Islamophobia? Muslimophobia? Anti-Muslim Bigotry? A discussion between Ex-Muslims on appropriate neologisms

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Have you ever had the desire for a sneak-peak into ex-Muslim groups to see what we commonly talk about together?

During the last day or so, community members at the Ex-Muslims of North America have been having a discussion regarding the terminology we ought to use to differentiate between undue discrimination against Muslims and reasoned critique of Islam. The idea is that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has become a catch-all phrase used to silence legitimate critique of an ideology in addition to condemning bigotry towards Muslims, and the two concepts need to be differentiated, perhaps deserving their own neologisms.

For the sake of attribution, here are the members who took part in the conversation. Some identities obscured for safety reasons:

  • Abdullah, EXMNA member.
  • Farid Sheikh, EXMNA member. You can find him on Twitter here.
  • Jnt, EXMNA member.
  • Kiran Opal, EXMNA co-founder. You can find her on Twitter here.
  •  Luke Clark, EXMNA member. You can find his blog here.
  • Muhammad Syed, EXMNA co-founder. You can find him on Twitter here, you can email him here.
  • Teslabear, the verified meetup organizer for EXMNA Chicago
  • Me.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. I’m not sure we reached any conclusions, but there were a lot of very intelligent and thoughtful points made that I think merit sharing with the larger atheist/skeptic community and whoever else is interested in the matter. The conversation really gives a sense of just how complex this situation is. I think an ever-recurring question among skeptics and humanists who care about social justice is ‘How can we critique Islam without enabling discrimination towards Muslims?’ This is a very relevant subtopic within that larger conversation.

I would like to note that our community largely operates under the assumption that bigotry towards Muslims is a real and prevalent form of discrimination that we want to condemn. This is not the space for denial of that fact; go elsewhere if that is your objection. I am not obligated to host such comments.

Muhammad asked the original question:

Guys I had a question
We’ve been pushing back against the term Islamophobia
I’ve been using Muslimophobia , over the weekend Marwa was using the term anti-Muslim bigotry, we’ve also used plain old xenophobia.

One issue is that its actually more targeted towards certain perceptions of Muslim, those wearing the hijab or the swarthy bearded dude etc

Any ideas on a catch phrase or word that would encapsulate the concept?

Abdullah :

Why should it only be limited to a certain type of Muslim or look? We’re all affected by it, even ex-Muslims.

Me:

I do like using the term anti-Muslim bigotry because it clearly delineates those attitudes as bigoted, setting them apart from the reasoned critique we try to engage in.

I also think, as Abdullah indicated, that the racism is much less discriminant and more insidious than just extremist stereotypes. I think a mild affiliation is enough. Remember the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs directed at the non-Muslim non-Arab Miss America strutting around in a bikini, because she’s brown? Soraya Chemaly was telling us too that she gets read as from a Muslim background purely because of her name, despite it being a Lebanese Christian family name. One of my friends with the family name Nasrallah, gets stopped in airports regularly because of her last name, despite Nasrallah being a common Christian name in the Levant too. I’m sure there are myriads of other examples.

At this point an anonymous member asks why we don’t refer to it as just xenophobia, because those who are bigoted against people who are or appear to be Muslim are also bigoted towards other minorities and races, so xenophobic would be a more accurate term.

Me:

But why would we want to use a catch-all term such as xenophobia for that sort of racism when we’re talking about it in the context of critiquing Islam? Yes, anti-Muslim bigots are often more broadly xenophobes too, among other things, but we’re specifically trying to address their anti-Muslim attitudes as contrasted with our own discourse.

Teslabear:

I think it’s strange that Ex-Muslims have to come up with terms to separate ourselves from those that are bigoted or xenophobic, in general. I think creating a new term for it is useful for our circles, but it might not be helpful in the long run to create more divisions in terminology.

The gist of the issue seems to remain that if one critiques Muslim behavior or beliefs (Islam, then), one is considered a bigot or racist, which makes absolutely no sense. The issue that really needs to be resolved is that people need to stop equating Muslims with a race. Plenty of Muslims are born into or convert from varied racial backgrounds. Another issue that underlies the problem is that people think religion is somehow absolved of critical analysis, and that one should “respect” religions by not saying anything negative. Da Fuq?

We shouldn’t cater to people being fearful of being called racist/bigots when we are clearly not while criticizing a religious belief.

Me:

It’s not just for us. It’s a problem that exists with anybody whatsoever whose critique can be brushed aside using the Islamophobia accusation. Whether or not it’s unfortunate that this need is there, it’s still there and practical considerations say we address it. Whether it’s fair or not that we’re lumped in with the bigots, we need to address that circumstance by creating and *grounding* the distinction in *mainstream discourse* until it is normalized. There needs to be a better term that creates a distinction between bigoted and reasoned claims or arguments. The concepts within a term [ie, Islamophobia] already used to silence us and people like us need to be separated. The only way we normalize changes to problematic discourse is by creating distinctions, using them, and trying to spread them further. Which is why unified terminology is important; so we’re not all talking about it with different terms. Soon our work is going to be elevated to mainstream secular blogs. We’re also working on getting into mainstream media venues beyond the purely secular.

