Heina Dadabhoy: Islam, atheism and society 1 of 3 (Eschaton 2012)


…and for the next hour and a half we’re
going to be talking about the intersection between Islam, atheism and society. And to start us off, we have Heina Dadabhoy,
an ex-muslim atheist and feminist. She writes for Skepchick and has been an active
participant in atheist organisations and events since 2007. She is currently writing ‘The Skeptics’ Guide
to Islam’. Alright. So, first things first, a logistical note. I will leave time for Q&A, although I would
prefer if you come up with a question to write it down and pass it up, that way we get to
the really unusual and interesting questions as opposed to stuff that I write about all
the time, or that’s going to be explained in great detail in the book, so… Part of this is me understanding more and
more what people don’t understand about Islam so I can cover it in ‘A Skeptic’s Guide to
Islam’. Islam, atheism and society is a huge intersection,
obviously, it’s an intersection that I live in and that, as an ex-muslim, I find myself
in, a great deal. I grew up in a very, very, very muslim family
who are all still, for the most part, quite muslim. I am not. According to Gallup, in the United States,
the most hated minority in the United States is not muslims, it’s atheists, so, I downgraded
status. So, what do I have to fear? Really not too much. One thing that comes up a lot, especially
for me as an ex-muslim as opposed to an ex-christian in the atheist and skeptical community is
this notion that ‘we’re just like you’. I know a lot of atheists, especially in my
area, who try to argue for their validity, for their acceptance in society via that argument
of ‘we’re just like you guys. We have white picket fences and monogamous
marriages and two point five children and Fido. We just don’t believe in god but we’re just
like you guys, except we go for brunch on Sunday and drink instead of going to church.’ And I’ve been finding that argument harder
and harder to accept over time because some of us can never be like everyone else. Some of us, just by the way we look, just
via, by means of where we come from, religiously, will never be just like them. So my partner coined the term, ‘not your normal’. He blogged about it. We’re ‘not your normal’. So this is something that’s really important
when you consider this intersection of Islam, atheism and society. One thing that a lot of people don’t recognize
when it comes to understanding muslims in the United States and Canada… London’s a completely different issue. I’ve lived there for a year, and they’re quite
different. But in North America, you run into what I
call subculture syndrome with muslims, where they feel they’re an oppressed minority, which
in a lot of ways, they are. And I can even say, we are, because, whether
or not I consider myself a muslim, I still look ‘other’, so, there you go. There’s this idea that they’re rebelling against
the established norm. That by being a muslim and following Islam,
you’re rebelling against Western society. And nowhere is this more evident, as with
the idea of muslim women covering themselves. A lot of muslim women will say, ‘I’m rebelling
against western norms of beauty. I’m not a slave to the gym and my lipstick. I can just get up in the morning and put my
headscarf on, and go about my day. And as a matter of fact, I was one of those
muslim women. I understood that there was the modesty aspect,
but there was also this ‘I’m cool and rebellious’ aspect to it. So that’s what we have to consider, too. We assume there’s no ‘agency’ with muslim
women when, in reality, in North America, there often is. Even if we don’t agree with the logic of ‘rebelling
against beauty norms’ by submitting to patriarchal norms of a desert tribe. In this case, yes. They were from a desert. I didn’t say they were goatherders though,
so you can quote me on that one. So it comes down also to the burden that is
placed on minority populations, that is to understand the majority and how the majority
works. And assume that nobody ever understands you
as a minority, and that to use a term, or refer to some concept, they’re not going to
understand it. So, I talk a lot, obviously, with fellow atheists,
and often with deconverts from Christianity, and I think what they encounter, and this
goes back a little bit to the whole ‘just like you’ argument, is essentially a downgrading. I mean, I downgraded from second worse to
worst, so I don’t really care, but to go from being a mainstream christian to being an atheist
is a huge downgrade in status. It’s essentially going from being part of
the majority in North America to going down to being part of a pretty small minority. I, on the other hand, gained something of
privilege, because, by taking the headscarf off, I stopped marking myself as a muslim,
so, even though I was an atheist, you can hide the fact that you’re an atheist. You don’t have to wear your Occam’s Razor
or atheist A necklace. You can just go about your day in stealth
mode and no one will ever know. So the question, too, becomes choice. When I’ve made the argument that I gained
privilege by taking the scarf off, people often said, ‘well, you chose to wear the scarf’
but how much of a choice did I really have? I had choice in the sense that no human being
forced me, but when I believed a divine being was forcing me, well, I didn’t feel like I
had a choice. But at the same time I would argue vehemently
that I did indeed have choice. And this will come up when I talk more about
