Basheerah Mohamed is the Executive-Administrator for “Ex-Muslims of South Africa.” Here we talk about her 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?
Basheerah Mohamed: I grew up in Durban, the third largest city in South Africa on the east coast and home to a large community of origin (the first wave of Indians come with the British as indentured labourers to work on sugar cane fields in the mid-1800s they came from South India and are mostly Hindu. The later waves were North Indian and mainly Muslim traders, business people or people hustling for any kind of work opportunity). Apartheid created strong boundaries between each of the countries cultural groups and even within the Indian community there was further spatial segregation along religious and class lines. I grew up in an Indian Muslim community to working-class grandparents and lower-middle class parents (they were able to get university degrees and thus better work opportunity than my grandparents but still limited by apartheid). The area I grew up in and especially the area where my grandparents lived and where we spent a lot of our time was home to a large Indian community. I grew up speaking English as my mother tongue but my grandparents spoke Urdu and Gujarati – they conversed with my parents largely in their mother tongues but they spoke to us primarily in English and my parents spoke to us solely in English.
I was fortunate to not have attended Islamic schools. My grandparents would have favoured it and all of my second cousins were in Islamic schools. My parents decided to send us to regular government schools but with madrassa (Islamic educational institutions) every day after school. Further, even though I attended a secular primary school and an Anglican private high school – my mother wanted me to get the best education possible and so with a scholarship I headed off to this school, she wasn’t keen on the Anglican part but she believed that the educational experiences would overall be better than the Islamic schools. It was also acceptable to her because there were a group of other Muslim girls attending this school too. But outside of school at madrassa and with family – religion played a huge role in my life.
My grandparents played a major role in raising us and they were conservative Muslims. They would help fetch us from school when they were able to and give us lunch after school and before madrassa. My siblings, cousins and I spent every afternoon after school and before madrassa and after madrassa before I parents came to fetch us at my grandparents flat. When I think about my primary school years and time my grandparents and at madrassa, I feel a sombre, solemn haze thicken the air and suffocate me, imprison and though I wasn’t fully alive to it then, I feel it so strongly now when I reflect on those times. Every weekday Monday to Friday after school from about 2-5pm we went to madrassa for 7 years of my life (age 6 – 12). My parents and grandparents wanted us all to carry on with the same routine while at high school and my siblings did for a while but by the time I reached high school I managed to escape the iron grip somehow. It wasn’t conveniently located near my new school and car rides would be difficult to arrange plus I’d have a heavier workload. But if I still believed in hell, those 7 years of madrassa would be it! The rules of God were relentless and infinite and they were oppressive. I didn’t question it then though. I simply sat there, wide-eyed, stewing in fear and shame and guilt. And no one to ever express it to. It didn’t even really ever occur to me to talk to my siblings or cousins about it or my friends at madrassa. Precisely because you were encouraged to never question or doubt and were threatened with hellfire if you did so. I will give you a taste of the litany of ludicrous stories we would be bombarded with:
- Every time a natural disaster broke out anywhere in the world would be told it was because it was all the people in the world (and not just the Muslims) were sinning – particularly dancing and clubbing and drinking and this was Allah’s way of punishing them. The more we do these things, the Allah will unleash his wrath
- As women, if we left any part of our skin uncovered, wrists or ankles, those parts of our bodies would burn would extra special punishment in hell
- Once we girls reach puberty we aren’t allowed to interact with boys if they are not male members of our family. The only male non-family member we’re allowed to be in the company of is our husband (before you get married, you have to be escorted by male members of your family if you wish to be in each other’s company)
- Dancing and listening to music is completely haraam and we would pay for it in hell along with everything else we’ve sinned for
My parents didn’t buy all of this but they didn’t remove of us from the madrassa either and they didn’t resist everything we were taught. My grandparents wholeheartedly believed it all and would reinforce and reaffirm the stories, beliefs, and practices.
Though they were more progressive than their parents, they were still conservative and still maintained a monopoly over knowledge. My dad more than my mum would encourage us to think and question. He wasn’t always like this but he started to read and question more at some point in his life and loosened up on many of the very oppressive beliefs and practices that he held. But I never ever felt that I was allowed to develop my own opinions especially when they were dissenting ones. And there was always a limit – if my learning, my views were too radical and contradictory of their world view, there was no space for them. And you certainly weren’t allowed to keep questioning all the way to the point that you dismantled it all! And in fact as a child and teenager it didn’t even occur to me that I could question all the way.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Mohamed: I attended a government primary school and thereafter high school up until my Masters have been by academic scholarships.
