Note: I have altered a few details of this letter to better conceal the writer’s identity, because safety is of concern. The gist of the situation remains the same.
I come from an incredibly strict Muslim household, I am a teenager and living in the UK, and I am an atheist. My mum believes that our entire family is ‘possessed’ by ‘jinns’ (devils). She has previously sent us all to a Muslim version of a priest who basically performed an exorcism, only with the Quran instead of the Bible, and he pressed “pressure points” which left my sister and mum with large bruises.
It was very disturbing. My mum and siblings believe it all, and so the “devils” supposedly “speak through them,” even though I know that it is probably their minds creating these alternate personas after being put through a physically and emotionally terrible situation.
The sessions were a frequent thing last year. I thought she forgot about it all, but now she’s saying that she will send me to this ‘retreat’ lasting a few days, where they will do what I described above as well as forcing me to do other Islamic rituals. I think that it’s supposed to start very soon, not sure because she only revealed she was going to send me when she was angry and shouting at me. I really don’t want to go. What can I do to make her not send me?
Thanks for your time and help,
More Than Just A Little Scared
My dear young friend,
Your immediate safety is the most important thing right now, and your anonymity and privacy are important for that. I’m assuming that no one else in your family already knows that you are an atheist. That could be dangerous for you. The news is filled with stories of Muslim families being very abusive, disowning, shunning, threatening, harming, or even killing their young family members who reveal that they no longer believe. This has happened in the West as well as in the Middle East.
So please handle all of your communications with me and with anyone else very carefully. Create accounts that do not contain your name, with new passwords that no one can figure out. Set your browser to “private” so that it will not record your browsing history. Do not say anything about this on Facebook or any other social media. Be extremely cautious about what you share with friends. Friends might care about you, but friends can be careless with information, not realizing they’re putting you at risk.
However, you’re not alone. A resource that might be helpful or at least supportive is the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, CEMB. I don’t know for certain, but they might be able to give you some kind of help, or guidance, or at least supportive encouragement. Again, be extremely careful to cover your tracks when using any computer, cell phone, or any other device that can be used by someone else to find out what you’re doing and who you’re talking to.
With so little time before this several-day ordeal, I’m not sure if it can be prevented. I don’t know if the laws in Britain can protect you as a minor, but you should look into it. Talk to someone, perhaps a teacher or school administrator whom you trust. It could be that this qualifies unambiguously as child abuse, and then the authorities might be compelled by law to intervene.
From your letter I also don’t know if you are male or female, and culturally that might have a bearing on how much power or choice you have, how much say you have in such things at your present age.
I immediately wonder if there is an adult male family relative who is rational even if he is religious, and who has some authority that he could use to get your mother to stop this lunacy. Clearly the Muslim cleric who is doing these exorcisms is taking advantage of her disturbed thinking, and I expect that he is charging her money for it. That might be an objection that a family member who has some kind of influence could use to argue against this.
If you appeal for help from a family member, an authority at school, or to the police, you do not need to reveal at this time that you are an atheist. The rituals sound abusive and inappropriate for any child, whether believer or not. Your atheism is a separate issue that you should reveal only when you have enough control and independence in your life for you to be safe. Since revealing that can never be undone, you should take plenty of time to consider all the consequences.
If you end up having to go to the retreat, I think you should do whatever it takes to survive with as little hardship for you as possible, and with as little risk for revealing your atheism. Because you are in a vulnerable position with little or no power, I suggest that you play the role of a rather dull and uninteresting student. Do not defy or argue with them, and do not go overboard agreeing with them or pleasing them either. Don’t be too dumb or too smart. Don’t irritate them, and don’t impress them either. Just cooperate properly, adequately, and offer nothing extra that might accidently provoke the clerics to be suspicious and question you closely or browbeat you about your beliefs. Just be another one of the people on whom they’re making money, not someone to notice or to remember. Survive, just for now, the way a chameleon survives by taking on the colors of its surroundings, not standing out at all, one way or another.
I wish I could call in a helicopter rescue, but it’s probably a good thing that it’s impossible anyway. Heroic, dramatic, or drastic measures usually cause more problems than they solve. Bold, reckless courage that is not balanced with prudence and pragmatism is just for the movies. In real life, that’s usually called stupidity. No, because your power, freedom, and choice are very limited, and because there are people around you who could react very irrationally, this will have to be solved with patience, quiet courage, discreet caution, and with carefully selected allies. It will take time.
After you’re out of there you can begin building a plan for a life that will gradually be yours. Eventually, with the help of people who have done the same thing before you, you will be able to be true, free, and open about who and what you are. But the full realization of that will not come right now. Right now you must do whatever is necessary for your short-term safety and survival. Contact the CEMB right away, and if they are of any use to you, contact them again after this “retreat” is over.
Also, please write to me again with more information as things develop, and perhaps I and my dear readers here can put our heads together and come up with suggestions better than the meager ones I have offered you today.
Stay strong, stay patient, stay wise. You can be strong, patient, and wise even when you’re also “More Than Just A Little Scared.”