All three new additions to our site will by now have settled in somewhat; I’m lucky enough to have known two of them, Hiba Krisht and Heina Dadabhoy, quite well before they joined FtB. In the best-part-of-a-year between our hivemind’s decision to invite them and the actual debut of their blogs – it took so long because our site redesign went on forever – Hiba and Heina’s names became inseparable, which was something of a problem when they both commissioned me to create their mastheads (right). Since readers seem to like the banners, I thought perhaps I should write about the time I spent on them.
The common ground is inescapable. Both Heina and Hiba are ex-Muslim – more precisely, atheist – women of colour; both are feminists; both live in the US. They’re both queer, both polyamorous and both twentysomething; both are former hijab-wearers; they even have somewhat similar first names. (Would dubbing them the H-bombs be in bad taste?) When it comes to branding a personal blog, uniqueness is the order of the day – so the challenge of bannering-up both Heinous Dealings and A Veil and a Dark Place was always going to be distinguishing two writers I’d grown used to mentioning side by side.
Thankfully the likenesses are superficial: study their work and it’s clear each is their own quite different blogger.
Heina was a Sunni Muslim, Hiba a Shiite. Hiba is a Lebanese Arab; Heina, ethnically south-east Asian, is a Desi. Heina was born and raised in the US; Hiba is a several-times migrant.
Hiba’s writing tends toward the long-form, often centred on personal narrative. Heina’s is more typically about current events or blogosphere controversies. Heina’s voice is more conversational, often referencing comments or directly addressing readers. Hiba’s is more literary (her posts have been printed as-is in journals). Hiba, an academic and professional translator, relies mainly on turn of phrase for colour. Heina, a cosplayer in her spare time, draws on memes, gifs and pop culture.
Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.
How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?
Heina’s image could be read as a rejection of her roots – her A-line dresses and nail polish as aspirational, 1950s symbols that they are of idealised suburban whiteness. But an ex-Muslim who blogs on racism isn’t someone running from their background, and what feminist – actually, what woman today – dresses as a fifties housewife except on purpose? It’s a wardrobe filled with the intent to ironise, hijacking iconography meant to exclude women like Heina. She might as well, it struck me when she asked for a blog header, insert herself into Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of pale, thin blondes – so I decided I should do just that.
Like most pop art and like her, Lichtenstein’s work is tongue-in-cheek. Filled with soap opera heterosexuals and exclamation marks, it’s as much a camp performance of his era’s gender politics as her look is – but that being so, he never to my knowledge painted anyone who looked like her. That raised a problem: with no precedent, how do you paint an Asian woman in Roy Lichtenstein’s style?
Some liberties were taken. The famous Ben-Day dots in his work were originally developed as a means of saving coloured ink while shading, so always appear on a white background there. This works for the pinkish hue of Caucasian faces, but trying to represent Heina’s skin tone that way in early versions left her looking zombie-like, so two different tan shades were required. Nor did Lichtenstein ever, to my knowledge, paint people with curly hair like hers or mine, and the resultant line work uses a technique more mine than his. Still, it seemed to work. (If you’re wondering why Heina’s hair is purple, it’s because its actual colour would have rendered as an amorphous black blob… as well as just because.)
Of course Heina, who broadcasts her opinions, had to have a thought bubble in live transmission – and of course her blurb had to be drawn like Lichtenstein’s narrative boxes. My hope is that the finished banner is as witty, camp, colourful and recognisable as she is, and her readers’ responses suggest it succeeded.
When it came to Hiba’s blog, the task was the same with one added constraint. First, create something to symbolise A Veil and a Dark Place; second, make it instantly different from I’d done at Heinous Dealings.
Hiba is middle eastern rather than Asian, more literary than Heina and less western in terms of reference points: it made sense immediately that her banner would feature Arabic. The language’s script is exquisitely ornate, resembling embroidered latticework or chain mail when densely spaced, and while initially I wondered if using it for an ex-Muslim blog was ethnocentric, it struck me that doing so might actually combat the conflation of Islam and Arabia: unlike most current or former Muslims Hiba actually is an Arab, and associating an atheist’s blog with that spidery lettering seems like a way of reclaiming it from fundamentalists.
The phrase in the texture of the letters was meant to be the blog name, but annoyingly my laptop managed to unravel it somehow, and I’d likely have to study Arabic myself to rectify this. I’m convinced no colour suits its writing better than inky black, so wanted originally to keep the banner monochrome; for the lower portion of text , I was also tempted for a time to use Trajan Pro, that most Roman of fonts. What stopped me? Well, although both those concepts would differentiate Hiba’s blog from Heina’s, another ex-Muslim got there first.
Maryam Namazie’s banner is a thing of beauty – to imitate it even by accident would do all parties involved a disservice. Moreover, her blogging style and Hiba’s are very different, and it occurred to me her monochrome text suggests the matt black clothing of Islamist theocracies she rails against. Hiba’s subject matter is more personal, and her fondness for middle eastern art made me think the burnt yellow of Lebanese spices would fit. (When in doubt, my mind defaults to food.) For the typeface in the blog name’s second half, I went with Lato.
The pseudo-Arabic letters of ‘a veil’ are my own work, thus unique to Hiba’s blog, and took many hours of tweaking once I’d found actual Arabic characters to base them on. (Making the ‘v’ work was especially taxing.) For a while I messed about with colour fields and added details, but in fact I think the motif is so strong that other details would overpower it, and ‘floating’ on a white background means the banner looks centred above Hiba’s posts. (Like mine, it’s not really.)
Since the new blogs went up, I’ve been commissioned to do similar work for other people. I can only thank both H-bombs for coming to me, and I’m thrilled that on top of being their colleague, I got to support what they do.
[Disclaimer 1: this post isn’t intended as a character assassination – I’m not sure it’s helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]
[Disclaimer 2: I’m writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn’t and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I’m open to being told so.]
Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.
In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)
Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)
These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however.
Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.
Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,
Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.
(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)
A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.
If you think criticising Islam is racist, you must think Islam is a race. And if you think Islam is a race you are a racist.
Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.
I’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.
But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things.
There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.
What sort of a country is it that jails you for having sex when unmarried? http://t.co/WXtUbc1Enu An Islamic country of course.
If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.
Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percent of Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.
Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians http://t.co/D15gFcya Vive la France
If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider all Muslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.
It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming ‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.
At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males & females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave @LKrauss1
Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment and a Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.
Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism.
My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly will be so construed.
Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist
Two paragraphs back I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.
The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.