CN: ASSAULT, SEXISM, RACISM, KINK
On today's episode, I talk to Heina Dadabhoy about growing up Muslim, the misconceptions of Islam, and when criticizing Islam becomes racism.
Trav: Welcome to the Bi Any means podcast, the place where social justice and humanism meet. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Bi Any Means podcast, the podcast companion to bianymeans.com. I am Trav Mamone and my guest today is Heina Dadabhoy. They are a former contributor to Skepchick, and they are currently blogging at Heinous Dealings at Free Thought Blogs. Heina, thanks for joining me today.
Heina: My pleasure.
Trav: Now for those who don’t know I previously did an email interview with Heina a few months ago on Bi Any Means but with the podcast my audience is starting to grow. For those who missed our previous conversation, can you tell us about growing up Muslim and what eventually led you to atheism?
Heina: Well, I grew up as a Muslim in sunny southern California. I was very religious. In fact, more religious than my family at points, and that also meant I read a lot of religious texts. I knew a lot of things about the religion that everyone around me claimed to believe in and follow but that they didn’t know, things that led me to doubts but never too strong. When 9/11 happened I was actually in high school. It was my second day of high school but while it didn’t make me immediately di-convert it did make me further examine my beliefs especially since so many people around me were asking me questions, and asking me to justify my beliefs and my religion.
Then that led to several years of doubt in high school. I started reading things outside of religious texts, picked up a few autobiographies of people who were free thinkers, people who were queer, things like that. Eventually I got to college when I was 17 and I started taking different classes, and I took a philosophy class that was on the philosophy behind what’s the theology of the Catholic Church. Essentially the writings of Augustine, and I realized that a lot of what Augustine was saying was the exact same thing my family had been saying to me for years and years, and what my religious teachers had been saying to me for years and years to justify Islam.
Yet Augustine ended up founding the Catholic Church in its modern form in a lot of ways. I realized that it was in congress that you could start with the same premises, and end up with a different conclusion. I scaled back from very religious Muslim to sort of secular deist, Muslim flavored but eventually realized through various readings of biology, and more philosophy that I didn’t really believe in a creator deity either, and I joke that I fell into a black hole for six months because I’ve always been an avid writer.
I always kept personal journals of my thoughts that I was so afraid of my thoughts I’d stopped journaling for six months, and at the end of that I came out an atheist.
Trav: Okay. What inspired you to start blogging about Islam atheism and feminism?
Heina: I actually started blogging about being an ex-Muslim when I first came out as an ex-Muslim about nine years ago. It was an anonymous blog but I guess my style, and my voice, and my experiences are so distinct that people figured out who I was, and I shut down my blog out of fear for my own safety, and the safety of my family because allegedly there were threats going around in the local community. I stopped. I kept relatively quiet for a while but I started getting more involved with the atheist spear as it were.
They were volunteering at local conferences, and events and I actually became aware of the atheist blogosphere more and more through essentially what we call Elevatorgate Dear Muslima, and I started tweeting about it because I remember … I didn’t know much about Rebeca Watson oddly enough. I knew about that incident, and thought wow, if she had gone up into somebody’s hotel room, and she had been sexually assaulted they would have blamed her and said, “Don’t you know better. Why would you go to some guy’s room?” and yet because she said that she didn’t go they were somehow having a hissy fit too. I saw the fact that you know, a lot of the times as women, women can’t win in these situations.
I started talking about it, and I became more and more aware of the atheist blogosphere, and through that Skepchick was looking for contributors in a very active way with more diverse backgrounds. Since I do have that I applied. I didn’t expect to get in because I thought you had to have some sort of magical qualifications but apparently my writings samples were good, and so I joined Skepchick. At first I mostly talked about sexism because obviously it was the hot button issue, and I also had a lot to get off my chest.