And I have to disagree that bigotry towards Muslim behavior is not racism. Let’s not forget that lumping ethnicities and cultural practices together because of a pre-conception tied to Islam is racist. Racism lies in generalizations about PoC, and conflation is one of the worst forms of generalization. Racism is almost never a direct discussion of something on explicitly racial grounds. Most racist attitudes are at the surface level not towards explicit races. Racist attitudes about single moms, rap music, food stamps, hoodies, football mascots abound. None of those are races per se. Racist discussions of them are reducible to generalized beliefs regarding the customs and communities of those who engage/partake in them. Anti-Muslim bigotry is very, very much about race. Even discussion of white converts involves concepts of theft and seduction by brown people taking over white values. We do no one favors by hiding behind the ‘Islam is not a race ‘ card as if that was relevant in whether it is or can be discussed in racist ways. Least of all ourselves, because the racism that allows others to assume that we adopt Muslim sentiments or beliefs because of our ethnicities and despite our actions and words is the same racism that Muslims suffer from.

Luke:

Because the anti Muslim sentiment is just window dressing for the bigotry and hatred against those deemed “foreign”; the specific anti-Islam rhetoric is nothing but window dressing. The same people hate brown folks from other parts of the world for the same reason while giving a different bullshit reason for doing so.

I’d be down with calling it racism, too. I just think xenophobia gets around the Islam is not a race card.

Me:

I mean, yes. And I don’t really need to point out that the problem with equating Muslims to a race is that it’s RACIST. And it is prevalent. Brown people and Muslims are often uniformly reduced to stereotypes about Arabs. People don’t fucking know that South Asia and MENA are two completely different geographical areas. Racism of that sort is already there and we need to both condemn it, reclaim our stake in its detriment, and set ourselves apart from it.

Abdullah:

Islam is not Muslims. Islam is not a race; that doesn’t mean Muslims are not a racialized group.

Kiran:

Some Hindus and Sikhs have gotten attacked/harassed by white supremacists (esp. right after 9/11) who thought they were also Muslim (or ‘Paki’ which is a derogatory term in the UK for anyone brownish).

On the other hand, some Hindus (i.e. brown people) also *hate* Muslims (esp. the brown ones) with a passion.

So, this is a very complex issue.

I do think people presume that anyone who is Muslim thinks a certain way, especially if they are wearing hijab and especially if they’re wearing a niqab, a thobe, a salafi-style or long unkempt beard etc. This presumption includes things that even some of us may consider when we first see e.g. a Muslim man in a thobe and a 6 inch beard walking with 2 women in niqabs and 6 children behind him. Does that mean anyone deemed Muslim should be treated as less than anyone deemed non-Muslim in civic matters? No. I don’t think they should. BUT, the fact is, that when *I* see a scene like what I just described above, I DO judge the people involved. I DO think that they are living in a way that is oppressive to women, that is supremacist, that is abusive to LGBTQ people, to religious minorities.

I think similarly when I see e.g. a Hassidic Jewish family, or a group of obvious Mormons walking around.

Does that mean I am Islamophobic, Hassidophobic, Mormonophobic?

I do think that this matter should be made to be *more* complex. We can not simplify this with just finding one right term, unfortunately. I don’t think one word or phrase can do justice to the matter.

I personally use ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ and plain old bigotry/xenophobia when referring to the particular brand of hostility that *anyone presumed to be Muslim* faces at the hands of those who think all “Muslims” are alike or that “once a Muslim always a Muslim” (the latter type of prejudice is what we as Ex-Muslims also face).

Muhammad:

That’s exactly the point I was trying to capture, post 9/11 a sikh man was killed b/c he was ‘perceived’ to be Muslim. Generally speaking yes *it is a complex issue* but for something to get mainstream traction it has to be more sound-bitey, one can then expand on it and highlight how complex the entire issue is.

For example in conversations with a few secularists (including on podcasts) I’ve told them to not use the word Islamophobia but to sub it with Muslimophobia. Even though i’m not convinced that is the right phrase to use.

Luke:

Muslimphobia is a neologism coined on a neologism, inelegant, and non-euphonious. If it is necessary to explicitly delineate anti-Muslim sentiments and actions, as opposed to subsuming them within the terms racism or xenophobia, I think it is better to go with Marwa’s ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ That also has the virtue of including Hindu hatred and persecution of Muslims (which is less racist than it is castist, though there are certainly elements of xenophobia in it).

Farid:

I have to agree with Teslabear. Bigotry is bigotry is bigotry. I don’t see how a new term will be helpful – of course I can be convinced if there is a good argument for it.

