The following is an interview with “OC Apostate,” a former UC Irvine student who made the decision to leave Islam and the Muslim Student Union at UCI. Though as OC Apostate describes it, the two decisions were not related.
This interview provides a unique firsthand description of the MSU from an insider’s perspective, something usually unavailable to the outside community. As readers will see, OC Apostate did not have an easy time disengaging from the MSU.
Why did you decide to leave Islam and the Muslim Student Union? Were the two decisions related?
My parents were not religious before; they kept the bare minimum. When I was 5, my mother became more religious after meeting a religious teacher. We moved to London to get a better religious education for a year. The Muslim community there is a lot more fundamentalist. No music, avoid non-Muslims, no assimilation, women can’t cut their hair, all kinds of rules. That’s the brand of Islam that influenced me. We came back; I became very active in the Muslim community. I became involved with my high school MSA.
By that time I had exhausted my parents’ supply of religious books, so I began reading secular books and began being exposed to other viewpoints. I soon began to realize that it was not OK to impose my religion on other people.
When I still wore the hijab, I took a class where there was no homework, tests, or anything. Just discussion and debate. This particular class included classmates with very different views, and I found myself having my mind opened on topics on which I thought I had set views. Once, the teacher touched my shoulder and said to me: “So young and yet you know what your whole life is going to be.” That little remark would come back to haunt me.
After I began college, I joined the MSU at UCI. I wrote articles for them, and everyone loved them. I got promoted to the position of section editor — and that’s how I learned about the dark side of the MSU. My writers never submitted their work on time; their excuse was they were always busy protesting or building the apartheid wall. Yelling about Israel and calling in speakers no one liked was more important to them than serving the community. They let a prominent magazine that everyone loved become obsolete because they were too busy hating Israel.
I grew disillusioned with them after that. By that time I had to admit I no longer believed in Islam; I left Islam first, and then left the MSU. It seemed ridiculous to me to continue to represent a religion on campus in which I no longer believed. It was tough but I had to admit it to myself. I felt it was important. I thought I was the only one in the whole world who had ever converted out of Islam, but I started looking around and found a lot of Muslims have converted to Christianity or even to atheism, humanism, and agnosticism. I started a blog in the hopes of helping other ex-Muslims to see that they weren’t alone.
Although I didn’t attach my real name to it, the blog ended up being a bad idea. The MSU figured out who I was. I had one friend left in the MSU; she let me know that, to them, I was an item to be brought up, a nuisance, a problem. People had started talking. It was obvious I wasn’t Muslim — my headscarf was off. I was getting dirty looks from people I didn’t know. I had friends with me who noticed this. One time by the UCI bookstore some woman was staring me down. My friend said, “Look behind you.” We walked away. I didn’t know this woman. How did she know I was an ex-Muslim? I grew uncomfortable. My father told me that people told him that his daughter ought to shut up.
So I shut down the blog for my family’s safety.
Were there any differences in the way people, friends, family, MSU members, or community acted towards you after your decision? Did the MSU’s behavior differ from non-affiliated Muslims at all?
My true Muslim friends weren’t hostile to me. As for the people I knew through the MSU, sometimes I got obviously faked friendly greetings where we used to have good conversations. My interactions with them grew pretty cold and disheartening. I thought I was well-liked by the MSU crowd, but I guess I was only when I was a Muslim. I had friends with me who noticed this.
I had family members ask me if they should even talk to me anymore and wonder to me whether they should let me around their kids. To them, someone who rejects the truth is worse than someone who never knew it. According to their beliefs, people who they think are awful — Zionists, homosexuals, racists, murderers — have more of a chance getting into heaven than I did.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with them or fit into their world doesn’t exist. As shown by the Michael Oren incident, they think that they shouldn’t be allowed to exist or speak.
They have lost touch with what the MSU used to be. I have talked to MSU alumni from the ’90s. Their experiences were different; the MSU was like every other religious or ethnic club on campus, a place for like minds to come together and socialize with each other. It’s now all about political action. They don’t make new students feel welcome. It’s pretty depressing for everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims. They’re too busy building walls and bringing speakers to actually serve as a place for Muslims to meet and socialize.
What exactly happened in regards to the threats you began receiving? What did they say? Do you believe they were in response to your blog, to leaving Islam, or to leaving the MSU?
My father said that people at the mosque said that people are talking about your daughter, she needs to keep her mouth shut, and there might be trouble. My family is still Muslim and part of that community. While those making threats might not be able to harm me, they could still shun or hurt my family. The Islamic school teachers might tell the kids not to play with my brother or the mosque leaders might not allow my father into Friday prayer. I asked my parents if they wanted to disown me and tell everyone they did so, but still talk to me in secret. They said no; they want to be my parents. So why should I drag them through the mud with me?
Was there anything about the nature of the threats that led you to form an idea about who was threatening you?
