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Convention speech: Sarah Haider — Best way to honor is to become an ally

Here is an edited version of the speech Sarah Haider gave on Nov. 2 at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco. She was introduced by FFRF Legal Assistant Kristina Daleiden.

It’s my pleasure to introduce FFRF’s 2018 “Freethought Heroine.”

Sarah Haider is an American writer, speaker and activist. Born in Pakistan and raised in Texas, Sarah spent her early youth as a practicing Muslim. She left her faith in her late teens, and later co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), which advocates for the acceptance of religious dissent and works to create local support communities for those who have left Islam.

In addition to atheism, Sarah is passionate about civil liberties and women’s rights. She directs EXMNA’s “Life Beyond Faith” mini-documentaries, a series of video portraits of ex-Muslim atheists and humanists. Sarah is also heading EXMNA’s Normalizing Dissent tour, and travels the United States and Canada to cover a range of issues related to apostasy in Islam. She is currently a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine.

Please welcome Sarah Haider.

By Sarah Haider

Sarah Haider (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Sarah Haider talks with Phil Ferguson of Illinois following the Saturday evening dinner. (Photo by Chris Line)
Sarah Haider, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, spoke about the need for freethinkers to ally themselves with the courageous people who are fighting for a freer world. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Nearly a thousand convention attendees listened to Sarah Haider’s heartfelt and powerful speech on Nov. 3. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Sarah Haider, raised Muslim, said that “the decision to leave the faith, particularly in Muslim communities, is often met with extreme hostility, even violence.” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Thank you to everyone at Freedom From Religion Foundation for recognizing me with this award. I am deeply grateful and humbled. I also want to take this time to thank FFRF for the numerous occasions in which they have assisted us at Ex-Muslims of North America. On multiple occasions, FFRF has helped us fight discrimination against ex-Muslims and we are grateful for their counsel and aid. In addition, earlier this year, FFRF also gave us a grant to fight a false allegation against an ex-Muslim teenager who was in danger from honor violence.

I thank Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker and everyone else at FFRF for their steadfast support and for this great honor.  And I’ve been thinking about that! The concept of honor. What it means to have this sort of recognition. Honor is interesting in that it reflects as much on the values of those who give it as it does on the accomplishments of the honorees themselves. As it so happens, the very same achievements which bring me honor here today are those which have brought deep, unrelenting dishonor in the community in which I was raised.

There are other speakers here with my background, so this idea won’t be too unfamiliar to this audience. I was born in Pakistan and raised Muslim, and come from a culture which highly values honor, particularly the honor of men. This honor can be tarnished by the actions of your kin, particularly female kin.

In this context, leaving the faith — choosing to walk away from God’s path to deny his word — is a disgraceful life choice. Walking away from faith is considered indistinguishable from walking away from morality itself, and to forsake God is to forsake goodness. It is inconceivable to many faithful that the choice one makes to leave religion might be one based in reason, an embrace of a different source of ethics rather than an abandonment of all that is right.

Due to this misconception of the nature of disbelief, those who walk away from faith are routinely deprived of basic human dignities, even the right to life. While all nonbelievers are considered morally compromised, it is apostates, those who have supposedly seen the light of God and chosen to refuse it, who are cast as the most corrupt, as near to villainy as an ideological choice can be.

Leaving the faith

So, it is no surprise that the decision to leave the faith, particularly in Muslim communities, is often met with extreme hostility, even violence.

Numerous public opinion polls demonstrate the hatred for ex-Muslims throughout the Muslim world. Sixty-three percent in Egypt, 58 percent in Jordan and 64 percent in Pakistan believe ex-Muslims should be killed for their disbelief. But one does not need to solely rely on this data to gauge the alarming levels of intolerance for apostasy. Across the Muslim world, vigilante mobs threaten those who leave the faith, and too often family members may be those one must fear the most.

In the West, the actions of family members — whether that be shunning, abuse or violence — loom on the minds of those who leave.

