7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims

7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims April 24, 2014

This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi of the blog On The Margin of Error. Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit. 

My pseudonym is Kaveh Mousavi, and I blog on the Freethought Blogs network, at On the Margin of Error. This article is an addendum to an article I have published before in two parts, titles “Is Islam a More Radical Religion”. Part one appeared at Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels and part two was the debut of my own blog.

In the original two part article I offered a general critique of Islam. I tried to argue that Islam, in Middle East and Iran (which I know about), is more radical than other religions. I try to bring evidence based on how this religion is practiced differently, in the cultural environment of Middle East, (that’s part one), and also based on the ways I think Islamic ideology and tradition is separated from the other ideologies (part two).

Now, when I was writing it, I was caught up with making my point. But then, Dan Fincke asked me a very basic question: “Writing for western readers, what do you expect them to do?” Which is a very valid question.

Before answering the question, let me paint the situation for you, that I am in. I feel frustrated, because my criticisms against Islam are constantly met by a steady push back from people eager to defend Islam. Naturally, Muslims of all stripes, radical and moderate, defend their faith, which is to be expected and accepted, and I enjoy debating Muslims. What’s rather frustrating is the fact that non-Muslims, even atheists, usually join the chorus too, repeating some clichés. And then, some people you don’t like at all rush to defend you, which is even more frustrating. My article, when it appeared on The Proud Atheist, was shared on social media by some neo-Nazis and other right-wing elements eager to push their own xenophobic agenda. It’s frustrating because as an ex-Muslim it’s easy to feel trapped and alone.

Of course, I received many heartwarming replies and reactions, and many people with whom I had successfully communicated my point, which is good.

I’m not trying to suggest that my feeling is anything other than a feeling. I’m completely aware that people rushing to defend Islam are actually in complete agreement with me on all the serious issues, from fighting theocracy to promoting liberties. This disagreement is to whether pinpoint a specific religion as culprit or not. I also understand that these disagreements are well-meant, out of concern for the Muslim minority in the west, and I applaud this concern and motive.

However, the fact remains that whenever an ex-Muslim vocally criticizes Islam, s/he has to fight on two separate fronts, and that was my main motivation behind writing that article, to ask people to stop defending Islam.

Also, I do not mean to present myself as some sort of spokesperson for ex-Muslims, as I am aware that the Muslim world is very vast and also not as spokesperson for all ex-Muslim Iranians. I speak only for myself, as one man with his judgment.

So how I think you, a western reader, an atheist yourself, passionate for liberty and equality around the world, help someone like me? These are seven suggestions. And only suggestions – nothing more, not demands.

1) Listen to us about Islam, don’t teach us.

I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible for an ex-Muslim to make a mistake about Islam. I personally spend a lot of time correcting Muslims, even clergies, about their own faith. Of course, they would hold on to the misconceptions if they move on to become atheists. I have been corrected about Islam.

However, it can get a bit disheartening to see someone who has absolutely zero information about Islam telling me how Islam is supposed to work. I especially get frustrated when people call western imperialism or the fact that the west had installed dictators as the sole reason of our problems, or feel free to teach me which factor is more important than shaping the history of my country.

The same arguments would not be annoying at all if I felt someone informed was making them. It can be debated whether or not Mossadegh could succeed to transport Iran into a democratic constitutional monarchy if he had not been toppled by the CIA, and how this would have affected the country’s religious atmosphere (I think he would never succeed).

Also, I don’t mind abstract discussions about the nature of religion at all; I’ve enjoyed reading comments about that on my blog.

The infuriating things are the stock responses, the clichés. These people have never studied the history of Middle East or Islam, they have fixed answers and they are willing to teach people with much vaster knowledge on the issue. And this is only meant as a way to make things easier for ex-Muslims, to make them feel less trapped. Don’t be that person.


2) Don’t call us Islamophobes. Please.

I know some ex-Muslims who have an irrational and intense hatred against Islam, and that’s understandable to a degree (having their whole lives ruined because of a theocracy and stuff). I know some Muslims who have the same hatred against some other Muslims – and sometimes the ways these hatreds are manifested in ways that make me worry about the future of my country, as in people who abuse the clergy and women in chador on the street without any provocation. Remember, those Egyptians who were slaughtering the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were Muslims themselves too. There’s also the fact that hatred between some Sunnis and some Shiites is a real thing. The purpose of this paragraph is to show that I don’t think Muslims are magically exempt from hating one another irrationally or to paint a vastly inaccurate picture of their faith.

However, if you define Islamophobia as “an irrational hatred of all Muslims because they are Muslims”, then it’s pretty weird to consider an ex-Muslim an Islamophobe, because that hatred seems to target a whole culture which includes the ex-Muslims themselves. No matter how intensely an ex-Christian opposes Christianity, it’s very hard to assume that s/he hates all people in his community with a passion and tries to discriminate against them and excludes them from the society.

