For the most part, I have the same goals as white progressives.
I’m staunchly in favour of the complete separation of church and state. I feel as though a truly secular society is safer and fairer to both religious and irreligious people. As a Muslim, I want to feel safe publicly expressing my faith in non-violent ways, and as a member of society, I want people of other faiths to feel the same. Complete freedom of religion, which includes a full separation of church and state, is vital to this goal of a free, fair and truly non-discriminatory society.
Another reason I want the world I live in to be more secular is that I’m tired of self-styled religious leaders having frightening amounts of power over their congregations. Divorced from implicit and explicit power government backing gives them, faith leaders have less power to bully, coerce and oppress members of their faith.
Theoretically, this is a benefit of secularism; in practice, however, I’ve found that secularists have their own “faith” leaders. When I pointed out that a guy looked up to by many progressives and liberals as a leader of “the cause” was being just a tad racist, “the cause” imploded and crashed down on me, burying me in the same prejudice and enmity we were supposedly fighting against.
In 2013, I dared to call Richard Dawkins racist for his comments about Islam on Twitter. Before this, I’d mostly dismissed Dawkins as someone with more book deals than sense, and I was content to let him preach to his faithful. But this was different - it felt like an incitement to a kind of covert aggression against Muslims, and I felt compelled to speak against that.
Violence against Muslims and Muslim-identified people, especially since 9/11, hasn’t always been overt; often it takes the form of pernicious microaggressions, like suggesting that Muslims aren’t good at science or that their ethnic and racial identities are invalid.
This wasn’t my first time speaking out against such misconceptions, but it was the first time I’d chosen to take on someone so admired by my supposedly “rational” white progressive allies. For this I received many weeks worth of hate mail, branded a traitor to the enlightenment movement for which Dawkins and others consider themselves spokespeople and leaders.
(And now that Dawkins has suffered from a stroke–which, by the way, he blames on evil feminists making him stressed–speaking out against his particular brand of quasi-scientific, eugenecist bigotry has become an even more fraught endeavour for WoC and other marginalised people.)
Enlightened atheists don’t intend to do away with sin as a concept; some sins—like standing up for myself and for millions of other Muslims like me, are unforgivable.
It’s not really surprising, when you think about it. When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, white gay activists were quick to blame Black voters. White, western queer and trans activists have always had a bone to pick with members of the movement who don’t look, sound or act like them.
Even though queer and trans people of colour suffer disproportionately from the laws and social norms that marginalise all queer and trans people, the brunt of the blame for the passage of a homophobic constitutional amendment was placed on non-white shoulders. In addition to hostility from a predominantly cisheteronormative society, QTPoC are forced to deal with hatred and threats from the members of the very movement that is meant to be advancing their cause.
As a queer, non-binary Muslim, my experiences with white LGBT activists have been very similar. Whenever my religion comes up, you can be sure that at least one sanctimonious white person will rush to remind me that Muslims are bloodthirsty, backwards savages who would kill me (and all other enlightened people) as soon as look at us.
I guess I can understand where it all comes from; the Abrahamic religions have not traditionally been very kind to queer and trans people. People have used religion as a cover for the vilest kind of bigotry for time immemorial. But does that make religion – particularly non-western religion – inherently bigoted? In my experience, that just isn’t the case.
Organisations like Muslims for Progressive Values are the public face of a movement within Islam to make the religion friendlier and safer for marginalised people, and there are female, queer and trans imams around the world fighting the entrenched bigotry of their communities.
But movements need boogeymen, and Islam has the benefit of being followed by many, many people who don’t speak English or live in the west. It’s the ideal scapegoat for all of progressivism’s faults: a large, vaguely ethnic-looking mass of people who can’t defend themselves.
Over the years, I’ve collected a great deal of hate mail. A lot of my messages are from angry men who think I’m (pick one of: too pretty, not pretty enough, too modest, not modest enough, too outspoken, but definitely never not outspoken enough), but my favourites are always the ones from liberals and progressives. To them, that I’m a Muslim queer person (or that I’m a queer person who’s Muslim) is a bridge too far.
Here are just some of the things they’ve said to me about my faith.
@jaythenerdkid okay well just to be clear, when ISIS invades you will be the first to be thrown off the building.