I like the term xenophobia, and it doesn’t separate us from other groups fighting bigotry/xenophobia – strength in numbers. Plus if we are against xenophobia then we are against all xenophobia not just against us, that kind of goes against the meaning of xenophobia.

This is a complex issue which will have to be explained in detail when we talk about it, doesn’t matter what term we use. My suggestion is to use a term that doesn’t pigeonhole us into the “Muslim/Islam” box. We have to appeal to more people.

Me:

I guess I honestly don’t understand the resistance to using a term specific to the bigotry we’re discussing. Nobody uses just ‘bigotry’ to talk about racism, transphobia, biphobia, ableism, or fatphobia, for instance. The same reason we don’t just say ‘humanism’ for particularly feminist issues, and object to those who would have us do so. I write about this shit a lot and a non-specific term simply will not capture the thrust of the problem. I don’t think we’re pigeon-holing ourselves or limiting our audience by acknowledging the specificity of the bigotry we face and/or are accused of. How else can we talk about it? How do we avoid generalizations ourselves otherwise? I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain the dynamics of what’s going on without highlighting exactly what kind of bigotry it is. I mean, even in this thread there have been insinuations that bigotry against Muslims isn’t about race; without using terms about racism and race-specific terms, for instance, how would one build an argument challenging that? Without acknowledging the Muslim focus of bigotry and the ways it manifests, how do we build arguments around it? At least, I haven’t been able to in my writing. Maybe those of you who write about this stuff too have been able to find a way, but I haven’t.

And yes, we are against all forms of xenophobia, but if our discourse is focused on Islam and atheism and intersectionality in between then we are not in fact addressing worldwide xenophobia. Nor should we. Just because someone has a blog about cats doesn’t mean they don’t like dogs and dogs aren’t important to them; it only means that dogs have marginal space in their blog. Any sensible person would see that.

Luke:

Anti-Muslim bigotry sounds better to me than Muslimphobia.

Muhammad:

One of my main concerns with anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia is it’s playing into the racialization, I understand that the bigotry comes from a place where Muslims are regarded as a monolith by racists but on the flip side Islamists are trying to erase that diversity as well. As always we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

Me:

Yeah, I see how that’s a stickler– which is why I say anti-Muslim bigotry rather than just anti-Muslim racism cuz it is in fact broader than that. It is a difficult subject for sure. But if what we’re hoping to do is replace the term Islamophobia with a more accurate term, should it not be specific enough so that it cannot be distorted to condemn critique of Islam by virtue of its specificity?

I don’t know. There will always be problems with however we choose to look at it.

JnT:

Muslimphobia denotes fear more than anything. And while I believe all bigotry and racism are fear-based, the word lacks the intensity of the hatred AND fear of what they know little to nothing about.

Luke:

I don’t think that ‘Anti-Muslim bigotry’ unduly racializes things. It’s elastic enough to cover Hindu persecution of Muslims and the persecution of the ‘white’ Muslims of Eastern Europe, for example, while still not pretending that the origins of much if not most anti-Muslim sentiment IS racial prejudice.

The discussion sort of died down at that point. But there you have it, a peek into the sorts of discussions we’re interested in having, the ways in which we interact with and relate to each other. Thoughts? Weigh-ins?

-Marwa

PS: Oh hey! I was on the Godless Family Webcast yesterday alongside Heina Dadabhoy to talk about Islam. My technology situation isn’t so great so unfortunately my camera cut out a lot, but the discussions we had were great. Check it out!

Related posts:

The Racism of the White Wolf Who Cried Islamophobia

How Can We Discuss Islam in Better Ways?

4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

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4 Things You Should Stop Doing Re: Amal Alamuddin & George Clooney

Amal Alamuddin

Hi! First of all, if you haven’t heard the news about my retiring this blog and moving on, you can read it here.

I don’t usually talk about this stuff, and it’s been some time since the news of their engagement, but these reactions have been accumulating slowly and fallen under my social justice radar frequently enough to warrant a post.

So, here they are: A Lebanese expat’s thoughts on some of the Lebanese culturescape’s reactions to Amal Alamuddin’s engagement to George Clooney:

Thought No. 1: STAHP enabling a culture of honor violence:

According to my mom, there’s a running joke in Lebanon about George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin’s engagement, and it’s not what you think.

Remember the story last year about the Druze girl who broke cultural taboo by eloping with a non-Druze man, who then had his penis severed by her family?

Yeah, so Amal Alamuiddin comes from a Druze family, and there are jokes being made about Clooney losing his genitals. Because that is sooooo freaking hilarious. So goddamn hilarious that people face violence for marrying outside of their religions of birth, that people have to run away to another country to have interfaith ceremonies, and face ostracism, fear, and violence from their societies and families when they come home.

This is how you normalize a culture of honor violence. STAHP. There are a whole lot of things you can make silly jokes about that don’t make light of endemic cultural problems that hurt, damage, and traumatize people. Find a new niche.

