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Fearing ostracism by their family, or even death, many former Muslims keep their disbelief secret. A German organization offers support to people who leave Islam for another religion, or for none.
Turning away from Islam? No, she couldn't discuss the subject now, Minna Ahadi said quietly. The phone line faded in and out as her train went from one patchy wireless coverage area to the next. Yet it was not the bad connection that made Ahadi reluctant, but the subject. In a few hours she would be home, where she could talk openly. "But now, in the train, I cannot."
Later, back in her apartment, she apologizes and explains that she does not feel safe when she uses her name or the term "ex-Muslims" in public - even in Germany. She believes this fear is justified: Ahadi continues to receive anonymous letters threatening to shoot her, or warning she will die in a car accident.
The reason is that in 2007, Ahadi was one of the founders of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims, an association for people in Germany who have renounced their Islamic faith. By doing this, she says, she wanted to take a "provocative stand" against the label "Muslim," which is applied almost automatically to immigrants from Arab countries - regardless of whether they are now Christian, atheist, or indeed Muslim.
Police had to guard her home for months. Even today, she doesn't like to go out in the streets alone, so great is her fear that someone might recognize her as an ex-Muslim - and thus as someone deserving of death for supposedly turning their back on the 'one true religion,' as Muslims are taught.
Mouhanad Khorchide, director of the Center for Islamic Theology in Münster, says there are indeed groups in Islam, especially in radical Salafist circles, who pronounce the death penalty against apostates.
They point to a hadith, a saying, of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: "Whoever changes his religion, kill him." But not all Islamic scholars agree on the authenticity of this saying, Khorchide says. "The Koran itself only states that Allah will punish disbelief in the afterlife. It doesn't say anything about a worldly punishment."
'A grave sin'
Mouhanad Khorchide says self-radicalized extremists pose the greatest danger to non-believers
And while some Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, do prescribe death as the punishment for renouncing Islam, Khorchide is convinced the main danger comes from individuals who may feel called to act on their own initiative.
Theologian Bekir Alboga is the commissioner for interreligious dialogue at the Cologne-based Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), a major German Islamic organization associated with the Turkish state. He says the people Khorchide describes are "radicalized fundamentalists" who form only a small minority in Muslim society, and who often discover Islamic extremism by themselves on the Internet.
Alboga says Islamic teachings prohibit coercion: "The commandment in the Koran is clear: Anyone who tries to force people to accept the faith, or to remain in the faith, commits a grave sin."
Ahadi says that young people who repeatedly call on the Central Council of Ex-Muslims to ask for help are not primarily afraid of violence. "In Europe, we haven't had a case where someone was killed because he or she no longer believed in God," she says, adding after a short pause, "Thank God!" Instead, they mostly feared social ostracism. "They're afraid of losing their family and being kicked out."
Admitting that you no longer believe in God is often a big step, Ahadi said. So instead, many keep going through the motions of adherence to a religion they don't believe in: young women might put on their headscarves before they return home, or young men go with their fathers to the mosque and pretend to pray.
Khorchide says this contradicts the freedom he finds in the Koran to stop believing. He says he teaches his students that only sincere intentions count. "Everything else is an education in hypocrisy."
'Everyone has the right to believe in something'
It took two years to decide to come out as an atheist to his family in Baghdad, says Saif Al-Basri, an Iraqi medical student who lives in Münster. He told them that he could no longer believe in God. Their reaction came as a positive surprise, he says: His family did not approve of his decision, but accepted it. His uncle tried to convince him that he was confused, that he should give it another thought, that he might go to hell. "But they were very normal, peaceful conversations. I hadn't expected that."
He still hasn't changed his mind: Saif experienced the Iraqi civil war after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when extremists "cleansed" entire neighborhoods in Baghdad by Sunni and Shiite according to religious affiliation. In 2006, the then 16-year-old fled the war to relatives in Germany.
"Of course, the civil war was a factor that made me think," he said. Eventually, the discrepancies between religion and science became too great, the idea of God too absurd.
Every religion is dangerous, he says, because it doesn't offer people any choice. "Everyone has the right to believe in something, even the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you want - as long as it doesn't harm others." But often, young people are not given this option, and have notions of sin and hell drummed into them. Then, says Saif, religion becomes "terrorism."
That's why in Germany, he blogs, publishes articles critical of Islam and translates scientific articles to educate people. He does it under his own name. Of course, he has also received death threats. "Fanatics are everywhere, including online."
His account is repeatedly hacked by activists he calls "online jihadis," who primarily attack websites critical of Islam. Yet he says he is not afraid of actual violence: Once he sent his full address in Münster to someone who had threatened him. Nothing happened. "This is all just hot air," he laughs.
Saif says he is grateful to live in Germany, where he can express himself so openly: Many friends living in various Arab countries, whom he knows from internet forums for ex-Muslims, have to conceal their identity.
Their fear is sometimes justified: Waleed Al-Husseini, who published an Islam-critical blog in the West Bank under his own name, was arrested in 2010. He spent ten months in prison. When he was released, many told him: "You're no longer welcome here." There were even calls to lynch him publicly.
Of course, he should have been more careful about protecting his identity, says Waleed, who now lives in France. "But I had no idea that I'd be arrested just for criticizing Islam."
He says he can probably never return to the Palestinian territories. But he is adamant that he does not regret his criticism. If he had only pretended to believe in God, he said, "then I would have been lying not only to myself, but to the actual Muslims." And that, he says, would have been wrong.