THE BLOG
09/04/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

A Conversation Between Two Atheists From Muslim Backgrounds (Part 3)

I met Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, the Iraqi secular humanist activist, just months after he arrived in the United States for the first time from Iraq. Both of us grew up in Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries where non-belief can often carry grievous penalties, and eventually migrated to North America. And both of us have encountered a lot of interest in our experiences, so we recently decided to have an extended email conversation to share them with those who may not be familiar with them. This is the concluding segment in this three-part series, addressing the Islamic State (ISIS) in Faisal's home country of Iraq, being called an "Uncle Tom" by white people, the existence -- or non-existence -- of a "moderate" Islam, and the one key factor needed to bring about a true Islamic reformation.

(The first part of our conversation can be read here, and the second part can be read here.)

Ali: First things first: I know large parts of Iraq, your home country, are being ravaged by ISIS. We've all seen the horrific images coming out of there.

Faisal: I'm one of those people that wasn't surprised at all that this happened after the elections. I met with many people involved in foreign policy, Iraq in particular, who warned that the situation is going to get much worse than it was at the peak of the civil war back in 2006-07 because of what is going on in Syria. It just surprises me how the mainstream media reacted to the situation as if they were "shocked" -- as if everything was going just perfectly fine in 2013 and early 2014.

Ali: How are you feeling about it in general?

Faisal: My general feeling is: I am a realist. I think the situation right now needs a miracle. And I don't believe in miracles. There is no pragmatic solution being put on the table from any side in this conflict at the moment. So I think that the bloodshed is going to continue until an unknown date.

Ali: Do you think it was something that was predictable? How did it get this bad?

Faisal: Well, you have Islamic Shia political parties and militias who are stuck in the "now's the time to take over" mentality, because the Shias have hardly been in positions of power since the start of Iraq, and their voter base is filled with vengeance. You have the Sunni political parties who are stuck in a kind of victimhood complex -- once, they had all the power and control, but now that's not the case. In 2006-07, the Americans helped keep Islamic militias like al-Qaeda and ISIS from pursuing their agenda, with the surge and alliances with Sunni tribal councils from the "awakening" movement -- that is, former insurgents that joined with the Americans and the Iraqi government to fight these militias. But the awakening movement was shut down by Nouri Al Maliki's forces, because he was afraid that the Sunnis may gain more power and influence again. And the cycle goes on and on. As it does in your country.

Ali: Well, I'm not able to visit Pakistan anymore, for security reasons, but from what I hear, I'm not missing much.

There are some elements you'd find familiar. In addition to the Sunni-Shia fighting that's happening everywhere, we also have a population largely in denial and drunk on religion. The handful of politicians claiming to want change are barely credible. More people protested for Gaza in Pakistan this month than came out to support reform in their own country. The implications of just that are enough to write a book about.

There's a lot you can tell about a country when you're living in it. But there's also a lot you can tell when you've left it and look back.

As Kunwar Shahid recently wrote in Pakistan's Friday Times, we Pakistanis incessantly lament the evils of Western imperialism and cite a "foreign hand" for all our troubles, but we vehemently defend the most devastating and long-lasting imperialism we've ever been subjected to: the "foreign hand" of seventh-century Arabia and its Islamist ideology, which cancerously continues to eat away at us to this day.

We find conspiracies in everything -- supposed plots hatched by the CIA, Israel, India -- but continue to unquestioningly believe supernatural, absolute "truths" that most of us think justify the abuse and even murder of those who challenge or mock them.

The militant elements in these conflicts aren't male vs. female, black vs. white, rich vs. poor, Arab vs. non-Arab, educated vs. non-educated, or even pro-West vs. anti-West. They are Muslims vs. non-Muslims, or mainstream Muslims vs. Ahmadi Muslims. They are Shia vs. Sunni. That is a fact, and it's well known. And as you know, the Shia-Sunni conflict started over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death over 1,400 years ago. But the search for a "root cause" continues.

