ISLAM VS. MUSLIMS: JOURNEY OF AN ATHEIST FROM THE MUSLIM WORLD | Ali A. Rizvi

ISLAM VS. MUSLIMS: JOURNEY OF AN ATHEIST FROM THE MUSLIM WORLD | Ali A. Rizvi


The first words that I ever heard, the day I was born, literally minutes after I was born, were “Allahu Akbar” — which means “God is great.” And it might seem strange, because now when we hear these words, we think of something really terrible. It forebodes something horrible, like a beheading, or a bombing — and on 9/11, the lead hijacker, Mohammed Atta, he had a four-page document that was found in his baggage, that said, “Shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” But for me, it wasn’t like that growing up, and I’m not the only one who had these words whispered into my ear right after birth. This is a tradition that millions, maybe even billions of young babies… young babies! … babies babies born to Muslim parents have started life with. And these words have been recited into their ears as part of the prayer call, which is the adhaan, which they whisper into the ears of babies when they’re born. And as I grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan, I’d hear these words often. They had very positive associations. You know, celebrations, milestones. the birth of children, birthdays, graduations, we heard them in beautiful, melodic prayer calls ringing out from the minarets of mosques in Tripoli, Riyadh, and Lahore. We didn’t know what it meant, because it was in Arabic. They were words of gratitude in times of strength. They were words of resolve in times of weakness. But today they don’t just strike fear in the hearts of non-believers, as Muhammad Atta said. They strike fear in the hearts of everyone. And actually we’re living in a world now where you don’t even have to say Allahu Akbar to disperse a crowd. You can just walk into a Burger King and shout “Anaa uhhib al-moaz!” and you’ll be right at the front of the line. That means, “I love bananas.” Just so you know — who said Muslims don’t have privilege? This is something that I wanted to show. So anything in that, just right now, just anything in that language that has that kind of intonation just is scary to all of us. So what happened? When I was growing up — I was born in the 1970s — was it always like this? Or was it just something I didn’t know because I was living in that part of the world? Had something happened more recently, where things have gotten worse? Well, people will give you different reasons for this supposed amplification or resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. And one of the main things they’ll talk about, the predominant mainstream narrative around this is is the geopolitical component, so I want to get that out of the way, because it is true, it’s a real component, and you know, let’s about a few things that happened in the 1970s. So I was born in the 1970s. Back then, jihad was a good word — even here in North America, in the Western world. TheUnited States was glamorizing the Mujahideen — “Mujahideen” literally means “those who wage jihad.” They were elevating to them to the stature of heroes, for fighting their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. 1979 was the year of the Iranian Revolution, which ushered in Khomeini as the head of a fundamentalist Shia theocracy. And finally, it was in the 1970s — it was in that decade — that Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia — the birthplace of Muhammad, the birthplace of Islam, and the birthplace of the Quran — became the biggest oil exporting country in the world. And as we know now, they weren’t just exporting oil; they were exporting that original, purest Islamic ideology called “Salafism.” “Salaf” means ancestors, so it’s related to — it is the ideology of the earliest generations of Muslims after Muhammad. And the Saudis during this time, they funded the creation of countless madrassahs, or religious schools, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And they wanted to create more of these Mujahideen to help in the war, and the students that came out of these schools — well, the word for “students” in the local language Pashto, and also in Urdu, is “taliban.” That’s where the Taliban came from. So we could talk about this a lot, but everybody talks about it, and there is no doubt that this was a contributor, and very few deny this, no matter where on the political spectrum you are, it’s inarguable that the the Western-Saudi alliance — and specifically the US-Saudi Alliance — has been disastrous. And just a really quick footnote here — small digression — a lot’s been made of Obama bowing to the Saudi King, Trump recently bowing to the Saudi King, Bush holding hands with the Saudi King when he visited, and you know, doing the sword dance and whatever they were doing — the fact is, every time we fill our big gas-guzzling SUVs with gas, we’re all bowing to the Saudi King. And this is why clean energy isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s a national security issue. I just wanted that I wanted to mention that just in light of what happened this last week with the Paris Accord and the United States pulling out of it. Anyway, so back to what I was talking about. So yes, financially empowering oil-rich Islamic states like Saudi Arabia is a key factor in the resurgence of Islamic fundamnetalism, and no one denies