Harris Sultan is an Author and the Founder of “Ex Muslim Atheist.” Here we talk about his life, views, and work.
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?
Harris Sultan: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan. My father at the time was working as an engineer in Saudi Arabia so my sister, myself and my mum moved to Saudi Arabia.
My family left Saudi Arabia when I was two years old so I don’t have any memory of it but I often wonder how my life would have been had my family stayed there. I was always a bit curious but now when I meet other ex-Muslim atheists and just atheists, I’ve realised I wasn’t so special after all.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Sultan: I went to a Christian school in Lahore. I did my high school there. We go to college for the 11th and 12th year of school and I managed to get into Govt. College Lahore, one of Pakistan’s best colleges. After that, I moved to Australia in 2003 for my undergraduate studies. I graduated in IT in 2007 and became an Australian citizen in 2008.
Jacobsen: What was the path towards becoming an ex-Muslim, as well as an atheist, for you? What differs from that path compared to those who travel from Islam simply into another faith?
Sultan: I’ve written my journey in detail in my book so I hope your readers will buy my book, available on Amazon and all your favourite bookstores :). I was always interested in the God question.
I came up with Pascal’s wager on my own when I was in college and believe it or not, I actually came up with the conclusion that it is probably best if I believed in God because if he doesn’t exist, it wouldn’t matter, if he does, I’ll be fine. I was up and down with the God question but never really thought about renouncing Islam.
I had become fairly moderate or what I like to call, a hypocrite which is a good thing. I always say a good Muslim (Jihadi) is a bad human (terrorist) and a bad Muslim (feminist, non-homophobic) is actually a good human.
I remember sometime in 2005 or 2006 I got hold of a news article here in an Australian newspaper where a journalist was trying to attack Richard Dawkins.
Even though it was severely biased and now I know how the journalist was strawmaning and even misrepresenting Dawkins, it was still Dawkins’ arguments that were making more sense to me, be it evolution or God in general. This made me look up Dawkins a little more and then I found a treasure trove on this “New Atheism”.
All of a sudden I had these hundreds of hours of videos and lectures and debates of people like Dawkins and Hitchens. I was smitten, all the questions I had in my mind and answers that I wanted to give but couldn’t articulate were now being presented in the most eloquent of ways.
I then read “The God Delusion” and became a convinced atheist. I openly credit Richard Dawkins for arming with the arguments against God.
I always wondered why one person would leave one mythical religion and join another one? My main problem with Islam was the idea of this supernatural God that has absolutely no evidence.
Even if the Quran was the most benign book, I still would have had a problem with the philosophy surrounding the existence of God. I never felt the desire to have a belief in anything that is not supported by any evidence.
This is where I think the difference lies between ex-Muslim atheists and ex-Muslims who turn to other faiths. These are the people who still want to believe in a God but are disenchanted with the bad morality in Islam and in the character of Muhammad.
Therefore, they turn to Christianity or Hinduism. I must add that in my experience most ex-Muslims turn out to be atheists but this could be my data bias as only those ex-Muslims get in touch with me who turn atheists.
Ex-Muslim Christians or ex-Muslim Hindus (I only know of one) go to other places to share their views. It would be interesting to do an advanced survey on ex-Muslims to find out if they have become atheists or adopted another religion.
Jacobsen: Can you explain to our audience the confrontation with Uthman Badar, please? What was the big takeaway from the experience for you?
Sultan: Well, I kind of knew what his position on apostates was. He is a hardcore Salafi (a literalist who follows the Quran literally and believes in all the Sunni Hadiths). I knew he had professed on record that apostates should be killed.
I just expected him to give a straight forward answer that he had already given in the past and demonstrate some intellectual honesty. He did get in a bit of trouble last time for saying it so I was just expecting him to explain why apostates should be killed but he was slipperier than I thought. He kept dancing around but wouldn’t give a straight answer.
Since he wasn’t giving a straight answer, I asked him if he had changed his stated position to which he replied he hadn’t meant he was still for the killing of apostates.
Before the debate, I had expected him to be intellectually honest and own publicly what he believes in private but I found him not to be of such calibre.
It wasn’t just the apostasy question, I made so many points on Islam regarding homophobia, misogyny etc. but he wouldn’t comment on anything.
My conclusion of him is that he should keep doing what he is doing, he is good for us, more the likes of him talk, more the questioning Muslims will leave Islam.
Jacobsen: In the context of the growing non-religious community around the world in raw numbers and in terms of the growing numbers of ex-Muslims, especially in the open and frank ones with online platforms, what is the next step?
Sultan: In my view, we should keep this onslaught on religion. We are going through a very unique time in history, not only that we have the best tools available to facilitate the flow of information, but we also happen to be living in a time when we can openly attack the bad ideas of religion, at least in the secular countries.
We shouldn’t take this for granted. The religions of the world are facing the toughest battle for their survival and we shouldn’t relent. If we don’t root out religion from the very fabric of our society, it can always come back in its original form or an even more dangerous form.
Jacobsen: What would be the basis for the construction of a global ex-Muslim organization, especially with the rise of the councils, the online groups, and the greater comprehension of questioning Muslims and ex-Muslims of their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of belief, and freedom of conscience under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Sultan: It’s not just the non-Islamic religions that are facing this onslaught from atheists and secularists, it is probably Islam that is caught the most off guard. The ex-Muslim councils and online groups are popping out of nowhere and their memberships are soaring in numbers.
