The Pakistani-Canadian writer Ali Rizvi is a fierce critic of Islam, the religion in which he grew up. But unlike many other critics who maintain that Islam is inherently incapable of modernization, and that the Muslim world is sliding ever further into backwardness and fundamentalism, Rizvi is refreshingly optimistic about the future. The seed of a new Enlightenment has been planted in the Arabic world, he told me in Antwerp, and there’s no way to eradicate it.
In his book The Atheist Muslim, Rizvi speaks directly to the many closeted atheists, agnostics, and secularists in the Muslim world. These people are obliged by the societies in which they live to present themselves outwardly as Muslims, but in private, they harbor different ideas. Rizvi’s book is often polemical in tone, but also humane and sympathetic to the plight of Muslims around the world. He is keenly aware of the consolations which faith provide to some, and he never stoops to condescension.
If Rizvi is right, freethinkers in the Muslim world are more numerous than most of us suspect. Not only are their numbers growing, but they are becoming more and more emboldened. With eloquent and outspoken ex-Muslims such as Rizvi, who offer a message of hope and liberation from dogma, religious conservatives around the world should start to worry.
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Maarten Boudry: The title of your book is The Atheist Muslim. For many people, you must be a walking contradiction. What is an atheist Muslim exactly?
Ali Rizvi: You can read the title of my book as a satirical take on the religious practice of cherry-picking. I have a friend who tells me she’s a feminist Muslim. So I asked her, is that like a meat-eating vegetarian? And she told me that, sure, she has some problems with the Quran, and what it says about the status of women, but doesn’t everyone engage in cherry-picking? So I thought: OK, how far can I take this? Let’s cherry-pick all the way. I’ll keep Eid and the feast of Ramadan, I’ll keep the tax-exempt status of religions, and that’s it.
But the title is not necessarily self-descriptive, even though it has become that by now. You know, people say: “Oh, here’s Ali Rizvi, the Atheist Muslim.” In the first place, the title is addressing atheists who are closeted, who have to present themselves outwardly as Muslims. In the Muslim world, there are countless such freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics, who are going around presenting themselves as Muslims, because there are very serious consequences for openly saying what they are. You know all the reasons. It ranges from being rejected by their families, disowned and ostracized by their communities, to being persecuted, jailed, or even hacked to death, as with the Bangladeshi secular bloggers. These people are atheist in thought, but Muslim in appearance. They are all living a contradictory existence.
How about the predicament of ex-Muslims in the West? In my own country, Belgium, up until very recently, ex-Muslims were completely invisible in the public domain, and it strikes me that there was a lot of denial about this. Many people assumed either that ex-Muslims just don’t exist, or that it’s their personal decision not to come into the spotlight, which we should respect. What else could the reason be, right?
There’s a lot that ex-Muslims take on when they come out. In the West, of course, it’s not that the government might put you in prison, which is what my friend Raif Badawi is going through in Saudi Arabia. But ex-Muslims lose their families, their childhood relationships, the communities they grew up in. Often they’re completely ostracized, especially the girls. There’s this whole idea that being a Muslim makes you a modest girl with good moral character. So when you leave Islam, other men will look at you and assume that you must be a whore. And then there’s the physical threat. It doesn’t come from the government like in Saudi Arabia, but it still exists. Here in your part of the world, you had the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and the death threats towards his friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali. People were plotting to assassinate her, and she had to travel with security everywhere. These are very real risks, and it’s understandable that all of this has jarred and shaken people up. I also heard about the Muslim mayor in Rotterdam, who’s a progressive and open-minded reformer. Well, he’s gotten himself into trouble too, and now he also needs security.
It doesn’t make any different to the fanatics, of course. As soon as you have given up certain non-negotiable parts of the doctrine, you’re all apostates anyway.
Yes. Now, on top of all of that, if some Muslim goes ahead and dares to criticize her religion, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you also see a lot of liberals turn against her. I have my political differences with Ayaan, but really, if someone is rejecting Islam because she likes liberal Enlightenment values, because she believes in gender equality and human rights and freedom of speech, then you’d like your Western counterparts to support her. But often they don’t. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, which was his right to do, many liberals just shunned him.
It’s shocking to read some of that stuff from the fatwa days. People wrote that Rushdie should have been more respectful, that it’s always wrong to ‘burn your enemy’s flag,’ that freedom of speech comes with responsibilities, et cetera.
Jimmy Carter, the former president of the U.S., wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he acknowledged that freedom of speech is a fundamental right, but then he went on to chastise Salman Rushdie for writing the book. That was victim blaming. Many freethinkers and disbelievers in the Muslim community who saw what happened to Salman Rushdie, even in the West, will think twice before coming out. Liberals are not supporting the people that they should be supporting, and they have compromised on their own values. That’s how terrorism works. They want to curb terrorism, but they’re not curbing it, they’re already victims of it.
