Sara Al Iraqiya is a USA-based 2nd generation Iraqi-American social scientist, writer, and activist. Raised under Sunni Islam and a survivor of attempted radicalization in American mosques and centers — she has both lived experience as well as academic experience with Islam. By age 20, after gaining the freedom to live autonomously and exercising her right to protect herself, she left Islam altogether. Sara aims to educate her fellow Americans and lovers of Western civilization on the horrors, inequalities, and injustices that occur in Western-based mosques and Islamic centers. Sara has been published in two languages (and counting). A world traveler, she briefly lived in France, Jordan, and even Cuba in order to complete her Masters of Arts in Global Affairs specializing in Global Culture and Society. Sara Al Iraqiya has been published in Conatus News and Spain’s ALDE Group.
Scott Douglas Jacobson: When it comes to those that hold to the title of nonreligious or irreligious, they come from a narrow set of possibilities. Those that grew up in a religion and left. Those that grew up in a fundamentalist religion and liberalized.
Those who never grew up in a religion. Of course, the ones that liberalized eventually leave or form something like an ethical culture, Sunday Assembly, or an Oasis network. Those are types of worship that do not ground themselves in the supernatural, in theology.
When it comes to your own background, having talked a bit off tape, you grew up Muslim and then left the faith. How did that happen?
Sara Al Iraqiya: I did not know if I was Sunni or Shi’ite. I did not even know about the sects of Islam until 2003 because sectarian violence in Iraq made the news here in the United States. I suppose people were curious. So, people would keep asking me if I was Sunni or Shi’ite. I could not answer because my parents never differentiated that to me.
As I got older, I learned I was raised Sunni Muslim.
As a child, I truly believed in God; and with the Islamic curriculum that I was exposed to as a child, it was relatively innocuous. They were sweet stories, heartwarming stories about being nice to people and doing good deeds.
For example, when you find yourself in abundance, give things away to those in need, these are practicable actions with or without a religion. However, as a child, I felt these are such profound words, such great ideas that were given to me from a God that loves me.
I did not have anyone to read to me, so I developed an obsession with books.
I loved the public library. I loved going there. I loved borrowing books from my peers, from anywhere. I loved books. I was obsessed with them. I was so young. I could not read.
So, I would pray.
I would pray to God. I would ask God to help me learn how to read. I would pray so much. I woke up one day. I was reading this book. I thought, “Wow, God gave me this gift. I am reading. God gave me the gift of reading. This is amazing!”
No. What it was, and what I did not realize, I had been practicing so hard. I was playing word games, and watching my older siblings do their homework. Prayer happened to be a component. I could have been meditating, thinking about reading.
For some reason, regarding my ability to read, I attributed it to God and praying to God. I became not only advanced in reading for my age level. Also, advanced in writing for my age level, I completely attributed these things to my prayers being answered.
Basically, I was convinced my petitions to God worked. I was such a youngster. I was such a young, innocent kid. I did not understand that I made that happen. So, there was that.
Growing up, I always look at the world with sheer wonder. I would think, “Wow, I am so lucky. I am so grateful that there is a God that created all of these things. Everything is so beautiful. This world is colorful.”
Full of colors, plants, and animals, I loved to play outside when I was a kid. I loved to play with the little critters that I would meet outside and playing in the grass and stuff. Sometimes, I would find a toad.
I was not scared of spiders. I played with spiders. I loved the world. I loved nature. I was a kid that loved to play outside. It was the early 1990s. That is what we were doing, playing outside. We were not playing with iPads.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. You can play word games on those iPads. That is good too. So, you can teach the kids important skills with iPads. But I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. It was nice.
At that time, Islamic curriculum that was given to me was geared towards young children, so everything in that basic curriculum was sweet. It was the “sweet stuff.” Sweet words and sweet stories. Heartwarming stuff.
