Zahra, 27, a teacher at Srinagar, is like any other aspirational millennial, looking forward to a life in any Indian metro. But that's not the only reason why she wants to leave. She is a closeted ex-Muslim who fears for her safety and feels tired of leading a dual life: being a practicing Muslim in front of her friends and family but seeking a different life in her heart.
"Sharing my beliefs and thoughts on Islam is impossible. In fact, if I do, not just mine but my family's lives will be in danger too. I have seen a lawyer being killed by his neighbour because of his liberal views," says Zahra, who did not reveal her real name.
She is among a growing tribe of ex-Muslims in India who are shy of coming out in public but articulate their anxieties and concerns through social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and Instagram.
According to a Pew Research Centre survey released earlier this year, 6 percent of Indian Muslims described themselves as not believing in God, more than any other religious community.
"The number of ex-Muslims is growing. In India, they do not come out in the open due to fear of persecution and end up leading hypocritical lives. Some people are becoming ex-Muslims because they are fed up with the theology of political Islam," says Waris Mazhari, assistant professor at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard University, and alumni of the Deoband Madrasa.
Who are ex-Muslims?
Ex-Muslims is an umbrella term that includes born-Muslims who do not want to identify themselves with Islam, those who have converted to other religions and the ones who call themselves atheists.
The co-founder of Ex-Muslims of India, an online group that was formed two years ago, who goes by the pseudonym Hina, calls it a political identity that distinguishes them from Muslims. "Islam dominates all aspects of our lives. Our actions are judged based on the tag of 'Muslim'. Hence, differentiating ourselves becomes important," she says.
Hina, who is based in Hyderabad, was drawn towards feminism in college but the idea of women in Islam did not sit well with her new-found ideology. "What disturbed me the most was Prophet Mohammad's marriage to Ayesha, who was only nine years old. As a Muslim, I tried to rationalise this by trying to find answers in Islamic theology. But none of the answers satisfied me," says Hina.
This finally led to her break from Islam. She finally found a voice when she met like-minded people and co-founded her online group. To some extent, this group helps fight the 'invisibilsation' of ex-Muslims. From Kashmir to Kerala, there are similar online and offline ex-Muslim groups. Being able to share their angst and views on social media has been a liberating experience for people like Zahra and Hina.
Most ex-Muslims prefer to remain in the shadows for fear of castigation or, worse, being labelled apostate and becoming a target of hardline Muslims for their views. For some it is Islam's lack of respect for the minorities, for others, it is the contradiction between Islam and science.
"Many Muslims, who are not aware of multiple Islamic traditions, are ashamed that their religion gets identified with extremism and violence. The rights of women and minorities are important questions today but Islamic theology is stuck in the past and refuses to revisit these questions. The only recourse for some of these Muslims is to leave the religion," says Mazhari.
For Zahra, who is an Alima (religious scholar), it was Islam's position on slavery and women's rights that led her on a different path. "Being a woman, the idea of having sex slaves unnerved me. The more I read as a religious scholar, the more I became convinced that the idea of gender equality was foreign to my religion," says Zahra, who goes around in a headscarf after 10 years of wrapping herself in a full burqa that covers even the hands and eyes. "After my religious training, I found myself armed with less logic and more empty arguments."
Some ex-Muslims are no longer content with creating safe spaces. They have turned into full-time activists, who now want to take their message across to Muslims.
Kohram, 40, based in Hyderabad, left his career to establish a YouTube channel called Dystopia to Reason. The channel organises regular debates and discussions to challenge mainstream Islamic ideology through a dispassionate, historical reading of the religion. "I invite experts who can question this totalitarian ideology of Islam through their knowledge of history as well as religious scriptures," says Kohram.
According to him, there are many Muslims who have got disillusioned with the "outdated beliefs" of Islam, but do not come out in the open due to fear of retribution. "It is the need of the hour to spread awareness that it is perfectly fine to leave Islam," he says.
What is also worrisome for ex-Muslims is the violence perpetrated against them in the name of apostasy. "I know of a family that converted to another religion in Hyderabad. The family and children were tortured by local religious mobs to such an extent that the gentleman lost his mental balance and is now in an asylum," he says, unwilling to reveal the identity of the family for their safety. "The killing, torture and marginalization of those who leave Islam needs to end."
Kohram is not the only one who is engaged in such activism. Some other popular YouTube channels run by Indian ex-Muslims include Zafar Heretic and Apostate Imam.
The rather overt message is a simple one: most Muslims do not know what is written in the Islamic scriptures. Once they know it, they will leave this religion. "Muslims need to be saved from Islam. I firmly believe that Islam cannot be reformed; the only way to rescue Muslims is to dismantle the religion," says Kohram.
Some of these ex-Muslims faces also lend their voices to Hindu right-wing channels on the social media. Especially in the current political atmosphere where Muslims are being persecuted due to their identity, ex-Muslims often get accused of promoting Islamophobia.
"I agree that some ex-Muslims are problematic and end up villainising the entire community. But we are not against Muslims, we are against Islam. We need a voice and a space for our opinions," says Kohram.
Hina does not like ex-Muslims appearing on Hindu right-wing channels but argues that the fledgling community is isolated as it is shunned and ostracized by Muslims. "Loneliness, invisibility and frustration impels some of them to make use of whatever platform is available," she says.
"Moreover, even the Left-Liberals do not understand the extent of violence we face. They do not see the need for reform within the religion. Under such censoriousness, what options are we left with," reiterates Kohram.
One of the biggest grouse of ex-Muslims is that no one is willing to listen to them, whether it's their own families, friends or the clergy. "In the Indian context of secular democracy, religious communities should provide space for dissent and differences of opinions," says Mohammad Sajjad, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University. "No Muslim should be penalized for his or her views. As a practising Muslim, I might not engage with others over fundamentals of my faith but am open to discussing all issues which has implications for public life like sharia or apostasy," says Sajjad.
Hina argues that while Islam ridicules other religions, it is very sensitive to criticism from within. "This is a problem peculiar to Muslims; religions like Hinduism don't really fret over what views individuals might hold about God or sacred personalities," says Sajjad.
Experts believe that Muslims today are in dire need of reconciling their faith with modern sensibilities. "Why are we still teaching slavery in our religious texts? Till the time we do not reform our theology, more Muslims will find themselves on this path (of becoming ex-Muslims). Unfortunately, the Ulama (clerics) are not paying any attention to this problem," says Mazhari.
For ex-Muslims like Zahra though, the reform of Islamic theology is a tall expectation which may or may not come true. In the meantime, all that she wants is to get rid of the double life that she is leading. "I just want to live a life based on my beliefs. What is wrong with that?"
The author is a Delhi-based independent researcher and columnist.