Since even though I wasn’t active on the national scene, or as a blogger I was active locally, and I was really sick of the attitudes I deal with in the local community from men. I did end up writing about Islam also based on frustration because the first thing I wrote on Skepchick about Islam was demystification of the 72 virgins thing, and that ended up being incredibly popular. It got passed around a lot. My then hero now current hero and friend Greta Christina tweeted it, and I remember squealing very loudly, and flailing, and jumping around the room when I saw that.
I realized that there was a market out there for writers who would write about Islam, but also feminism, and just have … I guess my perspective helped with that. That’s how I got started there.
Trav: Great. Now, with the Charlie Hebdo attack this past January seems like everyone has an opinion about Islam, and you’ve talked about all he varying arguments. People talking from Reza Aslan to Bill Maher. First of all, I guess the best thing to ask you first is, what’s the biggest misconception people have about Islam?
Heina: It’s a misconception that’s based on I think what happens to a lot of minority groups, and there’s this idea that we don’t have to say not all Christians bomb abortion clinics because we know that because living in the west and living in the US there’s a lot representation for different kinds of people and different kinds of Christians. In fact, if you are white and appear to be quote “normal people” will assume that you are a Christian.
We don’t have to do that but with Muslims like with any minority group whether it’s religious or whether it’s religious, or ethnic, or both in the case of Muslims based on stereotypes, you have this thing where if you know about one Muslim, or hear about one Muslim, or learn one thing about Islam you assume it’s true for all of them. That goes for positive and negative things. A lot of the times that the issue if someone hears one thing, or sees something about one incident, or gets to know one Muslim, and they think that person or that incident, or that perception applies to every Muslim in all iterations of Islam.
It’s hard to humanize and diversify one’s views of a minority group but it’s obviously incredibly worthwhile because it leads to a much more realistic understanding of reality.
Trav: Right. I forgot my place … okay, here we go. When it comes to ISIS, and Islamic terrorism the debate always comes back to the question of how much of it is true Islam or how much of it is just fundamentalism. From your perspective how much of it is “true Islam”?
Heina: It’s a tough question because as a Muslim I was very resentful of Muslims who claimed the title but didn’t really seem to care to follow the religion, and so I still have a streak of that in me somewhere especially since a lot of these progressive and liberal Muslim … I wouldn’t say progressively, liberal Muslims. I should say non-practicing Muslims. I am related to a lot of non-practicing Muslims and they laud over me because I’m the atheist. They say, “Well, at least we are believers. You are not a believer,” and I’m looking at them, “You are not practicing your religion. Why does your belief make you a superior person to me?”
I have a bit of resentment there but I try to look at it from a sort of anthropological or sociological perspective where there is no way to really say what the true Islam is. You ask Muslim you get one thing. You another Muslim you get the other thing. I don’t necessarily think that the debate about what is true Islam and what is not is even that meaningful. What it comes down is I think with these fundamentalists, and terrorists or what do they think is motivating them? How can we stop them from causing harm because I don’t know if it is especially not up to outsiders in the religion, which in some ways I am now since I don’t follow it to really determine what’s true Islam and what’s not.
Trav: Right. Coming back to what you were saying earlier about someone knows about one incident, or one Muslim and base their entire view of Islam around that it seems to me like most of the atheists that I’ve heard who talk about Islam are all white people who have never been Muslims. Jaclyn Glenn, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, etc. and whenever I mention this people yell back, “So what?” or, “What about Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie?” Those two are like the two primary sources people seem to have when it comes to talking about Islam.
Their stories matter, absolutely but everyone has their own story. I was wondering, how hard has it been for you to have your story heard?
Heina: It’s I guess it’s … I’ve only been on the scene for a couple of years. I always try to take that into account. Thankfully things are getting a little bit better in the sense that people are starting to care more about hearing for more ex-Muslims but yeah, it is true that the more atheists who talk about Islam tend to be white or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I wouldn’t even say Salman Rushdie. He doesn’t really talk about Islam very much. He lives his life. He‘s a white male novelist except he’s brown in a lot of ways. He sleeps with models, and he goes to the parties, and everybody thinks he’s cool because he had a fatwa. I don’t even know if he’s really much of a voice on Islam necessarily this days.