choice. Gender in Islam is obviously a very difficult
topic, because on the one hand you have people saying, ‘oh, they stuff women into sackcloth
and beat them’ which is an exact quote, by the way, from a speaker at a Freedom from
Religion conference in Portland. He said, ‘how could you believe in a religion
that believed that women should be stuffed into bags and beaten?’ And I’m like, ‘I never heard of this religion. Tell me about it? Oh, right. You’re thinking about Wahhabi, but even they
aren’t that bad’. Which is a lot. But the issues of gender in Islam, people
surmised I left Islam because of them, and while gender did lead me to research Islam
a lot more, and to look into this faith that I professed to believe in, it didn’t make
me an atheist or anything. It just made me research it more. And, upon my deconversion, I was pretty optimistic
that the people in my community, the muslim community, of all my family, would understand
where I was coming from. And that was completely wrong. But over time, the number of ex-muslims has
been increasing, and even out ex-muslims, which is a huge deal, the number has really
been increasing. So that forced changes upon the muslim community
where I naively thought that my philosophical and epistemological, and all those arguments
would work with my family in terms of getting them to understand a more progressive perpective. It was really just the fact that I existed
that forced my family to change, that forced the community to change. Because it was either become a little bit
more progressive, or reject me completely, which thankfully love won out, and they’ve
become more progressive. And I’ve seen that happen in so many communities. Almost every time an ex-muslim comes out,
yeah, there are really tragic cases of people being shunned, or somehow outcast, but on
the other hand it causes people to reconsider, because it’s very rarely the case that an
ex-muslim is someone who is a wishy washy muslim. Usually wishy washy muslims stay the same
way their whole lives. They drink, they party, they do whatever they
want, but, you know, during ramadan they’ll fast, and somehow that makes up for it. [Laughter] Not quite. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. But, in terms of ex-muslims they’re generally
people who are quite religious and studied it to the point where they realized, ‘this
doesn’t actually make sense. I’m not doing this anymore.’ So that’s really, I think, at the heart of
what the change comes from. In fact, there are progressive muslim groups
that have sprung up, several of which don’t exist any more, but I would say in the early
two thousands, post 9/11, there were a lot of progressive groups popping up. And some still exist, but the one I’m thinking
of, it’s gone. But there are LGBT muslim groups that have
sprung up. So this idea that we need to include more
people less we lose everybody, and we see that even in Christianity in the United States
where more and more churches are reaching out to LGBT folk. They’re saying, ‘don’t leave us! We love you too! Maybe we don’t think you can get married… But we still love you! Come hang out with us and eat casserole.’ This is something I had to learn, by the way,
that churches are the best places to get casserole. Like a hundred kinds, and the old ladies are
always trying to feed you more of it, so… I’m a big fan of unitarian churches for this
reason. [Laughter] Also because they let me do a sermon,
and all their prayers were affirmations to reason and I was, I can deal with this. But anyway, getting back to progressive muslim
groups. Just the fact that there are progressive muslim
groups, or even that there were, is a huge sign that there’s a revolution afoot. It doesn’t matter if it was three people on
the internet. Or one person who wrote a book. The fact that they exist is such a huge indicator
that something, well, frankly, something good’s going to happen. I get a lot of questions, and sometimes they’re
from trolls or haters, as you might call them, but sometimes they’re valid, about why I don’t
address certain issues. I get into, people ask me things like, “Oh,
well, why haven’t you blogged about the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia?” and
I said, “everyone knows about that, right?” Why is that my issue? I’m not Saudi. I’ve visited there once, but, you know, was
treated as badly as all outsiders are. Why do I have to cover every single bad thing
that happens in the Muslim world? It’s not my obligation. I am a western born product of the west, in
a lot of ways, even though I have a Muslim family, and that’s where my focus is. They do bring up a really good question, sometimes,
people along those lines of thinking, and that is, “what do we do to help, or to change,
or to encourage a movement towards a better recognition of human rights in Muslim countries?” And I know what the answer isn’t, because
of the rebellion I alluded to earlier with subcultural communities, and that’s going
and saying, “We’re right. You’re wrong. You need to change.” Or “come join us in the twenty-first century,
leave your stone-age values behind.” That doesn’t work too well. FYI, it didn’t work with colonialism, you
know, you had the British going into India and saying, “You can’t burn your widows
alive.” This is a practice called sati, it’s not Muslim,
it’s Hindu entirely where if a woman is widowed, it’s considered auspicious for her to cast
herself into the fire. And while they outlawed it, do you think it
stopped? It definitely didn’t stop. So coming in and saying, “Hey, we’re Europeans,
