5 Strange Problems You Face When You're A Liberal Ex-Muslim
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There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and 4.3 million in the United States and Canada. That's a lot of people with assuredly different hot sauce preferences (the single quality that best defines us as individuals). And yet many still think of Muslims as one big, uniform entity. We spoke with Eiynah, a Pakistani-Canadian blogger who writes about sexuality and politics from a liberal ex-Muslim perspective, to get a keener sense of the diversity within Islam ...
A Liberal Muslim Constantly Alienates Both Sides
One of Eiynah's main issues with Islam is homophobia. Not every Muslim is homophobic, but it's still primarily Muslim countries that fiercely outlaw homosexuality. Some even carry the death penalty. So when Eiynah wrote My Chacha Is Gay, an anti-homophobic children's book set in Pakistan, she was immediately hit with a huge backlash from what seemed like everyone.
"I was delighted when it got picked up by some schools in the Toronto area and was used as a resource for The Day of Pink (an anti-bullying initiative). The book was read out in classrooms and assemblies, and the response was incredibly supportive at first. Then, as (Muslim) parents discovered that not only were their children read an LGBT-positive book, but were read one set in Pakistan, the outrage began. Many claimed it was an assault on their religion and a misrepresentation of it. Some said I was attacking the moral fiber of the 'Muslim family.'"
Some were more concise than others.
It wasn't just a blend of extremist Muslims and run-of-the-mill internet shitheads (though of course there were plenty of those). A lot of ordinary Muslim Canadians were mad as well. "In Toronto, a radio show broadcast calls from angry parents, punctuated with a few obligatory calls from people defending the book. Some parents threatened to sue the school board, and predictably, the LGBT-supporting liberal school board backed away from the book. It was never used in an official capacity again."
Eiynah continues: "The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) published a blog post claiming that the school board was the one bullying parents into teaching their kids about LGBT diversity. I was branded an 'Islamophobe,' and that was it. A resource that many children/teachers enjoyed and found useful was no longer available." And while it's crazy that acknowledging the existence of gay people was perceived as an attack on a religion, it's kind of understandable that the Muslim community was hypersensitive to attack ...
Any Criticism Of Islam Is Hijacked By Hate Groups
"A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to Ben Affleck [after he appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher], politely explaining that not all criticism of Islam was simply 'racist,' and that there are some valuable conversations to be had. My letter was printed in full by Jihad Watch without my knowledge."
Jihad Watch is an Islamophobic rant rag whose owner has been called a hate group leader by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Any time Eiynah posits that the Muslim community could be more progressive, she has to worry about her words being taken out of context and used as anti-Muslim ammunition.
The Affleck letter wasn't even the first time this happened. "Do you remember during the election, Shepard Fairey did the poster of the U.S. flag hijab woman?"
"I wrote a gentle critique of it, did a ten-minute audio message that went along with it. I said, basically, 'Dear the left: I know you're very well-meaning, and we need to be showing solidarity, but here is why championing this particular symbol is problematic.' I even mentioned that [my message] was not for the Trump people. This was not anti-immigrant. But it still went viral among the 'alt-right,' because they want any excuse to attack Islam."
Needless to say, Eiynah finds this really frustrating: "I'm an ex-Muslim, I'm a liberal person who doesn't hate Muslims, and many people I love are Muslim. But it's very hard to speak internally about changes I'd like to see in my community without feeding into hate."
The loudest voices are usually the most hateful -- crazy jerkwads who want any excuse to kick Muslims out of the West, to hate gay people, or to oppress women. They drown out the voices of Muslims who just want to worship their God and be chill with everybody, regardless of sexual preference (which in North America is most of them).
Outside Notions Of What Islam "Should Look Like" Are Unhelpful And Damaging
Eiynah pointed out that if you Google the words "Muslim American Olympian," you'll get pages and pages of results about Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim fencer who competed for America in Rio de Janeiro while wearing the hijab. You're far less likely to see any mention of Dalilah Muhammad, a Muslim woman who took home the gold in the 400m hurdles while wearing shorts and a sports bra.
