On Being A Gay Pakistani Atheist in America. An Interview with "Ehsan Ali"

Ehsan Ali was born in Pakistan, and grew up there until he was 14. He has lived in the US most of his adult life. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Africa. Ali’s interest include issues affecting women and LGBT people in Muslim communities in the West and in Muslim countries. See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: So, can you start out by explaining your experience of Islam growing up in Pakistan and how you became an atheist? Also, when did you realize you were gay and how did this relate to your experience of Islam and/or your rejection of it?

Ehsan Ali: Growing up in Pakistan, Islam was hard to escape. It was everywhere. By the time I was 6 there had been a military coup and the new government had decided that the country was not Muslim enough so they started a program of Islamization – to make Muslims stricter Muslims so to speak. Our school books and lessons started with Islam – 1st grade, 1st schoo “Who are we?” “Muslims” “What is our faith” “Islam”. Our books taught us that we were a separate country from India because they were Hindus and we were Muslims – Pakistan by the way means “land of the Pure”, the power of our faith was supreme, Jihad was admirable, our history was of conquests and victory. The main focus was mainly anti-Hindu and Sikh, and then there was the universal focus of largely weaved around Christians and Jews – there were very few Christians around and no Jews at all, for all I knew as a child Jews only existed in the Quran.

I do remember the exact moment I became an atheist, but that came later. Doubts came first, and the fear of those doubts too. I had a favorite teacher when I was 12, Mr. Zaidi. That name in Pakistani usually means you are a Shia. Once when with a group of boys I mentioned that Mr. Zaidi was my favorite teacher, a boy questioned me, “how can you say Mr. Zaidi is nice? My dad told me he is a Shia and we should not respect him”. So there was the Faith, and then there was the politics of the faith and splits too. By the time I was 13 I became friends with the only Christian guy in my class or perhaps in my entire school. He was made fun of for being Christian and I was made fun of for not playing cricket, for not flying kites, for reading too much. Naturally we talked about my friend’s religion. I was fascinated by his family. They seemed so much more liberal than my family – and mine was pretty liberal compared to the general population. My mother found out he was Christian and threw a fit that I should have informed her about his religion – she had given him a cup of tea once when he was at our house, and now she’d have to cleanse that impure cup, and remember to keep some broken useless unclean cup for the Christian guy. His family on the other hand shared food and tea with me without a problem. Muslims seemed extremely unkind to the minorities, and suddenly there was this Christian family who were smiling and welcoming Muslim kids. I would learn later that that was perhaps the only way they survived in Pakistan, kindness is very powerful in a hostile environment.

It was right around that time that my awareness of my sexuality was increasing. I knew as much about “Gay” as anyone in 1986 could have without the media as it is these days. All I knew from the Urdu press was that there were “humjins parast” (literal translation of “homosexual” and they were finally being wiped off the face of the earth due to a disease called Aids. So there you have it, I am questioning religion and culture, I am wondering about my sexuality that no one has ever mentioned one kind word about to me, and now I am ready to die of Aids too. Or so it was in my head.

One night I went to sleep really distressed that I was a bad Muslim for having these doubts, and having those feelings. Next morning I woke up and I was like “screw this, if there is a God, he needs to fix these things”. My natural atheism finally set me free. This freedom came at a dire cost to, cause now I could not talk to anyone about it. It was lies, fear, suppression, all around me. I was in the Matrix and I knew I was in it.

Daniel Fincke: When were you first able to be open about your homosexuality and your atheism then? Was it only after coming to America at 14? And have you since come out to your family?

