Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Forbidden Intersectionality: Liberal + (Ex) Muslim

Some of you may have seen my interview on Cracked recently. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak on a larger platform. Below is a blogpost thats basically an extension of my thoughts from there:


Being of Muslim background in the West right this Trumpian, 'rising far right' era is tough enough as it is....but being a secular, non-religious person of Muslim background is a whole other level of fucked up at the moment...

So many of us thought there weren't others like us, questioning Islam, questioning conservatism in our communities...because these things just aren't talked about. The risks are too great especially if you're living in a Muslim majority country like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia (the two places I've lived).

And when, through the internet, we found each secular/agnostic/atheist types of Muslim background were just so relieved that there were others...that there was a growing voice for us...that we banded together on something that doesn't tell you much about a person's values: rejecting/challenging religion. the political climate changes in the West, we see the cracks in the ex/reformist Muslim movement more obviously than ever. There are those of us who were coming at it from the angle of opposing conservatism, rightwingery whatever form it may take, and others who were specifically only opposing Islam. As a result the people who prioritize opposing Islam alone, are happy now to side with the Western right. Some even going as far as joining anti-Muslim movements, the alt-right, supporting Trump, etc.

Back in the old country, expressing doubt about religion or challenging cultural boundaries can mean serious consequences. At the very least resulting in alienation and being ostracized, disowned, ex communicated (we are not free from this consequence in the West either) ....and at worst it means things like blasphemy accusations, death.  So I do understand where the anger and bitterness some have is coming from (I don't excuse it, but I can see what created it).

This taboo and loneliness surrounding Islamic apostasy is also why finding others simply to align with you on this one thing feels so big, that almost nothing else matters.

However, as more and more of us come out and express ourselves, we begin to see the diversity among Islam's apostates too.

Still we are often lumped in as one, and even at times put on an unnecessary pedestal in the western atheist scene when discussing Islam. I hate to be the one to say it, but ex-Muslims can be wrong in their assessments and opinions of Islam too, like anyone else. And if they are allying with the Dave Rubin's and Kekistanis of this world then it's increasingly important to see beyond the 'ex Muslim = they're infallible when it comes to speaking about Islam' view. Ex-Muslims too can overshoot in their criticism or overreact, tainting a movement that began with thoughtful critique.

Yes the stigma and risks that come with apostasy in Islam are high and frightening. I'm a living example of how high the stakes are, I have to work under a pseudonym to feel safe.

But at the same time, it's important to keep in mind that things aren't always that intolerant and there are all types of people in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia too, people who are struggling to be heard - further silencing them with generalizations is not only unjust but also counterproductive if reducing extremism is the goal. Liberal, accepting-of-apostasy Muslim families do exist there, but sadly in small numbers. It is voices from those minorities that need to be empowered...but so rarely are.

Instead, the narrative that Muslims are always conservative rules the airwaves in the West, be it left or right leaning media.

Yes...there are crazy mullahs saying ridiculous, vile, intolerant things (often focused on by the right) ....and yes there are hijabi women who need our solidarity (often focused on by the left), but Muslim existence isn't limited to these simple caricatures - yet most representation of them is (and no, I'm not drawing a moral equivalence between vile intolerant mullahs and peaceful conservative Muslim women who wear a headscarf).

It's been incredibly hard to break that mould...and the few instances of people trying to represent the more secular, liberal types of Muslim existence are met with a huge amount of resistance from all across the political spectrum. I mean....we already have so much to deal with from within the community, that tacking on these external battles, simply for a foothold... for a place to say "I'm here, and I exist"...are disheartening and exhausting.

As if dealing with angry Mullah’s against fun and freedom wasn’t hard enough!

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The left, the rightMuslims and non Muslims too, can all be hurdles for secular, liberal and progressive Muslims.

This is so incredibly untrue, as secular, liberal portrayals of Muslims are only
just starting to break through into the mainstream. While we have a whole
host of characters that play the token religious character, or 'the terrorist', etc. 

There's really no winning as a 'secular Muslim'.
People want to shove you into a box with extremists and nothing will stop them.

"Why don't Muslims tolerate apostasy, it's outrageous!" - well here's a Muslim woman
expressing support for people who have left the faith, and this is what she has to hear.

Why Don't Muslims fight for LGBT rights? Some do. And when it's not the western far right trying
to get them to adhere to a literalist interpretation of Islam, it's a Muslim right-winger who wants to drag them back.

