Muhammad Syed

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Muhammad Syed
Muhammed Syed
Muhammed Syed giving a talk at PASTAH CON in 2015
ResidenceWashington, D.C.
NationalityPakistan
United States
Other namesMo
OccupationPresident and executive director of Ex-Muslims of North America, writer, speaker, and political activist
Years active2007–present
OrganizationPresident, Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA)
MovementSecular movement
Websitehttps://www.exmna.org/

Muhammad Syed is a Pakistani-American writer, speaker, and political activist.[1] He created the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) advocacy group in 2013 which seeks to normalize religious dissent and to help former Muslims leave the religion by linking them to support networks. He is the co-founder, executive director[2], and currently the president of EXMNA.[1][3]

Early life[edit]

Muhammed Syed was born in the United States of America and grew up in Pakistan. As a child he had a love for the sciences—mostly Astronomy—and was a big fan of Star Wars and Star Trek. He came from a well educated background as both his parents had PhDs and describes his upbringing as "relatively liberal" from which his mother was particularly open minded.[4] He further explained his experiences growing up in a 2016 interview with The Humanist: "My family is relatively pro-science. I was a Muslim who understood and accepted evolution."[5] His understanding of evolution came mostly from the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan, which did not make him question his faith directly but set him on a path to secularism.[6] He moved back to the United States in 2001, a few months before the September 11 attacks.[4] He later became a software engineer.[7]

Activism[edit]

Anti-war protests[edit]

In 2001, after the September 11 attacks and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Syed joined anti-war protests.[4] Syed attended a conference of the Islamic Society of North America, where Anwar Ibrahim (Malaysia's Deputy PM 1993–8) roundly condemned the recently uncovered Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse by American soldiers (April 2004), which received loud applause from the audience. However, Anwar Ibrahim went on to say that prisons like Abu Ghraib or worse existed throughout the Muslim world, asked the audience how often they had spoken out against human rights violations against prisoners and others by Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, and accused them of hypocrisy (Anwar Ibrahim himself had been imprisoned in solitary confinement from April 1999 to September 2004[8]). This rare occurrence of self-criticism and self-reflection from within the Muslim community had a profound impact on Syed's way of thinking.[7]

Apostasy[edit]

In the post-9/11 years, some of Syed's Pakistani friends became "ultra conservative", which made him "scared".[4] After being fed up with conservative and radical Muslims, he started investigating his religion in more detail, because he wanted to understand Islam well enough to be able to advocate against conservatives. He spent about six months[5] to a year[2][4] reading scripture (the Quran and Hadiths) and secondary texts, and by the end of his studies he realized that the radical interpretation was actually more accurate than the moderate interpretation. He couldn't accept the radical position and thus that was the end of his belief in Islam.[5]

It took Syed a while to admit the fact that he could no longer reconcile his understanding of science with the claims of Islam. However, when one of his friends attributed his recovery from leukaemia to God, whereas Syed knew a certain percentage of leukaemia patients survive regardless of God, 'I knew what he is saying is fantastical. It's not really real. It's an issue of probability. From there I thought: I understand this is all false, and I've understood it for a while, I just haven't self-acknowledged it.' Syed became an atheist in 2007.[4]

In 2007, he decided to be public about his apostasy with a desire to engage in open dialogue and break the apostasy taboo. This move created a desire for him to take his anti-war efforts and refocus them towards religious dissent.[9]

In 2012, Syed started organizing an Ex-Muslim Community in the Northeast Corridor surrounding the D.C. area. During the spring of 2013 he reached out to other Ex-Muslim Communities with the goal of creating an umbrella organization that would unify the communities. The combined efforts of these communities resulted in the creation of EXMNA.[9]

Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA)[edit]

In 2013 Syed, along with Sarah Haider co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America, an advocacy organization and online community which aims to "normalize" religious dissent and to helping create local support communities for those who have left Islam. The organization was first based in just Washington, D.C. and Toronto, but is now active in over 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada with over 1,000 workers and volunteers and a total of 24,000 members.[4][10] The group tries to normalize dissent by doing seminars, giving speeches, and creating awareness campaigns. They also create and engage in protests and vigils for imprisoned dissidents and murdered atheists.[6] The group's spokesman, Nas Ishmael, stressed that they criticize the ideology of the Islamic doctrine and "do not stand for any kind of anti-Muslim bigotry".[11]

Muhammad Syed, Sarah Haider and Heina Dadabhoy speaking at the American Atheist Convention 2015.