However, as you get older and advance in the Islamic curriculum, the education becomes more extreme. I inadvertently received a Wahhabi education in the United States at a weekend school in my local mosque.
I had that education in the United States, which is something we should all be concerned about now. We can talk about that in a moment. However, yes, it was moving on up. It was moving on to something more, a little more aggressive and sinister. No more “sweet stuff.”
I was “bad” for integrating with others outside of the mosque. There were many attempts to make me feel that way and to accept it as a truth. That interfaith friendships or even interactions were considered sin.
I was a sinner. I was bad. I remember the other students would get upset with me because I refused to say that I hate gay people. I refused to say that gay people are going to burn in hell.
At this time, I believed in hell. I thought, “That is where all the murderers and evil people go. They go to hell.” However, as I was getting older, the mosque leaders and mosque attendees were telling me homosexuals and transgender people go to hell. Because they defied “God’s Word.”
I said, “What did they do wrong?” They would explain, for example, with transgender people, “They have altered their bodies.” I said, “What if somebody was in a severe accident? And so they got reconstructive surgery to live a normal life?”
“There are many people who get surgery. If they are in an accident, afterwards, they get reconstructive surgery. Isn’t that altering their body? Are they going to go to hell?”
I would get sent to “time out” for asking too many questions.
I eventually learned that you do not ask too many questions in the mosque in these Islamic weekend schools. If you ask questions, then that means you are questioning God’s Word.
They feel as if relaying God’s actual Word to the people. So, asking questions is a big no-no, I would get in trouble for that, when I simply saw this as people claiming this as a god’s word.
Then there was also being told that Christians and Jews are all “people of the book.” They are monotheists. They are fine. However, they do not walk the straight narrow path as you do. Then there would be conflicting passages. There would be another passage in the other side of the Qur’an where it essentially said, “Do not trust the Jews.”
They flat out said, “Do not trust the Jews.” I do not agree with this and never have in my life. I have so many friends who are Jewish or Christian in public school. Atheist friends, friends who worship more than one God. They are so nice to me.
They invite me over. We have a good time. We eat snacks and play games. They have been so nice to me. The mosque leaders would say, “Yes, that is what they do. They are nice to you because they want to bring you in, and they want to bring you into sin.”
“Right now, you are walking on the straight and narrow path, but you will fall off if you keep hanging out with these people. Because when you are alone in a room with a non-Muslim, there is one other presence in that room. That presence is Satan.”
And so as ridiculous as this sounds, it is supposed to sound true to someone who is a “believer.” However, to me, it did not sound right.
I had a heart of a child. I felt sorry for Satan. Because I looked at the story of Satan in the Qur’an. I felt sorry for Satan because he was criticizing God’s work. In the Qur’an, he told God, “This human is weak compared to us. To my race.”
Satan in Islamic lore belongs to a different race, called the jinn. Which is an entity you cannot see, but they can see you, it is complicated because different sects are taught different things. However, I could empathize with Satan. He was best friends with God. He was criticizing God’s work like friends do.
“I am supposed to bow down to this human. This human is weak. I am of a different race. I can walk straight through these people.” There was one quote; Satan said, “I can walk straight through them.” So, I felt of compassion for Satan even [Laughing]! Because I was looking at everything through the eyes of a child. I thought, “He was making a criticism.”
I felt that humans are weak compared to the jinn because there is a whole chapter in the Quran that explains the jinn and how they are. They are creatures with supernatural capabilities. They can travel at will, and essentially teleport. They sounded way cooler than humans. I agreed with Satan on that one.
However, you cannot say that in a mosque. You will get in trouble.
They might even try to do an exorcism on you. That is a whole different story and it is very sad that this practice continues.
So, after causing all that trouble I decided to leave the weekend school.
My parents were shocked about this. They thought that the mosque leaders were going to teach me things like “be nice to people, give your extra food to homeless people instead of throwing it in the garbage, give away your extra clothes to people who do not have warm clothes in the winter.”