Yeah, there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and she does have this very incredibly horrific back story. I try not to talk too much crap but I definitely feel like there’s more room for more voices, and more nuance. It has been difficult because I don’t have this compelling tragic story, and sometimes people get angry at me for not having more of a tragic story.
They are like well, shouldn’t you … shouldn’t have this happened to you, or shouldn’t have that happened to you, or maybe your family wasn’t even that religious because yes, my family is … was and still is very religious. Thankfully like I said though people are starting to listen, and we actually have an organization now, Ex-Muslims of North America. That is helping to get the word out, and get more attention towards a more nuanced and diverse voice for ex-Muslims.
Trav: That’s good. Some people like Sam Harris say there’s no such thing as islamophobia. Do you agree or disagree?
Heina: That word islamophobia people get fixated on the word. They’ll say there’s no such thing as being discriminatory towards a religion because a religion is a choice. It’s a philosophy, and it’s a theology, and we should be able to criticize ideas. I don’t use the bword because again that touches off that whole debate can you be phobic of an idea and things like that. I use the term anti-Muslim bigotry, which is essentially what islamophobia means but people don’t understand it. I feel like anti-Muslim bigotry is a much clearer term, and people understand what that means.
I think that is a very real thing. People have this stereotype in their heads of what Muslims look like, and so even on-Muslims, or never-Muslims, or ex-Muslims get subjected to anti-Muslim bigotry even though we are not Muslim. That is a very real thing, and that is something that I still deal with today. Taking off my headscarf didn’t make any less brown, didn’t make me any less “Middle-Eastern looking” and people still assume I’m Arab or assume that I have some sort of loyalty towards Islam or affiliation with it. Yeah, that’s a very thing and that’s something that needs to be combated actively.
Trav: Right, you are actually running a book about Islam, A Skeptics Guide to Islam. Tell us a little about that.
Heina: Yes, well for anyone who backed me I continue to be sorry for the delays but as far as the book itself it’s really me. It’s an FAQ in a lot ways. It’s based on my experiences within the atheist, and skeptic, and secular communities, and what people tend to ask me, or what comes first to mind for them when they find out that I’m a former Muslim. Some of it is based on frustration where I just wanted to be able to throw a book at someone and say, “Here, just read this. I don’t want to explain it again,” and some of it is also just based on what I think … would be for people to know about Islam because if you are going to criticize a religion at the very least your terms right.
People can’t even say the word Muslim correctly. Where do they come off even trying to discuss the nuances of Ismail theology? If they really want to I feel like it would be hoven to learn a little bit, and there are anti- Muslim sources you can get about Islam, and they are very pro- Muslim forces you can get but I feel I’m uniquely positioned in that I left Islam, and I have no deep and abiding love for Islam but I don’t dehumanize Muslims, and I feel like there’s room for more nuanced approach. That’s what I hope to bring with it.
Trav: Right, right. I think you definitely hit the nail on the head when you talk about how people tend to … to me I know I sound like a parrot saying this because I’ve said it so many times. If an idea doesn’t hold any water it should be openly criticized but I think a lot of times in the atheist community a lot of atheists tend to confuse criticizing an idea with like throwing an entire group of people under the bus. Especially towards Muslims, and Islam where it’s not just simply … the whole idea of Mohamed flying to heaven on a horse is ridiculous, or the whole idea of honor killing, that’s bad. That needs to stop.
I don’t know. It seems to me like a lot of atheists think that the Koran is Mein Kampf part 2.
Heina: Well, part one because it was written before Mein Kampf. Right but yeah. It’s true. People make fun of the ridiculous parts of Christianity but they make fun of Muslims in a way that is very racist but they claim its criticism of Islam. I posted this as an example in one of my posts about anti-Muslim bigotry it was essentially Amin that was making fun of Muslims as using bestiality. Basically saying Muslims fuck goats. That was the big criticism. How is that criticizing Islam?
