Sam Harris: Reinforcing Orientalist and Wahabbi Narratives

This is a guest post and reblog from Abdullah.  Abdullah grew up in a Sunni Muslim family but today identifies as a secularist. He’s a writer by passion and editor by profession. You can find his work at

In case you missed it, yesterday Sadaf Ali, Director of Community Development at the Ex-Muslims of North America, wrote a guest-post on PZ’s blog: Ben Affleck, You Are Not Helping, stressing the vital need for nuanced criticism of Islam from people who know what they’re talking about. A couple of days ago, Heina from Heinous Dealings on this network gave a concise, eloquent statement on the same event: Bill Maher/Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck/Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither, expressing what I and many of my community members feel about the inadequacy of all the people presently given platforms to weigh in on this debate.

Abdullah’s piece serves as a crucial contribution to this conversation: How factually right or wrong is Sam Harris in his critiques of Islam?:

I’m sure you’ve seen the video by now: Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Nicholas Kristof, and Michael Steele arguing about Islam and how it fits in liberal culture. In the video, Harris and Maher argue that Islam is incompatible with liberal values, and that liberals should take a harder stance against it. This essay deals specifically with the points that Sam Harris makes, arguing that they’re reductionist and erase the progress achieved in Islamic societies, past and present.

To begin with, I’d like to say that I don’t think Ben Affleck had a good response to Harris. But I also think that he recognizes his own ignorance. When Harris starts making his argument, Affleck interrupts by saying, “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” But Harris responds that he is “actually well-educated on this topic.” This, from the get-go, shows Harris’s arrogance and blindness to his subjective and limited standpoint.

Harris then goes on to say that “Islam at the moment is the motherload of bad ideas.” This is not a new argument, and goes all the way back to the Age of Enlightenment. In “The erasure of Islam,” Ziauddin Sardar argues that many of the biggest Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, attacked Islam for being “the embodiment of fanaticism, anti-humanism, and irrationalism.” (Source) Sardar argues that, contrary to this view, the idea of the Enlightenment itself was actually a result of Islamic influence on Western thought:

“Islam developed a sophisticated system of teaching law and humanism that involved not just institutions such as the university, with its faculties of law, theology, medicine and natural philosophy, but also an elaborate method of instruction including work-study courses, a curriculum that included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, medicine, and moral philosophy, and mechanisms for the formation of a humanist culture such as academic associations, literary circles, clubs and other coteries that sustain intellectuals and the literati. The adab literature and institutions were, in fact, what enlightenment was all about in Islam.”

At first glance, this definition of adab seems strange. Today, the Arabic word adab simply means literature. However, historically, the term had a different meaning:

“Nearly all arabists have accepted that it derives from the plural adab of da’b, which means manner, habit, condition, state, or behavior, but originally conveyed the sense of way, path, or track, exactly as Sunna originally meant road, path, etc. Sunna came to be used for religious purposes, while da’b retained its figurative sense of manner or condition and adab was reserved for something similar to Sunna, but in a secular context. Adab indicated a set of rules inherited from the ancestors which comprised practical ethics, separated from all Koranic and traditional teachings, and also the sum of educational elements needed by a man [sic] who wanted to behave appropriately in all circumstances of life.” (Source)

It’s worth stressing that adab was a secular endeavour, a path towards the truth that can be seen as one that is parallel to the religious path. And that’s why, as Sardar argues, “One cannot have a revolt on behalf of reason in Islam because reason is central to its worldview: reason is the other side of revelation…”

Adab played such a large role in Muslim culture to the point that Wahhabism, the extremist ideology that today inspires many Islamic terrorists, most notably members of ISIS, has anti-adab beliefs at its very core. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, its founder, believed that the intent of adab “was the glorification of pre-Islamic ancestors and practices rather than God.” (Source)

Sam Harris argues that “jihadist” Muslims are at the “centre” of Islam, with political Islamists just behind them, and moderate, day-to-day Muslims behind those. This has the implication that violent Muslims have the true understanding of Islam, and all other Muslims are imperfect; that being a “jihadist” is the ideal, pure version of Islam. That’s a fundamentally flawed understanding of Islamic thought and history. “Jihadist” Muslims have never been the core of Islam, much to their chagrin. By claiming that the violent, irrational Muslims are the centre of Islam, Harris is not only reinforcing the European colonialist narrative, but also bolstering the Islamic extremists’ own narrative and declaring them the winners.