They thought they were going to teach that brand of morality. What my parents did not understand, what Muslim American parents do not understand, is that the mosque leaders were not teaching us how to be good people, they were teaching us how to hate.
The curriculum starts from childhood. Step by step. Until you see these teenagers or people in their early 20s who are ready to blow themselves up in public places or shoot up concerts or whatnot, we wonder where these homegrown terrorists come from.
There are many reasons for Islamist radicalization. However, part of the reason is the extreme ideologies being taught in the mosques here in the United States. That is a huge part of it and I stand firmly by this statement.
So, when I finally decided I did not want to study Islam in the mosque, my parents understood and even commended me.
I was studying on my own. Because I had not let go of the idea that there is a God. That God loves me and the world. I started believing that way up until the age of 19. I was watching a YouTube personality. Her name is Cristina Rad.
It was a long time ago. I am putting an age on myself [Laughing]. It was a while back. However, she is Romanian and an ex-Orthodox Christian. So, I was watching her videos. She had the video about the “banana guy.”
She was basically dragging them, making fun of them. She was hilarious. She is making fun of these crazy Christians. I thought, “Oh, this is hilarious. She is making fun of these crazy Christians. Oh my God, these are guys are mad.”
“They are so crazy. Oh my God.” Then I think, “Let me see more videos by this girl, she is so funny.” Then I see she is criticizing Islam. It was a record scratch. “What?” [Laughing]. “Wait, what?” [Laughing] “She is criticizing Islam?”
I did not realize up until then. I did not realize how that affected me. I had never seen somebody make fun of Islam before. This got me to the point where I did not think that you could make fun of Islam because it was so drilled in my head that I could not question anything.
The mosque leaders did a good job of that. In many of these Islamic weekend schools, through Islamic curriculum, you will see their manipulation tactics in some of their books and whatnot.
They are experts in brainwashing. Of course, Islam in and of itself, the religion does a good job of indoctrinating people or else there would not be between 1 and 2 billion Muslims in the world.
I am sure if many of the people who are surveyed answer, “Yes, I am a Muslim” out of fear, to be honest. So, that is a side note. That is my social science, nerdy side. When it comes to research methodologies, I am skeptical. Especially of surveys, the surveys make me the most skeptical [Laughing].
When I was searching for ex-Muslims, I only found ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity at that time.
I did not want to become a Christian. Abrahamic religion did not resonate with me anymore.
It is an esoteric concept. No hate to anybody who joins a church. If that heals you, if that makes you feel you are being a better person by going to church – by all means, go to church. So, long as you are not hurting other people, go ahead and do and believe as you please.
That is what makes Western culture so excellent, I believe. It is that we can do and say as we believe, so long as we are allowed to live and are not hurting other people.
So, that is fine to me. However, I could only find these ex-Muslims who converted to Christianity. It seemed these were all coming out of the same God damn church. I realized, “these are fucking commercials.”
It was a breaking point. I do not know if this is their real story. It might be their real story. If it is, that is cool. I have ex-Muslim friends who became Christians. I am super happy for them, but this is not for me. This is not for me. I do not have anything right now.
I do not have any religion.
So, I am becoming frustrated at this point. Because I am not finding anybody like me. I did not want to convert to Christianity because it is not in my heart. I do not feel it in my heart. I am not going to join a church.
I am not saying I dislike Christians.
I am actually going to church tomorrow with a friend of mine. I am going to be there bright and early. I go to church often with my Christian friends for certain occasions. I respect it and respect them. I respect them because they respect me.
They have never tried to force me into anything. There are some members of churches who have crossed boundaries and have been a bit aggressive towards me and others. Some would say that I made the right choice by leaving Islam, but I need to join a religion, that religion being their brand of Christianity. I stay away from people like this.