Ehsan Ali: My first stop after Pakistan was UK. I had family in the UK and in the US. I was only 14 and in London living with my relatives – an aunt’s family. I was still too young to do anything about it. I lived there for 4 years, and my home life remained pretty much the same as it was in Pakistan. I barely spoke to anyone who was not Pakistani or Indian – there was hardly anyone else in my “ethnic enclave”. Gays were supposedly still dying of Aids and my neighborhood friends made endless jokes about it, Salman Rushdie had written a book and my British born cousins were happy that there was a bounty on his head, I was expected to go to the mosque on Fridays – which I never did, and so on. By the time I was 17 I ran away and lived with a 19 year old guy in a room up north. We both worked at a local restaurant, and that relationship became emotional/sexual. Yet, we never uttered the word gay. At least by then I knew there were possibilities in my life. Away from my family.

So by the time I got to the States, I was already out to myself. However, I was back to being with the family. Relatives in Brooklyn’s Midwood area – the Pakistani enclave. This time around, I was older, freer, this set of relatives was less “concerned” about what I did with myself, and I was a short train ride from the Village. And Christopher Street it was, as often as I could be. LGBT Center was a great place to go to. And I was making friends with pretty regular people. New York was finally where my life had come to a rest-stop of sorts.

I have never really “come out” to my family. They do know that I am an atheist and that I have some kind of “deviant lifestyle”. But it is “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” really. I did tell my mother not to ask me questions that she was not ready to have answers for, so I guess she just prays to save me from hellfire and we leave it at that. My siblings are all married and busy with their kids. That helps to keep the focus away from my life. When we talk, it is about casual topics. Luckily they are all pretty “cool”, in as much as none of them is fundamentalist in any sense. I have some serious fundamentalist cousins – with their wives in burqa, children at Islamic schools, girls in hijab – but the bug has not bitten my siblings.

Daniel Fincke: And what is your experience of Pakistani Americans like? How much do they embrace Western values where these diverge with the more fundamentalist, patriarchal, and homophobic attitudes of Pakistan? What is their take on America? How open with them can you be about your atheism or your being gay?

Ehsan Ali: Pakistani community in the US – which is the largest Muslim immigrant community in the US too – is largely pretty “integrated”. By Pakistani standards, the American Pakistanis are fairly liberal. Let’s say that they are not ready to join PFLAG but they are not exactly your fag-bashing types either. Forced marriages are way less common among Pakistanis here than they are among Pakistanis in the UK for instance. They also tend to be much more educated. Upward mobility is pretty common. This is not to say that there isn’t a significant minority that is very much fundamentalist, patriarchal and homophobic or even radical – for a long time this was the community that had a retort to 9/11 – “they were all Arabs” – but with Aafia Siddiqui, Faisal Shehzad etc, that is not the case anymore. Most Pakistanis that I know are pretty happy with their lives in America. It sounds odd since the media insists that this is a community under siege, but you rarely hear complaints from the community itself.

There is a growing community of misfits and radicals. I don’t have data on it, but I think proliferation of Islamic schools and Wahabi mosques and ideology is contributing to it. You only have to walk into a mosque in Queens or Brooklyn, and pick up the literature or go to an Islamic school and pick up the books, and there is your Islamization at display.

My general attitude in the community is the DADT again. If they ask, I am happy to inform them. About being gay, their reactions at best is acceptance, and at worst some piety-shock or curiosity. I think the atheist part riles people the most. You know, “you can be gay and still keep your heaven option open cause one day you’ll repent”. I am comfortable talking about being atheist if I am in the company of Pakistanis who might be Muslim but if you’re the standard five times a day prayer, kids-must-go-to-Islamic-school type of guy, I am not gonna talk about being an atheist.

There I pretend to be just a liberal Muslims and argue on their turf. I have had two guys threaten to kill me when I said I was an atheist – which means I am an “apostate” and apostasy is punishable by death in Islam. One incident was on the Upper East Side at a Barnes and Noble, and the other at the Queens Pride. Made me realize that I should be careful in the future. And I am.

Daniel Fincke: How do liberal Muslims argue? Can you give some examples of key talking points that liberal Muslims might emphasize when dealing with extremists?

