Liberal Muslims face an uphill battle

In my community, religious orthodoxy is violently lashing out. Modernity, science and internet-connectivity take us forward and water down strict adherence to religion but they also trigger reactionary pushback.

On every human rights front, you will find an internal battle within Islamic society. There are those who push for LGBT inclusion, and those who push to keep things non-inclusive. If youre a liberal, ex-Muslim atheist like I am, youre likely to find yourself caught in a ‘hate sandwich. On the one hand, youre ostracized and shamed by conservatives in your own community for fighting for equality, progress and freedom from religion. On the other hand, youre probably also a target of xenophobic anti-Muslim bigotry, the product of increasing anti-immigrant hate in these Trumpian times.

One side thinks youre not Muslim enough. For the other side, youll always be too Muslim.

When I wrote My Chacha (uncle) is Gay in 2014, initially it was very well received and compatible with Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum. But it caused controversy when news of its use in schools reached parents. Some threatened to sue the school board for religious insensitivity, some claimed it was a misrepresentation of their faith… that gay people dont exist in Pakistan! Articles were written about how Muslim parents were bullied’ by having tolerance and inclusivity taught to their children. I received many death and rape threats for it (Ive long received death threats for my work around secularism and sexuality, which is why I publish using a pseudonym).

Eventually, schools backed away from using it in any official capacity again. Any time we make some progress, this pattern repeats itself. Most recently, Muslim filmmaker Deeyah Khan received backlash for her film Islams Non-Believers. Despite threats of violence, the film brings to light the struggles of those fighting to leave the faith or who criticize orthodoxy. But there have been accusations that some subjects of the film are vilified and there have been calls for litigation.

This past June, Toronto-based ex-Muslim author and activist Ali Rizvi visited New York City to give a talk at secular Muslim conference, Muslimish. While there, he received an anonymous message, a thinly veiled threat… with a map showing his location. The hotel took no chances and ramped up security, and fortunately the talk went on. These threats are meant to dissuade us from speaking out to scare us into silence.

Going further back, after the release of her 2003 book The Trouble with Islam Today, former Torontonian and reformist Muslim Irshad Manji talked about installing bulletproof glass in her house. For her work, she was called a ‘daughter of Satan’ and had a man spit in her face. But she perseveres. Not everyone is that resilient or can handle that amount of abuse. Imagine all of the voices silenced by such tactics.

Where do we turn? Well, we often turn left, expecting to find a political home…allies among Western liberals, people who share our values people whove fought against the same conservative mindsets in their own communities. Youd think we could join hands, but it’s not that simple: as Muhammad Syed, president of Ex-Muslims of North America told me,”Many ex-Muslims feel a great sense of betrayal. The left seems to have put politics over principles, in an effort to oppose the western right, they have allied themselves with the eastern religious-right. Where does that leave reformers and dissenters from the Muslim world?”

Oddly, you will find Muslim traditionalists and conservatives being propped up by even the most liberal media outlets. Whether the debate is about niqabs or sex-education, it is those who are less progressive and want less equality that are chosen as representatives of Muslims in the west.

During last year’s federal election and the controversy surrounding Stephen Harper’s veil ban, Tabatha Southey of the Globe and Mail tweeted, By fighting a veil ban, Ms. Ishaq schools us on how to be Canadian with very little regard for what the face veil represents to many other Muslim women like those who are forced into veils and are fighting to be free of them. Around the same time, The Huffington Post Canada declared, someone made a Niqabs of Canada’ Tumblr and its Great, comparing them to hockey masks, helmets, scarves and hoods shielding from the cold all of which have other purposes than to shame women into modesty.

The Guardian touts headlines like My hijab has nothing to do with oppression, its a feminist statement with seemingly no appreciation for what kinds of strict modesty guidelines lay behind the wearing of hijabs. Yes, some women in the west have the privilege of choice, but many, many of the women wearing face veils or headscarves in the Muslim world do not have such a choice, especially when it is mandated by the state. Even in the west, there lies the threat of being shunned by your family if you reject religious dress code. Articles glorifying this are doing women in vulnerable positions no favours at all. Yes, we must oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, but we must keep in mind that this doesnt mean glorification of modesty codes that target women.

My social media feeds are inundated with well-meaning liberal friends sharing article upon article praising, celebrating, glorifying religious garments like the hijab/niqab. But it’s a garment used exclusively in its original form to ensure women cover up lest they provoke the lust of men. Ironically, even Playboy has jumped on this trend. The Muslim girls who want to be ballerinas, athletes or models and arent hijabis simply arent given very much coverage. All this achieves, is that it synonymizes Muslim with conservative Muslim, which is incredibly unhelpful to our community in this political climate.

As someone who immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia, who was forced by morality police to cover her hair, threatened with a cane, I cannot stomach the fetishization and praise surrounding these practices that are primarily used to control and hold women back.

Eiynah is a Pakistani-Canadian whose blog, Nice Mangos, focuses on religion, politics and sexuality in South Asia. | @NiceMangos

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content