So, I wanted to find ex-Muslims out there. It did not hit me that you can leave Islam. The way Islam is taught; it doesn’t hit you that you can leave Islam. I know it sounds bizarre. But it doesn’t hit you. But you can leave Islam.
I did not want to go from one Abrahamic religion to another. Islam is basically Orthodox Judaism with a dash of Jesus. Islam is Orthodox Judaism plus Jesus, only this time Jesus doesn’t give a shit about you.
But I am not going after theology. I am going after extremist curriculum and exposing it for what it is.
What does upset me is what is taught in local mosques, in the United States. There are mosques that are teaching extreme ideologies. That is why many of my Muslim friends refuse to step foot in a mosque because they see the way mosques have become. The Muslims I know will not send their children to mosques.
My feelings and opinions about religion are irrelevant. I am talking about what is happening, right here and right now. We have radical mosques.
In this country, people do not realize these are radical mosques. You will get some people who are crazy—they go and shoot up a mosque. This is horrific and deplorable. There are regular peaceful people in many mosques.
I would go there to smell the incense and see the carpet with the ornate designs. When I step into a mosque, it brings back a childhood feeling. It is warm. The smell of the incense. It hits me. It smells so nice.
I refuse to go to a mosque because I do not like wearing a headscarf. So I took that incense and made a car air freshener out of it, it doesn’t require to be lit of course. My car smells like a mosque.
Then you also hear a call to prayer. Sometimes, it sounds nice. Sometimes, the imam’s voice is annoying as fuck. It is the same trigger for some things. It reminds me of childhood, even though they are chanting about some violent, fucked up shit. It triggers some warm feelings. I hate that it does, but it does because it reminds me of being a kid, if that makes sense.
So, I am searching, searching, searching, searching. I find no other ex-Muslims. Zero. Zero ex-Muslims who decide, “I am done with religion.” They become ex-Muslims and become Christians or something. That is all I could find.
Until years went by, the ex-Muslim movement became louder.
They are not bigots. They are simply speaking the truth. There are societal issues going on. They are finally being addressed. The ex-Muslim movement did that most efficiently.
Ex-Muslim atheists are not storming up into mosques and harassing Muslims. If anything, I have been harassed by many Muslims in my life.
However, then I also have many Muslim friends. It is about the personal level. Who a person is.
That is the misconception that people have when it comes to criticizing Islam.
Even ex-Muslims have trouble criticizing Islam, they get disinvited from speaking events. Places will not publish the work of many ex-Muslim writers. They get called bigots.
It causes me to wonder, “How does this make me a bigot at all? Because I am criticizing an ideology I grew up with and I do not believe in anymore?”
The ex-Muslim movement is going strong and it should continue going. I also love the humanitarian work that is going along with it.
We are moving past making fun of that religion; our old religion that we grew up with. We are moving past that, I think, and becoming activists in our own right, whether we realize it or not.
Because it is setting an example for that next generation of young people who may question Islam and will be looking for ex-Muslims out there, and maybe they do not necessarily want to become a Christian or any other sort of theist.
They will find us. They will find our writing; they will find our videos. They will find our talks.
They will see us speaking at their universities. I see that happening in the future. The ex-Muslims, it will not be like the old days, the Dark Ages, which was not too long ago, of being an ex-Muslim. Of being a secular humanist, being an atheist, being an ex-Muslim and not joining another religion. Now there are people that young ex-Muslims can look up to because many of them find themselves completely lost without families.
They do not know how the world works. They turn to hard drugs. They become alcoholics. What do the imams say? The imams say, “People who leave Islam. They become alcoholics and drug addicts. Why do you think that is?” I want to ask them, “Why do you think that is?”
There is absolutely zero compassion there. These people, they turn to things like substances and self-destruction because it is so hard to be ostracized in every direction.
On the other hand, it is warming my heart now. To see, that there is a movement underway. That it is not going to be as hard and as painful as it once was to leave Islam and to leave these customs behind; and to think, to live authentically and to live autonomously and to think with your mind and not with somebody else’s noxious ideas.