Ehsan Ali: Extremist staples are women’s issues. As in, how much control you can assert on women. Whether to put the girls in hijab (the head scarf) and women in burqa (the full tent), whether to educate them, how to protect your honor by controlling your women.

I was called to a public school in Queens once as the teachers were having an issue with a radical Muslim family who did not want their daughters to study AT ALL, everything in the books was sin and the ways of the infidels. To this family my answer in the end was “this is America, you made a choice of moving here so live with it”. I felt really bad for the three daughters who were doing remarkably well at the school. The oldest was doing great in biology and that was what sent the parents into a fit.

Wars are another favorite of the extremists – they are not anti-war, there is nothing in Islamism that is anti-war, in fact wars are desired until Islam has complete control of the planet.

Anti-Semitism is the norm too. That is regardless of what Israeli government does. Jews have a special place in Islamist rhetoric. I would say that their ideas are about as close to Nazism as you’re gonna get.

So given the issues, Muslim liberals do find themselves in a very tight spot. So they would argue about women and girls issue by drawing examples from the life of Mohammad – his first wife was a business woman and Jewish. I don’t rely on Mohammad to lead me in my life, but I can understand when that is your case, then that is where you must find examples. Quran and Hadees (the sayings of the prophet) do instruct you to be modest (there are instruction on how to beat your wife too, and how much and how often), but liberals at least can have the retort, “Quran does not say anything about wearing a tent, it asks you to be modest, I am modest in my jeans and a t-shirt too”. Or, “avert your gaze” is another instruction. Or “if women can demand a divorce, and they have to give consent before they enter a marriage contract, then that means they are allowed to assert their choice in who they marry”. Again, all this is among the believers, but when life gives you only belief you gotta do something about it. I wish they would realize that atheism is a perfect choice here, but that is not an option.

Islamism is also full of celebrations of wars. Muslims were at the gates of Vienna, Muslims conquered Spain, Muslim pillaged India and ruled it for 700 plus years, Islam changed the Persian civilization etc. Jihad until the Caliphate has been established. This is again pretty standard stuff and can be found on any website set up by our radical friends.

Let’s not even start about the Jews. This issue is also not only exclusive to the radicals, even your average liberal gets passionate about it too. They control the US and the world and that is all there is to it. My answer to that is usually “if you were allowed to migrate to the US, and now have US citizenship, your children are going to school here and you bought your house in Jersey, and Jews control this entire process then obviously Jews are doing a great job of giving you a pretty decent chance at life, maybe invite the Jews to run those Islamic paradises that we escaped and they were kicked out of.”

These conversations are common among Muslims. There is a subdued yet strong minority. There are people like Tarek Fatah who write often on these issues. His books like “Chasing A Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State”, and also “The Jew is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism” are fast becoming manuals to respond to the radicals. There are also amazing intellectuals in the Muslim world who fight these ideological battles daily – much more than we do here in the West. Pakistan has an amazing journalist – Hasan Nisar. He is one articulate anti-extremist Muslim man. If only some of us could take the time and put subtitles on most of his shows. Dr. Parvez Hoodbhoy is another well known pro-secularism and anti-nuclearization scientist / intellectual from that part of the world.

Daniel Fincke:  Have you experienced any bigotry by non-Muslims in America on account of your perceived heritage or perceived faith? And if so, to what extent was that discrimination heritage based and to what extent faith-based. Was it ever connected to your being gay even? What do you think of the concept of “Islamophobia”? Some atheists try to say it is not a real thing, that there might be Muslimphobia, but that there is nothing pathological about any kind of fear of Islam as a religion. Do you think it is possible to overly fear Islam itself? What tips would you give atheists to avoid sounding like (or being!) racists when attacking what to them is a foreign religion?