And the denial is so strong that we'll believe anyone at face value if they say the "root cause" is politics, money, power, or even video games. But when these perpetrators scream the name of Allah before blowing themselves up or beheading someone -- telling us exactly why they're doing what they're doing -- we sit back, stroke our chins, and think, "No, there must be a deeper 'root' cause." Of course, virtually every terrorist attack in Pakistan -- from Malala Yousafzai's shooting to the killing of Shias and Ahmadi Muslims -- has been claimed by militant Islamic groups like the Taliban. And that doesn't just apply to Pakistan.

Faisal: There is a principle I learned of from Franklin D. Roosevelt. When asked why the United States supported the ruthless Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, FDR remarked in 1939, "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

People pick and choose their imperialisms. The Ottoman Empire occupied the Arab world and was responsible, in my opinion, for more damage -- from genocides to the ruining of public education and economic failures that led to so much poverty -- than the French, British, and American occupation combined.

But the Ottomans, at the end, were "our sons of bitches." They believed in the same religion the majority of people adhere to, with also some similarities in culture, language, and so on.

The same thing is now happening in Iraq. There is no doubt to me that there are lots of moderate Sunnis and Shias -- I was living among them in Baghdad most of the time. But at the end of the day, if a large number of them were to choose between a Sunni leader or a Shia leader, no matter how benign, qualified, and educated this candidate is, they would choose "their people," and the Iraqi democratic elections have proven it over and over again. I have always argued that if Iraq is to become a better place, it needs not only a change of leadership but a change of mentality.

We are humans first. Nationality, tribe, and sect comes after.

Ali: I completely hear you on the tribal loyalty aspect. Like faith, it's widely regarded as a virtue, but is exceedingly toxic.

You see this with the tragedy of the murdered Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. When you say, "I will punish you for killing my child," you're expressing an understandable desire for justice. But when it's, "I will kill your child because you killed mine," that's tribalism -- there's no distinction between guilty or not guilty, adult or child, soldier or civilian. It's just "us" against "the other."

You also see the same thing with the Shias and Sunnis. I have atheist friends from Shia and Sunni families arguing about which sect is better or less brutal. Despite their dissociation from the ideology that drives these groups, there's a kind of residual tribal loyalty to their previous religious faction that remains intact. I'll often joke that there is a sectarian war going on among ex-Muslims -- between ex-Sunnis and ex-Shias.

We talked earlier about those who would otherwise be our allies in the West but are also frequently shamed into silence by what I call the "phobia of being called Islamophobic." The Rotherham tragedy is the latest example of how dangerous this fear can be.

I've been amazed recently by white liberals right here in the West alleging that you -- a man who fled Iraq just over a year ago after losing loved ones and having his life under threat for years -- are an "Islamophobe" who is somehow "out of touch."

How do you respond to them?

Faisal: It is disappointing. As a secularism and human-rights activist as well as a liberal myself, I have defended the right and will always defend the right for people to practice their belief system, including Islam, despite all my disagreements. As I mentioned in our previous conversation, the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Declaration are my bibles.

Actually, the worst titles I have gotten are not "Islamophobe" or anything of that sort but "Uncle Tom" and "white people puppet," after spending little more than a year in America and integrating, to some extent, into the culture.

So they accuse people criticizing religion and Islam of being racist, but they use the most racist terms in describing people like me. This double standard is what angers me the most.

I have seen that you have been called an Islamophobe as well, much more than me, and you also lived in Muslim-majority countries for a longer period of time and have more knowledge about Islam than I do. How do you handle these accusations, and what do you think is the best response?

Ali: I actually find the "Islamophobe" label encouraging. The moment people can't respond to your argument anymore, they label you a bigot or Islamophobe. As I've written before, it's the ultimate lazy excuse for not having a counterargument. When I hear it, I know the other side has run out of fuel. It doesn't bother me one bit. And yes, I've gotten the "Uncle Tom" thing too -- even from white people, which is somewhat amusing.

I surprisingly get the most aggressive criticism from so-called "moderate" Muslims. Recently a prominent Muslim blogger wrote a post calling people like me "Talibani Atheists". He's not the only one.

