Guest post by Kaveh Mousavi, the pseudonym of an Iranian atheist. First published at The Proud Atheist.
When it comes to Islam, there is a controversy among the atheists regarding how they should deal with it. There are those like Sam Harris and Bill Maher who say not all religions are the same, and some are worse than the others, and then there are those who say that it is wrong to single out Islam as all religions are equally bad. There are those who even accuse people like Maher and Harris of racism. Now, in this controversy former Muslims rarely speak up. The dialogue is usually between Muslims – or their defenders – and people who have been born and raised in a different culture. That is understandable to some degree, because being a former Muslim somehow doesn’t improve your resume when you live under a theocracy. But I believe someone with a more intimate knowledge of the religion should weigh in.
I believe I have the right to do so. I am familiar with the faith more than other people, because once I planned to be a “perfect Muslim”, and I studied the religion in depth. I was not pleased with the result and ended up an atheist instead. I am an Iranian living inside Iran. I have been the victim of a theoretical totalitarian regime which bases its laws on Shiite sharia law. I have seen Islam from every angle – from the inside as the firm believer, and from the outside as the non-believer. So this is the question: is Islam more radical than other religions? Is it particularly violent?
Let me spell it out at the beginning. I am on the side of Harris and Maher. I do believe Islam is inherently worse than other religions. But before touching on this subject, let me begin by addressing some complexities. There are many things that complicate a question such as “is Islam more radical.” It largely depends on how you define Islam, and also how you define “radical.”
First of all, “radical” is a very murky concept. It is entirely arbitrary, and it depends on how you define “moderate.” Someone is a radical only in comparison with other people and also in contrast to their historical and geographical context. It is a spectrum, and it depends on where on the spectrum you draw the line. It is a matter of degrees, and it depends on how you define your zero. Within the Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was told to be the “moderate” one, in comparison to his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri who is now the boss. So even if you limit your pool to Al-Qaeda members, you still have moderates and radicals within that context. But no human in their right mind would consider Osama bin Laden remotely moderate. The republicans call Obama a “radical socialist,” while the majority of socialists don’t even consider him a socialist. Many analysts say that the Republican Party has moved to the right and people who were once radical are now the moderate wing of the party. At the time of Lincoln and before him the idea of abolition of slavery was considered radical but now we consider it obvious, so obvious that if someone opposes it, we consider them deranged.
I believe here the first cognitive dissonance between the defenders and the critics of Islam arise. How do you define radical, when it comes to an Islamic context? Do you define a radical Muslim the same way you define a radical Jew or a radical Christian?
If you define moderate as “not-Taliban” or “not-Al-Qaeda,” then yes, most Muslims are moderate. If you have a broader definition which is “not-terrorist,” then yeah, most Muslims are not terrorists. If you consider moderate “not-actively-violent,” then OK. But let me tell you, your standard bar is pretty low.
The geographical context is also important here. I don’t know anything about Western Muslims. They might be as moderate as the majority of Western Jews and Christians. I don’t know. I’m talking about people I know and have lived with.
The point is, if you define moderate the same way you define it in your own culture, then the vast majority of (Eastern) Muslims are extremists. You normally define moderate based on tolerance, acceptance, their view towards freedom of speech and religion, their commitment to the separation of church (mosque) and state, and their dosage of sexism and homophobia. We would sorely fail at every criterion on this list. That stinks, but it’s true.
In order to make this concrete for you, imagine a radical Christian. Would you consider Rick Santorum radical enough? OK. Now, what if he had the exact same beliefs but he was a Muslim? Then, he would be a moderate. Radically moderate (if that makes sense), he would be called an atheist even.
Do you think he was a homophobe because he compared homosexuality to bestiality? Well, at least he doesn’t believe that gays deserve to be hanged. In Iran, the vast majority simply ignore the fact that gays exist. You were shocked when Ahmadinejad said “there are no gays in Iran” in the Columbia University but that’s a fairly uncontroversial thing to say in Iran, even among the pro-democracy activists. Although gays face the danger of death and physical violence everyday, many members of opposition have reproached me and a few others for bringing up the subject, calling it a “non-issue.” When they are not ignoring the existence of the gays, the ruling regime calls them abominations that need to be wiped out. Mohsen Armin is one of the most moderate and liberal-minded Iranian politicians. He argued that gays are sick and need to be treated. He wrote those articles on one of the main opposition websites dedicated to democracy. When it comes to gay rights, Santorum is moderate in an Islamic context.