Ehsan Ali: Islamophobia is one word that irks me personally. There is no other religion I know of that is described with a -phobia next to it. It implies an irrational fear of Islam or Muslims. The word now has transgressed its limits and is liberally used to silence criticism of radical Islam and radical Muslims. Islamist-phobia, as a fellow Pakistani atheist straight friend once corrected me, “a legitimate fear of radical Islam and radical Muslims” is what it also stands in for. Try criticizing some barbaric practices in the Muslims world or in the Muslim community, try condemning Islamists without reservations, try claiming that Saudi Arabia is a theocracy on steroids; you are an Islamophobe.

It is a popular word among generally liberal/left academics and also Islamists themselves. Groups like ICNA, ISNA and CAIR (all with links to one or another form or political party with Islamist leanings) love to use it and use it often. This word brings the language of civil rights into issues that spell nothing but inequality and apartheid; separation of women from men, the right of women to be degraded by hiding in plain sight as someone’s marked property (the burqa issue), right of drivers to stop their cabs or buses and leisurely pray when the time comes (happened in London and happens in NYC), right of doctors to refuse to see lesbian patients because it is against their religion (happened in Canada).

As an average American if you only listen to the colorful language of “equality” (they have a choice to wear the burqa, they are allowed to segregate women, Hasidic Jews do it too), Jihad (what else do we call our own wars?), you of course think you are committing some hate crime for simply criticizing anything related to a “foreign” culture or religion or “race”.

Points to keep in mind: Islam is not a race, it is a religion followed by people from different racial background – make a note that most Arab and Asian Muslim hold appalling views of black Muslims and black people in general. It also misses a very important point; political Islam, or Islamism is an ideology, and a very potent and dangerous one at that. It is an ideology that has reduced my old neighborhood in Lahore to a rubble. Punjabi Taliban and Al-Qaeda and sundry Islamists have bombed police stations, shrines, courts, girls’ schools, music shops, and Shia mosques. When I am asked about this phobia, from the outset I make it clear that there are serious problems I am talking about and will be happy to have a genuine conversation about them.

I must say that I have probably experienced more homophobia than racism. I have never experienced harsh racism, not in the US at least. Race or ethnicity is kind of obvious and in liberal, educated, polite company that I usually hang out in, you don’t comment on those. But now and then you do hear amazingly homophobic comments when people don’t know that you are gay. Everyone has opinions on whether gays can marry, adopt children, clean their ears or buy Broccoli. It is lovely to have your life scrutinized and up for discussion all the time. I hope that comes to an end soon and we can all reach an agreement on live and let live. It’s a long way ahead, but I have hope.

Your Thoughts?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

This is the second interview and fourth overall post of the Camels With Hammers blogathon on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance. Please consider donating to this organization which provides community among young secularists, many of whom feel alienated in the larger campus (and wider) communities in which they live.

A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
Why Would True Believers Want Us To Lie Before God?
Responses To Claims That LGBT Labels “Shouldn’t Matter”
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    I found this to be a very interesting glimpse into life in this region; thanks to both of you for that window.

    One thing that jumped out to me was the way Ehsan tended to use “radical Islam” and “Islamism” as if they were synonyms. To my mind (and I may be wrong here!) Islamism means theocracy – not only do you want the women you have influence over to be in burqas or whatever, you want it to be illegal for anyone else not to wear a burqa using the force of law if necessary. I know in American Christianity there are definitely many fundamentalists who want to make the worst “sins” into crime, but you also have fundamentalists who just develop increasingly strict standards for their own families and don’t really interact with politics. Do you see this same thing happening in Islam?

    Also, I was struck by the fact that the Muslims Ehsan knew in Pakistan were also hostile to other stripes of Muslims. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking (if you follow the Iraq War, for instance, or know the first thing about post-Reformation European history…) I found myself wondering whether religion was the cause of this hatred or just a cruel tool being used. In either case, it’s heartbreaking to think of all the hatred done in the name of God. Good on you, Ehsan, for living through it.

