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.
I guess folks doing #AnApostatesExperience think that I – a Sufi scholar of comp religions married to a Christian – have a problem w them
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) October 14, 2014
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.
— Sadaf Ali (@alisadaf) October 14, 2014
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.