Aug 13, 2018

Losing one's religion

Imtiaz Shams believes we should put humanity in front of religious differences. Photo: Farah Hancock
Imtiaz Shams
Farah Hancock
August 7, 2018

When Imtiaz Shams realised he no longer believed in religion he thought he was alone.

“In the beginning I thought I was the only ex-Muslim in the world, out of 1.6 billion people.”

Now Shams, through an advocacy group he co-founded, Faith to Faithless, helps connect and support people who have left religion.

He said in the last year the organisation has helped 1000 people from a variety of backgrounds including Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic ex-Jews, Jehovah’s Witness, ex-Muslims, ex-evangelical Christians, Exclusive Brethren, as well as people leaving cults.

Shams, who is visiting from the United Kingdom, was a speaker at the Humanist International Conference held over the weekend in Auckland.

His talk focused on the human rights of apostates. In language similar to what has been used by the LGBT community in the past, many apostates say they remain in the closet fearing if they come out they will be rejected by their family and community.

The biggest risk he’s seen apostates who are “in the closet” face is accidently coming out to family in the heat of an argument.
“If you are young, and you don’t know how to get help you are stuffed. You become homeless, people try to kill themselves,” said Shams.

“When someone leaves a very high-control group, let’s say Jehovah’s Witnesses or Gloriavale for instance, they don’t even know how to access traditional standard services. They don’t know how to go to the police, they don’t know how to get social services, none of that.”

Faith to Faithless connects people with support services and offers training to support services so the help provided is useful.

Research conducted by the group found many apostates felt support services treated them badly.

“Early this year, a girl under the age of 18 contacted us. If they are under 18 we immediately pass them to child-related charities. We did and she [started] talking to someone. That person listened to her story and said ‘It sounds like your problems are coming from leaving Islam. Maybe you should go back.’.

In another case an ex-Muslim man suffering from mental health issues was referred to a Muslim counselling service.

“If someone said to a gay person, I’ll send you to a gay conversion camp we’re up in arms. We need to have the same sort of disgust when it comes to people trying to send apostates to exorcism camps.”

Shams said he has recently trained London's Metropolitan Police on some of the issues faced by people leaving religion and is also focused on universities - a common point in apostates' lives where support is sought from counselling staff.

The charity tries to mend rifts between apostates and their families. Shams said often “high-control” religious groups try to push apostates away and encourage the cutting of ties with their families.

“A lot of these problems are time-based. You might think it is the end of your world right now but over time even your family can accept you.

“We try to keep families together if it’s appropriate. What we want to do is heal the bonds between the apostate and the family,” said Shams.

Shams also gives advice to local groups about how to set themselves up, including how to maintain the secrecy needed to protect members who have not come out.

Most of these groups begin online and then organise in-person meet-ups. These events offer moral support to apostates who often feel emotionally isolated.
“They’re not like an average Facebook group. They’re like fight club. We set them up like that.”

He described the vetting procedure to join a group as “bureaucratic on purpose”.

Through his work Shams said he has loose networks around the world.

“Let’s say if someone contacted us from the Jehovah’s Witness here, there are secret ex-Jehovah’s Witness communities we can plug them into.”

Shams has supported people in New Zealand in the past, including a local ex-Muslim group which he said was one of the first he knew of which started independently of an ex-Muslim online forum on the Reddit website.

He said he has met Muslims and ex-Muslims during his visit to New Zealand, including some who have kept their loss of beliefs secret.

“Yesterday we met a person who doesn’t take her hijab off. She took it off when she came here.”

Even an action as small as temporarily removing a head-covering could have repercussions when people are part of a close-knit community said Shams.

"Imagine if a family member saw her? What would happen then?”

Shams said the 1000 people the Faith to Faithless helped last year represent the "tip of the iceberg". His goal is that one day apostates will be part of the communities they came from even if they have chosen not to follow the faith of the community.

"We should be able to put humanity in front of religious differences."

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