Despite Wahhabist claims, anti-intellectualism is a divorce from an Islamic tradition that spans all the way back to at least the ninth century. (Source)

The irony of Wahhabism is that in its fight to purify Islam from secular influences, it erases Islamic history. Islamic thought is intertwined with secular thought. One cannot erase secular thought from Islamic culture without erasing huge chunks of Islamic history.

There’s no doubt that Islam today is facing a decline in advancement, but that is in large part due to the influence of Wahhabism on Islamic culture globally, which cannot be overstated. Wahhabism is not only the ideology of ISIS, but also the ideology of Saudi Arabia, one of the U.S.’s main allies. And thanks to its immense wealth, Saudi Arabia has managed to infiltrate cultures all around the world, including in the U.S. itself, where the Saudi embassy distributes hundreds of hateful books in American libraries and mosques. (Source)

It would be absurd, however, to equate Islam with Wahhabism. Muslims today continue to fight against this puritanical malice, and there are many Muslim thinkers who keep the tradition of adab alive. One such prominent figure is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a Sudanese-American professor who specializes in human rights in Islam. In line with the adab movement, An-Na’im argues that Islam, human rights, and secularism are interdependent. (Source)

Harris also talks about the political views of Muslims around the world, cherry-picking statistics, thus drawing an oversimplified picture. He starts by claiming that “78 percent of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should’ve been prosecuted.” What he’s trying to do is portray a uniform view of Muslims opposing the publication of the cartoons depicting Muhammad. The truth, however, is more complex. In a Q&A the BBC wrote about the events, it stated that “some Muslims have accused protestors of overreacting.” (Source) It lists examples of Muslims showing support for the publication of the cartoons, some going so far as to republish them:

“A weekly newspaper in Jordan reprinted some of the cartoons and urged Muslims to ‘be reasonable’.

“Websites produced by and for Muslims have shown the cartoons or linked to them. One liberal website said Muslims were making a mountain out of a molehill.

“Some Muslims, mainly in Europe, have supported the re-publication of the images so that individual Muslims can make their own minds up and welcomed the debate on the issues that the cartoons have raised.”

There is, in fact, a long history of Muslims depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In her paper “From the Literal to the Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammad’s Portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid Miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman Art,” Wijdan Ali details the depictions of the Prophet throughout the ages by Muslim civilizations. She writes, “The earliest depiction of the Prophet Muhammad that has reached us is from the Arabic version of Jami’ Al-Tawarikh dated 1307…. In one of its miniatures, the Prophet is shown replacing the black stone in the Ka’ba.” (Source)

Ali goes on to detail and give visual examples of depictions of the Prophet from the Ilkhanid Dynasty in the 1200’s all the way to the Ottoman Dynasty in the 1600’s.

Talking about “78 percent of British Muslims” as if they’re representative of Islam missing a large part of Islamic culture. It neglects the fact that Muslims had no problem with depicting Muhammad for centuries. It neglects the fact that many Muslims today still don’t, some actively supporting such artistic freedom.

Moving on, Harris discusses how Muslim societies treat women and gay people, an argument often touted by interventionists to justify the invasion and colonization of Muslim countries. While it’s certainly true that women and LGBTQ folks are oppressed in many Muslim-majority countries, this argument misses the nuances and differing political opinions among Muslims. There are many initiatives in Muslim societies that advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people. Two examples are Meem and Helem in Lebanon. There is, as well, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), whose members include Daayiee Abdullah, an openly gay imam. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is yet another LGBTQ rights organization, dedicated towards providing mosques inclusive of LGBTQ Muslims. (Source)

Defending Harris, Bill Maher claims that progressive Muslims “are afraid to speak out,” but that’s clearly not true. There are many prominent progressive Muslim writers. When it comes to gender and sexual diversity issues, besides Daayiee Abdullah, Irshad Manji and Shereen El-Faki are two popular figures among the many that represent the voices of progress in Islam. Shereen El-Feki is the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, and Irshad Manji is the author of several books, including The Trouble With Islam Today, a critique of Islam from the perspective of a Muslim. Manji is also the founder of Project Ijtihad, which aims to “develop the world’s first leadership network for reform-minded Muslims” by reviving Islam’s tradition of independent thought, known as ijtihad. (Source)

When it comes to women’s issues in Muslim societies, Tunisia this year passed a progressive constitution celebrated as a breakthrough for women’s rights. Article 46 of the Tunisian constitution explicitly outlines Tunisia’s commitment to gender equality, in the political, economic, and private spheres:

“The State shall commit to protecting women’s rights and seek to support and develop them.