Muslims lie. There you have it. Because lying is totally unique to Muslims.
There really is no winning. As a liberal+Muslim, someone always turns up
to either discredit that you're truly liberal or that you're truly Muslim.
And thus, 'Forbidden intersectionality'. 


As an ex-Muslim, I still very much consider myself a part of the Muslim community - like any secular Jew or Christian would consider themselves connected through culture, shared history, family, holidays, etc. Never before has my need to identify and stand in solidarity with the Muslim community felt more pronounced, than in a time Muslim registries and Muslim bans are casually being spoken of in mainstream discourse. 

This is truly terrifying for anyone of Muslim background. 

When it comes to things like the registry or being barred from entering the US, I don’t think secular, non-believer status matters. And when it comes to hate crimes, I'm pretty sure no one will bother checking how devout you are, either.

In fact, there have been many victims of anti-Muslim hate crime that just happened to have brown skin, or weren’t even remotely Muslim

All this certainly complicates things for those of us from within who do have legitimate critiques of the community and of Islamic fundamentalism. How do we demand progress in a political climate rife with anti-Muslim sentiment?

Battling Homophobia in a Muslim context

The orthodoxy Islam still commands worldwide in its adherents is unmatched by most other mainstream religions in the 21st century. For example the countries that still carry a potential death penalty for homosexuality are largely Muslim

Three years ago I wrote and illustrated an anti-homophobia children’s book set in Pakistan, called My Chacha (uncle) is Gay (you can get a copy here).

As I mentioned in my Cracked interview,

"I was delighted when it got picked up by some schools in the Toronto area and was used as a resource for The Day of Pink (which is an anti bullying initiative)."

The book was read out in classrooms and assemblies, and the response was incredibly supportive at first. Then, as parents 'discovered' that not only were their children read an LGBT-positive book *gasssp* ...but were read one set in Pakistan, the outrage began. 

Many claimed it was an assault on their religion, and a misrepresentation of it. Some said I was attacking the moral fibre of the ‘Muslim family', I received countless death and rape threats. Some referred to me as Wajb ul Qatal - 'worthy of killing’, they wished STD’s and Sharia punishments of being 'stoned to death' upon my *fictional* character Chacha.

This went on for quite some time. 

The most amusing comments called me 'Satan’s daughter' or compared my children's book's evilness -evels to that of Salman Rushdie’s notorious Satanic Verses! I am not worthy, but I’ll take the compliment with pride.

In Toronto a radio show broadcasted calls from angry parents, punctuated with a few obligatory calls from people defending the book. Some parents threatened to sue the school board, and predictably the LGBT supporting liberal school board backed away from such a book. It was never used in an official capacity again.

There were warnings being circulated on Islamic sites that people should protect their children from corruption, as they too could be exposed to this gay-turning, soul-sucking 15 line picture book.

As I said on Cracked,

"Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) published a blog post claiming that the school board was the one bullying parents into teaching their kids about LGBT diversity. I was branded an ‘Islamophobe’ and that was it - a resource that many children/teachers enjoyed and found useful was no longer available."

When Muslim communities have problems with integration or accepting values like being LGBT positive, the way to tackle that would be precisely through such resources. But often in the face of accusations of Islamophobia even books about love and tolerance are tossed out as controversial. It's the kids who lose out the most.

Just recently, a conservative Islamic lecturer discovered my book and posted about it's 'evil agenda', sending a fresh new batch of threats and haters my way.

(click to enlarge)

On the other side of this battle right wing non-Muslims accused me of trying to ‘sanitize homophobia’ in Islam and said that nice gay uncles like this simply didn’t exist in Pakistan, that I was painting a rosy picture of what it was like to be gay in a Muslim country, that Chacha would have been stoned to death in reality. I mean…it was a fictional children’s book, thus obviously simplified to a great degree. It's incredibly frustrating that If ever people from the Muslim world are challenging things and pushing boundaries the Western right often wants to pull them back to standards that Islamists would be proud of. 

For one side I was an Islamophobe, for the other a sanitizer of Sharia. And that pretty much encapsulates what it's like to discuss Islam as a liberal (ex) Muslim nowadays, caught between a rock and a hard place. 

It's like walking a point out there's homophobia in Muslim culture and you risk that being grabbed and used by people who want to ban Muslims.

What do you do, when stuck at this impossible junction... Being liberal and Muslim is unacceptable...invisible even.

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It simply doesn't fit the narrative - but being liberal and ex muslim is also an overlap that many days, seems unmaintainable.

