A double anniversary

The first anniversary of the momentous introduction of marriage equality across the United States on 26 June 2015, approaches. This might be an opportune moment to share a bit more of my personal story (with my wife’s permission).

Nine days ago we celebrated the first anniversary of our wedding on 14 June 2015. My wife is Australian and I, as readers here already know, am British. We could have married in the UK, but for us, this was a great deal more than just our love and our marriage. I’d wanted to get married in California as a mark of acknowledgement of that state’s brave role in the long struggle for gay rights and marriage equality. Apart from that, my vanity demanded a Marriage Certificate that said, “State of California” in big letters across the top. Both of us have always been especially fond of San Francisco, although up till then, we’d never been there together, and as it turned out, she wanted a Marriage Certificate that said, “City of San Francisco” on it. How convenient for both of us.

It was the 14 June 2014 when we got together (at the Shanghai Pride Opening Party, no less), and June 2013 when we first met (at the Shanghai Pride Closing Party). It took exactly five days together for us to be sure that we were right for each other. Far be it from us to introduce discord into the music of the spheres. So naturally, our wedding was going to be on 14 June in San Francisco.  We also knew that the US Supreme Court would rule around that time, expecting either the 25th or the 29th. We were hoping for the 25th, a Thursday, as San Francisco Pride would be the 27th-28th. What an absolutely mind-blowing Pride that would be, and we wanted to be part of it.

Our wedding was small — sixteen guests — and held in the Sausalito Women’s Club on 14 June 2015, as we had planned, and officiated by my dear friend (we have known each other since doing our PhDs together in the UK in the early 90s). We had written our own vows and I went first, reading mine to her. She read hers to me, which was truly moving, but then she totally broadsided me by singing the rest! I could feel it welling up. I fought it. My lower lip trembled. I fought it hard. I couldn’t breathe properly. I was determin—and whoosh! the floodgates were open. Some of my dignity was salvaged by the waterproof mascara, and I settled for that. Only afterwards did I realise that everyone had been crying! It was such an amazing wedding and everyone was so much part of it. We couldn’t have wished for better. By the end of the day, we had our Marriage Certificate that says, “State of California” across the top, and “City and County of San Francisco” beneath that.

Only right at the end of our wedding, when our friend made a speech and referred to how momentous this modest event was, that we thought again of marriage equality. It had been largely absent from our thoughts up till then, even when the officiant said, “I now declare you wife and wife.” The entire ceremony was just about our love, and our friends sharing that moment in its journey. This is despite my having followed developments on the marriage equality front in obsessive detail for two years solid. So much so that I had predicted the ruling that did, indeed, come to pass (although I’d predicted a 7:2 split — it was 5:4, and it came on the 26th, not the 25th). Early on the morning of the 26th, we turned on the television in our hotel room to see President Obama saying some pretty amazing things and the camera cutting away to crowds awash with emotion and scenes awash with rainbow colours. My God, we hugged each other so hard and screamed so loudly we almost injured ourselves a mere twelve days into our brand new marriage. Our emotions went way beyond euphoric. This was off the scales.

And then San Francisco Pride just exploded. We had never been to a SF Pride before and had both promised ourselves to attend one one day. And what a Pride the one should turn out to be! Yes, we do indeed have much to be proud of, not least the anniversary that we will celebrate in three days’ time. For this post, I want to focus only on these positive, uplifting and energising experiences.

With love to you all.



Update: My wife has just asked me to specifically point out that we couldn’t get married in Australia. She wants this mentioned because she often finds people asking her why we didn’t get married in her home country. People who do not keep up with such news are generally surprised to learn that in Australia, gay people cannot marry whom they love, a notion that jars with their image of that country and the values they expect that society to hold.

My next big read is “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world” by Shadi Hamid

After finishing the wonderful Why I am not a Muslim, by Ibn Warraq, which I’d bet Obama has read, I’m now about to order Islamic Exceptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world, by Shadi Hamid. There is much in Carlos Lozada’s review to sway any doubters, but the one message I’d be looking for in other reviews of this promising book is:

Anyone assuming that Islam will necessarily follow the path of Christianity — that is, that it will undergo a reformation that channels the faith into the private realm — is likely to be disappointed. “Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics,” Hamid writes, simply and provocatively. “Islam is different.”

Indeed — a point this blog has been trying to make since its inception. I very much look forward to reading Hamid’s perspective. But the review alone is already causing me to re-examine my understanding of Muslim identity, something that I hold to be inherently paradoxical. According to Lozada, Hamid talks about,

…an identity crisis that recurs among Islamist groups. “These movements must demonstrate ‘moderation’ to secular elites, international actors, and any number of other skeptics,” Hamid writes. “Their conservative base, on the other hand, wants a dose of identity, ideology, and religion, and if not a dose then at least a nod to the movement’s ‘essence.’ ” Perhaps in part because of this tension, Tunisia has been a steady source of foreign fighters going into Syria, a sad result for the Arab Spring’s supposed lone democratic success story.

