A call for mercy, because of what Muslims and ex-Muslims share
I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago. It was read by tens of thousands of human beings. This would be unnerving in and of itself, but the feedback I received is what really moved me. It was so resounding that I am still shaking from the grace of my readers.
I have received comments, emails, and messages from friends and strangers alike.
I have received responses from people in my hometown Beirut, from friends from religious and nonreligious families alike, Muslims and Christians. I have received responses from people from fundamentalist backgrounds differing from my own, people from other third world countries, Arabs and Muslims American-born-and-raised, white Westerners, from men from my lands and men from the West, from people who are Muslim and people who are not.
I was gifted words, largely from people I will never meet, who I probably would never have touched or spoken to, and I was gifted words from the heart.
Confidences, testimonials, secrets, I was gifted tears.
Expressions of confusion, horror, injustice, I was gifted empathy.
Expressions of resonance, of equity and grace.
“This hits so close to home.”
“I never imagined it could be this way.”
“This is my life too.”
“Thank you for confirming that my life is worth fighting for.”
“I can’t believe I’m not alone.”
“Thank you for saying what I cannot.”
“Love, strength, hope to you. Blessings to you. Keep writing.”
It made me realize how much more difficult this project of mine is than I anticipated–though try to anticipate its difficulty I did.
I knew it would require imaginativeness and nuance, thoroughness and integrity. And perhaps because I am lacking in some ways in these areas, I was girded for a much simpler responsibility than this. The responsibility I feel is greater now.
I am unnerved because I now know that the responsibility I face is not one of mere intellectual integrity–as if that were not a hefty enough responsibility to carry. The responsibility I face is one of justice to other people and the hope and thought they give me.
It is difficult because there is pain and injustice on all sides, and I wonder about us–Muslims, ex-Muslims, Muslim-ish people, queer and LGBT Muslims and citizens of Muslim-majority countries, Arabs, South Asians, North Africans, Southeast Asians, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, people from traditional patriarchal societies in the third world, immigrants, et al. I wonder if all of us, if any of us, can reconcile our spiritual, personal, and worldly identities and still do justice to the phenomenally unique pain and/or diversity of experience we carry.
This morning, I had a glimpse into a way in which we can try.
This morning, I read an article in The Sun by an African American poet, a teacher, a scholar, a man I know to be wise and overflowing with giving and empathy, and I was baffled and moved that anyone could speak of such oppression and pain and have it be an unblaming invitation to mercy.
What a wondrous concept, to be able to speak of your own pain and violation and that of your people, and still be encompassing, welcoming, calling for mercy all around, from all sides.
There is in fact injustice and pain on all sides here, and it is difficult to speak of it without casting undue blame, to try to cite real reasons and sources of injustice without furthering more misunderstanding and misfortune.
Because all of us suffer.
Because moderate Muslims with progressive, pro-choice worldviews have an uphill battle to fight against the extreme versions of their faith in their communities and as strongly portrayed by the media.
Because the interpretative, scholarly efforts of moderate Muslims working for change are often discounted as colonialist, imperialist, unrecognized innovations, or worse. (But, please. Please keep working, keep trying. There are those who hang precious hopes upon your work.)
Because a young Muslim girl, faced with fear, threats, and violence her whole life, yet somehow respectful and encompassing and graceful as anyone can be,
because a young Muslim girl, modest, innocent, supportive of her country and of Islam,
because a young Muslim girl who is all of those delicate and wondrous things is slandered as an evil agent of the West bent on the destruction of patriarchal communities because she is an advocate of education for girls and women. (Respect, respect, love to you, Malala. Can you tell me I have hope when someone with your belonging is so hated?)
Because Arab-Americans homes and individuals are suspect: invaded, searched, frisked, judged before and beyond who they are and what their values are. (In the 80’s my mother was visited by the FBI in her home. “Why do you make so many regular phonecalls to this number in this distant state?” To her, it was family. To them, she was calling an Arab-American immigrant hub)
Because Muslims with a sincere devotion and love for their God are ostracized from their communities and labeled haram for trying, with honesty and grace, to reconcile their feminism, their queerness, their non-cis identity with their faith.
Because monogamous, devout homosexual Muslims are imprisoned, beaten, and worse by the communities they want so powerfully to be part of. (Pride, pride. Your courage inspires me. Please stay strong, and pride.)
Because Muslims who travel to the West feel compelled to wear baseball caps and t-shirts, to shave or wear clothes that are uncomfortably stylish so they are not profiled because they look ‘brown.’ (Baseball cap off to my uncle who rides airplanes wearing a Homer Simpson t-shirt. It reads: ‘Everybody is stupid except me.’ Its neon green is less of a beacon than his skin.)
