Tag Archives: Council of Ex Muslims of Britain

May there never be compulsion in religion


Religious freedom is truly one of the great ideas to be expressed by the enlightenment. Though we can trace those ideas to other thinkers before, it was this movement which went beyond speaking and acting as freethinkers to actually challenge orthodox organised religion’s monopoly on thought and explanation. Humanism, emboldened by empirical observation and reasoning beyond scriptures, came out of the shadows of being an act of religious reflection. Humanist thought became a way of understanding the world, morality, ourselves and the cosmos without strict adherence to the confines of the divine or preceding tradition. Natural philosophy, and the scientific method ushered in a new era.

Whilst this age of reason is one to celebrate, one of the challenges to the notion of religious freedom is the consequence of leaving a faith – being an apostate. Here I am trying to lay out the battle for the idea of where it comes from and means now in Islam. The reason this matters is quite simply the death penalty that exists, or the process of being excluded by family and other believers, if someone renounces the faith they grew up in. Let alone principles of free speech and freedom of expression which together with freedom of religion are classed as universal rights.

Apostasy matters now

As my good friends at the Council of Ex Muslims Britain Forum (CEMB) observe:

Countless individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy face threats, imprisonment, and execution. Blasphemy laws in over 30 countries and apostasy laws in over 20 aim primarily to restrict thought, expression and the rights of Muslims, ex-Muslims and non-Muslims alike. [CEMB]

In my critique of Islam I mentioned concern that by cherry picking the Koran and Hadith it gave cover for Islamists to kill apostates. For example:

Qur’an (4:89) – “They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.”

Bukhari (52:260) – “…The Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ ” Note that there is no distinction as to how that Muslim came to be a Muslim. [Ibid]

When discussing this with Sam Harris he made these observations:



A modern retelling

In Abdul-Azim Ahmed’s article for the Rationalist Association, he explains why as a Muslim he fully supported the Apostasy project using Koranic quotes to justify:

“The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who desires believe and let him who desires disbelieve.” – 18:29

“If they accept Islam, then indeed they follow the right way; and if they turn back, your duty is only to deliver the message.” –3:20

“And if your Lord had pleased, all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them. Will you then force people till they are believers?” – 10:99 [Rationalist Association]

It would be amiss of me not to point out that Ahmed stresses European Colonialism as having a theological impact on punishment for apostasy in response to machine guns and missionaries. Regrettably, death for apostasy existed way before the British Empire ever attempted to prevent the sun setting on it.

Yet sociological and political factors are playing a part. Acceptance of principles like pluralism and secularism mean challenging concepts such as apostasy. In the battle of ideas some modern theological thinkers are pointing out the subjective spin put on death for apostasy in the past, though often stating such a view is controversial to the point of putting a bullseye on your thinking cap even now.

As Usama Hassan mentions in a concept paper:

There is no explicit sanction in the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for the criminalisation and punishment of blasphemy: in fact, the opposite is the case; the few scriptural texts that are misquoted in this regard all refer to wartime situations, and the harsh, mediaeval Islamic jurisprudence on blasphemy was developed centuries after the Prophet himself.[Quilliam Foundation]

The War of Apostasy, also known as Ridda Wars shortly after the death of Mohammed suggests that violence was sadly a means of preventing dissent which was considered a threat to cohesion let alone future territorial ambitions on Persia and beyond. Conquest existed way before modern European colonisation.

The title for this post will be familiar to those aware of The Koranic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). A critique of the context of that verse can be found on the CEMB forum site. That rather than a call for tolerance it is the manifest destiny that Islam is the faith for us to follow when quoted in full:

“There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever disbelieves in the Shaitan and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.”

Still that is a hallmark of a particular religion that it is the right way. The narrative given in the Quilliam Foundation concept paper: NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION: AN ISLAMIC CASE AGAINST BLASPHEMY LAWS is certainly an answer to Sam Harris’ earlier remarks.

It is the practise of political Islam by Islamists which concern all of the people mentioned above. Where we differ in belief we would uphold the values of pluralism, free speech and free expression. An inherent inalienable right we would agree is religious freedom. I am delighted to see that the Quilliam Foundation takes the radicalisation of people by some within Islam very seriously and looks to challenge that.

Maybe not in the next world

As mentioned in the past I wish we did not have to argue over interpretations of sacred texts but could move beyond them. That is not the world we live in. As such we will continue to debate and argue with each other over such things.

The bare minimum is that none should be put to death for the argument, and dissent from others beliefs should not just be tolerated but considered a cause for celebration in a pluralistic and free society.

Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists,- God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for God is witness of all things. – Koran 22:17

I hope mothers and fathers can embrace their children no less just because they no longer follow their religion. It really is a matter of free thought and not a reflection on them. However, the fear of the next life is one that still grips people. Apostasy will still concern people even in a free society.

