Listen and judge: an interview on Islam, cultural pluralism, and the future of secularism

http://nothingismere.com/2013/10/28/listen-and-judge-an-interview-with-marwa-berro/

I’ve been meaning to write about the recent Washington DC meetup that I attended with members of the ex-Muslim and secular communities and Richard Dawkins. I’ve also wanted to write a little bit about the goals and struggles of the ex-Muslim cause, but unfortunately haven’t gotten around to either thing.

Luckily, Robby Bensinger of Nothing is Mere decided to interview me on all of these topics and more.

Some things I discuss are: personal identity as ex-Muslim and Muslimish, the particular challenges facing both secularism and the critique of religion, the needs and plights of ex-Muslims as whole, and specific talking points from the Ex-Muslim-Dawkins meetup in DC.

Here is an excerpt:

First, the identity of ex-Muslim: I refer to Islam, something I’ve rejected, to personally describe myself. While it might be confusing, I find this incredibly meaningful.

Because in shedding Islamic doctrine I have not freed myself of its influence on me. I can remove the hijab as clothing but I can’t so easily remove its decade-and-a-half influence on my body and mind. Its residual effects live within me in the form of memories, concepts, questions and challenges related to body image, bodily autonomy, self-worth, gender identity, sexuality and objectification. They live with me as active, probing, burning matters. They are internal struggles I bear myself through and external battles I commit my voice and pen and heart to.

They are the smallest and most everyday of things: My neck exploding in freckles this summer for the first time in my life: how strange it is to see your 24-year-old body do a thing it has never done, how alarming that so simple a capacity in your very skin could be released with a catalyst as common as the sun, how appalling that it has never had the chance to do so, and how the questions and emotions bubble up  from this. Every experience of mine that is new, joyous, painful, meaningful in some way or another resonates in a deep and compelling way with the life I’ve lived, the doctrine and culture that socialized me.

I am not just non-religious. I have shed the skin of a certain religion, and it was a clutching, shaping, smothering, burning, heavy skin, and my being non-religious is defined by pushing myself out of it, and it always will be.

Check out the entire interview over here.

-Marwa

To the gynecologist who gave me a virginity test when I was 18

I don’t know why you did it.

I’ve tried to give you the benefit of the doubt because I couldn’t fathom that the cost of an office visit could be worth it to you, a medical doctor, your role ideally a caretaker, a sworn-in ethical safe-guarder of health. Surely you wanted to be those things at least a little bit, to have become a doctor in the first place.

Surely, too, you had compassion, as a woman.

In the years since, when I turn that day over again and again and again in my head, I’ve thought that maybe you did it because you know that if you had refused, my parents would have taken me elsewhere. That there was a plethora of other doctors and not-doctors who would not bat an eye at parents pushing a young woman before them and demanding a test be given as verdict on her purity, her innocence, her life. Maybe you did it because you did not want me to fall into the hands of a less compassionate person who would not bat their eye, and thus you pretended not to bat yours.

Maybe you just wanted to protect me, to lie for me if necessary.

And although you were truthful, my father certainly did question whether you were lying when you declared me innocent.

I try to convince myself that this is the type of person you were. That you had a calm serenity imbued with sadness, something you’d steeled yourself against because you realized that the lives and safety of young girls were at stake. That you’d trained yourself not to blink, to not express sympathy or solidarity, because you had a conflicted sort of wisdom in line with reality.

I try to convince myself that you wanted, more than anything in the world, to visibly show compassion, to extend your de-gloved hand.

I try to convince myself you could compel yourself to do something of this sort, horrible in concept and utterly invasive and traumatizing in practice, a thing that betrayed your training and your conscience and made it hard for you to look at young faces in the street–you’d do all that, and wrestle with your conscience if it meant avoiding an even greater harm.

I try to convince myself that you were good because you were a woman and you knew that this is how things were and knew that you were as helpless to change things as any of us.