Thought no. 2: STAHP fueling sectarian biases:

Because that’s what a lot of Lebanese people are doing in their discussions about Amal Alamuddin when they hash it in terms of where she’s from and what her religious background may or may not be. We can’t, as a collective culture, seem to transcend this uber obsession with everyone’s sect.

It’s not okay that in Lebanon it is the norm for strangers, taxi drivers, teachers, restaurant staff, cashiers, etc to randomly ask where you are from and what your last name is in attempt to find out what sect you are so they can stereotype you, try to evangelize you, set you up with their son, propose to you on the spot, or not-so-subtly critique the politics they assume you hold because of your religion of birth.

I’m tired of everyone’s family thinking it’s okay to similarly examine their friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, for that to be considered acceptable living room conversation.

The first question you should ask about your kid’s new friend should maybe not be about their sect, the first thing you wonder about a person you just met who has a religion-neutral name should maybe not be what their sect is, the first thing you think about a person named Jean or Ali should maybe not be oh they’re Christian or Shia, followed by a series of implicit judgments according to that info.

And I’m tired of the rush to claim affiliation to whatever Lebanese person or person of Lebanese ethnicity is being talked about next. I’m tired of how we use well-known people to fuel sectarian biases– because that is what you’re doing when you wonder where Amal Alamuddin’s family is from.

As a country we need to fucking stop this obsession with each other’s religions and family backgrounds. The way we do it casually, in our everyday lives, keeps sectarian culture thriving. Every Lebanese person under the age of 30 is probably sick of being told to remember the civil war, but there is wisdom to being e aware of what happens when we perpetuate a culture of sectarian bias. We don’t check IDs at checkpoints and kill people based on their religion of birth anymore, but sectarian culture is alive and well so long as our IDs must still proclaim our sects for some reason and we casually use sectarian belonging to judge and appraise people.

STAHP.

Thought no. 3: STAHP contributing to whitewashing and racism within your culture:

That’s what you’re doing by attributing value to people like Amal Alamuddin just because white people like them, or condemning them for the same.

The whole Francophone pride is one thing, but it’s a whole other level of problematic to elevate Lebanese people according to who the West is finding most desirable at the moment. There is, recurringly, huge uproar over whatever person Lebanese ethnicity the West is paying attention to next (from Shakira to Carlos Slim to Rima Fakih), with Lebanese people trying to find a connection between that person and their sect or family or neighborhood, trying to attribute that person’s success to being Lebanese, or, conversely, condemning them because of their sect within Lebanese culture; take your pick. All this when they wouldn’t have cared to begin with if white people didn’t give a shit about that person.

The way a faction of Lebanese society idolizes Westernized and West-connected people and emulates them is no small factor in contributing to the rampant racial oppression that occurs in Lebanon, the subpar living conditions and second-class status of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in our country, the practical slave trade that is the domestic workforce.

The way that another faction of Lebanese society views being Arab or being Shia, etc, as a literal holy God-given gift also contributes to the way they characterize people the consistently interact with according to their ethnicity or religion of origin.

The treatment of refugees and our imported workforce are some of the most egregious violations of human rights we Lebanese people are responsible for, and they occur in part because we look down upon other Arabs, because we look down upon our imported African and South Asian and Southeast Asian workers. Aggression and condescension towards them is so normalized that people tend to not even notice it is occurring. By creating and conforming to a hierarchy of value between the West and the East, in either direction, you are enabling our already cripplingly racist system.

STAHP.

And by extension,

Thought no. 4: STAHP contributing to a culture of misogyny.

This is what you’re doing by reducing an accomplished woman’s value to her relationship with a man.

If you didn’t give a shit about Amal Alamuddin before the West got excited over her, and now you like her because of her sense of style and her handsome, famous star fiance, you are contributing to a culture of misogyny. Especially when someone like Amal Alamuddin is ridiculously accomplished in public ways that would reasonably attract popularity, and much of that is overlooked or brushed aside by her own countrypeople in favor of defining her with respect to a man.

Because defining a woman’s role according to her relationship to the men around her isn’t a problem at all in Lebanese culture, and doesn’t impede viewing and treating women as autonomous human beings with their own value and stakes. /sarcasm/

STAHP.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, these aren’t problems specific to the Amal Alamuddin story at all, nor entirely about it. This is more of a commentary on prevalent cultural memes; ways of thinking and interacting with current events such as the Amal Alamuddin story that continue to perpetuate the culture surrounding many of our problems.

It’s striking, isn’t it, how we are so used to thinking and interacting in the above ways that we can bend even this seemingly benign bit of news in service of our bigotries.

-Marwa

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that I am not claiming that these attitudes are held by all Lebanese people, or that all Lebanese people are responsible for perpetuating the following. My statements about these phenomena are limited to when, how, and where the phenomena do occur.

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I’m retiring Between a Veil and a Dark Place…

…and moving on to the Freethought Blogs network.

My transfer will also mark my official coming out. I will retire the pen name and start blogging under my real name when my new blog is launched.