Jacobsen: With an Executive-Administrator position, what tasks and responsibilities come with it?
Mohamed: Ex-Muslims South Africa is still nascent, unstructured, informal and kind of in limbo to be honest. When I got in touch with the group there were about close to 20 people and some of them had met face to face, like one on one meetings but there was no one organizing anything at a central level. When I joined the group I actually found them because I was starting to establish regular face to face meet-ups but I didn’t know how any exMuslims at this point! So I set out trying to find them and it turned out this group already existed. But it’s an informal group, not a formally constituted organization. I started to arrange regular meet-ups in one city and then for work and personal reasons I travelled to other cities and then moved to a different city so in the end, I coordinated meet-ups in the 3 cities. Before leaving the country I created a way for the groups in each city to easily communicate so that they can arrange their own regular meet-ups. I also manage to intake of new requests coming in through one of our virtual platforms – it requires careful vetting.
The current reality is that majority of the group just want a space to connect (and at the moment most of the connection takes place on a daily basis and is virtual) – there is so much comfort, joy, celebration, relief that comes from this community connection – outliers, outcasts re-creating a community where we can be 100% our authentic selves. Further, only a few of us in this country-wide virtual group are actually out to our families. Most still live complete double lives and are still quite deeply embedded in their family lives and Muslim communities. And even if you are out to your family it doesn’t mean you want to get politically involved at all. So there are basically only two of us willing and able to commit to getting actively involved, politically and publicly which means we burnt ourselves out very quickly, trying to do too much too fast. The two of us led the process of writing manifestos, building a website (with huge help from two normally non-politically active members of the group who are in IT) and starting to generate content for the website (some people started writing articles that would be published anonymously, we created a resource list of books, articles, podcasts, websites that people could turn to). But after a couple of months of this we kind of just crashed because we were very overwhelmed by the time and energy investment and the emotional toll it takes because this is all very raw for us. I also had a lot of personal stuff going simultaneously including just coming out to my parents and some other family members about being atheist and announcing a marriage to someone who wasn’t Muslim or religious at all.
At the moment I’m not even in the country anymore and I’m trying to figure out how exactly I want to continue being involved.
When we dreamt big at the beginning (and I do hope we get to see this through in time) – we would like to write regular articles, hold public talks and exhibitions and have someone in each major city coordinating regular social meet-ups. We would also like to work with women specifically – arranging workshops and support groups as they tend to struggle far more having to face a deluge of challenges that men don’t have to contend with or not to the same extent. We also desperately want to start engaging with the formal Muslim establishments – the madrassas (educational institutions), the Tabligh Jamaat (Sunni missionary movement of Indian origin – I can give more info here if you want more) and the Darul Ulooms (Islamic seminaries) and other Islamic councils. These establishments have immense power and in our opinion, espouse damaging and detrimental values that pertain to all aspects of living daily life.
Jacobsen: Of those writers and speakers, who have been the most articulate as to the concerns of ex-Muslims?
Mohamed: People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, Sarah Haider, Ali Rizvi and even people who don’t come from an Islamic background such as Sam Harris.
Jacobsen: With the general stigma and fear of ex-Muslims, in a way, this reflects the untapped potential and power of quiet defiance of ex-Muslims around the world. How could this be harnessed for powerful activism around the world?
Mohamed: I think its already being harnessed. I think the stigma we experience and the fear that we seem to generate is emboldening the ex-Muslim community to speak louder, to stand united, to keep building membership bases. Rather than being pushed deeper underground, I think we are seeing more and more people come out, more and more ex-Muslim organizations being formed and I find that so heartening.
Jacobsen: What are some tragic stories of ex-Muslims who didn’t escape?
Mohamed: For the most part I don’t think we hear about the ex-Muslims who don’t escape because they live in silence, they are not able to speak out about what is going on. And if they do speak out, I’m not sure they always have an outlet for their voice to be heard. Also, I think that it’s not necessarily that about ex-Muslims not escaping (at least in South Africa) but rather them trying to still live and work within their communities if they come out. For most people, they just don’t come out because doing so means being completely cut off from everything and everyone they know and most likely facing violent physical attacks. And so they continue to live in that world but struggle to reconcile their double life, to continuously censor their true selves and to have to by and large, participate in practices they don’t believe in and that they find oppressive and ridiculous. They lie, they pretend every day and they live in shame and fear. They feel isolated. Islam is a prominent feature in everyday life for most Muslims in South Africa so it becomes a heavy burden to bear when one leaves the religion but can’t express it.
