Social media has played a contradictory role in helping ex-Muslims recount the abuse they have endured after leaving Islam. Reddit, for example, has given ex-Muslims a way to connect to each other and describe the oppression they endure. But Facebook censors criticism of Islam with a vengeance.
That was the message offered by Sarah Haider, founder of Ex-Muslims of North America on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 in an hour long-interview conducted by ex-Muslim Hannah Nour, an activist with the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation.
“When it comes to ex-Muslim organizing … It has been an absolute boon in 100 different ways,” she said. “We could not have flourished as an organization the way that we have if it wasn’t for social media, allowing us to find others and organize easily.”
While Substack and Reddit are places where honest discussion about Islam can take place, Haider said, other social media platforms have, in the past few years, adopted content moderation policies that are “terribly restrictive and absolutely against the culture of free speech in every sense of the world.”
If, for example, Haider were to share a post about a mullah who said to his followers, “Kill all ex-Muslims,” Facebook would shut her page down, she said.
“That’s happening more and more often,” she said. “It’s just this big hammer that they’re just attacking anyone with.” Haider suggested that social media has not improved, but undermined, the ability of people to speak freely.
“Our normal speech in hour homes, in our private lives, it’s not as easily monitorable, but … increasingly our social lives are taking place on social media online, where they can be watched, where they can be shut down in various ways, depending on the platform,” she said. “And this is a very dystopian future ahead of us if it continues on this path.”
Another problem facing ex-Muslims is that journalists don’t do their jobs when covering Islam in the United States because they view Muslims as a beleaguered community that needs to be protected from bigotry in American society writ large. Haider said that instead of covering stories related to Islam in a straightforward manner, younger journalists operate under the belief that “people can’t handle the truth as it is.”
The assumption is that if people are “exposed to too many negative things about Islam for example, about the practices of Muslims … they will become so hateful, so intolerant that it will lead to harm and bigotry and discrimination against these people,” Haider said. “So we must prevent that by actually covering up some of this reality.”
To open up the discussion about Islam, Haider said she pushes back as hard as she can against the use of the word “Islamophobia,” which she says conflates criticism of Islam with hate against Muslims as people.
The accusation of “Islamophobia,” Haider said, is particularly effective at silencing people who are compassionate towards Muslims as people but also have concerns about Islamic practices in light of their commitment to liberalism.
“These are the people that get scared away from this kind of label,” she said. “They don’t want to be bigots and they don’t want to hurt anyone. And if you throw out a scary label … and you say, ‘Don’t be an Islamophobe,’ they’re going to think, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to do anything that could hurt an innocent, marginalized person, and they’re going to shut up.”
As a result, the debate over Islam is ceded to the people who don’t care about being smeared or the people who don’t care about hurting Muslims, Haider said. “It cedes the ground to these extreme actors who have very black and white thinking when it comes to this issue and when it comes to Muslims as people.”
Haider, who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Houston and left Islam after realizing that she was an atheist, said she was initially reluctant to call herself an “ex-Muslim” after leaving the faith. She eventually embraced the label after considering the oppression endured by people who left the religion in other parts of the world.
“It became an important thing for me to take this label and willingly put it upon myself and stand up for these people and for their rights,” she said.
Some secularists and atheists told Haider she needed to abandon the label “ex-Muslim” telling her, “It’s so hostile. Don’t you want to adopt something that is more positive and welcoming. And what about bigotry against Muslims?”
“It was outrageous to me that when I was describing our experiences and all that we had suffered, including the reality of blasphemy laws and apostacy laws across the world, where we don’t have the right to live, we don’t have the right to life,” she said. “When you come from a group that’s persecuted this severely, and you finally start to stand up and speak about your rights, to have your allies say to you, ‘Well, don’t you want to be careful about how you’re talking about these things in case the people who are oppressing you are then unfairly oppressed by others?’ It just felt like an extremely unfair burden to send our way, given what we were already in a position that most atheists in America couldn’t imagine.”
While Haider leveled substantial criticism toward the left, she also expressed some wariness of activists on the right who give ex-Muslims a warm welcome to justify their policies regarding the war on terror.
“It definitely felt like you were being used by one political side or you were being rejected and villainized by the other,” she said.
The webinar was sponsored by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation, a U.S. non-profit that works to protect women from honor violence, forced marriage and genital mutilation.