I’m getting tired of reading reports about thuggish Muslim idiots who, by virtue of having specific chromosomes and genitalia, thrust said properties into their conduct. No doubt some of you remember the Italian Muslim mother and daughter assaulted by their male side of their own family. What was the reason the men attacked their own family? Continue reading
I have not read as much as I would like on the burqa debacle – which seems a little overblown. Nonetheless, when I read a recent piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I felt she made some rather fallacious claims. Hence this critique.
According to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in a recent online debate at New Humanist, we should accept banning the burqa. I know little of the current situation of cultural politics in the UK, so I will attempt to assess the arguments as they stand. Readers may then ponder themselves whether there are specific contexts – I do not think there is – in which the arguments do hold.
Her analysis is rather flimsy: she begins by saying something about Voltaire and Enlightenment figures being ‘prophets’ for defenders of secularism. Being somewhat of an Enlightenment defender myself, this strikes hard of oxymoronic confusion. The so-called ‘prophets’ of Enlightenment precisely dedicated themselves to fighting against anyone who proclaimed him or herself a prophet of any kind; they fought, as Susan Neiman has stated, against any and all forms of authority: religious, political, royal. They precisely aimed at providing tools of analysis and liberation. That which clarifies the world also frees you from its chains, one tool being the universalisation of reason exemplified by Kant’s moral system.
Alibhai-Brown says the torch-bearers of the Enlightenment ‘are as committed to literalism as are literalist religious believers – in all situations they revert to the rule book, quote Voltaire, Mill and Locke, their prophets.’ Considering they were fallible human beings, who often premised our fallibility as a reason not to take the word of authorities as perfect, it would be strange for any ‘torch-bearer’ to be literalist. Indeed, if we were truly being literalist about Enlightenment thinkers, we would not be literalist at all – since this is directly what they tell us. As Voltaire says: ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.’ Yes, let us take that literally. And, yes, I did just quote Voltaire, Ms Alibhai-Brown.
She then makes some more strange claims:
Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices they say, somewhat self-righteously. The burqa does not affect their own lives or test their powers of endurance. I tried to wear the full veil for a day, but threw it off in a couple of hours. I felt wiped out, lifeless and voiceless.
I am uncertain why there is a sudden switch to a first-person perspective, but it jars. The first part tells us liberalism means accepting ‘illberal’ choices – if it is a choice one has not been coerced into making, then it is accepted as a so-called ‘liberal’ choice – then she says she tried to wear it, but felt ‘lifeless and voiceless’. So what? Was she coerced into wearing it? No one forced her into wearing it. No one forced her out of it. This is the essence of liberalism: freedom, choice, etc. We can predict she will use this as argument to ban the burqa, because it makes one feel ‘wiped out’.
When all complex dilemmas are reduced to choice, liberty itself becomes limp and eventually irrelevant. A daughter of, say, Christian Scientists will refuse medical treatment for a life-threatening condition. We all know that response was steadily injected into her – it is a choice she cannot not make. And yet if a group of girls were ready to hurl themselves off a cliff, proclaiming their right to do so, the most libertarian of warriors would surely try to stop them.
She has given us no reason to accept her first sentence, in this paragraph. Karl Popper warned us long ago that a theory that explains everything explains nothing. To reduce everything to choice would be a bad move, but in this instance, we are not saying that: we are saying, specifically, the ban on the burqa is about choice and the lack thereof. And what are we to make of her idea that a daughter of Christian Scientists has a response ‘steadily injected’ into her? Alibhai-Brown appears to be saying the girl has not chosen to reject life-saving treatment herself; it was the parents’ beliefs, which was drilled into her, making her refuse. This appears to be saying: ‘she has no choice because of her past’. But why does this not apply to myself, women who choose to not wear the burqa, Alibhai-Brown herself? We are all influenced by our past, but we are not chained by it. This only means we must speak loudly and more broadly about choice. (Also, if we are talking about children, the State can legitimately intervene to prevent parents’ stupid beliefs killing their children). To say women living with a highly religious past are automatons is rubbish: this argument applies to us all. A common argument is these women have no choice, they are still living according to their past. Even if we grant this as true, which to some degree it is, it does not give us any more right to tell these women how they must live. This is the very problem we should help them be aware of, not force them out of. We must be wary of most, if not all, instances of paternalism, which Alibhai-Brown is defending on poor grounds.
And if someone wanted to kill himself, I am not sure to what extent I would stop him: be it shooting himself or hurling himself off a cliff. I do not think I would presume to know his life should be continued, just because he is a person. I would probably presume choice, but then I could be wrong. (And we would only intervene premised on the Millian ‘harm-principle’.)
The reader must also be aware that Alibhai-Brown accuses torch-bearers of Enlightenment of bifurcating the world (apparently committing the ‘either-or fallacy’). She says: ‘Avowed liberals are only able to see conflicts in binary terms – left/right, faith/atheism, freedom of expression/censorship, west/rest, Islam/enlightenment and so on.’ Whilst this gross generalisation receives no defence, she then, a few paragraphs later, says: ‘The burqa [is a battle] between open and egalitarian Islam and obscurantism; human rights values and inhumane exceptionalism; integration and apartheid.’ I don’t mean to say she is being hypocritical, only that for the sake of communication, we can postulate legitimate polarised views. She should be consistent.