I was watching your face, you understand? I was watching your face as I stood before you trembling with knees weak and undermined from days of cramping in a solitary closet hole. I was fixated on you and nothing else, because you could help me, save me from undergoing this trauma and shame. I stood there, a pillar of mute appeal. I fixated on you, standing before you as I was, a woman so young and so inundated with fear that no word of consent or dissent could leave my lips.

I try to convince myself that you understood what you saw when you looked at my face.

There was impatience in your voice when I waited and stalled and shuffled my feet, unwilling to take my pants off.

Impatience as you said, quickly, quickly, there are other patients waiting.

I replay those words in my head sometimes, and what they imply: This is normal. This is routine. It cycles out, quick, cycle of violation then cycle of cruelty. Quick, quick. It must take its course. To make room for the next.

Sometimes I hear that tone, that impatience, when I’m trying to go to sleep, and I am wrested out of drowsy serenity with a jerking, a violence that can only come from bafflement and betrayal.

And for a moment, I forget to breathe, though it feels my rib cage is being cranked open with the effort of pulling air in, opening up, opening up, opening up…

I hope you never forget my face. I want it burned into your memory just as it was, as I implored you wordlessly, as I hated you, as I stared daggers at you and crossed my ankles over each other.

I hope you remember how tense my body was, how it steeled itself against your hands, my frozen arms extending forming the very Arabic letters that spelled NO. I hope you remember how I turned to stone laying there before you, unfeeling, unreacting, dissident, glaring.

Can a stone be a virgin?

I hope I haunt you.

I doubt you remember me.

But I hope so nonetheless, because that will at least mean that you understand the sanctity of consent, you understand and acknowledge that my parents cannot dictate a violation to my bodily autonomy, that this is not their right and they cannot give you permission based on what is not a right.

Because if you are a woman and a doctor, one who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath and one who routinely is given trust and vulnerability by other women concerning the most intimate of things–

if you are all of that and you do not understand or value and care about that day in your office and others like it–

if you do not understand–

then what hope is there for the rest of us?

The ExMuslim Blogs and the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women project

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Hello folks! I have two important and teeth-chatteringly exciting updates.

A day I’ve been anticipating has finally arrived. I’m excited to announce the unveiling of a unique collaborative effort: The world’s first unified Ex-Muslim blog platform!

Check it out at http://www.exmuslimblogs.com/

The Ex-Muslims of North America has created this website to host several ex-Muslim blogs with various topics, angles, and focuses, including Between a Veil and a Dark Place, in one convenient location.

Here is an excerpt from the blog site’s mission statement:

The EXMNA believe that it is our duty to broadcast the gems of apostate intellectual discourse to the best of our ability, and for this reason we began work on bringing together various Ex-Muslim bloggers to form an apostate blogging community. Apostasy is not a monolithic ideal, and we aim to provide a platform to the wide variety of viewpoints in order to provide a more nuanced understanding of the issues around it.

It is a matter of pride to belong to this brand. It is a matter of pride to be able to say, I have an Ex-Muslim Blog. I’m so excited to continue to work with and within ex-Muslim communities.

It is an honor.

I would also like to announce that soon I’m going to be hosting a series of guest blog posts called Stories From Ex-Muslim Women. It will be a safe and anonymous (if the author so wishes) platform from which to share stories of apostasy.

If you are a woman who has left Islam or has experiences of religious constraint or oppression related to Islam or in Muslim-majority countries, then I invite you to message me with a query for your story.

Note: The below contact form is meant for private queries concerning the Stories from Ex-Muslim Women project. If you would like to leave a *public* blog comment, scroll down and do so in the box marked Leave a reply.

Why growing up in Saudi Arabia was awesome, and why I beg you not to go there

I was just reminiscing with Ali Rizvi about growing up in Saudi Arabia.

