Welcome to Mehfil-e-Skeptics (part 2)

As promised, this is part 2 of my introductory post. You can read part 1 here.

It didn’t take long to notice that few people actually took their faith, beliefs, and religious ideas seriously. An uncomfortably large number of people were essentially living double lives, displaying a certain piety for the world, while they gossiped, backbit, flirted, dated, had affairs, drank, smoked, and partook in other practices they would shame others for. The more I noticed these things, the more righteous I felt in taking my faith seriously. Their hypocrisy made me want to immerse myself more into Islam, in order to be a better Muslim than before.

However, as I delved deeper into Islam, the old questions from my younger years kept cropping back up.

~Why are men allowed four wives in Islam, while women are not allowed four husbands? Why are Muslim men allowed to marry and have sex with female slaves? (Quran 4:3)

~Why does the Quran speak so often against unbelievers (Kaafir) and disbelief (Kufr), but does not speak against rape, domestic abuse, or pedophilia? Indeed, why does the Quran contain an injunction that allows men to beat their wives in certain circumstances? (Quran 4:34)

~Why is alcohol forbidden in Islam, but slavery is not, when both were common practices in Pre-Islamic Arabia?

~Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful God create humans just to test them, when he already knows how they will fare on the test?

~What is the point of all the torture that awaits disbelievers in the afterlife described in the Quran? (Quran 22:19-22) Why would Allah pour hot lava on them until their skin peeled off, and then re-grow it so they can go through the torture again and again? (Quran 4:56) How was it merciful and fair to blind unbelievers to the truth (Quran 2:6-7), and then punish them for this induced blindness?

~If everything has a cause or a beginning, why doesn’t God have one? In other words, who created God? I had thought people more learned than me would have had a better answer, but all they had were arbitrary claims that God was the exception and was ‘uncreated’.

But I was dedicated to being a Good Muslim Girl. I posed my questions to male and female scholars and community leaders who visited and spoke at various events. Again and again, I was told that the questions themselves were wrong; that I should just pray to Allah for the answers; that I should read certain verses a few dozen times; that these thoughts and questions were coming from Shaytan. The scariest part of it all was the fear of hell. Many people told me that my questions would lead me to eternal torture in Jahannum – and I believed them. This was the central fear that kept me and many others from asking perfectly valid questions. We were supposed to dedicate our lives to a belief system that should not be examined too closely. We were supposed to close our eyes, our ears, and our mouths, and never question Islam, Quran, Muhammad, or the clerics and community members who demanded our obedience in their name.

I gradually realized that I could not live my life in denial of myself and my natural curiosity. After about a year and half of what I call my “born again Muslim period”, I stopped going to the mosque, teaching children how to be proper Muslims, and asking the ulema questions they could not answer.

At 19, I formally, and openly, left Islam.

I stopped calling myself Muslim. I stopped praying to a torturer posing as a source of fairness and goodness. My mom, who had grown more conservative with age, detested my choice. Several people told me to hide my ‘apostasy’. I left my community, moved to another city, and enrolled in another University. My mom wasn’t happy, but she knew I had given Islamic religion and Pakistani culture a fair chance. I was done apologizing for my questions. Eventually, after many arguments, we reached a kind of truce: she no longer pushed religion on me, and I did not disturb her fragile faith by pointing out all the problems in Islam and other religions. We decided to focus on the many things we agreed on.

I am now in my mid-30s, and I have been free of religion for over a decade. During this time, I have faced threats and anger from relatives and strangers as I continued to question religion and study it without the fear of hell or a tyrannical god. I consider myself a spiritual person, leaning towards a kind of naturalistic pantheism, and I find aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice highly appealing. I don’t get in people’s faces about religion, but I also don’t shy away from conversations about religion and about what I see as unethical or harmful practices and beliefs.

I came across the Council of ExMuslims of Britain in 2008. I felt an immediate connection with its manifesto, and many of its members. I was not alone: many others had taken a similar journey out of Islam, and many more were afraid of coming out of the closet as unbelievers.

As a writer, student, and fan of pop culture, I noticed that some religions were open to satire, parody, and critical analysis, and were often skewered by shows and movies like Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and Life of Brian, History of the World Part 1, and South Park, while Islam was treated with patronizing appeasement.

I went back to University to finish my degree, double-majoring in Cultural Anthropology and Sexuality & Gender Studies. I learned about the socio-economic aspects of religious beliefs and cultural practices. I devoured the works of Foucault, Butler, Lacan, Said, Asad, Boas, Marx, Gramsci, Spivak, Fannon, Freud, Zizek, Beck, Deleuze and Guattari, among others. I learned about institutional oppression, European colonialism and post-colonial politics, neo-liberalism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and social movements throughout the world. It was grueling at times, but I emerged from my studies a better person.

I realize that many people need religion to cope with death, uncertainty, and injustice. This understanding has strengthened my instinctual conviction that under the guise of unquestionable authority and fear of divine punishment, religion often masks deeper social and personal problems.

I am for questions, and against using religion – or any ideology – as a way to stifle those questions. I am for education, and against blind obedience to clerics and traditions. I am for equality, and against treating any person differently due to their gender, sex, sexual orientation, body type, skin colour, ethnicity, race, language, dis/ability, regionality, family of origin, economic status, or anything else beyond their own actions. I am against cultural relativism: I do not believe that gender equality is the exclusive purview of women in “Western” cultures. I believe that human rights are generally a good idea; that LGBTQ people in Pakistan, all U.S. states, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and everywhere else, deserve equal rights like queer people in Canada, South Africa, Uruguay, Iceland, Brazil. and Belgium enjoy. I am for calling out abuses of privilege, for self-criticism, and for changing my mind when presented with a better idea and better evidence. I am for helping animals and the planet recover from the impacts of abusive human behaviour. I am for the right of all children, regardless of their gender, to keep their genitals intact, and be safe from abuse.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with believing in a god or an afterlife. There is something wrong with confusing your personal spiritual belief with a license to force others into believing the same things. I disagree with some atheists who seem to want to make all religious believers become atheists: I don’t think that is necessary or effective. What is needed is an understanding that religions – all religions – are ideologies that are used to fuel and justify certain behaviours; that all religions are sets of beliefs we usually inherit, and carry around without giving them much thought, just like capitalism, communism, nationalism, or the belief that your local sports team or favourite band is the best in the world. Ideologies, including religions, can be used, transformed, scrutinized, unpacked, criticized, reinvented, discarded, and parodied; and they can also be abused. Religious beliefs often engender a kind of supremacist thinking – some more than others. And just like racist and nationalistic supremacism, religious supremacism is a vile phenomenon that needs to be honestly and fearlessly confronted. As the saying goes, ideologies do not have rights – people do.

My goal here in Mehfil-e-Skeptics is to explore those questions further, and to bear witness to and document the uses and abuses of religion and other ideologies. If we don’t do this, who will? As people who were raised in Islam and once identified as Muslims, we represent an invaluable perspective. I am proud to be part of EXMNA, and to work with bloggers who have the courage to share their thoughts and feelings with the world.

Mehfil is an Urdu word meaning “gathering” or “soiree”. As the host of this Mehfil, I will be working shoulder to shoulder with guest bloggers. I hope you will find our posts engaging and thought-provoking. I also invite you to read the blogs of my fellow ExMuslims (linked on the left). Thanks for reading. Follow and say hi on Twitter @KiranOpal.


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