Also when it comes to sexism. Now I know, the Iranians who live outside Iran, and maybe some Tehran-based Iranians, are rushing to the comment section, screaming “bullshit!” because we have made considerable strides in recent years when it comes to women rights – but they have a warped view. Yes, I feel proud that there are more women in our universities than men, I feel proud about the women population and how they have advanced their cause, but the fact remains that Iran is still one of the most sexist countries in the world, right after Saudi Arabia and Sudan, also Muslim countries. Walk outside the capital or big cities and your image of progress will be shattered. Things like honor killings and forced marriages are still normal here. Also, when you live with people you will see how deeply-rooted sexism is. Yes, we have formidable and admirable feminists here, but the word “feminist” is used as a curse in most contexts, even now. Still, you don’t have to look hard to see husbands who force their wives to stop working. It’s still easy to see wives who could not study in a university because their husbands forbade them to do so. Look at every boyfriend and girlfriend, and you will see how they reconstruct the roles of patriarchy.
And don’t even get me started on sexual harassment and objectification of women. I have always felt like an outsider because I don’t make lewd comments on every single girl who passes before my eyes. People have called me gay (back to homophobia) and impotent for refusing to take part in sexual harassments. Once I was waiting to catch a taxi, and a beautiful girl was standing some ten meters away from me, also looking for a taxi. In the span of two minutes, at least twenty cars stopped to harass her. I’m not exaggerating. I wouldn’t believe it if I had not seen it myself. If I had seen it in a fictional movie, I would call it an exaggeration. But every two or three seconds she was harassed by a new abuser. She approached me, and asked me if it was alright to stand next to me. I said it was OK. She stood in a way to imply that she was my sister or girlfriend, and the harassments stopped. Because she now appeared to be “owned” by a “man”. And that’s the bro code of honor among the Iranian men. A single girl is yours to abuse and harass as you please – but once she is with her “owner” (I’m using the English equivalent of a real Persian expression here), she’s off the limits. It’s the man who deserves your consideration, not the woman. If you rape a girl, it’s the family who is wronged, her father in particular, with having their “property” soiled.
And our government does not really try to stop this. They try their hardest to punish the girls and women for not abiding the sharia dressing code. And their propaganda blames the problem solely on women not dressing Islamic enough.
We are a sexist culture. Despite all of our progresses and victories, the sexism remains deep and strong, and in its most ruthless form. Rick Santorum might be more radical than some enlightened Iranian opposition leaders and activists, but he is still more moderate than the strong majority.
And just to move outside Iran a bit – just the day this article was being written the Afghan parliament struck down a bill on violence against women. This bill is not the Afghan equivalent of the same bill in many Western countries. This bill consisted of these clauses: an underage girl cannot be forced to marry a man (she still can be convinced to, apparently), a man should make sure to uphold justice among his many wives and pay them equal money (justice here means he should equally have sex with all of them and not favor one over the others – even most Muslims don’t know this but that’s how sharia defines it), and women who escape from their house because of their husband’s abuse should have safe houses to home them. These laws were considered “too radical” and they were struck down.
What about tolerance and freedom of speech? Can I make fun of Muhammad in Iran the same way you make fun of Jesus there? Can I direct a play called The Book of Islam and play it on Lalehzar (what was once the Iranian equivalent of Broadway)? I’m afraid I can’t. When a religious leader issued a death fatwa on a singer, who had dared to mock a stupid and insignificant imam, the most moderate Muslims wrote a joint letter and said this – “it’s not right to issue a death fatwa on someone who insults a religious figure” – so far so good – “but he should be tried in the court of law.” Oh, so they’re not disagreeing on whether or not it is a crime to insult a foreigner who died 1400 years ago, they’re just worried about the due process. And believe me when I saw these are the most moderate ones out there. There has been only one – one – Muslim figure who says insulting these figures should be legal and it is simply immoral. Rick Santorum has never asked for censorship or the punishment of the atheists. He would be moderate here.
“Of course the Holocaust never happened! The Jews have always been in charge. They empowered Hitler.” How would you feel if someone told this to you? What if someone whom you loved told this? What if someone whom you respected said this? Now, this brings out the subject of anti-semitism. This particular stance is not a popular or a moderate stance – but it is extremely prevalent among people who support the regime. It is not a view confined to crazy hateful people. People who are decent, normal folks believe that. This is not a dominant view, but it’s still more dominant than it should be.
One of those mindless clichés that Islamophiles repeat is this: “There are more than one billion and half Muslims in the world, how do you compare them with small groups like Taliban and Al-Qaeda?” First of all, that’s no logical argument, because the numbers don’t prove anything. There has been no proven correlation between population and tolerance. Just because there’s a lot of Muslims it doesn’t mean they are all good. But, actually, forgive me for saying this, but actually those “one billion and a half” Muslims are a worse problem in the long run than those “few extremists.” That is because those few extremists are evil and violent people who will be dealt with one way or another, but the vast majority is composed of good people who are intolerant and sexist because they have considered these abhorrent views normal and natural in the culture they were born in.
