Sohail Ahmed's parents are Pakistan-born immigrants to the United Kingdom. Sohail was born in London, the oldest of five children. Raised in a conservative Salafi/Wahhabi Muslim home and schooled in a strict madrassa, teenage Sohail radicalized. He started to see the West -- even the land of his birth -- as corrupt, vile, irredeemably wicked. He declared personal jihad against the non-Muslim world, thought about going to Syria to fight, and even considered a lone-wolf suicide bombing in London. He was the West's worst nightmare -- a young radicalized extremist Muslim.
That was then. This is now.
Today, Sohail is a voice against jihad, radicalization, and extremist religion, particularly within the faith of his upbringing. He has appeared on American media -- The Rachel Maddow Show and CNN among them -- where with gentle voice and kind spirit he's recounted the story of his change of heart.
How did he find his way out?
First, he's gay. Growing up, Sohail was taught that homosexuality is a grievous sin against Allah. Like many hyper-religious homosexuals, he coped by burying his sexuality in strident homophobia. He hoped that heightened religious devotion would cure him. He hid his true nature from family and friends. He participated in homophobic jokes and railed against LGBT rights. All of that changed when, at 22, he began to question his religion's views on sexuality. After much study, he rejected the sexually repressive nature of conservative Islam and accepted himself as a gay man.
Second, while raised on a diet of religious fundamentalism and strict adherence to the written texts of Islam, he began to doubt that the Qur'an and the compendium writings of Islam are literally the word of God. The collapse of belief in scriptural inerrancy freed his mind to roam beyond written texts toward a more, as it's called in Christian studies, historical-critical method of inquiry. The ancient writings no longer seemed normative to life in the modern world and the harsh dictates of Sharia law began to grind against his growing empathetic mindset.
Finally, as with most believers who leave hardline religion, there's science. Sohail studied physics in university but he did so through a decidedly religious worldview. He rejected strictly materialistic explanations for the origin of the universe and life on earth. He fought against the accepted fundamentals of cosmology and biology, but he kept studying -- until the evidence overwhelmed him. Evolution, he conceded, is the best explanation for the abundance of life on Earth. The possibility of a godless universe broke the remaining vestiges of a formerly hardened religious mindset.
Now agnostic -- and estranged from his parents, siblings, and erstwhile Muslim community -- Sohail is a rising voice against religious extremism and a strong proponent of LGBT rights. He does not believe that Islam is inherently bad. It still has "such potential," he says. He also believes that the West must resist steps that will only radicalize more Muslims. Fear-based policy-making -- for example, Donald Trump's pledge to ban all Muslims from entering the United States -- is counterproductive, he advises, suggesting instead that Western governments should welcome liberal and progressive and reformist Muslims who are working to rid Islam of dangerous voices.
Sohail is not yet 30, so he has many years ahead to help build a more peaceful and loving world. His future is limitless and unknown. What is known is this: Sohail's past as a young Londoner who escaped radical Islam is behind him and now he's doing everything he can to help others do the same.
Rodney Wilson teaches comparative religion at a community college in Missouri.