Sarah Haider, now 28 years old and living outside Washington, DC, was born in Pakistan and raised in Houston, where her family moved when she was 7. Like the vast majority of Pakistanis, the family was Muslim, and Haider describes her parents as liberal by Muslim standards but conservative by Western standards. She wasn’t allowed to date, she was expected to have an arranged marriage, and couldn’t sleep over at her friends’ houses if there were any males present. Shorts, swimsuits, and tank tops were forbidden, but unlike some of her cousins, she could wear short-sleeved shirts and was never required to wear the hijab.
All this was normal for Haider, as it is for much of the world. There are nearly 2 billion Muslims on Earth, and while the spectrum of orthodoxy is as broad as any other major religion, Islamic doctrine preaches a certain level of modesty, something that, as a young person, Haider saw as perfectly fine. She was devout, and even though her parents didn’t make her, she voluntarily wore the hijab for a time. She tried to convince her Christian friends in Texas that Islam was the only true faith and that their religion couldn’t possibly be based on fact.
But then, as a teenager, something changed. She would get into arguments with friends who were atheist, and the more they probed into her religion, the less she believed. If the stories in the Bible didn’t make sense, were the stories in the Quran any more legit? The overlap between the two texts is significant, including characters and prophets. Moses becomes Musa and Abraham becomes Ibrahim but the gist is the same. The more she thought critically about it, the more she doubted.
“Intellectually, it stopped making sense,” Haider told me in an interview. For the first time, she started to see serious problems with Islam, a patriarchal dogma with values that seep into culture and law, and not long after she lost her faith, she lost her religion, her identity, as well. Today, she runs Ex-Muslims of America, an organization that advocates for Muslim dissenters and promotes secular values. As part of her work, she tours around the country speaking with different groups, and she will be appearing in Seattle on Sunday, June 16, in the U-District. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Did leaving Islam cause you any sort of identity crisis?
It's different for every person, the degree with which leaving religion causes an identity crisis. For me, the fact that Islam claimed to be truth was such a central part of my faith that when it became clear that, logically, these things couldn't have happened the way that the Quran describes it and this God likely doesn't exist, it became very simple for me to abandon it. It was done. There was nothing more to it. Then I was left with the aftermath.
For my so much of my life, my identity as a Muslim was such a part of who I was and how I conceived of myself, especially as an immigrant in the West and as different than my peers. I really took that seriously. I was kind of an evangelist for Islam. I am remember conversations in elementary school where I was speaking to my friends about how my religion makes sense in a way Christianity doesn't, and then suddenly, I don't believe in it anymore and this aspect of my life is gone. Islam really is a way of life, and so much of how you live your life is influenced by your beliefs. You don't socialize with others in ways that are very common in the West. You don't go to happy hours. You don't date. There are things you don't take part in that are a normal part of life in the West, and suddenly that was all different for me. My future looked different. It felt like being punched in the stomach a little bit.
I can't tell if you mean that is was liberating or terrifying.
A bit of both. I think more liberating. I became an atheist before I became an ex-Muslim, and for a while there was a real sense of cognitive dissonance that was very painful. I still had to do certain things and dress a certain way and fast when I had to fast and pray when I had to pray, all while holding all these doubts about the truth of the religion. By the time it became clear that this wasn't something I believed in anymore, I remember a sense of release and freedom. And relief.
How did your parents take it?
Not well. They feared for my soul. They really believed that their daughter was losing her chance at everlasting life and opening the way to eternal torment, so they were upset about this. It hurt them. But I didn't just come out and tell them. I started by asking questions that I was pretty sure they couldn't answer. Over the course of many, many years, they came to terms with it. Reluctantly, but they did.
Are they still faithful?
My mother is, to some degree. My father isn't. It's been a long time since I've left and we continued to have conversations about faith and religion and I think that influenced how they feel about it, which is wonderful. It's made it so we can have a relationship in a way that a lot of ex-Muslims cannot.
Is your dad an atheist now?
He is. It's amazing. I never thought it would happen. We had years and years of late nights arguing and it would get really contentious. I never thought it could happen, and then it did and I was just blown away. It made me very hopeful. Since then he's been talking to people his age about religion and they are kind of shifting their perspectives as well. He's having an effect in his social circle, which is amazing.
How do you start these conversations with people who really believe in God? Hypothetically, if I wanted to convince my in-laws that there's no god, how would I even start that conversation?