and we’re more advanced than you, and let us show you the ways of tolerance and love…” Not going to work. But what does work, what really does work,
is supporting home-grown efforts. Believe me, there are more than you know about. If you go onto some of the more social justice
or progressive oriented blogs, as post-modern as they might be, and that’s a bad word around
here, they often cover these efforts. And there’s often a lack of coverage and a
lack of support for these efforts because they’re not perfect. Sometimes you look at these progressive movements
within, that organically arise in Muslim countries, and they’re not quite at the level we want
them to be, and so we say, “Oh, well, we need to go in and make it better, be more
progressive, more advanced…” And the thing is, Rome was not only not built
in a day, it wasn’t destroyed in a day, either. So that’s the important thing to remember,
any society got to where it was not by someone coming in and saying, “this is the way you
have to be.” It’s things changing from within. And so to allow for other cultures to explore
where they need to go… Granted I probably need to make this clear
– I don’t advocate the perspective of “we need to respect their culture by making sure
it remains in the Stone Age”. That is just as racist, I think, to say, “they
need to stay frozen in the 1800s, but we, we can live in the twenty-first century.” That’s, I think, almost more racist in a lot
of ways. But at the same time, there’s a fine line
to walk, and I’ve been asked a lot, “Where do you draw the line?” The answer is, “it depends on the situation.” It’s a very, very delicate thing. Philosophically, I think one of the most important
things to do is to stop calling progressive religionists hypocrites. We love doing it, right? “Oh, they’re so wishy-washy. They interpret. They cherry pick.” Well, would you rather have them, or the Taliban? Well, probably them, right? Even though the Taliban are more intellectually
consistent. And, granted, I do this all the time, especially
when referring to my own relatives who don’t practise all this very well. I’ll say of the hypocrites and the cherry
pickers, “Well, at least they’re not hateful.” And so I think it’s important to encourage
religions to move in that way, especially religions like Islam, where there are a lot
of issues. If you look at Christianity, it’s been fairly
neutered, I mean, not a hundred per cent, not on certain issues. But compared to other religions it’s definitely
been neutered in most places. You look at the last election in the United
States, there was an upsurge of fundamentalism but it was soundly defeated. Well, not necessarily soundly, but we won,
so it’s ok. That’s all we care about, right? Also to encourage scholarship in religion,
and this came up in the last round of talks, secular and religious scholarship on religion,
it always opens people’s minds. It always makes people think. It always helps people to move forward. And in terms of ground level support, there
are a lot of activists that are working for change in their specific areas with their
specific issues in their own particular way. And they go about it in a way that’s appropriate
for their culture, appropriate for their context, so people actually take them seriously, and
actually make changes as opposed to “look nice for the activist”, and then, once the
activists are gone, do whatever you want. It’s really better received when it’s from
within, and one example I’m going to give is not from a Muslim country, it’s from California. When I first deconverted my parents dragged
me all over the States, to different mosques, because they were convinced I would find the
one right imam to convince me back. So we went up, I think, two hours away, and
it was the day of my cousin’s wedding, it was stressful. But the imam there was allegedly US born,
and hip, and philosophical, so… He wouldn’t even look me in the eye of course,
though, because, you know, ‘woman’. And my parents made me cover my head for that
which I didn’t like very much. But I went into the mosque and I started talking
to him, and Irshad Manji came up. And if you don’t know who she is, she is a
lesbian Muslim activist. She considers herself a Muslim, and she takes
a single verse of the Quran and thinks, supercedes all the other verses, but that’s great, she
picked a really nice one to do it, which is that allah made everything perfect, so according
to her, she was created lesbian by allah, so any rules against homosexuality don’t count,
because she made perfect by allah. You know, if it works for her… [Laughter] But when she came up, I laughed,
and said, “oh, she took that one verse and let it supercede everything else, don’t you
think that’s hilarious?” And he said, “yeah, but at least she stayed
in the house.” [Laughter] And his metaphor was essentially,
“Yeah, yeah, we’ve made her go in the basement apartment but she’s still in the house of
Islam. She’s still part of the whole structure.” So, this man was taking an avowed lesbian,
with a non Muslim partner, he was taking her as superior to me, even though I was full
straight-identified back then, because, even though at the time I could have fit the practice
of Muslim better than Irshad Manji, because she considered herself a Muslim and tried
to work within the Islamic framework, he took her more seriously than he took me. So that taught me a lot about the perspective
I need to come from, because I, as an ex-Muslim, can’t do too much to reform, other than existing. But people who are within the Islamic framework,