Because ex-Muslims are in hiding even after moving to, running to, living in the West, and when they show their faces and make their voices heard, they are met with threats of death and rape. (Love, courage, honor to you, Reem Abdel-Razek. My heart swells when I hear your voice. It is small; it resounds)
Because when ex-Muslims begin to tentatively bridge, reach out to each other, form communities, they must subject new members to uncomfortable questioning because their safe places of trust and hope are so fragile and new. (I hate that my testimony to your authenticity, my dear, old friends, is more valuable than your authenticity. I hate how necessary it is that I vouch for your goodwill; where are your voices?)
Because Muslims and Christians have to elope to Western countries for their inter-faith marriages to be legal. (Thank you, Cyprus, for being a short boatride from Beirut, for uniting young couples in love when their own country refuses to.)
Because Muslims from differing denominations must beg their countries, their sheikhs, their parents to allow them to marry because of political differences. (Strength and spirit to my Sunni Saudi friend and her Shia Lebanese love, you who wandered like pilgrims from cleric to cleric begging to be legally united. I am proud of your pleas.)
Because women from Muslim countries who bare their bodies are exiled, kidnapped, and put on trial. (We are all Amina Tyler. We are all Aliaa Elmahdy.)
Because Muslim lands are invaded, divided, set to fire and unearthed by foreign forces. (How much of this do we do to ourselves, with our ceaseless bickering and ebbs and flows of power and patriarchy?)
Because, too, Muslims suppress, destroy, punish, sanction, inflame their own people. (How much of this is due to the endless cycle of colonialism, war, rebuilding, fear of those world powers stronger than us?)
Because, simply, Muslims are hated for being Muslims.
(I walk on the streets of my college town, ride on a college bus on my way to teach the students of this campus. I wrap my head in a scarf from the wind. I forgot my ID at home for the busride; I am not the only one. But you, bus driver, single me out, aggressive, rough. “Did your parents not teach you to pay for things?”, you ask. When my head is bare this never happens.)
Because, simply, ex-Muslims are hated for not being Muslims.
(I turn off my phone, I reject numbers I don’t know. My heart flutters to my throat with every unexpected voicemail. Do I listen to it? Next week, next week, I’ll change my number. Next week, next week, the loss of my family will be complete.)
This painful testimonial can go on for pages and it is not a tombstone or a dirge. It is complex, multifaceted, organic, flowing. It is a book of many voices, many authors, many pages. It withers and shrinks on all sides and stabs itself with itself again and again, then blooms and rises in hope and power.
And falls again.
And I have a fear, because not all of the responses, emails, and testimonials I received were of empathy and mercy. Because some of them were reactionary, lashings-out of pain and affront because my experience, on the face of it, delegitimatizes other experiences, different experiences, experiences of vibrancy, hope, life, and joy as proud Muslims, as citizens of Muslim-majority countries. Experiences, too, of those who are hated and misunderstood despite all that. Because they have good lives, and they try to spread this good. Because they are tired, too, of their value as human beings being discounted because of the name ‘Muslim’.
And this is what I say to you: that I am afraid too. I say to you this, because I understand that our lives and experiences are not monoliths, that our challenges are multifaceted and versatile.
I feel afraid at simple sentences like “But I thought Lebanon was a liberal country–I am shocked and disappointed” from Westerners who read my post, because there is something there that is misunderstood, because the progressiveness and freedoms of my homeland should not be nullified by my experience. I am afraid too, at reactions from others, who continually glorify and tout the graces of Lebanon’s capital city in attempts to delegitimatize its problem areas.
I am afraid at both reactions because they exclude the other, and it makes me think of a cyclical motion that moves slowly back and back. I am afraid because this paradigm of response, this binary, can be lifted and applied to many Muslim-majority countries, Islamic societies, and Muslim family-structures, and this binary is too divided, too excluding, too extreme on either end to be either accurate or productive.
And here is the truth about my story: I come from a city, Beirut, that is beautiful and vibrant, full of art and culture and education. And yes, one side of it is a party city, a city of hedonism, of great food and good beer, with a glowing, robust nightlife, a city of joy and hope. It is also a city of interfaith living, with churches and mosques and multiple religious communities coexisting side by side. It is a city of good people, welcoming people, open and friendly and kind.
This is why I understand a sentiment some of my friends have given me in earnest protest: “Please don’t paint Lebanon with this brush; please. We are liberal, we are learning, we are hope.”
My city, Beirut, is all of this. I agree.
But because it is so important, let me tell you what my city, Beirut, is also. My city Beirut is the capital of a country torn by sectarian schism and civil strife: recurring, powerful, deadly.
In my city, a Christian cannot sell beer in a shop in a Muslim district without being ostracized, vilified, driven away. A Muslim is uncomfortable and afraid of driving to Christian areas, walking in them with head covered and hands bare.
My city, Beirut, is in a land where domestic violence and marital rape have yet to be criminalized. Draft laws proposing to criminalize them have been shot down time and again by the top religious authorities, who say it will threaten the closeness of familial bonds.
