In twenty-first-century America, what happens to a young woman who has wised up and quit a faith-based ideology that ordains the second-class status of women, the submissiveness of wives to husbands (even violent husbands), the partial disinheritance of female heirs in favor of their male counterparts, the stoning of adulterers (and especially adulteresses, given the misogynistic vagaries of evidentiary law associated with said ideology), the taking of captive women as sex slaves, the adherence to a cumbersome dress code, and that also sanctions the savagery of female genital mutilation? Does she win plaudits for standing up her for rights as a woman? Do progressives recite panegyrics that sing her courage and praise her clear-sightedness? Is she inundated with offers of support?
Does she feel, perhaps for the first time in her life, that the United States, her adopted country – the only country on Earth established, at least according to its foundational documents, on the rights to free speech, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – wholly and unreservedly welcomes her as one of its own?
Not necessarily! If the ideology is Islam (and it is) and the woman is a former Muslim (and she is), she must steel herself to face threats against her life from her onetime coreligionists and a hail of invective from, and insidious betrayals by, those posing as progressives. Moreover, she must prepare to fend off attempts to silence her viewpoint as “inconvenient” given our current political morass. Even more egregiously, if the woman is trying to help (as she is) others also striving after the gloriously secular freedom she has achieved for herself, she becomes a danger to the entire edifice of hypocrisy, cowardice, and fact-deficient balderdash forming the mainstream left’s view of Islam as a “religion of peace” distorted by a few deranged miscreants. In short, in the America of today, such a brave woman will find no haven extended to her, but, rather, confront wielders of figurative pitchforks eager to skewer her for both abandoning her religion and traducing her kind. And with Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, her position becomes more precarious than ever.
Such a woman is Sarah Haider, a native of Pakistan who moved to the United States when she was between seven and eight, and who is co-founder and director of outreach for Ex-Muslims of North America. EXMNA, declares its web site, “advocates for acceptance of religious dissent, promotes secular values, and aims to reduce discrimination faced by those who leave Islam.” It also provides a range of services (e.g., temporary shelter, counseling) to its members, who are spread out in eighteen chapters across the continent, and offers a platform from which ex-Muslims can recount, via Youtube videos, their personal stories of faith-free enlightenment.
Soft-spoken, articulate, and earnest, Haider hardly fits the image of a sinister, subversive “native informant” or “house Arab” or “house Muslim” (as she has been vilified by some on the left) scheming to stir up “Islamophobia” and spoil life for American Muslims. Haider drifted away from Islam at age fifteen, but received national attention when, in 2015, she delivered a widely viewed lecture, “Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique,” at an American Humanist Association conference in Denver. She has been, since then, hailed as a hero by the neuroscientist and outspoken atheist Sam Harris (the host of the Waking Up podcast) and has appeared on, among other venues, Dave Rubin’s popular Youtube talk show, The Rubin Report.
I spoke with Haider via Skype one day recently. She told me that things have only gotten tougher for ex-Muslims since she made her appearance in Denver, and that she and her fellow apostates live with a level of threat that influences every aspect of life. (Apostasy is an offence punishable by death, according to Islam, and female apostates in particular, even in the United States, find themselves imperiled.) The more publicity she receives, the more potential danger she has to live with.
“Fear of being exposed has changed how I go about my life and how I socialize. As I become better known, I feel increasingly isolated.”
Worst of all, she feels so besieged in the United States.
“Ex-Muslims in the West should be free to be who they are and leave their religion. At the very least, we shouldn’t have to be fearful of our family and friends. If Muslims feel they’re being badly treated here [in the United States], they can go to Muslim-majority countries. But where can a person like me go? I’m in the safest place I can possibly be, yet I’m too afraid to tell people where I live. It’s tragic for me that there’s even a need for our organization.”
If Muslims, she adds, justifiably worry about their events being targeted, she “can’t even find a place to hold our conferences.” For fear of being attacked, EXMNA doesn’t even have a physical office.
The mainstream media, she says, seem not to care about their plight. She adduces an example: the June 2016 incident in which EXMNA called the local Wegman’s bakery and ordered a cake emblazoned with “Happy Three-Year Anniversary, Ex-Muslims!” The management refused to take their order, worried that such “inflammatory” verbiage might offend its Muslim employees. The Freedom from Religion foundation eventually intervened – businesses cannot deny services based on a customer’s faith or lack thereof – and Wegman’s relented. The rightwing press and blogosphere publicized the affair, but few other news outlets did. It goes without saying that similar incidents not long ago generated great public sympathy when the victims were gays.