I think we should give them a little more credit and a little more support even if they
aren’t, like I said, perfect. Even if they aren’t as ‘progressive’ as we’d
like them to be. Working from within also avoids the problem
of privilege. I’m going to give another example. Chris Stedman, who wrote Faitheist… I had a long phone conversation with him,
actually, because he kept talking about how great Muslims were, and how open and accepting
they were, and I’m like, “Excuse me, not the Muslim I’ve met.” And he gave me an example of going to a mosque
in Ramadan with his boyfriend, and they’re both atheists, to break their fast, because
they had fasted in solidarity. And I said, “Your boyfriend. You’re both athiests, you’re gay, and you
show up at a mosque. Do you realise that that’s like maybe one
mosque out of the whole North America?” And not only that, but, because he’s a white
dude, you know, a lot of Muslims don’t really care about people outside their own community. My own mother went from thinking that all
homosexuals should be cast off a mountain, to “Oh, those gay people. It’s ok for white people. You know, if you ever were gay, you’re in
trouble, but for those people it’s ok.” So there’s this sort of false tolerance, or
this front for outsiders… We need to put on this dog and pony show and
look nice for the white people. And so, when you have activism coming in from
the outside, you can run into that problem too. So, when you have activism from the inside,
it works a little better. Another technique, I think, works from the
inside quite well, is the sneaky question. And I only use this tactic when people forget
I’m an ex-Muslim, which happens a lot in my family. We just all assume we’re Muslim, and forget,
you know, I defected six years ago. Or there are people who I never directly told
I was ex-Muslim, so they assume it’s gossip or for malice, that people say I’m a ‘gasp’
atheist. So they’ll bring up something, maybe even
not that related to religion, and I’ll say, “but have you considered ‘insert thing here’”,
so the little sneaky question where you’re not… It’s a little bit of arguing in bad faith,
I wouldn’t call it trolling, because it kind of is, but it’s a good way to get people to
think about things without going over the top with it. And we should also encourage the heck out
of reinterpretation. My mother when I was… I think I was ten or eleven when I first heard
about female genital mutilation. And I went home, and I said, “Mom, I heard
that Muslims promote this.” And she looked me dead in the eye, and she
said, “That’s not allowed in Islam. That is horrendous, horrible, and the prophet
advocated not harming people, so it’s not ok. And anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong.” You have just as passionate arguments on the
other side, saying that the prophet said, “You have to do it.” But it’s one of those things where, well,
who do you say is right? As an outsider can you really arbitrate and
say, “Alright, this Muslim is right, and this Muslim is wrong.” We can’t really do that. But we can encourage the ones who are reinterpreting
to do that even more. And going back to the issue of covering, and
choice, what are you going to do to those women who say it’s their choice to cover? But, when they reinterpret the idea of covering
to be less about protecting from, protection from men, and you sort of drive it more into
the realm of, “Oh, well. It’s my choice and I’m rebelling against beauty
norms,” then they stop covering quite as much, I notice. The women who think of it as more, “Oh,
men are just these lustful pigs that are going to rape you if you don’t cover yourselves…” They’re the ones that cover themselves more,
shield themselves more from the outside world. Whereas the ones that think, “It’s my symbol
of liberation, it’s my freedom from oppressive western beauty norms,” they’re going to
be more outgoing, and not cover quite as much, and maybe wear jeans and a long shirt instead
of a robe and a face cover. So, yeah, again, even though it’s hypocritical
or cherry picking, it’s still a move in a better direction. And even that false tolerance I mentioned
before, my mother saying it’s ok for those white people to be gay, but not us. Or Chris Stedman being treated very well by
a mosque. Even that false tolerance is a step forward. It’s at least realizing there’s diversity
within the human race, and that we can’t impose our beliefs on everyone else. Ultimately, why does anyone do anything anyway? In terms of the choice argument. In terms of wondering, does this women cover
herself by choice or not. I mean, how much of a choice do we have about
everything? Many women feel we don’t have a choice but
to remove our armpit hairs. And if we don’t, we’ll be judged, and shunned,
and we’d better do that. So is a headscarf as much a choice as removing
armpit hair? Who knows. We do what we can. And what I hope more secular atheists, skeptical
types will do is support efforts from within communities because I really feel that’s the
best way to go about it, from my perspective. Hi, my name’s [Unintelligible] I have a quick
question for you. About, maybe about a month ago at the Audobon
Writers’ Festival I was listening to Doug Saunders who wrote that the Muslims hired
a Globe journalist, and he made a really interesting observation, and his research realised that
the longer a Muslim generation is in a country, the more they resemble the local populations. For instance, in France there are more secular
