: Interacting with individuals who have effectively dealt with similar challenges seems to ignite a feeling of empowerment. Observing their progress and understanding their personal journeys serves as a source of motivation for members who are contemplating leaving and seeking ways to proactively reconstruct their own lives.
Coping Strategies: The support groups also offer a platform for discussing practical strategies to manage stress, anxiety, and other emotional difficulties. Members frequently exchange the methods they’ve employed to overcome obstacles, which can prove to be incredibly beneficial.
Emotional Support: Openly discussing their experiences with individuals who comprehend their situation can offer valuable emotional support. Participants openly share their challenges, fears, and achievements, which seems to alleviate emotional distress.
Rebuilding Trust: Certain participants have conveyed that their involvement in the support groups and engagement in other activities organized by CEMB have contributed to the restoration of trust in others. This is particularly relevant for participants whose trust had been undermined within their family settings. The positive interactions they experience among fellow group members play a role in rejuvenating their belief in nurturing healthy relationships.
Reframing Narratives: This emerges as a significant theme among the participants. A considerable number of them have expressed that the act of sharing their own stories and listening to the stories of fellow participants has enabled them to reshape their personal narratives. Through this process, they have gained fresh viewpoints on their experiences, leading to the cultivation of a more robust sense of self.
Support and Self-Care: Several participants have conveyed that their involvement in the support groups has alleviated their doubts and feelings of guilt regarding their decision. Instead, they find themselves capable of nurturing a self-supportive inner dialogue and developing a stronger practice of self-care.
 These terminologies are utilised interchangeably within the discussions, as some participants make reference to themselves as ex-Muslim, while others lean towards atheism or simply identify as non-believers. Within the group, there has been a discussion surrounding these distinctions and acknowledged that these terms denote the same overarching concept. It’s important to note that each member employs the term that resonates most comfortably with their individual perspective.