However, even if you are lucky enough to have a family which chooses not to hurt or disown you, it is taken for granted that you should have enough decency and tact to stay silent about your lack of faith, to keep your immorality to yourself. You can choose to do otherwise, but it will come at a high cost — extreme shame and dishonor, which will cast a shadow over any relative. This is why honor violence exists. A family with a dishonorable member is pressured to take action to stop the bad behavior of their kin, lest the bad actions of a relative cast shame on them. Honor violence is, on some level, self-preservation.

So, it is in some sense disorienting to find myself honored for the same actions for which I could find nothing but great dishonor in my former faith community. It proves, if nothing else, the malleability of our societies. It is a testament to our capacity to evolve, to progress, to be the masters of our cultures and communities, not merely to be mastered by them. We are cultural beings, but that doesn’t mean we are only passively shaped by the contexts we are born into, but that they, too, are shaped by us.

But it doesn’t always feel that way. Faith-based communities, in particular, often have coercive elements in them, elements which are most strongly enforced on women. In conversations about choice and freedom, the social costs of deviance can be difficult to factor in. Unlike physical coercion or laws which restrict practices, social forces are not often as visible or easily quantifiable.

Oppression of women

As feminists have long noted, religious convictions of right and wrong and social pressure to conform have played an acutely devastating role in the lives of women. As ex-Muslims, our mothers often have a large role in our oppression, particularly for ex-Muslim women. This was true for me, as well. My mother didn’t just disagree with my religious choice, she would incur a great social cost for my behavior. And in this way, social pressures throttle freethought in a truly insidious manner.

It is difficult to study or to generalize because of the multifaceted nature of social pressure and coercion, which plays out differently in different places.

It’s insidious because we are not accurate reporters of what is happening to us. We cannot often understand the forces playing out within ourselves, and we lie to ourselves to feel better about our own inability or unwillingness to act. Sometimes we lie to feel powerful in a powerless situation, other times to preserve the self-deception that we are good actors.

When I was a young Muslim woman, I parroted ideas which are contradictory and even ridiculous. I thought my modesty was entirely a free choice, and I was prepared to defend it. For the sake of this comforting rationalization, I ignored all obvious ways in which my choice was influenced by my upbringing. I couldn’t be immodest even if I wanted to, so I allowed myself the mercy of rationalizing a choice I hadn’t made as a choice I would have made anyway. 

My family was led by a reluctant patriarch, for which I am grateful. Tolerant by nature, my father was unwilling to enact force upon those weaker than him. This allowed me the space I needed to explore ideas bigger than those I was raised with.

Although I had to abide by standard Muslim dress and behavioral codes, I was not restricted intellectually by my family. But I was formed by the society I grew up in. I took for granted the truth of the claims made in the Quran, because those were the beliefs of the people I trusted most in the world – my parents.

If there is one message I wish to emphasize here today, it’s that literal, physical restrictions to thinking and acting freely are but one of many.

Self-assuring deception

Now, there is such a thing as born skeptics, for whom doubt is the natural state. There are also those who can manage to think without the interruptions of ego. But the vast majority of us do not fit this bill. We might like to believe that our reasoning faculties function independently, that our emotions and actions are a response to deliberate, careful reason. But that in itself is a self-assuring deception. Too often, our reason does not act as the driver, but instead plays assistant to other emotions and ego-preserving desires.

I fear that we, the people in this room in particular, are vulnerable to this kind of self-reassurance.

It is too easy to imagine that because we have left faith-based dogma behind, because we can now look back objectively at religious faith and analyze and dissect its effects on social function, that we are no longer susceptible to similar kinds of behavior.

Salman Rushdie mentioned in his talk Friday about his fears of a secular form of religion, of a regression to the instincts of heresies, blasphemies and inquisitions. Those are fears I share, as well.

And, in fact, it is dangerous to presume that we are more likely to spot dogma when we experience it now because we have seen it before, particularly when it involves social pressure. We may have recognized and conquered one form of dogma, one form of irrationality, however, this says little about our resistance to other forms of unreason.