By engaging in self-censorship, they’re even emboldening the terrorists. They show that intimidation works. Can you explain why many people on the Left are so terribly confused about ex-Muslims and Muslim reformers?
It’s part of the liberal conscience to want to protect religious minorities. If there’s a minority group that you think is being targeted unfairly, or being maligned, you want to protect them. But this leads liberals into a conflict of values. Minority communities often have very conservative social values, so by defending and guarding them, you end up, inadvertently, defending and guarding the actual beliefs themselves. Many liberals are unable to make that distinction, between defending someone’s right to believe what they want, and defending the beliefs themselves; between defending the right to wear the hijab, and celebrating or endorsing the hijab itself. Often these things get conflated.
There’s also this tacit assumption that Enlightenment values are reserved for Western people only. ‘They’ have their own culture, which should be respected. And people like you, ironically—because you speak ‘our’ language, the language of Western liberals—you are not regarded as an authentic representative of your ‘own’ culture.
The underlying narrative is that the only good Muslim is a conservative Muslim. This is bizarre. If an ex-Catholic has been persecuted by her religion, and she comes out and says that religion is bullshit, she’s hailed as a hero. Leah Remini, who escaped from Scientology, has her own TV show, and a best-selling book. But if there’s a Muslim who comes up and says that she believes in free speech, in gender equality and in secularism, suddenly there’s mass confusion. Look, Europeans challenged their own religion during the Enlightenment, and we’re all benefiting from their efforts today. But when non-Europeans want to do the same, it’s ‘Islamophobia’? That is the real bigotry.
They say you betrayed your own culture.
You’re a sell-out; an Uncle Tom. Liberals have often squandered the opportunity to have an honest and morally responsible conversation about this. And by doing so, they left a void, which has been filled by opportunists from the far-Right, who want to have this dialogue in an irresponsible and xenophobic way.
I want to reframe what ex-Muslims are doing, and what secular elements in the Muslim world are doing, as the beginning stages of a new Enlightenment. If you look at the technological advances that facilitated the Western Enlightenment in the Christian world, one of the things that helped take down Christian theocracy was the printing press. Many people say that, without the printing press, there wouldn’t have been a Reformation or Enlightenment. These intellectual revolutions were facilitated by a technology that allowed information to be spread across the masses. Of course, it was wielded by both sides, by the establishment for propaganda, and by the rebels to achieve their purposes. You’re seeing a similar thing happening with the Internet now in the Muslim world, where ISIS is using it to their advantage, but at the same time, the ex-Muslims and freethinkers are organizing and exchanging their ideas as well. It is an excellent analogy, although no analogy is perfect.
We’ve come a long way already. When Rushdie published his book, he had to go into hiding for ten years, but now there are literally thousands of Muslims speaking out. There are conferences, books, podcasts, interviews. Ex-Muslims are showing up on TV in Egypt and Kuwait. This is something that is happening on a scale that was unimaginable in the Rushdie days. And that was just under 30 years ago.
Is there a sense in which the rise of Islamic fundamentalism can be seen as a backlash against the larger trend of secularism and modernity? Perhaps the conservatives realize that the belief system is under enormous pressure, from many different directions, and that they have to crush all dissent now, or risk losing the war.
Exactly. Someone was asking me the other day how I could be so optimistic about a Muslim Enlightenment, when we’re seeing this rise in jihadism and fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia is even labelling atheism as a form of ‘terrorism’ now. My answer to that is: why is Saudi Arabia labelling atheists as terrorists?
Because they’re afraid!
Because they’re seeing a rise of atheism in their youth. In countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, about 70 percent of the population is under 30 or 35, and their youth are being exposed to all these different ideas. When I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, we just had print media, no Internet. My dad used to get Time magazine or Newsweek, and sometimes pages were ripped out of it, because the authorities censored the news. If there was something that they didn’t want you to know, you would never know it. Denzel Washington came to Mecca to shoot the movie Malcolm X. Now, Washington is a non-believer, who’s not supposed to be in Mecca. But the Saudi government allowed him in, I guess because they paid a lot of money. Nobody in the country even knew that movie existed, until we went on vacation and thought, wow, what the hell is Denzel Washington doing at the Ka’ba?
But then, the Internet came around. Here in the West we use it mainly for sharing cat videos and we enjoy that, but for them, it is a window onto a world that they had no idea existed at all. These are people who are born and raised there, who didn’t go on vacation to the West like I did. Muslim youth globally are being more exposed to secular influences. They’re seeing Hollywood movies that are now uncensored, and they are thinking about these things, comparing them to their own life. And yes, the conservatives are very worried about this.
