How Progressive Allies Hurt Marginalized Muslims and Ex-Muslims

This is a guest post by Hiba Krisht, an ex-Muslim writer and bisexual woman. It is adapted with her permission from her response on Facebook to this meme:

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Look, if we’re going to expound upon the virtues of meticulously and accurately acknowledging the multifaceted character of Muslim belief and practice, then when we do that we simply can’t cherry-pick for ourselves which aspects of Islam we want to acknowledge and which ones we want to minimize or rationalize away. We can’t walk around saying ‘Islam is not a monolith’ when negative or unsavory interpretations or practices of Muslims are taken to be representative of the entire faith and turn around only to do the same exact thing ourselves by taking positive interpretations, etc., as uniquely representative. It’s not only an ineffective form of harm reduction, it ends up absolutely hurting those who get the brunt of mistreatment from systemic Islam-related problems: other Muslims, ex-Muslims, and people from within Muslim-majority countries or cultures.

I think it’s important to understand the pervasiveness of these phenomena where certainattempts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry using the powerful visibility of Western media only serve to obscure and enable further isolation and silencing of marginalized people in Muslim majority-communities. These are crucial human rights issues that are being shuffled to the side when denunciations of the behavior of privileged people being shitty about Islam and Muslims are not carried out with measured consideration of how the subject being discussed actually can and does negatively impact people in, or from, Muslim communities themselves. Nor do these emphases show any measured consideration of how choosing to focus on either a specific type of negative behavior from white people or a positive, but non-universal, Muslim narrative might make things harder for the people you’re trying to help.

It suddenly becomes many times more difficult for  someone like me to start a conversation about the harmfulness of the words “kafir”, “kuffar” (“infidels“) or “kufr” (the act of blaspheming or the demonized act of proclaiming or implying disbelief) as a family of concepts with destructive effects within Muslim communities when memes like the one above epitomize how my liberal allies choose to direct their focus. I have to undo the work they have done and assert the importance of my narrative to even begin to talk about this issue, an issue of a slur personally used against me and people like me.

Specifically, related to the meme above, in Islamic contexts the English word “infidel” is a translation of the word “kafir”, which in Arabic ordinarily translates to simply “nonbeliever” but in the context of Muslim usage usually has the intent and effect of being a slur against non-Muslims or people perceived to be false Muslims. So it turns out this is a bit more complicated than the meme which tries to minimize the aggressive scope of this word would have you believe. Most Christians and Jews are definitely considered kuffar in some sects. To deny the widespread anti-Semitism concurrent with Muslim belief is dangerous and irresponsible. By no means is discussion of Judaism unilaterally positive in the Qur’an or ahadith to begin with, and in the case of Christianity the trinity is viewed to be kufr in multiple schools because it is interpreted as contradicting the doctrine of God’s oneness. We also know that cultural use of the term isn’t always consistent with scriptural use. It has taken on a pervasive and culturally significant meaning whereby it is used as a catch-all term for the West and Western ideology. Such usage is a real connotation. The meme above virtually argues that this expressly Othering use of kafir is never intended by Muslims and thereby commits the same kind of mistake that it is ostensibly rejecting: that of essentializing Islam and reducing Muslim experience and interpretation to one version.

I would also argue it is irrelevant to appeal to the fact that the term isn’t limited to Islam in order to imply its harmlessness. Of course, as a word from a broader language and not limited to Islamic usage, it obviously has uses outside of Islam (unless you believe Arabic is tied inextricably to Muslim expression such that Islam gives the ultimate meaning of all its terms somehow), but this is irrelevant to what the word means in its specifically Islamic context. Unless you would point out that not only Christians use the term “nonbeliever” in English as a relevant point, why point it out for the Arabic?

I understand that the goal is pointing out the bigotry of conflation, which does happen a lot, but the way it is approached reinforces binary thinking. I fear it’s still treating the language as somehow different than you’d think about English because of the incongruity in contextualizing terms. The fact that kafir has uses outside of labeling unbelievers in a Muslim sense should not properly be relevant to its significance as both a concept in Muslim belief and a specific cultural regime of truth within the Islamic world.