The leader of the Islamic Center of Irvine, Sheik Sadullah Khan, is very progressive. He was recently removed; I think it’s because he was liberal. For example, he thought that men and women should be allowed to shake hands. Perhaps he let something slip about how progressive he is. He had censured the MSU privately and didn’t want the mosque to be affiliated with them. So it’s probably not people affiliated with or heavily involved with the mosque, but maybe people who happen to attend it, like the MSU.
Did you ever experience or hear about similar violent behavior within the MSU while you were involved in it?
The war is a war of words. To the MSU, free speech is what we say and what we agree with, while hate speech is what everyone else says. During the Mohammad cartoons incident, I disagreed with the majority MSU opinion. Yeah, the cartoons were stupid, but the cartoonists and papers had a right to publish them. We don’t have a right to tell them what they can publish. We say stuff others may not agree with, and we should afford them that right too. This probably started my unpopularity in the MSU.
What would you say is the general political and religious attitude within the MSU? Docile? Radical?
There’s a battle for the soul that they’re not addressing. They’re busy ensuring that others have the correct political opinion; mainly, that Israel sucks.
I made friends with a girl after I became an ex-Muslim; she told me that she had an Indian boyfriend. It turned out to be a MSU member. He was having sex with an Asian girl who his parents didn’t like while telling her that he couldn’t marry her. Many girls wear the hijab with tight clothes, defeating the purpose of modesty. There are men in the MSU with no beards. There are those who are very religious and those who aren’t. They may hold the “correct” political opinion, but may not be as religious. I was concerned with the battle for the souls. There are people in the MSU who date and go out and drink on weekends, and yet the organization is more concerned about Israel.
I know at least 3 or 4 people who said that they were once sympathetic towards Palestinians, but that the MSU made them care no longer. It sucks that extremists like that are quashing the political subtlety and discourse that could occur. It’s not a black-and-white issue.
They let a great publication everyone loved die in order to protest Israel. They ignore everything in favor of protesting Israel so much so that their social activities are limited to eating and praying together. “Yeah, we’re an oppressed minority. Let’s be friends.” There’s not so much of a deeper connection anymore. They do dinners twice a year. They don’t focus enough on the members who just joined and could have been brought more into the group. They’re too focused on Israel; there are members who are tempted by alcohol, sex, and drugs who need help and guidance, not protest.
Now, I get judged for being a secular humanist. Many Muslims break their own rules and look down on me for the same when I’m not even religious.
When I was Muslim, a friend at the MSU told me not to suggest outreach or interfaith events. MSU leaders aren’t very much into engaging the community at large; that is not their priority. After the Michael Oren incident, I saw that they hadn’t changed a bit. They don’t believe in free speech for anyone but themselves. For them to whine about free speech is pretty disingenuous. They even say on their website that Michael Oren should not be able to speak.
People have died in the riots about the Mohammad cartoons. When I was Muslim, I wrote a poem about how embarrassing it all was — some stupid drawing comes out that no one would have cared about if Muslims hadn’t made such a big deal about it. To them, their indignation is holy fire, not personal emotion but emotions from God.
Since 9/11, a lot of Muslim outreach groups have been working overtime to make Islam seem more normal, but when someone says or does something stupid, all that work is crushed; all those years and all those volunteers may as well have not existed. All those reactionaries and hotheads ruined all that work.
Regarding anyone who would claim you are lying, is there something you can tell them to prove you’re telling the truth? Something only an MSU member would know about?
When I was a member in 2006 and 2007, interfaith and outreach was a bad word. Also, I know what had happened with their magazine.
What do you think should be done to ensure that nobody else has to endure what you did in case they wish to leave the club or their religion?
What the university needs to do is be more supportive of people in my situation. My situation grew pretty emotionally abusive with my parents when they were at their most confused in terms of what to do about me. When I went to the financial aid office to get aid as an independent student, they asked me if I had a religious community leader who could vouch for my deconversion story. Without that, I was told that if I didn’t have bruises or a police report, I was f***ed. I had to get private loans on my own and live in debt to get through school. It was a big hindrance. My GPA went from almost 4.0 to a 2.5. There was nowhere for me to go. A little more outreach and assistance would have helped, but I don’t expect them to step up to the plate. That’s why I’m part of a humanist organization that is working to help people in this situation.
How has the whole experience influenced your life today?
It’s made me a lot more cynical about people and their motives. When you’re that religious, and that willing to be awful to people because of their religion, it redefines what faith means. It seems that they’re not doing what they are doing for Allah, it’s so that Allah won’t burn them forever. What they do is pretty ridiculous. My family members were asking if they should associate with me because it might be a sin to say hi to me, their cousin. People really are out for themselves. What happened has made me an indentured servant to loan companies in a terrible economy. I have had to structure my life around repaying my debt.
It has made me realize what real friendship is. There were MSU people I could have been real friends with and people who loved me regardless of whether I wore a hijab or not. It has made me more hesitant to call people friends.
If you could say something to the MSU today, what would it be?
Get your priorities straight. Serve your community. I don’t think that MSU should be dissolved or criminalized. They can keep yelling about Israel if they want, but they need to grant other people the space to express their views and then let people decide.