As Australia turns toward secularism, the idea of leaving a religion has become acceptable and even encouraged by parts of society.
But for many Muslims the choice to turn away from their faith can have disastrous consequences.
They can lose their family and friends, and many have been shamed, silenced, abused and have even received death threats for renouncing their faith.
Those that do abandon Islam can be cut off from their communities and forced to build new lives.
Those who can’t, where the risk is just too great, continue to live a lie, praying to a God they don’t believe in.
Harris Sultan (pictured) is a prominent ex-Muslim in Australia and says he has doubts about the religion form a young age
Because of this, a secretive underground community has emerged where ex-Muslims, both out and proud and in the closet, meet online and in person to share their experiences.
While the ex-Muslim network is filled with members from across the globe, in Australia, there are only a few brave enough to declare themselves publicly as part of the small and secretive community.
Harris Sultan is one of those people. He runs a Facebook page called the Ex-Muslim Atheist and is vocal about questioning Islam.
He grew up in Pakistan and says he had doubts from a young age.
‘Growing up in Pakistan in a fairly Muslim, however a moderate religious family, I still grew up as a Muslim,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘I did have times when I fully devoted myself to Islam and tried to bury my doubts against Islam but at the end scepticism got the better out of me.’
The Society of Ex-Muslims of Australia is operated by both out and proud members and those still in the closet
‘All the questions I had, I could not ask them openly… as questioning Islam was just not an option.
‘We are raised as blindingly believing in Islam and all the miracles associated with it.’
He says that while his family wasn’t happy when he told them he was an atheist he faced no ‘major backlash.’
But when he chose to go public with it his father stopped speaking to him.
‘My father is not happy with me publicly coming out as an atheist and is not on speaking terms with me.
‘But I believe he’ll eventually come around. He’s too reasonable to cut me out entirely.
‘My father is more worried about relative’s backlash then having a problem with it personally so I can see why he is behaving the way he is.’
Harris works with a small group of ex-Muslims online to offer support and hope to those turning away from their faith.
One of those people is called Sha, who said she also lost interest in the religion at a young age.
‘I’m estranged from my family and we never had an ‘out’ conversation about my lack of beliefs, but they hated that I wasn’t a dutiful Muslim girl and it was a source of drama and abuse constantly,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
Many ex-Muslims still pretend to be believers in the religion because of they fear persecution by coming out
‘I didn’t feel safe telling them I wasn’t Muslim, given their reaction to other opinions and beliefs of mine, such as the scandalous belief I hold that gay people aren’t disgusting.’
Sha might not have gotten to have that conversation with her family before they stopped talking but through the Facebook page Society of Ex-Muslims Australia, she helps support others who are.
She said many ex-Muslims continue living as if they still believe in Allah.
‘Most don’t live as though they’re practising but live as if they still believe, but they make changes as in will dress a little less ‘modestly,’ maybe wear more makeup, maybe not read packets of lollies to see if they contain pork gelatin,’ she said.
‘It’s usually a constant struggle with arguments and family discord.’
Harris agrees, saying many of the ex-Muslims they know have suffered abuse after deciding to leave.
‘Yes, we know a lot of closeted ex-Muslims who pretend to be practising Muslims,’ he said.
Harris, who has this image on his Facebook page, says he wants to help ex-Muslims
He add that a small group of Ex-Muslims are trying to launch an NGO to support those feeling their families because renouncing their faith has placed their lives in danger.
Jennine Khalik recently spent time with a few ex-Muslims in Melbourne, reportingon their horrific stories for ABC News.
Known only as Aisha* a 20-year-old Melbourne woman said she had fled her family home because her parents had seen a picture of her without her hijab on.
‘The most that happened was when I took my hijab off, one of my friends put a photo on Facebook and my parents ended up seeing it,’ she said.
‘They were pretty upset and said I was obviously just a w***e who would end up dead in the gutters.’
She said that as a result her parents turned physically violent and she was forced to flee the family home.
She’s now just one of more than 70 members of the underground ex-Muslim group operating within Australia.
The small community in Australia is part of a much larger global ex-Muslim network. On Reddit more than 30,000 subscribe to the forums where they can discuss anything from the reasons they left to weather Mohammed really was moral.
During Ramadan, there was a call out over the platform offering struggling ex-Muslims a chance to meet up.
There is a very strict vetting process for joining the small community
The post offered those ‘still in the closet’ and ‘those out and dealing with the pressure of your Muslim family’ to join the online community.
There is a strict vetting criteria for those wanting to join.
‘We take the privacy and security of members very seriously, and as such we verify and interview members before they join,’ it says.
The strict measures are because risks of becoming an apostate, a person who has renounced their religion, often outweigh the freedoms that can come living honestly.
‘The backlash is extreme which is the reason why most ex-Muslims don’t come out,’ says Sha.
‘They usually have commitments that make it difficult to just leave the family home, or are still grappling and trying to think of a medium ground to keep family relationships but also live a life they want.’
‘It’s a brave and difficult situation.’
Sha says many Muslims have strong reactions because of how demonised the faith can be.
They have over 70 active members in Australia but globally there are thousands
‘I think some Muslims react sensitively because they definitely do have it tough in the West and they fear our experiences will be used as Islamophobic fuel.
‘But I also think other Muslims definitely are staunch believers of a religion that says ex-believers should be killed and that it is truly a ‘perfect’ faith and cant understand why anyone would leave it.’
Harris agrees, but adds that the small group is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place. As an group, they’re weaponised by those on the right of politics to advance an anti-Islam rhetoric and feel deserted by those on the left.
‘Yes, we have this clear clash of extreme right wing and extreme left wing politics,’he says, ‘ex-Muslims are caught in the middle, we don’t wanna join the right wingers who don’t want any Muslims or brown people in Australia.
But at the same time, left doesn’t acknowledge the plight of ex-Muslims because they are too afraid to be called racist.’
‘Ex-Muslims just want to live their lives without fear of oppression or violence. That’s all we want,’ adds Sha.