Just a few moments conversation with Ali Rizvi is enough to give anyone the impression that the popular ex-Muslim author does not fit into the modern Western left/right political spectrum.
Born in Pakistan, Rizvi moved to Libya with his family. This was followed by a 12-year stint in Saudi Arabia, before he eventually relocated to Canada, where he came out as an apostate from Islam and wrote a book.
Al Bawaba spoke to Rizvi about life in the Islamic world, and what motivated him to leave Islam and write his book, The Atheist Muslim.
Growing up, I saw a lot of interplay between how culture influences religion, how religion influences culture, and how intertwined they are, especially the effects of religion on women.
My mother is a university professor, so she has her doctorate in education. My sister is a physician. I have very accomplished women in my family and extended family as well. So just the way that all of these cultures treated women and used religion as a justification to cement that cultural aspect with the inherent misogyny that was there, that impacted me a lot.
As I grew older, I just became very skeptical of religion in general, and I met other people who were skeptical of it, but over there they couldn’t speak out [...] seeing everything that was happening around them and they didn't like it.
And it wasn't just terrorism; it was misogyny, homophobia, the state sanctioned racism you have in Saudi arabia. And we couldn't speak about it. And I saw that people suffered really dire consequences - they were disowned by their families, excommunicated from their communities, persecuted, jailed, executed, you know [...] that just made me think that the moment I am out and I’m in a place that I can speak openly, I’m never going to take that for granted.
I remember coming to Canada and being on a bus and finding it boring: I don’t have to look over my shoulder. I don’t have to worry about this. Nothing. Boredom was liberating, almost.
So that's why I wrote the book.
I still enjoy #Ramadan iftar feasts w my Muslim family even though I reject the religion. Don't alienate your kids for thinking differently.— Ali A. Rizvi (@aliamjadrizvi) May 27, 2017
The ex-Muslim community have carved somewhat of a niche for themselves in the world of social media stardom. Prominent figures such as Faisal Saeed Al Mutar and Sarah Haider have tens of thousands of followers, and attract large audiences when speaking at events or participating in talk shows. We asked Rizvi why he thought ex-Muslims are becoming famous on social media.
I think a lot of it has to do with the Internet, and the fact that we have come out and spoken. And I find a lot of parallels with the LGBT movement; I think a lot more people know ex-Muslims now, they see them in their family and so on.
And I think that one of the biggest reasons the LGBT community was normalized and public opinion changed so drastically for them is that you started having TV shows like Will and Grace, Modern Family, Ellen Degeneres.
And people started coming out to their families - you found out that these weren't just these people in the distance that you know about in theory, they were your sons, your daughters, your neighbors, your colleagues.
And when you get to know them in person, you are able to humanize them. You found out that they weren’t the devil. You see with Faisal Al Mutar - he’s hilarious! To me he has his share of dad jokes as well, but he’s funny, he makes people laugh, he makes people who are Muslim and religious also laugh, he jokes with them. And it normalises that.
We asked Rizvi about his followers. Who are they? What do they stand for?
The majority of my followers generally in the West are liberals who don’t subscribe to the apologist narrative among liberal politicians and liberal leaders when it comes to Islam.
So one of the biggest problems—and I have a chapter about this in the book called Islamophobia-phobia and the "Regressive Left"— is that you have liberals that, when Pat Robertson or some other fundamentalist Christian televangelist, [says] something derogatory towards women or towards homosexuals, then all the liberals call them out, they have articles written in mainstream outlets, they’ll pounce on fundamentalist Christianity.
But when you have the exact same sentiments—the misogyny, the homophobia—coming from the Muslim community, they just back off and throw their hands up in the air and say ‘woah no no we have to respect them.’
And this is something that many liberals who believe in liberal values—like women’s rights and like gay rights, gender equality and these things—they see this double standard. And many of them have started speaking up - most notable is Bill Maher [...] and a lot of his audience is my audience as well. So that’s the majority of people I have.
Then I also have on a smaller scale I have a lot of ex-Muslims, a lot of liberal Muslims. And that’s an audience that I’m very, very interactive with and communicate with regularly.
Ali Rizvi discussing his book
Support for the activism work of ex-Muslims comes not only from the liberal left, but also the alt-right. A misinterpretation of his arguments by those who are bigoted against Muslims needs to be discussed, says Ali.
