Following the creation of Councils of Ex-Muslims in the UK and Germany, Austria now has its own chapter. The Islamic Religious Association has so far kept quiet about the group, other than to say that any Muslim is free to leave Islam. Perhaps they are unaware of the numerous apostates from Islam who have been silenced. Rifqa Bary comes to mind.
Many thanks to JLH for the translation from Falter:
“I renounced!”- - - - - - - - -
They were terrorized or despised. Austria’s ex-Muslims want to remove the condemnation of leaving the faith.
Perhaps Sibel Beyoglu would have to fear for her life if she told her story under her real name. But she would have to seek a new life. To the outside world Beyoglu is a wife, mother, and Muslim woman. Only her husband and her parents know her secret: Sibel Beyoglu doesn’t believe in Allah. Being an atheist, she doesn’t believe that women are less worthy than men, that they have to hide under a veil and that the can only enter heaven if they practice Islam actively — and also if their husbands approve. That is why she renounced Islam, as she had learned it, when she was young, and she raises her children as atheists. Under no circumstances are they allowed to talk about this outside the family.
Beyoglu does not live in Saudi Arabia or in Afghanistan, but in a village in the middle of the Austrian countryside. “As a foreigner you are segregated, and often there is only your community.” said the daughter of Turkish Immigrants. “ If they throw you out you are isolated completely.”
Cahit Kaya calls people like Sibel Beyoglu “Ex-Muslims”: people socialized as Muslims, but who don’t practice their faith or have renounced it. Meanwhile 516,000 Muslims are living in Austria, according to a recent study by the integration fund. There is no broad research regarding their religiousness. If we believe the Islamic community, which claims to represent all Muslims, they are all either faithful or very faithful. According to Cahit Kaya the majority consists of Ex-Muslims. Like himself.
“They don’t have the confidence to admit it. Therefore I will speak in their names in the future,” the 30-year-old Kaya said in his Vorarlberg dialect, sitting in the Cafe Korb in Vienna on a cloudy day in January. For five months he has been working on the painstaking organization of a Central Council for Ex-Muslims in Austria. Painstaking, because although it is easy to find sympathizers, as he says, only few admit this in public.
In the future, the Ex-Muslims want to join in the struggle in the first line of domestic debate about Islam. They call themselves laicist, humanistic and freethinkers. Ostensibly they are concerned with removing the censure of apostasy, of leaving the faith, which in their opinion is a widespread but undiscussed problem in Austria. With their provocative and polarizing positions, they could remove the taboo from criticism of Islam itself. For the first time this no longer comes from the political Right, but from former Muslims themselves.
“I am an insider and I know the everyday problems within a parallel society. But the public should get to know them as well,” Kaya said. The young long-haired man neither studied theology nor has he ever been a faithful Muslim. He read books written by the Islam critics-Henry M. Broder, Necla Kelek, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and he demonstrated against the theocratic regime with the anti-Iranian initiative “Stop the bomb”.
His discomfort with Islam is grounded on personal experiences with narrow-minded Muslims. Kaya was born in Eastern Turkey and grew up in Vorarlberg, and he tells us how he was insulted by his Turkish classmates whenever he ate Leberkäsesemmel [liver loaf = type of meat loaf popular in Austria — translator] and about the “psychological terrorism” by workers of a company in Vorarlberg with 90% Turkish workers whenever he drank beer at company get-togethers. “I was able to accomplish nothing talking with hundreds of faithful Muslims,”, Kaya said, “they seem indoctrinated and become aggressive quickly.” Between the possibilities of joining the “inner emigration” or avoiding Muslims and their society company, he decided to chose the latter. He moved to Vienna, started to study politics and kept looking for like-minded people, until last year he heard of Mina Ahadi.
Death Can be a Punishment
Three years ago the 53-year-old native of Iran founded the first Central Council of Ex-Muslims in Germany, whose offshoots are now active in England, Switzerland and Scandinavia (see column). As a student in Iran Ahadi had initially opposed the regime of the Shah and then fought against the mullahs. After her husband and five friends had been kidnapped from home and put to death, she fled to Europe. That home visit had been directed at her.
“I know Islam, and for me it means death and pain” is a slogan of this Communist, whose Central Council of Europe calls for a ban on veils and minarets and criticizes Islamic organizations for not representing the majority and for politicization. Their main concern, however, is apostasy.
Two years ago, a case from Afghanistan caused outrage in Europe. Abdul Rahman, a Muslim convert to Christianity, who had lived many years in Germany, was indicted in Afghanistan for apostasy and threatened with the death penalty. It was only after considerable international pressure that the trial was terminated by reason of insanity.
The asylum-seeker Majid Chavarie has a similar story, except that it does not attract so much attention, because it is the rule rather than the exception in Iran. He sits in the Viennese Café Schottenring and tells of how he grew up as an orphan with his devout brother and had to memorize the Koran sura by sura. During his youth, critical questions about Islam were met with public beatings. In a secret Bible study, he became acquainted with another god, as he says, “a God who speaks of love and not of battle.”
