Society statement 24-10-2012
On Tuesday October 23rd, following a vote from its members in the Annual General Meeting of the society, the committee of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society has submitted a request for a name change to the LSESU Activities Committee.
First, we would like to note that the change in name is just that. It does not change what we aim to do and who we are here for. We are still the society for atheists, humanists, secularists and all others with an interest in this area. However, we believe this change in name will allow us to reach and support a certain group of people more effectively - a group that is unique in the support it needs.
The significant change is supplementary: we would like to include "ex-Muslim" in our name, resulting in our new name: The LSESU Atheist, Secularist, Humanist and Ex-Muslim Society (LSESU ASHES). We are very excited about this, since we believe it to be a highly positive change that has the potential to improve the lives of some of our peers in some small way, as we will explain below.
The status of ex-Muslims in Islam is particularly precarious, and the historical and present-day Islamic response to people who become ex-Muslims is one that justifies our inclusion of the term in our name. We do not ask our members for their beliefs, but we estimate that approximately 20% of our members are ex-Muslim or from a Muslim background and we want to be inclusive and welcoming toward them.
People of a Muslim background face unique difficulties in abandoning their religion, both in predominantly Muslim countries and in Europe. A name that openly represents them will provide a visible support option: a society populated by like-minded people who have survived similar experiences, from whom they can draw support. We feel this is no different to, say, a society for students of a certain country, of which there are dozens. A German student may well find comfort or in the German Society by virtue of the fact that it will count many Germans among its ranks. A society with "ex-Muslims" in the name would attract former Muslims in much the same way.
While it is true that someone may leave Islam for another religion, and that such people may face many of the same difficulties as someone who turns away from organised religion altogether, most Muslims who turn away from Islam do not then join a different religion. Accordingly, we feel that combining outlooks such as atheism, humanism and secularism with ex-Muslim is complementary. Practically speaking, the number of members in an independent ex-Muslim society may prove too low for it to maintain a significant presence on campus. Further, there is a significant overlap of interests and concerns for atheists, humanists, secularists and ex-Muslims. In fact, our scepticism brings us all together into a loosely shared identity. This is underlined by the fact that the name change was approved after a discussion and free vote by our members.
On the other hand, we have also been told by ex-Muslim students that our former name may have been uninviting and even off-putting. Atheism carries its own baggage, and often does not lend itself to the ex-Muslim experience, making it unappealing to some ex-Muslims. We are also aware that ex-Muslim students often struggle with their identity, in terms of background and heritage, given just how deeply entrenched in day-to-day life Islam sometimes is. At the same time, merely being of a Muslim background can mean carrying a burden in some places. We hope to reach out to these people through this addition to our name. We have been told by a number of students that the "ex-Muslim" part of our name would be crucial in stoking their interest.
Before considering what leaving Islam means, let us briefly assess what Islamic texts and authorities have to say on the matter. Without giving specific examples, it is a fact that many Islamic authorities, from the ahadith to prominent clerics, both today and in the past, take the view that turning away from Islam (apostasy) should be punished, in most cases by either execution or indefinite imprisonment. It is also troubling to note that apostasy remains punishable by death in a majority of Muslim countries, and that a 2010 poll by Pew Research Center found that a significant proportion of Muslims in a number of countries agreed with capital punishment for apostasy.
We are not claiming that all Muslim scholars and laypeople would condemn apostates to death by execution or to indefinite imprisonment. However, they seem to be the minority, and irrespective of how many out of all Muslims they may represent, the fact that a sizable portion of Muslims and Islamic authorities worldwide believe that it is justifiable to punish those who turn away from Islam gives weight to our case. We are not in a position to remedy this, but we are able to support their victims when they are also our peers.
We would like to highlight the social difficulties ex-Muslims face. Islam claims to be a way of life rather than a mere religion. For the majority of Muslims, Islam is much more than a personal faith and the occasional prayer. Its reach extends to all areas of life, from dress to diet. Accordingly, people who leave Islam jeopardise a large part of their lives, from family ties to careers. Many, if not most, are unable to publicly "come out" and are forced or intimidated by law or social pressures into remaining "in the closet". There is no religion comparable to Islam and no group comparable to ex-Muslims in this respect. While followers of other religions may face difficulties in leaving their religions, they are dwarfed by the sheer number of Muslims around the world. Further, very few religions around the world, and certainly not in western countries, are as inhumanely aggressive in retaining its adherents. Only small, hard-line sects and cults bear comparison.
We maintain that any religion claiming to hold the truth would not be so insecure as to deny people alternatives. We believe in freedom of and from religion - this is a universal human right. As such, we feel that Muslims who are secure in their faith should have no reason to fear the notion of ex-Muslims. We continue to welcome Muslims to our group and to our events.
To ex-Muslims, we are striving to provide a safe space, one that most societies continue to deny them. We are, therefore, very proud to have a membership that is strengthened by the diversity of religious and non-religious backgrounds and experiences of non-believing and secular students at the LSE.
For questions related to our name change please contact Imtiaz, our spokesperson for Ex-Muslim affairs: firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: As by Friday October 26th we are still waiting for a response from the LSESU Activities Committee.