Convention speech — Mohammed Al Khadra: Open dialogue the key to religious freedom
This is an edited version of the speech given by Mohammed Al Khadra on Nov. 3 at FFRF’s national convention in San Francisco. He was introduced by FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line:
Mohammed Al Khadra, known as “Khadra,” is the founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of Jordan, a group focused on raising awareness of atheism in Jordan, as well as helping Jordanian atheists. He is an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech, secularism and human rights.
Following a speech about Islam at the Freedom of Expression Conference in London in July of 2017, Khadra faced potential arrest by the Jordanian government and his life as an open atheist became untenable, prompting him to move to the United States. With assistance from FFRF, as well as British and other American nonprofit organizations, Khadra established a new home in the United States.
Khadra continues his activism by public speaking and working to support nonbelievers in Jordan and throughout the Islamic world. Please welcome Mohammed Al Khadra.
By Mohammed Al Khadra
Thank you for your kind introduction. Please keep in mind that my English-speaking skills are self-taught.
When the hero of mine, Maryam Namazie, reached out to anyone who could help when I needed to leave the country, Annie Laurie Gaylor and FFRF were the first to respond. And for that, I thank them. I am finally at a place where I can say in a crowded room: “I do not believe.”
I’ve been here in the United States for a few months now, but I’m still not used to seeing that people here can say what they want. They can eat and drink what they want. They can even tell their own president to go to an unexisting hell. It’s all OK.
This feeling of freedom came as a series of unexpected events because I had quite a lot of misconceptions upon coming here.
For example, in 2018, in a country that supposedly cannot favor one religion over the others, the president and members of government, while honoring a Vietnam veteran by receiving a medal of honor, all bowed their heads in a Christian prayer. It appeared to me that Christianity is somehow special. It’s like a special part of a secular institution.
When we speak of how religion has control of all aspects of life in the Middle East, we describe censorship, blasphemy laws, lack of liberty and freedom of thought. It’s usually considered as if it has always been the case, as if Islam has had this power all along. That’s not quite correct.
When we look back into the ’60s, you’d find, for example, publications that no one would dare print right now. Leaders would openly criticize the idea of having religion introduced back into politics. There was even a relative respect for women, a period of secular societies. And conversations on subjects that now can get you killed there, or to put it in Western terms, subjects that are Islamophobic.
I wondered why that happened. Why is it that in other societies, religion did not get to have such a comeback, while in the Middle Eastern version of it, secularism was crushed 20 years later to become almost nonexistent?
There was a key difference between the two: the Western version and the Middle Eastern one. The earlier one did not push theocrats away at gunpoint, nor did it replace man-made gods with man-made political ones. But the change in the Middle East kept the people under the control of authoritarian regimes. The subjugation of the individual and the censorship of thought were still existing phenomena. And religion waited underneath the lie of a free society until it was time for it to come back to the surface.
It can be argued that the secular authoritarian regimes are the reason for their own downfall. The authoritarian aspect of them denied any real freedom of expression and had entire nations as subjects to a selected few. This kept the ground fertile for any other totalitarian idea to control the masses, whether for the sake of a great leader or a great god.
The shift of power between those forces did not happen instantly. It took the religious about 20 years to create a generation ready to accept that re-emerging theocrats would become major players on the map. During and after that period, while trying to maintain their power, some aligned themselves with the forces of religion, creating a mix of two evils, the results of which can be observed not only in Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iran, but can now be seen in Boston, New York and London, to name a few.
The question of “When does religion go too far?” is important in the process of not having a flourishing suicide bombing industry again. If I would walk out of here, and I would directly meet the next person on the street, I have a great degree of confidence that he or she will be against blowing themselves up. But at what level of religious indoctrination is he at? Does he follow the Quran strictly? Are his morals based only on their Islamic scripture, and if yes, what does he exclude from them, if he does? Does he or she strictly follow the war verses, too?
After all, if I were to tell you that I’m a devout reader of Mein Kampf, you would be interested in knowing whether I follow it strictly or whether it just gives me a sense of community. And don’t get me wrong. I am focused on what concerns me personally and for my own safety, but this applies to all religions. You should be wondering, when interacting with a religious person or a devout reader of Mein Kampf, about how far the poison reached. Christians, Jews and Muslims can all be decent. Judaism, Christianity and Islam simply cannot.
It is Western values, and most importantly free speech, that kept the power-hungry religious and politicians in check. It is why you and I can say in a crowded room that we do not believe.
I had some thoughts before, disregarding the risk one has to take, but why have an uncomfortable conversation altogether? Who am I to ask and interfere with deeply held beliefs? Maybe it’s hate speech to try to have this kind of dialogue. Maybe it shouldn’t be a concern of mine.
Well, what about pinpointing the level of religiosity a society as a whole is at? Some people say 82 percent of Jordanians believe in the death penalty for people like me. Maybe I should be concerned; maybe I should be having that dialogue. Maybe, just maybe, I should not give a damn about feelings when depowering religion is depowering a major source of pain and suffering that is inflicted not just on those who leave it all together, but those who are still captives of it.
The Yemenis, Iraqis and Iranians who died and continue to die to this day are victims of the same poison that kills ex-Muslims, mutilates children, convinces followers that vaccines or condoms are bad. This is something that I will not put up with. Being an atheist or having a secular state with freedom of speech is not a monopoly for the West.
Ask yourself this: Why is a critic of Christianity called secular, while a critic of Islam is called an Islamophobe? It’s not reasonable. It is not reasonable to sanction a woman under hate speech for stating that Mohammed had pedophilic tendencies, as the European Court of Human Rights ruled recently. It is sad to see that the difference between East and West that was necessary for its values to live to this day is now slowly vanishing, and it is funny to me how I and my friends used to dream about having a life where there is no thought police.
The discovery of the lie of religion is not an easy one, especially when religion overwhelms your life. I look at you and I see faces of inquiring minds who are brave enough to be the lonely heretics. As Christopher Hitchens said, “It does not matter what you think, but how you think.” Open dialogue will always filter out bad ideas. And as we try to have it open in the East, I count on people like you, the heretics, to never allow it to be closed. Thank you.