A version of this post originally appeared as a comment in a certain secret apostate group on Facebook.
I left Islam publicly and officially in late summer of 2006. While I don’t regret the move, I wish I had known at least some of what I know now. I currently benefit from hindsight enough to comfort, maybe even actually advise, my younger self or others in a similar position.
Here is a very specific list of Things I Did, divided into Helped and Didn’t Help.
Warning: If you’re anything like me, the first thing that did help is going to annoy you.
Things That Helped
While the rest of this list isn’t ranked or ordered, waiting is first because it’s the most important thing. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, but its passage makes things feel less immediate and fresh, especially emotional reactions.
It took about 2-3 whole years for people to stop gossiping about my apostasy, which really helped my family to process their feelings. Instead of getting their emotional wounds ripped open every time they got stared at or remarked on at family gatherings and community events, they could live in the peace necessary for them to heal.
Accepting Their Pain
This is where most people’s advice, including those of therapists and other trained professionals, really fell short. Those who wanted to support and help me would tell me that I was an adult living in the United States, therefore my parents had no right to be upset that I’d done The Most American Thing by choosing my own path in life.
While there is something to be discussed re the inherently materialistic motives of immigrants who want all the money and none of the surrounding culture for their children, saying they shouldn’t be upset didn’t make them un-upset. While I didn’t have to accept the validity of the possessiveness that generated their pain, I could acknowledge that they were hurting. Hurt people don’t always comport themselves with the utmost decorum.
Accepting My Own Pain
Oh, to be young and a self-important “rational” type. I thought I could logic away my pain. I had let go of so many harmful beliefs and freed myself from a community that was never really all that kind to me in the first place. The world was suddenly vast and open. No one knows how far I’ll go!
Therapy 101 – All change brings stress, even wholly positive change. Apostasy was good for me, but it was a mixed bag and the adverse effects have left me with issues I’ll carry forever. That I thought I could simply not feel them right when they started was peak youthful arrogance.
Hurting my family (at least certain members of it) hurt. Ripping out the thing that most dominated my every sleeping and waking moment hurt. All at once discovering many painful truths about my world, the reality of which I hadn’t had access to as a Muslim, hurt.
Once I accepted that, I could be as kind to my hurting self as I tried to be to others in pain.
Crying It Out in Private
I spent a good deal of my life suppressing my emotional reactions, especially crying, for a lot of reasons having to do with gender and culture. It was a good social coping strategy, but backfired on the personal coping front. I had to let myself cry even if I ended up ugly-crying. Looking blotchy and frighteningly hysterical was better than carrying the angst indefinitely.
When it came to some of the Muslims in my life, I had to let them have it out. They wanted to exorcise their demons, especially insecurities about their own faith, by using me as a focusing point. It wasn’t personal and it wasn’t worth taking personally. I tend to have a sharp memory, especially on the auditory front, but I learned to zone out just enough with certain people that they thought I had heard them, yet all I can remember is a hazy blob of yelling.
This didn’t apply to everyone, though. Some people get worse when you give them an opening. The difference was usually in the level of engagement they expected — a lot if they were looking to fight, little to none if they just needed to vent. Zoning out was a good test as to what I was dealing with. If they demanded I answer them, it was time to end the meeting.
Help from The Kinds of Muslims I Used to Call Hypocrites
To this day, some part of me very much wants to mock Muslims with more liberal, progressive, open-minded, etc. interpretations of Islam (not to be confused with non-practicing Muslims). I was a fairly literal believers and I don’t like it when people tell me that I can’t cite things from the Quran and widely-practiced versions of Islam because that’s not “real” Islam.
My mom found some Muslim authority types who spoke to her as a mother and a human being rather than as a Muslim dealing with a dirty apostate child. They addressed her feelings, concerns, and fears rather than made it about what she might have done wrong to have “ruined” me. This made all the difference.
ESTABLISHING Hard Limits on Religious Talk
At a fairly early point, I stopped engaging with them about religion. I never brought up religion and when they did, I’d either remind them that it wasn’t a good idea for us to talk about it or change the subject. If they persisted, I simply ignored them. I never tried to get them to agree with the boundaries, just set them and adhered to them firmly.
I refused to be shamed for being an atheist and refused to hide about my life. For people in cultures where social shaming is strong, this was an issue. What I was doing soon became less of an issue for my family than the fact that “people” found out about it, causing them to be shamed. This meant that being honest with them wasn’t enough.
I had a two-fold strategy. First, I would reduce the shock by either telling them things outright or alluding to certain things in my life casually if none-too-explicitly. Then, when someone grown-ass adult with nothing better to do than spy on me “tattled” on me to them, I could honestly shrug and ask them if they were surprised.
If they pushed it, I would tell them the basics and then say “I don’t know if you want to know the details, but I can be honest with you if you are ready to hear it. I don’t actually think you do, though? Right? Okay!” Then I would exit the situation. Being called on their reactions in this way was strangely effective.
Remaining Reasonably Respectful
While I refused to wear hijab or pray just to make them feel better, I didn’t eat around them during the day in Ramadan or get non-zabihah meat when we went out to eat.
Letting the Lies Lie
The main reason why I came out publicly and explosively about being Muslim was that I couldn’t lapse in my faith without being noticed. The secondary reason was that I wanted to control my own narrative. Turns out, the Facebook Note Heard ‘Round the World (my public declaration of apostasy, printed and re-shared more than I will ever know among gossip-aunties) wasn’t enough to control the narrative.
I was the subject of endless conspiracy theories concocted by Muslims attempting to rationalize my apostasy. Those closest to me weren’t exempt. At first, I tried to combat the disinformation, but discovered that it was a fruitless endeavor.
So I let it go and let them be. I was distancing myself from The Community as it was and people were too cowardly for the most part to actually speak with me openly.
Years later, I found out that something actually good came of the lies: People were going easier on their kids because they wrongly attributed my atheism to the strictness of my parents. You’re very welcome, younglings.
For a while, I skipped the smaller family gatherings and only attended the big events where everyone was performing Big Happy Family. I stayed away from or arrived late to gatherings where there was a strong religious component. I spent a lot of time at the library and the gym, or just sitting in my car at the parking lot across the street.
It’s no way to live, but it’s a great way to survive the worst of it.
Things That Didn’t Help
They were having an emotional response and trying to logic at them didn’t work.
Consoling or Comforting
They saw me as the cause of their pain, so there was no point in trying to make them feel better. If they expected me to respond, I’d say “I know you’re upset. I don’t want to say or do something to upset you more right now.”
Only one person pushed it. My response offended him and he hit me. Needless to say, he is an abuser who harmed me from birth until the blessed if all-too-recent day I stopped responding to his messages. Non-abusers, even when upset, aren’t like this.
Bringing Up Religious Arguments
There are some arguments in Islam that were in my favor in very specific situations. Mentioning them didn’t do anything good.
Even though I knew (and know) more about certain things in Islam than they do, and they used to defer to me when I was a Muslim, they acted like my knowledge was all tainted the minute I told them I was an atheist. I sometimes fed the lines to someone who was (or who they thought was) a Muslim and was on my side, but this is a very risky strategy and involved too much planning for me in my fraught state.
Living with Them
My family insisted that I would hurt them worse by moving out then by becoming an atheist, but things got much better after I moved out for a while. I ended up being forced to move back due to finances but the situation was different (for the better) after that.