We were foreigners, the children of expatriate workers. We lived in Saudi Arabia at different times; he is far older than I am, and he left in ’91 while I moved to Saudi in ’95. We walked in the same places a handful of years apart, a bubble of time between us. We lived in the same city and went to the same school, one of the most highly ranked private international schools in the world.

One of our fellow ex-Muslims, a Saudi from the same city, the capital of the Kingdom, asked us, ‘What was it like? Was it a Saudi curriculum? Was it segregated?’

No, no. Not at all. Nothing like that.

Nothing like Saudi schools, this American international school. It was co-ed, boys and girls, young men  and women sitting side by side in the same classrooms, holding hands while walking to their lockers between classes. Nothing like the brutal segregation of Saudi schools, in one instance so extreme that girls are allowed to burn to death rather than be permitted to escape a burning building without the proper covering clothing.

Our had no such requirements. It did have a dress code, rather benign for the Kingdom. At the time of my attendance, no shorts or sleeveless shirts except for during PE, no bare midriffs, no excessive makeup, jewelry, piercings. Nothing like a Saudi school.  In fact, in the years I was there, I was one of the only people in my grade, year after year, to wear the hijab. The covered heads on the playground you could count on your fingers. We were an international school with large American and Canadian demographics, and significant European, Arab, and South Asian ones too, incredible national and racial diversity. During Ali’s time, there were far more North Americans and far less South Asians and Middle Easterners. but that has progressively been changing.

We were eclectic, few, privileged.  We were taught an American curriculum far superior to anything I’ve heard any of my peers or students here in the US speak of. We learned American history in the middle of the Arabian desert, we took on the roles of farmers and tailors and butchers and simulated the agricultural economies of the original 13 colonies in 5th grade and then we simulated the Constitutional Convention in 8th grade, wearing wigs and buckles on our shoes as we stood in the Russell Room debating the articles of the Constitution. We read The Hobbit and Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird before we hit our teens, and wrote research papers with cited sources and annotated bibliographies, had spelling tests based on our science books, wrote creative nonfiction narrative essays. In our protected, sprawling campus under the desert sun, we ran for Terry Fox and Walked for Wellness and held intramural sports tournaments. We did Model United Nations, had an International Baccalaureate system, and we were big on art, community, music, drama, culture. Also, crucially, big on wellness, respect, empathy, counseling, outreach for students.

Nothing like Saudi schools.

Though I left when I was thirteen, I know full well that I would not be half the thinker I am today if it were not for the  close reading and critical thinking skills I learned in those formative years. This is namely because of the life I led; I was thereafter never given an educational opportunity that was not utterly useless until well into my undergraduate years, and arguably nothing of comparable quality and value until graduate school.

And despite, or maybe because of, the intense personal and traumatic struggles I had in those years, that school was instrumental in saving my life, my spirit, my mind.

And because of this, here is my plea: Don’t go there. Don’t work there as an expat in the Gulf, no matter how tempting the money, the opportunities, are. Don’t do it.

At least, not without considering the following. At least, not without knowing what you will be, what you will be doing by being there.

Ali told me that in the 11 years he was in Riyadh, he never interacted on any real level with Saudi citizens, never learned more than a few words of Arabic. This is not uncommon; in fact it’s the norm, because so it was for me, so it was for every expat I knew.

And it’s unnerving, disconnecting to consider how you can live in a country for years and years, the better part of a decade for me and more than a decade for Ali, and not have interactions with the citizenry, the local population, how you can be purposefully cut off from the life and culture of the place of your growth, the development of your personhood, the spring of your memories, the country whose water and food you are consuming, whose landscape you know and whose buildings are the skyline you’ve memorized.

How you can be there for years and learn nothing real or interpersonal or valuable about the country and its people.

How you can live in Saudi Arabia for a decade and leave without any substantial claim to a real human Saudi experience.

And note, it was not because we were required to self-select, self-segregate–there were no clear barriers to forming friendships with the citizenry of the land hosting us and partake in their way of living.  We didn’t have to disconnect and wall ourselves off.

