Obaid Omer was born in India. He grew up in Canada. He left Islam in his teenage years. Now, he fights for free speech and secularism. He is the co-host of the Heretics Corner, which highlights issues dealing with apostasy. Here we leanr about his life and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: As you were born in India and grew up in Canada, how did religion enter personal life from within that familial and dual-national cultural context?
Obaid Omer: My family moved to Canada at the end of 1975 when I was 6. My father specifically moved us to a neighborhood that hadn’t started to be ghettoized as a South Asian neighborhood, he wanted us to assimilate. May parents, while devout, were not fundamentalist about their faith. They made sure we learned to read the Quran, how to do our prayers and learn about the faith. One of my clearest memories from when we first moved to Canada is; one night we were visited by men from the mosque. I let them in, my dad invited them to sit and offered them food and drink. Within a short amount of time, maybe 15 minutes, my father was throwing them out the door, my brother and I were shocked. My father then sat my brother and me down and said “What those men did was wrong. They came here to tell me how to be a good Muslim and that is between me and my God. It is up to your mother and me to teach you and your sister about the faith and once you are an adult it is up to you how you practice it, no one else has a right to tell you how to do it.” This showed me to question authority.
Growing up we were not made to pray 5 times a day but it was small things that we would continuously have to be aware of. A big thing was eating halal, to a point. We wouldn’t eat pork and even as young as 8 when buying snacks we had to look to make sure it had no pork in it or that it wasn’t cooked in lard. In second grade my teacher announced that on Friday she would bring in hotdogs and cook us hot dogs. I went to speak to her to let her know I couldn’t eat pork, she sent a letter home to my parents to let them know she was cooking all beef hot dogs. My parents allowed it even though it wasn’t halal. It was this tightrope that made it hard to navigate, we were told to assimilate but there were things that we were denied to allow us to fully do so. Being 11 years old and ensuring that the bread you brought home that had no lard in it. I was in a liberal Muslim family but even then there were parts of childhood that we had to forego to ensure we practiced these rules.
Jacobsen: What were the inconsistencies in the sciences and the explanations provided by the religion that eventually lead to your leaving Islam?
Omer: I was always curious and would question just about everything. At 11 the Carl Sagan series Cosmos aired, watching that opened my mind to a new way of questioning. The way Sagan talked about the scientific method and his embracing of curiosity awoke something in me. It was later that year when I learned about our sun burning out in 5 billion years and couldn’t reconcile it with what I had been told about the day of judgment. I asked my parents about this discrepancy and got back a platitude about how they were one and the same, I couldn’t accept that. From then on the more, I learned the more I came to realize that Islam was wrong. Learning about evolution destroyed the creation myth, Hearing the story from my grandmother about the sun setting a puddle of mud was another nail in the coffin. It was all these flaws and errors in what was supposed to be perfect that lead me to see the falsehood in it. By 16 I stopped believing.
Science and reason are the best tools to demonstrate the false claims made by revelation, but I think we need to be careful, science and reason cannot be the replacement for religion, they were never designed to be a philosophy by which you live your life. You need science to remove the veil but you need to offer that which faith offers as well. The only way I can really explain this is by looking at the account of Genesis and the fall. The knowledge that was denied Adam and Eve was not the knowledge of science. They were told specifically to not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God had no problem talking about “science” he boasted about his creation and demanded adulation, adoration, and obedience as his due for his work.
What we were denied was how to think and not what to think but also a sense of purpose and identity.
I respect and admire science immensely I am not trying to undermine the contributions science has made to human flourishing, I’m just saying that it needs to be a balanced approach and with science explaining how the heavens go and something else, I’m not sure what, explaining how to go to heaven, metaphorically speaking.
Jacobsen: How do free speech and secularism provide protections from religious fundamentalism and literalism?
Omer: Free speech and secularism are the two most important values if you want to build a free society, with free speech being a first among equals. Without the ability to speak out you cannot let people know if you are being oppressed and you can never know the mind of those who you are in opposition to. You cannot say a society has true free expression without it being secular if you are not free to practice no religion or to practice any religion.
Conversely, you cannot create a secular society without free expression.
My hope is not to have a world that sees religion destroyed and banished from the public sphere never to be spoken of again. I would be ecstatic if everyone around the world decides that belief in a deity was not necessary and that there is more under Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of by that philosophy. Without trying to sound condescending, I would much rather people were able to come to the realization that faith was how we discovered the world in our infancy and now it is time put away childish things.