    • Enkidum

      Do you mean the Sunni vs Shia thing? That’s pretty analogous to Catholic vs. Protestant. Like the C vs. P thing has been going on for a very long time (the division comes in around 700 AD), but is also tied to cultural/”racial”/political differences (e.g. Iran is the most powerful Shia country, but is linguistically/culturally quite distinct from the majority Sunni countries like Jordan or what have you). So yeah, it’s religious, but it’s also more complicated than that.

    • April Lamba

      Sunni vs. Shia is not complicated. Its just like England in the 15th century, Sunnis (mostly fundamentalists) like Shias are kafirs and will go to hell, Shias hate sunnis (I think is has MUCH more to do with the fact Sunnis have routinely abused and killed them for centuries that they are fighting back). And other sects are equally hated on. It’s all about religion and who is the TRUE Muslims (that will go to heaven and rest to hell). Islam is not a peaceful religion, and I don’t think it will ever be like Christianity and Judaism today (and other religions as well) until it changes dramatically.

    • randomguy

      “but is also tied to cultural/”racial”/political differences (e.g. Iran is the most powerful Shia country, but is linguistically/culturally quite distinct from the majority Sunni countries like Jordan or what have you). ”

      That might be the case (esp. in educated discourse which happens to favor ‘primordial’ differences more than uneducated discourse, I find, strangely? enough) but we need to keep in mind that the creation of a Shia Iran was the relatively recent doing of the Safavids (a dynasty of mixed ethnic origins itself, after all based on a religious order) and as such we shouldn’t overstate anything of the sort. Well, I suppose we could partly also describe the CvPvO(rthodox) divide in Europe in similar terms but yeah, let’s not get carried away in either case IMO. Your point is well taken though, esp. the reference to the political which should go first. :P

  • Enkidum

    I wonder what Ali thinks about Ahmed Rashid – he was the first journalist to write a book on the Taliban (before 2001, which makes his viewpoint all the more valuable), and is generally a powerful critic of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the US’s role in both. He’s more of a geopolitical writer than someone who is interested in religion for its own sake. At any rate, I think he’s an important voice for sanity in a part of the world that needs more of it.

  • Dan

    As a Pakistani-American atheist myself, I agree with everything interviewee said, except for the fact that there is definitely islamophobia, which is irrational. For example, the whole thing with the fear of sharia law, etc., which pretty much paints all muslims as extremists women-hating folks. That makes the interviewee the same as the homophobes that he (and correctly so) is so against. Other than that I agree with most of what he has to say.

  • Tariq Aleem

    I came across this blog thegayproof.tumblr.com which says gay tube
    Is ranked 2984 (Alexa ranking – a website that ranks websites) something of that figure in the world.

    I don’t wanna exaggerate but the above number clearly shows there
    are people in the world who love what love is.

    Ali went through a journey. I wish you all the best. My heart
    cries for all the Pathans and Pushtun people who are being
    Killed because they are Gay. Most of them are gay, in Pakistan
    Everyone who meets a Pathan knows that they have far more
    Gay tendencies. And hence the five rupees bacha baz stories for
    Those regions.

    For those people religion + gay sex go together. How do you deal with

    Personally, I’ve no idea why any country NOT people will
    Fight over things that happen behind close doors. As far as sexual activity

    Now, if you talk about equal rights for LGBT people. Then
    I sincerely believe India has taken the BIGGEST step. Capatalization
    With all due respect. Union marriage is now allowed in a population
    Almost 4x that of USA.

    USA could have conquered Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan
    By spreading love. Appealing to people with special
    Needs. The agenda seems to be “quick money”. Along
    With others I can’t guess.

    Still for America to cure troubles in these nations is: simply
    Appeal to SEXUAL FRUSTRATION of each and every individual.

    I believe we can all act like kids again. And discover what
    it means to be living when we masturbated our first time.

    For a Muslim country to be gay is possible Afghanistan, Turkey, and
    I believe all Muslim nations are gayer than their counterpart Western
    Nations. Reason is, the OVER-DUPATTA-ZYING of girls. Why I say this
    Because. I feel attracted to girls too. But I almost find it awkward
    Because you cannot approach them like a boy. They are humans
    When they are kids, they turn STAY-AWAY-FROM-ME you’ll rape me
    Personally, this attitude repelled me from them.