So why did we?

It was because. we. could.

Can you imagine the privilege?

Even I, as an Arab who could mostly understand the dialect, whose family had some Saudi friends from our America years who we visited and spent time with, even I have no real claim to saying I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have dear, poignant memories of eating dinner in a Saudi house, overwhelmed with the spice and aroma of the soup and the tenderness of the deep, throaty Saudi dialect, and another memory of being a point in a circle of women and girls seated on the carpeted sand in the night, digging my tiny fingers into a giant platter of lamb and kabsa in a Bedouin tent alongside the spraying currents of the Red Sea. I have memories of being taken on tours through greenhouses and tent-like tunnels housing farms and farms and farms. But these memories have a foreign flavor, a tinge of excitement and newness and adventure and anomaly that serves to denormalize them.

Yes, I had Saudi experiences. I did not have a Saudi experience.

How ridiculously pleasant that I could choose to delve into that (or have my parents choose for me, as I was a child) only when I wanted, only when it was good, and then when it was not good, when the sand began to grate into my skin, I could creep back into my villa in my compound and forget the world existed outside its walls.

And I understood some of it even when I was so young, and it was striking.

That I, as a foreigner, a non-citizen, not-a-Saudi, could walk around in public places with my face uncovered. I had that right, nay, I had that privilege. Because women who were citizens of their own country couldn’t, and I could, and isn’t that the definition of unfair, unwon, unearned advantage? I almost can’t stand the guilt of it to this day, and then I think of that school that saved me, and that too, such privilege. Such supreme and ridiculous privilege that I could bypass gender segregation and be given every tool and resource and help and support to learn to think and read and question and love and stretch and be healthy and well and grow, and grow, and grow, in a land that was not mine while its own citizens could not have that, or any of their own spaces comparable to that.

Our school was not allowed to enroll Saudis by law–how could it make sense? That as a strange child in the heart of the Saudi capital I could have so much that a woman who was born and bred there had no access to should she have wanted it? I could walk in the mall without my face covered as an Arab woman. Had I been white, I could have done it with my hair uncovered as well. There was no ‘abaya or niqab that could serve as nothing more than a nuisance or else a fashion statement for me as a foreigner, that I could shed as soon as I left a Saudi public space again, that I only had to wear because I was there in the Kingdom by choice.

Sometimes I wonder how many women looked at me and others like me from behind their niqabs and resented that I had privileges they did not, that I was given opportunities and resources to change my life and they were not. I wonder if a woman looked at me and wondered if my father was a doctor or an engineer, and felt pain and anger that she was kept at home even though she could be, wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, and somebody from an entirely different country was brought in instead.

In my last year in Riyadh I was in Al-Mamlaka Mall, in the food court area, and a Saudi woman approached me to yell at me, to yell at this 13 year old girl. She snapped at me, snapped her literal fingers at me and told me to go home, to leave, that she did not want us and our privilege here. I was so shocked and ashamed I had nothing to say and there I stood. I had no words.

Now that I’m older I have more words but no solutions; only expressions of helplessness and horror. Today I have more knowledge and see more facets of the nature of the expat problem and how it feeds into the challenges women in the Gulf face, and how it is deeper and more complex than I can claim to understand, even after 17 years in the Middle East. Institutionalized oppression of women is only one level of it, and institutionalized racism is another one, where an expatriate doctor from Canada is worth more than one equally qualified and experienced from India by far, and is given much more of those special privileges. How South Asian and Southeast Asian expats are worth less than Middle Eastern expats, who are worth less than Western or white expats. How the expat community creates even greater demand for the, let’s not mince words, slavery system of migrant domestic workers brought in to be housekeepers, cleaners, manual laborers. How, even within our school among children, Ali, as a Pakistani, was referred to condescendingly as ‘rafeeq’ by Arabs, a word which literally means friend, but is a derogatory term for Pakistanis/Indians/Bangladeshis.