If they were to come out publicly in South Africa, unlike countries governed by Sharia law they would have the full protection of the law and one of the most exemplary constitutions and Bill or Rights in the world but in practice, many of the norms and rules of the Muslim community don’t actually imbue that sprit and would not be protected from the wrath of their communities if they were get a whiff of atheism beings announced openly.
Jacobsen: What are some heartwarming narratives of ex-Muslims who found asylum?
Mohamed: The most recent is Rabat Alqunun’s story which was covered by the media. That was quite a significant case as it drew global attention and ended with support and acceptance by Canada in a time when ex-Muslims tend to demonized.
Jacobsen: What would be a unifying way, in 2019, for the international community of ex-Muslims to use their voices of dissent to bring about large-scale change in the world? Something like an international civil rights movement to instantiate respect for and implement fundamental human rights in addition to activism to remove blasphemy laws once and for all.
Mohamed: This is very tricky and something I spend a lot of time thinking about. There is certainly a need for more awareness and more nuanced understanding of the position that ex-Muslims find themselves in. There is most definitely a need for greater pressure for oppressive and archaic laws to be repealed. And there is a need for skeptics on the left – who are sensitive to the right-wing bigotry that Islam is currently victim to and therefore are afraid of further demonization of the religion by ex-Muslims – there is a need for them to understand that yes, Islam is under attack sometimes unfairly but that doesn’t mean that the countless ex-Muslims around the globe who are suffering and who raise legitimate concerns about Islam should be silenced so as not to fuel the right-wing bigotry. Ideally, they ought to be able to hold that complexity and condemn the right-wing bigots while supporting the ex-Muslims (who are actually a minority within a minority!)
However, I also think this is just one part of it. This battle is not going to be won only through large-scale protest and policy and legal changes (though this is of course invaluable). Those aspects of Islam that I find damaging – the values and mores that drive these damaging world views – are so deeply ingrained in the fabric of these societies and a full-frontal attack on this is an assault on identity, on heritage on everything familiar and comfortable so a change in laws doesn’t necessitate a change in practice within Muslim communities and in fact might further enrage these communities. South Africa is a great example of that. Our Bill of Rights is outstanding. And I believe that attitudes, beliefs, practices with many segments of the Muslim communities in our country are deeply problematic and in no uncertain terms, incompatible with our bill of rights but the conservative characters and establishments in the Muslim community will most likely claim that the Bill of Rights is incompatible with their religious laws! So I think that extensive slow, long-term community work is needed to try to help people understand why what is going on within our communities is deeply problematic when it comes to things like freedom of belief and another issue that is very close to my heart – gender equality and women’s rights in Islam.
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?
Mohamed: I think exposure through interviews is definitely needed, this issue needs to move out of the fringe and into the mainstream media which is slowly happening and it also a great way for ex-Muslims to find out more about what kind of support exists. All the information I found out in my initial search about ex-Muslims in the UK was through online newspaper articles most notably in the Guardian. Money for support of hosting and maintaining websites and for organizing conferences and public talks would definitely be beneficial and when public events are arranged, security is of utmost important so funds towards that would be welcome, I’m sure. But ultimately what is needed is careful and compassionate listening from everyone – from the Muslim community as well as from everyone outside of that community.
Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Mohamed: I think for ex-Muslims in South Africa – I’m looking forward to extending this conversation out both within the Muslim community and outside of it. It is going to risky and challenging but it’s imperative. My most serious concern is about the religious establishments I mentioned earlier on. They are never challenged by any government authorities or civic society groups because post-Apartheid South Africa is a very respectful and tolerant one. But they are insidious and gravely detrimental. We celebrate and tolerate our religious and cultural diversity in the country but while this is beautiful and welcome it also seems to have come with a side-effect of not every prying or engaging as someone outside of that group. I have almost no Muslim friends left in South Africa and when I engage with my friends and acquainted and colleagues in my new world and we discuss these issues I realise that they have absolutely no idea what goes on within the confines of the Muslim community even though they work and sometimes live near Muslim people and we even though we celebrate this rainbow nation of ours.
Thank you for the opportunity to share!
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Basheerah.
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.
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