Faisal: I have read the "Talibani Atheist" article. It's one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. I thought it was an article from The Onion first and was surprised when I found out it wasn't. I told the author of the article, as I always tell many of those who focus most of their energy on bashing atheists and critics of Islam, to redirect their energy to those who are actually doing the killing on a daily basis.

Ali: Well, that's exactly it. I find it very telling that these people have turned their attention to those of us who use keyboards instead of swords and bombs, as if this is where they feel the real threat.

And it's a threat they compare to the Taliban -- placing people like me in equivalence to those who behead innocent people and shoot teenage girls in the head for wanting an education.

But I welcome the criticism. It comes with the territory. It provokes precisely the kind of discussion I want to provoke. To answer your question, the best response is to engage with them respectfully and productively, listen to what they're saying, but remain honest and unapologetic. Never apologize for openly and unabashedly calling out bad or dangerous ideas, no matter how sacred they may be to someone. Being hurt or offended doesn't make a person right. Ideas are not people -- it's OK to challenge them and attack them.

As for those who accuse me of self-hate, I simply paraphrase Ayaan Hirsi Ali: When I come to a secular, pluralistic society and see how human beings can coexist with mutual respect, liberty, and dignity, would it be some kind of "self-love" to see that as a foreign cult that Muslims are forbidden to practice?

Or Maajid Nawaz, who I consider a true Muslim reformist: "The fact that some people still use the meaningless & frankly reverse-racist term 'sellout' to describe innovative political positions is quite indicative of their residual, subconscious slave mentality."

Faisal: Imagine if there was actually something like the "Moderate Muslims Front" which was as powerful as ISIS and other radical groups that the author of that article claim are a fringe minority with no popular support, nor any basis from religion to justify their actions.

There is no doubt to me that the majority of Muslims around the world, especially those living in the West, are non-violent, peace-loving, law-abiding citizens. But there is also a significant percentage that is not, and this percentage is not just a fringe minority. What we are witnessing with groups like ISIS is that the percentage of extremists is on the rise in places like Western Iraq and provinces in northern Baghdad as well as in Syria.

Ali: And far beyond that as well.

Faisal: It's so delusional -- and I have to emphasize the word "delusional" here -- to say that the ideology of groups like ISIS has no popular support. It's not like Anders Breivik from Norway, who acted mostly on his own and hardly has any supporters in his country -- a country, in my opinion, that all of us should look up to in terms of respect for human rights and liberal democratic values.

As for Islamophobia, most of the people who use the word cannot differentiate between intellectual and legitimate criticism of the faith and real hatred and bigotry against the people who hold the faith.

But that's not to deny that xenophobia against people from the Muslim faith or immigrants here in America exists. I have received tons of "go back to your home, dirty immigrant" emails, and some restaurants in some parts of America even refused to serve me based upon the way I look and my accent.

Ali: I hear you. When I describe myself as an "atheist Muslim," it's partly tongue-in-cheek, but a more serious part of it is that I do share these experiences of anti-Muslim bigotry with my Muslim family and friends. I have a Muslim name, I was born and raised in Muslim countries by a Muslim family, and I'm a brown-skinned man. I know anti-Muslim bigotry exists. But to blanketly put all that under an umbrella term like "Islamophobia" is an injustice and insult to Muslims who genuinely face that prejudice -- it exploits their experiences and uses them to stifle any criticism of Islam.

Faisal: Right. Racism against immigrants and brown people exists, but questioning the validity of Islam and its teachings has nothing to do with racism, and considering that the majority of Muslims are not actually from the Middle East, and that Muslims come from many different ethnicities, including converts who are white, it's very erroneous to equate Islamophobia or Muslim-phobia with racism.

Ali: Do you think there's such a thing as "moderate Islam"?

Faisal: Let me share with you an incident from my Islamic theology class in high school. One Monday, the teacher told us that we should kill Jews and non-believers. Later in the same week, on Thursday, he told us, "We should love and respect people regardless of their religion."

I asked him sarcastically, "Now what should I do? Should I kill them or not?"

