#AnApostatesExperience: An Informed Critics’ Reading of Reza Aslan

Here is part of what Vlad Chituc over at NonProphet Status had to say about #AnApostatesExperience:

To quote fellow Patheos blogger Dan Arel, #AnApostatesExperience was meant to show “what real threatening and venomous attacks look like,” as if that erased the threats that Aslan received. It’s hard for me to see how this is any different than “Dear Muslima,” except this time it’s a Muslim as the target. [Aslan] never suggested that his experiences are worse than the experiences of any ex-Muslims, so what do they have to do with the threats he’s received? The struggle of ex-Muslims is an important issue to highlight, but not as a way of one-upping the victims of threats and harassment.

To answer the title, i.e. “Why is it so hard for critics to read Reza Aslan charitably?”: It’s because Aslan is far too charitable when it comes to the oppression that Muslims perpetuate within their own communities. Further, I find the characterization of #AnApostatesExperience in the post to be not only uncharitable, but also poorly-informed as to the real issues with Reza Aslan and with ex-Muslims.

We at EXMNA were hardly one-upping Reza Aslan in some Dear Muslimah-esque ploy. Rather, we were responding to Aslan’s long and storied history of pretending as if Muslims as a whole are far more progressive than they are, i.e. as progressive as he happens to be. This is particularly true on the issue of ex-Muslims. His response to the hashtag, which I have addressed before, sums it up quite neatly.

Aslan seems so dedicated to fighting anti-Muslim bigotry that he underplays the effects of Muslim bigotry and presents the Muslim community as a whole as far more progressive than it actually is.

In his own words, Reza Aslan seems to think that Islam can inspire no ill:

it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

Like any religion and/or set of dogmatic beliefs, Islam can inspire net good, bad, and/or neutral actions. Those actions do not arise in a space devoid of influences outside of religion, of course. However, it’s hardly fair to outright deny that religion plays a significant role in them, especially when the people taking those actions directly cite their faith as inspiration for them. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to Muslim views on apostasy.

According to a 2013 Pew survey, in the most populous Muslim countries in the world, more than half of Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. That is a hell of lot of people calling for the heads of apostates. Since apostasy, as a concept, could not exist without religion, I have a hard time imagining “punishment for apostasy” as a value that people insert into their religion.  It is fairly absurd to respond to a believer talking about beliefs they say are religious by  ‘splaining to them that said beliefs aren’t actually religious.

Furthermore, the Pew survey doesn’t touch on the punishments doled out to apostates that fall short of execution. It is not far-fetched to speculate that if so many people support the legal sanctioning of the murder of former Muslims, then many (if not most) of the rest would support (at the very least) social consequences for apostasy.

The lived experiences of ex-Muslims seems, so far, to support this speculation. Those in countries where apostasy is a capital crime, or where the murder of apostates via mob justice is unlikely to be prosecuted, tend to stay closeted or to speak up only anonymously. Those of us who live in places where personal religious freedoms are protected are starting to come out in greater and greater numbers but still face harsh repercussions for daring to be honest about our lives.

As the survey data as well as the experiences of apostates of Islam demonstrates, many (if not most) Muslims have a problem with people leaving their faith. Enough Muslims differ from Aslan’s liberal views of apostates to ensure that the overwhelming majority of ex-Muslims have experienced violence and abuse at the hands of their Muslim family members and communities for the crime of choosing to leave the faith into which they were born.

Aslan spends much of his time in the public eye arguing that violent aspects of Islam, like the killing apostates, isn’t actually Islamic but are, instead, products of other factors. This does little to nothing to help reform Islam as it exists. For all his scorn for New Atheists, Aslan’s statements are about as useful as Sam Harris saying that Muslims who aren’t violent are not True Muslims™ who follow True Islam™ (although Aslan, unlike Harris, does grant that Muslims who disagree with him, even the violent ones, are still Muslims). Muslims are hardly monolithic in their practice of Islam, certainly, but are we to pretend as if killing apostates isn’t Islamic but rather a product of every other factor but religion? If anything, Reza Aslan’s views on many Islamic matters are relatively anomalous rather than anything close to a representation of the views of most Muslims.

Setting Aslan’s disingenuous arguments aside for just a moment, the Dear Muslima comparison feels like a rather low blow. Personally speaking, I joined Skepchick on the heels of the so-called “Elevatorgate”. Part of why I did was my disdain with Richard Dawkins’s use of people like me as props in his arguments against Western feminists. I wanted for my own voice to be heard about issues involving me rather than people squabbling about people like me as if we were rhetorical points rather than human beings. My fellow ex-Muslimah and Freethought Blogger Hiba has also spoken up and out against the Dear Muslimah tactic. That we were accused of doing so to Reza Aslan is painful as well as inaccurate.

Aslan mumbles apologetics for intra-Muslim community threats and oppression out of the corner of one mouth while shouting about the threats he has himself faced out of the other. That his behavior is hypocritical is abundantly clear to those familiar with his work and on the receiving end of his apologetics. #AnApostatesExperience began as product of ex-Muslim chagrin at the lack of acknowledgement of our experiences on the part of Aslan, but Aslan soon stopped being the focus. It took on a life of its own beyond addressing any individual, becoming a launching-off point by which we both commiserated with others in our position and fostered awareness of the plight of ex-Muslims around the world.