“The State shall guarantee equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of all various responsibilities of all fields.

“The State shall seek to achieve equal representation for women in elected councils.

“The State shall take the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women.” (Source)

The constitution also “guarantee[s] freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices,” and “commit[s] to preventing calls of takfeer [calling another Muslim an unbeliever] and incitement to hatred and violence and confronting them.”

This can be seen as a victory for progressive Muslims against Wahhabism, which uses politics of takfeer to justify sectarian violence.

The Tunisian Constituent Assembly voted overwhelming in favour of the new constitution, with 200 members of the assembly voting for it, 12 voting against, and 4 abstaining. And 85 of those who voted in favour of the constitution are members of Ennahda Movement, an Islamist organization. Only one member of Ennahda voted against, and another abstained. (Source) Evidently, it’s possible for Islamists to be progressive.

Add to this the fact that the President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, is a human rights activist and member of Congress for the Republic, a secularist party, and we see an image of Tunisian Islamists and secularists cooperating towards progress. This is in sharp contrast to the picture Sam Harris likes to draw of Muslims as people stuck in the seventh century.

Even when we look at conservative Islamist parties, we cannot look at voting trends and support for political parties from a single lens, namely that of religion. A study conducted on the support base of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) concluded that “support for Islamist parties is fluid. On the one hand, it depends on factors relating to the policies offered by a specific party and how credible the party is to the voters. On the other hand, it is influenced by factors that vary across countries, such as, for instance, the size of the welfare organizations of the Islamist organizations associated with the party.” (Source)

It’s also important to keep in mind the role Islamist parties play in political systems around the Muslim world. Islamist parties are seen by many as opposition parties, parties that call for dismantling the status quo. It’s this view that led voters to support Islamist parties following the revolutions of the Arab Spring. In the conclusion of the study on the PJD, the researchers wrote that “the strength displayed by the Moroccan Islamists in 2002 – when it doubled the number of votes received – was largely the result of positioning itself as a credible opposition. This might be true for other Islamist parties as well, given that other opposition groups have largely been co-opted and regimes in power lack legitimacy.”

When Harris talks about “20 percent” of Muslims supporting Islamism, he’s neglecting the socioeconomic and political realities of Muslims, thus turning them into fanatical ideologues, ones driven purely by religion.* This is an incredibly orientalist, reductionist worldview, as are his beliefs on Muslims regarding science and reason and women’s and LGBTQ rights.

Sam Harris draws a picture of Muslims that reinforces the European colonialist narrative, reinforces the Wahhabist narrative—both of which reduce the entirety of the history of Islam to one driven by religious fanaticism and ideology, both of which are ideologically driven fantasies that racialize Muslims by lumping them all together and ignoring the differences and nuances and rich and vast history of Islamic progress, both of which are utterly and incredibly and fundamentally oversimplified and wrong.


*Hiba’s note: I’ve been working on a piece addressing this topic, but on a more narrow scale: Why do Muslim women seem to subscribe to and have affinity towards norms and values that oppress them? It will be a long piece, with a table of contents, and probably the most significant essay, in my own estimation, that I will have written in 2014. I can’t wait until I am able to release it.

PS: Since I’m still trying to deal with mental health issues etc, and this means I’m not doing much writing myself, I am working on providing more valuable guest posts in order to shed light on the voices of ex-Muslims and/or reformist and progressive Muslims here. Stay tuned. I’m excited.

Let It Go: I’m Never Going Back ‘Home’

This post is for me, and it’s about empowerment.

My power ballad is Let It Go from Disney’s Frozen. I mean, of course it is.

Like Elsa, my body was suppressed, controlled, and tyrannized over by others well into adulthood because its power was feared and mistrusted–a manifestation of the ignorance and oppressiveness surrounding sexuality and gender roles pervasive in my parent culture.  Islam in all its orthodox forms is critically wrong about science, morality, psychology, gender, sexuality, and human rights. This is, I think, undeniable, and I view myself as wholly capable of tearing apart any argument to the contrary.

And like Elsa, my first months after breaking free were a flurry of power, indulgence, and glory in my body. I dressed scantily, drank, partied, fucked men, fucked women, fucked men and women at once, blasphemed, cooked feasts of sin with very haram food and ate them with infidels, and so on and so on and so on. I remain a polyamorous, kinky queer. I still celebrate Eid with bacon and beer (and I’m going to this weekend. Happy Eid Al-Adha!). I am going to keep starting new projects in protest of Islam and Islamic modesty norms–the ex-hijabi photo journal is only the first. I’m going to keep speaking on podcasts and the radio and at conferences, and go to after-parties where I’ll drink and dance and kiss strangers under the snow.

