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An atheist Muslim on what the left and right get wrong about Islam

"The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims." — author Ali Rizvi

Muslim Groups, Virginia AG Hold Town Hall Meeting On Trump's Revised Travel Ban Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

“The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims.”

These words were tweeted by Ali Rizvi, author of the new book The Atheist Muslim. Rizvi was born in Pakistan in 1975 into what he calls a “moderate to liberal Muslim family.” He was raised in Libya and later moved to Saudi Arabia, where he lived for more than a decade. He’s now a writer and physician based in Canada.

Rizvi’s book is partly a plea for secularism and partly a defense of Islam as a culture. It’s also an internal challenge to Islam as a body of doctrines. Rizvi speaks directly to agnostics, atheists, and humanists living in the Muslim world, enjoining them to embrace secular culture without abandoning their Muslim identity.

This is a difficult line to walk, and Rizvi does an admirable job of it.

I talked to him by phone about his book, what he hopes to accomplish, and what he meant when he wrote that the left is wrong about Islam and the right is wrong about Muslims. We also discussed what an “honest conversation” about Islam looks like and why the current political climate makes that conversation all the more difficult.

Our lightly edited conversation follows.

Criticizing Islam without demonizing Muslims

Sean Illing

This is not an easy book to write. You’re exposing yourself to a lot of criticism on all sides. So why write it?

Ali Rizvi

I grew up in a moderate to liberal Muslim family in three Muslim-majority countries that were culturally very different. I developed certain perspectives about the religion and the Muslim experience that most others didn’t have. I’m not just talking about Islam itself, but also the Muslim experience, which is more personal and more to do with identity rather than ideology or belief.

Like most issues, in the United States especially, the conversation around this issue — about Islam, Muslims, and terrorism — eventually diverged into the left and the right. You had the liberals with their view, and the conservatives with their view, and I felt both of them were really missing the mark. They were both conflating “Islam” the ideology and “Muslim” the identity. Islam is a religion; it’s a set of beliefs, a bunch of ideas in a book. It's not human. Muslims are real, living, breathing people, and to me, there's a big difference between criticizing ideas and demonizing human beings.

Sean Illing

And your sense was that both the left and the right were failing to capture this distinction?

Ali Rizvi

Neither side was making that distinction. On the left, people were saying that if you have any criticism against Islam, then you were a bigot against all Muslims. On the right, it was like, there are a lot of problematic things in Islamic scripture, so everyone who is Muslim must be banned, or profiled, or demonized. Both sides weren't making that distinction between challenging ideas, which has historically moved societies forward, and demonizing human beings, which only rips societies apart.

Sean Illing

How does your book split this difference?

Ali Rizvi

I think all of us have the right to believe what we want, and we must respect that right, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to respect the beliefs themselves. That's what this book is about. It’s about making that distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity, and explores how we can have an honest conversation about ideas and beliefs without descending into bigotry against those who might challenge or hold them.

Sean Illing

I think a lot of what you’re saying leads back to a fundamental question about whether Islam (or really any religion) is essentially a culture — or where the line between the two is drawn.

Ali Rizvi

There’s definitely some interplay between the two. But culture is always evolving. If you look at secular societies like the United States, the way it was in the 1950s is very different from the way it is now. It's moved a lot, culturally. But religion freezes culture in time. Religion dogmatizes culture and arrests its evolution.

Sean Illing

You might also say that religion helps to create and reinforce culture, but I take your point.

Ali Rizvi

Sure, and there are aspects of this that can be positive. There are many of us who are atheists but retain some cultural elements of the religion. For example, I still enjoy the Eid holiday and the fast-breaking iftar feasts of Ramadan with my family. I have pleasant childhood associations and memories with these things.

This is true for other religions too. Richard Dawkins himself, who is a ... well, you don't get more atheist than Richard Dawkins. Yet he has also described himself as a cultural Christian. He even says he prefers singing the religious Christmas carols like “Silent Night” to the others, like “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I think we should be able to enjoy some of these rituals without the burden of belief.

Muslim devotees circumambulate the Kaaba during the Muslim's holy fasting month of Ramadan in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 16, 2017.
Getty Images

What the left and right get wrong about Islam

Sean Illing

There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I want to refocus us on the political questions. I’ll be honest: I came to this conversation with some trepidation. I’m of the left, but I do believe there is an element of the left that struggles to talk honestly about the problems in the Muslim world, in part because so many feel obliged (rightly, I think) to beat back the bigotry on the right and also because religion is rarely the only variable driving behavior.

But when I saw your tweet the other day claiming that the left was wrong about Islam and the right was wrong about Muslims, that felt like a good way into this difficult debate. Can you tell me what you meant by that?