And if only expats were actual parts of the fabric of Saudi culture and society– if only they were contributors in more than a superficial sense. If only most of them did not make ghosts and cyphers of the population by handling themselves as so far removed from the citizenry just because they could.

Needless to say I am incredibly angry at the entire existence of an economic system that imports its workforce to create a clusterfucked dynamic of racism, exploitation of foreign labor, and at egregious social and monetary costs rather than let its women into the public sphere and give them the tools and resources to be the doctors and engineers their country needs.

I will never, ever, ever work in the Gulf for this reason. I will never contribute to a system that is built on the backs of the suppression of women and institutionalized racism. Others of course choose otherwise.

And that is really it. You have a choice. You have a choice that the citizens of the country you intend to work in do not have. You also, I should mention, have a choice that other expats have not, those third culture kids, who were brought there and brought up there and removed from their own homes and cultures perfunctorily, and who became enmeshed in the fabric of the expat experience as a matter of their personal development, their upbringing. True that they too have a choice, but it is not the same, it is not the choice of living there to begin with, and the choice of living in a suspended bubble of privilege once you are there.

And with that circumstance, being an expat in the Gulf, comes responsibility. If you are there, I urge the following: make yourself an active and strong and cognizant presence. Enmesh yourself into the productivity and wellbeing and growth of the country that is giving you so much. Learn its language at the very fucking least, meet its people, be a part of their lives, listen to them and understand them.

Or not. But remember you could always have gone somewhere else.

-Marwa

Oppressor–a poem

So some of you might know that my current primary academic field is creative writing. I’ve never been good at poetry; fiction has rather been my forte, mostly because of how difficult I find it to achieve conciseness of image. This I’ve worked on for a while though, a persona poem, and since I’m not a poet and thus not invested in trying to send poetry out for traditional print publication, I thought I’d share it with you.

Oppressor

(after Patricia Smith)

 

They call me oppressor, and I have the world’s glory.

 

It’s in the moon’s milk draining from full

to crescent over a world that watches me fold

back my sleeves. I double my belt, curl my right hand

into a cup to wash myself holy. I polish

even my feet clean, five times a day, my soles, they’re

cleaner than your hands, my toes, they’re cleaner

than your fingers. This clean? I have nothing

to apologize for. Oppress them? I want nothing from them

the Great Satans, but distance.

 

My place in the world is golden and burnished,

with the lines clear, ropes tight, chains glowing.

Gates and poles and safe places, where daughters are not

sluts walking the streets, their skin not beacons

for men and dogs to sense and ravage,

where daughters do not drown their throats

with intoxicating poison. Daughters do not unlayer

their clothes down to dirty dishrags like their faces

to sop up and swallow every man’s honor, leaving salt.

 

It is no coincidence that here the sun is so high and strong.

The land stays dry and sweet, and nothing hides,

no human souls are suctioned and splintered.

Only a whore’s womb has teeth, and here we have

no whores.

 

I want nothing

from them, but distance.

 

Look at the difference between us.

I prostrate on the floor because my back is strong

enough to bend. With beads on threads, I

count how many ways I can turn my submission

to strength.

 

If my forehead taps the floor, who knows what earth-

quakes it could inspire with its waves?

Morality. Clarity. Chastity. Strength.

They fear me when I am on my knees most of all.

They wish they were this clean.

 

I know how to keep what is mine and keep her clean

like I made her to start with.

 

My daughter was a whore too, and I showed her how knees

can bend, because she liked to bend them, so I bent

them the other way over carpet. Mint,

lipstick, and cigarette ash don’t smell very clean together,

do they, so don’t open your mouth, but it is so wide you

force me to slam it shut with my fist until your knees stop

bending and your belly starts like a worm,

how many times did your belly start,

lower than the earth Adam was shaped from?

