This is a story about Islam, alienation and violent death — but it’s not one you’ll have read before. It is not about radicalization, jihad and martyrdom.
This is the story of an ex-Muslim. A young man who, as a teenager, moves from Pakistan to Britain, learns about the wonders of science and embraces a militant form of atheism.
Who rejects God and religion, spirals into depression, and in an act of despair and disconsolation, takes his own life on a date that will resonate with everyone: September 11. This is Irtaza Hussain’s story.
But it’s also the story of other men and women just like him, who, as a matter of principle and conscience, choose to abandon Islam and religious belief, becoming “apostates” to the faith.
Irtaza was just 22 when he died. His body was found in Hainault Forest in Chigwell, Essex, at 4.20pm on Wednesday, September 11, last year. He had hanged himself. I know this not because of the inquest into his death, which adjourned last September and has yet to return a verdict; I know this because I saw the picture he posted of himself on Facebook moments before he died. The last picture he took, sitting in a tree, rope ominously in view. The picture that haunts me still. It was entitled “Just a Jump Away”.
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I am a criminology lecturer at Kent University. I first became interested in Islamic apostates after the brutal slaying of the film-maker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, on an Amsterdam street in 2004. When the police recovered Van Gogh’s ravaged body they discovered a handwritten note pinned to his chest with a small knife. It was addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born political activist and then member of the Dutch parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a short, controversial film about the enslavement of women in Islam. She is also a former Muslim and well known in the Netherlands for her scathing criticisms of Islam. The contents of that note are chilling: Bouyeri condemns Hirsi Ali as a “soldier of evil” who has “turned her back on the Truth”, and threatens her with death.
I wanted to know more about Hirsi Ali, and whether there were others like her with similar stories about leaving Islam. I met Irtaza in March 2012. He had seen an advert I posted on the online forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) expressing my interest in interviewing so-called “apostates” for a research study.
He sent me an email saying he was willing to talk. When he emerged from a crowded platform at Liverpool Street station, the first thing I noticed wasn’t his height — he was tall — nor his luxuriantly thick, long, black hair, but the object in his hand: a book by Stephen Hawking. Irtaza, evidently, was a fan. Science, it transpired, was one of his great passions.
Born in Islamabad in 1992, Irtaza moved to Britain with his family in 2008, when he was 16, first to Cardiff and then to Dagenham in east London.
He told me he had started to read the Koran, in Arabic, at around the age of seven, recalling how a man from the local madrasa would come to his family’s home every day. “They really didn’t follow a fixed time. They would just come unannounced, and at one point I complained, and he said that everyone reads the Koran every day, so what excuse do you have? At that time, I really didn’t have a very good answer and I actually started to cry.”
Irtaza remembered attending a class where the children were encouraged to cry over the story of the slaughter of the Prophet Mohammed’s family at Karbala. [note: he must have been Shia]
“Basically, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “There were a lot of massacres in my city, there have been lots of deaths, so it was very difficult for me to shed tears for the death of one man.” In 2005 an earthquake had killed more than 73 people when a tower block collapsed near his neighbourhood, and later he had witnessed the aftermath of a number of bomb blasts, including a suicide bombing near the Lal Masjid mosque, less than a mile away from his home, which killed 19 people.
He struggled with praying five times a day, describing his prayers as “very infrequent… I’d feel terrible about it”.
Moving to Britain had a profound impact on him. By the time he began his A-levels, in Cardiff, Irtaza was having “strong doubts” about Islam. “I became a bit liberal,” he confessed. “I was thinking about picking up music, I was thinking about having a girlfriend, I was thinking about watching movies.”
Unlike many ex-Muslims I have interviewed, Irtaza was open about his apostasy and had told his family about his atheism.
He confided to me that the relationship with his father was especially turbulent, and leaving Islam made it all the more so. According to Irtaza: “My dad said, ‘Well, you have three years, and if you don’t adopt the religion of the book in that time then you’re not my son any more.’”
They had reached an agreement: they were not to talk about faith. “He’s drawn a line,” Irtaza told me. “He says you can say whatever you want as long as it doesn’t cross into religion, and I definitely try my best to follow that.”
I spoke with Irtaza’s father, Sabir, in mid-January this year. As I was warmly welcomed into the lounge of his home in Dagenham, I was struck by a large poster-sized photograph of Irtaza on a cabinet, sitting proudly among other less imposing family photographs. It is recent, a head shot. Irtaza is smiling. He looks happy, full of life.
Sabir told me how much he loved his son and how intelligent he thought he was, and denied he had ever threatened to disown him. “We had no problem with his views,” Sabir said.
“But he had put things [on Facebook]. I told him, look, this can cause problems for me, my family and for my extended family [in Pakistan]. I was just trying to minimise the contamination. There was a fear that somehow harm can come to him, to the family or to the extended family, because we can’t control what Irtaza says.
“If he says something bad, if he does something bad, creates a friction, he gets into trouble, we get into trouble, our family gets into trouble. That’s the only thing that bothered me.”
There was also the issue of Irtaza’s dismal career prospects. Despite his intelligence, Irtaza had performed poorly in his A-levels in Cardiff, and was unable to secure a place at university. This made him despondent: as he put it in an internet forum post in November 2010,
“I don’t have a future at this moment in time.” That his brother, Ijtaba, was academically very successful would only have amplified Irtaza’s crushing sense of underachievement: he had to settle for working at his father’s furniture store in Romford.
When he wasn’t studying for resits or working in the shop, Irtaza would immerse himself in literature, absorbing the works of 19th-century philosophers, contemporary scientists and 21st-century “new atheists”.
And when he wasn’t reading he was actively involved in various secular meeting groups.
He proudly posted photographs on Facebook of himself with intellectuals and activists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, AC Grayling, Peter Tatchell and Dan Barker, author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.
Irtaza looks especially enthused alongside Barker, a prominent American atheist who served as a Christian minister for 19 years, whom Irtaza described as “the man who turned me into an atheist”.
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Comments: It sounds to me more like he was depressed over his poor showing at school. He also must have had a propensity to depression. I have never heard of anyone else committing suicide because they decided to become an atheist. It is a sad story. He might have been OK if he had seen a psychiatrist and tried anti-depressants. They have helped many.
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Secondary note: Note what the father says:
“But he had put things [on Facebook]. I told him, look, this can cause problems for me, my family and for my extended family [in Pakistan].
I was just trying to minimise the contamination. There was a fear that somehow harm can come to him, to the family or to the extended family, because we can’t control what Irtaza says.
This shows the classic tribal nature of Pakistani society, which is persisting in the UK. In a tribal society, the entire family is considered responsible for the bad behaviour of any member.
This brings about honour killings, as the family wishes to avert the bad reputation by killing the person or persons who have threatened the reputation of the family.
Tribal society is the default for humans, but in most of Europe the Church stamped it out by forbidding close kin marriage. It was a very deliberate attempt to destroy the tribal aspect of society and it must be said it was hugely successful and completely transformed society.