It varies depending on the person. There are people who used religion as an emotional crutch. And there are people who are intellectually tied into it. For most people, it's a mix of the two. I like to appeal to their sense of reason. I start from the position: "I know you care about what's true and I know you care about what is right and moral and I care about that, too." When you start from that position, it appeals to their sense of reason right from the beginning.
When I was first researching Christianity in an attempt to evangelize for Islam, I want prove Christianity was false, so I started looking into it and finding historical inaccuracies with what Christians believe and what probably actually happened. I saw all the contradictions within the Bible. It was so easy for me to see in the context of Christianity. Of course it isn't true. It was so easy for me to see that. Then slowly, it dawns on me that a lot of the criticisms that apply to Christianity can apply very easily to Islam. That's a very hard step to make but once you see that the teachings contradict what we know about the natural world, it's easier to apply that to your own faith.
I assume you get plenty of criticism from Muslims but how is your work received among non-Muslims, especially in the West?
I think foreign policy colors the conversations around Islam in the West. This is what makes things difficult for people on the left. When I first started this back in 2013, 2014, when we were first launching as an organization, I started to get pushback in a few different ways. I got it from secularist and atheists who were concerned that we were taking too harsh an approach towards religion. They wanted us to be humanist Muslims. They didn't want us to say, "This is not true. This is not real." They cringed at the idea that we would even want to call ourselves ex-Muslims. They thought that was a very harsh term. I remember being surprised by that. This was the same group of people who were very actively criticizing Christianity—not just criticizing but ridiculing Christianity. And some of those same people were hesitant to do that with Islam. That was very surprising to me. These were my people. I expected them to understand where we were coming from and understand why it was important to tackle religion head on and be unafraid to piss some people off, particularly religious conservatives. I was surprised that some of the people who wouldn't have hesitated to do that in regard to Western religions were hesitating when it came to Islam.
In the broader left outside of the secular, atheist context, things are so much worse in that it's assumed right from the beginning that I must be a bigot, I must be right-wing, I must have some kind of war-mongering, imperialist agenda. I get very frustrated. It's gotten to the point that I take for granted that I'm not going to be accepted by the broader progressive left.
I have a sense that something has changed in the progressive left but I am not one of these people who is going to leave the left and not be progressive anymore. I don't believe that. What this means is that I have to get involved, I have to change hearts and minds, I have to talk to people. No one said this was going to be easy. There's a reason we need people to be courageous in social discourse. It's so easy to fall into political tribes and tribal thinking. Now I see my role has to be to educate people on the left on what's going on here and how we need to get back on course.
What do you want Western liberals to understand about Islam?
It's not that I think Western liberals need to play a massive role when it comes to the conversation about Islam. It's just that I think the role they are playing now is counterproductive, at best. At worst, it is actively making things worse. It's making progress in this religious communities more difficult and adding onto these harms that people in the Muslim world already go through. What I hope is that they can start viewing Islam in the way they view Christianity and Judaism. I've found Islam is treated as a racial group more than a religion and Muslims are treated as a racial group in a way that Christians aren't and a way that Jews aren't. This is reflected in popular discourse, even in terms like "Islamophobia," which is this bizarre conflation of criticism of religion and criticism of people.
Not only are liberals and Western progressives wrong, they are actively leading to a more toxic discourse around faith and this absolutely will have an effect on the broader political climate. It already has. This is less visible in the United States than in Europe, but it's very visible in Europe and the silence of the left and progressives in general on the specific problems Islam poses has empowered the right. I worry that the left already has made itself this ideologically vacuous force where it is really just tribal politics rather than principles. It scares me to see what is happening. We need to right this course as soon as possible. Not just for Western politics but because Islam has had negative effects on the world, just as Christianity has and Judaism and the way all religions have. Islam is oppressing people all over the globe. We have a chance to move people away from superstitions and to work for a world where we really have equality and tolerance of minorities globally, but it cannot take place unless we take on religion.
Do you worry that by criticizing Islam you are giving ammunition to actual racists and bigots?
I think every ex-Muslim worries about that. Obviously, you don't to make things worse for your family and friends and you don't want any harm to befall them. This is one of the reasons there are many ex-Muslims who do not speak out and many ex-Muslims who prefer instead to call themselves liberal Muslims. I know for a fact that there are Muslim celebrities who are not Muslim, who prefer to just say they are Muslim. This is a very real struggle for many ex-Muslims.