Our main problem is not our regimes. It is not the extremists, terrorist groups. The regimes and the extremists are not the disease, they are the symptom. We are the disease. I am the disease. The culture is the disease.
This is not a hateful thing to say. Truth is never hateful. No matter how bitter it is, it is ultimately what we should accept. We should acknowledge the problem before solving it. I am not an Islamophobe who hates Muslims. I am still a member of the community. Muslims are still “my people.” They will never consider an atheist a part of their family, their “religious brotherhood.” But you don’t stop loving your family once they disown you.
I am a brother. This is not an indictment, it’s an intervention. Ultimately, we former Muslims should show our “religious brothers” that they have a problem. There should be an AA of sort for people like my fellow Iranians. “I’m Jamshid, and I am a sexist. I am also intolerant. I am also an anti-semite.”
It’s not like my criticism is void of sympathy and understanding. People – my people – are born in a repressive culture which violently silences any dissent and closes all windows and prematurely strangles any question. Men and women are raised to accept sexism, intolerance, and homophobia not only as natural, obvious, and good, but also as the only option. I have worked as a teacher. I have seen young children viciously attacking and bullying gays. I was myself a young child viciously attacking and bullying gays. I have seen young children calling Arabs and Jews dogs. I was myself a young child calling Arabs and Jews dogs. I have seen young children objectifying women and consider them cattle. I was myself a young child objectifying women and consider them cattle. The children are not born to be intolerant. Only a dominant culture can turn them into one.
Remember that hateful Holocaust remark above? The man who told me this was deeply religious, but he was tolerant, and extremely kind. He was extremely honest and hardworking. I’m sure if he could ever see a documentary on the Holocaust, he would never say that. Ask yourself. Would you not be an ant-semite if the only – only – version of history presented to you was The Elders of Zion? His fault was that he was a poor man, cut off from the stream of civilization, watching only Iranian state TV, and never being taught to question what was passed down to him. He was a good man with evil opinions. He was not an oppressor. He never was in a position to oppress. He was a victim. He was thought-deprived as he was food-deprived.
You, my dear western reader, have no idea how overbearing and suffocating religion is here. You simply don’t. You cannot begin to imagine it even if I commissioned you to write a post-apocalyptical novel. You don’t know what it means to have something taught to you everyday at school and university. You don’t know what it means when the entire media advertises a religion 24/7. You don’t know what it means to have religion everywhere, to have it define every aspect of life from entertainment to profession to politics. And to have absolutely zero access to a dissenting voice.
Case in point, my parents were atheists, but hid that from me. They were afraid of me talking at school and making trouble. I was indoctrinated to the religion at school. I was not even a normal Muslim – I was a strong one. So how do you expect people even whose families are equally radical to be different?
This is the fault in the fake dichotomy Islamophiles suffer from. In their black and white world, if you are not praising someone you hate them. If you point out the faults of a culture, you hate that culture. They cannot separate the human from the ideology. They cannot comprehend good people who have evil opinions and support evil causes.
I am not better than people whom I criticize. I come to you as a sinner seeking secular atonement. I was lucky to learn English as a child. I was lucky to be born at the age of internet. That is the only thing separating me and a radical Muslim – luck. I was privileged. So I am only their fellow AA and I’m intervening.
My name is Kaveh. And I am intolerant, sexist, racist, homophobe, and an anti-semite. But I’m recovering. Hopefully. If I ever have a daughter, she will be better me. She will look at me in the eyes and she will tell me “dad, you’re a bigot, and I am not like you.” And I will be proud of her that day. No matter how hard I try, I have no hope of ever cleaning the ugliness of intolerance from my “soul.” But I will try to make a better world for my children. And the first step in recovery is acceptance, and humility.
That is why ultimately people like Harris and Maher are our friends, not foes. A true friend will criticize you to make you a better person. A false friend will give you empty compliments. I don’t know if people like Glen Greenwald are genuinely uniformed or they lie in order to sound cultivated and hip. But I know nothing useful for my “religious brothers” will come out of them. I know it must be infuriating to listen to Harris and Maher. But something will come out of them. The truth.
Therefore, I want to thank people like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher. I want to thank them for the catharsis they gave me when I listened to them, knowing there are people like me in the free world arguing for my cause. And I want to thank them for not pretending that my troubles are less bad than those of the others. Even if there is one Muslim listening and if he or she is convinced – hell, even if he or she only thinks – the world, my world, is a better place.
I have not exhausted this topic. I plan to write future articles dealing with the subject more – talking about the historical and cultural roots of this, and my remedies for a better future.