This paragraph is all over the place and not worth reading, but she says that the burqa is repressive, prevents us realising women as free beings, prevents us seeing the scars of abuse, etc. None of this being denied, the problem is then saying this allows us to ban the burqa completely.
Modernist Muslims watch helplessly as organised brainwashers, aided and abetted by liberals, bury Muslim females in living graves because femininity is treacherous – an evil slur. Muslim men too are demonised as sexual beasts lacking self-control. Most Muslims may have come to Europe for economic reasons, but many also migrated to escape women-hating Ayatollahs and Mullahs and regimes, to live in democracies that uphold civil and gender rights. Those oppressive ideologies have migrated too. There seems no escape.
I do not know what a ‘modernist’ Muslim is, but presumably a Muslim who recognises the inherent idiocies of Islam, its juvenile attitude to the world and misogynistic tendencies to the better sex. Alibhai-Brown says that liberals aid the brainwashers; presumably because liberals will defend a Muslim woman’s ability to make a choice for herself. However, this is something that Islam directly opposes: the burqa is testament to that. Liberals oppose coercion. Just because they both result in women wearing burqas is not the point: Islam forces, liberals say choose. If you do not want to, Islam will oppose you, liberalism will defend you. Alibhai-Brown, ironically, is denying choice in this second formulation: you will not wear the burqa.
Finally we come to the rehashed arguments in one single paragraph.
It is perfectly legitimate to require that faces must be visible in public institutions. And surely it’s a defence of human rights to insist that pre-pubescent schoolgirls are protected from restrictive and inhibiting coverings. Progressives should stand for non-racist, universal human development.
Of course it is legitimate. But once again, we must be consistent. Why place special emphasis on the burqa? People wear all manner of things that obstruct their faces: scarves, for example. Are we to ban scarves in winter, when people fear their noses will fall off from the cold? Surely not. What does she mean ‘protected from’? Are these ‘restrictive and inhibiting coverings’ stalking the streets late at night, waiting to pounce on some poor, unsuspecting girl? If not, why do they need protecting from ‘restrictive’ covering? And what about the numerous strange things women wear all the time, quite openly that are, even they say, restrictive. My female friends constantly complain about high-heel shoes, tight-dresses, and so on. Are we to ban these because they are restrictive? Must we protect our poor, defenceless women from themselves? From their clothes? And indeed, what is racist about any of this defence? At no point have I limited my critique to a particular group of people, aside from women. And, we might note, men also can wear scarves in winter, wear uncomfortable clothes and so on. But both sexes can be adult about this and decide for themselves.
What we must oppose is not pieces of cloth, but pieces of choice. Autonomy must slip through the cracks of dogma within secular societies. We must promote women’s liberation, which comes from themselves not from societal imposition. Freedom imposed it not freedom at all. Alibhai-Brown does a disservice by thinking we must remove, rather than promote, choice for Muslim women. Indeed, as many know, our goal in today’s world is engaging with the freedom of all women, for all time. This, dictating what they may and may not wear, prevents this goal from arising. If there is one thing we need to scream louder it seems, it is this for all circumstances: let women choose for themselves.
Jeff: I heard you on that chat-show, last night.
Dick: Ah, yeah?
Jeff: Yes, it was really good. Well-done and all … but did you have to be so, I dunno, harsh?
Dick: What you mean?
Dick: Well, perhaps mockery is part of my criticism – if that’s the case, then if you welcome my criticism, you also endorse the mockery that goes with it.
Jeff: Ah, come on. I accept your ‘points’ against what Islam says and does, you know, we can all agree that it treats women like chattel and is poor in justifying self-reflection … but did you have to add that Islam is a ‘death-cult under the shadow of self-righteousness, a bloody-thirsty hypocrite who screams at the advancing wall of civilisation by typing on a keyboard’? Did you have to say Muslims are ‘strapping young lads … with bombs’? Did you have to say they ‘put women in bags, children in paranoia and themselves in agony’?
Dick: The problem is when you take my thoughts like that out of context, of course it sounds harsh. However, I do justify why I think that. If you agree that Islam treats its women like chattel, then you must agree that they put women in bags. If you agree that the way a lot of Muslims educate children – ‘the West is bad’, ‘Islam is the greatest thing that can occur to anyone, even if we have to ensure that with force’ – then putting them in a state of paranoia is truly the same thing. And I am not the one saying it is a death-cult: their own believers have endorsed death as a viable alternative to life, and are willing to prove that to us again and again.
Jeff: Yes, but why can you not make those points without mockery and being harsh?
Dick: As I said, it may appear harsh out of context, but it is no harsher than a lot of things people say about political-views, restaurants, and so on. Why can’t we speak about religion and religious people in this way, too?
Jeff: Because they are not restaurants, or politicians! They are not trying to … well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but they have not defined themselves as entities which should be open to such criticism. Most of these people are good, kind, decent. There is no need to be so harsh to them.
Dick: You are making too many divergent points. Firstly, no ‘entity’ chooses to be a target of mockery. It simply occurs that they become as such: there was a time when there was no such thing as celebrities, but with their rise in stature and the awareness of how society rewards people with no talent and grand egos, there was a space in which to criticise such things. Similarly, no restaurant wants to be widely criticised – but if the food is truly horrible, we will do that. Similarly, if the goals of political views somehow negatively affects my life and those who I love, am I expected to roll over nicely because it would hurt somebody’s feelings? Surely, not! Similarly, another ideological group seeks to influence my life – either by destroying it or in other negative ways. Am I expected to roll over because someone might have their feelings hurt? And, you say, these people who I mock are ‘good, kind’, etc. – many killers during the Nazi regime were also good, kind, like Eichmann. But so what? Being good or kind tells me nothing about what beliefs they hold, nor what beliefs they support. If it is stupid, I will say as much. I am not better than them, I am not smarter than them; to say we shouldn’t criticise them is to treat them like children, it’s to say we can mock restaurants but not their religion because we might hurt their feelings. I do not think any adult should be treated like a child, so why should I do that for Muslims?