Haider is still outraged. “When I read a news article about how a woman’s hijab was pulled off or how a stewardess refuses to give a Muslim woman an unopened can of Coke, it’s national news. But no one covers what we’re going through, no one covers our persecution. Of course we know there’s anti-Muslim bigotry, and that’s being covered. But our struggle should be covered as well. It’s appalling that our pain isn’t worth discussing. In fact, we’re often painted as the victimizers.”
That the rightwing media do at times report about them only leads to EXMNA being (wrongly) associated with the right.
The left’s rejection hurts all the more since the most menaced former Muslims are women. Female apostates, she tells me, face ostracism, beatings, harassment and threats from their families and communities, forced travel back to home countries to pry them free of Western influence, and forced marriage.
But their own families often pose the greatest danger. At EXMNA, Haider says, “we’ve had women tell us harrowing stories. They’ve been locked in their rooms by their families and beaten for days, so they’ve had to try hard to escape. Generally speaking, they face physical abuse, mental abuse, and verbal abuse. Few ex-Muslims can be open about leaving Islam, because they’d be threatened by their families or communities or their employers.” The fate of those who have spoken out publicly, including the Somali-born public intellectual Ayaan Hirsi Ali, serves as a warning to all. Hirsi Ali has needed armed guards since she began denouncing her erstwhile religion more than a decade ago.
“Look at how Ayaan has to live!” says Haider. “She has to hide! We have to wonder, should I wear a bulletproof vest? How many Muslims here have to live like that?”
Haider tours the United States for EXMNA, which she founded in 2013 with Muhammad Syed, its president. It now counts as many as a thousand members, though it should be much larger. A lengthy security screening process for new members slows the organization’s growth, but is necessary to ensure the safety of its participants.
Which, she tells me, is no easy task. At their second public gathering, the two guards, who were apparently of Afghan origin, butted into proceedings to “defend Islam,” and later spoke audibly about “the need to do something about this group.”
“And these were the people who were supposed to protect us!” she exclaims.
Politicians show some sympathy for EXMNA, but they do so privately; the thousands of friendly emails she receives from genuine liberals make her feel less alone. The stigma prevails that criticizing Islam is tantamount to racism; not many want to risk their reputations and openly voice support. Former Muslims are also reticent, fearing repercussions from their community. And, of course, few wish to get on the wrong side of Islamist assassins with a growing worldwide record of atrocities that includes the murder of freethinking bloggers, law students, and satirical cartoonists.
I ask Haider how she feels when those purporting to be on the left attack her as promoting racism or “helping the Trump narrative.”
“It feels like a betrayal,” she replies. “I’m still shocked and appalled by it. It’s difficult to move on. The betrayal of the left has really hurt us, because in principle these people should be on our side, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our efforts to reform Islam and bring human and women’s rights to Islamic countries. But they’re barring the gate, telling us we’re ‘Islamophobic’ or spurring hatred toward Muslims or contributing to a hostile atmosphere for them. They even say we’re contributing to Western imperialism. This is nonsense and is appalling to us.”
In fact, some on the left treat her to mind-bending lectures about how Western imperialism is to blame for terrorist atrocities nowadays committed in Islam’s name, though the faith (with its attendant violence, misogyny, and warmongering) originated almost a thousand years before the imperialist era began. “This is dehumanizing,” Haider tells me. “It’s as if Eastern peoples have no agency, we’re just acted upon. But I can tell you about Islamic cruelty and how they treated women and homosexuals long before the West was even in the picture. [For those leftists] it’s as if history started in colonized countries when the West came.”
The discussions in the aftermath of the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, gave her a chance to experience the hypocrisy of the left when it comes to Islam. She saw that older feminists strongly denounced the crimes, saying “’there’s no excuse, these assaults are rooted in religious patriarchy and we cannot allow them to happen.’ They have this idea that no culture can supersede women’s rights, but younger feminists look at things from a very strange perspective, a narcissistic perspective,” and believe it’s — “bigotry to even acknowledge that there are problems in certain cultures, unless of course you’re talking about Western culture, in which case I can acknowledge whatever I want. What could be a more effective roadblock to addressing the problems? I don’t know what world I’m living in when I can’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem and that it’s at a much more extreme level [in Islamic countries] than anything we have in the West, when saying that in itself is [considered] a form of racism, a form of bigotry.”
Haider is a liberal, in the classic sense of the word. She tells me that, “the political right is not our friend. We don’t have allies on the right” because EXMNA is an “atheist or non-theist” organization. “Muslims who convert to Christianity can be comforted by Christians. But those of us who become atheist have nowhere to turn.”
I asked why she believes so many leftists reject ex-Muslims, who should be natural allies.