that. But what I want to talk to you about today is a part that most people still deny. So I grew up in a moderate to liberal Muslim family, whatever that means, but the point is that they they weren’t fundamentalists. My parents were both professors, they were Western-educated, and even thought they were a little religious, they made it a point to tell us that what the Saudis did — and this is when we were growing up in Saudi Arabia — they said that the beheadings and the limp amputations and the abusive misogyny — it surrounded — it was rampant in the society — still is — and they told us that this is just their culture. They said it had nothing to do with our values, and since we were Muslims, we were a Muslim family, it had nothing to do with Islam. And my dad would say, these people are fanatics — that what was at the root of it was politics, culture, power, greed, you know, U.S. foreign policy, British colonialism Arab nationalism, Israel — you know, you name it. But it was never Islam. It had nothing to do with Islam. And you know what? There they were sincere. They really believed it, and I believed them. And the readon for that was that they were good people — my parents, my friends, everybody who I lived around, they’re all Muslim people, they’re good people, they made — they worked hard, they made an honest living, they made great sacrifices to get where they were. They were dedicated to giving their children the best lives possible. Their religious faith, they said, had guided them. God wanted them to be good people and to do good things, and they did. Their lives had started the same way that mine did, with the words Allahu Akbar recited into their ears at birth. They truly believed that God had answered their prayers. They had good health, successful careers, financial security, you know, many of them, and the ability to provide for those they loved. This to them was God’s blessing. So how could it be possible that the same Allah that they worshiped, the same Quran that they recited, could drive these other people to hate and kill and just be destructive? It HAD to be something else. It obviously could not be the faith. And they were sincere, and they were honest when they told me this — but they were wrong. So see, we were — we’re a Pakistani family, Urdu-speaking, and we’re part of a majority of Muslims in the world that cannot speak or understand Arabic, and this is something that people often forget — that some of the largest Muslim countries — populations, actually — in the world — in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey — are non-Arabic speaking. And Arabic is the language of the Quran. So we knew how to read the Quran — that’s something that we were all taught — but we never understood any of it. So let me explain. In our house in Riyadh, the Quran was placed at the highest level possible, which in our case was a tall bookshelf in the living room. It was wrapped up in a decorated cloth, scented, you had to do a washing and purification ritual called wudhu just to be able to touch it, much less read it. Menstruating women weren’t allowed to touch it or read it. We kissed the book for luck, we celebrated it when we had celebrations, when our children would finish reciting it for the very first time. We had recitation competitions, we held it over the heads of brides and grooms as they got married — but no one understood it. This is in the 1980s, and there were — there were translations out there, but all of them were disputed by somebody or another, and just like, you know, as Seth mentioned, many people, they don’t know what’s in the Bible. The book’s there, there are translations, but nobody really reads it from cover to cover. And this is the same thing for most Muslims and the Quran, particularly those who don’t speak the language. So my parents’ generation, all they knew — to them, what was Islam? Islam was what their parents had taught them — and for a long time, I thought Islam was what my parents had taught me — that is, until I started reading the Quran for myself. And that’s when things changed. I found endorsement for almost all of the Saudis’ actions in the Quran — the beheading of disbelievers was in Surah 8, verses 12 and 13. The amputation of hands for theft in Surah 5, verse 38. Beating your wife to discipline her, Surah 4, verse 34. Fighting Jews and Christians until they convert or pay a heavy tax — what ISIS does completely in accordance with the Quran — Surah 9, verses 29 and 30. Killing polytheists wherever you see them, Surah 9, verse 5. And on and on and on. I was obviously dismayed. And I presented my parents and my elders with all of this that I had found with a paperback of the Quran that I had, and it turned out that these adults — again, you know, these are good people who lived their entire lives as Muslims, and had very little idea, if any, what was actually in the Holy Scripture that they had told me was the infallible Word of God — that’s when I was hit with this profound realization. There was a disconnect here between “Islamic ideology” — the doctrine in the Quran — and “Muslim identity,” which my Western educated, non-hijab wearing, infidel-friendly, peace-loving parents and their friends proudly and happily embraced. So, “Islam and “Muslim” weren’t always the same thing. And my elders, they couldn’t believe it. They