But Let It Go manifests much more than mere breaking away from bodily oppression for me, or even one critical stage in the process of gaining freedom and autonomy and the power that comes with it.  It is a statement that this is the way things are and I’m not going back and I’m going to be vocal, immodest, and public about this until forevertimes so you better just deal with it and this is my space, my time.

Because for the last few years in Lebanon, my life was this:

don't let them in

♫ Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know ♪ ♫



I hid everything about my thoughts, feelings, affinities, life. I pretended to be modest and chaste when I was the opposite. And I mean, my family still has no idea of even a QUARTER of the shit I hid from them in my college years. I have no shame in this. I pretended to be religious and faked all of the rituals in order to gain my family’s approval and thus preferential treatment, in order to secure the privileges that would eventually allow me to give everything the finger and get the fuck out of there.

I have NO shame in this. I lied, lied, lied in order to trick my family into removing their controlling grasp from my body and life, and I would do it all over again, because the people I lied to did not deserve either truth or respect.

It should come as no surprise that I have stalkers and haters from among people who used to be part of my Lebanon life. It should come as no surprise that many of them seek only to do malice and harm to me, because they can’t fucking stand that I’m out here living on my own without need or regard for them, and/or they can’t fucking stand that I unequivocally condemn my father as an abusive, controlling, immoral monster and his ideology along with him.

But seriously, they read every post on this page and track my movements across the web, even when they’re wholly incapable of understanding the content due to language barriers or inadequate education, attempting to use what they’ve learned or think they’ve learned in order to influence those close to me.

y u so obsessedOthers of my stalkers view themselves as being well-meaning, perhaps because they don’t view freedom of conscience and bodily autonomy to be meaningful rights that ought not to be impugned upon. These are the people who seek to control me and think it is an act of love: they seek to convert me, bring me back to their ‘way’, blah blah blah.

And this latter position is what baffles me most of all. Because you know, it’s not like I haven’t been there. It’s not like I haven’t lived within these norms and understood their so-called justifications before rejecting them.

One thing that should be very clear is that even if I were somehow forced to go back ‘home’, it could only ever mean going back to acting and lying…it will never mean accepting, appreciating, respecting, or liking your religion or values, Oh-Stalkers-Who-Are-Reading-This-Right-Now. It will only ever mean hiding, lying, deceiving, tricking all of you again out of sheer self-preservation. It will only mean that I will conceal EVERYTHING and lie about EVERYTHING. You will NEVER win. You will never, ever, EVER win. I will NEVER go back voluntarily and I will never see light where there is none.

I'll riseAnd I will plan to escape all over again. And I’ll keep building new plans if the old ones fail. I have a lot of practice in that regard. And if I can’t escape, then I will fuck shit up where I am.

But this should be easy, because it should be plain to see that I am utterly irredeemable. I have never been the girl my family thought me to be. I’m one of those people who was a problem kid for conservative parents from the start. I fluctuated between atheism and belief until my late teens when I rested upon atheism. I cheated when it came to fasting, praying, and the hijab…I’d sneak cups of water from the bathroom in our house in Saudi during Ramadan, I’d put on my prayer clothes and spread out my rug and just hang around reading in my room, and would jump back onto the rug if I heard footsteps approaching. I would layer my clothes with a long jacket or something on top so that I could take it off and just be wearing a long-sleeved blouse and pants (much too revealing for my parents to accept) at school. I forged my parents’ signature for sex ed in 7th grade, and read everything I could about sex in magazines in the library at recess when I was 12 and 13. As a young child I would argue with God in my head, telling him that if he really existed and really had all of these horrible, inhumane rules, then I honestly didn’t care if he wanted to put me in hell, he could just shove it. My whole life I lied and hid and lied and hid and did things that I wasn’t supposed to do.

