Ali Rizvi: Islam and Identity for an Atheist Muslim

July 18, 2016

Religions have always gone through transitions over time. Not only do the faiths themselves evolve, but the role they play in day-to-day life adapts to fit the needs of a given culture. As the youngest Abrahamic religion on the market, all eyes are on Islam, as a debate rages as to whether there is any chance of reform or secularization within a religion that is so deeply woven into the fabric of the Muslim world.

Ali Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and author of the new book Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Rizvi is one of many Muslims who assert that while they have lost their religion, they haven’t lost their Muslim identity. Rizvi considers Islam to be a religion with a set of ideas that are fair game to be criticized, but he also sees Muslims as distinct, as a culture of which Islam is not a mandatory component. After losing his faith while studying as a scientist and physician, Rizvi continued to participate and identify with many of the cultural aspects of being Muslim. He found that he wasn’t alone in his feelings, and predicts that today’s young Muslims will be the start of the transition toward secularism for Muslims around world.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, July 18th, 2016. 

OK, great. Let’s get going. The book is The Atheist Muslim Journey from Religion to Reason. And its author, Ali Rizvi, is with me. Ali, thanks for being on the show. 

Thank you for having me. How did I do with Ali? Am I speaking at pronouncing it correct in the Urdu or is it Ali? Ali, we were just talking about that before this. Before the show. Say it for me. 

It’s actually it’s it depends on the language and Urdu and Persian. That’s Ali. In Arabic, it’s Ali, like with the throaty sound. 

And, you know, pretty much I mean, I am not one of those people who’s very sensitive about how my name is pronounce. So, OK, good. It’s OK with variations. 

I loved this book. The title says about as much as the book needs to in terms of it’s the way that the book touches on your life and your sort of identity conundrum in that the title strikes many people as an oxymoron, the atheist Muslim. And you get to this in a passage that I just want to read, because I think it’s central to what you’re talking about, identities. And you write, We all take pride in our identities. This can be healthy if it’s for the achievements we’ve worked hard to earn. But deriving pride from our inborn identifiers is precarious in a way best summed up by the brilliant comedian George Carlin, who said he had never understand ethnic or national pride. And you quote Colin, one of my heroes saying, pride should be reserved for something you achieved or attained on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a fucking genetic accident. If you’re happy with it, that’s fine. Do that. Put that on your car. Happy to be an American. Be happy. Don’t be proud. 

So since you’re an atheist Muslim, are you a Muslim or an atheist or both? And are you happy or proud of either? 

Well, I am. The title of the book is actually not a self descriptor as much as it is a just a sort of a tongue in cheek. I hit on labels in the sense that, you know, people talk about most of those that they’d like to have this simplified definition of Muslim as somebody who believes in Islam. And what’s happened is over the fourteen hundred years that Islam has been around, people have just been born into very nominally some families. And Muslim is just a birth identity. And many of them don’t even know that much about the faith. And I’ve given examples in the book of, you know, how this plays out. So whether the case I’m making is that Islamic ideology is actually very different from Muslim identity. Islamic ideology is very straightforward. I mean, if you can think I mean, you know, if you think of the Koran being an immutable book, you know, the word of God is the one thing that all Muslims around the world, regardless of sector or faction, agree on. It’s immutability. You can challenge it. You can’t question it. So it’s pretty much the way it is. On the other hand, the Muslim world, if Indonesian Muslims, you have Turkish Muslims, you have Saudi Muslims. I mean, you have all of these people. I mean, it’s obviously not a monolith. It’s over a billion and a half people and there are all kinds of variations to it. So I think that one of the biggest problems that we do in our discourse are those on a daily basis pretty much nowadays is we conflate Islamic ideology with Muslim identity. You know, you have the on the far right, you get the sort of the Trump and Ted Cruz narrative, which is, you know you know, Islam is, you know, this terrorism associate Islam. So we’ve got to ban Muslims. We got to profile them. You know, we have to treat them differently from other people on the left. There’s this idea that if you criticize anything about Islamic ideology, if you say something and the Koran is wrong, then you’re a bigot against all Muslims. 

And what both of these sides do is they conflate Islam, which is an idea with Muslims, which are a people. Right. And I say this in the book, too. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect ideas and religions and books that don’t and aren’t. 

This contradiction or this conflation, I suppose, between those two aspects of of Muslim identity, Islamic ideology on the one hand, and Muslim human beings on the other is a little bit controversial to me when I read it in the book. Your claim that Muslim is a birth identity, you say it’s just like calling someone an Arab or a Persian or a South Asian. I, as a Jew have always felt that about my Jewish ness, that it’s an ethnicity. I’m an atheist, so I don’t have any any truck with the Old Testament or the Torah, but I can’t help but feel that I’m Jewish in some way. 