This is making me rethink the attraction ISIS holds for Western Muslims. Could it be that in ISIS they see “Muslim” without the caveats, without the qualifications, without the apologies, and without the justifications. Muslim qua Muslim, unrepentant, unbeholded to anyone, defined in their own terms, entirely self-referential. All the Western world’s outrage against “barbarism”—do these kufaar think they know better than Allah? Allah has granted that Muslims may once again be feared, alhamdulillah (they’re not entirely wrong about that). In short, does the simplicity of ISIS offer the Western Muslim a way out of the quagmire that is the modern Muslim identity? Perhaps Hamid can help me answer this question.

Islamopologia goes whacko

The fevered attempts to exonerate Islam from any role in the Orlando massacre have reached new levels of absurdity. The latest is to, at all cost, avoid mentioning that Omar Mateen was Muslim. Straight off the bat on 12 June are Molley O’Toole and Dan De Luce, who do not mention that the terrorist was Muslim, but tell us only that “Omar Mateen, declared his allegiance to the Islamic State.” Ah, yes, the Islamic State, that pluralist, interfaith haven. Mateeen could’ve been of any of ten different religions, obviously.

Keeping up the pressure is Thomas E. Ricks on 13 June, who instructs us How to think about Orlando. Quite reasonably, he opens with a list of, “some things we know and some things we ought to know,” about the massacre. His list describes no less than eleven facts pertaining to the event. You may be surprised to learn that nowhere in this list, or, indeed, anywhere in the article, is it mentioned that Mateen was Muslim, nay, the word “Muslim” does not appear once, anywhere, at all. All we “do know,” apparently, is that “Omar Mateen …called 911 to openly pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.” But there is still that pesky problem of a name like Omar Mateen. It’s kindof suggestive of a certain religion.

So, on the same day, Hayley Tsukayama, Mark Berman and Jerry Markon writing in the Washington Post open with, “a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State…” (my emph.). Since the headline already reads, “Gunman who killed 49 in Orlando nightclub had pledged allegiance to ISIS,” starting the piece with “a gunman” is absurd, not to mention insulting, as everyone already knew “the gunman” was Omar Mateen, whose name only appears for the first time about 230 words into the piece, when we read that he was Omar Mateen, who, “Was born in New York to Afghan parents.” Eeeee! Please don’t think, “homegrown American Muslim terrorist,” no, no, please, don’t. About 980 words in we read that, “Much was also still to be learned about Mateen’s background.” Ah, now the scoop that he was Muslim, right? The sleuth trio Tsukayama, Berman and Markon, figured out that, “Much like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, …who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, Mateen had been…” not a Muslim, no, but, “on the FBI’s radar.” But don’t write them off just yet. Through dogged persistence, at 1160 words in, they are able to cite Mateen’s ex-wife as saying that the killer was a Muslim. Not them, oh no. They would never say such a grossly Islamophobic thing. It was his ex-wife. You know, ex-wives and all that.

By 16 June, we learn from Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker, in a piece centred on Mateen’s former wife, that terrorists start out as violent husbands. Yes, she plays a silly disclaimer game of saying, “Terror, it seems, sometimes begins at home,” but this the final line in a piece that does everything, including bearing the title, Terror begins at Home, to make a hard link between domestic abuse and a propensity to commit mass murder. So, now Islam has been completely erased from the picture. Stalin come back, all is forgiven.

In post-Orlando Islamopologia, the strains begin to show

The timing couldn’t be worse. The timing couldn’t be better.

Just as the world enters Pride season on top of three years of spectacular expansion of social awareness and unprecedented global acceptance of homosexuality, an Islamic mass murderer perpetrates the worst single-handed massacre in US history in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It is an act that has thrown the spotlight on the unity of identity that has cemented within the global gay population, and the unity of purpose that has grown between gays and the Western populations at large. It is one of Islam’s worst own-goals. Of course, neither Islam, nor its opponents, sees it that way. Islam proclaims another glorious deed in the service of Allah; while it’s opponents expect nothing better of it. The people put on the spot are the Islamic apologists, who have had to go into a desperate damage-limitation overdrive as a result.

Just as the most racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, crude and belligerent candidate for President of the United States ratchets up his anti-Muslim outbursts, an Islamic mass murderer perpetrates the worst single-handed massacre in US history in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It is an act that has thrown the spotlight on the bankruptcy of Islamic apologetics. Islamic apologists are throwing everything at it, from long-debunked equivalences between Islamic violence and violence in other religions, to zeroing in on the Godsend, Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric is pressed into service as a mirror to be held up to all who might suggest a link between a Muslim who perpetrates a massacre in the name of Allah, and the religion through which Allah commands that Muslim to carry out that massacre. Of course such a link is preposterous; as preposterous as Donald Trump.

