Conversation with Hari Parekh on the Hidden Population of Abuse Victims, Apostates


Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you’ve published an article in a peer-reviewed journal called The Journal of Interpersonal Violence. The paper is titled “Apostates a Hidden Population of Abuse Victims.” First, to define terms, what is an apostate? How is abuse defined?

Hari Parekh: Anapostate’ is the term used to describe people within religious families who once identified as religious or with a belief in God and have, now, ceased to believe in the existence of a God, gods, or having a religious faith or belief and now identify as non-religious. Each person has their reasons for embarking on this journey – completing this journey from religious to non-religious, and identifying as an apostate is not an easy journey, and it appears to not be the end of the struggles defined within an individual’s journey  Given the strong feelings families can have about the rejection of their shared faith, this can cause further complications for the apostate themselves. As such, this study aimed to inform the academic community and wider society of the possible victimisation that some apostates may face within religious households. We were looking at areas such as assault, serious assault, psychological abuse, as measured by the Conflict Tactics Scale by Straus et al (1996). The differences between the terms are highlighted in the paper – the variances within assault and serious assault can be the difference between being pushed against a wall or being threatened with death, for example. Adding to this, psychological abuse includes coercive control, stress, depression, suicidal ideation, for example. This study identifies that there is a higher risk of people being abused as a result of identifying as an apostate. Sadly, the study also identifies how victims do not have trust in their law enforcement officers to understand their plight.

Jacobsen: The study, itself, is not a meta-analysis. It is a single study with 228 people, 102 men-119 women. Why was the survey supported through Faith to Faithless?

Parekh: The study could not be a meta-analysis because it is the first of its kind! It is the first time that the academic community, and the non-religious community, can point to a piece of scientific evidence and say, “Here’s the evidence to show what is likely to happen to apostates within religious households.” Hopefully, this study is the catalyst for further studies, to look into the issue of abuse faced by apostates, and has the propensity to inform non-academic services such as governments and organisations such as the United Nations to raise awareness of the plight of apostates. The reason for the support of Faith to Faithless, initially? It was luck. I left my religious faith during my undergraduate degree at the University of Northampton. My experiences were positive as my parents have not wavered in supporting me, despite my decision. I consider myself to be an apostate-anomaly, being someone lucky enough to not have suffered the extremities and the abuse that participants have experienced within the study, for example. I worked with co-founders, Aliyah Saleem and Imtiaz Shams, at the time, and I was exposed to how much abuse people received as a result of leaving their faith. I formed my Master’s thesis around this issue because there was no other study highlighting this abuse within the academic sphere. I said to my supervisor, “We need to provide victims with a voice to show the academic community that we are failing victims.”

Jacobsen: For those who do not know the names Imtiaz Shams and Aliyah Saleem, what is their place in Humanists UK?

Parekh: They founded Faith to Faithless. It later became the apostasy service of Humanists UK, to support people who leave their religious faith. They are both amazing in their own right, do Google them! I support and work with such amazing people to raise awareness of apostasy as well.

Jacobsen: Why the gap in the research, in the academic community, i.e., not being able to do a metanalysis because of insufficient studies to take any data?

Parekh: There are academics such as Hunsberger (1983) and Hezbrun (1999) that touched upon the difficulties of apostasy, and even recently with Dr Simon Cottee. But, it’s so difficult to provide the academic community with an insight into the abuse of apostates, when most are hidden, and consequently do not want to upset the balance of their household. An individual who is doubting their religious faith has so many factors to contemplate on: whether they will leave or not, whether they will tell anybody or not, or whether they will publicly declare their apostasy or not, to name a few. The consequences of each scenario can be devastating, and such are the difficulties of apostasy. Several prominent activists have spent their life to inform society of the experiences of people who have left their religious faith. One would have hoped that the work of such activists would have culminated in further academic interest. However, this is the first opportunity for such activists to have academic evidence to solidify their work.

Again, the gap in the research might relate to many factors. First, it is one of the more nuanced and niche areas, whereby, if you’re not aware of the community or of this occurring in itself, then it’s not understood nor does it factor into the conversation of public opinion – again, a hidden population remains hidden until it gains recognition. Secondly, the role of religion and religious communities, and the way this organised structure can work for people suggests that it can provide a supportive, stable, and secure foundation to people’s lives. For the many, religious faith can provide a good foundational basis for one’s life; the concern grows for people who do not hold a similar perspective. Third, the political relationship that religious communities are likely to have upheld, such as bishops being in the House of Lords in the UK, strengthens the view that the role of religious communities, or the ideas of the religious, are less likely to be scrutinised as a result. Fourth, the nature of academia is not easy – we remain unclear as to whether there have been countless pieces of research submitted for publication that have not met the standards required? This is a common occurrence within academia. It is a common occurrence in academia anyways. That’s the point. If several activists are speaking of people going through the experiences, one of the major criticisms of the activists is no one has had the evidence to show it exists. How do you reach people, where you don’t know who, what, or how they are? How do you do that from a scientific viewpoint? It is a minefield in itself. The study was sent worldwide – we finally have a starting point to refer to.