I’m incredibly excited about this. I will be the sixth ex-Muslim blogger to join the network, alongside Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasreen, Tauriq Moosa, Kaveh Mousavi, and Heina Dadabhoy. I’ll also be sharing space with a wonderful group of collegial authors, including giants in the atheist/skeptic community who hardly need an introduction. And of course, a host of other writers who may be less famous but hardly less brilliant, some of whom are very dear friends. I  couldn’t be more honored or in better company.

A giant salute to the Freethought Blogs for continuously being concerned with diverse representation, especially of marginalized community members, hosting international perspectives, atheist voices coming from multiple religious backgrounds, LGBTQ voices, solid feminist thought, and people of color.

 

Atheeyism! Freethought! Words! Arguments! People! Skeptics! Ermahgerrrrrrrddddd!!!

To answer a few FAQ about this transfer:

  1. My new blog will keep the same name. It’s a good name.
  2. Yes, I’m going to keep this site up. I’m going to both transfer my archives to the new site and leave them up here. I’ll keep a big notice front and center for new visitors to BaVaDP, so they know where to find my latest work.
  3. Yes, I will be cross-posting. But not here. I will cross-post everything at the FTB venue to the Ex-Muslim Blogs venue, because I believe that my work has solid stake in both communities at once.
  4. Some marked advantages to moving my blog include: the aforementioned community aspects, expanding my platform to include a built-in audience of skeptics with diverse areas of expertise and concern, and opening up a variety of networking opportunities for greater involvement in the American atheist skeptic movement.
  5. Details regarding updated comment policies, etc, will be available once the blog is launched.
  6. The Freethought Blogs network will provide me with a little bit of ad revenue, but donations will still be welcome from those who earnestly wish to support my work and/or conference travel.
  7. I hope to be blogging with greater frequency and perhaps more focus, and I will attempt to use my new platform to showcase the voices of others who have less opportunities by having a series of guest blogs by ex-Muslim community members and others with valuable input.
  8. The transfer will likely take a few weeks, and I will keep writing here up until the transfer. I have some exciting posts planned.

I think that’s all for now. If you have other worthwhile questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. Just leave them in the comments.

And, finally, I’d like to thank my readers for all of your unquantifiable encouragement, compelling responses to my work, your enthusiastic readership, for all of your lovely mail, which I regret not being able to individually respond to. Especial thanks to the people who’ve dug into their pockets to help a struggling writer whose work they find to be valuable, and to all the people who touched me and have been touched by this blog.

It only gets better from here.

Salamat.

-Marwa

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Bring an ex-Muslim atheist speaker to your university or organization!

 

Hi guys! So I am now on the Center for Inquiry’s Speakers’ List, which means that your university or organization or conference can view my profile and biography below, along with a list of topics of expertise, and book me to come speak:

http://www.centerforinquiry.net/speakers/berro_marwa

I’m incredibly excited about this. I have wanted to speak on all of the topics I deal with in my blog and more at universities and conferences and secular events, but have lacked a larger platform to market my services.

I think getting more ex-Muslims to speak publicly is one step towards our destigmatization, the normalization of our voices and the critique of Islam. I hope that in the near future more  ex-Muslims will qualify to be featured on the list too.

For those of you who don’t already know the badass and brilliant Heina Dadabhoy, who writes at Skepchick and is imminently transitioning over to the Freethought Blogs, she is a seasoned speaker and also an ex-Muslim atheist woman who is available for speaking requests. Here’s her profile with the Secular Student Alliance:

https://www.secularstudents.org/speakers/HeinaDadabhoy

If your SSA or some other department in your university or organization could benefit from an ex-Muslim atheist woman speaker of the secular humanist bent, and has some funds to bring speakers in, you can suggest me or Heina.

Those who request our services will need to fund our travel, as I we can’t afford to travel out of pocket, but we’re not in this to make profits, so will not request a speaker’s fee to come to your campus or organization.

Best wishes. Spread the word.

-Marwa

If you like the work that I do, consider donating a small amount to help keep this blog running

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“Why do Muslim women accept and believe these things anyway?”

 

There is this question I continually hear, when the inequalities and oppressions rampant in Muslim societies are being discussed, and it is this:

Why do Muslim women accept and believe these things anyway?

This is likely the most important question you can ask, but it can also be disappointingly wrong-headed.

I hear it from liberals, atheists, Westerners who cannot fathom someone in their right mind accepting the provisions many forms of Islam dictate for women. I hear it, too, from people from Muslim backgrounds or countries, who, despite having grown up in cultures normalizing the values they find repulsive, cannot understand their acceptance–something has been missed, for them. Last September, during the ex-Muslim strategy meeting we had in Washington DC with Dawkins and leaders of national secular coalitions, we ex-Muslims stood up and engaged with several discussion points, which included women detailing some of their thoughts and experiences under Islam. And one lady stopped in the middle of describing some of the norms in the culture she came from–interrupted herself mid sentence, as it were, and, as if the question had just occurred to her, she looked up at the panel asked “Why do Muslim women accept and believe in these things anyway?” Dawkins turned the question back onto the crowd, with a you tell me…why did you? sort of gesture.