Jeff: Hm, I take your points. But I still don’t agree that the average Muslim beliefs Islam is a death-cult or is seeking the destruction of Western civilisation. After all, there is no central-body of Islam or rather there is no one group that speaks for Islam and all Muslims. To say that all Muslims do this is an almost-racism. Indeed, to treat all Muslims as terrorists is basically Islamophobia. You claim that because Islam is a death-cult, according to you, you have a licence to treat anyone who subscribes to it as basically endorsing that death-cult status.
Dick: I agree it is wrong to treat all Muslims as potential terrorists – anyone is a potential terrorist! We know that thoroughbred American boys and girls can grow up to fly themselves into anything they want, too. Nonetheless, you are conflating Islam, the religion, with Muslims, those who claim to subscribe to it. I also think that term Islamophobia is a useless term, and one that only seeks to paint critics of Islam with the brush of racism, in order to encourage self-censorship. In any case, consider a country like North Korea: it is a horrid place, filled with suffering, death and constant worship. One is not a person in any recognisable way because you have no freedom at all. Yet, we can call it all these names, but are we saying all North Koreans endorse it, welcome it? Surely not, as they themselves tell us. They either leave North Korea or they try, in an ultimately futile attempt, to change it from the inside. Imagine Islam as a country, and our criticisms still stand: it sends combatants out to destroy us, it sends messages of hate, etc. What’s the difference? Well, people who leave Islam either don’t consider themselves religious at all, anymore, or can try integrate themselves in other countries. You can never escape where you were born or where you grew up – that is a physical place. But to escape your metaphysical and moral assumptions gained from Mommy’s knee? Yes, you can. And then you are no longer a part of that ‘country’ of Islam. Anyway, my point is that Muslims themselves are welcome to – and sometimes, rarely, they do – criticise Islam. However, from within, nothing is happening that even matches it. It is concrete. All Muslims are fundamentalist Muslims, according to what we consider fundamentalist Christians: to be Muslim, you must believe the word of god is absolute, binding, perfect, concrete, eternal, as it is written. Some so-called liberal Christians of course do not think so of their Bible – they see it as allegory, not every word is true, etc. But Muslims have to believe this. So I am working from the definition Muslims claim for themselves, from articles and books and what their leaders say.
Jeff: Still, most Muslims I know would never endorse violence as an answer. They are peaceful, trying to understand the world; just like you and me. To be so dismissive of them, to say ‘oh they’re actually all fundamentalist’ does not remove you from being Islamophobic – it makes it worse! You are sounding like a bigot. You have no right, just because you think Islam is bad, to call all those who endorse it bad, too!
Dick: I did not say they were all bad or evil or terrible people. Your charge of Islamophobia is leading you astray. Your ‘most Muslims’ are most people’s ‘most Muslims’, in many parts of the world. The point remains: criticising Islam automatically means criticising Muslims. And all Muslims, by definition, have to believe the tents of Islam fundamentally – that is, that the Quran is the word of god, etc. You can’t escape that.
Jeff: My argument remains: why make your points so emotionally, so unnecessarily lyrically, rather than another way?
Dick: Well, just from a communication’s perspective, it has a greater impact. For example, you noticed, you remembered. The most important aspect of criticising traditional, axiomatic and long-held beliefs is to raise awareness. If people take notice by the sudden overturning of a taboo, they will hear the cracks it makes in most people’s deeply held beliefs as it collapses.
Jeff: Is that a sophisticated way of saying ‘because people will notice me’?
Dick: Not me, the cause itself. There are always better people than oneself who can talk about why women are treated badly and must be released from their positions in Islamic communities, always better people to discuss education of children, etc. If you can start shattering taboos, and you are cornered, you can always point to better sources than yourself who have been saying the same things for some time. I can at least act as a gateway to better thinkers.
Jeff: So after trying to draw the spotlight, you want to turn it elsewhere.
Dick: Very well put. Yes.
Jeff: I don’t buy that. The spotlight will demand you answer for your own charges; it demands you stand up for your harsh criticisms. You can’t just pass it on.
Dick: Oh no. My point is that I can justify my assertions and seemingly provocative statements. Remember, it is part of the criticism, not separate. You can’t separate it just because they seem harsh on their own. What’s harsh is not my calling Islam a death-cult, but my entire reason why I think it engenders suicides, martyrdom; what’s harsh is not my calling Islam a faith that puts women in chains, but my entire charge that Islam negates a woman’s personhood completely. In fact, if you think those cherry-picked parts are the harshest, then maybe I have failed. Because what’s harsh is not little bits but the entire criticism.
Jeff: Perhaps then you ‘have’ failed because all I can remember is your harsh tones and mockery.
Dick: Well, by making you aware of how my criticism works, perhaps next time you will integrate yourself into the whole thing, instead of just focusing on my rather boring but provocative statements.
