An Atheist and a Muslim in Conversation: Overcoming Differences, Challenging Fundamentalism and Promoting Secular Values

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Lecture date: Sun, 10th Jan, 2016
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I was raised in a liberal Muslim household, with a non-religious father and a semi-practising mother. Although we were taught the basics of Islam, such as how to pray, and kept a few fasts for the month of Ramadan, we never had any form of religious schooling, not even after-school classes at the mosque.

It was entirely our choice as to how much religion we wanted to incorporate into our lives, or even if we wanted to identify as Muslim at all. My brother, for example, is openly agnostic, and he is fortunate to be a member of a family where this is not an issue. I am acutely aware that many others do not have this luxury: a BBC Radio 4 programme called Leaving the faith talked to several ex-Muslims, many of whom had either not told their families about their change in beliefs, or had faced ostracisation — even harassment — for their choices.

 

Belonging Without Belief

The Christian sociologist Grace Davie talked about ‘being without belonging’, referring to Christians who believed in God without necessarily going to church, or partaking in other communal rituals. In Islam, we need to create spaces for belonging without belief, i.e. for people who have been shaped by the cultural accretions of a Muslim upbringing, yet depart from the orthodoxies of belief in a number of ways.

As for my own religious trajectory, I remained a believer, but had little to do with Muslim communities throughout my teenage years. Why? I was put off by the attitudes of Muslims I had encountered at my local mosque. Not just religious conservativism, which is inevitable in almost any mosque in Britain, but a combination of toxic attitudes.

These spanned the gamut from fatalism (the belief that everything is predestined, which undermines individual agency) to conspiracy theories (whatever IT was, “the Jews did it”!), to an obsession with petty externalities (being ticked off when a strand of hair was poking out of my headscarf), practices that run counter to basic notions of equality and human dignity (inadequate prayer spaces for women in a number of mosques) and an inability to subject intra-community injustices to either internal or external scrutiny (the prevailing attitude was “Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public”, which neglected to mention why, after so many years, a specific criminal offence had to be drafted on forced marriage, for example).

All this was worlds away from the kind of Islam that my mother taught me, which emphasised the path of balance and equilibrium in every walk of life and the sort of connection with God that enables you to relate to fellow humans and other living creatures peaceably.

Then, in my last year of a law degree, I Joined an American Muslim social networking website. I was delighted to meet Muslims — mainly from the US — who were young, professional and practising, yet who managed to reconcile their religious beliefs with progressive attitudes towards women, LGBT people and other religious minorities like Ahmadi Muslims (who are treated as heretics by the majority of Muslims). I read dozens of essays and book chapters on progressive Islam, and worked for a variety of human rights organisations after graduation. In 2009, I joined BMSD as its Director, and was able to combine my lifelong desire to promote secular values with initiatives that bring different communities together.

 

Some Still Cling to Tribal Positions

It’s pretty clear that I’d have more in common with an atheist or agnostic — who happens to be pro-women’s and LGBT rights, and anti-sectarian — than an individual who claims to be deeply religious and holds the opposite of these positions. In my experience, a lot of Muslims, who are not even religious in the traditional sense, still cling to tribal knee-jerk positions on issues like the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism agenda, rather than seeing this for the nuanced and complex set of policies and practices it really is.

My advice, if you are thinking of working in this field (either formally or informally), is to try and keep people united for a cause as long as they have roughly the same goals — they don’t need to agree on everything 100%, but they do need to have integrity and a code of ethics. Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes throughout, and don’t let identity politics prevent you from challenging oppression, from wherever it emanates.

 

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Boyd Sleator is the chair person and one of the founding members of Atheist Northern Ireland.  Boyd initially organised three major events for the public understanding of science bringing, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss to Ireland. Atheist NI Works towards, a rational, ethical and secular Northern Ireland. In a short period of…

Tehmina Kazi is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, a group of Muslim democrats working to raise awareness about democracy, particularly secular democracy, within British Muslim communities and the wider public. She is executive producer of the documentary film Hidden Heart, a trustee of Hope Not Hate and an advisory board member of the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks project….