    I have always found what you are attracted to so natural
    That being attracted to a man made my all worries go away.
    Like a massage you’ve been desiring to have.

  • Salim Ansari

    Ali looks to be a person who was brought up in an compressed atmosphere, his family did not pay attention, secondly at such small age he moved out to UK and involved in Gay circle, usually it happens every where, when you are taken care of by your family. If he has become gay and Atheist
    it is his choice, when he was raised in Muslim culture and family and knowingly he is defying the rules and bonds, then he is like an animal who is moving in jungle for his selfish needs.
    Human nature has two components either it will turn to the side of Allah or he will be part of Satan, Ali has chosen other side, total devastation because IGNORANCE is the key to all disaster, once you become ignorant, it means your SELF has taken up your body and you have become slave for your greed, it can be any thing, money, power, women or GAY which Ali has joined, such people are weak in character and can do any thing for their greed and lust.
    One thing is very clear that AIDS will be their wealth and ultimately they all who want to become gay shall inherit it to move towards ultimate death, a death which is condemned every where.
    Life has two span this World and after, those who don’t believe life after death will come to only when dead will be awakened and presented before God on the day of Judgement.
    Prophet’s cousin who name was also Ali (AS) says
    While alive you are sleeping, when dead you will be awakened
    He also said that punishment of Gay in this World is that he should be burnt to death.
    We curse all those who defy God’s revelations how to live in this Wold.
    Salim Ansari

    • Ismail

      Ali didn’t want to be an atheist, but being gay made him one, as he said, naturally. He wanted God to be compassionate, but clearly, God wasn’t. Answer this question, think about it: if he had the choice, why would he WANT to be gay? Why would God make him gay and then forbid homosexuality? It’s natural; it’s like gender. Being against it is like being against existence itself. Aren’t you the one who’s being ignorant? How can someone be ignorant against someone’s beliefs without even understanding them? Ali grew up in a regular Pakistani, Muslim household. Wouldn’t it have been easier for him to just live like the average Muslim and avoid all the homophobia and discrimination? He couldn’t. It’s human nature to be “selfish” in that way. But it isn’t the bad kind of “selfish.” We all strive to satisfy ourselves and have the best possible lives. And to do that, we work to create better lives for the people around us. That is how society works. You don’t need religion to be moral; morality is innate. Atheists can be moral too — all the atheists I know are some of the most moral people in the world.

      Also, your grammar is poor. That mean’s you aren’t a smart person. Surveys have shown that less-educated people (you, clearly) are more likely to be anti-gay. You’re also very sexist — I can see that in your language. Your last sentence makes no sense to me: you say that God advises burning gay people to death. But then why did God create gay people? DO NOT SAY THAT GAY PEOPLE AREN’T NATURALLY GAY. Clearly, they are.

    • Thai b Pham

      Salim and Ismail I find you both very ignoramus,uneducated and smarty pants, leave Ali alone. That’s his life, and his choice being as a gay atheist, no one can take that right away from him.

      Keep God for yourself,don’t be a bunch of hypocrites borrowing the name of God attacking Ali viciously,has a question for you, who a hell told you that God create gay people? if your father did not have sex with your mother you wouldn’t be here lecturing about God or someone who invisibly exist?

      You should go back to school studying carefully about AIDS which could happen to anyone, whether you are gay or straight the disease doesn’t discriminates against anyone.

      one more question,have you ever heard the saying that goes around the world ”religion is the root to all evil”

  • http://uptonogood.tumblr.com Red

    I just wanted to point out that gender isn’t natural. Sex is. Gender is a social construct. One definition of gender by Joan Scott: “Gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes”. It is a “primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated.”