I try not to make it about me being opposed to faith or to a specific faith, even though I can go on rants about it, I would rather support free expression and secularism. This might seem like the same thing but there is a difference in the approaches. If I support free speech and secularism I am pushing forward the ideas that I believe are needed to build a stable and cohesive society. If I spend all my time fighting religion I could end up losing myself in that fight and end up creating a society that treats the faithful the way they have treated non-believers and those that believed differently and still do in the case of Islam. I see some trends of this and it gets me worried.
I saw the comments that people had made when China announced the forced re-education of the Uyghurs. There was a lot of people spouting vitriol about that is how Muslims should be treated and that is the only way to deal with them. I would much rather deal with a religious person who is willing to practice their faith and allow others to follow theirs or none at all and allowing a free and open exchange of ideas than I would an atheist who wants to forcibly ban religion or send people off for re-education.
The problem lately has been that even the most seemingly benign comment, “What a nice sunny day”, for example, can now become highly politically charged. Someone somewhere will be offended on behalf of those who have a rare and unfortunate condition that causes them pain when exposed to sunlight.
5 years ago I would have said that states and religious fundamentalists were the greatest threat to free speech but lately, we seem to want to police ourselves and even those who are against censorship are scared to speak their mind and be shunned by their tribe. We spent a long time fighting for the right to live according to our conscience and we should willingly give it away. I hope that we will be able to come back to a path where we are able to have a rational and open dialogue without relying on vitriol spewed back and forth all the time.
If we aren’t willing t fight for the values that brought us all our other most cherished values than who will be left to fight for liberty and freedom.
Jacobsen: As the co-host of Heretics Corner, what are some of the main issues for apostates? What countries tend to be the worse violators of freedom of religion and belief for those who leave the faith?
Omer: Two other ex-Muslims and I started Heretics Corner to be an outlet for apostates from any faith to discuss their struggles and what they have had to cope with and how they overcame all that. We are hoping that by sharing these stories it will give some help to others who are struggling with the same issues. While all their stories are different, there is one thread that ties them together, and that is the initial fear of being cut off from family and friends and support system. For most people, even those living in liberal Western democracies, you can find yourself completely cut off from those that were closest to you. We spoke to one Saudi ex-Muslim who left in the middle of the night and came to the US and had to start over in a new country with no one and has now rebuilt her life an dis doing well but she has paid a heavy price for living free.
Right now it is Muslim majority countries that are the biggest threat to freedom from and of religion. This was the focus of our first episode with guests. We had on Yasmine Mohammed and Jimmy Bagnash on to discuss the work they are doing with Free Hearts Free Minds, an organization that Yasmine started to help atheists in Muslim majority countries. Jimmy offers atheist living there life coaching and gives them some skills they can use to not be so overwhelmed by having to live your life secretly and hiding who you are. The testimonials on their website from the people they have helped shows how much this is needed.
This goes to back to free speech and secularism, countries such as Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan have to stop making atheism a terrorist offense or a crime against the society. The voices in those countries, that are being silenced for asking for the same freedoms we enjoy should be the ones that are the most protected and the most supported.
I hope Heretics Corner can help bring a lot of stories of people leaving their faith behind and becoming complete again, and maybe we can be a light at the end of the tunnel for some people.
I do see some semi-hopefull trends though, ex-Muslims are starting to be talked about within mosques and Muslim communities, not always with calls for our deaths but as a problem to be addressed. Religious and community leaders from the Muslim populations, especially in the West are afraid that more and more people leave Islam and are trying to have some sort of discourse. I think this is also starting to happen in the Middle East, Maryam Namazie famously said that there is a tsunami of ex-Muslims coming and I think she is right. There had been aWin Gallup poll a few years back that showed Saudi Arabia had 19% of its population who described themselves as atheist or questioning with 5% living openly an atheist.
Jacobsen: What tends to be the more touching stories of leaving fundamentalist religion and restarting a personal life that you have come across?
Omer: The stories that I find the most heartbreaking are when people talk about how they are cut off from their family. The Saudi ex-Muslim I had mentioned earlier, when she talked about how her only contact with her mother was to get horrible insults and death threats from her was incredibly sad to hear, and you could feel the regret she had that she was cut off from one of the people who is supposed to be the most protective and accepting of you. I have heard so many stories of people being cut off from family and the way these stories are told so matter of factly but with so much emotion behind the words I can’t help but want to reach out and provide some comfort but it just seems like something that is impossible to heal.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.