Muslims than, let’s say, the United States, and there’s more religious observance in the
United States than in France. So I’m curious, have you observed something
similar in regards to Muslims who become atheist, in other words, would you be more common living
in the United States as an atheist than in Canada or, for instance, in France, and if
there is, do you see any differences about how Muslims in different countries may react
[Unintelligible] atheist. I don’t know if I’ve observed the same thing
as him, because I’ve seen Muslims in England be way more religious as a way to be against
the mainstream secularism they see. Whereas in the United States, Muslims will
be Muslim, but they can feel like they can be more moderate, because everyone believes
in god, and everyone’s at least somewhat religious. But in terms of ex-Muslims, I guess I’ve become
more ‘atheisty’ over time, of course, just because that’s who I’m associating with more. But I do like to joke that, I still say I’m
ex-Muslim, but now I say ex-Muslim less than I say atheist, so I guess that’s part of that. Oh, and also, something I found out just about
the term ex-Muslim which I think somewhat relates. Ex-Muslim has become in some circles synonymous
with neocon, because of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her promotion of converting all the Muslims
to Christianity and all that, so, it surprised me to find out that the term I was using had
a definition I didn’t even know, so I’m trying to be a little more careful with that. This may well be covering subjects in your
blog or your book, but, as an ex-Muslim atheist, do you find as an ex-Christian atheist, all
of your cultural norms you grew up with, they’re still rigorously followed, you still can celebrate
secular Easter, secular Christmas, you don’t give up anything except for going to church
on those days. As an ex-Muslim, do you find it different
that you have to give… do you feel like you have to give up Ramadan observances, or
Eid, does that have a different flavour to you than it would to an ex-Christian? It did feel different at first, because Christmas
is so secularised, it’s practically a non-religious holiday, even in the United States where the
Christians want to take it back and all that. I do celebrate Eid because it’s a party. I just don’t go to the Eid prayer in the morning. Ramadan, I don’t observe because it’s horrible. You get really thirsty and miserable and crazy
but you’re supposed to be cheerful, and your stinky breath smells like perfume to allah,
allegedly, but to no-one else, so, yeah, I don’t do Ramadan because it’s horrid. I don’t even phone my family during Ramadan
though, out of deference to them. But, yeah, I do celebrate Eid, and I’ve had
some relatives who are more angry at me saying, “You can’t celebrate Eid”. Yes I can, I love you guys, right? This is a family party. So yeah, I am trying to secularise my Eid. And to be honest, my cousins have been doing
that for years. Many of them have married outside the faith,
and they bring their spouses over for Eid, and it has become pretty secular in my family. How much of an ex-Muslim community is there? Like, how much support and mutual discussions
among ex-Muslims is there in the United States? In the US it’s pretty paltry. There’s not as many ex-Muslims, or at least,
‘out’ ones. In Britain, you find way more of a community. But I’m trying to help build that. I know there’s some people in CFI in the US
who want to build an ex-Muslim or progressive Muslim combined community, and I’ve just been
trying to… Every single person I see at an atheist con
who has a Muslim sounding name, I’m, “You’re an ex-muslim, here, take my card, let’s stay
in touch.” So I’m trying to formally build that network. But it’s hard, because North America’s so
big, and everyone’s sort of spread out, and it’s not as big of a political issue. Political Islam is the problem in London,
so there’s a reason to be an out ex-Muslim and to feel more vocal, whereas in the United
States it’s not as big of an issue. I have sort of two questions, but they’re
related. In the Muslim community in North America,
is there a certain amount, or, I guess, how much tolerance is there towards the LBGTQ
community in North America in general, are there open Muslims that are LBGTQ tolerant,
and approximately how many, like, percentage wise, and the other one was, are there LBGTQ
Muslim meetings or groups? To answer your first question, I don’t really
know any statistics, and it might be impossible to find out, because they’re often closeted
to some people, and not closeted to others. I know for a fact that one of my cousins is
still closeted to me. Not one of my first cousins, one of my distant
cousins. He won’t tell me, but I found out through
other people. And I told him, “hey, I’m an ex-Muslim”
and he still didn’t tell me, so, maybe he’s just scared. But, there’s no way to really know. But there are openly LBGT Muslims, and there
are organizations. I remember there’s one called Al-Fatiha and
it’s a gay Muslims’ men’s group. And I remember my cousin told me when I was
a teenager about them, and she said, “they pray and they fast, but they’re gay” which
was incredibly shocking at the time, but now it’s not so much. And I saw a picture from a pride parade in
the US, I think, of a trans* woman covering her head and everything, so, yeah, there are
people. It is happening. Although I doubt most of them have any level
of acceptance in their families. [Applause]

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