And we stood up, in turn, we ex-Muslims in the audience, rising from our seats, speaking of the lives of the girls and women we once were, to explain the various forces that governed us, the norms that shaped the social fabric we were embedded in, details regarding ideology and cultures we came from, the influencing power of those things, the limited choices we had, the lives of our mothers, sisters, friends who still were there, who still we loved and strove to understand.

But what struck me was the nature of this question to begin with, the way it was plucked almost out of thin air, a striking inquiry that underscored and invaded a description of the lives women lead under various forms of Islam–how could they let this happen to them? and want it to?

I was struck at the air of bafflement, how mystified the lady asking the question was, how mystified Dawkins was in mirroring her question back to us, how it echoed so many discussions regarding Islam and the Middle East as ineffable, strange, other, unworldly, unholy.  How unable so many people seem to be of conceiving reasons for Muslim women cleaving to Islam, how apparent it is how little they know and understand about the lived experiences of Muslim women–and more importantly, how little they care to.

It continues to strike me how many of the people attempting to talk about Islam don’t attempt to, unless they are faced with people before them speaking about their lives, try to understand what was really going on for women like us, to consider the question from a non-othering place. That the question itself, framed with such an air of bafflement, implying weakness and stupidity on the part of its subjects, that implies also an air of smugness, superiority on the part of its questioner, preempts in its very tone the concept of there being real, compelling reasons outside the scope of the absurdity the question assumes.

Yet it should be the very first question that comes to mind. That such an important, basic question seems to be so hard for so many to conceive of is sobering in many ways. It continues to help me realize oh-so-strongly how so much of the alienation we receive as progressive Muslim and ex-Muslim women–the callous trampling upon the exploration of our stories and experiences, the continuous silencing of our voices in favor of some urgent need to generalize harshly regarding Islam or defend those who do instead of understanding how and why its problems arise–it all converges upon this same tendency to not listen to and thus by extension to not truly care about the people whose conditions and lives are really at stake here. So much of the desire to say bad things about Islam I see is not in service of helping the people who suffer under it, does not serve significant function other than to mock or insult, often in unintentionally othering and racializing manners (eg, making blanket statements that serve little function such as ‘Islam is evil’ and calling Muslim practices barbaric and savage, invoking language steeped in racial stereotype), or to defend popular figures who do the same. And it is very difficult to critique Islam in a humane way without even being concerned with understanding how and why the circumstances of our lives arise, how and why people live as they do.

It goes both ways, to be sure, with Muslim apologists elevating their desire to defend Islam as untouchable over listening to the plights and problems of Muslim women, eg the recent debacle with CAIR and the Honor Diaries, where CAIR prioritizes protesting and shutting down the screenings of a film where 9 Muslim women speak about the problem of honor violence facing women in Muslim-majority countries, choosing blanket defensiveness of Islam over listening to women and their plights, silencing the voices of those women and othering them although those women are self-identifying Muslims. But you know, while I only wish I could hope to expect better of Muslim apologists, I do expect better of skeptics, atheists, and liberals and allies of various faiths, and I do see more hope and promise in the discourse of our circles on this issue, and thus the focus of this post.

The basic question of “Why would X group of people accept or endorse dehumanizing and oppressive things” is one that, to be answered, requires alighting from a perspective of privilege, of never having been put in a position where you had to make a life out of a series of damning choices, and treating it as not an absurd question, not one with a semi-rhetorical implication of “if they had any sense they wouldn’t”. But it is not an absurd question, it is not rhetorical. It requires an answer, and not one that boils down to painting whole swaths of people as weak, brainwashed sheep. It is not one, too, that is a matter of fallaciously reducing deliberate, enforced oppression to lack of mental acuity–the stigmatization of mental illness aside, the ridiculously unscientific manners in which we speak of deliberate, inexcusable horrors as matters of individual people having delusion, idiocy, or impairment aside, such a viewpoint fundamentally lacks grounding in reality. The question is a real one, with an answer in real-world power dynamics. Answering it requires learning and becoming acquainted with the circumstances, doctrines, and systems that structure the lives of the people in question, understanding the competing considerations they must contend with, the limited choices they have–especially women. Understanding too, how other people within that society can completely bypass those choices, whose class or family or insular social web of privilege exempts them from the same problems within the same place, and how their voices are not antithesis, are not counterexample to ours, but speak to the complexity of the entire system, the insular nature of so many parts of it. Answering it, too, requires knowing that it is in fact going to be different from social context to social context, that Muslim cultures have widely varying trappings, and even common norms are perpetrated and reified within varying social structures in different ways, which is why I do not here attempt to answer the question, because it has thousands of answers, told through thousands of stories.