Scott: What are you doing now in terms of your own professional work? How does your personal philosophy feed into this?
Al Iraqiya: So for my own professional work, I do not to talk about my work life unless it is a completed project or requires speaking about at that time. Otherwise, I do not talk about this publicly because there are many Muslims who have called ex-Muslims at work. Their bosses were called and then told fabricated things about their ex-Muslim employees in an attempt to get them fired.
So, that happens a lot. However, there have been cases where ex-Muslims are being stalked by Muslims on the internet, trying to find out places of work and things like that. One, I heard one story.
They posted online, “Such and such person called my boss and said all these complete lies about me” to warn other ex-Muslims about being open about their workplace. I’d been harassed by that same troll.
So I am not too public about these things.
My writing is easily accessible. I can be myself when I speak or write. Leaving Islam helped to some extent. For example, my quality of work used to plummet during Ramadan because I would feel dizzy and could not produce satisfactory work. I don’t have that problem anymore.
Scott: From extensive personal experience and those of ex-Muslims known to me, as a heuristic or rule of thumb for comprehension and compassion, those individuals who criticize religion in a public, direct, and assertive way.
They will undergo some form of harassment, whether at work, in home life, in public, and so on. This will impact their entire life. They should know this if they do plan on becoming writers or activists in some form. It comes with the territory. It is a huge personal safety and comfort sacrifice.
In taking on the important issues that affect all of us with regards to religion, especially the religions or subsects of religion that have a political motive, because often, those in the non-religious community will work towards prevention of the encroachment of religion into public life, especially in Western Europe and even more so in north America.
So, it cannot use the force of state because we do not live in theocratic societies to enforce their religion on others who may speak out about it. However, they can use other social, cultural, and personal harassment means to silence you, mistreat you, and so on.
I and others have left jobs and undergone verbal, emotional, and social abuse, in order to continue doing the activist work we have done. It does not come without costs. Sometimes, it will come at heavy costs.
However, if you view the work as highly important, you will continue in the work, but do not be naïve in the fact that there will be times that will be extraordinarily difficult. You will feel as if alone in your activist work.
Al Iraqiya: Yes, I completely believe that. So, this is why I have been transparent with my employers. I explain to them everything. I explain to them all of my publications. I explain to them groups I belong to and my activism.
So, I find it important to maintain that with employers. However, it is not always so easy. I have heard so many stories. It is not always well-received by employers. People do not want to find any possible complications at their workplace. They are worried they may put other employees at risk. There are all these things to take into account.
I have my Master’s in Global Affairs, specialized in Culture and Society. With Global Affairs, the core classes were about the global economy. So, this is my area of expertise. I wanted to get into journalism. I loved writing. I loved the things that I read when I was getting my Master’s.
I was thinking, it stinks that not everybody gets to read this stuff. Not everybody has the time or the funds to read all these things. Hell, I barely did. So, let me talk about some academic ideas, let me talk about it in a way that is accessible, that is what I do.
So, with my articles that have been published thus far, I make sure they are accessible. They are readable. There was a time when I was reading a book a week plus articles.
The articles would be twenty, thirty pages long, dense text. I would have to retain all of that for a master’s degree. So, there is reading involved. I take everything that I have learned.
But with social science – it is imperative to keep up with it. It is similar to how medical doctors take a board exam. They have to read certain medical journals periodically because things change in the medical field. So, they need to be up to date so they can practice modern medicine. Social scientists absolutely need to do something along these lines. Even data from 2008 is crucially different from data in 2018.
So, I try to keep up to date because social science is ever-changing.
I get supportive messages from Baghdad and Basra! I love that we live in this time where global activism is most attainable.
We talked about this earlier. I speak with ex-Muslim young women. I give them the logistical support and emotional support. They do not have their families anymore. In Middle Eastern culture and many Mediterranean, North African cultures, it is family, family, family. Family is everything.