“They paint us as a self-hating, traitorous group of people,” she responds. “They believe religion’s inherent to Muslims, so they think insulting religion is like ridiculing their skin color. They’re racializing religion and conflating people with their religion. This idea will come back to hurt Muslims, since you can end up saying ‘this religion has issues that don’t mix well with modernity, so these [Muslims] need to go!’ And they think women’s rights and civil liberties always belong to Western culture. They subordinate women’s rights to cultural rights. They’re saying non-Western women have no need of human dignity. Now that’s true racism.”
Haider also posits an ulterior, if easily discernible, motive. Those on the left “ignore multitudes of human rights abuses, and especially women’s rights abuses, in order to ally with a more politically convenient group, Muslims.”
This makes sense: behind American Muslims stand a number of well-funded organizations – of which the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations is only the most prominent – that denounce critical speech about Islam as “Islamophobic” and employ legions of lawyers to represent Muslims in court. In fact, what amounts to a campaign to win special privileges for Muslims has at times succeeded even without going to court – and this is worrisome to all who value secularism.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency has only complicated the plight of ex-Muslims. Haider notes that “the left sees standing with Muslims as a means of resisting Trump;” convesely, then, those who oppose Islam can be perceived as supporting Trump. “After Trump won, I was hoping the left might engage in some introspection” about how its refusal to hold an honest discussion about Islam had damaged the movement. (As I recently pointed out in Quillette, Hillary Clinton’s failure on the campaign trail to speak frankly about Islam and terrorism most likely put Trump in the White House). “But if anything they’ve dug in. So we see Linda Sarsour [heralded] as a warrior for women’s rights.” (This is an insult to reason and progressivism, even if Bernie Sanders would disagree. Sarsour calls herself a “racial justice & civil rights activist,” but supports Shariah law, declared herself “not Charlie” after the cartoonists’ slaughter at the hands of Islamists in 2015, and, in a 2011 tweet, said she wished she could “take away” Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vagina.) Calling Sarsour a defender of women’s rights “is absurd on the face of it,” says Haider, “but it’s becoming more and more the norm. People will call us racist for criticizing a religion. They have no idea of what it actually means to be liberal.”
Haider concludes that “If the left doesn’t take up this issue” – that is, start speaking honestly about Islam and its demerits – “they’re letting the right take it, and people end up looking to Donald Trump to protect them from terror, from morals that are rooted in the ideas of centuries ago. And that’s outrageous. Of course Trump isn’t the solution. But you’ve placed people in a situation where they feel they have no other choice. It’s only going to get worse if the left refuses to even engage with these ideas.”
Haider harbors special ire for those who accuse her of stirring up ant-Muslim bigotry. “People [on the left] say what we say is racist and is adding to such bigotry” – a logically untenable position, since, of course, Islam is a religion, not a race, and, as Haider reminds us, “religions are just ideas and don’t have rights.” She pauses. “This is outrageous and insulting. I feel a deep sense of sadness and betrayal when I hear this.”
Haider strongly denounces any form of anti-Muslim bigotry – understandable, since former Muslims, including her at times, still find themselves treated as Muslims, if only because of their names or skin color. In any case, those who truly believe in freedom of speech also believe in its indispensible corollary, freedom of religion. “We know what anti-Muslim bigotry is because we’ve felt it ourselves. Nobody [among us] wants to add to anti-Muslim bigotry, because they don’t want to make things worse for their families and friends or for people who may be targeted.”
Since Trump’s victory will only worsen the plight of former Muslims, who lack allies on the right and are shunned by the left, I ask what she plans on doing.
“There’s nothing to do but keep on going, or else nothing will change. If we allow these threats, these fears, to shut us down, things won’t change. People,” she says in reference to former Muslims, “are desperate.”
And so, Haider pushes on, expanding EXMNA and finding an ever-growing need for it, with those interested in membership driving for as long as six hours to attend a single meeting. EXMNA’s popularity makes sense: atheism is spreading. The religiously unaffiliated now comprise 16 percent of all people worldwide (including a quarter of all Americans and 36 percent of Millennials); and faith is set to die out in nine of the most advanced countries. Atheism is, thus, not surprisingly, even making unprecedented strides in the Arab world.) The future lies clearly with nonbelief and nonbelievers.
It’s time for the illiberal left to sober up, take an honest look at and speak frankly about Islam, and start treating Haider and her freethinking fellows as cherished allies. After all, they have ditched a regressive, misogynistic ideology for a rational, evidence-based secular worldview, often at great risk to themselves. They are people who have the courage to act on their convictions. They are taking a brave stand for the truth and Enlightenment values in the darkest time in recent decades.
They are heroes.
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