Perhaps until we are free of the fear of death freedom of religion will not be absolute in this life when people consider the stakes are eternity and the blessings of the Almighty are available even now if all follow His will.

My thanks to Sam Harris, CEMB, Maajid Nawaz, Usama Hasan, and the Rationalist Association UK (and Abdul-Azim Ahmed) for known or unknown assistance in writing the above article (which is written by me and not necessarily endorsed by the above) and to @yakuza72 for passing on the cartoon.

Please support the Apostasy Project

My Apostasy Story

Update 18/6/2013: Tribune article on blasphemy in Pakistan

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78


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Richard Dawkins on the Counicl of Ex Muslims of Britain

I caught a later train than I had intended (household routine disrupted by mortal illness of insanely loved dog — whoever says you can’t love a dog as much as a person doesn’t know what love is) so I unfortunately missed the welcoming session at the conference. I walked in on the first plenary discussion group. Chaired by Caspar Melville, Editor of New Humanist, the members were Ehsan Jami (Dutch politician of Iranian origin), Hanne Stinson (British Humanist Association), A C Grayling (needs no introduction), Fariborz Pooya (one of the organizers, impressive) and Mina Ahadi (Iranian Ex-Muslim leader from Germany, who spoke in German with an interpreter). The topic was Apostasy laws. and the Freedom to Renounce and Criticise Religion. There was little disagreement among the panel. In the Q & A, the chairman established a pattern for the day, which worked rather well. He took questions in bunches of about five, then allowed the panel to answer any one question, with no obligation to answer more than one. As you might expect, A C Grayling was especially impressive, but none of the panellists could be described as lightweight,

At the end of the session, I was assigned a bodyguard, but it didn’t seem necessary while I went out to lunch with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. We had an interesting discussion, and he updated me on our plans for the BHA to distribute, at RDF’s expense, DVDs of Growing Up in the Universe to British schools. Things are looking good on that front.

After lunch we began with a lovely stand-up comedy routine from the comedian Nick Doody, telling good jokes at the expense of religion. One that I remember: Religion is like a very big dog, comforting to the owner but terrifying to everybody else. Then another panel discussion, this time on Sharia Law. The chairman, Andrew Copson, adopted the same policy as before, and again it worked well. Again, one member of the panel, Mahin Alipour [Edit: I wrongly said this was Houzan Mahmoud before, sorry], spoke through an interpreter, which held things up a bit. Other members of the panel were Roy Brown (rightly respected elder statesman of the British Humanist movement, now living in Switzerland), Maryam Namazie (Iranian born leader of the British Ex-Muslim movement), Johann Hari (brilliant Independent journalist), and Ibn Warraq (author of Why I am Not a Muslim and one of the great heroes of today’s secularist movement). This panel showed flashes of real oratory, especially from Johann Hari (for example, on the question of respect: “I respect you as a person too much to respect your ludicrous beliefs”) and from Maryam Namazie, who urged us to put together a lawsuit, in the civil courts, against the Sharia courts who presume to set themselves up in Muslim communities. Theoretically these Sharia courts are supposed to be voluntary: everybody has the option of going to proper British courts, but Sharia courts are available as a voluntary alternative. Speaker after speaker pointed out that this apparent voluntariness is a wicked sham. Women are ordered by their husbands or fathers to go to Sharia courts, not British courts. Many of them don’t even realise there is an alternative. Those who do are accused of being “unislamic” if they opt for real British courts.

The session on Sharia Law provoked some constructive suggestions from the floor, and ended with Maryam in a rousing reiteration of her call for a lawsuit, in the British courts, against the Sharia courts. It sounds as though this might really happen. I want to look into the possibility that RDFRS might make a contribution to the legal costs, although that might be ruled out by our own statutes with the Charity Commissioners.

The next item was a remake of the film Fitna — remade by Reza Moradi, who was also acting as the projectionist and technical expert for the conference. I wasn’t too clear which bits of the film we saw were the original, and which bits the remake, but it was impressive anyway.

After the tea break was my own talk, about the infamous Harun Yahya. It was pretty much based on my article on this website, called something like Slippery Eels, Venomous Snakes and Harun Yahya, with Keynote slides of the pictures of fossils and modern animals that they are — mistakenly — alleged to resemble. I am going to supply Reza with the Keynote slides, so he can drop them into the film he is making of the conference. I spoke for only 15 minutes, in order to leave time for 15 minutes of questions. The question session went well, I think.

The final event of the day was another panel discussion, this time on educational issues, chaired by Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, that extremely useful and resourceful body. I was part of this panel, and was joined by Terry Sanderson (Keith’s partner at the NSS, and its current President), Joan Smith (wonderfully trenchant Independent columnist) and two eloquent leaders of the Iranian resistance against the Islamists in that country, Hamid Taqvaee and Bahram Soroush. One of these, I think Bahram, defended Islamophobia. The word is used to stifle opposition to islamism, to which it is a legitimate and understandable response. Everybody in the room, it seems, was deeply disturbed by faith schools, and especially the move to institute new Islamic schools.

