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?"