questioned the translation that I had, and one of them even said I had a translation by this guy, N.J. Dawood, who was an Iraqi Jew who converted to Islam. They told me, “He was a Jew! What are you talking about? He’s — that can’t be a real translation, there’s got to be an agenda there!” Otherwise, they would say that it was misinterpreted, it was out of context, or that it was revealed at a specific time on a Thursday morning when everybody was having pancakes and it doesn’t apply on any other day or whatever — but I’d read it with enough depth and I’d gone into it in enough detail — I was very curious — to rebut their claims effectively. And with that, like many people living in the countries that I grew up in, I lost my faith. I became an apostate. As they say, the best cure for religion is a careful reading of the scripture. So, as many of you know, this declaration — simply that I changed my mind — is not one that I could make in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as easily as I can make it here. And I’d seen the scripture of my parents’ religion being used to justify everything from child marriage to the lashing of rape victims who could not produce four male witnesses to prove their innocence. And this happens all the time. And the biggest victims of all of this were the Muslims themselves. And it wasn’t just me. There were many like me who wanted to speak up about these issues, but they couldn’t. So I promised myself that when I was in a country where I had the freedom to speak, I would. So, back then, if someone told me that it said this or that in the Quran, then I’d have to get my paperback copy, I’d have to leaf through it, spend hours… I’d have to buy multiple copies just to ensure that there’s consensus among the translators, or buy even more books of what’s called tafseer, or exegesis, or the the analysis of the scripture, to understand it further. But today, you know, this false narrative — that Islam is a religion of peace — can no longer hide behind these barriers these barriers to inquiry. Now, every 12-year-old kid can go online, search the scripture by topic using specific keywords, and bring up a range of translations in multiple languages with a single click. They can pull up Arabic scripture and actually hover their mouse cursor over individual words to understand the literal translation, and this is really easy to do, unlike when I was growing up. They can delve deeply into the syntax and grammar of any verse they want within seconds. So it’s really hard to overstate how brazenly the Internet revolution has exposed Islam. And as you can see — with a quote from Maryam Namazie — who’s the founder of the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain — you know, just a wonderful person — she said that the Internet is doing to Islam what the printing press did in the past to Christianity. The Internet has made a book that was all but inaccessible to me when I was growing up utterly and completely transparent like never before. And ordinary, everyday Muslims like my parents and their friends are now bombarded with questions about the religion that they’re trying to raise their kids with — and they don’t know how to process this — and moreover, most importantly, it’s made that distinction between “Islam” — the Islamic ideology — and “Muslim” — the identity that people like my parents still embrace — that disconnect has grown even more stark. So I came to North America when I was 24. And two years after I arrived, 9/11 happened. And suddenly, this conversation that I’d been having with myself in my mind was out in the open like never before. And like any issue in the United States, the narrative diverged into two camps: the right and the left. And I couldn’t relate to either side. The right was clear that this was a naked act of aggression; this was a declaration of war by terrorists — they started it and we must respond with might and power. But no, the left said. We need to be more nuanced! These people are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world — we’re the imperialists here — we colonized them, we built — we built ourselves up at their expense, we left them powerless under the boot of the military-industrial complex — all the buzzwords — we must look at the underlying grievances driving this — what are the “root causes” at play? And today, this disjointed conversation has reached a fever pitch. Many liberals today say that if you criticize anything about Islam or the Quran, you’re a bigot against all Muslims. And conservatives say that Islam has a lot of problematic things in it, so we must therefore ban all Muslims, surveil them, screen them, and so on. Both of these sides miss that distinction between Islam, the ideology — as codified in the Quran — and Muslims, the people — many of whom, like my parents, are only nominally familiar with the faith. Why is this important? Because it’s crucial to understand the difference between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. The first targets an idea. The second targets human beings. Human beings have rights, and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t, and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred. The beliefs themselves aren’t. Challenging ideas moves societies forward. Demonizing people rips societies apart. The underlying theme of my