This last session typified the whole conference in its conspicuous lack of ‘herding cats syndrome’. It was as though the menace of Islam is so sinister that the normal differences that divide atheists were put aside. A pair of formal resolutions was put to the vote, and carried nem con:

“The conference calls for the immediate release of all those imprisoned for ‘apostasy’, abolition of the death penalty, and cancellation of laws that punish the right and freedom to renounce or criticise Islam.”

“The conference calls on the British government to bring an end to the use of Sharia law in Britain, which is discriminatory towards women and children in particular, and guarantee unconditional equal citizenship rights for all.”

In addition to these two formal resolutions, Keith Porteous Wood called for a vote opposing faith schools. This too was carried nem con

The meeting ended in goodwill, and with a general feeling of solidarity with those Ex-Muslims brave enough to stand up and announce their apostasy.

At the drinks afterwards, I was approached by a young woman, probably about 20, whom I shall not name. She told me she is on the run from her Muslim family who, she believes, want to ‘honour’ kill her because of her apostasy. She is living in an institution that caters to such women, and is feeling rather lost and lonely because she no longer has the support structure of family and friends. She has had to give up her university place because the university is the first place her father would come looking for her, and she is hoping to find a place in another university.

I suggested that, if she feels threatened, she should go to the police. I should have known better. She had tried that. The law does not allow the police to take any action until the would-be victim has actually been physically molested — by which time it is likely to be too late. At a loss to know how to help her, I introduced her to a woman who, I felt, might be well placed to help her (again, I shall not name her, in case it helps the girl’s father to track her down). I left them together, the girl close to tears (the kindness of strangers often moves me to tears too). Before saying goodbye, I gave her my email address, and encouraged her to write in to this website, assuring her that she would find many friendly people of goodwill here, so I hope she does. If she does, please treat her extra specially well. She is vulnerable, and extremely courageous to have defied her odious father over the matter of religion. She told me how he had the habit of beating his children if they failed to memorise the Koran accurately.

I think Reza plans to release his film of the whole conference, and I’ll talk to Josh about getting a link to it on our site. Meanwhile, if you know any Ex-Muslims, or Muslims on the brink of the brave step of apostasy, please offer them support and friendship and encouragement to renounce and denounce that vile and despicable religion.


Reposted from here and here from the richarddawkins.net Forum


Council of Ex Muslims of Britain video of Conference

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A.C. Grayling On the Council of Ex Muslim of Britain Conference

Free to think for themselves

At a gathering of courageous ex-Muslims, the value of rational thought and personal choice were triumphantly reaffirmed

I enjoyed a rare privilege last Friday, October 10 (which was world day against the death penalty), attending a gathering of brave and principled people to whom the death penalty might be applied in a number of countries around the world because of their beliefs or lack of them. This was the conference organised the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to discuss apostasy – the “crime” of which all members of the Council are guilty – and associated questions about the place of religion and free thought in civil society.

The members of the Council of Ex-Muslims are people who, having thought things through for themselves, have put aside the religion they were made to accept as children – a common enough feature of the adult attainment of reason among many – but in this case the religion is Islam, which regards apostasy as punishable by death.

I wonder how many reading these words have sat in a gathering of people not a few of whom have received death threats because they think for themselves, and who have chosen a path not only personally dangerous but full of difficulty in relation to their families and communities – and who have done so because of reflectively chosen principle. It is a striking experience. In our relatively peaceful and tolerant western dispensations, disagreements of principle are rarely matters of murder; which is why some people find themselves incapable of grasping what last Friday’s gathering signified.

The symbolic import of the conference was great; the substance of the discussions was absorbing and important. It was about the nature of apostasy, the freedom to choose whether or not to have a religion, and to criticise religion whether or not one subscribes to it; the question whether there should be one and the same law for all or whether Britain’s Muslim minority should be allowed to apply sharia law to itself; and the question of faith schools, religious education and creationist doctrine. The themes all related to the place of the individual in civil society, and whether religious doctrine should be allowed to impose itself on those unwilling to be governed by it or – as with children – powerless to resist it.

The conference was opened by the head of the Iranian Secular Society, Fariborz Pooya, and addressed by the extraordinary and courageous Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, who subjected Islamism – political Islam – to scrutiny, arguing that it serves as an agency of Islamic states with serious implications for the lives, rights and freedoms of individuals, many of whom have left their countries of origin precisely to escape the repressive political and social climates there – countries with “moral police” and the death penalty for, among others, gay people, lovers who engage in extra-marital sex and people who reject religious orthodoxy.