Jacobsen: What were the general findings?

Parekh: The general findings are quite interesting to be fair. First, out of the 228 participants, we categorised them initially by the religious faith they identified with since birth. Despite having participants from faiths such as Hinduism, Judaism, and more, as they were not statistically significant they could not be utilised within the study. As such, we focused primarily on people identifying from Christian and Muslim faiths and people identifying as non-religious. From our participants, what we found was that those that identified as religious from birth were less likely to be religious now. For example, out of the 130 people that identified as Christian, only 12 people currently identify as Christian; of the 68 people that identified as Muslim, only 4 people currently identify as Muslim, and of the 18 people that were initially non-religious, 204 people currently identify as non-religious. So, we saw an increase of 1,033% in people identifying as non-religious and a 91-94% decrease in people identifying as religious. This appears similar to the trends we are seeing in society – the decrease in the number of people going to Church each week in the UK, and the rise in the number of people identifying as non-religious within the UK census also appears to support the data in this study. 

Second, we used the Conflict Tactics scale by Straus and colleagues to understand the levels of violence and abuse that victims have experienced. The terms of assault, serious assault, and psychological abuse were significant for Muslim-apostates more so than Christian-apostates. Due to these terms being interrelated to each other, we categorised this as assault within the study.  Interestingly, even though, we had lesser people from a Muslim heritage background take part in the study, they were more likely to experience such levels of violence and assault. It was really interesting, in itself, and the outcome of the study suggests a higher likelihood to be a victim as a result. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in negotiation. It was peculiar with the levels of violence. With negotiation, it suggests either that households are attempting to understand why their family member within the household would leave the religious faith? Yet, as there is a difficulty in being able to negotiate that stance, and trying to determine the consequences of having a family member that is not religious within the household and community, it appears difficult for households to reach a conclusion that maintains the household’s order. 

Third, out of the 154 people who were assaulted, only 9 people reported their assault to the police, which is only 5.8%. Then out of the 71 people who said why they did not report it, 44% believed that reporting this would be disrespectful to family dynamics and a betrayal of the family. 27% said that they thought the police would be unable to help them. 10% reported being threatened about the perceived repercussions by the family and community for reporting their abuse. So, here are victims openly stating, they could be at risk.

Jacobsen: Some Muslim scholars and others in the public arena and may look at the terms “honour” and “violence” with internal concern to their community as human rights violations in interpersonal violence or domestic violence as dishonourable as a culture. So, it would be termed “honour violence,” but they would see this as dishonour or dishonourable violence. How is the construct of honour construed in the household with a religion in which honour in played out in an IPV or a DV setting?

Parekh: It is a really serious and important issue to raise that the study aims to not generalise everybody within a Muslim or Christian household, in stating that “hi! All your beliefs lead to abuse and violence!” That would be wrong, and suggesting a link would be incorrect. People are human at the end of the day. Many people within religious faiths argue the factors highlighted within honour-based violence is completely against the fundamentals and the principles within the faith itself. That is a fair statement to make, however, this is not a simple issue. Honour-based violence by its nature is hidden and perpetrated by the people who are related to you, formed attachments with you, and this has the potential to cause further distress for the victim too. By its nature, it is targeted, specifically, at women and girls. With apostate-abuse, gender is not a factor. Its very nature is based on coercive control and collusion, acceptance, and silence within the family. For example, by making sure it does not leave the four walls of the religious household. The notion of honour, therefore, relates strongly with shame and guilt. Paul Gilbert and Jasvinder Sanghera’s research identified the amount of guilt and shame involved within honour-abuse and also reported how hidden this abuse is. The concerns regarding apostate-abuse have similarities with the abuse faced by victims of domestic violence, LGBTQ+ abuse, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. These are the same nuances we’re tackling. The level of shame means that abuse would be hidden so much more.

Jacobsen: Would one public service announcement or concern come in the form of anti-Muslim bigotry or anti-Christian bigotry utilizing some of this research in very obviously skewed ways to cast aspersions and stereotypes at the communities? Where the research is not looking at violence as a global phenomenon and problem, but one a form of violence with that cultural and religious flavour.