Often, you are not accepted by fellow liberals in the west (because Islamophobic) or you're not accepted by those who are interested in critiques of Islam because those circles are increasingly becoming anti-sjw, anti-feminist, anti-left...

Having few and mild opinions about the Western far-right is appreciated by many in the audience that will inevitably be drawn to you for your criticism of Islam. They usually tell you to stfu about Trump ...and accuse you of Taqqiya (an obscure concept in Islam which I only heard about in the West) if you don't, because they want to get to the 'good stuff'...the part where you confirm their ideas about generalizing Muslim immigrants, and act as a shield from accusations of bigotry.

We-ell thats not gonna happen with me....and I can't seem to keep quiet about Dave Rubin and Gad Saad, Peterson, Shermer...I certainly won't be going on Breitbart or Rebel Media to talk about how there's no place for Islam on the planet. So.....that leaves me walking a rather lonely path....and as you can read in my tweet above, often has me wondering what my place is in all this. If it's even worth it to try and counter the avalanche of bs, that seems to be coming from within the ex-Muslim like, 'Islam can't be reformed', 'there's no place for it on the planet', 'Islam is worse than Nazism.'

I mean, at this point the discussion really seems to have left the grown up table.

The Term Islamophobia Adds to the Confusion

The waters are so muddied, that the term really does more harm than good. Allowing any criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, homophobia, etc. to be labelled as 'Islamophobia', gives right wing fundamentalist Muslims a chance to shield the religion from valid criticism. It's essentially the same thing as right wing Christians trying to shield their religion from criticism. Think of the absurdity of the 'War on Christmas' to get a feel for how 'Islamophobia' sounds to us. That's why I prefer the more precise term, 'anti-Muslim bigotry'. The problem is not theological criticisms of Islam or criticisms of literalist interpretations, it is the generalizations, hatred and fear-mongering around Muslims.

Seeing the confusion surrounding this, the Western far-right swoops in to claim that "Islamophobia" isn't real even when its being used to describe blatant anti-Muslim bigotry. The cries of "Islam is not a race", while technically true...ring hollow in a climate where brown people are targeted based on their skin colour and appearance.

And thus the cycle of confusion continues.

As anti-muslim sentiment skyrockets, the emboldened far-right uses this opportunity to gain more support. As the Western far right lashes out at Muslims, the Muslim far-right uses that opportunity to also gain more support.

And the rest of us, are well and truly fucked by them both.

The Hijab Debate

The Hijab is a hot topic, both within Muslim circles and outside. Well-meaning Western liberals tend to overcompensate in their desire to make Muslims feel accepted and can end up championing conservatism from our communities. This is particularly tricky now, because Muslim women are in actuality being attacked for their modesty garments. So in the West, it's not exactly on the same footing as opposing something like a Christian purity ball or virginity pledge - though it largely comes from the same place and regard for women.

As a woman who grew up in a theocracy, Saudi Arabia, I was forced to wear modesty garments by the state and have encountered "morality police" on several occasions. I have seen them hit my mother's ankle with a cane for letting her headscarf slip. The memories are not pleasant.

So...for me, it's rather distasteful to see the constant celebration of modesty garb. It leaves me feeling very isolated from my fellow liberals, who I assumed would stand with me in opposing body-shaming of women in my culture too. Simultaneously, I can understand that it has become hard to oppose a garment that is causing women to be targeted.

My personal solution to this is that I stand in solidarity with hijab and niqab wearing Muslims when it comes to bigots singling them out because they are visibly Muslim. But I still vehemently oppose the concept of a requirement for women to cover up so as not to invoke lust.

Both things can and should be done together. One can show solidarity with hijabis without championing the hijab as some great symbol of liberation, which it clearly isn't, as many Muslim girls and women continue to be forced into modesty against their will.

The Media gives little coverage to Muslims who don't 'Look like Muslims'

There is so much noise around supporting the hijab that non hijabi Muslim women are drowned out. This results in a very one dimensional coverage, that yet again perpetuates the stereotype that 'Muslim' is synonymous with 'conservative Muslim'. Even Playboy Magazine isn't immune to this and had to get in on the hijab celebration!

Another example of this misguided support is the Shepard Fairey poster from the Women's March.

