“I have to stop pretending.”
He said that, as he looked up at me, sipping his water.
Like many of the counseling sessions that I do, this one happened at a restaurant – neutral atmosphere, not threatening, lots of life around us. Unlike many of them though, this session was grounded in reasonability and clarity – not thoughts clouded by emotions or trauma (that’s not to say that emotions are always clouding, but sometimes they can lead to irrationality).
This definitely was not the first person I’ve counseled re: their apostasy (probably seen at least 100 at this point in my service), but it was definitely the most impactful. I usually don’t find any benefit in trying to persuade, convince, or negotiate faith. I just like the person to tell me their story, who they are. This lunch lasted for about 2 hours.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation, with a man who was born Muslim, and 29 years later, is calm, cool, and collected leaving the faith.
On his religious practice.
“I prayed five times a day for the last 20+ years. Even when I moved away from home, I kept up with it, reciting Quran that I didn’t understand, simply out of fear. I was raised in fear – that if I didn’t pray, I’d go to hell. That if I did this or didn’t do that, I’d go to hell. It was constantly being pushed through fear. I was also always told that my friends, and certain family members who weren’t Muslim were kuffaar and they were going to hell. That was a significant portion of my life that I was told that.”
On his relationship with his dad
“I love and respect my dad. He’s a wonderful guy. Stoic, not really emotional – I can probably count on my one hand how many times he’s verbalized that he loved me, but I guess I always knew that he did. Though it would’ve been nice to hear him say it more. This tension I’ve been feeling about my religion was hurting my relationship with him, though. Even though I never told him, and I was still going through the motions of prayer whenever I was here, I felt guilty on the inside, and that made me not want to be around him – the fear of angering and disappointing him kept me from visiting home and seeing him for an entire year.”
On leaving Islam emotionally vs. rationally
“I grew up as the only Muslim in my school. I was used to people asking me about Islam, the mockery and insults that occasionally came with it. If I was leaving Islam emotionally, I would’ve done it then. My entire life, I didn’t feel any pressure to leave from my peers, I only felt pressure to stay from the Muslim community. The push to dogmatically believe because “that’s just the way it is” was a stronger repellant than being made fun of as the only Muslim in my high school.”
On his Islamic educational experience
“My religious educational experience growing up was done at Sunday school. But you can’t really learn Arabic for a few hours one day a week. You can’t really learn your religion like that. I didn’t need Muslim classes one day a week, I needed Muslim friends and socializing during days of the week and weekends. I can’t really say that I sought out Muslims when I went to college, because I never really hung out with Muslims before I went to college.”
On his current long-term girlfriend
“She’s a Christian, we’re in a long-term relationship. You know, when you get to my age and start thinking about getting married and having a family, thoughts about religion come up, especially when you’re marrying someone who doesn’t share your faith. What will the kids be? Who chooses? I’ve always felt that because I didn’t know my religion that well, I didn’t have a right to suggest that they be Muslim. And how was I supposed to meet a Muslim girl, anyway? We were always taught that girls were haram, the classrooms were always in separate rooms, if a girl was Muslim we were taught to avoid her and not look or talk to her – so yeah, I meet wonderful non-Muslim women and now my girlfriend is Christian.”
On his siblings
“Yeah, I have brothers and sisters, and they went through the same process that I’m going through. This…discovery.”
As we finished our food and conversation, we both got up to leave and were walking out. We shook hands, I thanked him for taking time to meet with me, and he looked at me with an extremely sincere and serious look and said, “hey man…I wanted to say something: I may not be Muslim anymore, but I think if you were here in 95 when I was growing up, I still would be. I’m not Muslim anymore, but I’m happy the youth who are living here now have someone like you.”
While someone may see that as reassuring, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever heard. The reality of our community is that we are preoccupied with things, meanwhile our people are leaving. I couldn’t help but walk away thinking, “what will it take for us to realize…?”