If you are a citizen in my city, your religion of birth, displayed on your ID card, will determine whether and where you can run for office, who you can marry and who has a say in who you can marry. In my city, all civil rights are routed through religious courts. Interfaith marriage cannot occur except in conformity to religious doctrine, because we have no civil institution of marriage.
In my city, it was not until last week that the government made an official declaration that being gay is not a disease and does not need treatment. It is the first Arab country to do this. Having ‘unnatural’ sex is still against the law. In my city, boys are arrested, interrogated, beaten, tortured, and raped by the police on suspicion of having gay sex.
In my city, if a girl is raped, it will likely go unreported, and if it is reported, her aggressor will likely go unconvicted, and if he is convicted, there is a lawful provision allowing him to be acquitted of all charges if he marries her.
In my city, there is special provision by law to allow for lesser sentences for murders categorized as honor crimes. This is if these cases ever go to trial. In my homeland, a man beat his wife to death only days ago, and he is free and unquestioned.
In my city, religious and honor codes often operate above, beyond, and ignored by the law.
In my city, no police station or officer will protect or help a woman reporting domestic violence, because it is not a crime, and because it is not worth the trouble of interfering in private family matters. In my city, a woman in a police station is routinely harassed and sexually assaulted by the police.
In my country, no Lebanese girl who gives birth to a child can give that child her citizenship.
In my city, girls who live alone, even if they are Christian girls with parental consent or girls from nonreligious families, are watched and their behavior regulated by their neighbors, their community, their apartment building watchmen. Their trustworthiness and honorableness, and thus their treatment, is based on these assessments.
In my city, a girl under 21 can be banned from leaving the country by her husband or father, and many girls over 21 too, because political corruption, bribery, and sectarian politics can shift the criteria of a mechanism already in place.
In my city, a girl who leaves home as an adult can be dragged back to her parents’ place against her will by the political/religious party governing the demographic she was born into.
In my city, a girl walking the street at night can be picked up by members of the political/religious party governing her area and driven home because girls cannot wander the streets.
And when I say that my city is all of these things, I will turn around and tell you that it is also the most liberal place in the Middle East, a place where many glorious freedoms flourish, and where life, youth, and joy are to be found. It is my home, the city of my dreams, and I see it in my sleep every night. I love it for all of those reasons, and because it is freer than many other places in the Middle East and beyond.
But it is still not free, and this is a truth as important and honest as any of the great things about my home, and in telling my story, and the stories of so many dozens of women I know and love, I seek for understanding, for hope, for mercy. I understand the instinct to react with affront, with hurt, anger, and confusion at a negative story that is only partially representative of a culture and a place that is not a monolith, I understand this reaction when it is bolstered and fueled by a long history of misappropriation and misunderstanding and structural discrimination and hate.
But for Beirut and Lebanon to be greater and more brilliant beacons of hope and change, I hope and wish that we can learn to avoid binaries, and think of what we do have in common, though we are not a monolith: the injustices on all sides of the human condition of our cultures. Because we must acknowledge, that as liberal as Lebanon is, it is also an oppressive, terrifying place to very many, and it is the best we have in the entire Middle East region so far–let us not think of the horrendous eruptions of people and thought taking place in Syria and Egypt, let us not think of war on one side and patriarchy on the other in Palestine, of the honor-killing culture of Jordan, of the black-bound suppression of the Gulf, let us not think of the acid-in-faces and children-sold-and-raped in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Or let us do.
I will continue to tell these stories, because they are powerful.
Because it is true that many Muslim families are progressive and non-restrictive, and it is true that they are able to find self-actualization even under oppressive laws through support and mutual understanding. But it is true, deep, important, grave, that women, men, and children are denied basic rights, are pressured and socialized in oppressive ways, are discriminated against unjustly, harshly, reactively, and suffer beyond imagining.
It is true that I and my friends scrabble in real fear at how difficult it is to make our American friends understand what it is like to be us, what it is like back home, how to qualify the intangible inhumanity of our suppressed existence, how some of my friends fear that the toppling of a militant Islamist regime in their home country will wrongly be viewed as a change of circumstances that will justify their being sent back home. When the problems are more pervasive, insidious, hidden, and slowly eroding than can be materially captured or simply explained, how can we not fear misunderstanding from all sides?
My hope, then, inspired by the wise, gentle way Professor Ross Gay writes of racial oppression and hate and turns it into hope too– my hope is for acknowledgment first, understanding next, and acceptance. Acceptance and understanding from Muslims and Arabs towards those who suffer in their countries and under their doctrines, acceptance and understanding from nonMuslims and white people towards those who suffer undue hate, discrimination, and violence.
Because we suffer from all sides, and none of it is easy, and all of it deserves grace.