 

I’d tell them my daughter was a whore too.

She struck the earth

with the spikes of her heels and her ass

in the air, her heels are in red ribbons now.

They could never do that.

The mouth she used to rub my name

into shit swollen like a melon, big-

ger than my hand, than the sun, and she could

not swallow her own blood before it choked her.

Because she liked to gag, the bitch, so I let her:

 

how dare she think that body was hers

to destroy when it was a bounty,

and I created it, I nourished it, it is only and ever

mine.

 

They call me the oppressor—when they are the ones

who stole what I made and bent her with their filthy

thoughts, their lies and words and drink.

I want nothing from them–

they would sully even my trash.

 

I have my own world.

 

And it will stay mine.

 

-Marwa

4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

Hello folks! I want to start off by checking in and and telling you that I had an exciting weekend in Washington DC, where, along with some of my dear and brilliant fellow members in Muslimish and the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), I met with secular activists and leaders Richard Dawkins, Edwina Rogers (Secular Coalition for America and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Ronald A Lindsay (Center for Inquiry), Richard Haynes (Atheist Nexus), and Jennifer Beahan (also CFI). We met to discuss secular outreach and support for the ex-Muslim and apostate cause. Here is a photo! I will be writing about the event and the plans set in motion by it very soon, so stay tuned.

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Also, please ‘like’ the Ex-Muslims of North America’s Facebook page! It went live just about a day ago. Yay!

To close with the newsy things: in anticipation of the future, here are some things I’m going to be writing about very soon: Part 2 of What It Is Like to Be a Muslim Woman, since everyone seems to like that post the most (incidentally, a longer, revamped version is coming out in print from 580 Split after New Year), and a post about Hezbollah and how they are normal everyday people (wait for the punchline).

***

This will be a quick post. I want to outline 4 very common trends of thinking about Islam that I’ve encountered over and over again, both when I was living and socializing within Muslim communities and in Western liberal discourse.  I want to highlight them to show how they are problematic and suggest alternatives to them. So here is the question:

What are some counterproductive moves of thinking we commonly make when discussing Islam?

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

4. Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse

1. Islamophobia vs anti-Muslim bigotry

The first counterproductive way of thinking about Islam is talking about Islamophobia rather than anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia. Both of the latter terms are posed to make a robust distinction, and the precise point of making this distinction is an attempt to eradicate the term Islamophobia from discourse entirely because it is both misleading and vacuous.

It is misleading because it is incoherent. A phobia is an irrational fear, and is a descriptor of the sort of object or subject the fear of which is unjustified rationally. Except that you can indeed accurately and rationally fear many aspects and dictates of Islam. An irrational fear is usually based on misconception and misunderstanding of the nature and consequential effects of the object or subject in question. The term Islamophobia, however, does not make the distinction between discussion of Islam based on misconception and thus leading to irrational fear and a reasoned critique based on an understanding of the faith in many of its forms. It does not admit of any legitimate critique of Islam whatsoever, and lumps every attempt at reasoned critique under that label, thereby negating the work of those who attempt to peacefully reform oppressive parts of Muslim systems and societies. This also serves to enable a very unfortunate view that any discussion of Islam buys into xenophobia and orientalism, thus drowning out the voices of people incredibly informed and invested in the issues of Islam and societies in Muslim-majority countries.

Using the term Islamophobia is also vacuous because it refers to a signifier (Islam) in a unified, monolithic way when there is no actual real-world unified entity in reflection of that signifier–which application or interpretation of Islam is being talked about when somebody says something labelled as Islamophobic? It is arguably a disservice to both critique aimed at reform of interpretations of Islam and Muslim thought and living to classify Islam as one entity, a monolith, rather than real people with real lives who interpret and practice their faith in a consequential manner.