Jeff: Then why do I, as someone who is also an atheist, who agrees that most religions have dangerous parts to it – why is it that I remember the harsh parts?
Dick: Honestly? Because you agree with me.
Jeff: What!? But since the beginning…
Dick: No, wait. Listen. The most important thing is this: you agree with me that religion is best left out our public life as much as possible; you agree that it must not influence how we educate our children; you agree it must not teach creationism; and so on. These, my friend, are the most devastating charge against religion! They have become a song that has been sung so long, many have adjusted to it. But that adjustment led to apathy and many religions have taken a chance to teach creationism, to influence its daughters to marry at 7, to kill us and so on. The most devastating aspect of religion has already been dealt with since the Enlightenment showed us why we must get rid of religion from politics, why the principles of secularism stand. You agree all the way up to here. That is why you don’t hear this but you do hear the so-called provocative parts. You don’t hear ‘there is no good reason to believe in god’, but you do hear ‘the god of the bible is a vindictive bastard’. You don’t hear ‘Islam can be dangerous’, but you do hear it being called a ‘death-cult’.
Jeff: So because I am so used to the arguments, I don’t hear them.
Dick: Yes. You are so used to them, that suddenly when they are embellished, they appear worse. But what’s worse is not calling someone’s god vindictive, but saying he doesn’t exist. I think you have forgotten that the harshest blows are done. But religions have a tough-skin as do all forms of irrationality. They adjust to pummelling, they no longer notice it. We can keep beating with the stick of reason onto the flesh of the insanity, but after awhile, it will get up and continue to build make-believe castles in the clouds. You agree with the beating – but when we suddenly dust away the clouds, you get upset. No, no, come now.
Jeff: I still think there’s a problem.
Dick: Well, let’s finish this wine and continue this later…
I greet you as someone who was once involved in your faith. I studied it adamantly for many years of my life, under as many Islamic scholars as my city had to offer. My parents, in an attempt at conveying a sense of morality and meaning, believed that drowning me in faith would force me to swallow some watered down version of religion. Parents continue to force religion on their children – often not in an attempt at maliciousness but in an attempt at cosmic protection, in an attempt of sublimating metaphysical casuistry, some certainty that the child’s ‘soul’ will be safe. Parents’ duties often are about protecting their child. To those terrified of a godless life – which probably rests more in the fear of life being meaningless rather than the soul condemned to hellfire – dunking children’s heads in water, whispering Arabic phrases in their ear, and severing parts of their genitalia could be equivocated to strapping on their seatbelt or holding their hand across the road.
You might think I am mocking your beliefs but I do not doubt a parent’s sincerity in protecting his or her child. It is no fault that our society views the so-called ‘great questions’ – what is my purpose? Who am I? How am I to live? What is good? – as falling strictly within the domain of the religious, when it should be for all and any who care to participate, using rational arguments and an open approach to dialogue. I received engagement with these ideas only after my secular schooling day ended, as the sun passed into dusk, with the haunting melodies of the imams as their long shadows stretched before me in the afternoon sun. I learnt about my life’s meaning in the words of the Prophet; I learnt about right and wrong from what Allah said to the Prophet through the angel Gibreel (Gabriel to the Christians); I was moved to tears by the beauty of the Prophet’s visions and his attempt at making the world a better place.
But I no longer see Islam that way. I see only flaws in answering any moral questions with religion. Many continue to talk about how beautiful Islam is or, more insultingly, that Islam is about peace. From my first days of Islamic scholarship, its history whispers its blood-trail as often as it does its conquest. Muslims will tell you with pride that Islam grew at an unprecedented rate, as great armies fell to the Muslims. But, like a boxer, they quickly switch feet and eloquently reprise the history of Islam’s peaceful blooming. Islam is premised on war, on conquering. The world is bifurcated between the lands of Islam and lands yet to be conquered. And, now, in these places the Muslims would consider yet to be conquered, the inhabitants have begun expressing their opinions about the Prophet, using monochromatic exclamations marks of deliberate offense.
You, my Muslim friends, see this as those of us who ‘worship manmade’ world-views tracing deep borders. You see us, like ballerinas with one foot deep in the sand, encircling you. You see us as we separate ourselves and you, as we give in to the war-mongering of ‘us and them’. You imagine that this border creation is exactly what to expect from us lovers of ‘freedom’ above ‘god’s laws’, idolisers of manmade values over ‘god’s word’, fornicators, masturbators, child molesters, Satanists, feminists, womanisers, prostitutes, homosexuals. I have been called some of these terms by Muslims before – many of them blatantly not true (homosexual, Satanist, child molester, etc.) and some which I am not ashamed though would not call myself (feminist, womaniser, fornicator, etc.).
To think that those cartoonists who depict caricatures of Muhammad, that writers who depict their version of the Prophet’s early life, are doing so to deliberately incite violence is to miss the point. Many of these people – some are my colleagues – are beyond bullying, beyond name-calling. Most of them are against violence of any kind, instead trying for peace in a world that rejects it. Some of us, like myself, have given up fighting for peace or a good world, realising that this will never happen; instead opting for amelioration over utopianism. Why even attempt this letter? For two reasons: firstly, if it can help push one person over the precipice of dogma into reason, then my job would be complete. Secondly, it serves to raise consciousness for this very important matter concerning a free, open world, in which we are able engage with our most important ability: freedom of expression. Freedom of expression, not violence, not bullying, not ‘incitement of religious hatred’ (what a horrific, arrogant notion) – but the ability to express our thoughts and minds without being killed for it.