Both women are incredible athletes, and could probably crush us both metaphorically and physically, but it's weird that only one is thought of as the "Muslim American Olympian." Especially since for a lot of Muslim women, the hijab brings back painful memories. "I've seen the Morality Police hit my mother with a cane because her headscarf slipped. It's like, would we feel as comfortable celebrating purity balls that are held in the South?"
Many Muslim women are proud to wear the hijab because it represents their faith, and many proud Muslim women hate the hijab for representing their oppression. To an outsider, it's way more complicated than simply picking "the right side." It's a Muslim issue, and yet non-Muslims still loudly argue which side is "more Muslim" than the other.
Hate Groups Have Made Themselves Very Attractive To Critics Of Islam
Imagine growing up in a strict, traditional, religious household. Around your 15th birthday, you get into punk rock and skateboarding and decide "Like, screw this jive scene, Daddy-O, I'm outta here!" Because that's how cool teenagers talk. If the family you're rebelling from is Muslim, the so-called "alt-right" is about the hardest rebellion you can manage.
"More and more Muslim reformers / ex-Muslims either get on the Trump Train, defend the Muslim Ban, or join the 'alt-right,'" Eiynah says. "And on the left, secular liberal Muslims continue to be censored or culturally erased. This tips the scales massively toward high visibility of right-wing critics of Islam. Well-known ex-Muslim Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam has said things like 'If Merkel took a million rapey migrants, Hillary will take 20 million.' Then we get to the more disturbing 'red-pilled' ex-Muslim types, who believe no Muslims are peaceful." Like the ironically named "Imam of Peace," who claims to speak for Muslims but boosts white supremacists and peddles conspiracy theories about Muslims taking over Australia.
There are a ton of Muslims in the world, so it's only natural that they disagree on some pretty big issues. You're all but guaranteed to find Muslims who have supported every fringe belief in the world, including those maniacs who insist Tabasco is the best hot sauce. But you can't blame that on the entire religion, because they're simply not one unified entity.
Islam Is Frequently Reduced To A Political Talking Point
There are not two sides vying for the fate of Islam. You might assume that Eiynah agrees with folks like Reza Aslan, the Muslim theologian and star of several viral videos wherein he takes down ignorant news anchors. Well, you'd be wrong. "It's not just a disagreement I have [with him]," she tells us. "I consider him to be quite a fraud in the way he's marketed himself, and not a reliable source of info." She provided this article as an example of why a lot of his arguments are "wrong, or technically-correct-but-actually-wrong."
Ali Rizvi, an author Eiynah does agree with, says that overzealous defenses of Islam actually allow anti-Muslim bigotry to fester. A quote from him:
"It is more important now than ever to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims."
This is part of the reason Eiynah doesn't like the term "Islamophobia": "Allowing any criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, homophobia, etc. to be labeled as 'Islamophobia' gives right-wing fundamentalist Muslims a chance to shield their religion from valid criticism. It's essentially the same thing right-wing Christians [do]. Think of the absurdity of the 'War on Christmas' to get a feel for how 'Islamophobia' sounds to us. That's why I prefer the more precise term 'anti-Muslim bigotry.' The problem is not theological criticisms of Islam or criticisms of literalist interpretations -- it is the generalizations, hatred, and fearmongering around Muslims."
"Islam is not a monolith -- neither its adherents nor its critics," says Eiynah. "Just like Islam can be interpreted and practiced in a million different ways, so too can criticism of it come from different angles and politics. It's important to be aware of the general Trump-era anti-Muslim climate, but it's also important not to erase the secular, liberal, and/or progressive Muslims who exist."
So the solution is "Remember that the world is a very complicated place, resist generalizations, and advocate for change carefully"? That'll never fit on a crudely scrawled protest sign.
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