Nonetheless, you couldn’t say the same, for example, of a Catholic. I mean, you would not you couldn’t say that this person is a Catholic, but they don’t believe in the Virgin Mary and they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus and they don’t believe any of the any of the historical or cosmic claims that are in the Bible. And in a similar way, I’ve always sort of assumed that the latter description is more true of Muslims than the analogy to Jews. That it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to say that someone is a Muslim if they don’t believe that Mohammed was a prophet. 

And right, right, yeah. No, no, I. That’s a good point, and that’s one thing when I when I talk about Muslim, where people think of Muslim as a as a birth identity, I’m just talking about how it plays out practically. I mean, if you sit down, you look at the nitty gritty of it, you know. Yes. You know, the people who are like, for instance, I myself, you know, right now it’s Ramadan. You know, I like going to the DA parties. I like to do it. I mean, those are necessarily Islamic traditions. You know, the fasting and the start of the breaking of the fast. I don’t do the fast, but I do the feasts for sure. 

The eats up the brains. You just want the best of both worlds. You get right body at the end of the fast that you didn’t take. Right. I just tell people I fast two or three times a day. That’s basically the idea. 

But he and the same thing goes with the eat celebrations. It’s no different from Christmas. It’s like everything else is. It’s secularizing it. That doesn’t obviously mean that, you know, being Muslim is a race. I mean, nobody’s born with a hijab sewn onto to their head. Nobody’s born pre circumcised, even though they do say that Mohammed was born pre circumcised. That’s a different story. That’s nifty in any case. So I. I actually do. I don’t think it’s obvious. It’s not ethnicity thing like it is with Judaism. We have matrilineal descent, but there is a cultural element to it that’s common. I mean, there is a lot of cultural variations. And again, you know, I mentioned this in the book that, you know, as a as a as a Pakistani Muslims have a lot more in common with Indian Hindus than they do with Egyptian Muslims. Mm hmm. Egyptian Muslims have a lot more in common with Egyptian Christians than they do with Indonesian Muslims or Turkish Muslims. So. 

So, you know, as far as there is a lot of cultural variations, but there are some common elements. You know, as a Ramadan aspect, there is the the EED and the celebrations that come with these ideas that some of the traditions, like there’s a car in Shia Islam the morning of Moharram. 

And, you know, if you look at some of the subsects like Smileys, which is a subset of Shia ism, they have a lot of traditional rituals and they have a lot a lot of things that they do at their place of worship was called the Jamal. And they there are a lot of traditional elements that are actually associated with the religion that everybody partakes in. So it’s a bit of both. But I say that there is you know, I see a lot of ex Muslims or people who’ve left Islam and, you know, they they still have eat parties together. You know, they had they might have bacon and beer at the party, but they they still have that element. 

And they often do when they leave their religion and they find themselves, you know, sometimes disowned from their families, are also syson their communities. They do feel a bit of a loss. They feel like they have lost something. So all of those things are kind of integrated, probably more so with Islam than with Christianity, just because in Muslim majority countries, Islam plays a much bigger role in people’s lives and in their politics and their in their public affairs than Christianity does in most Christian majority countries, because whilst Christian majority countries have gone largely secular. 

Yeah, there are sort of token things in Christian countries like Christmas and and so on that’s still getting nods from secular people or from atheists. 

But I mean, I think part of the thing that frustrates atheists and committed secularists about this kind of gray area is that there are vastly fewer atheist Muslims who simply celebrate the end of Ramadan, but are perfectly comfortable talking about their own Athie ism and the fact that they they don’t condone the theological beliefs of their coreligionists. 

Then there are the group of so-called moderate Muslims and moderate religious people who, in the eyes of the likes of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, sort of give cover for religious extremists by having to go through the motions of mouthing the same kinds of bullshit that that religious extremists do, pandering to the idea of mysticism, of supernaturalism in in ways that seem to elevate theology and religion. And so that’s sort of problematic when you’ve got this middleground of people who are really deep down, they’re just culturally Muslim and they just can’t be bothered sloughing off the silliness of their faith. Mm hmm. But they make it much more difficult for reasonable people to attack the extreme interpretations of the theology because they still claim that the theology matters. 


So I think I think there is a difference between the moderate Muslims and reformist Muslims. And again, you know, putting my distain for labels in general side, I think that somebody like, for instance, Reza Aslan, who is secular, when you if you look at any definition, the wording is pro secular, believes in separation of church and state and so on. Mosque and state. But on the other hand, you have somebody like much of the was and much of the US is a little bit more honest about what he feels about it. 

He doesn’t necessarily think that the Koran is completely infallible and he doesn’t defend it. You know, he he points out he’s much more upfront about the issues with that. Yet he is also a committed Muslim. So I think that there are these gradations in the Muslim world, at least, you know, we have the moderates. You have the reformists. Then you have the people who are I guess, you know, the ex Muslims are the people who’ve left out or the people who were never really Muslim in the first place, but they were raised in Muslim families or came from Muslim backgrounds. 

