Secular VIP of the Week: Muhammed Syed

Apr 9, 2014

Muhammed Syed is one of the founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), a recently formed independent group that supports people trying to leave Islam and those who have already.  They work to provide a welcoming community and help during the difficult transition ex-Muslims face. He recently sat down with us to discuss his journey.

RDF: Few atheists doubt the need for a group like yours. Islam is an even

more difficult religion to leave than Mormonism. How did you group get


Muhammed Syed: We started as an independent entity in D.C. about a year and

a half ago and a similar group started in Toronto. We weren't sure about how

successful we would be but it turned out both groups are doing really well,

so about 6 months ago we reached out and contacted them to form the

Ex-Muslims of North America.

Muhammed Syed: We were hoping to replicate that success in other areas

around the country, both in the U.S. and Canada. In the past 6 months we've

extended to Austin, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, New York,

Chicago and we're working on establishing groups in Los Angeles,

Philadelphia, and Oregon. We're proud of the success we've had so far.

Muhammed Syed: The EXMNA is initially focused only in North America but one

of our long term goals is to reach out internationally and promote change

and reform in Muslim countries too.

RDF: Are you yourself ex-Muslim?

Muhammed Syed: I am. What happens with Islam, as with any group, is you'll

have a wide spectrum of where people stand. You have those that are very

liberal and those that are very conservative. My family is very liberal.

Muhammed Syed: If you plot it on a graph, more people will show on the

conservative side of that curve, but for me, personally, it wasn't that big

of an issue. My family accepted it; we had a few weeks of arguments about

atheism and what it means. But in the [ Ex-Muslims of North America ] we

have many members that haven't left and can't leave because of the

consequences they'd have to face. We have people who, when their families

found out, were kicked out of their home, beaten, and threatened.

RDF: Wow. Here in the United States?

Muhammed Syed: Yeah, here in the US.

Muhammed Syed: Generally, even if you talk to liberal progressive Muslims,

they have a similar reaction because everybody has blinders on from their

own perspective, "I view the world as I live the world", and experiences are

very divergent. Somebody who comes from a liberal Muslim background will not

realize that there are people that are in actual danger — it's often

dismissed — but there are lots of people that are struggling through that

all the time. What we're hoping to do is give them space, let them know that

there's someone out there who understands and will stand by them when they

need help.

Muhammed Syed: There are people who have contacted us, joined the group, and

they'll confess they've not talked to anybody at all about what they

actually believe for 8 years, 10 years, because they're worried about the

consequences. We've had people break down and cry because for the first time

in a decade they felt like they belonged.

RDF: What kind of services do you provide? Or is it mostly a social group?

Muhammed Syed: Primarily, it's just a social group at the moment. We're

hoping, as the group grows, we'll have more resources, we're hoping to

expand and provide other things as well. We individually have done things

like provide a place to stay when a member is in danger, and things like

that. But it's usually been a collective effort where members pitched in and

provided the resources necessary.

RDF: Tell us someone's story. What is it really like for them?

Muhammed Syed: There was a case of 3 siblings who joined our Canadian branch

in Toronto. The eldest left Islamism and she didn't tell anybody, because of

the consequences this would bring. Multiple years passed and her younger

brother started going to college and at some point the subject came up and

it turned out they were in the same page. The other sister was still a

practicing Muslim and when she found out about her siblings, she was hurt

that they'd keep something like that from her. Over the course of a year

they had multiple conversations and discussed religion and by the end of the

year she'd left Islam as well.

RDF: What advice would you give to the average Joe to be respectful of

Muslims and ex Muslims?

Muhammed Syed: The first thing would be to consider their opinion. Here's a

diversity of opinions on what Islam means. You have the scriptural truth of

it, what it says in the books, versus what people are actually practicing.

If you follow literally, I should be killed. I have Muslim friends who joke

about how if they killed me they'd go to Heaven… and that is a part

of Islam. But then there are other people who understand that this is not

acceptable and we need to work on pushing them to stand up. Any change that

has happened in the past has happened through an alliance: you need

secularists from the West, you need progressive Muslims, and you need

ex-Muslims. You need a broad coalition that stands up and says that certain

things are unacceptable, regardless of what the scripture says.

Muhammed Syed: So far we haven't been embraced by progressive Muslims. The

big issue within the Islamic community, generally, is that the vast majority

of them are biblical literalists so it's hard for them to criticize certain

aspects of Islam.

Muhammed Syed: The way they do it is that they hope is the best. For

example, in the Quran it says that you can beat women. If your wife is

disobedient, you first chastise her, then you sleep in separate beds, and

then you beat her. So progressives will say, "Oh no, the translation only

means you can strike her lightly." The bottom line of the entire verse is

misogynistic, you're talking about your wife being disobedient, you're

talking about separating her to make her obedient, and the end of the verse

says if she becomes obedient, do not pursue this further. The relationship

between a husband and a wife is closer to a master and slave thing, rather

than equals. Muslims need to confront and accept that there are problems,

that a reform needs to happen.