And I don’t particularly care how my stalkers choose to interpret the above, as long as they understand that I am not redeemable in their eyes. I don’t care if you want to think I’ve been possessed by an imaginary spirit from another dimension. I don’t care if you want to think I’m ill, evil, or just corrupt beyond repair–go ahead. But know that barring sheer force, I will never go back to your ‘home':

never going back


♫ My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back,
The past is in the past!♪ ♫

Like Elsa, I’ve let my hair down, literally.
fuck it all






And like Elsa, I’ve cast off the heavy clothes, the metaphorical gloves that have kept me from touching and being touched, the cloth obscuring my body, the norms condemning sexuality, beauty, power, boldness. Did you know that it is an insult to call a girl bold where I come from? It has the same connotation as the word ‘slut’. Fuck that shit, THIS is my jam:











Awww yiss. Mothafucking sexiness.

perfect girl is goneAnd she’s never coming back. I know it maek u mad. Maybe try to Let It Go.

Because no matter what, I’m not leaving.

I STAYSo let the storm rage on :)



If you like the work I do, consider donating a small amount to help keep this blog running. I can really use all the help I can get:


Some Bad News and Some Good News

I have deemed it appropriate to offer something small by way of explanation for my silence on this platform, especially so soon after joining it. It’s what you’d expect: depression and non-functionality and struggling and such.

The bad news is that I think that it will yet be a few weeks before I’ll be able to come back here.

The good news is, I think it will be well worth the wait.

For one, when this dry spell is over there will be plenty of new material. I already have three essays written to near-completion. I blocked on them about 70% of the way through. But they are there, are already drafted, and it will only be a matter of fixing them up once I’m up to it. I have several more that are just bits and pieces of thoughts and paragraphs, but they are promising seeds for future blogs.

More importantly, I am currently attempting to find a way to restructure my living situation so that in the future I will be able to spend what creative energy I have on this blog and secular activism exclusive to other work. I can’t say much more about this yet, but I have plans, and in a few weeks I hope that you shall be able to expect me to give priority to this space second to my health and family.

In the meantime, you can ask me questions about specific things here, and I will probably be able to respond to most of them. Personal questions are okay.:

I’m very sorry if I have let any of you down. I do feel responsibility to this platform, and I do not take that responsibility lightly.

I also would like to thank those of you who responded to my last post asking for information about how Muslims are perceived. It was highly useful and has informed my approach greatly.

Thank you very much for listening.


Tell Me What You and Your Friends Think of Muslims

Readers–I have been formulating a couple of particularly complicated essays for this blog, but I keep running into this obstacle where I keep getting surprised by people I talk to about this stuff, maybe people like you. I keep getting surprised because I don’t have a very good conception of What People Think About Muslims, so learning new information (especially information I couldn’t have thought of on my own) along those lines has the ability to make me pause, to consider not only my approach to an argument, but the content I must include. It’s hard to make those choices when I have a blind spot for what information people are missing or resting upon. And sometimes I can’t even conceive of what my audience knows or doesn’t know or thinks or doesn’t think.  So here is a serious request for information to help me further define my rhetoric and blogging goals and approaches.

I would like to hear about perceptions towards Muslims, especially Muslim women, in the Middle East. I am looking for responses that are either from people who have never lived in or significantly interacted with a Muslim-majority society outside of the West, or describing the positions of people who fit those criteria (your roommate, your mom, etc). ‘People’ here just means one or more contemporary human beings–it doesn’t have to be a group of people, and the perception doesn’t have to be something that a lot of people think.

Information can include but need not be limited to the following:

  • How people think Muslims in the Middle East dress–including the type and fabric and styles of their garments, the role and significance of that clothing, any information on how dress varies or does not vary across class, gender, private, professional spheres etc.
  • How people think Muslims in the Middle East live–what their homes and cities and jobs and schools look like. What kind of work they do, with what kind of schedules. What kind of transportation systems they have. Anything about economy and infrastructure and landscape and social norms.
  • How people think the urban and rural landscapes in the Muslim-majority Middle East look and function.
  • How people think race, class, religion, and gender hierarchies are structured in the Muslim-majority Middle East, including how members of different groups behave towards each other.
  • How people think Muslims in the Middle East spend their leisure or pleasure time, including popular or group pastimes.
  • How people think the governments of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are structured, including very specific details re: how people think Muslims in the Middle East think about matters of foreign policy, fiscal policy, big government, services, taxes, and the like.
  • How people think Muslims in the Middle East perceive their own laws, lives, and norms, including if and how and why they dissent or conform.
  • How people think family and community structures are like among Muslims in the Middle East. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, childrearing, etc. How families are divided into homes and provided for. How people join for meals. Community development and activism projects. Etc.
  • How people think Muslims in the Middle East read, write, and think. What is their literature and music and art and cultural consciousness like? What is their collegiate culture like?

Anything else that comes to mind is welcome too. Go ahead and answer if you have something in mind!