I understand the need to have a sort of a clean boundary between all of these to, you know, kind of say, OK, this is this. 

And, you know, this is everything has its own compartment, but it’s just practically it doesn’t play out that way. 

No. I mean, it doesn’t have to be that clean. It just has to be blash it free. It just has to be frank. I mean, it’s I have the same problem when I’m talking to two Christians. I mean, it’s it’s astonishing to me that a person as smart as an Andrew Sullivan or someone like that or a Stephen Colbert can be a committed Catholic. And when you try to pin them down on the question of whether or not they believe that Jesus physically, bodily rose to heaven after being dead for three days, they are unwilling to simply say, well, that’s probably bullshit because that would destroy their Catholicism. And similarly, the same thing happens when I talk to moderate Muslims. It’s it’s deeply frustrating that it’s not simply possible for people to to stop bullshitting me. And like, I know that these people are smart human beings. I as an atheist, I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for them. So because they then. And you mentioned Reza Aslan, another person who just gets tangled up in all of these knots. Well, there’s you know, who knows? I mean, there are so many different types. Yes. But just answer me. Did Mohammed fly to heaven on a winged horse or didn’t he? 

I don’t know. This is it. This is something frustrates me, too. And I mean, if you know, as you saw in the book, I’ve written about it a lot. I think that there is a you know, where I come to it, it is just really the basics. 

All of a resolution to all of this to me is to separate, again, the ideology from the agenda. I think what what moderate Muslims do is that they’re born in Muslim families. A lot of them are very nominal. They don’t really know that much about the religion. But when people criticize their religion because their identity, their sense of identity is so intertwined with the idea of Islam and that they themselves are conflated Islam, the idea with being Muslim as a person, they tend to think of every criticism of the ideology itself as a personal attack on them. So they start and if you say something about the Koran or if you say that, you know, this is wrong, did Mohammed really fly to have another Windhorst? And, you know, this is this is bullshit. Or, you know, you could criticize his marriage with with a nine year old girl and so on. They will start defending it. I mean, grown educated people will start defending it because they’re not going to look at the idea on its own. 

They’re going to look at it as an attack, a personal attack on their identity. Right. So often, you know, I had a while ago, I was talking to this, my ex girlfriends, her sister used to wear the hijab. And, you know, she was a little bit rigid. She wasn’t really that religious, but her sister was. She’s going through a phase. She eventually took it off. And I was talking about how the job, you know, is originally it’s it’s pretty much a symbol. It’s something that was used as a tool used to keep women downtick for men to control women. And the first thing she said to me, she’s like, so. But my sister was at her job. So are you saying she’s oppressed? And that to me, hit at this conflation that happens all the time. And what I told her that time is the first time I thought of it. And I’ve said it ever since because I think it works. And like I told them, they can criticize if I’m criticizing. The smoking is a filthy habit. That does not mean I’m saying that all smokers are filthy people. 

Yeah. That’s it. That’s it. Sorry. Go ahead. No, no. I was going to say that’s a good analogy. 

And I think I mean, when you were saying that a criticism of the tenets of the faith strikes people as a criticism of themselves or an affront to the way that they were raised or an affront to deep cultural traditions that they believe in and feel comfortable to them. I really think you put your finger there on the biggest and greatest challenge for the secular and atheist and humanist movement, which is to to find a way to to cleave apart people’s sense, not just of their own culture and their own sense of self, but also their own sense of the transcendent and their own experiences of that feel spiritually fulfilling from the dogmas and of the of the formal religion in which they were they were raised because it strikes me that there’s no way of explaining the preponderance of religion, the success of religion, the fact that 90. Five or ninety eight, I have them 80 percent of the world’s population believes in God and believes in God that their parents believe in. Unless those people are ascribing their own spiritual experiences, their own transcendent experiences, their own sense of awe and sense of self in ways that depend upon the the articles, those articles of faith. And in order for us to win converts, I suppose we have to find a way of explaining to people. And I think Sam Harris is doing some interesting work in this regard because he’s so interested in the neuroscience of transcendent experiences. 

We have to find a way to talk about these experiences in if not secular ways, at least religiously agnostic ways that don’t cleave directly onto a map, directly onto a particular set of faith claims. 

