Second place: Growing up as an ex-Muslim – By M.O.

FFRF awarded M.O. $2,000.

My journey away from Islam began in the slums of Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. During my walk home from the mosque one morning, I heard a thunderous eruption off in the distance. Petrified, I sprinted to a relative’s compound to seek refuge. A grenade had been thrown into a local church in the midst of a Sunday school session by Al-Shabaab. The explosion killed a child and wounded nine others.

That evening, a local religious leader delivered an energetic speech sanctioning the grisly attack. He cited numerous verses from the Quran and scads of reportings from the Hadith (deeds and sayings attributed to prophet Mohammed) as divine sources of inspiration for the jihadists.

I realized I couldn’t overlook the fact that today’s Islamic extremists are driven by a political ideology, an ideology derived from Islam’s most sacrosanct texts. That event, including the imam’s speech, propelled me to critically examine my faith, eventually leading me to renounce Islam altogether. It was a traumatizing experience to reject a religion whose doctrines I’d been conditioned to believe as the literal truth.

My mere existence as an ex-Muslim is radical and controversial. Many Muslim-majority nations retain laws that criminalize apostasy — the renunciation of Islam by a Muslim. Even in the secular West, where the freedom to change religions is recognized, ex-Muslims like me continue to fear for their lives. While I have not explicitly acknowledged my atheism to loved ones, they’ve figured out my disbelief due to my lack of observance of Muslim rituals. As a result, my older siblings no longer speak to me. My parents believe that by turning my back against the religion, I’ve turned my back against them. To them, I will always be a great disappointment.

There’s this paradoxical challenge I face whenever I speak up about my experiences as a former Muslim. Well-intentioned liberals often label my criticism of Islam as racist or Islamophobic. These views stem from a place of genuine concern for Muslims who are victims of Islamophobic crimes. However, I can’t help but feel a sense of betrayal whenever I’m silenced by liberals when I advocate for ideas we cherish: freedom, justice and equality.

I left Islam around the age of 13 and thought I was alone. Then I stumbled upon an internet forum catering to ex-Muslims. We discussed our experiences, vented to one another and sought advice on how to deal with issues often faced by ex-Muslims, such as family abandonment, loneliness and persecution. This virtual community served as my support group and helped me cope during rough times. A year after joining the online forum, I began attending local meetups through a nonprofit organization called the Ex-Muslims of North America. There, I’ve formed lasting bonds with members who understand the struggles I go through. This organization has had a tremendously positive impact on my life. I finally feel as if I belong.

M.O, 18, is a recent graduate from Brooklyn Center Secondary in Brooklyn Center, Minn. He will be attending Ithaca College with plans to double major in political science and journalism. He enjoys running, reading nonfiction books and spending time with friends.

Freedom From Religion Foundation