To ensure fewer such misunderstandings in future, EXMNA has plans to post press releases to clarify the intentions we have with our future hashtags. It would have been nice to have been asked first before being told what we were doing in the first place, though. That’s a topic for another day.

Please note that I did reach out to Vlad directly about this. Though we still disagree after some discussion, his response was nonetheless gracious. It is with both these things in mind that I wrote this post. Just before this was to be published, he wrote a post acknowledging potential issues with the way in which he characterized #AnApostatesExperience.

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#AnApostatesExperience: An Informed Critics’ Reading of Reza Aslan
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18 thoughts on “#AnApostatesExperience: An Informed Critics’ Reading of Reza Aslan

  1. 1

    it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

    He’s not wrong about this in the same way we don’t choose what we believe.* If it were true, that we got our values from “scripture” humanists wouldn’t exist, and Jews would still be killing people for working on Saturdays and slavery would still be a-OK for every Christian. Liberal religionists wouldn’t be possible. But, we know most people are more moral than their scriptures — how? (Euthyphro, morality proceeds.)

    Iirc, Kaveh Mousavi made a related point that scripture (i.e., religion) is part of the feedback loop of culture (and politics) that actually does shape our values, but we all know religion is a slave to culture broadly (especially in the modern era), it’s not the totality of it. So it can’t be true that people get their values from scripture. And yes, it’s self-evident societies read their values into scripture. Culture produces scripture, not the other way around; it must be a reflection not a source.

    *It’s a matter of epistemology. (Caveat, might not apply with enough torture, brainwashing, social pressure or microaggression.)

    1. 1.2

      True-I would say the major issue with how he describes things is that he dissociates religion/scriptures from other cultural factors when religion/scriptures are a type of culture which is just as human and prone to issues as the things which he blames. For both better and for worse, religious scriptures help maintain old cultural ideas in a stable form. Interpretations might change but the basic content stays the same.

  2. 3

    Culture produces scripture, not the other way around; it must be a reflection not a source.

    Wait…what?? When you look at the culture of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Utah, Spain/South America/The South (US) you don’t see the influence of Judaism/Islam/Mormonism/Christianity? How is it possible for religion to NOT influence/inform culture broadly? I have neighbors and friends who are almost categorically identical to myself in that they are: white, male, educated, upper-middle class etc., etc. and lived in the exact same culture for most of our lives yet we have key differences on matters such as women’s equality, separation of church/State and gay rights. The key difference being that they have this book called the Bible that they view as an authority which I don’t. I think Kaveh is right that it is a feedback loop with cause-effect going both ways. Morality is a product of upbringing, peer group, life experience, local culture and more. But religion absolutely plays a role in all of them. Parents often indoctrinate children with their (the parents’) religious beliefs and the values/morals that accord with their faith. Our peer groups reflect these influences. And we create literature, film, music, art, architecture, fashion that are hugely influenced by local or personal religion.

    Aslan is right that the world’s evils aren’t solely caused by religion and it can be a mistake when people make such claims (though I think it’s usually a straw-man he uses for a stereotype of atheists.) The problem is, of the several factors that come into play, religion is the one that he routinely asks us to ignore and hold exempt from blame or criticism.

  3. 5

    Seems like Aslan’s playing the No True Scotsman card.

    Although there’s a hint of truth to what Vlad wrote. Just a teeny-tiny hint of truth. I do believe people project their own biases into scripture. However, if you believe that scripture is 100% the Word of God, that ain’t helping!

  4. 6

    it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

    If you take this as accurate, it is a pretty damning thing to say. People who have these values must be really shitty people. Of course, if you are a Post-modernist or a cultural relativist, I guess it doesn’t matter.

  5. 9

    It is equally bizarre and daft, to my eyes, to insist that interpretations of religious texts do not inform culture as to insist that culture does not inform interpretations of religious texts.

    It also in the case of the former, as I keep pointing out, tremendously insulting to those religions and their texts! If religion is not causal in any way, then what is the point of being religious?

    “Sola scriptura” is not an approach practiced by all or even most believers, and it is therefore unfair of non-believers to impute it to all believers– that is, to effectively tell a believer “Your religious text says this, so you believe this” (especially when what you’re really saying is that they must believe your interpretation of “this”). But it’s just as wrong-headed to insist that believers’ entire worldviews aren’t shaped by those texts!

    The texts would not exist if this were the case– they would be cast aside and left to the ages. They would, effectively, not be regarded as holy. That is not what we see, is it?

  6. 13

    […] Just as I cannot decouple my feminism from my atheism, I cannot separate my radically political and anti-assimilatist queer identity from my atheism; gender and queer issues were part of why I doubted and eventually left Islam. Although queerphobia can come from non-religious sources, that much of it stems from religious beliefs is self-evident — unless you’re going to outright deny what people say about their own motivations, Reza Aslan-s…. […]

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