book is this: Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve corresponded with thousands of closeted atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers — in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Egypt, many Muslim majority countries — and the title of my book, The Atheist Muslim, is obviously and intentionally a contradiction in terms, that speaks to their experience. Let me explain. So, there are actually millions of secularists and non-believers in the Muslim world who must publicly identify as Muslims. If they speak their minds, they lose their families, they get disowned, they lose their childhood friends, they become marginalized and ostracized from their communities, they can be arrested and imprisoned, like my wonderful friend Raif Badawi, who’s serving a ten- year sentence in Saudi Arabia for doing exactly what I do here, which is write, and advocate for secularism. They’re often executed by their own governments. There are 13 countries in the world that that have capital punishment for atheism, and they’re all Muslim-majority. And if they’re not executed by their governments, they are murdered by mobs, like recently, Mashal Khan was in Pakistan, or my late friend Avijit Roy, the Bangladeshi blogger who was the first of many to be hacked to death in the streets, or in their homes, simply for thinking differently. So, it’s understandable that most of them stay quiet. They go to the mosque like everyone else, their passports and official IDs identify them as Muslims, my own Pakistani passport — I’m a dual citizen of Canada and Pakistan — my Pakistani passport says Islam for religion. If I renew it, I can’t change that, because then they’ll just say, “You’re not Pakistani anymore.” And neither their governments, nor their societies, let them shake off that label of “Muslim.” And here’s the thing: When Donald Trump announces a total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States — they’re included in that. He won’t let them shake off that label either. And these are the Atheist Muslims. They’re theist by thought, they’re Muslim by presentation. And the title is contradictory because their existence is contradictory. And this must change. And it’s up to us, their liberal, secular-minded counterparts in the West, to help change it. So, I grew up in countries where free speech was a crime, not a right — where speaking your mind could literally mean losing your head. And I promised myself that when I got to a place where I had the freedom to speak, as I said, I would. And I wouldn’t take that freedom for granted, not even for a day. But when I finally arrived in North America, I saw that things weren’t so simple. See, in countries where Muslims are a minority, Islam is an identity. In countries where Muslims are a majority, Islam is a religion. And this is a dichotomy that has consequences for liberals like myself on either side. For the liberal in North America, Islam is the faith of a small minority of Muslims who are often discriminated against and whose rights must be protected, as with any minority group — that’s part of the liberal conscience. But for the liberal in a Muslim-majority country, Islam is a tool that the government uses to justify censorship, oppression, and other illiberal values — like forcing women to wear the hijab, persecuting homosexuals, or publicly lashing bloggers. And the same holy book that Muslims in the United States and elsewhere revere as divine and peaceful, is used by the governments of Muslim-majority countries to endorse everything from domestic violence to the execution of apostates like myself. The hijab — the headscarf — worn proudly by Muslim-American women who choose it as a symbol of their identity — even celebrated it recently at the Women’s March as a symbol of feminism — is forced onto women in Muslim-majority countries by their governments, Imams, fathers, and husbands. And many criticisms of Islamic doctrine that are made by liberal reformers and dissidents in Muslim-majority countries — like Raif — are labeled “Islamophobic” when voiced here. So it’s really easy to see how this can get confusing. In their well-intentioned effort to protect what they see as a targeted minority, Western liberals unwittingly find themselves fighting to guard and protect the same BACKWARD values that their counterparts in Muslim-majority countries are fighting AGAINST. And this is obviously a problem. When Donald Trump says something misogynistic, or if the KKK manifesto says something anti-Semitic, or if Tea Party Republicans say something homophobic, we descend on them like a ton of bricks. But when those same bad ideas appear in the Quran, we back off and say, “Whoa, whoa, we have to respect their religion.” And it’s not just that we hold back from criticizing — we actually, actively admonish others for hurting the feelings of Muslims by criticizing the ideas in their book and in their scripture. We call them “Islamophobic” — and this is an unfortunate term that again makes no distinction between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry. In fact, it exploits the pain of genuine victims of anti-Muslim hate, and uses that for the political purpose of stifling criticism of Islam. In Pakistan, they had blasphemy laws to force us into silence. Here they have the “Islamophobia” smear to shame us into it. So it’s