Confessions of an Ex-Muslim
It was never my intention to become a professional writer when I started writing. Nor was my early passion for reading my actual incentive to embark on this journey, even though that ongoing and growing passion has eventually shaped and enhanced my literary practice.
All I can say is that it just happened without planning. After three decades of forced silence in Iraq and following the difficult experience of my immigration, it was impossible to bottle up feelings and withhold words and thoughts. I could no longer suppress myself. One day, I just grabbed a pen and a paper, and wrote down what seemed like confessions. Hence, the journey began.
The financial reward and fame did not cross my mind. All I was hoping for was to restore some of the missing balance that would help me continue my struggle and grasp what was happening around me.
My first book, A Muslim on the Bridge, reflected my perplexity as an Arab man, who suffered an identity crisis and was torn between two ferocious powers, each pulling him in the opposite direction: a social background of his Muslim family on the one hand, and his contemporary lifestyle and education that is based on reasoning and logical analysis on the other.
I wrote about my inner struggle between the heritage of the past and its control over me, and the present with its different demands. I wanted to highlight the flaws in our prevalent social and cultural norms, and the consequences of choosing to reject and defy them.
I made my confusion knowing well enough that I was not the only Arab or Muslim who was going through that ordeal, yet I only realize how big the "phenomenon" was when I started receiving emails from people whom I'd never met, confiding that they could relate to what I had written.
One of the senders asked me to write about the Arab agnostics, admitting to being one of them. He offered to share his personal experience, which was different from mine, but still bore considerable similarities to it. The most significant similarity would be that we both had engaged in fervent pursuits of knowledge, and of seeking answers for our many existential questions.
I was not used to being assigned certain topics to write about. Instead, I suggested an interview. He welcomed the idea, providing that his identity and nationality remain undisclosed. "Your answers will reflect your own opinions, not mine; I shall make that clear to the readers". I also told him that I'm going to leave his words untouched, and so will the platform on which the piece will be published, save for the parts that religious readers might find offensive. He agreed, and below is our exchange:
Thank you for trusting me. First, I would like to ask about the reason why you asked me to write about this topic now.
Many reasons, the most important of which is a humiliating, yet reoccurring scene we watched over the past years, when an Arab TV channel would host young men and women to discuss their convictions in relation to being agnostics.
As soon as the guests introduced themselves, and just as they attempted to express their opinions, the host or hostess of the show, along with their other Islamist guests, would start hurling insults at them, accusing them of being degenerate and suffering from mental and psychological diseases, despite the fact that the interviewees had spoken eloquently and very logically. The next step would be kicking them out of the studio so the interviewer and the channel would appear as if they've defeated the society's enemies. At the same time, they would get some sensational material that would attract high viewership ratings and generous advertising offerings.
Wouldn't it be better for you to write your own story and clarify your viewpoint?
I actually do that through my blog and social media pages, under fake names of course, along with hundreds or thousands of other nonreligious Arabs and Muslims. But that is not enough. It is about time that we have decent and professional media coverage of people's choice to devoid their lives of religion, a widespread phenomenon amongst many contemporary Arabs and Muslims.
You asked me not to reveal your identity and I have respected your will, but I have to highlight that you are in your 40s; your age is close to mine. Don't you think it is a bit late to turn against beliefs that have been established in your life for years?
No certain time or age can determine a change of path, in my opinion. Whenever the vision is clear for the ship captain or the car driver, and they find danger ahead of them, the only logical reaction would be to avoid disaster.
I have reservations about using the word "disaster". But let me rephrase the question: Why wasn't your vision clear at an earlier stage of your life? Did you have some sort of epiphany?
The answer to this question is in the stories told within your book. I grew up in an open-minded family just like you, but then my environment and society lapsed into fundamentalism and fanaticism. Like you, I had a passion for reading about theology and went through the phase of abiding by the strict teachings and rituals. I prayed on time and fasted regularly. I recited thousands of prayers around the clock, and observed i'tikaaf [a custom in which a Muslim locks himself inside a mosque for one or more days and dedicates his time entirely to worship]. I watched the show of [renowned Egyptian televangelist] Amr Khaled with tearful eyes, and was moved by [Egyptian Islamic scholar and scientist] Zaghloul El-Naggar's theses on the miracles of the Quran. I curbed many questions in my head and convinced myself that they only surfaced because of my ignorance of my religion and my lack of knowledge, so I became an avid reader.