When the Bible study group was uncovered, he was hunted and his house was under surveillance. Apostasy in Iran is punished by death. Therefore Chavarie fled to Europe. For nearly seven years he has lived in Austria, where he is politically active against the (Iranian) regime, and is hoping for asylum here. “In Iran the death penalty awaits me” he says. Because he has nothing left to lose, he is one of the few apostates to tell his story publicly. They do not face the death penalty in Austria, but often a social death.
Friederike Dostal, who is responsible for baptizing adults in the archdiocese of Vienna knows the stories behind the taboo. By conservative estimate, about 150 people a year convert from Islam to Christianity in Austria. “Often baptized candidates conceal their conversion process or at least don’t spread the news,” says Dostal and tells anecdotes of her everyday work. For instance, a young Jordanian woman shortly before her ceremony decided against her baptism, after her family in Jordan was threatened. Another young convert, according to Dostal, had to hear the sentence: “If we were not in Austria, you would pay with your life.”
Tarafa Baghajati, on the other hand, speaks of a “virtual problem”. Baghajati’s wife Amina is known as the spokesperson of the Islamic Religious Community (IGGIÖ); he himself, as a committed Muslim is one of the most important string-pullers in the background. In the conversation taking place in the library of the Academy of Islamic Religious Pedagogy, he pleads for free choice: “No compulsion is the word in the Koran,” says Baghajati, a friendly man who likes to quote from the Koran to demonstrate parables with effective theatricality.
A new kind of criticizing Islam
“In countries where apostasy is punishable by law, the misunderstanding consists of making no distinction between the person changing his religion and high treason declared in a military sense,” says Baghajati who does not see himself as the advocate of theocratic states, but as a cultural interpreter. “Among Muslims, religion is enshrined in the heart. You not only turn your back on God, but on your entire family and society. “
One does not have to approve of that, Baghajati says between the lines, but must understand it, because that is the way it is. The social, psychological, and human crises of which Cahit Kaya, Sibel Beyoglu, and Friederike Dostal speak are not known to the faith community, Baghajati assures. Only 21 Muslims left the faith in 2009.
“If someone wants to change his religion, he should do that. But he should then solve his problems on his own,” Baghajati said. He refers to the Central Council of Ex-Muslims as “irrelevant”; the name was “a false choice”. Finally, someone who has never been a Muslim could not also fall from the faith.
The representatives of the faith community are now in a new situation. So far, criticism of Islam came mainly from the Right. Statements like that of FPÖ politician Susanne Winter, who has called the Prophet Muhammad a child molester, were not difficult to debunk as what they are: racist incitement. But of the ex-Muslims of Cahit Kaya, those who know the so-called parallel society, because they grew up in it, step forward to comment. Cahit Kaya does not agree with the language of Winter’s remark, but with its content. Religious representatives still pay no attention.
Ultimately, the involvement of ex-Muslims, raises an important question: Will they reach their target and launch an inner-Islamic discourse, or will they just harden the battle lines between Islamic representatives and critics of Islam?
In an online interview Kaya speaks of the need for an enlightenment movement within Islam. He condemns forced marriages, honor killings, stoning, and genital mutilation. Tarafa Baghajati would undoubtedly agree with Kaya on many of these points. However, the jubilant comments below the interview hint at who has been waiting for this criticism. There is talk of Islam as a “mental illness” and that it is “curable”, and that Austria is a “territory of colonization.”
When the press conference of the Central Council started last Friday, it was immediately clear why neither Muslims nor Islamic representatives were present to discuss with the new critics: they were not welcome here. The ex-Muslims are not looking for dialogue, but a fight. Sixty interested people gathered in the Republican Club in the first district, which was packed to the rafters. Above all, atheists, feminists and leftists came and commented on every remark made from the podium by Mina Ahadi and Cahit Kaya, with nods and applause.
Ahadi first tells the depressing story of her persecution, which did not stop even in Germany. After the founding of the Central Council she was under police protection for six months because of numerous death threats. In Austria too, she expects violence against the initiative, she says. When she speaks of her struggle against European Islamic organizations, she almost shouts, she is so outraged.
Mosques would advance the opposite of integration, Islamic groups would reject democracy, and the “Islamic lobby” simply uses Islamophobia as a defensive statement: these are the things that are said on the podium. Devout Muslims are portrayed as radical and fanatic, the critics described as “normal people.” Anyone who warns against generalization and Islamophobia is called multi-culti.
Islam is Dangerous for her
It is not that Ahadi implies “between the lines” that someone enters a mosque as a normal person and comes out as a supporter of terror. She says it straight out and earns thunderous applause, from people who want to finally be allowed to express their fear freely without being branded racist and Islamophobic, people who want to finally say that Islam is political and dangerous, is anti-feminine and indeed anti-human, and that they therefore want to see neither minarets nor headscarves. Mina Ahadi grants them this permission, because she is one of “those” and yet one of “these”.
“The danger is that, rather than being part of the solution, they remain part of the problem, and do not cause any self-critical debate on the Muslim side, but merely defensive reactions.” This sentence appeared one time in Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the Dutch Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her companions in the struggle. It could, however, relate equally well to the new Central Council. For, as its exponents are sitting at the Republican Club and raging against Islam, they do not give the impression that they would speak for 95 percent of the local Muslims who do not attend mosques, but rather for those 30 percent of Austrians, who according to surveys, do not want to live next door to Muslims.