If you are interested in helping me out but have questions, please read the following guidelines in full. If your question is NOT answered then please ask it in the comments and I will address it. So, FAQ:

  1. This is NOT a request for Necessarily True Information, but a request for information about What People Think. This means that Stereotypes Are Good Information, as are Falsehoods. This means you can freely provide answers even if you suspect or are certain that the information in question is mistaken, reductive, offensive, or has other types of problems, but I also encourage you to answer with information you feel to be particularly circumspect, empathetic, and evidenced. I am NOT particularly looking for perspectives from experts rather than laypeople.
  2. This is NOT a request for information for your position or stance on the perspective in question. You need not provide a judgment or explain whether or how a perception you are describing is or isn’t misguided, and it’s okay to provide information that you are not sure about yourself. You don’t need to tell me if you are sure or unsure either.
  3. Justifications for belief in the information you provide are welcome but not required.*
  4. That being said, nuance is not required. Straightforward or simple perceptions are welcome without comment.
  5. Information that indicates what people DON’T think of or consider or think about Muslims is also useful.
  6. Information that indicates what people think about non-Western Muslim-majority societies NOT in the Middle East is not exactly what I’m looking for right now, but is welcome in any case, and will be useful for other things.
  7. Information that indicates a CONFLATION or CONFUSION, even implicitly, between Middle Eastern and other non-Western Muslim-majority societies is also welcome.
  8. Information that indicates a CONFLATION or CONFUSION, even implicitly, between Arabs and Muslims, or Muslims and other ethnicities, or Arabs and other ethnicities associated with Muslim groups is also useful to me.
  9. I will not take your comment as an endorsement. I will not take the information you provide to be indicative of your personal beliefs or positions and you can expect to receive no criticism of the information you provide.
  10. If you *do* want to make your position clear because you fear others will judge you even if I will not, then feel free to, but know that a) I will not use the knowledge of your stance in any way, and b) if you identify yourself as holding a certain belief, you exempt yourself from my promise to withhold criticism of it. It’s worth knowing I will only critique your positions if you voluntarily claim them as yours and if I find it necessary to do so because they are deserving of it. I strongly suggest using a ‘some people think that x’ sentence structure as useful for separating the information you provide from your stance on it if that is your desire.
  11. This is also not a request for information in any *statistical* sense. I am not attempting to measure the frequency or commonality of certain beliefs, so even if you have never encountered more than one person, possibly yourself, who has the conception you are describing, then your information is still valuable to me. If you have the information but don’t know why you or someone else believes it, or you don’t know from where that belief comes, even in a vague way, that is fine too. I’m not attempting to measure influences in any manner, so being unsure why you think something will not affect the usefulness of your information to me.
  12. I am posting this partially to look for perceptions outside of the circles I commonly frequent. This means that you are encouraged to ask friends, family, or even strangers who are differently-minded than you and report back.
  13. If you are struggling with phrasing because you find the position you are describing to be problematic or distasteful in some way, it might help you to know that I prefer a description that may be more offensive if tempering your language will result in loss of connotation or a softened version of the real position.

Thank you very much! I look forward to your responses.


*That being said, please only provide explanations if you think you are particularly skilled at modeling other minds in that regard, or you have heard the justification from people who have held the position, or you have held or do hold the position with its justification yourself. If you cannot understand why someone might plausibly believe the information you provide, then please do not try to explain it. Explanations like ‘because people are ignorant’ are not useful to me. They tell me nothing about what approaches I might use to temper misinformation because they tell me nothing about what the person believes and knows or doesn’t know that leads them to that conclusion.

In Defense of the Ex-Muslim Story as a Cultural Archetype

I believe we ex-Muslims are developing an entire genre and canon of work. 

I’ve come to think of a narrative similar to mine as the archetypal ex-Muslim woman story. The more ex-Muslims I meet, the more of their work I read, I begin to see it: the circumstances that would most likely explain such a sudden break in lifestyle arise again and again as common, classic: a person from a particularly insular and traumatized Muslim community, who has access to a good education and some connection to the West, enabling that person with powerful tools for critique and the real-world circumstances that  will allow them to come to a place where they might finally speak while also giving them a particularly powerful sociopolitical motivation for doing so.

I’ve met many people who have broken away from Islamic norms, and while there much variation in their motivations and experiences, this seems to be the most common and resonant narrative. And I have come to think that we are in the process of developing an entire genre, the collective work of people dissenting to Islam from within Muslim communities rather than purely as the work of a colonialist and then post-colonialist perspective.