Or that name that was going around for a while that on the left there were some ring wraith from Lord of the Rings, and on the right were some women in full burqas so black the black entire body covering garments. The caption was one of these things is an emblem of hate, and one of these things is a character from Lord of the Rings. That I thought, okay, that’s not really criticism the theology behind it. That is criticizing people. These are pictures of people, and you don’t know the background stories of those women. What makes them hateful for wearing a garment, and it actually really upset me, and I ended up getting into a knock down, smack down argument, and I almost lost a friend over it, which tends to happen.
To me that’s not helping, and it’s not criticizing, and it’s not doing good in the world. People are just getting their jollies from it, and that to me it’s not good criticism of a religion. That’s just disguising your bigotry with “I’m criticizing religion.”
Trav: Right, definitely. One final question about Islam. This is something that I’ve asked a lot of people and I’ve gotten different answer, is it possible to criticize problematic verses in the Koran, and Islamic religious dogma, and certain Islamic practices, and still be an ally to Muslims who face persecution?
Heina: I think so. Not to put myself on some kind of pedestal because I’m still learning, and I screw up all the time, and I’m grateful when that’s pointed out but I try. I do both. There are parts in the Koran and the Hadith that yes, I find disgusting, and abhorrent, and that vilify, and demonize, and sentence me to death for who I am, and what I am. But at the same time Muslims often suffer the most under such verses, and I like to be an ally to those Muslims who are working towards an Islam that is less fixated on those particular verses, and is more concerned with other things.
In fact at creating change this year in Denver, the National LGBT task force conference I met up with a Muslim queer group called MASGD, Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity. Pretty great initials there but they were great, and we got along really well, and I’m thinking of reaching out to them to work with them on things. As queer Muslims, as gender non-confirming Muslims they had a lot in common with me. They had very similar family struggle to me. They simply choose to self-identify as Muslims, and focus on other parts of Islam besides the homophobic parts whereas I’m just out of Islam.
We have a lot of the same goals, and a lot of the same priorities. I definitely would consider myself an ally to them.
Trav: Good, good, switching gears for a little bit. You’ve written about being in the Kink community. I have to ask, have you seen a lot of newcomers to the Kink community who only know what they’ve read about in 50 Shades of Grey, and if so how fucking annoying is it?
Heina: Well, I can’t say I’m super current or with it with the Kink scene lately for reasons that I’ve enumerated in posts about the racism in the community. I haven’t even started touching on the sexism there yet but I backed way from the Kink community but I do have a lot of friends who are active participants, and I do occasionally get to events where that involve kinky people where there’s a play party or just a social mixer, and I don’t think it’s as much of a problem as people think it is.
There have always been people who read something, or saw something, or had some idea in their head, and they show up at a Kink gathering. They pretty quickly weed themselves out if they are not really interested in learning more. I think the biggest problem with 50 Shades is not the people who go to the Kink community because of 50 Shades. It’s the people who don’t go, and try to replicate what they see or what they read without any understanding of what they are doing.
Heina: That’s the part that scares me because of the tying methods I saw in the trailer to 50 Shades didn’t look right.
Trav: Right. Well, that’s about it for me. Anything else you’d like to add like any upcoming projects?
Heina: Well, not really any projects yet but I’m giving a couple of talks coming up, and I have to look at my calendar but I guess I should always plug my blog. It’s Heinous Dealings on the Freethoughts Blogs network. There you can find everything from my blog post which I update four to five times a week. On the left I also have lots of resources for other people to read if you are interested in learning more about Islam.
I have a pretty big listing of progressive and [inaudible 00:22:07] sources to look at, and I also have a list of my upcoming appearances. That’s another good place to look.
Trav: All right. Thanks again for joining me today Heina.
Heina: You’re welcome.
Trav: Thanks to listening to the Bi Any Means podcast. The theme music is Endurance by Dream Youth. You can find more of their music at dreamyouth.bandcamp.com. The Bi Any Means logo was design by Asher Silberman. If you like what you have heard please subscribe via iTunes and go to www.bianymeans.com for more musings of a queer humanist.