Thus when we talk about bigoted, racializing, and misinformed ways of discussing Islam, which instances are context-specific to a particular practice, doctrine, and interpretation by Muslims, anti-Muslim bigotry is a more appropriate term. It humanizes and makes real the very crucial plight of bigotry and unjustified hate towards many Muslim individuals and groups according to who they are, what their lives are like, and the rights they deserve as human beings.

2. The ‘that’s not the true Islam’ argument

Muslims do horrible things in the name of their religion, often while uttering the Shahadatein. These horrible things are often egregious violations of human rights and life, horrible beyond imagining. They are acts of war, terror, torture, control, maligning, and violent physical punishment. Muslims who feel shocked and betrayed that people of their faith or culture would do such things in the name of Islam repeat the following mantras: That’s not the true Islam. This is not religion. Islam means peace. They are misapplying and misunderstanding it. We do not support this.

While often this is said with good will, stripping Islamic doctrine of responsibility for any influence and contribution  to these events entails prioritizing the defense of an ideology over horrendous human suffering that is both pandemic and a repeated phenomenon. This is severely misguided. The only merit in viewing every horrible thing done by Muslims and Muslim organizations in the name of Islam as a misinterpretation or misapplication of Islam is defending the name of Islam. The harm of this approach, on the other hand, is that it automatically bars the possibility of opening productive discussion of how and why Islamic tenets and principles contribute and influence that behavior, and what can be done about it. It is simply incorrect and dishonest to claim that some Muslims, just because they are operating according to a disagreement on the ‘correct’ interpretation of scripture and religious teachings with other Muslims, are not in fact influenced by the Qur’an or corroborated ahadith or mainstream understandings of certain religious teachings. Attempting to identify and explore the factors influencing and inspiring violence is an incumbent moral responsibility in order to help prevent even further human rights violations.

3. The ‘it’s not religion, it’s culture’ argument

Here’s a second easy cop-out that shrugs off responsibility for horrible things done in the name of Islam:  claiming that these things are misattributed to Islam when really they are caused by cultural influence rather than religious doctrine. This argument is detrimental for a similar reason as the above: because it impedes productive exploration of the causes and influences of human rights violations by pretending religion and culture are distinct entities that do not feed into each other and themselves.

(This is why Muslimish is called Muslimish: we do identify with a Muslim cultural identity although most of us are apostates or atheists, in much the way secular Jews maintain cultural elements.)

 4. And here is the big one: Treating Islam as a monolith, aka the ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are imperfect’ argument and its converse.

All three of the above counterproductive modes of thinking really rest on some iteration of this underlying assumption: that there is one, true, free-floating, infallible ‘Islam’ (and thus when bad things happen it’s because of culture, or it’s a misapplication, and any critique of Islam is a phobia because Islam is perfect).

Except that this perfect Islam is a concept rather than an actualization; since nobody practices Islam perfectly or even agrees on what perfect practice of Islam entails, then this free-floating concept exists independent of Muslims, that is, it exists independent of the way anyone anywhere practices, adheres to, and interprets Islam. And then this non-existing conceptual Islam is the Islam that is pointed to as above critique and discussion, with much of the same inviolability of expression used to assert that the Qur’an is divine in origin, timeless, and infallible.

And really, it is not only a perfect Islam that is concept rather than actualization– it is any monolithic version of Islam. Islam does not exist independent of Muslims.

Here is a comic strip that expresses that idea perfectly.

It’s worth noting that the converse of this counterproductive method of thinking is one commonly made by people who critique Islam, by reducing the entire thing to its most problematic fundamentals and blurring distinctions in practice and interpretation together, and thus speaking of a monolithic Islam when attempting to critique it and highlight its problems as well as in attempt to defend it.

Here is why I think we should avoid both extremes: if  we instead begin to think of non-monolithic forms of Islam as synonymous with the multivariate applications, interpretations, and practice of Muslims. including their intermeshing with background cultures, then the discourse will become much more practical, grounded, meaningful and productive.

What do you think?

-Marwa