Leaving his religion: Ex-Muslim Imtiaz Shams' liberating journey to apostasy

An ex-Muslim who co-founded an advocacy group for people who have left their religion says there's not enough support for apostates in New Zealand, despite it being a "chilled country". 

Imtiaz Shams has become a poster boy for apostates, the name given to those who have renounced their religious beliefs. Once a practicing Muslim, the UK-based entrepreneur now lives openly as an atheist, offering assistance to those who feel neglected since leaving their religion. 

"If you speak to most ex-Muslims, or even ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, they will say the same thing: They will say, 'I didn't even know I could leave [my religion],' because they didn't know anyone else who left it," Mr Shams told RadioLIVE. 

The co-founder of Faith To Faithless made an appearance at the Humanist International Conference held in Auckland over the weekend. He says while it was liberating coming clean to his family about renouncing Islam, it was also one of the most difficult things he's ever done. 

"I was the only person out of 1.6 billion people to leave Islam - that's what was going on in my head," he said, discussing the backstory of his path to establishing the advocacy group, which calls on governments and civil society to do more to protect non-religious people facing discrimination. 

He said it's important for people to understand that they're not alone in doubting their commitment to religion. The pressure some people face to embrace a particular belief system because of community pressure can have an impact on mental health, he says, so people need to know where they can go for support. 

"Many people have been brought up with a particular religion and have never had any discussion around choosing their own path," said Mr Shams.

"Others might be pressured by their families and friends to commit, and fear being rejected by their peers if they question their religion."

In the Jehovah's Witness doctrine, there's the Loving Provision - a rule which essentially sees former followers shunned if they renounce the church. The Jehovah's Witness website says if a baptised Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible's moral code and does not repent, they will be "shunned or disfellowed". 

Even if a mother maintains a relationship with her child who left the religion, she risks being rejected by the church as well, Mr Shams says. But Jehovah's Witnesses believe "disfellowshipping can benefit everyone concerned". 

Within Islam, Mr Shams says people know about apostasy laws, but they often don't know things about shunning within the community.

Some regard apostasy in Islam as a form of religious crime, but others do not; Saudi Arabia, for example, has criminal statutes making it illegal for a Muslim to change religion or to renounce Islam. 

New Zealand and other Western countries don't impose strict religious rules, but if you grew up in a very tight-knit religious community in New Zealand and then leave it, it's very compelling for family members to try and kick you out, Mr Shams says. 

"You think of New Zealand as this very chilled country - which in many ways it is - but you've got a problem here that, unless it's tackled, will be left to fester. One of these problems is the Gloriavale issue," he said, referring to the small fundamentalist Christian community on the West Coast of the South Island. 

Members of Gloriavale who leave are shunned and denied contact with family members still remaining at the community.

Imtiaz Shams at London Pride in 2017.
Imtiaz Shams at London Pride in 2017. Photo credit: Twitter / @imtishams

Faith To Faithless offers support to people who have left religious groups like Gloriavale. Mr Shams said it's tough for those who make the decision to leave, knowing that they might never see their families again. 

He said it's important to have everyday people sharing their experience of leaving their religion behind so that those who might consider doing the same can have someone to look up to. The advocacy group posts videos to YouTube of people sharing their experiences to raise awareness. 

Faith To Faithless also trains social workers, police, government and schools on how to deal with apostates, because many victims will go to a therapist and tell their story of leaving a high-control group and the therapist recommends another religious group to help them. 

Mr Shams likened this to sending a gay person to a conversion therapy camp. He said people "need to accept that apostasy is a problem that no one cares about". 

"It's traumatic for people," he said, reflecting on his own difficult experience telling his family he was no longer a Muslim. He eventually told them because he started getting media attention. When he told his family, he said it didn't go down well at first, but it's gotten better. 

Belief in any form of religion has dissipated to the point where almost half of all Kiwis don't associate with any religious belief at all. Massey University professor Peter Lineham says it's no longer a priority for many people. 

Mr Shams said his advocacy group has helped more than 1000 ex-religious people from a variety of backgrounds find connections and support. He says there should be no pressure to stay, change or leave your faith.