This is why I write posts detailing personal experiences, why my posts ring with the mantra of ‘what it is like to be a…’. what it is like. I believe this is powerful rhetoric, humanizing rhetoric, to consider just what it is like, in the most minute of everyday details, to live these things, for the reader to be forced to imagine, as it were, the experience of all of it, the complexity of the social phenomena and familial dynamics interlacing the choices we have and do not have, and how they can be remedied. This is why I’m always rejuvenated to hear feedback from people in the West, especially women, who feel that there are striking parallels between their own experiences of religious or bigoted persecution and suffering and what I’ve detailed about the lives of women like me. Because it fosters understanding. This is why, in my post regarding growing up in Hezbollah culture, I present my time growing up in Southern Lebanese guerrilla warfare culture in part by drawing parallels to so much of the religious sentiment I’ve seen normalized here in the US, that people are more likely to understand, whose perpetrators and victims are not other, who make up the social fabric of a world we must interact with, relationships we cannot drop by the wayside, because they are complex, mother-daughter, father-daughter, sister-brother, mother-son, employer-neighbor-vendor-supplier-teacher-neighborhoodwatcher and so on. And it helps, at least with some people, at least in some hearts, and that’s where I’m investing. A reader sent me this message recently:

I’ve been reading your blog, and I especially loved the entry on Hezbollah and the comparison to secluded Midwestern culture and how beliefs which seem unbelievable to outsiders are normalized there. As someone from an extremely religious community in the Southern US, I’ve seen how a lot of people believe things outsiders look at and wonder how they could possibly believe, and yet a lot of these people are basically Normal People in other ways, often even with strong ideas about conviviality and family which run weirdly parallel to their particular brand of secluded groupthink and bigotry in other ways. These complications must be understood, as you said, and that kind of nuance is something I think is missing from a lot of discussions in the West about international communities.

So much Yes.

Because I haven’t yet encountered a compelling non-experiential rhetorical method for understanding how dehumanizing and oppressive value systems are constructed and packaged, in powerful ways, within various constraints that, in order to exist and work, almost universally require their victims to view them as not-such or to attribute their source to other diversionary factors. For human beings who have experienced these things to describe their effects and influences in an informed way, for them to use that information to build arguments seems to be the most effective way to me.

Because to try to imagine what it can be like to live in places and under values you don’t know or understand, and how that might dehumanize you, and why, and in what ways, and what options and conditions and constraints feed into that, and how priorities become shifted, how reduced suffering can trump intellectual rigor can trump pride can trump honesty can trump questioning can trump skepticism: No: you cannot speculate on an experience you have not even secondhand knowledge of, and with a lack of that knowledge you cannot assume fault, weakness, or guilt of the people in question to fill the gap between your lack of understanding and reality. You cannot build a pristine dichotomy between perpetrator and victim as if they two live in vacuum instead of being products of the same system that feeds in and out, creating aggressors, normalizing aggression, when the aggressors and normalized aggression are your home and your society and your country and your relationships, your chance at bodily safety, or an education, or feeling free, unencumbered, not lost. Not when these dynamics permeate, at least a little bit, every safe place you know. You cannot assume, either, that victims do not engage with, make meaning and build anew from their oppression–you cannot paint them as drawn-down and weak, as incapable of making meaning of their lives in whatever way they best can, because they are constrained. You cannot build a binary system where the only two options are perpetrator or victim either, where there isn’t a plethora of in-between experiences, and then make claims about the what it is ludicrous and self-evident for these people to believe when your standards of the normal and the absurd are upended in the societies in question.

I read Sam Harris’ Lying, I who lived for years telling massive lies day after day for my own safety, living a double life, lying in the very gestures I made, the prayers I performed, the fasts I took, lying with my smiles, with my clothing, with my very being–how much I just wanted to be straight about everything, to shout what I really felt and thought from the rooftops. And I marveled at how such a book could so aptly exist for certain societies with enough stability and privilege for it to actually possibly be a prioritized social norm to actively consider the accumulated costs of tiny lies–mind blown. And don’t get me a wrong, how wonderful a thing it is that certain human societies have progressed so far, but how unfortunately removed from reality such a book would be in other places, some of them not too far from Sam Harris’ home, within the US. The book would be utterly irrelevant for many people like me back home, because  those very caveats Harris kept making about exceptional circumstances wouldn’t be caveats anymore–not least because they are not exceptional–they would be mainstream, the norm. To think of stories, of experiences that subvert the commonly-accepted standards for normal, for absurd, that recognize the incumbency of reshuffling values and their priorities–this is one step to avoiding dehumanizing othering.