Then you are taught that you do not trust anybody but your family: family, family, family. When they realize they do not have family anymore, their family literally does not love them; their family hates them. In some cases, their family wants them dead. All of that is crushing.
I wish I could meet up with everybody who sends me a message.
And says, “Could you please meet up with me for coffee? I am based in such and such city. Are you ever in this city? I need to talk to somebody.” I wish I could respond to those messages and meet up with everybody.
I cannot. I’ve met ex-Muslims through a mutual friend. Someone I trust and trust their judgement. I would meet in a public place with them. It is a rewarding experience. I remember I was sitting with an ex-hijabi and she ordered a beer. I do not drink beer. I cannot. I do not know why. I cannot drink beer, but I do drink this one Lebanese beer because it’s worth the gastric discomfort.
But otherwise, I do not drink beer for some reason. It hurts my stomach. So, I ordered a glass of wine. She orders a beer. I wish I could show you the grin—it was the most adorable thing.
She is said, “I ordered a beer!” [Laughing]! She was so thrilled about ordering a beer!
She could say it! She could look at the waiter. I remember the waiter was a guy. Looked at him in the eye, ordered a beer, the waiter walks away.
She looks at me. She says, “He’s cute, wasn’t he?” [Laughing]! This is supposed to be girl talk. This is supposed to be so normal, banter, whatever, normal talk.
This is what I mean by emotional support: having a girl friend to talk to about things. It is nice. She would not have been able to say to her mother that she thought the waiter was cute. I mean it is priceless. It is so important. It needs to be done.
Islam itself is gender segregated. So, it is a lot easier in that case for ex-Muslim women to help other ex-Muslim women and ex-Muslim men to help other ex-Muslim men. Because we were completely segregated in every way.
So, the things men have seen and have been exposed to and have been traumatized by will be different than what the women have been exposed to and traumatized by.
Of course I do recommend professional and confidential counseling above all else.
My story, I am telling you, is mild. But there are other stories of people who came from families that are very, aggressive and hateful, very strict. Highly orthodox in a bad way. Hurtful, psychologically damaging to the average person; so, I call those ex-Muslims my superman and my superwoman, the ones who have been through all that. There, they are that beacon of hope for other ex-Muslims out there. Survivors.
Anyway, there is the after care. So, now, you are an ex-Muslim, left Islam. You know how the world works. You feel free. You are empowered. You have a support system.
You have all these friends. However, there might still be that element of sadness. It is always lingering there. So, the next thing that I always to incorporate… laughter.
Humor. Happiness. I believe that is so important. So, when you are ready to laugh, you have got to start laughing. I want to see sad stories diminish.
I would love to see de-radicalization in mosques happen. That is the world I want to live in. Because I see Christianity can and any religion can be this way, but I do not see many ex-Christians facing the things I see ex-Muslims facing.
The documentary One of Us about ex-Ultra Orthodox Jews was the closest thing I have seen to ex-Muslim narratives. In some cases, there are stories that paralleled the stories of some ex-Muslims that I know so much. It was a sad and familiar story.
Some of them might be even more traumatic. But I do not want to say anyone’s story is more traumatic. There is no fucking oppression Olympics. We are not going to go there with the oppression Olympics.
Everybody has had their own pain. Because somebody else’s pain or story is much more dramatic, doesn’t make the pain less valid. Ex-Muslims have been historically disempowered. So, I would love to see empowerment in the ex-Muslim community.
I am seeing it happen already, and it makes me so happy. It makes me so excited. I am so happy for the future. It is a revolution, going on before my eyes. Because as I said, ten years ago, I was searching, searching, searching for ex-Muslim atheists. I could not find a damn one.
All of that is changing now. It is fantastic. I am honored to be a part of that.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Sara.
Al Iraqiya: Anytime, Scott.
Image Credit: Sara Al Iraqiya.