Ali Rizvi

I think the left has a blind spot when it comes to Islam and the right has a blind spot when it comes to Muslims. When Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson say something that's homophobic or misogynistic, people on the left descend on them like a ton of bricks. They’re very comfortable with criticizing and satirizing fundamentalist Christianity. But when it comes to Islam, which has many of the same homophobic and misogynistic teachings, they throw their hands up, back off, and say, whoa, hold on, we must respect their religion and culture.

Sean Illing

You seem to applaud the intent here but still think it’s ultimately counterproductive.

Ali Rizvi

I get that it comes from a good place. I’m a liberal myself, and I vote liberal. It’s part of our liberal conscience to protect the rights of minorities, as they should be protected. But that doesn’t mean we must protect and defend all of their beliefs as well, many of which are just as illiberal as the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists.

This is very frustrating to our liberal counterparts in Muslim-majority countries, who are fighting fundamentalist Islam the same way that liberals here fight fundamentalist Christianity, and they’re even risking their lives for it. Many have died for it. Yet they hear their liberal counterparts in the West calling their ideas “Islamophobic.” This is a devastating double standard for them.

Sean Illing

And what of the right?

Ali Rizvi

Those on the right paint all Muslims with the same brush. The title of my book speaks to millions of people in the Muslim world who are atheist or agnostic but must publicly identify as Muslim or they’d be disowned, ostracized, or even killed by their families and governments. They’re atheist in thought but Muslim by presentation. They’re living a contradictory existence. Hence the title of the book.

They retain the Muslim label because the governments and Islamist groups in their countries won’t let them shake it off. Well, now, with Trump’s Muslim ban, especially the first one he proposed as a candidate in 2015, Trump won’t let them shake it off either. Blanket bans like that include many people like me, because we have Muslim names and come from Muslim-majority countries.

Islam isn’t a religion of war or peace

Sean Illing

I don’t believe Islam is inherently or necessarily violent, and I think a broad view of history justifies that claim. But there is, at this moment, an inordinate amount of chaos springing out of the Muslim world. Much of that is due to political and economic and social and historical factors, and I’m sure some of it has to do with specific religious doctrines. I don’t feel equipped to assign weights to these causes, and I’m about as far from an authority on Islam as one can get, so I struggle to say anything definitive or useful about these problems.

Ali Rizvi

I'm going to paraphrase my friend Maajid Nawaz on this. He says Islam is neither a religion of war nor a religion of peace. It's just a religion, like any other religion. Sure, the scriptures of these religions have inspired a lot of people to do good things, but they have also inspired a lot of people to do bad things as well.

Look at it this way. Do you know Jewish people who eat bacon? Almost all of my Jewish friends eat bacon. Now, does that mean that Judaism is suddenly okay with bacon?

This is the difference between religion and people. You can’t say, hey, I have a lot of Jewish friends who eat bacon, so Judaism must be okay with pork. It doesn't make sense. So when I say that most Muslims I know are very peaceful and law-abiding, that they wouldn't dream of violence, that doesn't erase all of the violence and the calls for martyrdom and jihad and holy war against disbelievers in Islamic scripture. Most of my Muslim friends, both in Pakistan and here, had premarital sex and drank alcohol too. That doesn’t mean Islam allows either of those things.

The hard truth is there is a lot of violence endorsed in the Quran, and there are other terrible things, as there are in the Old Testament. But there are more people in the world — even if it’s a minority of Muslims — who take their scripture seriously. It’s dishonest to say that violent Muslim groups like ISIS are being un-Islamic.

Iraqi Forces Emergency Response Unit Begins Offensive To Drive Islamic State From Western Mosul, Iraq
Iraqi Federal Police officers hold up a captured ISIS flag in the Islamic State-occupied village of Abu Saif, 6 kilometers from Mosul on February 22, 2017, in Nineveh, northern Iraq.
Martyn Aim/Getty Images

Sean Illing

And how do you account for all the other external factors that conspired to create the conditions of unrest in these countries?

Ali Rizvi

Foreign policy is a factor. It wasn’t long ago that the United States was hailing the Afghan mujahedeen as heroes for fighting against the Soviets. The word “mujahedeen” literally means people who wage jihad. That was a good thing for America in the 1980s. Bin Laden was among these fighters, and himself was a recipient of US funding and training. We’ve seen how that turned out.