— Liberal Hippie Queen (@andreajmarkley) July 2, 2015
“You’re going to be thrown off a building,” is a common refrain from white liberals who want me to know how enlightened they are. Witness:
@jaythenerdkid @rahim_imam You realize Muslim extremists are pushing gays off of buildings right? But go ahead and support their cause.
— Andy ن Currier (@andrewpcurrier) June 4, 2015
As well as:
@jaythenerdkid lgbt muslims: we're here... *SPLAT!* http://t.co/kT7gxEtLg5
— Wetty Fap (@bjworthy69) May 13, 2015
There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. I would be willing to wager everything that I own that not all 1.5 billion of them would have thrown that man off a roof.
@jaythenerdkid @JimStagRealtor A culture of homophobia, repression of women and tribal violence? Asking for a friend.
— Vincent Morgado (@FlyandtheMighty) May 13, 2015
“Tribal violence” is a really fun dog-whistle term. It’s so much more succinct than “I think all brown people are ignorant thugs/violent savages who don’t know what’s good for them,” right?
@jaythenerdkid @flipflops @RadRedneckDiva Hmm, say that in a public square in Saudi Arabia, and see if it's like not getting a cake...
— Rightinillinois (@rightinillinois) March 27, 2015
Did you know that if I were to say I were gay in a public square in Saudi Arabia, they would probably not give me cake? This is highly upsetting.
These are all tweets from people who self-identified as liberal or progressive that were specifically directed at me. I didn’t go out of my way to engage most of these people; they came to me. I didn’t go and recite the Shahadah in their mentions or anything. I was just minding my own business in my little corner of the internet, which was apparently the same as painting a target on my back.
I get it: Twitter is a public forum. But to suggest that this carries with it an expectation of zero privacy or boundaries is ridiculous. If I’m sitting in a restaurant with friends talking about my day, I can reasonably expect that the people at the table next to me won’t pull up a chair and join in. If they did, that would be rude and I’d be within my rights to ask them to leave me alone. If I were giving a class at a university and someone barged into my lecture theatre to tell me I was wrong about everything, I’d be allowed to ask them to leave.
Public figures have a reasonable expectation of boundaries and etiquette when they’re engaging publicly with audiences of any size; that’s why it’s okay to ask your favourite actress for her autograph at a signing, but not to knock on her door at midnight and demand to be let in for ice cream.
And let’s be real: marginalised writers and activists are only “public figures” when it suits the people “critiquing” them. When those same writers and activists are the ones doing the critiquing, they’re dismissed as unimportant. The hypervisibility conferred upon marginalised people online is entirely conditional, and the privileged peanut gallery can revoke it at any time.
Whence comes this boldness from my white progressive spectators, anyway? Why is it that liberals who might have the sense to stay quiet about their other problematic racial views feel comfortable attacking Muslims online?
Well, it’s partly that Islamophobes are able to mask their racism as religious critique. Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens: if white liberals are able to attain such heights of bigotry and hate, it is because they hurl their epithets from atop the shoulders of giants. It’s pretty easy to feel brave about telling me that I’m a terrorist who’s going to be defenestrated by ISIS in short order when people who are hailed as great minds by other liberals have got your back.
I and other queer or progressive Muslims live between these two worlds: the world of faith, in which we are often branded transgressive or heretical for living as our authentic selves, and the world of progressivism, in which we are constantly asked to atone for the sins of people who share nothing with us but a label.
My Islamic practice and the practice of a man in a masjid learning how to make pipe bombs are so disparate that only an utter fool could possibly try to conflate the two, but here we are: it’s the year 2015, and I still get messages like this:
@jaythenerdkid @GhostOfQC44 Too bad Islam will never follow suit. pic.twitter.com/ako3lID8m1
— JTS (@TheSpiritof02) December 24, 2015
It gets tiring having this same conversation so many times. Of course it’s possible to coexist as Muslim and queer: I’m not the only one who does it, after all; there are queer-friendly mosques around the world from Paris to Cape Town to Washington D.C.. I follow and am friends with some truly incredible Muslim queer feminists and womanists around the world.
And yeah, queer-friendly Muslims are not exactly the absolute majority right now, but it’s definitely becoming more popular worldwide.
Isn’t it about time Muslim-friendly queerness and progressivism did the same?