For me, I try to weigh the harms. To say that there is no way possible that it can be used by the right-wing is not true. Of course it can. They can use it if they want. But it's only powerful if the left isn't taking this on and saying, "These are our issues. We care about gender equality. We care about science. We care about freedom of conscience. We care about these things and this is why Islam is a problem, and it's the same reason that Christianity is a problem." If the left were to take it on in a principled manner, it wouldn't be the cudgel it inevitably becomes. If the left is silent now, it will be only the far right that is talking about the problems with Islam and it makes them look like the truth-tellers instead of the left.
What you think about brands like Nike or the Women's March using models in the hijab?
It frustrates me, of course. I don't get as mad about it as other people do and that might be because I have a very deep-seated cynicism of corporations in general. I don't understand the appeal of woke capitalism. I don't understand why anyone cheers when corporations take these political stances. I don't know what they think is happening. To me, it's very clear that they are going to make money off it. It doesn't mean anything else. It's sort of like what happens when all these corporations get involved in LGBT activism for a month. I feel the same way about it. If they think they can profit off it, they will do it. I don't see them as moral creatures so I'm not that mad about it, but I do think it reflects something in the broader culture. By the time a corporation has gotten to the point where they think they can put a hijabi model on the cover of a magazine, they have calculated that something in the broader culture has changed enough that they can profit off it, which means there is a broad sympathy for that view. From that perspective, it's kind of upsetting to see that there is this broader acceptance of practices like hijab.
I'm sure a lot of Muslim women and non-Muslims who consider themselves allies would say it's empowering. What's your response to that, if someone says, "This is my choice, I'm empowered, and I want to be represented on the cover of Sports Illustrated or in Nike ads"?
If we were talking about Christian conservative practices, we would not be having this conversation. I feel sure of it. I feel sure that if a fundamentalist Mormon woman was saying that she is empowered in her long skirt and bonnet or whatever, you would view that with some level of suspicion, especially people who are of the left and who are feminist. And I think they would be right to do that. But when hijabis do the same, the response is totally different. It reveals a lot about our political climate and the ideological emptiness of the left and the degree to which it is very superficial. But it also reveals a latent racism. When Muslim women talk about modesty, it's seen as this immutable characteristic, like their superstitions are a deep part of them in a way that we don't see in the West.
Like people are trying so hard not to be racist that they are being racist?
It absolutely is racism. If the hijab is wonderful in all contexts, then you should be happy for it to be something that is forced upon your daughter. If you tomorrow your husband converts to Islam and forces your 8-year-old to put on a hijab and change the way she is dressed and refuse to talk to boys, if this wouldn't be acceptable to a Western woman when it comes to her own daughter, it should not be acceptable for any girl across the world.
A lot of people in the West are afraid of being imperialists, that we are just imposing our values on another population.
The idea of cultural imperialism is... I'm finding it hard to speak politely about it, but I think it's the most nonsensical thing. It's historically illiterate. This is what happens. The world has always been shaped by other cultures. We've seen the flow of cultural values forever. It's always happened. I don't know why all of a sudden it's this negative thing. We're not imposing liberal values on the East. We're saying, "Hey, look, equality of the sexes? It's fantastic. It's worked out well for us. Women are empowered this way, and it's morally right." If they had a choice to adopt it, I think many of them would. I'm baffled by the idea that it's an “erasure” of culture. Why is my culture defined by how horribly women are treated? If the culture in Victorian England can evolve into what it is and still be an interesting, vibrant place, why can't that happen in Pakistan or Libya or Saudi?
Do you think liberalization is going to happen in the Muslim world?
It's not inevitable, but I think if there's ever a time, it's now. I say this because for the first time, we have access to an open exchange of information. At this point, many Muslim-majority governments don't quite have the monitoring powers over the internet that they might have in five years or 10 years, so right now, there is a freedom that exists that has not existed before in terms of accessing information. I speak to free thinkers and atheists across the Muslim world all the time, and it's so, so, so much easier to be exposed to different ideas than it has ever been in the past. We have this window where the governments don't have the control over the internet. That will likely change soon, so right now, we can talk to people and engage with them and try to change their minds. And it's working. It's hard to measure atheists in the Muslim world because of the stigma and persecution, but it appears to be rising faster than anyone could have hoped. That's indication that something is really happening.