An admittedly powerful, iconic poster of a woman in a US flag hijab was displayed as part of a series. It was seen as a symbol of resistance, as the 'anti-Trump'. But it's hard for women like me to get behind one form of conservative symbolism to oppose another form of conservatism. So I created some artwork accompanied by a short audio message explaining that we do indeed need to show solidarity with hijabi Muslim women, but perhaps this wasn't the best method since there are many connotations to such a garment, not all positive

Despite my clearly liberal sentiments and disclaimers that it was not to be used by people spreading hate towards Muslims, despite my opposition to Trump expressed in the audio message the post was widely retweeted by Trump fan accounts as well.

It seems there's almost nothing we can do to prevent this.

Either you suffer in silence under the homophobic, misogynistic Islamic far-right, or you risk emboldening the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant Western one. 

In fact both LGBT and women's rights in Islamic countries are causes appropriated by the Western far-right now. In Alt-Right/Lite circles, you'll see gay rights used as a white nationalist tactic, it's deeply concerning and sinister that an ideology so troubling can be dressed up as 'human rights'.

They use these things as a cudgel, a mere pretext to bash Muslims with.

The trick is to express a faux-concern over these things not being up to par in the Islamic world, while having little regard for the same in your own part of the world. I cannot tell you how many Western anti-feminists champion women's rights when it comes to Islam, but will callously tell Western rape victims that they are privileged because at least they don't live under Sharia. 

Difficult Dualities

Whether it's accusations of Islamophobia or fears of emboldening anti-Muslim hate, either way, we are silenced. Just like any culture we too should be able to criticize our own, without being branded sell-outs, traitors or Islamophobes.

Except there is one problem.

In this complex political climate there *is* an actual loss of credibility too, which I covered in my interview;

"As more and more Muslim Reformers/Ex Muslims either get on the Trump Train, defend the Muslim Ban or join the Alt Right."

And on the left, secular, liberal Muslims continue to not be adequately represented. This tips the scales massively towards high-visibility of right-wing critics of Islam. 

Well known Ex-Muslim Breitbart Editor, Raheem Kassam, has said things like "If Merkel took a million rapey migrants, Hillary will take 20 million"

We also have the 'red-pilled' ex-Muslim types, who believe no Muslims are peaceful.

Now I as an ex-Muslim can tell you, that this is not representative of *all* ex-Muslims obviously, and there are many compassionate, progressive people among us. But the movement has taken an undeniable rightward turn without many denouncing the bad actors that are nudging the movement further towards Pepe

This is definitely not what I signed up for. 

YouTube shows that regularly feature alt right/lite figures will also court ex and reformist Muslims to come and criticize Islam from their platforms. 

When you go on Breitbart, or Rebel Media to criticize Islam - how can you complain that the Left won't take your voice seriously.

Credibility is a two way street. 

I would urge my fellow liberals to not champion Islamic conservatism and I would urge my fellow ex-Muslims to not prove critics of the ex-Muslim and Islamic reform movements correct by allying with the Western right and supporting/downplaying things like the Muslim Ban. 

This rightward shift of Islam critics has even produced a Trump-supporting, anti-multiculturalism Imam, would you believe it?  

2017, what a year!

The Imam once put out an 11-step plan to crack down on Wahhabism, a literalist and harsh interpretation of Islam. It sounds reasonable in theory, but reads more like an authoritarian plan to put ordinary Muslims under strict surveillance. Australian media has dubbed him the 'Fake Sheikh' 

 ABC states,

 "...Unsurprisingly, Tawhidi's tales about Sunni Muslims' shadowy plot to instate Caliphate have been enthusiastically embraced by the far-Right, including Reclaim Australia. Perhaps less expected is the extent to which Tawhidi himself has courted such groups. In the lead-up to last year's federal election, he made offerings of roses to roadside anti-Muslim Liberty Alliance and One Nation posters, as if the face of Pauline Hanson belonged not to Australia's most recognisable anti-Islam campaigner, but a titian-haired deity."


He throws around terms like 'Fake News' and 'Lying Left' - reminiscent of Trump himself. 

It's no surprise the term 'red-pilled Muslim' is also seen in comments from his fans. I honestly never thought I'd see that combination of words, but 2017 is full of surprises. 

I hope that one day, just like Sam Bee or The Daily Show, progressive Muslims can earnestly push for change without getting lumped in with or enticed by those with an anti-Muslim agenda. 

Islam is not a monolith, neither are its adherents nor its critics. Just like Islam can be interpreted and practised in a million different ways so too can criticism of it come from different angles and politics. It's important to be aware of the general Trump-era anti-Muslim climate, but its also important not to erase the few secular, liberal and progressive Muslims that exist. 

Recognize that people in my position are fighting a battle against bigotry from all angles. 


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