Might Islam’s latest own-goal just also be the long-awaited game changer in the bankrupt orthodox narrative of Islamic terrorism?

How many more deaths before we get real?

“No, it is not Islam,” “Islam is not responsible,” “This has nothing to do with Islam,” etc., etc. Apologists fall over themselves to make sure we all know what the problem is not.  They tend to be more reticent these days on what the problem is. Whether it was impoverished Palestinians or the mentally unstable or jilted husbands or disgruntled ex-employees or “loners”, etc., there was always an excuse box into which the perpetrators could be fitted, until one spoiler came along who just didn’t fitted into any box. My God, quiet family man with two lovely kids and a PhD from a major Western university massacres thirty people in cold blood, how is one to explain that? Well, don’t explain it, because if you try, it becomes increasingly undeniable that the only thing these killers have in common is a determination to carry out the Qur’an’s commandments kill. So let’s not go there. It puts us in the awkward position of having to say unpleasant things about Islam. Let’s just keep hammering, massacre after massacre after massacre, that this has nothing to do with Islam. As long as we express our condolences and say that our thoughts and prayers are with the surviving loved ones, we’re covered, right? It doesn’t matter how many 9/11s, Stade de Frances, Najafs, Dhakas, Chiboks, Charlie Hebdos, etc., etc., as long as we make sure that this has nothing to do with Islam, right? That’s what’s important.

The importance of Ramadan eat-ins

On 24 June, between 17:00 and 19:00 (5pm-7pm), the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, of which I am a member, is organising an eat-in at the Saudi and Iranian embassies in London. This is in solidarity with those around the world facing repression for defying Ramadan fasting. Says Maryam Namazie, “This is hugely important given that there are many people across the globe who are arrested, beaten and fined for eating during the month; many others are pressured into fasting, including in Europe.”

I would add one more reason why this is hugely important: this is not just ignoring the rules of Islam; it is positively undermining them. The twin pillars ensuring Islam’s perpetuation are blind obedience and fear. Secretly eating during Ramadan has been going on for as long as Islam has been in existence. In its own perverse way, such secret disobedience has helped to keep Islam in place because it creates a stable accommodation with Islam that poses no threat either way. Whiskey flows freely behind closed doors in Iran. Eating in public during Ramadan threatens more than just the safety of the fast-defier. It threatens the system of don’t ask-don’t tell, that has helped to make Islam more-or-less bearable down the centuries. Threatening this system threatens the whiskey the Iranian and Saudi elites consume behind closed doors. More importantly, it threatens to undermine the fear on which Islam so critically depends. Undermining this fear brings the disobedience into the open, thereby further undermining the fear. There are Councils of Ex-Muslims in several countries. I’d be interested to know whether any of them are or have been taking similar action. In the meantime, bon appétit!

1000 lashes to save Islam. Obviously a powerful religion.

Join PEN in marking the fourth anniversary of Raif Badawi’s arrest

Ahead of the fourth anniversary of Raif Badawi’s arrest on 17 June, PEN and the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom are asking his supporters around the world to take action

more here


more on Raif Badawi here


The changing narrative of FGM

While reading Ibn Warraq’s critique of multiculturalism in Why I am not a Muslim, I came across a reference to a 1992 article in the Independent on how multiculturalism interferes with and often frustrates the equal protection of the laws that the UK affords its citizens, in this case in respect of the protection of girls from genital mutilation. That was almost twenty-five years ago, and it made for shocking reading.

Taking control of the narrative is often the first step towards turning a tide. Since The Guardian newspaper launched its Global Media Campaign to end FGM just over a year ago, the practise stands more exposed than ever before. It wasn’t so much that information was needed to educate us that these horrors take place—we’ve known that all along, although most people may have been unaware of some of the grosser details. The shift, as I see it, lies in the sentiments of those who hold FGM to be a virtue.

No longer the proud affirmation of cultural identity, or the brazen announcement of “holidays home” for school-age girls, or the defiant threats of lawsuits against those entrusted with protecting children. Those brought to trial and convicted for such crimes now feel shame, rather than indignation and rage. And, not insignificantly, the defenders of multiculturalism, ever attuned to the shifting of the sands, are quiet. Well done, The Guardian, and thank you!

Certainly, turning a tide is still a far cry from eradication, but changing this narrative also helps to put the UK’s shameful flirtation with Shari’a on notice. Tides tend to do that. If the silence of the cultural relativists is anything to go by, then this can only go one way: towards a stronger humanity.

Get thee behind me, God!

My journey from religion has been a long one. It started with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I was mid-way through high school. In school, prayers were said imploring God to bring victory to Israel. In mosque, prayers were said imploring Allah to bring defeat to Israel. Just a few days earlier, on the eve of the war, my Christian neighbour had convinced me that we all pray to the same God. I struggled to figure out how God was going to answer both sets of prayers, until the insanity of religion dawned on me.

