Faces of Reason: Sarah Haider, Co-founder of Ex-muslims of North America

Sarah Haider was born in Pakistan and raised in Houston, Texas in a practicing Shia Muslim family. During her late teen years she began to question the religion of her youth, critically examining the Quran and its theological assumptions.

“I grew up surrounded by religion, and there was a point I remember when I started reading about philosophy and I met a few atheists. They talked to me about problems in Islam—problematic verses that I had never considered—and I wanted to prove them wrong. I educated myself more on Islam in one month than I ever had until then. The conversion out went really quickly.”

When asked what most persuaded her to question the religion in which she was raised, Haider explains that it was the treatment of women that grabbed her attention the most.

“I consider myself a humanist and a feminist. I always thought that Islam was definitely a very pro-woman religion. I was taught that over and over again and I believed it. You trust the people around you. You trust your family and your friends and your community. They won’t lie to you about this.

In any case, it was particularly looking into that, the verses that were anti-woman. [In Islam] the woman is the possession of the man. When I started looking into that, it was very clear. There are more specific policy prescriptions in Islam than there are in Christianity. These are literal things that you need to do…which is also what makes it easier to leave.”

She left her religion soon after that time, even though it would be years before she could connect with other former Muslims like herself.

Her father has since become an atheist as well.

“We had been talking about it for more than a decade now, since I left as a teenager. I think what happened is that he discovered Facebook groups of Pakistani humanists, older men like himself. That’s I think what did it—hearing it from his peers. Then he started joining freethinking groups. Then I think he left. I think that’s an important thing: seeing other people do it, knowing that it’s possible that you can.”

Connecting with Others

In 2013 along with Muhammad Syed, Haider co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America, an advocacy organization and online community dedicated to normalizing religious dissent and to helping create local support communities for those who have left Islam.

One of the most challenging factors in the work of EMNA is helping people connect who cannot openly identify as apostates to Islam. Already facing xenophobic exclusion at the hands of Americans who are distrustful of “brown skinned” people, former Muslims become cut off from their families only to find they no longer have communities to support them anywhere they turn.

Another challenge Haider discusses is the public perception of ex-Muslims who criticize the faith they formerly held. Because more tolerant Americans equate criticism of Islam with either racism or religious intolerance, they often lump former Muslims into a category to which they belong. If they would listen more closely to those who have left that religion, they would realize that there is a difference between disagreement and disrespect.

“It’s important to realize that mocking and critiquing are not that different in the eyes of the most religious people.”

She recently spoke about this problem in an address to the American Humanist Association that she titled “Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique.”

Together with a growing number of highly motivated, passionate activists like Sarah are changing the public face of rationalism and Freethought the world over.

In addition to atheism/humanism, Haider is particularly passionate about civil liberties and women’s rights. If you’d like to contact her, you can reach her at sarah@exmna.org@SarahTheHaider and read more about EXMNA at www.exmna.org.