Muhammed Syed: The first step towards fixing any problem is accepting that

there is a problem and we're currently at that stage where we're trying to

get people to understand and realize and look at things critically to start

the process of reform.

RDF: So the first stage would be "everything is absolutely true", the next

stage, a bit more liberal, is "everything is true but we just interpret it

in a different way" and the next stage is "okay, we accept that at least

some of the stories are myths"… A lot of Christians are already there.

They might say, "We don't take Noah's ark literally."

Muhammed Syed: So, we want to get to that stage within the Islamic community

as well but right now I'd have to say we're a couple of hundred years behind

on that. If you look at the Inquisition, it is similar to where we stand

right now. Take a look at what's happening in Saudi Arabia: you can't say

anything. I was looking at a TV show today, from Pakistan, and they were

talking about how horrible the Big Bang Theory is and how the Islamic view

isn't and that we need to create an Islamic science that actually counters

the influence from the West.

Muhammed Syed: Basic sciences are being rejected because they contradict the

Quran, which is supreme, and everything else is irrelevant.

RDF: What drove you to start something like this?

Muhammed Syed: Personally speaking, Carl Sagan was a big influence for me,

because he inculcated critical thinking. Growing up I was always interested

in Astronomy, the potential of humanity and what they could achieve. Reading

his books opened my mind to the possibilities of what we can achieve if we

just sit down and rationally try to understand the world. Later, when I

directed that same rationality towards religion, it was inevitable that the

entire edifice will crumble.

Everybody wants their families to be successful, everybody wants a bright

future for their children. Ultimately, we need to make people understand

that the way forward is by rationality and that is how you will save your

own family, your own children. When somebody talks about Islam and its

problems it's often portrayed as how it is affecting the West but the

primary victims aren't the ones living in the West but the ones living in

Muslim countries. With the help of progressive thinkers, atheists,

secularists, and ex Muslims we can start pushing the government for more and

more equality to help those who need it the most, like Muslim women in

Muslim countries. It sounds like a huge task — and it is.

We need to confront the Muslims and help them understand there are

consequences for an action and there are consequences for denial. By saying

that these problems don't exist, by not confronting them, they're actively

taking a part in the mistreatment of others.

A couple of weeks ago a Muslim woman was murdered by her husband in Canada.

Her parents had arranged that marriage for her, they got married in the

Middle East and then went back to Canada where she wanted to attend school

and her husband didn't want that. He killed her and left their kid crying

right next to her body for hours. Of course her parents grieve the loss of

their daughter, but by having arranged that marriage for her they

contributed to this unfortunate thing to happen.

RDF: So you're saying that even the most liberal Muslims are sort of

enablers for this kind of thing. Where do you stand in the whole burka thing

– the French government banned the wearing of burkas in school. Are you pro


Muhammed Syed: No, banning something is counterproductive. Education is the

answer. If you're using a scripture to force something upon people that is

wrong, if you're using any mechanism to make someone do something is wrong.

We need to promote autonomy.

You can learn more about the Ex-Muslims of North America, which is not just for ex-Muslims — anyone can join and contribute — at

Written By: RDFRS

5 comments on “Secular VIP of the Week: Muhammed Syed

  • 1
    Light Wave says:

    The brave trail blazers that start the process of questioning Islamic values are backed by the secular laws of the West, the public voices are not the only influential ones….but change will only really occur when influential Muslims reach a consensus of realisation and shift perceptions in a progressive way by modernising Islamic law or leaving Islam – even under the threat of death…which western law will prosecute…..
    Otherwise it would be just like living in North Korea and pretending to be loyal to a regime that you don’t believe in but that continues to control you regardless…

    all people have the same human right – not to be killed as every other human on the planet….

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  • This is a great group to educate and send the message that doubts about religious beliefs are ok. I salute the effort and wish them success.

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  • I see that there are ex-Muslims associations in at least 11 countries (ttp:// ) and further in today’s press (, that there is an ex-Muslim Forum with 3000 members worldwide . One hopes that these groups can network pro-actively and creatively and that more exposure and support is given to them.

    Also, given the special problems of Muslims with apostasy, and the statistical association of this particular faith -at least in our times- with violence, misogyny, and intolerance, it might be a desirable move to make a tactical association between ex Muslim atheists and non-atheists ex Muslims.This I understand is the view of Ayaan Hirsi Ali .[ I see ( that there are many more ex-Muslims who have converted to other faiths than to various secular positions].

    As Sam Harris has pointed out, even converting to Mormonism (like, say, Elridge Cleaver)- hardly to be recommended- is a lesser evil, since, for instance, the production of the tongue-in -the cheek ” Book of Mormon” in New York did not lead to the massive and violent world-wide protests that would inevitably follow a similar Quran related show-in the unlikely event if some people being heroic enough to engage in such a venture.

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