But there’s also this — if you're a young Iraqi man and your family was bombed by the US, your reaction may be that you may become anti-American. You might say, okay, I'm going to fight these guys. But would your reaction to US foreign policy be to start enslaving and raping 9-year-old Yazidi girls? Or forcing local non-Muslim minorities to pay a tax or convert to Islam, or be crucified publicly, as commanded in the Quranic verses 9:29-30 and 5:33? Or beheading Shias or apostates who have left Islam? Or throwing gays off rooftops?

That isn’t just the reaction of someone simply to US foreign policy. These are things they're doing to their own people. Killing apostates and taking sex slaves. So the question about weighting and how much it matters, it's a good question. But these people tell us why they do what they do. There are terrorists who after a terrorist attack will say, “This is our revenge for what you're doing to our lands and our people.” And then there are other times that they’ll put out statements saying, “This is what the Quran says.” ISIS often puts out very accurate statements quoting the Quran that completely fit their actions.

Sean Illing

Right, but again, it becomes awfully tempting to analyze this disorder in a vacuum. When states fail and societies collapse, you often see tribal and ethnic and religious violence depending on how the fault lines are drawn, and so it’s never as easy as isolating a text or some doctrines as the chief cause.

Ali Rizvi

Fair enough. The thing is, we have had a lot of discussion about the US foreign policy and how that has caused problems in the Muslim world, but we somehow shy away from talking about the equally important religious, doctrinal basis for these terrorist acts. We shouldn’t deny either. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons we haven’t resolved this problem is that we are afraid to make the complete diagnosis.

The appeal of fundamentalism

Sean Illing

I wonder if a complete diagnosis is even possible. Step back and take a broader historical view. The contents of these texts haven’t changed — it’s the political and social and economic conditions that have changed. So the question then becomes what is it about these conditions that produces certain interpretations or leads to certain doctrines becoming more manifest?

Ali Rizvi

A lot of this has to do with the lure of belonging to a group and the search for an identity. In my book, I discuss the ideas of Erik Erikson, who coined the term “identity crisis,” and James Marcia, who wrote at length about how young people go about resolving it in terms of exploration and commitment to a set of values.

Identity achievement is characterized by high exploration and high commitment, meaning you expose yourself to a variety of options and then commit to a set of values that represents you best. Identity foreclosure is low exploration, high commitment. These are people who commit to a set of values without much exploration — such as those from strict religious upbringings who adopt their parents’ teachings without much questioning. Identity moratorium is high exploration, low commitment, marked by indecisiveness. And identity diffusion is low exploration, low commitment. These are your wandering souls.

If you look at how we as human beings resolve our identity crises as adolescents and young adults, you see that some of these processes, such as identity foreclosure in this case, lend themselves better to explaining what might cause a young person to join, or resist, violent ideologies like jihadism. I think it’s a much better model to both understand it and counter it. It also acknowledges the role of the ideology and doctrine itself, rather than deflecting from it.

Sean Illing

I agree that in many cases we’re talking about existentially adrift people, people pining for something grand or noble or meaningful in their lives. And in a lot of ways, ISIS or Islamic extremism is the biggest game in town on that front. These movements or groups offer a singularly purposeful struggle, and it’s hard to overstate the appeal of that.

Ali Rizvi

Yeah. I think that's actually very legitimate. A lot of these people are just wandering souls. They're just trying to find a place for themselves. But the more interesting question for me is why is Islam, why is this particular religion, so appealing to them? Why do people prone to violence find Islam so appealing for their purpose?

The way we think about this is strange. We try really, really hard to dance around it. When someone tells us they did something for political reasons, we accept it easily. “Sure, they did it for politics." When someone says, "I did this for money," we believe them. Even when people say, "I played Doom, the video game, and I listened to Marilyn Manson," we take it at face value and have all these cultural conversations about the role of video games and music in violence.

But when people say, “I'm doing this in the name of Allah,” and quote verse 8:12, which says, “Strike the disbelievers upon the neck and strike from them every finger tip," and we see them doing exactly what those words say, we look at that and go, "No, no, it's got to be politics. It’s got to be for money. Let's see what video games they were playing."

That's the only thing I have a problem with. I acknowledge the other causes. I have explored them in my book. Yes, there are political grievances, and there are foreign policy grievances. We never deny those. So why do we deny that religion itself, the scripture itself, can drive these atrocities?

Sean Illing

Those are fair points. I’ve often found myself struggling to argue that people can be confused about what’s actually motivating them, or at least blind to the root causes. But this is a difficult case to make in this context. In any case, we obviously need a nuanced conversation, and it’s just not happening.

Take someone like Sam Harris, who I think makes a decent point when he talks about the link between ideas and actions. Harris often understates the extent to which religious ideas can be props or justifications for behaviors that are motivated by nonreligious grievances. On the other hand, though, there are a lot of people who just deny such a connection altogether, which is absurd. Again, what’s interesting to me is what makes specific ideas attractive at specific periods of history? We have to isolate those conditions and causes.