I’m sure we’ve always existed, but have not always had the means to emerge with our discourse, so silenced and taboo have our issues been within our own communities. It is still difficult–looking at my own story, I am still both terrified and astonished at how different it all could have been if not for a series of lucky circumstances–I was very close to being raised and undereducated in a refugee camp. But it is more than luck that is allowing us to speak now. A few years ago you never heard of people with apostasy stories, and people like us believed we were unique because we were so isolated.

[Read more…]

The Struggle of Wanting to be White

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories--wraps, turbans, belts, shawls--in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories–wraps, turbans, belts, shawls–in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

CN: Racism

I struggle with whiteness as a person of color. I struggle to resist allowing it to define my movements, my identities. I struggle the same reason many other non-white people do: because whiteness is a pervasive force shaping this world. This means I’m constantly battling my own internalized racism, my whitewashing. It means that while I don’t hate myself because I’m not white anymore, I hate myself for still wishing I was white so that I can be ‘normal’, accepted, safe.

Some days and weeks this struggle is harder than others. It’s been particularly tough this week as I’ve delved into arguments, articles, discourse regarding blackness in America. I’ve learned much, but also found a lot that resonates with my experiences as an Arab woman growing up in a strangely white world while still in the Middle East.

I think of how I grew up surrounded by anglophone culture gob-smack in the middle of Saudi Arabia because I was an expat who went to an American school. How everything I read, saw, and watched was about the lives and concerns of white people. How my Muslim (read:Arab) presentation as one of the few hijabis in the entire school was a source of shame and pain and sadness to me because of how thoroughly I was ostracized, ridiculed for it. How, when I first discovered that I wanted to be a writer, the first stories I wrote had exclusively white characters in Western nations because those were the main actors in every bit of history and literature I was being taught as important.

For the longest time, it didn’t even occur to me that stories about brown people could be relevant, useful, or necessary.

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Like Water on a Cabbage Leaf: Islam and Mental Health Stigma

An examination of mental health stigma as a necessary product of maintaining Muslim norms

Content warnings tags also include: physical abuse, imprisonment, interrogation, forced hospitalization, and overmedication.  Also note that my analysis below concerns a quite conservative form of Muslim society as described in the below culture and context and is not to be taken as universal to all forms of Islam or temporally absolute. Also note that this is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive post. I’m describing the roots of a phenomenon. I have no solutions yet.


contemplationThere is no doubt in my mind that mental health stigma is one of the most serious cultural problems in various parts of the Middle East today, and that it ties in quite neatly to our conceptions of autonomy and human competence. I understand why this is the case. When I say ‘understand’ here, this means I recognize why there is ideological impetus for mental health to be viewed in the way that it is. That is a curious sentence now that I read it back, but I have come to realize, after long years of struggling with my own depression and psychosis to the obliviousness of those surrounding me, that our cultural language in my home culture is steeped in attitudes that are both necessary for the promulgation of a properly Muslim lifestyle and radically out of tune with what we know about human psychology.

First let me trace out the extent of the problem, before I tackle its roots. Here is an anecdote for you. The following had to happen before for my parents to finally cave and get me medical help:

I ran away from home. I was an adult, though barely (I left maybe 2 months after my 18th birthday). My dad was in the States for work and my mom got Hezbollah involved right away. It’s a long story, but with a lot of deception and trickery, they had found me and had me holed up in an apartment in the middle of the Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb and the Hezb’s stronghold near the capital, basically keeping me there until my father could come claim me.

He did. In the subsequent weeks, my parents began their interrogation process, because the explanation I gave for running away was unacceptable. After all, I lived in a society where leaving home is unthinkable for an unmarried Muslim girl. I told them I wanted my own life, wanted self-determination, that I was depressed living among them–none of this made any sense or was acceptable to them. Note that I was still Muslim at this point–none of it was about leaving Islam, though of course my definition of Islam at the time would have been shocking to their understanding of it. But my actions were in such violation of what was permissible that they did not even question the use of force, control, and extortion to try to get to the bottom of what was going on.

