LONDON, Sept. 17, 2007 — -- As the debate in Western Europe about radical Islam heats up, a new and unlikely group of people are adding their voice to the discussion.
They call themselves "ex-Muslims."
Raised as Muslims but having renounced their religion, this new brand of nonbelievers say they aim to make the rejection of Islam an acceptable topic for public debate and to confront threats of violence they say are associated with leaving the faith.
"We want to support people who want to change their religion, but their parents, their society have them clasped in it and won't let them out," Ehsan Jami, the 22-year-old founder of the Dutch Committee for Ex-Muslims told The Associated Press. "They would realize that they are not standing alone."
Jami, who is of Iranian origin and works as a city councilman for the Dutch Labor Party, officially launched his Committee in The Hague six days ago, on Sept. 11, a day he says he chose specifically for its symbolic significance.
The group, which has no official member list, but which organizers say counts "hundreds" of sympathizers, follows in the footsteps of similar initiatives founded earlier this year in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia.
The launch of the Dutch Council for Ex-Muslims was met with massive media attention in the Netherlands, and it has reignited a tense national debate on the social and cultural integration of the country's 1 million Muslims.
Organizers say that by speaking frankly about their split with Islam they hope to break through what they call the public's "self-censorship" when it comes to the issue of Muslim fundamentalism, which they say threatens what they consider basic European values such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
But commentators, both Muslim and not, have criticized Jami for what they call his unnecessarily provocative and polarizing statements, such as calling Islam a "religion of oppression" and comparing the faith to fascism or Nazism.
"If the idea is 'everyone should be free to believe and say what they want,' then we support that," said Khalil Aitblal, 29, a spokesman for the Union of Moroccan Mosques in Amsterdam and Surroundings, and a practicing Muslim. "But if the message is to stand out through insulting or denigrating statements, then I have to wonder, what exactly is your message?"
Jami told ABC News he did not believe he was being provocative, only "critical."
Since announcing plans for the Committee in May, Jami has been violently attacked by fundamentalist Muslims on three different occasions. A 17-year-old is still in custody, accused in an assault on Jami outside a Dutch supermarket in August.
"I have a heavy security detail," Jami said of concerns over his personal safety.
The launch of the Dutch Committee for Ex-Muslims comes at a tense time in Europe, as the continent confronts issues of home-grown Islamic radicalism and terrorism. This month, German authorities foiled a major terror plot targeting American military bases and civilians. Two of three suspects were German citizens.
In 2004, a Dutch-born Muslim murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a street in Amsterdam over his criticism of the religion.
But there are signs Jami's Committee for Ex-Muslims reflects a broader trend of anti-fundamentalism among Europe's nonpracticing Islamic populations. Although membership across the different European organizations of "ex-Muslims" totals only about 1,000 people, founders say they are growing quickly.
"Our membership has almost tripled in the months since we've been established," said Maryam Namazie, director of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, which she founded in June. "It's the same in Germany, and in other countries as well."
Namazie, 41, who became an atheist in her 20s when her family left Iran after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, was present at the launch of Jami's Dutch committee in The Hague earlier this week.
She says she believes the councils of ex-Muslims represent a "silent majority" among Europe's Islamic population.
"The people who join are just the tip of the iceberg," she told ABC News. "A lot of people call and say they would like to join but they're afraid or intimidated."
Namazie added that those who define themselves as ex-Muslim believe that outsiders often view Europe's Islamic communities as homogenous and frightening. She said her council intends partly to separate members from more fundamentalist elements in the public eye.
"We all have the label 'Muslim,'" Namazie said, "but we are also often labeled to be part and parcel of the most reactionary Muslim groups around."
Such concerns, it seems, are shared by many of Europe's 13 million Muslims.
A Global Attitudes poll conducted by Washington's Pew Research Center in 2006 found that 44 percent of Britain's 1.8 million Muslims describe themselves as "very worried about" Islamic extremism, a concern second only to anxieties about unemployment. In France 30 percent shared worries about religious radicalism; in Germany that number stood at 23 percent.
Martijn de Koning, a fellow at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, said such worries are indeed common among many European Muslims, if not always obvious to the outside world.
"Debates about fundamentalism and radicalization have been taking place within the local Muslim communities for years," de Koning told ABC News from his office in the Netherlands. "But often people keep those discussions within the community. They're very concerned about the impression it'll create in the outside world."
People like Jami try to "break open that debate, through provocation," de Koning added. "They have a certain amount of authority, because they themselves come from that tradition. They're in a unique position to say what the issues are in the religion and where the problems lie."
Still, many observers criticize the tactics of groups like Jami's.
On Sept. 10, the day before the presentation of the Dutch Committee for Ex-Muslims, a different group of "ex-Muslims" held a news conference at a large mosque in Amsterdam to denounce Jami's methods as offensive and unnecessarily confrontational.
"We defend the right to be able to walk away from any religion, including Islam," said former Muslim Behnam Taebi in a statement quoted by The Associated Press. "But they are using that right as a cover to categorically insult Muslims and to stigmatize them as 'violent' and 'terrorists.'"
Aitblal of the Union of Moroccan Mosques in Amsterdam agreed.
He said there are thousands of nonpracticing Muslims in the Netherlands who have stepped away from their faith for one reason or another, but who do not identify with Jami's message and who have not felt threatened over their personal choice.
"Such insulting statements are destructive," he told ABC News of Jami's combative rhetoric. "They hurt people in our society, and they destroy our sense of social cohesion."
But Namazie said provocation is the ex-Muslims' very point.
She likened the outcry over Jami's statements to the uproar over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, published in 2005. Visual representations of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam and the cartoons sparked a flood of protests throughout the Muslim world.
They say, "'You have a right to say what you want, but why should you offend?'" Namazie said of her and Jami's critics. "My answer is, well, Islam offends me, the political Islamic movement offends me and that's what free speech is about."
"If you don't like the way it's done," she said, "you do it another way. But until then we're the ones that are doing it, and that are standing up. Obviously it's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that's how change comes about."