Right. I’d add something also that I’d say that, you know, a bit when you’re high, when you’re preparing to have a conversation, setting the stage for that conversation is sometimes just as important or even more important than having the conversation. And, you know, here’s what I’m getting older. We’re talking about, you know, the bullshit aspects of it. And, you know, why can’t we just talk about reality and what’s rational? And, you know, this whole idea of just accepting beliefs because you were raised in them and thinking that they’re part of your identity like that, that is inherently an irrational thing and an irrational phenomenon. So when we address it, it’s very difficult to address it just purely on rational terms. So, you know, one of the things that we do when we ask, say, somebody who is a young Muslim from a Muslim family and we try to rationally talk them out of it, just say, you know, can you see that this is bullshit and that’s bullshit. We have to think about what we’re asking them to do. So many of them, if they changed their mind about their religion, depending on where they are in the world, they can lose their families. Right. They can be ostracized from their communities. They can end up being in jail like Raif Badawi and being flogged. They can be executed or hanged if they’re in Iran. So it depends where they are. These are very, very heavy costs. And, you know, I always put it in this, that these are situations where just changing your mind can mean losing your head literally. And even here in the western world where we have I mean, I was in correspondence with this girl who is in Canada, and this was many months ago where she’s from very conservative Muslim family. She’s very religious. She loves her family. She doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. She’s a jobbie and she’s a lesbian. And she doesn’t believe anymore. And she was getting married to an arranged marriage to her first cousin. And then she’s like 19 or 20. And about two or three weeks last summer, I talked to her and there’s not a whole lot you can do. But when you do ask them to leave and when you try to talk to them rationally, you know, they’re thinking about they’re like, OK, we’ll lose my family, my they’re going to disown me. I’m going to be in financial trouble. I’m going to be emotionally distraught. I’m probably gonna go through an identity crisis if I go somewhere else. I mean, my community is going to completely reject me. So that is when we ask them to change their mind and when we ask and see that that is a huge barrier to it. 

I mean, that gets to a deeper problem of. Yeah, why is people’s commitment to their faith so fanatical that it’s more important to them than their family ties? I mean, and why is that so preponderant or is it more preponderant in the Muslim and Muslim communities than it is in communities of other other religions? I mean, I, I don’t know anyone personally in any Western country who would excommunicate their child for for apostasy. But, yeah, I was just traveling around India a few months ago and I met several people who several Hindus who were telling me that they weren’t able to get married to two Muslim to Muslims because the the the parents of the Muslim wouldn’t allow them to to marry outside the faith. 

Yeah. That actually happens the other way around, too. I mean, your industry does have yet in terms of the Hindus here and in terms of Hindus as well. They don’t. It’s funny. Like if you if you convert if you go from Hindu to atheist or you go from a lot of Hindus, it allows for it’s more atheist and friendly as well than Islam is. If you got it from Islam, atheists, often it’s not going from Muslim to him. It was a lot worse off if you convert. So people have all kinds of different, just everything they’ve seen, where they’ve grown up that shapes their their ideas. But I think it is more common in the Muslim world. And I think for the same reason that Islam is a much bigger part of the Muslim experience than Christianity is of the Christian experience. I mean, or Judaism. The religion is of the Jewish experience. I mean, just from a religious sense. Right. And that’s because they haven’t really there isn’t a lot of secularism in Muslim majority countries. I mean, there’s virtually. Not the only examples that you have are, you know, Indonesia maybe or Turkey and even those countries are very heavily influenced by the religion. The governments are very heavily into even though it’s they they may be officially secular Bangladeshis, sufficiently secular. So, you know, what they’ll do is they atheist bloggers or secular bloggers, they’ll be hacked to death in the street and the prime minister will come up and she’ll say, well, nobody has the right to insult anybody’s religion, which she did. That’s what she said. 

Yeah. And on the quote on the question of Indonesia, people always cite Indonesia as being the glowing example of moderate Islam. And it certainly used to be. But it’s a place close to my heart because it’s the it’s the closest. It’s Australia’s closest large neighbor. So Australians think of it in very affectionate terms. And it’s out of our our Mexico, if if I can say that. And nowadays, it’s it’s it’s a place where some of its provinces are really Islamist and enforcing all kinds of, you know, enforcing the veil in ways that they never used to. And so it’s it’s it’s a bit sad to see that the the decline of moderate Islam, even in the countries where it used to be. 

As moderate is as one could expected debate. 

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I just want to talk you start the book with an interesting anecdote that I want I want to touch on about being at school in in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, when you were a kid and and cutting out little snowflakes for the winter celebration, which is in itself, finally, since it’s in Saudi Arabia, let us know in the end, someone from the Department of Education coming in saying that there were five pronged snowflakes systematically going on and cutting one of the corners off each of the snowflakes so that it didn’t resemble there were six. So that’s what see. Yes, of course. Like the. 

And you then you then jump forward to your life in Canada and your first encounter with an Israeli Jew, which you said still sort of center a guilty shiver up your spine that you were interacting with one of these these sort of vermin who had been indoctrinated about when you were in Saudi Arabia. 

When did your Athie harm come into it? And how did that mesh with your your upbringing? That’s going to tell you. 

Well, one of the points of that whole story and reliving that and the reasons that I reacted, I was more upset by my reaction than probably anybody else, by my own reaction to that is that I actually wasn’t indoctrinated with that. I wasn’t like nobody ever told me, you know, when I grew up, my my family, my immediate family and my friends, I used to go to an American school. So, you know, we’d learn about these things. 