Once you see the first problem with religion, they just keep popping up everywhere. It wasn’t until six years and many more troublesome observations later, though, at the age of twenty-two, that religion’s hold on me was finally shattered. I arrived at the madrassa one night (it was a private house) to find the mu’allim’s daughter standing inside the gate, holding hands with a boy standing outside the gate. They let me pass to go inside. As I was preparing for the lesson, the door burst open with the mu’allim bounding his daughter into the house, beating her so savagely that the plank shattered. The girl screamed for her life.

I got up and left. By that I mean I did not leave the madrassa or even Islam; I left religion. I just left, walked out. That was it. I sat my parents down that very night and the conversation went something like this:

“I’m no longer a Muslim.”

“Then what are you now?”

“I have no religion.”

“I mean, are you now a Christian?”

“No. I have no religion.”

“You mean you’re now a Jew.”

“No, I have no religion.”

“What do you mean you have no religion? Are you a Hindu?”

“No, dad. I have no religion at all, of any kind.”

“So if people came to your house, how would they know what kind of people live there?” (People announced their religious affiliation with a sticker in the window).

“I’m not sure it’s anybody’s business, but if they should ask me, I’ll just tell them.”

And so on in that vein. The remarkable thing about this conversation was that my parents accepted it (my mother immediately; my father after about a month of not-so-subtle denials that the conversation had ever taken place).

I theorised from this that some people simple cannot conceive of reality without religion. Without religion, they have no way of organising their relations with others. Perhaps they cannot conceive of themselves without religion.

Does this, at least in part, account for how someone can have a problem with one religion and abandon it for another? On the one hand that makes no sense to me at all; especially if both are monotheistic religions. These all have exactly the same problems. It’s only a question of the comprehensiveness of their prescriptions, the barbarity of their commands and the severity of their punishments. They all drive their adherents to inhumanity. There is no depravity that cannot be justified in the name of God. So why abandon one religion for another? On the other hand, perhaps some people are simply unable to take responsibility for themselves. Perhaps they’re frightened of not having a “father” to look after them. Do they honestly believe that they wouldn’t know right from wrong without a scripture spelling it out for them? Perhaps that is the case, because many of them cannot see how wrong some of the “rights” in those scriptures are and insist on living by them.

That was me at twenty-two. Since then, a few twists have been added.

There are also those who do see how wrong the scriptures are. You’d think that’d be enough for them to cut and run, but no. Some would engage in the most ridiculous linguistic and philosophical acrobatics to show that everything in a particular scripture is right, others would try to reform the religion. Why? If you can’t exist without a God telling you what you can and cannot do, why not just make one up that you’d find more palatable and keep it to yourself?

I don’t trust people who leave one religion for another. What are they up to? Do they not see that by abandoning one One True God for another One True God, they’ve rendered both Gods no longer the One True God? At age twenty-two I’d had enough of this cynical mockery of our humanity.

For a long time after that, I was convinced that religious people are either profoundly stupid or profoundly evil. Lately, I think I am more ready to understand that there may be people who feel an inner need for something to worship that will “look after them” in return. I don’t think that’s irrational if that’s how they’re wired. I even wonder whether there’s a special kind of brain that cannot but believe in something as it’s lender of last resort, so to speak. I don’t have that kind of brain, and there’s a sound, rational reason that my kind of brain does not make sense to someone for whom belief is a bona fide cognitive function.

But that’s all speculation on my part. I’m intrigued by how all the undeniable advances of science may drive people away from religion, but doesn’t drive them away from belief. Similarly, the most unspeakable horrors perpetrated in the name of God will only move them so much. They’ll redefine the terms and move the goalposts, etc., just so their brains may continue operating in the same way. Indeed, it isn’t science or our ability to explain reality that drives the abandonment of religion; it’s our humanity. Even someone who believes is capable of humanity. Dr Mengele was a scientist. The scientific method itself can often manifest as dogmatically as the worst religions.

This by no means detracts from the barbarism and horrors that religions visits upon the world everyday. I’m just saying there’s more to it than a simplistic clever science vs stupid religion. If it’s anything vs anything, then I think it’s humanity vs faith. I am familiar with societies where nothing is religion and everything is faith, and others where everything is religion and everything is faith, and they are uncannily similar. I am convinced that our growing common identity and empathy as human beings undermines both religion and faith more surely than knowing that DNA is a double helix, as spectacular an advance as that may represent.

I’m fighting religion because religion is fighting back. I fight hard because the religion leading the fight-back is one disinclined to take prisoners, except to enslave them. No amount of showing how “irrational” they are is going to make a blind bit of difference. Showing how inhuman they are just might.