So the question is: Who is the moderate Muslim? The one who follows the class on Monday or the one who follows the class on Thursday? Because in both classes, the teacher gave us plausible arguments for each case, supported by scripture and hadith.

What's your take on the subject of moderate Islam?

Ali: I think it's a confused term. I hold that there are moderate and diverse Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam.

I feel that the single most important thing that's holding Muslims back from a true reformation is this belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Even mainstream moderate and liberal Muslims still believe that their holy book is the perfect word of God.

The Old Testament really isn't too much different from the Quran when it comes to content. But if you ask Jews and Christians how they defend, say, Leviticus 20:13, which says homosexuals should be put to death, or Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which says non-virginal brides should be stoned to death on their fathers' doorsteps, most don't go out of their way to defend these passages. They just say they don't agree with it, that it's out of date, that they don't agree with "that part," or whatever. It's cherry picking, but it's honest cherry picking.

Moderate Muslims, unfortunately, often go out of their way to defend some of the more unsettling passages in their scripture by insisting, as we talked about earlier, that they are out of context, or misinterpreted, or metaphorical, or even mistranslated from the original Arabic. They'll often spend exorbitant amounts of energy vehemently defending a book that its most ardent adherents cite profusely to justify killing them. It seems bizarre to me.

They'll insist that the Quran not be taken "literally," as if it would terrify them if someone read the book the way it was actually written. I'll often ask, "Are you insisting that your explanations of God's word are better than the way he has written it himself?" I mean, this isn't Shakespeare or Chaucer. This is supposed to be a divine deity that you would expect can reasonably articulate his own ideas, right? Why does he need an army of human followers to spend enormous amounts of time and resources analyzing and interpreting and sanitizing it?

This lack of credibility is a key reason I think moderates are failing at their attempts to "own" Islam. Even apologists like Nathan Lean are now proposing that the term is problematic.

I think Islam needs reformers, not moderates. People like Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam Foundation, or Muslims in the Ismaili and Sufi communities at least have some honesty and introspection in their approach that resonates with non-Muslims as a position with some integrity. It is much more comfortable for me to support Muslims like them.

In closing, I want to ask you: What do you think it would take for a genuine reformation to occur for Muslims and Islam?

Faisal: That's a very good and a hard question at the same time.

I think there needs to be a change in how Muslims see their scripture, because as you said, the verses that advocate for violence are already there in the Quran and the Hadith.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other militants are not using Joseph Stalin's biography as a guide for their lives and their actions. They are using the same book that is available in every mosque and almost every library.

So if a reformation is to occur and to succeed, in my opinion, it has to be honest. Denying and claiming that verses that advocate for violence do not exist or are somehow inherently peaceful if we look at the "bigger context" is dishonest. Saying we don't believe in these verses, or that it's time to move beyond just scripture, would be a good start, and it would be more logically consistent with how moderate Muslims see themselves.

Right now, moderate Muslims generally look logically inconsistent to those of us who have spent the time to read the Quran and the Hadith in Arabic. The verse says something, and the moderate Muslim interpretation says something completely different. Because that's what the moderate Muslim mindset is: They believe that Islam is a religion of peace as a default before reading the actual book, and they tend to reinterpret whatever there is that doesn't go with what they believe is the default to fit their mindset.

Michael Shermer explained in his book The Believing Brain that people generally have beliefs before facts. So the belief in this case is, "I believe that the Quran is the greatest book and is written by God, and my religion is a religion of peace." And then when a verse comes up that doesn't match the belief, they have to "reinterpret" the verse to match it.

As a matter of practice, though, when it comes to the Muslim world, I would rather side with the logically inconsistent at the moment, because those who do take the Quran literally generally hold beliefs that go against the values I hold and defend dearly, such as democracy, freedom, and human rights.

But I do hope to see a reformation in my lifetime so both of us wouldn't have to be worried about getting slaughtered in our home countries for being apostates.

Ali: Amen to that. Thank you, Faisal.

This concludes a three-part series of conversations between me and Faisal. You can read the first part here and the second part here.