And then there are people whose support I don’t want. There are some irrational people [...] and they are the sort of far-right, Trump, alt-right type people who want to kick all Muslims out of the country, want to deport all Muslims, don’t consider them human beings.
And these are people who follow me because they think that I agree with them, when in fact that’s the opposite of how I feel about the situation. So you always get some people who you don’t want the support of.
With the “alt-right” and “regressive left” increasingly present in headlines, we discuss how both groups interact with the ex-Muslim community. We discuss the now infamous Ben Affleck interview with Bill Maher, a spectacle which saw “the left” divided on the topic of Islam.
[Bill Maher is] allied with the mainstream [liberals] on pretty much everything else, but when it comes to religion, he actually follows his liberal values, while the rest of them don’t.
The Ben Affleck interview pretty much defines the regressive left in a few minutes of television.
One of the things we see a lot is emotional reactions to things - people getting really angry. You see this on both sides. And it’s an unfortunate thing. You hear people say “I’m offended by this so stop talking about it.”
Being offended has never won an argument. Just because you’re offended, doesn't mean you're right.
I still think the vast majority of the ex-Muslim community, they oppose the alt-right and they oppose Trump, for the exact reasons that they left Islam. One of the reasons they left Islam was because they found it irrational, they found it unreasonable.
And these are people who [...] leave these religions because they think a little bit more rationally, and when you think that way, it’s very difficult to align yourself [with someone] who also has the same kind of authoritarian tendencies, who also is a self-professed misogynist - and that’s also another huge reason many people left [Islam].
So while some among the ex-Muslims have gone that way, the vast majority haven’t.
The infamous Ben Affleck interview
Despite Ali’s rejection of them, anti-Muslim bigots still appear to plague the ex-Muslim community. Ex-Muslims are sometimes criticized for not doing enough to distance themselves from those who hate Muslims, but Ali believes this can be solved through dialogue and persistence.
They way to call it out is to continually speak about it.
I [gave a talk] about how we initially had one front where we were fighting, and those were the fundamentalist muslims and the islamists, then we had the regressive left who started aligning with them, and now there is a third front. And these are people who sort of want to co-opt our narrative and use us as tools, use our voices as tools for their own warped agenda.
With ex-Muslims, you don’t get a lot of platforms. So if Breitbart comes and says, “hey, we’ll give you a platform, we want you to say anything you want to,” just because they are giving you a platform, doesn’t mean you have to take it.
Defenders of Trump who criticize Islam are irrational. Defenders of Islam who criticize Trump are irrational. Rationalists must oppose both. https://t.co/6vTbJtvSBE— Ali A. Rizvi (@aliamjadrizvi) November 1, 2017
The conversation turns to the term ‘mainstream media’, and the manner in which both sides of the debate—from Linda Sarsour to Imam Tawhidi and Donald Trump—believe the ‘mainstream media’ to be against them.
I don’t think “the media” is a thing. I don’t think it’s a monolith. I don’t think that all of the mainstream media is this organized entity, working together and has its own consciousness. I am actually a big supporter, and in this day and age I think it’s very important to say that I’m a big supporter of the mainstream media.
There are very important people, people I’m friends with, who say Alex Jones or Breitbart is needed these days because the mainstream media is fake news. And i think thats bullshit.
I’ve written for CNN, and the level of fact checking that they went into was rigorous. I had to reference everything. We had many backs and forths, they kept of saying “can you give us another reference for this, can you give us another reference for this.” It was really, really rigorous.
And other mainstream outlets like the New York Times, like the Washington Post, even more conservative ones like the Wall Street Journal and so on, they really put in the work and they do their job. Do they get things wrong? Of course they do! Every once in awhile they get things wrong. But then they come out and retract and say that they got it wrong. And that's a very important part of it.
The problem is: one of the methods that populist demagogues use is that they discredit the main sources of information. Once you discredit main sources of information, you automatically tune your audience [...] to not know what’s real and what’s not. And when you have that environment you can feed them whatever you want to.
Hillary Clinton used the term “basket of deplorables” for these people, and I think that was a horrible thing to say. It may have been one of the factors which caused her to lose the election - it was a terrible thing to say.
But if she had said “basket of gullibles,” that would have made sense to me.
Even now, 9 months in, the amount that this man has lied - he has said like 20 times in the past two weeks that the U.S. is the highest taxed country. And that is a clear, objectively, demonstrable lie. And people buy it!
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