not — it’s not about the ideas anymore. As we saw, depending on who’s saying it, that — that’s where… it’s not about merit — it’s not about consistently opposing bad ideas across the board anymore — it’s about where the idea is coming from that makes it good or bad — it’s about who’s saying it — and this this can only lead to identity politics. When it’s not about ideas, and it’s about which group is saying it, and who we have to protect — the same thing — it just necessarily lends itself to identity politics. It’s dishonest and it’s gimmicky. And this failure of liberals to address the problem of Islamic fundamentalism from a position of moral honesty has enabled people like Donald Trump and the alt-right to opportunistically jump in and address it from a position of xenophobic bigotry. So it’s up to us to face up to this and fix it. We need toreclaim the dialogue and speak up against the irrationality and the stupidity inherent not only in Islam and all religion, but also in the rhetoric of Trump and the far-right. So you know Armin Navabi, who’s here — he’s the founder of Atheist Republic — He’s the Iranian — Atheist Republic is one of the — it’s — I think probably the biggest atheist platform online with over 1.6 million followers, and he’s an Iranian ex-Muslim who came here and and founded it. And we did an event two nights ago at the University of Toronto. And afterwards, there was an audience member who came up to me — it was a young white man and he said, “You know, when Sam Harris posts something critical of Islam, I usually agree with it, but I don’t share it — because I know I’ll get in a lot of trouble — everybody’s going to call me a bigot or a racist.” And he said, “But when you or Armin share something like this, then I share it — I feel more comfortable that you’re saying it.” And I guess that’s encouraging, but it’s really unfortunate. You know, I do get asked by a lot of Western liberals, they say, okay, you’re saying all this, but what can we do? I get private messages from many of my white liberal friends, and they say, “You know, Iagree with you, but I can’t say what you say because I’ll be slammed as a racist and bigot. So, keep doing what you’re doing, and you know I’m cheering you on, but don’t ask me to say it.” I call this “Islamophobia-phobia.” This is the fear of being labeled Islamophobic. I wrote an article about this in HuffPost, of all places, in 2014, so feel free to look that up — I go into it in more detail. But just on that, on what this young man said to me, let me just end with a note on how terrorism works. So, some time ago, there was a conversation happening, it was online, I think it was Twitter or Facebook, one of these things, where someone had written something critical of Islam. And in response, another person had called him racist. So the first guy wrote, “But Islam isn’t a race.” That’s true. You know, no one is born pre-circumcised with a hijab sewn onto their heads — you know, you can convert in and out of Islam — it’s not a race. So I jumped in and responded, “But Islam IS a race — first you hear a loud bang, and then everyone starts running.” So now there’s, you know, a bit of discomfort, and — and the backlash was — you know, you can imagine what the backlash to that was. I mean, I was being called a white supremacist, it was amazing. And so I knew that there would be backlash. You know, but in my case I find it entertaining, I — I enjoy it. But, you know, obviously if I’d made an analogous joke about Christianity, no one would have cared. The Book of Mormon plays openly, and no one cares, you know, you don’t need armed security there outside the theater. But there’s just something special when you criticize or joke about this one religion — there’s something — when people joke about it, it terrifies people. Terrifies people. It terrifies people. And terrorism isn’t just a bunch of dead bodies or a bomb exploding here or there. When you’re shamed about not speaking up, when you’re shamed into not being consistent about your values, your — liberal values in my case — when you’re shamed into not printing the very Charlie Hebdo cartoon that is the focus of a dozen cartoonists who were murdered in cold blood in Allah’s name because you’re afraid of offending Muslims — whenever you write to me and encourage me and tell me, oh, I loved your book but I can’t say what you do because I’ll get called racist or I’ll get called Islamophobic — when you do that, you are a victim of terrorism. This is how terrorism works. It isn’t just bombs and explosions. When you hold back what you think, when you say, “Well criticizing Islam will only radicalize more Muslims,” and you think that by not criticizing Islam you’re curbing terrorism — no — you have become a victim of it. That’s how terrorism works. So you have a privilege. You live here. You can speak, you can express yourself. We can have this conference, and I can say all of these words to you. But there are countless people in the places that Armin and I grew up who would die to have this privilege, and I mean that literally. They’re risking their lives and their livelihoods — they’re risking their lives just to have a bit of what we all live with here, and take for granted every single day. So please, please don’t squander it. Speak up. Thank you.

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