We do if that’s an American school in Saudi Arabia, not an American school. 

And a very Marico insider. Yeah, so but but just seeing this stuff peripherally and just being exposed to it on aid, even from a distance, unpause that reaction in me. So when I first met an Israeli Jew, I just had a very visceral kind of fight or flight reaction. I thought something was going to happen in the sense and I knew it was irrational when it was happening, but I just saw how that was a realization for me in terms of, you know, how how sneaky these things are, you know, and when did these things that you see on TV every day, these things, you know, in prejudice, not Jews, because Jews can be seen again as well in the eyes of some people. 

But what I try to clarify. 

Yes. Thank you for the call. Yeah. That the actual prejudice and how it can creep into you, even if, you know, you haven’t been formally indoctrinated into it. But just because you’re exposed to and you’re living in a place where it’s very common. So and that actually hit me as if I had that reaction just being peripherally exposed to it. I just by, you know, some guy who did a spot check in my school once or hearing a couple of things on Saudi TV here and there. Then, you know, the people who live there were actually going to the schools, the people for whom that guy is actually writing the textbooks. You know, you think about how they’re raised and whether and how much of it really is in their control. And it makes you almost empathize with it, makes you think you wonder if anybody was in that situation, grew up in that atmosphere. And this is at a time when, you know, there was no Internet and they used to be the news that used to get in the country was censored, heavily censored. And often, you know, you wouldn’t really know what was going around going on in the rest of the world. And this is really what you had, this little cocoon. And these are the ideas that you were being fed and you were actually indoctrinated with them. 

Yeah. I mean, I’m as you say that I wonder whether or not you think that technology is going to have a role to play in changing that. I did a I was interviewed Richard Dawkins at a live event down at George Washington University in October. And he he was basically saying that he thinks the most the worst form of child abuse is really religious indoctrination, because you said you’re sitting that human being with a series of patterns that they’re going to find it incredibly difficult to do later in life. And I was sort of speculating about the possibility that with more open information, with the rise of the Internet and so on, is it can we put any hope in the ability of just all of that data to undermine the ability of parents and communities to entrench their dogmas as facts? 

I think it’s already happening. I mean, I, I, I think it’s it’s everywhere. I think if you look at how fast certain social developments have been happening, like in that same sex marriage, people did not know about these things, that they didn’t know any gay people in person. And then you had people were connecting with other people on the Internet. Other, you know, LGBT people, they were able to connect with each other more easily on the Internet than they were before. They were able to seek each other out and form a sort of community. And that makes it easier for people to come out. I think the same thing that happened with with the second community and Sencer, the atheist community, is that you had people in Muslim majority countries who I hear from all the time. You have people from. Fundamentalist Christian families in the southern U.S. or wherever, and they suddenly come up and they realize they don’t Google something called Google a certain group, and they meet a whole bunch of people who are who think just like them. They get together and they form a sense of community. And I think that’s that’s huge. It’s a huge difference from the Salman Rushdie days, if you remember those. That was I mean, the guy had to go into hiding for years. And now he walks around relatively freely in a way that he never used to do before. So I think it has come a long way. 

And I think the Internet has a lot to do with it, especially in these Muslim majority countries. Because I like I’ll just give you an example. When when we used to get a time or Newsweek magazines and read any if there was a commercial for a watch and there was a woman in it with bare shoulders, they would take a permanent marker and they’d, you know, black, they did just put black ink over the bare shoulders. And they used to do this in every copy of the magazine. So every copy, the magazine that went everywhere in the country, there’s somebody sitting there opening up those pages and going through each individual copy and censoring those bare shoulders. 

I wonderfully productive use of time and and oil money they have. 

They just seem to have a lot of time. It was absolutely amazing. 

I mean, I know this sounds like I’m exaggerating, but there’s no insight spoken with like it with a former editor of Time Out in the Middle East as well who had to do similar things. You know, they would get the time out copies from from headquarters in in London or New York. And then they would have to progressively go through Photoshopping everything before they would release it in the Middle East. It’s amazing that you’re speaking of Rushdie since you raised him. 

There’s a you have an anecdote in that in the book about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, to you being surrounded by other Muslim American friends whose primary response, as well as being horrified at the tragedy, was that was an emphasis on on how offensive the the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had been in insulting the prophet. And you take an absolutist free speech line on that. 

I wonder whether you want to you want to sort of just just elaborate on your thoughts about where the limits of of free speech versus hate speech should lie. 

I actually don’t think that there should be a difference, I think, in terms of protection of speech. I think free speech and hate speech go together. You can’t select one or the two. I think that that the US. A no, Brad. That’s what I wrote about in that chapter, is that the U.S. is probably one the few countries that gets that right in the sense that the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed the funerals of U.S. soldiers who died and they came around when they came around to the Huffington Post while I was working there as well, I went downstairs and gave them cupcakes and how to them with their God hates fags races, God hates fags. 