Parekh: That’s the concern Vincent Egan and I did have and do continue to have when I was doing my Master’s thesis. Publishing this piece of research too, we were looking at how this would be reflected, how people would interpret and understand it, moving forwards. That’s the thing in itself. Yes, the organisations helping to find people – Faith to Faithless, Peter Tatchell Foundation, Humanists UK, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain – are very much involved in the non-religious communities and can provide opportunities to find people that are hidden. The research aims to identify that people are abusing people by using the veil of religion, culture, and tradition as a rationale, and this is not a good thing! Abuse is abuse. In talking about this research, as long as I am clear that the fundamental principle is not to demonise and, basically, negatively impact religious people or organizations. It is trying to bring awareness to a worldwide audience that there is abuse happening, and we are missing it. In conversations with people, I have found that there are people who are disgusted by people using their religious faith to manipulate and abuse people in that way. I think that’s a very strong argument for this. Yes, anyone can look at any research and manipulate it in a way that makes things suit an agenda of hate, which might not be favourable to those who created the initial study. However, as long as people read it clearly, we are saying, “We are not demonizing the religious faith. We are demonizing the way people use religious faith to abuse people. And by doing so, we are creating a hidden population of people who can’t be reached out to.” As people become more aware of the research, we can begin to openly talk about the issues of people being abused as a result. By not talking about this abuse, we would perpetuate the argument that this practice is okay and justified. We cannot – having even one person abused is a failure.

Jacobsen: What are the next steps for research?

Parekh: Having carried out the first study of its kind, there are several next steps for this research area. Firstly, we wanted to inform the academic community that apostate-abuse is occurring, and as such, we used categorised terms to categorise the religious faith of participants. For example, there are many denominations within Christianity and Islam that, future research should look at seeing whether those denominations vary the level of risk an apostate is likely to face. Secondly, we would need to gather data that also looks at financial abuse, sexual abuse, and despite gathering data on psychological abuse, we would still need to gather data on the specifics within such an umbrella term. Thirdly, further research is needed on the implications of apostate-abuse per continent, per region, per country, and how the criminal justice systems can accommodate this crime within their legal frameworks – this might also require further research into the devastating effects of blasphemy laws on the victim, such as Asia Bibi and recently with Mubarak Bala. Fourthly, research on how local law enforcement can improve their perception amongst victims that they would be unable to support victims would be an essential area for research – using a focus group to understand how police forces can improve their practice would be essential. Fifthly, looking into how larger organisations can apply this to their practice – such as how the United Nations or Amnesty International deems abuse and how they support individual nations too would be an investigative piece of research. Sixthly, working with religious organisations and religious communities to de-threaten the notion of apostasy may be one of the most significant areas from this study! That’s quite a lot, but the opportunities are pretty endless.  

Jacobsen: If we look at the ways in which academics can use analytic techniques to find relatively objective findings of the research in interpretation, there are internal views from a subjective perspective, in other words, of individuals within the research by yourself and Egan. In other words, those coming out of a religion internally to their mind while living in a home with IPV or DV ongoing, or at some point happening, having attitudes about it. What do they attribute these acts to?

Parekh: Looking at the personal responses by people who participated in the study, really provides a true reflection of their experiences; we have tried to provide a fair opportunity to provide the reader with an appreciation of the comments made by participants. The concerns of participants initially began with being concerned with not believing in the same religious faith or God that the household believes in. And, the consequences of this ranged between being asked to leave the family home, being ex-communicated from the home, facing threats of violence daily, to being beaten and receiving threats of being killed as a result. Using a religious faith as a rationale for abusing another human being is an expression of wanting to remain correct and right. When human beings begin to believe that they are correct, then this creates a concern, as history has shown. When a family member decides to become an apostate, this increases the chances of other family members feeling rejected – because their belief is more than just a belief in itself, but also embedded into their identity formation and sense of self. So, any challenge to that is a personal challenge, and such increases the chances of causing a personal threat reaction. I think the religious belief in itself might be used as a validation to all of the reason why. But again, we’re still looking at the behaviour of the person to abuse somebody else. So, that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing people threatened to be killed or abused in one way or another because of them not agreeing or accepting the same religious belief or faith as a family. I think the concern, therefore, is the view that just because you don’t believe nor agree with the belief of the family; you are not part of the family anymore is absurd. The personality of the person, the experiences, the attachments to family members; this is not a complete list, but all of these factors make us human. Having a difference of perspective does not change the person that the family have created. Being abused for having a difference of perspective is no different from blaming a person for being human – this is why we have a brain that can think! Being abused for thinking is extreme. Being human means we are fallible, and we need to appreciate that factor.  

Jacobsen: Hari, thank you for the opportunity and your time.

Parekh: Any time Scott!

Hari Parekh, has worked in the field of psychology for over four years. He obtained his BA (Hons) degree in Psychology and Criminology at the University of Northampton in 2015, and his MSc in Forensic and Criminological Psychology at the University of Nottingham in 2016. He has worked for the student sector of Humanists UK, holding roles of President and President Emeritus. Following this, he is the current European Chair for Young Humanists International, and the Volunteers Manager for Faith to Faithless. He is consistently invited to universities to talk about the psychological difficulties relating to apostasy.

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