Interview with Haafizah Bhamjee – Executive-Administrator, “Ex-Muslims of South Africa”

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Haafizah Bhamjee is the Executive Administrator of “Ex-Muslims of South Africa.” Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?

Haafizah Bhamjee: I grew up in a relatively conservative Indian family in Johannesburg. I was raised Muslim, but often found religion disinteresting and restrictive.

The community that I was a part of was incredibly insular. Because, I suppose, of the inherent inequalities left behind by the past, Apartheid spatial planning created pockets of communities that exist quite separately from the rest of South African society.

Often times, I felt isolated inside of that community because I thought differently to my peers and the people around me.

Starting school at age seven was the first time I began interacting with people of different races, cultures and religious beliefs. It offered me a place to explore the world in a more positive and fascinating way.

My mother, whose family is conservative, enrolled myself and my siblings into madrassah from a young age. I attended madrassah in the afternoons, after school each day.

At madrassah we were taught all manner of Islamic scripture and teachings. I disliked it and performed poorly. I attended madrassah for eleven years. Looking back, I regret the time lost.

These two vastly different kinds of education meant that I was able to see things from two different perspectives, and it opened my mind up to the possibility that everything is far more complex and complicated than it seems, and that there is no easy answer to anything.

Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?

Bhamjee: Iam lucky to some extent. I am the only person in my immediate family who graduated from University, and one of very few women in my family to gain a tertiary qualification. My father was always very open-minded and encouraged us to study and gain knowledge.

However, I received other kinds of education too. I’ve been involved in different kinds of activism and human rights advocacy since I was a teenager.

My political education, interacting with radical communities and being exposed to different political theory definitely changed the way that I see morality.

In Islamic households we are taught about a kind of morality that centres the protection of religion and theocracy. This often is at the expense of people’s lives and happiness. Women, almost always, get the shorter end of the stick.

Being able to see inequality as immoral was revolutionary for me. Choosing to foreground my desire for dignity and respect was what led me towards questioning faith itself.

The Islamic education I received did little to answer my questions. Contesting the two always led definitively away from religion.

Jacobsen: As an Executive-Administrator for “Ex-Muslims of South Africa,” what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Bhamjee: Primarily, it’s about people.

I left Islam more seamlessly than others, meaning that I was not harassed or attacked for my decision and I was not pressured by my family. I come from a supportive background and I am grateful for that.

Things are not always as simple for everyone. Many ex-Muslims still live in fear and secrecy, despite the secular democratic laws that protect freedoms and choices. Leaving Islam is often met with shaming and violence.

ExMZA attempts to create safe spaces online and offline for ex-Muslims to come together, speak about their experiences and support each other.

We arrange Meet-ups and underground online chat groups to help ex-Muslims interact with each other. We also try to do some awareness through social media platforms and the media.

Our main concern is to ensure that everyone who reaches out to us is offered a safe space to chat and share their thoughts, and so that they feel supported when they decide to come public about leaving the faith.

Jacobsen: What are the main concerns of ex-Muslims in South Africa? Does the sex and gender of the ex-Muslim become a factor in the problems faced by an ex-Muslim?

Bhamjee: Ex-Muslims are aware of how their individual community’s function. We know the extent to which ‘the boundaries can be pushed’. Many live secretly as ex-Muslims continuing to practice publicly.

Generally, the cost of coming out is too high. Many fear that their decisions would impact their relations with their families and friends. Others are concerned that it would result in strained working conditions or would restrict their career opportunities. The shame that comes with being an ex-Muslim is often too much to bear.

Some additionally fear that they will be subjected to physical abuse from their families or from members of their community.

Many of us who are public about being ex-Muslim have received death threats or threats against our loved ones. Some have experienced physical or emotional abuse, and have been disowned by their families.

Men and women experience apostacy differently. For one, its often easier for men to hide their beliefs, or lack of beliefs. Women, on the other hand, are still expected to wear the hijab and to raise their children Islamically.

Furthermore, modesty culture means that when a woman leaves Islam, she is dealt with in the same way that one might deal with a disobedient child.  We are rarely spoken to as equals. And we are often gaslighted when we describe the different forms of sexism and patriarchy that we face.

Jacobsen: What organizations have been important allies of the organization?

Bhamjee: We have often found support in the South African Secular Society. An organisation that is just a few years older than we are.

Solidarity amongst atheists and free-thinkers is important in order to create a united face against the persistent rise of religiosity. South Africa is a conservative country, with well-funded and established religious organisation.

Jacobsen: Moving more into 2019, what are the targeted objectives for you? 

Bhamjee: ExMZA started out as a support network, but we are slowly beginning to realise the need for targeted discourse and activism inside of Muslim communities.

We hope to begin to get the conversation started around the taboo, “unspeakable” nature of apostasy. We want to be able to live positive lives, without fear of harassment, and to be accepted by our friends and family members.

This can only happen if Muslims come to the table and choose to be more accepting. We hope to reach out to sympathetic Muslim leaders and organisations, and to gain the support of liberal Muslim communities. 

We also hope to utilize the internet as a tool towards conscientisation and de-stigmatization.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?

Bhamjee: Like I said earlier, it really is about people choosing to be open minded and accepting.

Getting to a point where people are comfortable with diversity in the community, i.e. ex-Muslims, former Muslims, LGBT+ Muslims; means that we begin exposing conservative, insular communities to the possibility of acceptance and change.

We encourage everyone to learn more about us and to help us to build a network of solidarity. Starting up the conversation requires sympathetic people in the media to come forward and offer to carry our message forward through media exposure.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?

Bhamjee: Yes, I’d like to highlight the importance of solidarity and free-speech. Often times, the kind of work that we do requires making thoughts and opinions public, and this often leaves people vulnerable to harassment. It is important that keep the pressure on when it comes to foregrounding the rights of ex-Muslims to speak.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Haafizah.

Bhamjee: Thank you for taking the time to interview me.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

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