20 years ago, the Islamic establishments of the world, would never in their wildest dreams have imagined this. Now, it’s not just the ‘west’ they have to fight, it’s the people from within their ranks, the native informants as they like to call us, that have become their biggest headache.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the biggest exporter of the hardcore Salafi Islam exporter, branded atheists as terrorists in 2015.
It’s probably true to some extent, they are terrified of atheists and their free thinking. Our numbers are growing and with each new ex-Muslim on our side, we get stronger and they get weaker.
It is only a matter of time when our numbers will be so immense that the UN and the western powers will have no choice but to pressurise Islamic countries to change their ways and stop hunting down atheists and free thinkers.
Our biggest challenge is to motivate people and unite them to stand up for their rights. Not all atheists can flee to western countries and I am waiting for the day when these people will stand up and start a revolution.
Jacobsen: What are the main threats to ex-Muslims, individually and collectively now?
Sultan: The physical threat is always there, especially for public ex-Muslims. Only a couple of days ago I was warned by a charged criminal to “watch my back”.
This threat is not only just for publicly open ex-Muslims but the violence is so ingrained in Islam that anyone who even thinks about leaving Islam, immediately starts thinking about the consequences.
This might have served as a tool for the survival of Islam but it is also turning out to be a weapon against Islam.
This brutal hold over people’s thoughts is, at least in the 21st century, making young questioning ex-Muslims angry and I mean very angry.
I just hope there wouldn’t be any bloodshed but when a significantly large number of atheists is achieved say in, Pakistan or Egypt, there will be a clash if the governments there don’t change their ways.
It has already started happening in Iran, a huge number of ex-Muslims are not just politely criticising Islam, but they are actually hating Islam now, they are burning the Qurans and the burqas openly. There have been at least two attempts in the last 10 years for a revolution.
In my view, it’s only a matter of time when the Islamic Republic of Iran is overthrown. We just have to gather our forces and keep exposing the barbarity of the governments of these Muslim countries.
Jacobsen: What is the main tool of the extremists – not ordinary Muslims but ultra-conservatives – in attracting people into their ranks and for their fundamentalist causes?
Sultan: Quran sitting in a closet of some Muslim household is like a rifle sitting in a house of an ordinary American.
The tool for death and destruction is right there but most members of the household are just not aware of either its presence or its utility.
But every now and then we will have someone who will realise this, open the closet, understand its power and use it! Quran is essentially a bomb waiting to explode in the minds of young Muslims.
In the current climate, geopolitics, conflict of Israel and Palestine have a huge part but neither I nor a lot of other people are fully sold on this. There was no state of Israel before 1948 yet there have been clashes between the West and the East throughout the 1400-year history of Islam.
Thomas Jefferson, then an ambassador in the late 18th century reported to his superior in Paris that the Tripoli pirates on the coast of Africa held the view that the westerners, non-Muslims are meant to be enslaved. That report by Jefferson looks like a report from some CIA operative on ISIS.
Islam wants to spread either by proselytisation or by the sword, it doesn’t matter, it has to spread. Islam will keep successfully producing those Jihadis until Islam is either fully gone or severely modified.
200 years ago I could have been saying the same about Christianity as it was probably the bigger menace at that time but Christianity, as a religion has come a long way but Islam hasn’t.
Every major Islamic country you look at (barring Turkey), Islam is deeply rooted in their political structure. Unless Islam changes or evolves, these Islamic countries won’t change.
Once the violence from the Quran and Hadith is eliminated, there will be more will in the governments to act against the jihadi recruiters. I discussed that in my book how I, a teenage boy from an upper-middle-class household, almost became a jihadi.
Since my father was never interested in the violent Islam, he managed to pull me out of it but I could have been dead for 20 years for some crazy mullah’s dream of conquering Indian occupied Kashmir in the name of Islam.
I wish I could say its only geopolitics, you resolve Israel-Palestinian conflict, everything will be fine but I will be severely deluding myself.
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, to the global ex-Muslim movement?
Sultan: The Ex-Muslim movement is still relying on the backs of volunteers. People like me donate a huge chunk of our time for something none of us gets paid for. In addition to our time, we also attract a risk of safety. I was recently threatened by a Muslim not far from my house.
I was thinking if this crazy person does manage to find out where I live, I could be in serious trouble. I am a little disappointed in the attitude of atheists in general. We don’t tend to support each other as much as we need to.
Yes, our numbers are rising but this is no time to sit back, we need to keep it going, we need to keep supporting each other. Every time you share or like our tweets or videos, you help, if you can, please do support people like me on Patreon, buy books written by atheist writers and share the ideas.
Remember, this is the only time in history when us atheists can actually challenge religions openly, let’s not take it for granted. We can lose it very quickly.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Sultan: I’m glad you are doing it in the old school written format. I think we are overwhelmed by the podcasts and video interviews, some people like to read in the old fashioned way.
What you are doing is great, you are bringing like-minded people together and helping us spread our message. At times it might seem repetitive but the fact that the majority of people haven’t heard these arguments shows how much we have to keep saying the same thing over and over again.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Harris.
Sultan: Thank you for having 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.