Ali Rizvi

I think it's more complicated than that. Think of the [National Rifle Association] slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The typical liberal response to that, and rightly so, is no, don’t downplay the deadliness of guns. You can’t take them out of the equation. Even if they’re just a tool or prop, they’re central to it.

Now replace “guns” in that statement with “religion” or “beliefs.” Religion is a much worse prop in this case, because it’s got ideological roots. There are words in the scripture that command, verbatim, exactly the kinds of violent acts we see Islamic militant groups do. They’re not quoting Islamic Studies professors at Al-Azhar University. They’re quoting the Quran and Hadith.

And yes, in some cases Islam is used by nonreligious people for other motives. A good example of this is when the Pakistani government banned YouTube in the country after a film mocking Islam and Muhammad went viral. This helped the government because it deprived political dissenters of a huge platform. Now, if they’d said, “We’re banning YouTube because we want to quash political dissent,” the entire country would’ve risen up against them. But when they said they wanted to do it to stop blasphemy against our beloved prophet, the masses supported them. So they used religious reasons for nonreligious purposes.

But this still doesn’t take away from the point. It still stands that religion — and I say religion in general this time because while Islam is especially dangerous today, the other Abrahamic religions have served the same purpose when they were — lends itself extremely well to the goals and whims of authoritarians, tyrants, and the violent everywhere, whether it’s being used as a prop or driving them by belief.

President Donald Trump Holds Rally In Cedar Rapids, IA
President Donald Trump holds a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Trump factor

Sean Illing

Trump and Trumpism adds a whole other layer of urgency to this conversation. I think we have to find a way to talk about these problems in honest and productive ways, and that is all the more difficult against the backdrop of an explicitly anti-Muslim administration.

Ali Rizvi

That's what the book is about. The book is my answer to that question. How do we have an honest conversation about this without descending into bigotry, and how do we do it in a morally responsible way? I won't completely blame liberals for the rise of Trump — I think the far right owns a lot of that. But liberals aren’t blame-free. They left a vacuum.

The failure of liberals to address Islamism from an honest and moral position left a void that allowed the Trumpian right to opportunistically address it from a position of xenophobia and bigotry.

Harris warned of this — the hijacking of the conversation by irrational actors on the far right — over 10 years ago. And disagree with him as much as you want, but he has always been mindful of that distinction between criticizing Islam and demonizing Muslims. His book with Maajid, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, is evidence of that. This is a point that we just need to drive home and keep repeating. Unless we do that, we can't have a responsible conversation about it.

Sean Illing

Agreed. But that’s why someone like Harris, who I do think is occasionally unfairly criticized, makes a more productive conversation less likely. This came up recently in his podcast with Fareed Zakaria. If we say that a religion is reducible to the concretized doctrines in its holy text, then we don’t leave much room for evolution or reformation. As you said, a religion at any moment is essentially what its believers decide it is. The Bible is riddled with terrible Bronze Age dogmas, but most Christians don’t take those parts seriously any longer. The same can be true for any religion.

Ali Rizvi

Now we're getting into the idea of reform, and this is what Maajid Nawaz talks about, who actually helped change Sam's view on this as well.

I don’t think anyone’s saying that a religion is reducible to the concretized doctrines in its holy text. I know Sam doesn’t think that either. But we are saying that those texts are a huge, huge part of the religion. In Islam, the divinity and infallibility of the Quran is the only thing that every sect and denomination agrees on. And again, no matter how many Jews start eating pork, the religion of Judaism will never be okay with swine flesh.

One thing Christians and Jews don’t always understand, because it’s hard to relate to, is that most Muslims do revere their holy text very differently from them. It’s not just divinely inspired or written by men of God. It is written by God himself, every letter, every punctuation mark. It’s literal, and it’s infallible. You can’t even touch the book unless you’ve performed an ablution ritual. It’s very serious.

What a reformation looks like

Sean Illing

Your book is partly a call for reformation. Given what you just said, what is it that you think should be done?

Ali Rizvi

I say that the first step to reform in Islam is rejection of infallibility. This seems outrageous to some. They say it’ll never happen. But it has happened in the past. Reform Jews today make up a majority of American Jews. None of them believe the Torah is the literal word of God anymore. But for a long time, that was the deal — the Torah was revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle like the Quran was to Muhammad starting in the Cave of Hira at Mecca. It was error-free. Suggesting otherwise was blasphemy — and look up Leviticus 24:16 to learn the consequences of that.