I’ve also heard several of my ex-Muslim  and atheist friends express sentiments that are not so sympathetic to the rhetoric of relating experiences, who insist that critiquing Islam is most relevantly done via an exploration of its tenets, a showing through reasoning that its core theology is untenable, immoral, unjust, and/or unlikely. I think this is a position that does its fair share in perpetuating grossly simplistic forms of eg the “Cultures don’t have rights, people have rights” argument, which prima facie seems to be right on the money, because we avidly want to insist that critiquing cultural norms and the ideologies structuring them is not only fair game, but often necessary–but it can also tend to overlook that there is a point to discourse that attempts not to wholly demonize culture: cultures are composed of people, and people live under the influence of culture such that they cannot just discard its effects, reject it or subvert it to more progressive standards at once, and deconstructing culture should occur in ways that do not end up belittling and othering the very people we are critiquing culture in order to help. And I believe that critique of ideology has its own function, and I do a fair share of it myself here on this blog, but I also believe that dissecting the veracity or morality of an ideology as such does little, on its own, by way of communicating the intensity of social problems and getting people invested in doing things to fix them, and must be paired with accounts of human lives.

I must remark that I’m not speaking of anecdote, because anecdotal evidence, even if it does get people fired up and passionate due to selection bias, is quite demonstrably a shoddy argumentative tool when it claims to speak to a larger phenomena. Clearly there is a difference between mere anecdote and personal experience that reflects, is caused by, an institutionalized system whose problems are to be addressed. I am speaking here of personal stories that address and examine their own influences and causes, that accumulate into a higher social narrative, that are demonstrably supported by a scaffolding of power-privilege and social norms beneath them, that are humanizing instances of a narrative we already have good reason to believe is true, is important.

And I do believe that claims of a similar type, eg from the Muslim apologist end, treating the matters we say harm or dehumanize us as absurd or exaggerated also come from people not knowing what it is like to have those experiences, who’d rather blame the people involved in one way or another. Someone who thinks is absurd that wearing a piece of cloth on your head should lead to suffering has no real knowledge of how being reduced to the shape of your body by other people and having your family’s honor tied up into your skin can dehumanize a person. Similarly, someone who thinks it’s absurd that bullying should lead to suicide has no real knowledge of how bullying can break down a person completely. Someone who thinks it is absurd that complimenting women on the street or finding a certain race particularly attractive can hurt people has no real knowledge of how street harassment and fetishization can dehumanize a person. Someone who thinks is absurd that “mild” sexual molestation of children can lead to PTSD and long-term pain has no real knowledge of what that experience can be like. Someone who thinks it’s absurd that being sad can involuntarily incapacitate you for months has no real knowledge of the debilitating power of depression. Someone who thinks it’s absurd that cultural appropriation can be a problem has no real knowledge of how trivializing the cultural objects used to oppress people enables their further oppression. And of course, it’s not to say that these are necessary results of any of these circumstances–context, context, context–but the problem is that they are treated with the absurdity of being unlikely or impossible instead of the prevalent if not universal phenomena that they are. And from what I have seen, although scientific research and expert commentary can prove, and do prove, things of this sort, they do not have the rhetorical power that describing what it is like does, because people find it much easier to discount statistics and studies entirely, to brush them away, than they do to ignore a personal story with a clear, robust progression.

I love depression comics, like this one, for this reason, because suddenly you’re with a humanized character you can relate to, who is often funny, amiable, incisive, and ridiculously smart, following a struggle through the ‘invisible’ parts of their lives (a giant Fuck You, by the way, to people who think mental illness must undermine intelligence or rationality or moral goodness).

And it’s not just about the understanding–it’s about the understanding as a first step. Understanding what it’s like, to be and do and experience certain things helps understand those things in precisely the ways that enable productive conversations about them. And that understanding can’t come from imagination. We just don’t have that sort of predictive power, as a species yet. We don’t know enough to predict in detail how as humans we will react to things we’ve never known before. For instance I don’t believe any woman who has not worn the hijab day in and day out, from childhood, through school and work and in public and not, understanding and grappling with it in various ways, can imagine the thousands of little bits and pieces of hurt and dehumanization that can come from it. I don’t believe that people growing up in insular white communities can have any real understanding of the pervasiveness of racism in this country, unless they intimately know and love PoC who suffer from this and see the everyday struggles that face them wherever they go–likewise for people who don’t understand the struggles of being queer etc. Some people clearly think these notions absurd, others have had radically different, positive forms of a similar experience. But it’s hard to make arguments regarding these things as they affect real people without listening to these stories, learning the hows and whys of what happens to people.

So do, do ask that question of what makes people cleave to oppressive ideology, and consider it fair, just, enlightened. But ask it seriously, ask it earnestly, ask it because you care about the people it regards–and if you don’t, then go somewhere else. This is a place for those who do.

Related:

What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is

PART TWO: What it is like to be a Muslim woman

What it is like to be an ex-Muslim woman

What it is like to grow up in Hezbollah culture

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Comment policy: I will not approve comments giving apologetic pseudo-arguments attempting to mitigate the seriousness of sexual harassment, fetishization, bullying, appropriation, mental illness etc, not least because these are examples and tangential to the post at hand, and I will no longer be drawn into debates about tangents, but also because my forum is not a place to give voice to those views, and I am not interested in educating people through their bigotries through that medium.