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A Conversation Between Two Atheists From Muslim Backgrounds (Part 2)

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This is a continuation of my conversation with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who I met just months after he arrived in the United States for the first time from Iraq. Both of us grew up in Middle Eastern countries where non-belief can often carry grievous penalties, and eventually migrated to North America.

Both of us have encountered a lot of interest in our experiences. We recently decided to have an extended email conversation to share them with those who may not be familiar with them.

The first part of our conversation can be read here.

Part 2
Relationships with progressive/liberal Muslims, resources and community for atheists from Muslim backgrounds, and why we are atheists.

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Hi Faisal,

I was also raised in a Shia Muslim family which is very progressive and liberal compared to most. Even the religious members of my immediate and extended family are generally pro-secular, believing that religion should be personal. I was encouraged to ask questions growing up and never had any ideology forced on me by my family. But like you, I did grow up in a very repressive environment -- Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- so we were told to be very careful about how we speak about these things outside the home. My parents even practiced Shia'ism in secret because it was illegal to practice any religion except Sunni Islam.

One of my earliest memories questioning faith is when I was maybe five years old. One of my cousins, who was three, died of childhood leukemia. Her final moments were at home, and all of us were in the room.

I saw my mother and her sister (whose daughter she was) crying and praying desperately while her daughter gasped in pain during her final moments. Those who have seen cancer deaths know how horrific they are, even with morphine. This was decades ago, but it's not an easy memory to erase, especially when you witness it at such a young age.

When I asked what was happening to her, I was told that God (Allah) was taking her away, taking her back to him. Then, when I asked why my mother and aunts were crying and praying so hard, I was told that they are asking God to not take her -- that they were asking him to relieve her of pain. I didn't see God do either of those things that day.

Imagine what a child witnessing this for the first time might conclude, given that information. Obviously, my impression was that God is some kind of sadist, taking a three year old child away with so much pain while her parents and family are begging for something, anything to hold on to.

That is the first time I remember thinking there was something about this God story that didn't compute. My first instinct on the topic, at the very first time I really deliberated on it, was that of a skeptic.

I don't mind the term in some contexts, but I don't personally identify as an "ex-Muslim". I prefer "born-again atheist".

As I grew older, I went through religious phases, but always had skeptical influences around me. When I was in the fifth grade, our science class was shown several episodes of Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' series in school (interestingly, at an American school in Saudi Arabia), which was very
influential. When I was 14, I stayed with a cousin who I respect immensely to this day, now a math professor, who introduced me to his complete collection of Bertrand Russell's work.

However, what clinched it is when I read the Quran cover to cover -- with multiple translations and interpretations, and realized that my attempts to try and rationalize much of its content, or interpret it "metaphorically" were, frankly, getting quite ridiculous. I found the
same thing with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

It seemed that everything in holy scripture that is now proven to be objectively false was really meant as a "metaphor".

I soon became staunchly atheistic about the God of Abrahamic religion -- Yahweh, Allah, or what have you -- not only disbelieving, but realizing how Orwellian and totalitarian our lives would be if it were true.

As for the "God" of Spinoza, Einstein, or Stephen Hawking -- that is, just another word for the laws of nature -- I can comfortably call myself agnostic. Today, like you, I would also describe myself as an agnostic atheist. I don't believe in a god or gods, but as a skeptic, I don't claim to know for sure.

It's encouraging to me today to see so many former Muslims, and atheists/agnostics from Muslim backgrounds organizing. I never saw that growing up, and was elated when it picked up steam with the internet age - specifically after Dawkins' The God Delusion. As someone who was an atheist for years prior to its publication, I would say that was the single, most significant event that really got atheists coming out openly in droves.

How do you feel about atheism as a movement, particularly in the Muslim community? We're both part of several organizations for former Muslims, atheists from Muslim families and so on, like Muslimish and others. How has that experience been for you?

Also, I know both of us have been contacted a lot by people from Muslim families who are secretly non-believers and want to come out. What do you tell them? Do you direct them to any specific organizations or groups?

Ali

***

Hi Ali,

What you described about your family is generally what I refer to as "Cafeteria Muslims". my definition of "Cafeteria Muslims" is like when person X goes to a cafeteria or a coffee shop, he or she doesn't order the whole menu but rather only picks a coffee and cookie, depending on the individual's preference.

Islamofacism apologists think that when we criticize Islam, we are criticizing ALL Muslims, including the liberal, pro-secular. open-minded ones such as the families we grew up in, or other families from educated, liberal circles. I am sure you have probably have heard ignorant statements from apologists like, "Oh, I have a friend who is a Muslim, he is peaceful and great guy; therefore your argument saying that Islam is not a peaceful religion is invalid." Another similar statement came to me recently as a response at my speech in Boston University. One person said he has a girlfriend who is a Muslim, he has sex with her regularly, and she is peaceful -- therefore, saying Islam is not peaceful is invalid. I responded and told him that the fact that she is having sex outside marriage is un-Islamic and punishable by flogging and/or death in many verses in the Quran and the Hadith [traditions of the Prophet Muhammad]. I also told him that this woman speaks for Islam as much as Justin Bieber speaks for music.