Remember, that although we consider religion to be averse to at least some forms of rationality, the religious layman considers his faith to be quite reasonable. And just as we can understand “rational” religious apologism to be post-hoc reasoning, we should assume we, too, are capable of employing this reasoning more often than we’d like to acknowledge. 

We are, for better or worse, influenced by our social nature and this distorts our judgment and choices we make. We are often more influenced by a desire to be seen as good, than to actually do good.

I bring it to this point because as an ex-Muslim, I routinely find myself frustrated with the ways in which we in the broader United States engage with Islam and Muslim practices.

To give one example, I see thoughtless celebrations of the hijab — depictions of smiling or triumphant women in headscarves are more commonplace today than they were 10 or even five years ago. The intent of such depictions is, of course, to stand up for the rights of minorities. However, in the ham-fisted attempts at appearing “tolerant” and “diverse,” we gloss over oppression and very real sexism in conservative Muslim communities.

I remember the 2016 Olympics, when there was wall-to-wall coverage on the first hijabi Muslim woman who won bronze for team fencing. Gushing headlines and shows highlighting Ibtihaj Muhammad. The story was of a “triumphant Muslim woman, victorious in an Islamophobic society.” What was glossed over?

Fencing was the only choice left to her. While she played a variety of sports growing up, fencing was chosen by her parents, as it was the sport in which her body and hair would remain covered. Many Muslim women are not allowed to participate in sports at all due to concerns of modesty. This, alone, should have caused outrage. Further, she wasn’t the only Muslim athlete at the Olympics that year — Dalilah Mohammed ran hurdles for the U.S. team and placed higher, earning individual gold. But Dalilah did not wear the hijab, which means she was ignored for the more politically useful story. 

Every freethinker from a Muslim background will tell you this: They feel, to some extent, abandoned by people like you. How they feel that you have chosen your immediate political urgencies over their great struggle.

This past month, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an Austrian decision to fine a woman. Her crime was to speak about Mohammed’s life and describe his marriage with a 9-year-old child as pedophilia. Regardless of the validity of the claim, the fact that a European court is adjudicating issues of religious sensibility — in essence, reintroducing blasphemy laws — is something that should concern us deeply.

A month before that, a conservative British politician defended a woman’s right to wear the face-covering niqab. In doing so, he also mocked the concept itself. He was deemed a hate-monger for what was ostensibly defending a woman’s right to choose, to choose things he himself despised.

Moving away from nuance

Rather than moving toward greater nuance in the way we address the challenges of this faith, we are moving further away from it. And while I’m speaking specifically about Islam, this is only one avenue in which there is a deeply troubling polarization of discourse into black and white choices.

And I’d wager many of you know what I’m talking about here, who have felt, as I have, a strong pressure to be more simplified, dare I say, more tribal, in our thinking, particularly in this political atmosphere, as the social discourse instead increasingly resembles a battlefield.

And what happens in a time of war? No matter who we are, how peaceful by nature, we all feel an urge to rally around the flag, which most of us cannot resist. We collapse ourselves into one-dimensional figures, because in a moment of crisis, when the stakes seem highest, we are asked to fall in line or risk dooming our side. Now is not the time to ask questions, now is not the time for introspection, nor for criticism of our own side — because this is war. 

But I urge you to resist this urge to conform.

By this time, at this incredible conference, you have already met people who exemplify courage. And many of you will come to them, now and after the conference, to thank them for their work. These comments are appreciated more than I can put into words.

But there is something you can do that is more meaningful than any note of thanks.

If you see someone that inspires you, honor them not with thanks or applause, but with allyship. Tell them they will not be alone — because you will stand with them. That you will place your own skin in the game as they have, that you will bear the costs of failure. And, in your life, where and when you find an overwhelming urge to correct a wrong, to highlight a misconception, to stand up even to your own team, that you will do so. That you will not choose to be bullied or scared into silence.

And it will feel difficult and unnatural — because it is difficult and unnatural. But it is no less worth doing because of it.