This may seem like splitting hairs but it is important because of the work it does to unwind and obscure. It reminds me of a stream I have to often wade: when the hijab is brought up people are quick to point out that women in other cultures/religions cover their hair, which simply serves to derail the discussion, shifting the focus onto whether it is okay at all to talk about hair covering as it manifests in Muslim cultures within a limited context directly involving Islam, putting me in a position of having to explain the many salient factors that make it a particularly, if not exclusively, Muslim issue. Thus, in the traumatic wake of my own 15 years of hijab, before I can be considered to– with authenticity–give a measured analysis of the damning effects of Muslim modesty doctrines, I have to run laps to get to the point I’d have started from if not for the misconceived intervention of my progressive allies. Which is ridiculous. Remember that white women don’t have to (or shouldn’t have to) jump through these hoops to talk about sexism as it manifests in their communities, that white LGBTQ people shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops to talk about homophobia as it manifests in their communities. Before we can start to discuss an issue you (our allies) make us sit here and sift through caveat after caveat. I’m not saying that I don’t recognize that caveats are needed. Anti-Muslim bigotry is real and pervasive. The problem is that you give thewrong fucking caveats and we have to do the distracting and tedious work of correcting all of them. Believe me, we are not the ones who don’t get it. It’s our sisters and brothers and mothers who can be the next Ahmed Mohammed or Yusor and Dia. While the atheist community was wringing their hands over the Chapel Hill murders because of who the murderer was, I was walking around sick with fear because it is my family members (and my former self) who bear the struggle of being hijabed in the West, and Razan or Yusor Abu Salha could have been my sister. And around me my allies focusing on the murderer again missed the point. Please recognize that this is a function of your positionality as allies. It is not possible for us to lose awareness, to detach, in such a manner. This is personal to us in a way it is not to you. Step back a bit.

And the issue does extend beyond disproportionate focus on condemning the behavior of the bigoted…it extends to– and yes I do mean this–the disproportionate focus on casting halos on moderate bourgeois Muslims in the West and elsewhere, who are as a whole a tiny but incredibly privileged slice of all of the people at risk here (which include scores of people accessible to allies, in the West, your own backyards, trapped in insular communities suffering from honor violence, abuse, homelessness, lack of safety, severe poverty…but who are virtually, virtually invisible….this is part of the reason why). To be frank, you (allies) often don’t realize how much… space you take up, because you don’t notice if there isn’t any left for the rest of us. And focus remains disproportionately on that slice of Muslims whose realities are vastly underrepresentative of the issues that plague the Muslim world. Hear me out, please.There is no hierarchy of oppression and, yes, every issue needs to be focused on, but there are consistent trends in devaluing the less privileged, the lower class, the less visible, the people whose narratives are fucked– fucked–and complex.

And it’s not easy. They are narratives that bring to light horrible realities that are difficult to parse properly because of the manner in which they are in turn usurped and caricatured by the right wing. The xenophobic and reactionary Western right makes it hard, really fucking hard, for allies to sit down and grapple with these ugly stories of marginalization within Muslim communities, to give a single one of them space in mainstream venues alongside yet another piece by Muslim women about Muslim feminism, their empowering choice to wear the hijab,  how they resist being appropriated or misrepresented, how they are not oppressed, how they do not need Western feminism and do not need to be liberated, the injustices they suffer as Muslims in the West, how ordinaryMuslim lives are, or how silly misconceptions about hijab-wearing Muslim women are, or how, yes, you can be Muslim and queer.

As for that last one, the next time you read an article by a free-choosing Muslim LGBTQ person laying out the trouble with Westerners who make assumptions about their sexuality due to their faith. Consider what troubles do not seem to merit such elevation: say, those of an ex-Muslim woman like myself continuing to get over the trauma of scarce letting herself look at a woman too long for fear of being suspected in a country where homosexual sex is still criminalized (good God!).  And the problem lies in how bad it sounds (how bad it is): what few liberal allies–almost no mainstream ones–will host an article essentially decrying homophobia in Muslim communities, no matter how urgent and nuanced and context-specific and caveat-y it is!

