Friday, May 8, 2015

A Former Apologist on Free Speech & Tribalism

I've disliked religion for a very long time now. Since I was in my mid-teens I knew it wasn't something I wanted to participate in. Shedding the concept of god took a bit longer...but I certainly wanted to define it for myself. After early childhood, I never perceived 'god' as the traditional arrogant, punish-y creator who only wanted to be worshipped all the time.

Regardless of my individualistic thinking about this, it took a while to let go of my instinct to see things in a tribal manner. It was always 'my people' versus 'other people'. And perhaps it was the consistent demonization of who I was, based on my non-religious views... or my non-traditional appearance, that helped me realize I belonged to no tribe but the human one.

Being a Pakistani child, raised in Saudi Arabia left me feeling like I never really belonged in Pakistan. My upbringing in Saudi was too westernized for me to ever fit in, in my motherland. I have never felt more alien anywhere else, in fact. Yet I shared the same pigmentation, the same struggles with a strict, patriarchal culture, the same language, the same history.... I didn't belong in Saudi because they have strict rules putting foreigners in their place. We have no rights there, regardless of how many years we call it home. My siblings were born there, and knew no other place, but Saudi ..they were still told at every step that they were foreigners. It's kind of hard to feel a sense of belonging in a place like that.

In teenage years, I searched for my tribe through subculture. The place I fit in terms of interests and ideas was predominantly white. Dog collars and fishnets, were fun for self-exploration...the 'goth' subculture gave me a huge sense of belonging when I needed it most in young adulthood. But I was still the 'token' brown girl. Despite many in the 'scene' having similar values and ways of thinking to mine, no one really understood the struggles of belonging to a culture like mine.

When we moved to Canada, I felt like I was home for the first time in my life. Only because my city (Toronto) embraces the diversity I've always been accustomed to (as an expat amongst other various expats). Anyway, I digress... my point is, that these constant instances of 'unbelonging' everywhere helped me dismantle my tribal feelings. It took a while, and I still have feelings I recognize but try not to cave to.

In situations where 'your group' is being satirized/ridiculed by another, it's hard to take a step back and see if the ridicule is justified or not. I get that, I've been's especially complex when you live in the West and belong to an otherwise marginalized group - and if you still subscribe to the dangerously outdated ideas of any mindcontrol religious ideology, it's even harder to open your mind.

I remember thinking in the early 2000's when I first heard of her, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali's criticism of Islam (despite disliking the ideology myself, and agreeing with her critique) was harsh, because it exposed an oppressed group to further criticism. But --I mean.. certain practices, certain ideas need to be criticized regardless of who is perpetuating them, right? A minority in one regard is an oppressor in another. It is important to speak out against all forms of oppression.

I also felt Denmark was in the wrong to publish and adamantly defend cartoons like the bomb-turban Mohammed. Was it the place of 'privileged white people' to criticize something brown people held dear?

Of course I recognized the attempts at killing were horrific, the rioting was disproportionate and misdirected. I so wished that 'my people' could respond in a more intelligent, responsible manner. Draw cartoons, or write articles in retaliation instead of the embarrassing behaviour that was displayed by many Muslims time and time again. However, I also felt like it was especially wrong of Ayaan and others to critique on a global stage. Surely, these were problems she could voice internally within the Muslim community. Even though I hadn't identified as a Muslim myself for years, I still felt like she was unfair in telling the world about 'our' negative spots.

How naive I was. No... Ayaan, could not take it up internally within the community. Obviously, she would be killed for even trying. Anyone that raises their voice from within - in any at the very least, collectively shunned (I would soon learn this for myself). Any critic, or any challenger of Islam is shut down on many fronts. You'll lose liberal Western support in this regard for standing up for women's rights (bizarre, I know), you'll lose progressive Muslim support too. You're basically left with conservatives, anti-immigrants and conspiracy theorists as allies. This happens because many of us internalize blasphemy concepts to some degree...if we perceive someone as challenging something 'sacred', even with the most valid reasons, we just cannot offer support. We don't like to hurt people's feelings, even if that means politely tolerating homophobia, misogyny, oppression.

At large, we are taught to think of imperialism as a white-on-colour occurrence. Rarely do we acknowledge the Arab imperialism spreading throughout the Muslim world, even today.

The things about Islam people oppose, are usually issues that one cannot stay silent on, especially (as in Ayaan's case) if one has experienced something like FGM (female genital mutilation) firsthand. This not about 'us vs. them' - this is about getting the struggles heard by as many people as that we may be able to create change. It doesn't matter what stage someone is speaking about wrongs on, because wrong is wrong. I realize that now. As more doors close, critics of one certain religion are left with less avenues to express themselves. Even usual critics of religion turn their backs - which is hypocritical, because the power that Jesus and Christianity once held have been disassembled through questioning, satire, ridicule, debate and freedom. They will not allow us this privilege somehow.


