Megan Phelps-Roper, 30, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church
My first memories are of picketing ex-servicemen’s funerals and telling their families they were going to burn in hell. For us, it was a celebration. My gramps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, so it wasn’t just our religion – it was our whole life. I don’t remember much before the picketing. I was allowed to mix with other kids early on, but over time my world shrank.
We believed it was a Good vs Evil situation: that the WBC was right and everybody else was wrong, so there was no questioning. It was a very public war we were waging against the “sinners”. I asked a lot of questions as I got older, but there’s a big difference in asking for clarification and actually questioning the beliefs you’re taught. I spent so much time reading the Bible, trying to see the world through this very particular framework, that to have truly considered [it was wrong] was inconceivable. I’d seen members leave in the past, including my brother, and the thought of ever leaving the church was my worst nightmare.
The WBC loves and thrives on publicity, so I joined Twitter in 2009 to run the church’s account. I was very zealous and adamant that my beliefs were the truth, but I began to realise that the 140-word limit meant I had to drop the throwaway insults or conversations would die. Over time, I found I was actually beginning to like people: to see them as human beings rather than people to condemn. For the first time, I started to care about what people outside the WBC thought of me. As my feelings towards my faith wavered I’d boomerang between thinking “none of this makes sense” to “God is testing me and I am failing”, but it was only in the four months before I left in 2012 that I actually started to make a plan. I cornered my sister in our room one evening and told her I was going to leave and asked her to come with me. She initially said no and told me I was being silly, but over time we’d have stolen conversations about it and she came round to the idea.
Leaving was unbearably sad. Having dinner with my grandparents or bouncing on a trampoline with my brother for the last time; asking my parents about their history in detail because I knew I’d never be able to ask them about it again: I was consciously saying goodbye to my family while they had no idea. I was trying to keep as much of it as I could. On the day, my younger sister and I sat down with my parents after they’d heard that we had planned to leave. They were really upset and my mom was so broken by the news – I’d never seen her face like that before. We told them we didn’t believe anymore, then went to pack. The adrenaline pumping through me made my hands shake as I stuffed my things into bags. Word spread among the family and several of my aunts and uncles turned up to talk us out of it. It started with: “You know better than this” and spiralled into shouting as we left. I went back the next day to pick up the rest of my stuff and knocked on the front door of the house I grew up in for the first time. The cold was immediate. I knew straight-away that I was not a part of the church any more. I was out. I miss my family every single day.
I still momentarily flinch when I come across someone or something the WBC would disapprove of. Two men kissing on the street, a drag queen – anything that takes me back to what I believed for so long. I still encounter those old feelings and then I have to process it: “That’s what the old me would have felt” – it’s an ongoing process of deep deprogramming.
I see the world in split screen now. I remember feeling like we at WBC were a persecuted minority, triumphant in the face of evil people “worshipping the dead” as we picketed funerals or rejoiced at the destruction of the Twin Towers. But beside that memory is the one where I weep thinking about how callous and unmerciful I was to so many people who’d just lost a son or a daughter. I’m ashamed of that now, and it’s still really difficult to think about the harm I caused. It’s overwhelming sometimes.
Deborah Feldman, 29, ex-Satmar Hasidic Jew
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism I was born into was founded by Holocaust survivors who wanted to reinvent the Eastern European shtetl in America. Before I learned anything else, I learned the Holocaust had happened because Jews were bad and that the way we lived was different from the rest of the world because if we didn’t, the Holocaust would happen to us again.
Growing up in such a strict community meant we had no contact with the outside world. It still amazes me to think that was and is possible in the Bronx. The only time I’d get a glimpse was if I were ill. Tonsillitis meant a car journey to the doctor, where I’d watch, from the window, people living their lives freely.
I hit my teens and figured out what I needed to do to survive in the community. I’d drawn the wrong sort of attention to myself as a young girl. I’d been rebellious. Asking “why?” was forbidden and I’d be yelled at, ostracised; kids stopped talking to me at school. Women and girls belonged in the kitchen, my grandfather often reminded me. Soon I figured out how to live a double life: I had the version of me that fitted in with the community, and then I had my interior life that no one knew about. As soon as I pretended I was going along with it all, things got easier for me. I got married to someone from the sect when I was 17 and had my son. The most difficult thing was the constant lying. By denying who I really was, I was slowly killing myself.