Amazingly, in the last 10 or 15 years, I've started seeing younger Muslims start to doubt the absolute infallibility of the Quran. They say, you know, it was compiled so long after the prophet’s death by his companions, pieced together from their collective memories, something could’ve been left out or added in, and you can only say it’s divinely inspired, not purely divine. Now, that seems like a small demotion — but it's actually huge.

This is why I say I believe in Muslim reform, not Islamic reform. I don’t think using mental gymnastics to reinterpret scripture is convincing. You can’t keep saying “kill” actually means “love,” or “beat your wife” is misinterpreted and actually means “kiss your wife,” and stay credible. In the internet age, everything is exposed. It's online, you can look it up in a dozen languages, multiple translations, the context and syntax and etymology of every word — any 12-year-old can dig that up today.

But when you look at the entire book as a whole and you say, "Well, is this divine or is this just divinely inspired? What is the likelihood that God really said this? If God created binary pulsars and time dilation and tectonic plate shifts, all these amazing things, why would he care if I eat pork or who I have sex with?” That you can work with. Don’t change the way Islam reads, but try and change the way young Muslims think, how they approach and process information. Skepticism, empirical analysis, critical thinking.

Sean Illing

I think your perspective here is desperately needed, though I have no idea how likely it is to resonate. But I remain convinced that telling Muslims their religion is bullshit and built on false claims won’t make the world any better. Your book does a wonderful job of showing how religions are about a lot more than ideas. Any time you’re talking about religion, you’re also talking about identity and culture and ritual and community, and any approach that condemns Islam as such will no doubt alienate the vast majority of Muslims.

Ali Rizvi

Well, my book is pretty hard on the religion too, but it’s not about telling people their religion is bullshit — it’s about how you tell them that. I say in the book that setting the stage for the conversation is often more important than the conversation itself. I’ve had this conversation with my Muslim friends and family for a very long time, and I’ve often had to find creative ways to have it in countries where saying it like it is can have horrible consequences. I’ve always wanted to figure out the best way to have it, a way that is both honest and constructive.

The thing is, most Muslims don’t really know too much about Islam. They were born into Muslim families, so being Muslim is a lot like a birth identity for them. And when you criticize Islam or a problematic verse in the Quran, or joke about Muhammad, they take it personally as an attack on them, on their identity.

In my book, I deliberately tried to first establish a connection based on shared identity, and then move to the ideas. I talked about how I was raised, all the rituals my family and I participated in, all the little things that happen when you grow up Muslim — with the message that I’ve been where you’ve been. I was raised the same way. I respect how important this identity feels and how real this experience is. We come from the same place.

And once that’s locked down, I’ve noticed, in nearly every case, that people are much more receptive to criticism of their beliefs. It’s really amazing. It’s because now they know you’re talking about ideas and beliefs, and you’re not attacking them as people. And when that happens, I notice that many more people have doubts about their beliefs than you’d think.

Sean Illing

Are there times when being honest might be counterproductive, and if so, how do we balance that tension?

Ali Rizvi

There's an argument about what's productive versus what is honest, and how do we balance that — how do we be constructive while also being honest. When you talk very seriously about something like, you know, a man living inside a fish, there's no way to really talk about that without sounding like you're mocking something. That's just one example. I’m just saying how difficult it can sometimes be to have honest conversations about beliefs.

But I would urge liberals to have this conversation openly, honestly, and responsibly. It’s already happening within the Muslim world. Several white Western liberals have confided to me that they agree with what I say, but won’t say it themselves because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled bigots or Islamophobes. I call that “Islamophobo-phobia,” the fear of being called Islamophobic. It’s a great way to shut down the conversation and silence people with colonial or white guilt.

I get that. That’s why the Muslim Brotherhood loves the term so much. It conflates legitimate criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry. And it exploits victims of anti-Muslim bigotry by using their experiences for the political purpose of censoring criticism of Islam. When you fall for that, when you hold back from standing up for your liberal values, you’re not helping to curb terrorism. You’re already a victim of it.

Liberals today enjoy the benefits of the Enlightenment, which their predecessors brought about through great acts of blasphemy and rebellion, often at deadly cost to their lives and livelihoods. Today, this conversation and this movement is happening within the Muslim world. It doesn’t just include the hijab-wearing women and bearded men you see on your TV. It includes the beer-drinking Muslim colleague you work with; it includes the Muslim girl at college who had doubts about her religion’s views on women; it includes agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers like me who want the freedom to change our minds without literally having to lose our heads. There are many voices in this conversation, and you don’t have to choose. Just let it happen.

Be an ally, not a savior.