So they they would they’d picket funerals. And it was a big Supreme Court case. And, you know, the U.S. Supreme Court and eight to one decision said that, yes, they should be allowed to do this. And KKK can protests and hold rallies freely in the U.S. You can get Mein Kampf from libraries. 

You can read it anywhere. This is I look at that. I think that hate speech should be protected under the First Amendment because. It’s not just the freedom of speech of the person saying it, and it’s also my freedom. Freedom to hear what I want to hear and make that decision myself. You know, someone saying so. But I think the best way to fight speech is with speech, because once you start talking about hate speech, it’s a very slippery slope. You know, the different people will think different things are hate speech as far as I’m concerned. If you look in the Bible or the Koran and you look at what it says about gay people or about women, about the endorsement for slavery and all of these, I think that those are hate speech to you. It would to me, it sounds strange that, you know, if I can go around and I can if I say something about someone who is Jewish, then I’d say something to rogatory to them. And in some countries, Western countries that can be put in jail like that, there was a fashion designer, I think John Galliano was it was his name is escaping me. 

But yes, I know Tom Flynn. 

Yes. And so I think I was in France. I can’t remember exactly. But he said something. He made some anti-Semitic remarks. And I’m in jail for, I think, six months. He is in prison. 

Well, also, Don, he is, as you mentioned, the comic satirist in France who was charged for hate speech. I mean, how should the media respond to this then? Because obviously, I mean, the media isn’t is not obliged to rebroadcast all of the horrible, hateful, hateful epithets that might be thrown by midgets. But on the other hand, when you read Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, which is a great book, which I recommend to everybody about his experience under the fatwah, he really felt abandoned, completely abandoned by the by mainstream people who he would have thought should have his back as writers and commentators and journalists and so on. And I sort of felt that after Charlie Hebdo, we have to there’s a cowardice. There’s sort of a problem of the Commons or there’s a game theory problem in the media, which is that any particular publication that individually decides to reprint any of this offensive stuff is genuinely putting its employees at serious risk. But if everybody did it. There aren’t enough jihadis walking around to to have an impact. And I sort of proposed after Charlie Hebdo that we in the media should create a kind of cartel of press freedom that says that in the instance something like Charlie Hebdo happens the following morning, every single major publication in the world that subscribes to this cartel will have those public those those images on its front page just about as a show of solidarity and that maybe that’s some way of resolving the problem of cowardice in the press. 

Right. There is I mean, there’s a hashtag spread the risk, and that’s really what it was about. The whole thinking behind everybody draw Mohammed Day was similar is the idea that everybody draws and then there aren’t enough jihadists, as you said, to go on target. You know, millions of people. And this is where I think the Internet has done amazing things. Right? I think that’s one of the you know, we were talking about earlier when people coming together and forming communities, especially with atheists and secularists from the from Muslim backgrounds and Muslim majority countries, have come to this. So many of them now and there are many were prominent who were out of the closet, you know, speak openly. And it’s the risk has been spread. You know, the targets are many. So it’s diluted the effect. And I think that’s one of the things that’s changed since some unrest. So I, I, I agree with you. I, I don’t think. I mean, I know that someone, Kristie, was abandoned. There’s a lot of people know you had the incident of whenever these things happen. I think the Bill Ma’s first show, Politically Incorrect Advertisers pulled out. And that’s something that they have the right to do because it’s not the government censoring them. Those are private corporations, individual people making decisions to back off of people. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something that happens. 

But when it’s disappointing is when you have governments who do this, are people like Jimmy Carter was an ex president who came out, wrote a whole op ed in The New York Times talking about how someone rescue was disgusting and he caused offense to millions of Muslims. So that that’s the part of it that I find disappointing. 

I think that when it comes to politics and the government, they should stay out of it. 

Uncertain should. Yeah. Any time. Yeah. Yeah. But I wouldn’t I also wouldn’t understate the chilling effect that that megacorporations can have. I mean, it was so a few a few advertisers might have pulled out of Bill Maher’s show, but ABC could easily have funded the show for another twelve months and seen if those advertisers came back. You know, it’s pure coward. Yeah. 

When they don’t want to send me the compassing is the guy. I think that, you know, when people think that they’re curbing terrorism by not printing these things, but they’re actually victims of it. I mean, this is also a form of terrorism. If you have an official policy that says we’re not going to publish Mohammed cartoons or fear, you know, like they’ll start South Park when they tried to have the cartoon that had to, you know, put a black bar over Mohammed and then. It showed the next scene at the end, they’re showing Jesus and they’re doing all these terrible things and it was perfectly fine. And that was a stab at Comedy Central. And they’re sort of double standard when it comes to censorship. Yeah. And, you know, yeah, I completely agree with you. I think that that’s there is a there there’s a lot of cowardice there. And that was basically that’s a form of terrorism. If you’re a news organization or media outlet and, you know, you decide that it’s not a good idea for you to show these things or to free to reprint those cartoons that were the center of the story. You are already a victim of terrorism. You’ve already seen up to it. 