    Other than that, I support gay rights and religious freedom. I’m a Pakistani woman, in case that helps dispel stereotypes about us. Islamophobia is a real thing…and I say that as someone who doesn’t believe in religion. I think your picture of “liberal” Muslims was a little extreme…or maybe you’ve been moving in the wrong Pakistani circles. I know hundreds of Pakistanis, most of them mere moderates, and only once did I ever hear someone say anything against Jews…and I promptly broke off all contact with her even after I made her retract her statement. I frequently call Saudi Arabia out and I can be pretty hateful in my choice of words. I have yet to hear anyone disagree with anything I say or call me an Islamophobe. That is not how it works. All Muslims are not deranged lunatics who disagree with facts on principle and Saudi Arabia is hardly “Islamic” in the first place. I don’t recall a verse in the Quran that goes “women shall not ride camels” (you know, as precedent for their ban on women drivers). I mean not letting a bunch of female university students come out of a burning building because they are not wearing proper covering? Come on. I don’t know anyone who would even try to defend that. I criticize barbaric practices in Muslim-majority countries ALL the time. I have yet to encounter a Muslim who told me to stop criticizing Islam. For instance, Islam doesn’t tell you to throw acid on a woman’s face. No sane person will ever defend the practice because it is indefensible, never mind trying to justify it on religious grounds. Hell, even acid throwers don’t say they do it for the sake of religion. Domestic violence is domestic violence is domestic violence. It’s fair to bash religion but bash it for the right reasons. All the Pakistanis I know want to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia’s extreme practices. Purdah is the only thing that even invites debate (and, obviously, they want to go for Haj). The rest is non-negotiable. No one even wants to LIVE in Saudi Arabia. Everyone hates it there. I don’t know a single person who wants the same kind of system in Pakistan. Perhaps it has everything to do with keeping different of company. For instance, I found US’s Midwood community more suffocating than my Pakistani friends. Having lived in or visited Pakistani communities in all three countries, US, UK and Canada…I was halfway towards developing a theory that Pakistanis become more rigid and religious abroad than they are back home. Perhaps a defensive mode on encountering a foreign culture. Not all of them, but certainly many of those who prefer to live in Pakistani enclaves. The rest choose to live in other neighborhoods where they can interact with non-Pakistanis. It also has something to do with education levels. Midwood has a lot of people with lower education levels and jobs such as shopkeepers and cab drivers. It is why they had such trouble after 9/11. They didn’t understand half of what was going on or their legal options. Many of the women didn’t understand English. I have a particular stance on Midwood based on my research there. It was different from my company back home and I really didn’t fit in, even though I was a Pakistani, had spent my entire life in Pakistan and should have been more “Pakistani” than them…whatever that means. You also seem to be confusing Islamophobia with cultural relativism. Both have different histories and trajectories. Western scholars sometimes have a hard time balancing between blindly criticizing the third world as a savage Other and being way too careful about saying anything that could be construed as the white savior complex. The latter is when they take cultural relativism too far which is why scholars from the Third World have to step in and make their presence felt. Bottom line: It’s complicated.

  • http://uptonogood.tumblr.com Red

    Haha. I don’t even know if that made any sense. Explaining everything would take like paragraphs and paragraphs. I hope it made a little sense and gave a slightly different perspective on things. We all have different experiences. One should be careful when talking about Pakistanis or Muslims (you kind of went back and forth between talking about Pakistani Muslims and Muslims in general, which is even more problematic) as monolithic entities, even if you slice them up into arbitrary categories of extremist, moderate and liberal.

  • http://uptonogood.tumblr.com Red

    And sorry for my own generalizations…I want to make it clear they apply to only my own experiences, what I meant by, perhaps, my keeping different company from the interviewee. I hope it provided a decent contrast. There are all kinds of Pakistanis and all kinds of Muslims…and all kinds of human beings :p

  • Khan

    This a great article. Very tue.
    I am an ethnic Pashtun and I share exactly the views.