Western writers are largely unaware of the growing popularity of liberal Enlightenment values among many young Muslims all over the world. My new interview with "Secular Jihadists": Steven Pinker: Enlightenment & the Muslim World https://t.co/mas1wUSghH via @YouTube
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) July 23, 2018
So the rise of jihadism and fundamentalism is more of a backlash than a movement. I compare it to the rise of Trump and the alt-right. When Obama was elected president—a global citizen, half black, half white, raised in Indonesia, coming from a lot of different cultures—everyone thought that the racial struggle was over. Now we could move on and talk about other important things, like veganism and gender pronouns. And while they were doing that, there was an underground backlash, which culminated in the election of Trump. People now think this is a new movement, but it has always been there. It has just come to the surface now. This is the way progress happens: two steps forward, one step back. Backlashes like these are not necessarily afflictions of a world that’s getting worse, but symptoms of a world that’s changing for the better.
A 2012 Gallup poll showed that, in Saudi Arabia, 19 percent of people don’t have a religious affiliation, and 5 percent are flat-out atheists. That’s pretty stunning.
An admittedly non-scientific poll conducted by the Kurdish news agency AK News found that, in Iraq, about 7 percent of the population identifies as atheist. Not just non-religious, but straight-out atheist. This means that, in Iraq and Saudi Arabia alone, there are over 2.5 million confirmed atheists. Quite a substantial number. And this is probably a conservative estimate, given people’s reluctance to report their atheism. It’s also quite consistent with the anecdotal experience I’ve had. There are thousands of freethinkers in the Muslim world with whom I’ve communicated. And they’re now speaking out.
Let’s talk about your own former faith. Isaac Asimov once said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” Do you think the Quran is a good contender? When I read your book, it looked as if, of all books, it was the Quran which mainly drove you away from faith.
Reading the Quran as it is, is an excellent antidote to faith. And the apologists know this. What’s the one thing the apologists keep telling you?
Don’t take it literally!
Exactly. Don’t read it literally. This is the infallible, unquestionable, immutable word of the Creator of the Universe, but please don’t use it the way he wants you to. Put the word of God down, and please read my human interpretation and commentary.
In a way, they’re saying “The guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, don’t take him too seriously.” Isn’t that blasphemy?
That’s also what people say about Trump’s tweets! Those are also open to different interpretations by his followers, who justify them in any way they want. The problem is that ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not quoting professor so-and-so at Al Azhar university, or religious apologists like Reza Aslan. They’re quoting the Quran. As long as that’s true, it’s always going to be a problem.
Let me play devil’s advocate. Some people would say that you’re actually in alliance with the fundamentalists, because you’re arguing that they are the ones who read the Quran and the hadiths properly and seriously, in the way it was intended. You write that it’s actually not the jihadists, but the moderates, who have to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain away all the disturbing verses. So tell me, are you in cahoots with the fanatics?
People do make that argument, and it’s sort of a shaming technique. So you take this verse literally? You’re doing what the Wahhabis do. My radar is always up when it comes to such shaming techniques. It’s a way to curtail the dialogue. Whether you like it or not, the fanatics are consistent and have more credibility. I’ve argued with these fundamentalists on our podcast (Secular Jihadists), and they do have scriptural and philosophical back-up for what they’re saying. They really try to explain and justify some of the horrible ideas they have. And even though I disagree with them much more than I disagree with the moderates, I respect their intellectual consistency. At least you can have a dialogue, which is more than you can say about the wishy-washy apologists who keep saying that you take things out of context. And then when you ask, “So, what’s the real context?” their answer is “Well, I’m not a scholar.” That’s not a way to argue.
Many people are also confusing equivalence of passion with equivalence of purpose. On the one hand, you have the Taliban, who are extremely passionate about oppressing women, about keeping them at home and putting them in bags. On the other hand, you have women’s rights activists, who are extremely passionate about fighting the Taliban. So you can say, “Hey look, these women are just as fanatical and aggressive.” No, they’re not. Equivalence of passion does not equate with equivalence of purpose.
This notion that the Quran itself is pure and good, and that it has been distorted and hijacked by fanatics, is also far from inconsequential. If you’re going to fight the jihadists on their terrain, with scriptural arguments, you might end up on the losing side. As you write in your book, many moderates haven’t even read the Quran, and they’re very surprised to find all these disturbing things in there. Many parents of radicalizing kids even send off their kids to Quran schools, so that they can study the Quran properly and realize all their errors. Seems like a bad idea.
