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

On Being A Gay Pakistani Atheist in America. An Interview with "Ehsan Ali" June 14, 2012

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.

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