We fight battles of every kind – individual and societal, subjective and global, familial and governmental. In order to bring light to those areas canvassed by the shadow of oppression, we must and can only use our free expression, our opinion and our passion. This ability has helped not millions but billions of people; since freedom of expression is the cornerstone of science, our longer and healthier lives are a result of it. And how many lives have changed, because enough expressed their dissent at being marginalised as a result of their sex, sexual orientation and ethnicity? And not just biological well-being but philosophical, too: how do we view the world, what are our opinions on the good life? The conversation of humanity is temporal as well as spatial, as we reach back in time to Plato for answers just as we would like to reach across the veils to our Muslim sisters. You are human. The circle you imagine we draw is not to separate you but to include you; as we come to realise the shortness and horror of life, the vivid transience that occurs with a subtle reflection on what it means to be human, we all wonder what can be done to at least make this little life better for all. The circle is an attempt at enclosing all of humanity in a single conversation, using free expression, without threats of violence. In a pluralised, adult world, there will be things we do not want to hear. But that is the cost of being in the adult circle, the adult world.
The conversation of humanity is also a tapestry, filled with vivid colours from multiple minds. You are part of that tapestry. By drawing your Prophet we confirm that you are grown up enough to realise you live with other fallible humans. Sure, we might be wrong. But by virtue of being human, this is the chance we take and why we must be allowed to offend. There is always the chance that what you hold to be sacred will in fact come to be considered absurd. Humanity is known as much for its brilliant ideas as for its very stupid ones, and both have probably been held with equally strong convictions. But by not being able to express our opinions on them – whether right or wrong – we will not discover our faults, our failures and our inconsistencies; we might all burn (especially people like me, who should be hunted and murdered according to your hadith, which also is mainly where the directives to oppose blasphemous depictions come from). But right now we are all struggling. We want you to laugh with us at the absurdity of stupid drawings, we want you to draw our leading thinkers with giant noses and turban-bombs. We want you to tell us about your secretive lives, your thoughts, your beliefs. I am interested as I am interested in this species as a whole. I do not have to like you – I do not like most people – and you do not have to like me. But liking does not preclude tolerance. We tolerate many things. And toleration leads to information as we glean much from the things we encounter every day.
Many Muslims say it is insulting and offensive to draw Muhammad. What point does it serve? As I have said, if we cannot express ourselves – within limits – we have nothing to show for freedom. Freedom is not licence; but your offense and hurt feelings are no reasons to limit the expression. This ability is not restricted to us: it involves your participation too. Freedom is not freedom if it is only the hands of one group; it is not freedom if it is not being defended; it is not freedom if it is not being displayed. People might get hurt, innocents might suffer because some cartoonists wanted to have a laugh. But many would risk their lives for freedom rather than sit as silent robots tuned to the dictates of religious bullying.
A cartoonist should not have to apologise because Muslims are not grown up enough to be insulted. Everyone deserves to be insulted. Muslims are not special, they do not deserve kid-gloves. More insulting to Muslims are those who believe they cannot act as adults and ignore books and cartoons that insult their Prophet, or laugh it off as heathen ignorance. And those who deeply insult you are yourselves, as you abdicate your moral resolve to stupid councils and ignorant imams, whose talk is bloodthirsty and pumped for fighting. Who are these fools who tell you what to eat and take offense with? Decide for yourselves, you are adults and you should be proud of your rational abilities.
Remember, above all else, you are not special. If you mess up, if you believe silly things, if you create theological mazes which justify violence, the oppression of women but also somehow world-peace – if you do these things, don’t expect us to nod and smile and pat your heads. Others might treat you like children, passing you the candy-cane of patronising indulgence, but I will not. Your religion is not special, your beliefs are silly to me, but you are human. I am not perfect, I am not special. Scorn me with words, draw pictures of my giant nose. I have not raised a weapon to you, save my words. I only ask one thing: can you be adult enough to do the same?
“Respect for your elders” has never been something that I have accepted for the sake of it: We should accept people based on their merit as people and their treatment toward us. This multi-layered confusion results in many children being forced into a frustrating disposition, where they endure the brunt of intolerant adults simply because “they are your elders!” No, I believe first we must earn each others respect, regardless of age. But my reaction to this certainly does not extend as far as that great bastion of unreason, that spoke in the faculty of knowledge, known as the mutaween of Saudi Arabia – or The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The commission has become the Elvis of stupid ideas, the Led Zeppelin of clerical bullying, and the siren to all those sexually-repressed men who just can’t find a meek-enough, mild-enough Muslim sheep (i.e. a woman) to copulate with. Instead, they must vent their repression on 75-year old women.
As CNN reports
A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced a 75-year-old Syrian woman to 40 lashes, four months imprisonment and deportation from the kingdom for having two unrelated men in her house.
The men were delivering bread to the elderly Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi, since her age made it inconvenient to procure such items. Even Thomas Kinneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, could not conjure up a more enduring scene of human dignity, created to be usurped by the hands of unreason. Yet, here we have an example of just such a scenario.
Of course, when you say Saudi Arabia, women and “what the hell” in one sentence, in the next breath you should be contemplating the mutaween. Where the death knells of reason sound, there the mutaween will be bouncing up and down, pulling hard on the rope. The mutaween have more than 3,500 officers, and additional thousands of volunteers.