But it can be very painful and infuriating to be lumped in with Islamophobes. First, we suffer from Islamophobia too. What, you think an ex-Muslim can say “No dude, I’m an atheist” and be exempt from the extra-search at the airport, or that the embassies are handing us VISAs like lollipops and do not ask strange questions, or that we’re never attacked by people because of our Arab-or-Arab-sounding name? Second, the implicit meaning of such a claim is that we hate our families, friends, colleagues, etc. Third, everyone wants to live in the best version of their own community. Muslim or atheist, we all want the best Iran or Egypt for all Iranians or Egyptians.

We already feel exiled and alienated at our own communities; you don’t need to amplify that feeling. Thanks.


3) Don’t make EVERYTHING about the west and your own country.

I think people who do this are usually well meaning, but I’m not sure if they aren’t a bit selfish. And both liberals and conservatives are guilty of it. Whenever there’s some news on HuffingtonPost or another liberal outlet about widespread election fraud or corruption or torture or execution, there are some people who comment “Oh maybe we should stop talking about other countries because we also have Bush and voter register laws and Wall Street or Guantanamo”. Or maybe you shouldn’t, because those people in those other countries are also human beings, and their suffering matters a bit too. Don’t be that person, please.

Also, don’t attribute everything that happens in our countries only to colonialism and western imperialism. Many factors were involved. Imperialism was one of them. But not everything is about imperialism. We have agency of our own. We are more responsible for our situation than you.

Care for Muslims and ex-Muslims in the Islamic world because they are human beings. Don’t discard our agency and don’t turn us into a pawn in your own political agenda – whether liberal or conservative. Thank you very much.


4) Don’t reduce the debate to terrorism, or rogue regimes.

That’s something I’ve already touched in my article. To quote myself: “If you define moderate as ‘not-Taliban’ or ‘not-Al-Qaeda’, then yes, most Muslims are moderate. If you have a broader definition which is ‘not-terrorist’, then yeah, most Muslims are not terrorists. If you consider moderate ‘not-actively-violent’, then OK. But let me tell you, your standard bar is pretty low. […]Our main problem is not our regimes. It is not the extremists, terrorist groups. The regimes and the extremists are not the disease, they are the symptom. […] The culture is the disease”.

I understand that it’s natural for you to care for these issues more because they affect your life, but don’t make the whole debate about only these two issues.


5) Don’t automatically believe moderate Muslims.

Sometimes moderate Muslims are not that moderate. Sometimes they cherry-pick the scripture quite blatantly. Sometimes they just lie. Sometimes they care for protecting Islam more than presenting the truth. Sometimes they are a very small minority. All the time, they’re completely wrong. Of course, that’s a debate for another time.

Listen to moderate Muslims. But don’t be credulous. I have seen many people repeating many arguments like “Islam means peace” or “In Islam you should never start a war” or things like this, and they won’t believe me when I’m trying to refute them.

Listen to moderate Muslims. Listen to atheists. Then decide. But my point is, make ex-Muslims feel that they are part of the debate.


6) Support more dialogue with the Muslim world.

Let me assure you, closed borders, sanctions, boycotts, hostile relations, lack of diplomatic dialogue, obstacles in the way of immigration, they never help. Muslims will be made moderate by more peace and more economic stability. That’s why I support Rouani.

I think it can be objectively argued that Bush’s policy made things much worse for Middle East, while Obama’s policy made things much better. If the deal with Iran is successful, the hardliners will lose some of their grip on power, which is still absolute, and way for more reforms is somehow opened. But the threat of war and economic sanctions only strengthens those who oppose the west and modernity, and that comes at a huge price.

And remember, the leaders are rarely hurt by sanctions. As Reuters has reported, Kamenei has used sanctions and has expanded his financial empire while ordinary people have been hurt by the effects of the sanctions, and middle class is almost destroyed. Saddam Hussein used to take his craps in a toilet of gold while more than a million Iraqi children died because of sanctions.

So, in short: more openness, more dialogue = more moderates and seculars.


7) Care for human rights, actively, globally.

Ask your governments to shift the pressure from economy to human rights, support human rights groups, donate to Human Rights Watch, help the human rights activists from all around the globe, watch more BBC and less CNN, expand your view, care about what happens in the world, consider yourself a citizen of the world, and remember that all humanity is intertwined, join in solidarity with people who share your values, consider yourself responsible to the whole world. What happens in Ukraine will directly affect you too, what happens in Middle East determines the price of oil.

With a global, international vision, and a passion for human rights, you can strengthen the ex-Muslims and moderate Muslims in their fight against theocracies.

So these are my seven suggestions. As I’m sending this to Dan Fincke, I need to thank him for this opportunity, and also, by divine law I’m required to finish with this sentence:

Your Thoughts?

This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi. For more of his views regularly follow his On the Margin of Error blog. Below are links to his guest posts here at Camels With Hammers, each responding to a question I had for him:

7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims

What Kind of Minority is an Ex-Muslim in Iran

Iran: The Uncertain Nation

Maher, Harris, Affleck, Aslan, Kristof: An Atheist Reformist Iranian’s View


Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com. 

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