They kept me locked up in a tiny room in the dark for weeks, taking me out only to tie me up, beat me, and much worse in attempts to extort ‘the truth’ about my motivations from me. My dad asked if I was a prostitute, pregnant, etc. Those were the sorts of confessions they tried to wring out of me, because depravity was the only explanation in their minds for my actions. I was already depressed. I was already psychotic, and had been for a few years at that point without telling anybody; strangely, the voices at first were a comfort, the only thing I had that was my own, that nobody at all ever anywhere could access or influence or touch. Being locked up in a tiny room meant I was sitting in my own blood and shit and urine sometimes. Unsurprisingly, over the course of weeks and eventually months, I withdrew so much into myself that I even stopped physically reacting to beatings. I was like a rag doll. It was at this point that something clicked in my father’s mind: maybe I was not responding because I was incapable of doing so.

Up until that point, he thought I was just being stubborn, willful, cruel. That I was being a vicious, evil woman by not submitting to the interrogations. He quite literally could not conceive of another reason.

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A Post Wherein I Publicly Thank Alex Gabriel

You might have noticed that my new banner is up, courtesy of Alex Gabriel. I think it’s beautiful, and captures my spirit perfectly. Alex knows me, and knows what’s up.


Glowing, calm, Arabesque. Isn’t that something. He created that typeface himself, painstakingly shaping the letters.

But it’s not the only masthead Alex designed; he did Heina’s too. In my inaugural post, I cracked a joke about being commonly mistaken for Heina, as we are both queer, polyamorous, ex-hijabi ex-Muslim women with similar names who just joined the Freethought Blogs.

Luckily, Alex turned the masthead-making into an anthropological project of sorts, knowing that he wasn’t just branding our blogs, but our selves. He made a point of capturing each of our very different differences in ways that gave both of our characters justice. A quote:

Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.

How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?

Alex almost has me believing that people have essences. He writes beautifully about his methods, inadvertently giving the most touching testimony to both our characters in the process. At least, I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure you didn’t plan this entire thing, Alex. I’m sure you didn’t turn a couple of women of color into your guinea pigs on purpose.

I kid. In fact, Alex gives remarkably astute thought to our respective racial representations, given the stereotypes and conflations Heina and I are always struggling to subvert in our daily lives; yes, even with our clothing, our writing styles, in every way we publicly present ourselves. His commentary on his thought process is fascinating and incredibly on-point.

Go take a look at Heina’s kick-ass masthead and read the rest. The writing is just as well-crafted as the banners.


What it is like to be a Muslim woman: Muricaversary Edition

Today is my ‘Muricaversary’, marking 2 years to the day from my landing in the US from Lebanon. Since this also marks my first ‘real’ post at FTB, I thought it would be fitting to publish a new version of the first essay that went viral on the old Between A Veil and a Dark Place. This piece won me many of my loyal readers and brought in hundreds of comments and messages from people who found that this piece spoke to them, resonated with them.

That’s not the only reason I want to re-issue this piece. This piece is iconic for me, in many ways. It marks the first time I was able to write about trauma as a Muslim woman with any measure of success. It is also grapples with the struggle to realize that things have actually changed, to come to terms with having autonomy and the right to self-determination–things I never thought I’d have to struggle to come to terms with. It is in that sense definitely a piece on Freedom. It is a piece of learning and growing, which is why I think it’s apt for today.

This is an edited, expanded, and more philosophical version of the original essay. You can also find the new version in print at 580 Split, which is sold online and in Bay Area bookstores. I also later wrote a Part Two, a defense/rationale of the title, and a sister essay on being ex-Muslim.


What it is Like to be a Muslim Woman, and Why We Know What Freedom Is

By Hiba Krisht



I have keys.

When I moved to the United States around two years ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this.

I have keys.

I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I like.

I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them their daughter is roaming loose.

I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.

There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, to call me a liar, to use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions.

Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.

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A Couple of Comings-Out

I’d just like to quickly announce two things that have come out today that I am quite excited about.

The first is my appearance in the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Hour alongside Muhammad Syed, Director of Operations of the Ex-Muslims of North America. We talk at length about being ex-Muslim, creating community, and challenges, struggles, and misapprehensions facing Muslim-majority countries and communities today. We talk about interfaith interplay in Muslim-majority countries, about anti-Muslim bigotry and apologism preventing critique of Islam, how both of those manifest, why and how they both need to be resisted, and more. Check out the podcast here:

The second is a little personal. Not many of my readers know this, but in my personal and professional life, I was a writer and editor of fiction before I started getting into the sort of literary-narrative nonfiction critique I do in this blog project. Today I have a short story out in The Kenyon Review, one of the world’s leading literary journals, and I’m bursting with pride. The story takes place in my hometown Beirut and explores Muslim-Christian tensions surrounding a rape. Enjoy:


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