As the BBC reports: “They patrol the streets to enforce the country’s deeply conservative Islamic codes of dress and morality. [They] instruct shops to shut during prayer time and keeps a lookout for any slips in strict dress codes”. They also have the power:
to arrest anyone engaged in homosexual acts, prostitution, fornication, or proselytizing of non-Muslim religions, they can also arrest unrelated males and females caught socializing, enforce Islamic dress-codes, Muslim dietary laws (such as the prohibition from eating pork) and store closures during the prayer time. They prohibit the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages and seize banned consumer products and media regarded as un-Islamic (such as CDs/DVDs of various Western musical groups, television shows and film). They also actively prevent the religious practices of other religions within Saudi Arabia
They have struck many false chords in the past: Consider their banning of the letter “X” because it looks too much like the Cross from Christian lore. This is a country that is proudly anti-Semitic, in the core sense of the word, even scorning Catholics to the point where they are ousted from the country – even when they are practising religion privately in their own apartments. I am anti-theistic, but this is simply ridiculous – this is not a thorough dismissal of Catholic ideas, it is dismissal of Catholic persons. Even if a non-religious party did this, I would still defend his right to practice his belief in the privacy of his home.
Famously, in 2002, 15 girls were burnt to death in an outbreak of fire because the mutaween did not allow fire-fighters to help them. Why, you may ask? Because the girls were not wearing their abayyas, or head-scarfs. Do these clerics – note, clerics, people who have hotline to god – not think it strange that this being they worship and, quite literally, think is so “great”, would be hurt by little girls wearing a piece of cloth on their heads? How on earth, at such a moment where human lives are so blatantly in danger, can theology honestly come into play?
If anyone does not believe that religion allows for madness to become doctrine, for the insane to become powerful, one need not look further than these mullah-minded horrors of humanity.
The renunciation of one faith for another is already dubious but when it is underpinned by the scornful wrath of the intolerant, it takes on sickening level. Especially, when someone from this same mutaween feels they have the right to cut out their daughter’s tongue and burn her alive for her act.
Amidst these clamours of discord, the one resounding chime will be Sheik Abdul Aziz Ben Baz’s fatwa of 1974, which stated that the earth is flat. In a brilliant piece of illogic that would have Russell spinning, the blind cleric stated:
If the earth is rotating, as they claim, the countries, the mountains, the trees, the rivers, and the oceans will have no bottom.
With the wallowing in the mire of mumbo-jumbo, it is perhaps no wonder that such flowers of idiocy arise. All the ideas and the sheer anger that drives them toward actualisation in brutality, leave a horrid taste in ones mouth. In this climate, it is no wonder that 75 year-old women can be sentenced to lashing. It almost seems as though it ought to happen, given the backward nature of this country. Once a soil is fertilized with such horror and decay of human sensibility, what can bloom but poisoned flowers?
If you are as horrified as I am, please alert people to the plight of women within Saudi Arabia. Ignoring whether you agree me on a god, I hope, at least, you can agree with me in my defence of our fellow humans.
Whilst I find biographical writing egotistical in most cases, I hope to indulge here in a trajectory of thought rather than a life. I hope to show my own severing of the Islamic veil, which shrouded everything within its bleak dichotomous imagery, and how it is that ex-Muslims are a rarity. Though we are growing in number, there are not many who are willing to openly criticise Islam – I consider this to be part laziness, part apathy and part incredulity by “moderate” Muslims.The major reasons and criticisms will be dealt with in the second part.
Is it racist to loathe some one’s nonevidential-based and metaphysical beliefs? I do not think so. If this were true, I’d be considered alongside the person who decided “Whites Only” was a good sign to make on park-benches. We do not find black people declaring themselves ex-black, or white people declaring themselves ex-white. To say then that I am a racist is incorrect. I was Muslim, now I am no longer.
The question then is why declare oneself by what one is not. Why focus on being an ex-Muslim?
Power in Words
Defining oneself by a negative is something we as sceptics and atheists often have to puzzle over. Indeed, such a sentence might itself preclude this notion. I have said and I will continue to say that atheism is not a thing, a group, a set of goals. It is not a group of people clamouring for their world view to be adopted, since it is not a world-view. It comes close to be meaninglessness as air comes to being an ocean breeze. Indeed, the harshest critiques of labelling arises from amongst the “upper” echelons of the pursuit of reason.
Sam Harris in his address at Atheist Alliance in 2007, picks up on this theme of racism and atheism too, when he states:
Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves. So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” … “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.”
We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.
No doubt, my dear readers, some of you will already have objections to this. Whilst I am not dealing with atheism in general, the application to ex-Muslim can be seen as a two-pronged defence: To labeling ourselves atheists and maintaining the use of ex-Muslim.
The main reason: No, there is no such thing as non-racism. But there was a very prominent, destructive, irrational and un-evidential claim known as racism. But we can not deny the activism of “black consciousness”; No reasonable person today would support my country’s history of apartheid. Yet during that time, people proudly – but sometimes in secrete for fear of reprisal – called themselves “anti-apartheid activists”. Yet would any of us today call ourselves “anti-apartheid”? Well, yes, if there was an apartheid to oppose.
Similarly, the tide must turn with faith. I believe it must be eradicated, for good if we are to even grasp at the near-infinite beauty of a good life. No: We do not call ourselves non-astrologers, as Harris states. Nonetheless, just as it needed activism to render most people’s accepted world-view of “race” into something aversive, I think it will take such “activism” to render faith into the vice it is. But this is for another article.