Admittedly, back when I was slightly offended at the bomb-turban Mohammed cartoon, I didn't know enough about Islam to recognize that there was indeed a very violent streak to the Prophet. I didn't see it as justifiable mockery, because I had mostly heard the good parts of Mo. That's really the only way so many progressive, otherwise liberal people defend the ideology or its prophet. It's out of ignorance, or even worse, wilful blindness.

I didn't believe in Islam myself for basic reasons, but I didn't want to be told that the ideology my entire family put their trust in was rotten at the core. That was hard to make peace with, despite my already existing disbelief.

As I tried to make sense of my own conflicted feelings on the matter of 'ridiculing' what others hold sacred... I read up, untangled the knots...the excuses and apologia unraveled automatically. I threw my relativism out the window, and realized that intolerance should never be tolerated.

That's basically what the opposition of free speech is - an intolerance for opposing ideas. Even if ideas are loathsome we must allow them room to exist. We can choose not to promote those ideas or participate in their perpetuation, we can frown upon them...but we should acknowledge their right to be. I mean, the KKK are a part of the ideascape in the Western world, as awful as they are - it's great that they identify themselves by speaking up, so we know who the racist bigots are amongst us.

I was one of those "Freedom of speech is so important, and murder is obviously vile --- but, why do people even want to offend others?" kind of people. I always saw oppression in terms of skin colour...somehow failed to recognize my own constant oppression by an otherwise "oppressed" group. Being different was not acceptable and I just internalized that that's how it was meant to be. I wasn't an equal perhaps because *I* chose to dissent. I was basically told by Muslim society to be silent unless I agreed, or else be killed, shunned or rejected. I thought that was ok somehow...

I fell into the liberal Western blindspot as well, of not critiquing minority religions, especially after 9-11 because so many of my family members were mistreated or targeted for their race, or religion. Again, these things are not mutually exclusive; one can be against generalizing of all muslims *and* the doctrine of Islam simultaneously.


One thing I never did was turn away from facts or evidence, deny or misrepresent things deliberately to make my point (as is the case with people who scream about Charlie Hebdo being racist). If someone presented me with evidence contradicting my own opinions, I looked into it and was happy to admit I was wrong. Perhaps why my apologist phase didn't last too long.

And I'm always open to being proven wrong, there's plenty to learn. The second you think you know it all is when you're in trouble.


Something that really brought the importance of freedom of speech into perspective was when I started writing and drawing publicly myself. Even the most benign stuff got me threats, and as I've said before, that was the time I lost my will to pretend. I no longer wanted to appease a group that would rather let me get death threats for standing up for them, than stand up for me.

 Salman Rushdie's comments to the writers who withdrew from supporting PEN really drive this point home:

“What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

There's really nothing like getting threats yourself, for writing or drawing to truly understand how important freedom of speech is. But it shouldn't take that...even back in the day, despite being offended at Mo cartoons, I always argued for their freedom to be able to do it. I always argued that we should aim for a time when our community could respond in a more mature manner, perhaps with other drawings and less death and riots. Even in my apologist phase, I never said they shouldn't have the freedom to draw what they wanted...I just wondered why it was important to poke at the sensitive nerve for Muslims. I know now.

It's important because too many Muslims oppress/kill/silence anyone who dares to criticize their beloved ideology, the victims are mostly other Muslims. We need to disarm anything that thinks it's above questioning. It's important because too many innocents are killed for *false* accusations of blasphemy, it's important so we may move on as a society and realize that murder or violence is not an appropriate response to silencing our opponents (only valid, rational points should be used to silence - and they work quite effectively). It's important because more people need to know that both sides; peaceful and hateful exist in the 'religion of peace' - so people may have informed opinions. It's important because of the immense power Islam holds in Muslim countries. It's important because bloggers like Raif Badawi cannot create a simple blog for secular discussion without getting jailed and flogged. It's important because people in our countries celebrate murderers over the murdered. All this must change...this is why it's important. This is why drawing Mohammed specifically is important, because drawing Jesus or Ganesh doesn't get people killed. It's important so people may begin to ask questions about 'why Mohammed?' and look into his character more. It's important because there are still progressives out there who think racial oppression trumps religious oppression. Some think they are mutually exclusive and you cannot be against both.

It's important because religion.. all of it... needs to be questioned - too many humans blindly put their faith in it. It's important because an instance from Mo's life was used to justify the killing of 132 children in Pakistan last December.

It's important.


More next time on free speech, Charlie Hebdo, the Garland Shooting and the confusion surrounding it all...

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  1. Keep blogging -- we need all the ex-Muslim voices we can get right now.

  2. Great article, you bring up really excellent points. One thing I kept thinking while reading was how is any human supposed to grow, learn, reject, accept or come up with something on their own if they don't question faith or belief? Not questioning anything means the end of free thought.