A really good example of this is Sura 4:34, which says that if you fear disobedience from your wife, as a last resort, you can beat her to discipline her. Now, you have a lot of South Asian scholars who translate the term not as “beating” but as “striking a separation.” It’s about temporarily parting from them, or even about loving them. But all these different interpretations have only come out in the last 100 years or so. It’s the same with the age of Aisha when Mohammed married and had sex with her; this was never controversial until a hundred years ago, when it started to dawn on people how disturbing this fact is. So, when you go to an Arabic speaker and say that the words adhribu hunna actually mean “to strike a separation,” they will laugh in your face. And rightly so. When I say, “Let’s hit the road,” then “hit” means “let’s go travel.” It’s a completely different meaning than in the phrase “hitting the ground.” But when I say that therefore “hit the woman” means “travel with the woman,” you would think that I’m an idiot. And I would be an idiot. Scriptural re-interpretation is a losing game. Even if you interpret something liberally, your starting point is still the assumption that scripture is infallible. You’ve already given away so much.
How does Islam compare with other religions in this respect? Do you think some religions are worse than others?
Faith itself is the most toxic element, and in that sense all religions are equal. When you’re encouraging faith, when you’re saying that it’s a virtue to believe things without evidence, then you can no longer argue against the jihadists. In that sense, I think the focus on terrorism as the worst part of Islam is misplaced. Yes, today Islam is more dangerous, and what makes Islam unique is the toxic combination of belief in martyrdom, the glamorization of death, and the killing of unbelievers. But when people say that you can’t talk about jihadism without talking about Islam, I’d go one step further. You can’t talk about Islam with talking about faith itself. Faith programs people into believing bullshit without trying to seek evidence for it, and it makes them more susceptible to being manipulated by demagogues. The root story of all the Abrahamic religions is the story of Abraham sacrificing his son. That is the essence of faith: you hear a voice in your head, and the next thing you know you’re going to kill your son. So the worst part of Islam is the same thing that is bad about all the other religions.
You started to question religion early on, as a child. Was there ever a period in your life when you were firmly convinced that there was a God and an afterlife, or did you never really swallow all of that?
I started to doubt very early on, but I did endorse the belief in heaven and hell. Except I thought of it as a metaphor, something we humans can’t imagine. For example, when you do something wrong, your conscience is plagued by guilt. But we manage to distract ourselves from our guilt by experiencing physical pleasure like food, travel, and sex. But when we lose our physical bodies, the guilt will remain, and weigh on us very heavily. And the more guilt you have, the more ‘hellish’ it’s going to be. So I thought maybe that’s what hell is.
Perhaps you’re only going to be ‘roasted’ in there in the sense of a celebrity roast.
Yeah. I Deepak Chopra-ed the shit out of that afterlife. But then later on I came to the conclusion that it’s not going to happen. When you have mad cow disease, a little bit of your brain turns to sponge, and you lose significant intellectual faculties. So when your entire brain turns to sponge, it’s hard to imagine that anything of ‘you’ will pass through to the other side. And even if there is, it’s irrelevant to me now, because I can’t know.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the Book Review section of the New York Times that you “may well become the Dawkins or Hitchens for the millennial generation.” One thing you have in common with the New Atheists is your admiration for science, and your belief in the conflict between science and religion. You also write that the approach of the New Atheists, which is often seen as too ‘militant,’ actually appeals more to people in the Muslim world than the conciliatory approach. How does that work?
Someone like Richard Dawkins doesn’t hold back. He’s is very abrupt and aggressive, and he says what he thinks. This is something atheists in the Muslim world all wish they could do. In Saudi Arabia, for example, they’re not able to express themselves at all. They’re censored and oppressed, their speech is heavily regulated. Living in such restricted societies also makes them quite angry. If you take all of that into account, it’s understandable that they find the idea of respectful and conciliatory dialogue a privilege reserved for people who live in open societies. It’s a luxury they cannot afford. That’s why they relate more to someone like Dawkins or Hitchens, who comes out and says it like it is. Their approach resonates more with the way they feel.
The bootleg Arabic translation of Dawkins’s The God Delusion has been downloaded more than ten million times. I hope you’re working on an Arabic translation of your book too?
I think, ultimately, that’s what’s going to happen. I’ve heard about people who are doing bootleg translations. I’ve been sent the PDF of an Indonesian translation that’s already finished. I’m in touch with a small independent publisher in Egypt for an Arabic translation, but sometimes these publishers get caught up in paperwork for rights issues and translation, so it takes time. But we are working on it. Fingers crossed.
Photography © Franky Verdickt
Ali Rizvi is a Pakistani-born Canadian author and physician based in Toronto. He spent his childhood years in Libya, Saudi-Arabia, and Pakistan, permanently moving to Canada in his twenties. He is the author of The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason (2016) and a regular contributor for the Huffington Post. He is the co-founder and host of the Secular Jihadists podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @aliamjadrizvi
Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science based in Ghent (Belgium), who studied in Vienna, Boston, and New York. His most recent book is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, co-edited with Massimo Pigliucci. He has published around 40 academic papers on human irrationality, pseudoscience, supernatural belief, and cultural evolution. He has also published two popular books in Dutch on critical thinking and irrationality. You can follow him on Twitter @mboudry