Leaving wasn’t about courage or strength for me. It was all much more practical than I thought it would be. Some of it was perhaps biological: as soon as my son was born I had this driving instinct to get him out. It took three years of planning and at the very end, when I had everything lined up – money in the bank, a small network of friends on the outside, a divorce lawyer working on the custody of my son – I still couldn’t quite cross the boundary. I was too scared.
What happened next was fate. I was in a car accident I shouldn’t have survived and I walked away without a scratch. As I got out of the car, the Jewish girl in me thought: “God is punishing me and telling me I shouldn’t go”, but as I walked away from the wreck, I thought: “Hang on, if I can survive this, I can survive leaving.”
I have no contact with my family now. The backlash was immense. My family wrote me threatening letters, and later on when I wrote a book about my experiences, the community said I was a hysteric, a liar. I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully deprogrammed. I didn’t just leave a religion, I left a sect that was based on inherited trauma and incorporated antisemitism. Many of the [antisemitic] ideas my grandparents heard in Europe got integrated into their beliefs about themselves and then passed on to their children. I grew up believing we were genetically inferior. They didn’t see that as a bad thing – they’d sit me down and explain: “We’re special to God. Our souls are special, but our genes are inferior, just like they said about us.” How do you even begin to unstitch that?
Imad Iddine Habib, 26, ex-Salafi Muslim
I was born on a at prayer time, which was seen as an auspicious sign in my community. Growing up in Morocco I was constantly told I was to become a religious scholar. My name is translated as “pillar of religion”. I was enrolled into a Salafi Koranic school at four, but I had trouble reading and reciting verses of the Koran, as I was so dyslexic. This was seen as a big disappointment in my family, so I learned most of the Koran by heart to save myself any grief. By the time I left the Koranic school at 13, I knew I didn’t believe.
Our lives were based around a single version of a much bigger religion. Disagreements were frowned upon. We weren’t to voice questions. I couldn’t understand why no one debated or discussed the opinion of the scholars and imams – we were expected to blindly follow. Many of the students from my school went to Afghanistan and Syria – that had been their life’s purpose, and though I was interested in Islam as a religion from an academic viewpoint, I knew I wasn’t a Muslim.
My faith finally ruptured at 14. I told my parents I didn’t believe, and I also came out as pansexual. I felt, and still feel, that I was looking at the bigger picture, but they weren’t open to it. I couldn’t be a part of a faith that kept changing the rules depending on the situation. My family’s reaction was typical: a lot of violence and threats initially, and when that didn’t work, my mum got “sick” for 40 days, saying I was being banished from heaven and making her suffer. I was resolute, so they kicked me out. I became homeless and I’ve not seen or heard from them since. In a way I feel I may have shut the emotion of losing my family away somewhere. I try not to feel. There are vivid moments where I miss my mother: her face, her cooking, knowing what she is thinking about, but I can’t afford to get emotional about it.
I moved from place to place and stayed with friends. I got an education: I have a baccalaureate in Islamic sciences and I then founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco. The resistance is small, but we have a voice. I have had to live in hiding and have received countless death threats. In Morocco, Islam is the state religion, and the state considers you a Muslim by default. You can be jailed for eating in public during Ramadan, so you can imagine what my future there looked like. There is a wide belief that all apostates should be killed.
I attended a public conference in 2013 and spoke out about my beliefs. I was scared, but I also felt it was my duty. I called Islam a virus, which I knew would be inflammatory. Secret services began investigating me and I heard that they contacted my family and questioned my father. I was asked to attend court. My father would later testify against me on the count of an apostasy charge. When it all got too heavy, I knew I had to come to England as a refugee and start over. Not long after I arrived here, I was sentenced to seven years in prison in absentia. I gave up everything and everyone I know, but I’m free.
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