I used to go to the Methodist church few years ago and I heard a statement that I will never forget. The preacher was saying, "You can hate the sin but not the sinner." I just want to make clear that someone can have an intellectual criticism of a political party, religion, etc, without having any feeling of grudge against the people who subscribe to that political or religious group.

I mean, let's assume I have criticism of President George W. Bush or President Obama, or the Republican or Democratic party. Does that in any sense mean that I hate all people who voted for either of these presidents? Or people who are members of these parties? No.

Why is it then, that when I write criticisms of Islam or the Prophet, suddenly some of these hypocritical Western liberals we mentioned in our previous conversation, freak out and start calling us racists, bigots, or Islamophobes? Why can't they comprehend the idea of civil discussion and intellectual criticism about this topic in particular? Why is religion -- and Islam in particular -- being treated exceptionally in that regard?

Islamic apologists and those who call for limited freedom of speech and censorship laws have to answer these questions.

To answer your question about the atheist movement, I think it's pretty diverse and it's getting bigger and bigger every day, which is wonderful. I know many, if not most of the presidents of secular organizations in the United States and worldwide, and I am glad to be a part of it. But it also needs to be mentioned that as the movement gets bigger, there are a lot of ideas out there, and a lot of visions; therefore there is a lot of internal conflict going on within the movement that I always try to make sure not to get involved in. I try to focus on the big picture and move the secular and humanist cause forward.

I think human nature doesn't change even if people leave the faith. There are always conflicts about power and fame and there is jealousy and envy of people who are very well-known like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, so writing a blog post criticizing them generates lots of views as well as income for the bloggers. It's like when people want to talk about unhealthy food, they always start with McDonalds because it's a very well-known brand. It really doesn't
matter whether the post is based upon facts or not -- it's just about sensationalism and generating more views for the website.

When it comes to which groups I would like to identify myself with and recommend, I am the type of person who likes to get stuff done. I create as many alliances as possible to advance the secular cause. When it comes to people coming from Muslim backgrounds, I am familiar with Maryam Namazie's great organization and work in the United Kingdom, Taslima Nasreen, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali [author of Infidel]. All of these great feminist women work or created organizations that are centered around protecting human rights as well as encouraging people to come out.

When it comes to North America, a lot of work needs to be done. Most of the groups you mentioned are no more than meet up groups at the moment -- they really don't have any solid mission or impact beyond providing ex-Muslims with a community and a place for people to talk to and about other people.

Personally, I work with Mr. Sean Faircloth, the former Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science as well as the former Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America in 2009, about creating a grassroots movement for those who believe in the separation of church and state, and create and lead specific strategies to organize for a world based on reason and science.

I personally identify myself as a world citizen first, as well as an American from Iraqi origins. As my friend Lee from New York City said, "You are the most integrated immigrant I have seen in my life."

I identify myself with the Global Secular Movement/American Secular Movement as a whole and don't really have a preference for those who come from my country of birth or share similar history even though as you mentioned it's really nice to hang out with them once in a while. But there are no effective ex-Muslim or atheists from Muslim background type organizations yet that get stuff done, and we may actually need to create new ones.

As for my advice regarding coming out, well, that's a very difficult question. I ask them first where they live and how dependent are they on their families? If they live in a Western country and are financially independent, then why not? But if they live in a country where it is punishable by death to be an atheist, then as a moral duty I think I should ask them to be cautious, because I really know first-hand what it's like to be an atheist in a Muslim-dominated country -- It's like being the only sober person in the car when you are not the one who is driving.

What is your answer when you get asked the same question? And what do you think of the already existing organizations or groups that are within the ex-Muslim and atheists from Muslim countries category?

Best Regards,
Faisal

***

Faisal,

It is exactly the "Cafeteria Muslim" phenomenon that inspired me to start referring to myself as an "Atheist Muslim" and make it the title of my book. It's partly tongue-in-cheek though. I have feminist Muslim friends and LGBT Muslim friends who see no contradictions between their faith and their lifestyle. They cherry-pick the holy book that they STILL believe is the immutable word of God, taking what suits them and dismissing what doesn't. I figured if they can do that, why can't I just cherry-pick all the way to non-belief? I'll take the feasts of Ramadan, the Eid holiday, the musical inspiration from the nawhas of Shia Islam, (and, of course, the tax exempt status) and reject all the rest. On what basis could a Cafeteria Muslim challenge me then?

This is the thing about many progressive Muslims -- there is a tendency to cherry-pick and compartmentalize, which may make sense to them, but can appear defensive, contradictory, and inconsistent to others. Their morality is derived from secular values, and most that I have met seem to have a very rudimentary (if any) knowledge about their scripture, yet they try to fit their morality into it - when it's technically supposed to be the other way around.

Instead of deriving their moral values from the Quran, they use their inherent morality to interpret it.

So you have a really interesting phenomenon happening. The fundamentalists who follow their scripture closely come across as more consistent, and actually cite it correctly when justifying everything from the subjugation of women to jihad.