Yeah. One of the chapters in your book is a lot of talk nowadays about, you know, examining the root causes of Muslim grievances against the West. What gave rise to ISIS and what gave rise to al-Qaida? One of your chapters is entitled Root Causes. And you you quote someone you don’t say who you are attributing this from. But it’s a it’s a passage which is saying that an interlocutor who this person was talking to stated that it was their right and duty to make war upon nonbelievers in Islam wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners. And every Muslim who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise. And you reveal that this is a passage written by Thomas Jefferson when he was the ambassador to France, and that was he had met with he and John Adams had met with the envoy from Tripoli to London. And this was in 1786. 

And I guess the point you’re making is how far back to these root causes have to go in order to retrieve passages about the passages condoning slavery and taking up arms in favor of the religion and so on. Where do you put the balance between, I guess, religiously delusional ideology that is going to last the test of time and historically politically contingent factors that are bringing out that extremism? 

I think there are a lot of causes. I’m not saying that, you know, religion is the only cause why this happens, but that this is really more of a hit at people who say that it has nothing to do with the religion, that the religion is completely irrelevant to it. The ideology is completely irrelevant to it. It has to be the politics. It has to be the foreign policy. And then what that passage shows is that in 1786 know before there was any of this stuff, you know, before there was Israel Palestine for those, al-Qaida before there was any of the ISIS or any of the things that we’re seeing now. And before the U.S. even had a foreign policy where the U.S. was really, you know, it was in its infancy and they were dealing with this issue. They were dealing with the ideology and that passage from the Tripoli convoy about, you know, taking slaves of infidels and being slain and going to paradise and the jihad and martyrdom and so on. But those are the. This is stuff that we read in the newspapers every day. And, you know, Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky attributed to US foreign policy and they say it’s a response to it somehow. It’s a legitimate response to Western oppression. But it was there then as well. And there was no such thing as U.S. foreign policy. And so that’s the the idea is that it’s not it’s not just one cause it’s it’s it’s a multifactorial thing. But you can’t deny it. The key driver and the wind, the one difference between, you know, whenever I talk to people about this is, you know, that religion is one of the causes. It’s not just somebody using religion or hijacking religion or abusing religion, as they say, which I don’t even know what that means. But it’s religion itself through religious ideology itself. And then they’ll tell you the like, well, what about politics and greed and racism and being power hungry and corruption and what they’re doing when they say that is that they themselves are putting religion into the same categories as those things, that they don’t realize it. The only difference with religion is it’s somehow prospected, you know? So not another thing is if if anybody says, you know, I did this because of the war in Iraq. Right. Somebody was watching Doom. They are playing Doom, the video game when they did the school shooting or they blame politics or they listen to hip hop that inspires them to commit some crime. Then we immediately take these things at face value. We start talking about hip hop music and we start talking about violent video games and guns and, you know, all of these other issues. But when someone says they did it, Jesus told me to do this or, you know, a lot warper or I’m doing this for God, they would just look past that. We start thinking there has to be something else. We don’t take that at face value. 

But if it’s an old thing, isn’t it? It is. 

And if it’s just an interesting double standard, you know, when people walk into a school like Columbine and they say that they’re doing this because all of their classmates teased them and no one would date them, we don’t say, well, that can’t really be the reason there must be deeper geopolitical causes going on in their in their life. 

Yeah, and this is what the problem is like. You know, when you if you don’t if you’re always looking. Beyond something, you’re never going to see what’s in front of you. You’re never gonna blame it for anything. You’re going to be just protected by default. 

I mean, the problem is I have a lot of friends who are who tow this kind of line because they’re Oxbridge educated, brilliant, you know, cultural commentators in Europe and are uncomfortable with the stridency that they perceive my theism is having. 

And they don’t like what they regard as being simplistic answers. So they constantly apologize for Islamism and jihadism and try to write them off as as causes. 

I just I mean, the point that they would make is it’s their every single ideology has had had, when it’s put under extreme conditions of stress, has had the potential to turn violent. Including yet, you know, the most peaceful kinds like like Buddhism. So what way does it. What they tend to say is where does it get us to take the jihadis theology at face value? Their rationale at face value, if their conclusion is Islam has the potential to convince people to do violent things. Well, okay, let’s accept that. What do we now do about the world’s one and a half billion Muslims? 