It’s a battle for representation, and women of color have always been at the bottom of that rung. All of us struggle with this, even where the identification attached to us is not quite as unpopular as ‘ex-Muslim’ but instead simply something like ‘Arab’. As a writer I do not quite face the same obstacles publishing work unrelated to Islam, but it is still remarkably difficult. And guess what? Ex-Muslim women are even further below Western and/or bourgeois Muslim women, in no small part because there is a threshold of silence and invisibility that must first be broken–doubly difficult because we are mostly closeted due to the very same insular problems we wish to discuss–before we can attempt to reach out to allies.

There is no hierarchy of oppression, and anti-Muslim bigotry must be focused on, but there is an extant hierarchy of representation. Limited resources and egregiously skewed power dynamics combine to create inequality in representation and visibility, and in division of communicative and humanitarian resources, which means that talking about some issues in certain ways certainly does wind up inadvertently crippling and disempowering the very people being so adamantly defended.

And of course bringing these complexities to light is not to say that I support what’s being depicted in the photo that was criticized in the meme above. Quite the contrary- it turns out that bringing the complexities I mention to light has the chance of shifting focus away from the bad behavior of white people (which should not be the point but is nonetheless what allies keep making the point for far. too. many. issues) onto the people who actually suffer from these problems within Islam and the Muslim community. Otherwise, it remains invisible.

Everything we want to talk about in terms of the rampant violence and insidious mechanics of subjugation and control in Muslim communities is obscured and blocked off the most by our progressive allies.

I am dead serious about this. I am. I believe my progressive allies harm me more than the right wing does, and more than the brand of false ally who align themselves with us to further their anti-Muslim bigotry do. Because despite how horrifying a miscarriage of justice it is for a 14 year old to be arrested for bringing a clock to school, that 14 year old is, overall, still exceptionally privileged in the context of Muslims in this world. And my allies will jump to defend him ten times before they turn to face a man being executed in Saudi for words written on the internet and stand up for him, and a thousand times before they turn to face a woman decrying modesty doctrines and honor crime anywhere in the world and actually attributing it to the insular religiosity of her community (rather than reflexively blaming only “culture” or misinterpretations of religion, in order to shield a religion that is a minority in the West).

I have not really said this in public before, but for those of you who may recognize me from my old blog or recent conference talks (I’ll be at Skepticon, by the way, to talk about growing up in Hezbollah culture), it was not hatemail from Islamists but the behavior of allies– condescendingly explaining to me, obscuring issues, and constantly shifting their focus away from where I was imploring them to look–that made activism too lonely and alienating an experience and helped spell the end of the blog version of A Veil and a Dark Place (partially archived here)and the slow petering out of the Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal.

And yes, I am outright angry at the behavior depicted in the photo, and it is an anger my progressive allies can only shadow, for the word kafir carries for me a world of knowledge and experience they’ve surely never had to unpack themselves. It does not cut them to the quick as it does me. As an apostate from Islam who has been truly harmed by the word kafir as a slur from within the stifling confines of an insular fundamentalist community, I am furious that any potential reclamation of this word for me is tainted by the behavior of anti-Muslim bigots. But I am also angry that my ability to discuss this has been derailed by the driving force and power of those with far more voice and visibility than I about my own damn shit.


Public comments on this article can be read and made here.

Hiba Krisht is a writer, lecturer, and translator from Beirut. Her stories have been published in The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blackbird, and Mizna, among others. She is a recipient of the 2012 Jane Foulkes Malone Fellowship from Indiana University and the 2013 JoAnn Athanas Memorial Award in literature from the National Society of Arts and Letters. An apostate from Islam, she grew up between an international expatriate community in Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah guerrilla warfare culture in Lebanon and wore hijab for 15 years. She has been interviewed about her life and work for VICE News, BBC Radio, the Huffington Post, and Grazia, among others. She is working on a memoir expansion of her retired blog, Between A Veil and a Dark Place, for which she is seeking agent representation. If that’s you, she can be reached at aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com.


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