The progressives, on the other hand, condemn the fundamentalists yet defend the same scripture that the fundamentalists are citing, insisting that anything in the Quran that appears false or questionable was actually meant as "metaphor", or was mistranslated, misinterpreted, or is "out of context".

When asked what the correct interpretation or context is, they direct you to a "scholar", who more often than not holds the same interpretation that the fundamentalists have. It's a very confusing cycle even for me, as someone who was raised Muslim. So imagine how confusing it must be to an outsider who has seventy searchable translations of the Quran accessible to him in seconds pending a Google search.

It's not difficult to see why the fundamentalists have become the voice of Islam and the progressives have gradually lost that credibility.

All that said, I believe that this debate between progressive Muslims and atheists from Muslim backgrounds should continue in books, articles, blog posts, and debate podiums at universities. Outside of that, though, I advocate a strong alliance between us and them. Ideological differences aside, both groups largely oppose armed jihad, the subjugation of women and minorities, and generally support secular government. This is why, as we discussed before, I think that the embracing -- intentional or not -- of Islamic fundamentalist causes by many Western liberals (what Alishba Zarmeen refers to as the "Greenwald syndrome") is such a significant problem.

When it comes to these new organizations of ex-Muslims and atheists from Muslim families, I also prefer a forward-moving approach, to form alliances with progressive Muslims like Maajid Nawaz as well as ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who I am also a great admirer of, like you). Muslimish is one group that does that fairly well, providing not only a secure place for people to share their stories, but also finding ways to collectively translate these experiences into action. Maryam Namazie is doing fantastic work. I'm very happy to see groups like this popping up everywhere, and the occasional conflict of opinion within the atheist community to me simply reflects the kind of diversity of thought and opinion that inevitably occurs when a community grows and matures. It's a very good thing, especially for the older, pre-God Delusion atheists like me to see. It's great to see how far we've come since the Rushdie days.

As for atheists from Muslim families and countries coming out, I completely agree. For those who live in Western countries like we do, I would encourage them to come out, if only as a sign of respect for those who cannot in countries that would kill them for it.

I also want to point out -- and this is very important in most Muslim-centered cultures -- that coming out is a different experience for women than for men. The kind of threats we get pale in comparison to some of the horrific threats women get. It's important for atheist men from Muslim communities to play a fundamental role in creating a safe space for women from highly conservative, patriarchal, honor-driven Muslim families to express themselves and be accepted for it.

Moving on, I have another question for you. It's pretty widely accepted that the internet has significantly propelled atheism and allowed atheists, notably those from the Muslim world, to organize and speak out. The response to the first part of our exchange was interesting. For instance, we came under some fire from PZ Myers, which I'm sure you found as entertaining as I did. [I responded to him here.] You also mentioned Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, both of whom shared our previous exchange on their Twitter feeds. Do you think there is a difference between a thinker and a commentator? How do you separate the two in the world of social media and blogs?

Best,
Ali

***

Ali,

I totally agree with you on making alliances with progressive Muslims or progressive religious people in general. My standard for alliances is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bill of Rights in the U.S Constitution. These are my bibles, aha, for lack of a better word, and anyone who believes in and supports these values is my ally.

I think there will always be differences among human beings regarding thoughts about politics, religion, economics, and philosophy. As my personal inspiration Thomas Jefferson once said, "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

At the end of the day, we are all humans and we share a common humanity and Earth citizenship with all people around the world regardless of their beliefs. It is only if their beliefs are against basic human rights that I will stand against them. But I am a peace loving person -- not in a delusional way like some in the far left are -- but realistically.

I believe that peace is a language that has to be spoken by both sides in order to establish an alliance or a treaty. And if progressive modernist people of faith want to make an alliance with me for the cause of the advancement of humanity, then I am all for it.

Regarding PZ Myers' blog post about the first part of our conversation, I think he literally proved our point about liberals [making false equivalencies]. He is the "we have the same thing here"-style liberal that I recounted in our last exchange when I was talking to the UC Berkeley graduate about suicide bombings and public beheadings in Iraq.

We have made it clear that not all liberals think this way. I am a liberal myself most of the time, and so are my close friends and allies in the secular movement. But I am not a dogmatic liberal, because liberalism to me is about freedom and equality -- especially freedom of inquiry and liberation of the mind from backward ideas and thoughts.

When Western liberal Islamic apologists rationalize and even defend acts of terrorism committed by Muslim extremists, the people they are hurting most are their progressive and liberal allies in the Middle East and in Islamic countries in general.

The people who want women to be treated like human beings, as they should be.

The people risking death to fight for LGBT rights in their countries.

The people who stand for liberal values there, as they stand for them over here in the West.

These are the types of people they are hurting by being delusional, ignorant, and hypocritical.

Just to be clear, the intention of this conversation is not to be against liberals, but rather to give them a well-thought out, evidence-based and experience-based perspective on what they should consider before saying imaginary things like what PZ Myers and others have said and keep saying over and over again.

Best regards,
Faisal

***

This conversation will continue in Part 3, the conclusion of the exchange.

The first part of our conversation can be read here.