And I get asked that a lot, too, and I’m sure you do as well. Yeah, I have the same kinds of friends that use who they they think that, you know, very strident, even though in a lot of ways this book is I would say this book is kind of very pro Muslim, even though it’s very anti-Islam. But I always ask them about, you know, the Christianity. I’m like, okay, well, what did we do back when Christianity was going through this phase when Christianity was very violent? You know, every government that there was state sanctioned torture for heretics and for apostates and blasphemers, you know, when they were taking scientists and and persecuting them, when all of these things were happening, what did we do? We we did fight against it. And people did fight against it. They they stood up against it when this was happening. Chandy. And eventually, you know, you had the Reformation. There’s a lot of violence there. Of course, you had the Enlightenment. And ultimately it resulted into what we have today is which where most European countries, most Christian Jeudy countries tend to be secular. The separation of religion and state. And I think that that’s how we should respond to Islamism. And I didn’t I mean, we did look at the Bible. They looked at the issues with it. They I mean, there were there was a time when the Torah and the Bible and all of these were considered to be the word of God, literal word of God. Today, I think only 30 percent of people in the U.S. actually think the Bible is the literal word of God. 

But it wasn’t nice style, terrifyingly high to me, but. And in comparison to countries like Australia and Denmark and so on. Do you think let’s let’s wrap it up with that, with your prognostication, then, do you think that a reformation in Islam is plausible or likely? 

I was speaking recently to Shadi Hamid. I don’t know if you you know, Shaadi, but he he basically believes that a reformation is sufficiently unlikely as to not be worth banking on. 

So we should instead be finding versions of Islamism and even undemocratic versions of Islamism that are as peaceful and tolerant and pluralistic as possible, rather than expecting that Islam is going to become secular. 

Yeah. I’ve had a couple of interactions with Qadi. I mean, I don’t know personally, but we do. I know about his book. I haven’t read it. The Islamic Exceptionalism. And he has a good book to read. We have the same publisher as well. We’re both, you know, with St. Martin’s Press. I eat. I don’t really agree with that. I don’t think that I think there is precedent for this. I think there are religions that were very, very incorporated into people’s everyday lives and into government and to add into their public affairs. You know, Christianity went through that at a time. Even Judaism went through that and. People eventually moved past that and they have gone through. They did go through reformations, they did go through Enlightenments. Where were there were various periods and there were there were times when they went back to it and then they came out of it again. You know, we saw recently with the Soviet Union, then the US became more religious. Now it seems it is getting less for they just so you know, waxes and wanes. But overall, the the trend line over the long term is less religiosity overall. And I kind of already seen it happen in the Muslim world. I am seeing that especially with young people. And there this is another smoking analogy I use that, you know, my my point isn’t to get smokers to quit. It’s really to get people who’ve never picked up the cigaret to start smoking to prevent it from doing that. And this is actually a common experience that a lot of other people who do what I do, it’s something that they have experience with as well as that, you know, you’ll you’ll talk to I’ll talk to relatives and cousins actually once who came visited us. And we stayed up until 4:00 in the morning and they were trying to convince it was like, why are you writing this book? Why do you want to achieve whose minds are going to change? And it’s not going to work. They were being cynical about it. And the very next day, you know, I got a an email from from their son who’s said that, you know, you keep doing what you’re doing. My friends follow you on social media and we agree with what you’re saying. So it happens. And I hear that from a lot of young people and a lot of a lot of kids who do have the Internet and who do read that they’re exposed to more ideas that I was than I was exposed to when I was a kid. And they look for evidence. They want people to prove things to you, that they want to w you to make the case because they know there’s a lot of bullshit online. And they want to know what’s right, what’s wrong. They they’d like thinking about it. So I’m actually pretty hopeful with this, especially with the new generation, especially with the kind of things that I’ve seen. Like I said since as someone rusty days, a lot of things have changed. The dialog is changing. And, you know, unfortunately, groups like ISIS, they they help in a way that sounds terrible. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they I mean, they help helping in the sense that there’s a lot of people who are leaving Islam, just giving up on religion because of what they’re seeing happening all around them. And it’s something Thomas Friedman wrote about The New York Times. And then I quote him in the book as well, where he had a he had an article called How ISIS is Driving Young Muslims from Islam or something like that. I can’t remember the exact title, but he documented that he talked to people of young people and he was seeing the exact same thing. And I don’t think it’s going to happen immediately. I do think that maybe what Shadi Hamid says is possibly a short term approach to take. I don’t know. But I I don’t think that that is sort of a permanent status quo that, you know, Islamism is just part of things. Going to stay forever is never going to change. I, I don’t think that that has happened with any religion before, and I certainly don’t think Islam is any different when it comes to that. 

Well, from your lips to God’s ears to Allah’s is to God’s ears. The book is The Ideas to the Atheist Muslim. It is subtitled A Journey from Religion to Reason. 

Ali Revesby, not Ali Rizvi. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Either way. Well, thank you for having. You got it. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.