At the time, the internet was still new and the youth tended to log onto websites related to religion and the pages of new preachers. We exchanged photos and allegations of "miracles" such as the appearance of Allah's name on fruits and in the sky, and stories of foreigners who'd prostrated themselves when they'd heard the recitation of the Quran and converted to Islam while crying their eyes out. Girls put on the veil and we grew our beards, until the truth started to come out gradually.
It was through the internet, which they'd used to extort us and amass their enormous fortunes that we came to realize that a lot of what they'd told us was either mistaken or distorted.
There is a widespread misconception amongst many devout Muslims; many of whom consider an atheist or an agnostic to be someone who's possessed by demons that led him astray and converted him into a monster that hates and wants to harm all believers. The truth is, every one of us has done a considerable amount of research. If anything, we should be likened to lovers who'd spent their lives in longing and realized only later that their love and what they loved were nothing but an illusion.
It is about time that we have decent and professional media coverage of people's choice to devoid their lives of religion, a widespread phenomenon amongst many contemporary Arabs and Muslims
In the Arab world, a non-believer has no choice but to pretend to have faith in order to avoid being harmed or even getting killed
Since you mentioned atheism, I would like to know how you feel when you are described as an atheist.
It depends on the other party really. Foreigners, for instance, consider it a description of a certain system of thought, and as such, there's nothing insulting about being called an atheist. Unfortunately, it's quite a different story in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Not only does the word bear connotations of hostility and exclusion, but it frequently suggests condemnation and an underhanded threat of persecution, imprisonment or even death. But who said I was an atheist?
How would you identify yourself then?
First of all, I'm against all types of labeling, whether religious, political or sexual. However, I will answer your question because it was me who wanted to talk and clarify things. Atheism is the most logical choice because of the absence of proof for otherwise. But personally, I can relate more to agnosticism. Some people adhere to deism and that is different, but to each his own.
I feel there's a hidden dimension to our existence. There might be a creator or some superior power that we are not aware of, or could not communicate with. I could be mistaken of course, but scientifically speaking, we are all agnostics, including the most pious of people. Faith is an emotional choice. None of us has ever seen or spoken to God directly, right?
Piety used to be the pedestal for an important phase of your life. I wonder if there are certain aspects of that time that you miss today.
You probably know Karl Marx's saying that religion is "the opium of the nations". I think using "addiction" in this context is very accurate. Like anyone who has spent a lifetime doing something that brings him a certain joy or comfort, I sometimes miss my days of delusion and the temporary feelings of serenity that enveloped them. I miss feeling secure and being accepted and protected by the majority. But like any former addict, I know I am no longer the same person and that time does not go backward. It is impossible to convince a grown-up man that his favorite childhood cartoon characters exist. If he is convinced then he is definitely not a grown up.
My impartiality will not keep me from saying that religion needs to be reformed; this is something that is not denied by most devout Muslims who often condemn terrorism and violence. I would like to know your opinion on the recent calls for reformation that are gaining momentum lately amongst the Muslim youth.
If you are referring to what Adnan Ibrahim and Muhammad Shahrur have been doing, for instance, my opinion is that they're both twisting facts in order to make the religious rhetoric more compatible with our present time. It's a benign effort, but the problem is much bigger than this.
The main scourge within our societies is that our lives are dictated by the religious rhetoric and its different and frequently contradictory interpretations. Nations that are more civilized than us have long overcome this problem and are being ruled by unified laws that are based on respecting the freedom and humanity of their subjects, regardless of their beliefs or ideologies.
Do you think secularism is the remedy?
Absolutely, and we have experienced that to a good extent in the mid 20th century, when the Arab societies seemed more tolerant and capable of containing atheists and agnostics before reverting to adopting narrow-mindedness and discrimination against all forms of differences.
As an agnostic man, I am not concerned with the religious, ideological or even behavioral choices of others as long as they don't transgress mine. Anyone can believe in whatever they want or abandon faith altogether. But it really is not acceptable in the 21st century to live pretending [to adopt] the opposite of what I believe in order to protect myself and my family from harm and discrimination, or even banishment and murder.
This question sounds a bit cliché, and I know that a lot of people have asked you this already, but I think it would properly conclude our conversation: Let's assume that religion is right, what would you say to God when you meet him? How would you justify your choice to him?
At the end of your book you mentioned that you'd let the hadith that says "Consult your heart, even if the others instructed you otherwise!" be your compass in life. I would tell God that I chose to do the same thing, and have not killed or done anyone wrong. I've actually done what he advised me to do by reading, observing and contemplating. I would also tell him that I've used the mind he had granted me for a purpose, and listened to the voice of my conscience. Together, my mind and conscience, have led me down this path.