In a 2014 article, The New York Times took note of EXMNA motto: "No Bigotry and No Apologism" and described the group as welcoming.[12] The BBC affirmed this by mentioning that the group is inclusive and has members from over 40 different ethnic backgrounds.[4] EXMNA has a screening process so not just anyone can join, and they have closed meeting for safety reasons. You must have a in person interview before allowed to join and know when or where the group meetings are being held. The group explained their position on screenings as follows: "In the Muslim world, we are openly persecuted and regularly meet grisly ends. In the Western world we are safer, but even here open meetings can be a big risk."[13]

In a 2014 interview with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Syed further explained the risk involved saying that many of their members have been beaten, disowned, and kicked out of their family homes. He also noted how important the group is for people who need resources to get help or simply to just talk to someone. Syed said he has members who break down and cry because it's the first time in years where they've felt like they belong.[14] In a 2016 interview with Areo Magazine, the group said that a lot of their members are immigrants, so they have a difficult time fitting in with the broader American culture if they are disowned by their family and community.[15]

In 2015, Syed appeared on The Mythicist Milwaukee Show run by the Mythicist Milwaukee secular organization in February[16] and then gave a speech at American Atheists National Convention in April.[17] In September of 2016, he spoke at the annual conference of the American Humanist Association on the topic of "Examining Honor Culture & Violence in Islam."[5]

In October of 2017 Syed took EXMNA on a tour around the United States and Canada to speak at college campuses throughout the 2017-2018 academic year. EXMNA will be speaking on a variety of topics that affect Muslims and Ex-Muslims. The tour began at the University of Colorado Boulder.[4][18]

Reactions[edit]

In 2016, the Wegmans Food Markets in Fairfax, Virginia refused to bake a cake for the EXMNA. Muhammad Syed was confused and said "There is nothing about our name or logo that can be considered offensive to any reasonable individual." Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to Wegmans on June 20 describing their decision as a potential civil rights violation. The food market later corrected their mistake and made the cake for the group.[19][20]

In May of 2017, Muhammad Syed's Facebook group for EXMNA (24,000 members) was shut down due to being targeted by Islamic fundamentalist groups. Other ex-Muslim atheist groups that were simultaneously taken down by the Islamist mass flagging operation (under the slogan "Report anti-Islamic pages"[21]) also included thousands or tens of thousands of members,[22] and also targeted the public page of Atheist Republic (more than 1.6 million likes).[22][23] In an open letter, Syed wrote that the Facebook and other social media platforms are not doing enough to protect vulnerable groups from malicious attacks. He further stated "Arab atheists, Bangladeshi secularists, and numerous other groups have been under attack for years, as religious conservatives in the Muslim world learn to abuse Facebook’s reporting system to their advantage."[22] Together with Atheist Republic, Syed started a petition to get the groups reinstated and to further "prevent religious extremists from censoring atheists and secularists” in the future.[21]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Blasphemy and the Importance of Dissent". Center for Inquiry Western New York. 2015. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b Seth Andrews (30 September 2015). "Reaching Out to Ex-Muslims". The Thinking Atheist. Blog Talk Radio. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  3. ^ "Muhammad Syed". The Humanist. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Owen Amos (29 November 2017). "Ex-Muslims: They left Islam and now tour the US to talk about it". BBC. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Clay Farris Naff (30 August 2016). "Islam's Ex Factor: An Interview with Sarah Haider and Muhammad Syed". The Humanist. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b David Niose (25 February 2016). "From Muslim to Nonbeliever". Psychology Today. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  7. ^ a b Muhammad Syed (26 October 2015). "Rationalism & the Muslim World". 2015 PAStAHCon. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  8. ^ Specialist Speakers Profile. "Anwar Ibrahim". Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  9. ^ a b "MUHAMMAD SYED". Skepticon.[dead link]
  10. ^ Clausen, Todd (23 June 2016). "Clausen: Wegmans says Ex-Muslims group can buy cake". Democrat and Chronicle. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  11. ^ "Toronto group helps ex-Muslims see meaning outside of religion". Metro News. 2 April 2015. Archived from the original on 5 April 2018. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  12. ^ Mark Oppenheimer (23 May 2014). "Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  13. ^ Andy Ngo (23 May 2017). "Inside the Secret World of Ex-Muslims". The National Review. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  14. ^ RDFRS (9 April 2014). "Secular VIP of the Week: Muhammed Syed". The Richard Dawkins Foundation. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  15. ^ Malhar Mali (19 December 2016). "Sarah Haider on Leaving Islam, Changing Liberals' Minds, and Ex-Muslims of North America". Areo Magazine. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  16. ^ "Muhammad Syed IMDB". IMDB. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  17. ^ "Arabic Billboard Promotes Atheist Convention to Ex-Muslims". American Atheists. 16 March 2015. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  18. ^ Aymann Ismail and Jeffrey Bloomer (9 November 2017). "The Ex-Muslims Go Public". Slate. Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  19. ^ Todd Clausen (23 June 2016). "Clausen: Wegmans says Ex-Muslims group can buy cake". The Democrat & Chronicle. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  20. ^ "FFRF demands a cake for ex-Muslims". Freedom From Religion Foundation. 19 June 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  21. ^ a b John Bonazzo (12 May 2017). "Facebook Blocks Posts From Atheist, Ex-Muslim Pages". The Observer. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  22. ^ a b c "Facebook Clamping Down on Atheist and Ex-Muslim Pages". Conatus News. 10 May 2017. Retrieved 25 May 2018.
  23. ^ Andrew Griffin (11 May 2017). "Facebook repeatedly 'unpublishing' world's biggest atheist page, owners claim". The Independent. Retrieved 22 May 2018.