A source of frustration for many is that they are lumped into “the Muslim community” whose self-elected spokespeople are more representative of the Islamic states that many in their “Muslim community” have fled: which is why the Council of Ex-Muslims makes a point of calling itself this, to reinforce the point that not everyone who was born into a Muslim community has to be permanently forced into homogenised membership of it. Another reason is to encourage the many closet “apostates” in that community that there is life and succour outside it.

Among those who spoke were Ibn Warraq, Joan Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the founder of Germany’s Council of Ex-Muslims, Mina Ahadi, a woman as extraordinary and admirable as Maryam Namizie. It is a speaking fact that the lead in these eminently important and courageous movements is taken by women: from Lysistrata to the Northern Ireland women’s peace movement, despite all the obstacles and prejudices that women have historically faced, they give a lead and an example which puts their opponents to shame.

The conference was supported by the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, so that the dozens of ex-Muslims present had the support of over 200 others who believe in the right of individuals to think for themselves and who treat people as human individuals, not merely as bearers of overriding identity labels stuck to their foreheads by tradition and religion. A friend who is a crown court judge once told me that he is always pleased when a member of a jury affirms rather than swears the oath on the Bible, because it indicates independence and maturity of mind. Indeed: that was what was on display last Friday at Conway Hall.

One of those speaking at the conference, my friend Ibn Warraq, recently edited a book on apostasy in Islam, which combines a scholarly overview of doctrines on apostasy in the various schools of Islamic law, with a collection of powerful personal testimonies by those who came to leave Islam either for another faith or none. It was interesting to compare the accounts there given with those in Louise Anthony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, which collects similar accounts by ex-Christians and ex-Jews. The personal cost in family and community terms of rejecting the doctrines of any of these religions is very similar; only in Islam does the danger of being murdered for doing so remain.

But, horribly, it is a genuine danger. That is why some of the speeches made during this conference, and some of the remarks from the floor, were filled with a passion and concern that were as real as they were moving. Not least among the matters that surfaced several times in different contexts was the question of the position of women in Islam. To take just one issue: in sharia law a woman is worth half a man, and thus among many other things receives half the inheritance that a man does. Like other provisions of sharia law, this is a stark example of contrast with the laws of England and Wales and with Scottish law, in both of which principles of justice do not countenance systematic discrimination on the basis of sex. By the oppressive requirements of conformity with community practices, many women in Muslim communities in Britain are obliged to observe the practices that the community prefers, across the whole range from whom they marry to what they wear.

The establishment of sharia law courts would accordingly mean their often being obliged to suffer the injustice of deep discrimination. As with genital mutilation as practiced in some communities, and honour killings in others, that cannot be tolerated: relativism – which alas underwrites the views of some, like Rowan Williams, on this subject – has no place here.

Nothing of what was discussed at this important and moving conference was anything but real: real lives subjected to death threats, discrimination, coercion and stigmatisation – and all because the people involved think for themselves, a right that the rest of us take for granted and, when it is threatened, jealously guard. It was a gentle and informal affair, with the relaxed flavour of a works outing: but there can have been no one there who did not at some point reflect that it was a juicy opportunity for some maniac to get rid of a whole raft of apostates and atheists in one big bang.

The great thing is that the conference would have been a victory for what it represented if that had happened. As it was, it was anyway a victory and a much happier one: a victory for its brave sponsors and their brave cause. A report of the conference can be found here, and video footage here.

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Council of Ex Muslims of Britain video of Conference

The conference itself was good to attend. It is a mark of our secular attitudes that the thought of killing someone for renouncing their religion would be appalling to most of us – a denial of human rights and the freedom and autonomy of people to think things for themselves.

The videos themselves can be found here, the previous blog includes Richard Dawkins at the conference. Below the comedy moment from Nick Doody. Talking about his act:

Reviewers have described my material on Islam as both “easy” and “brave”, apparently depending on whether they were offended or not. In reality, it’s neither. Easy would be writing jokes from a knee-jerk position, pandering to the racists.

Brave would be doing my act in Tehran.

You can see my laughing my head off at the pint of Stella in a crisis at 14:08 (black shirt and glasses).


International Conference Council of Ex Muslims of Britain (CEMB)

Richard Dawkins on the Atlas of Creation

Teddy Bears what is in a name? A picnic outside an Embassy

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Richard Dawkins on the Atlas of Creation

Dawkins was talking at the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain’s first International Conference, October 10 2008. Harun Yahya as well as writing the book Atlas of Creation is behind the richarddawkins.net being baned in Turkey – a move which the National Secular Society is trying to have included in the EU report on Turkey’s suitability to join.


Richard Dawkins on the Counicl of Ex Muslims of Britain

Richard Dawkins Website access barred in Turkey

International Conference Council of Ex Muslims of Britain (CEMB)

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