I believe, then, that the use of reason effectively dealt with racism, such that only stragglers and madmen could present themselves proudly as racists today. Similarly, with faith: It too is a great retardation of intelligence. But one so great that even those who do not have “faith” sometimes think it must be sacred, left to its own devices, “it’s not harming anyone” (those I call IDGAFS1).
And a form of faith that has coiled into a great fist, smashing the ground beneath our feet, is Islam. All religions have their horrors and their extremists, no one denies this. Essentially, it is our main point in critiquing it: Religion is man-made. That must be religion’s most salient and nocuous property.
And no more so demonstrated than through the repugnant, almost childish knee-jerk reactions from fundamentalist Muslims. Having unwoven the threads of caustic intellectual abuse, by the hands of the vice of faith, I can finally step back to see this for what it is. But there are no woods to step out of to see trees of respect, love, or reason. Faith would have us cover our eyes and just nod to shadows. Islam, being what it is, as dangerous as it is, would send those shadows out to fight. It is time to fight back.
We know what a terrible darkness such shadows of truth hold.
The Triumph of Reason
I can admit something I was never very proud of before: I do not think I ever truly believed in a god or afterlife. Along with probably most of you, I am the addressee of Pascal’s Pensées: He who is so made that he can not believe. I learnt the Quran – and still know it – from beginning to end. I can read and write in Arabic. It is a very beautiful language and the incredible aesthetic beauty of its script no less appealing.
But what does the Quran say? If you had asked me that after I had read it the first time, then proceeded to memorise it, I would have stared at you blankly.
As we speak, there are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, comprising 22% of world. The results may vary but we can assume this: There’s a lot. Of those, I’m an uncertain how many of those are children of Muslim parents (did you flinch when you thought of “Muslim children”?). We can safely say though that millions of children around the world are taught to read, learn and recite in Arabic without understanding a word they’re saying.
I did not know I was reading this, when I recited:
98:6 Lo! those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture and the idolaters, will abide in fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings.
88:23-24 But whoso is averse and disbelieveth /Allah will punish him with direst punishment.
These are mere tips of growing icebergs, as fundamentalists freeze ancient ideas into growing pandemics of destruction.
Perhaps your own thoughts can formulate on why it is dangerous to learn in a language you essentially do not speak, to learn sentences you would not condone. I do not condone murder or destruction or harm to any person, yet here I was, learning verses spoken by “Allah Himself” (via Jibreel, to Muhammad, to the scribes, to etc.). Who was I to question my duty as a Muslim?
I attended seven madrassas. At each one, I was physically abused by the jaded jackals of god’s word. If we did not pronounce certain Arabic letters correctly, our fingers were bleeding after a good dose of punishment by a cane. We were yelled at, screamed at, hair was torn out in anger as we were not feeling Allah’s power and grace and beauty. It is neither hard nor uncommon to consider such occurences and perhaps that’s what makes it so wrong. A lot of my ex-Muslim friends also went through similar conditions. All this amidst a growing society, fresh from the battle against oppression – a society still licking its war-wounds and scrambling for some semblance of stability.
I neither consider myself scarred, harmed or abused to any great degree. I am neither angry at those men nor wish them harm. In a sense, I thank them for instilling the most powerful seed that resides in the human mind: Doubt.
We all know the foundation for stable thought in analysis begins with Cogito ergo sum. Yet, we must also remember Dubito ergo Cogito (I doubt, therefore I think), THEN Cogito ergo sum. I found myself wondering, if god’s love is so great, his power so immense, why do I constantly feel nothing but the biting cain against my knuckles?; Why do I feel nothing but paper when I touch the Quran?; and where is that rapturous experience that exudes from all the imams and mullahs I had interacted with?
It was then that stumbled across the most important book in my life: The Satanic Verses. It was to render that doubt into reason, to turn my apathy into action and so stabilise why I think being an outspoken ex-Muslim is important…
1. Idgafs are not necessarily “not giving a frack”, as the term suggests, but they are primarily nonbelievers who treat faith as something that should not be attacked, mocked, criticised, or at least attempted to be understood using emotion. Most nonbelievers I know are like this, even though they would be supporting me in any other area to promote reason.
“Freedom of thought,” says the philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, “is the only good more important than peace. Without it, peace would be another word for servility.” This is the basis for the first amendment in the American constitution; itself formulated from the thoughts from the man who perhaps coined the term “United States of America”, namely the great Thomas Paine.
As Paine wrote in Common Sense:
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
Those last words are resounding and might be the distant echo to the so-called Rushdie Affair. The “defense of custom” seems to have become the staple diet for the majority. We have fought so long and so hard for tolerance that we tolerate the intolerant; We defend their customs and their ideas which themselves are based on bullying strategies that renders a cloud of protection on “men of faith”. When someone who is not of the cloth utters that the 2007 floods in Northern Yorkshire are a deity’s judgments on homosexuality, as the then Archbishop of Carlyle, Graham Dow, did, we would think them insane. But because he has archbishop next to his name we are meant to “respect” such barbaric, backward and unhelpful thoughts.
Recently, my friend the great Johann Hari has faced a horrible string of threats, underpinned by death, fear and Islam. He alerted his faithful readership to the horrid poison, weaving a noose within the veins of equality in the UN. Islamic countries are demanding that we respect their hideous misogynist notions of shari’ah, to steer clear of criticising an illiterate pedophile who flew on horses to heaven, and to never raise reason as an ecumenical notion for everyone.
They are demanding this because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the right to free-speech, free-thought. This logically means the ability to criticise openly any and all ideas. The only thing that the UDHR even alludes to being “sacred”, in the normative sense of the word, is the unified human spirit to unite without superstitious, overzealous boundaries. Muslims fear this, as Hari correctly highlight, because it would mean that young people would do the one thing all religions fear: THINK FOR THEMSELVES.
“Sapere Aude (Dare to know)!” says Kant in his essay on the Enlightenment. ” ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’ – that is the motto for the Enlightenment.” Islam – and all religions – would quiver under such scrutiny. The use of intellect is hardly encouraged unless it is in accordance with Allah’s will. Everything is supposed to be through Allah; but everything includes good and bad, right and wrong, evil and misconceptions. So wouldn’t this religion, which is mistakenly called a “religion of peace” by many world leaders, cherish such open-mindedness? Why then the fear of Enlightenment values?
Because then the foundations would fail, it would flounder and like a hydra dying and frothing red beneath the sea, it would sink into the bottom depths of our history. Muslims realise this. They realise their grips would falter on the minds of their flock; so much so that they are willing to arrest the Indian editors of Hari’s article.
How could Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha be arrested for publishing Hari’s article? Because hurting religious feelings is part of the Indian penal code. Under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code it forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”. The irony rests in the double-standards. And what religions are included in section 295A? Why some religions, Islam, but not others, Norse or Roman? And, of course, what about those who are outraged but are not religious? Why do we never get any “special treatment” for our “feelings”?
Boo-hoo, my childish Islamic friends. Your feelings were hurt? Shame. I can tell you exactly why those of us without religion neither have any law against offending us, in India (and most places), and more importantly, why we usually don’t fight for one: Because we believe in the freedom of open criticism. We believe in the right to express any ideas, in a rational, open way.
This means I do not care whether you worship Zeus, Allah, or Yahweh: If it makes you happy, go ahead. If it consoles, by all means do it. But you can not demand me to respect such ideas and to not criticise them. I am open to you criticising my ideas, any of them. I will not be privy to respecting any ideas just to make the faithful happy. To quote Hari:
[A] free society cannot be structured to soothe the hardcore faithful. It is based on a deal. You have an absolute right to voice your beliefs – but the price is that I too have a right to respond as I wish. Neither of us can set aside the rules and demand to be protected from offence.
Whilst we writers against religion limit ourselves to words, our antagonists would find vent in bullets. Whilst we would change and let the plateau of equality be the ground on which we all walk, Muslims would have the high-ground to censure equal human rights. They would rather we shut up and step away from hurting their poor feelings.
I support Hari in his criticisms, as is apparent. Hari had every right to write what he liked, as did people in my country’s past. Consider that Steve Biko’s book is entitled I Write What I Like. I even support the freedom to write tripe like creationist or Holocaust-denial literature. Because scientists and historians can then openly criticise and point out the flaws in the creationist and “revisionist” literature. I don’t believe in banning books or writers or the stultification – in fact, my life is dedicated to fighting for anyone to say anything, in an open minded, discursive way.
Not so for the religious, as this reaction to Hari’s article displays. If that is not a sign of backward thinking, pointing away from the path of reason into the dark woods of dogma, then I am not sure what is. Perhaps the Quran and its horrible statements of death to infidels (“Kill them where ye find them!”)? Perhaps the terror Muslims invoke, when we draw cartoons of their Prophet, or the death-threats when a Teddy-bear is named after him?
I want us all to be amenable to change, criticism and open to ideas. This is a grownup way to look at the world. But the neotony inherent in our species finds vent in that which is itself a product of our mind’s infancy. Consider this bounder, called Abdus Subhan, who “[was] prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet [against Hari]” and Hari should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol … He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”
But why not? We need to all grow up and face the fact that many things will “offend” us. We are diverse and diversity inculcates a sense of realisation of many different things. So, using “that offends me” as a reason and argument to cease that which causes offence, is no grounds at all for it to cease. Before you think me venturing into the territory of cultural relativism, I mean it simply according with what we understand to be human rights, personal autonomy, the right to liberty, freedom of thought, and so on.
I stand by what I write here as I stand by Johann Hari. Muslims should be more horrified at me, someone who was once Muslim, now admonishing them; I deserve their scorn and outrage more than someone who won the Amnesty International Newspaper Journalist of the Year (2007). Please let us all grow up, face the beauty of the world and time we have. Muslims must realise that we are fighting for them and their freedom as much as anyone else. The ones who suffer the most from the dogmatic assertions of clerical bullying are other Muslims.
We want everyone to be free, we want everyone to have the right to liberty and freedom. Let the ashes of dogma settle to allow some growth of a newfound liberation and reasoned tolerance. If we hurt each others feelings so be it. But that does not mean we are allowed to kill, arrest or maim each other. Growing up and opening our eyes means we see and experience more, which means more opportunity for pain. But it also means more opportunity for growth. Like trees entwined at the roots, our growth rests in each other. The faster we all severe our ties from celestial propitiation, the faster our own lives can be rendered to soar with freedom and openness
I know this will do nothing to stop or cease Muslim’s anger. It might incite more. But, I will quote Paine again to finish. Immediately after the first line I quoted above, he says:
But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
Let it be so.