I met Faisal Saeed Al Mutar recently, just months after he arrived in the United States for the first time from Iraq. Both of us grew up in Middle Eastern countries where non-belief can often carry grievous penalties, and eventually migrated to North America.
Both of us have encountered a lot of interest in our experiences. We recently decided to have an extended email conversation to share them with those who may not be familiar with them. Here is the first part of our conversation.
Betrayal from Western liberals, corresponding with Christopher Hitchens, and more.
I'm fascinated by your story. I've read your writing, seen your talks, and I'm glad we've become such good friends in a very short time. When I think about it, we have a lot of things in common. We're both from Shia Muslim backgrounds, we both grew up in the Middle East -- you in Iraq, me in Libya and Saudi Arabia -- and we both had personal journeys that led us to non-belief.
But we also have markedly different personal stories. You spent half your life under Saddam's rule and the other half under the US occupation. You lost your brother and a friend (who was mistaken for you by Al Qaeda, if I remember correctly) to religious violence, and constantly lived under danger and death threats, running from country to country, until you landed in the United States.
We'll get to the details later, but my first question to you is - with everything that you've been through, how do you manage to stay optimistic?
Thank you for your kind words, and it was an honor to meet you at the Richard Dawkins Event in Washington DC. [Richard Dawkins took some time out from his book tour last fall to meet with atheists/agnostics from Muslim backgrounds at the first event of its kind last fall.] It's really amazing how small the world is for two people growing up in different countries, who have had similar experiences, to meet up in the nation's capital.
To answer your question, everything of my past sounds like a distant memory right now because since I arrived in the United States in March 2013, I followed a policy to keep myself busy and active to build up new experiences that I have never had before, and wished for since my birth. This is the beauty, to live free comparatively to where I was just before my arrival to this country. I have been working a lot, traveling a lot, thinking a lot, and I think for the first time in my life, I have more positive things to talk about than negative things. Those who have been consistently attending my speeches know what I am talking about, because the first speech I gave in the United States, Houston to be exact, was mostly if not entirely about my past experiences -- but now most of my speeches are centered around research on how to change the world into a better place. I think of myself as overwhelmingly lucky to be alive, and to have the opportunity to share my ideas and opinions without the expectation of getting killed directly after leaving the venue.
It may seem like I've always been positive, but to be honest, that has not always been the case. As you mentioned, my eldest brother was killed in 2007, and I had to keep myself silent to my family in order to not keep them worried about losing another son. So I had to manage it all by myself, even though I admit that I was lucky to have some people to share my experiences and fears with. But the issue to me wasn't merely having people to talk to, rather I just wanted to escape and have a place I could call home.
Many people may not know this, but I had been depressed and tried suicide multiple times, mainly because I had lost hope in the future, and that is to me the most frightening thing. I care a lot about achieving things and making an impact in the world and the environment that I grew up in. I have always been at war with myself about what I want to achieve, but since I have come to the States, I have been so active and so happy at the same time, because to me achievement and happiness are linked together.
That's how I personally look at my worth.
I'm sorry to hear about everything you went through. I'm glad you're here now and doing all the great work that you do.
When I write as an atheist from a Muslim background, I get lots of messages from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and more recently Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Islamists took to the streets last summer demanding the execution of atheist writers/bloggers like us.
What I hear most is, "Please keep speaking for those of us who can't speak over here."
You started the Global Secular Humanist Movement while you were still in the Middle East, so I'm assuming you know what they're talking about. You spoke out over there while there are many people who aren't able to take that risk. How did that go down?
I often feel like many people here in North America take their freedom of speech for granted. Some of the liberal left like Glenn Greenwald and even Noam Chomsky often make these equivalencies between the Western world and the countries we grew up in like they're somehow fundamentally the same. I sometimes wish people here could really go and live there, beyond just traveling there to give talks or "gain experience" under the shelter of a US or Canadian passport.
Now that you've been here for some time, what would you say has been the biggest change in your life, positive and negative?
I think 21st century westerners generally don't appreciate what they take for granted, because somebody else fought for these rights before they were born. I have given so many speeches around the country and I have heard many statements like, "The United States is the worst country on Earth," and, "We are no better if not worse than the Middle East when it comes to women's rights and gay rights." These laughable statements generally come from people who have not been outside the United States, let alone even left their zip code. So I think most of the lack of appreciation of the freedoms in this nation or other Western nations have come from ignorance and lack of experience.
When it comes to people like Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky and many others in academia, unfortunately, they live in an alternate universe. If you look further you will notice that they have big ideological differences with whatever political party wins the elections, especially Noam Chomsky. He is a libertarian leftist who would do whatever is necessary to destroy the image of those who are not, even if all evidence disagrees with his beliefs. White guilt, and moral and cultural relativism also play a major role in shaping these men's views.
I mostly mention this joke when people ask me about the differences between the Muslim world and United States -- I say, "Getting stoned means something else in the Muslim world than it does in America."
Those of us who have been activists in different locations around the world can look at these differences more objectively.
In Iraq, the government hardly controls anything. Especially in 2007-2008 when the civil war between Sunnis and Shias was at its peak, I got used to the idea that whenever I went to a meeting with a bunch of secularists, the next day they would either be kidnapped or leave the country because of death threats. I can give countless examples with names and dates about activists of all kinds, whether it's for secularism, for women's rights, or for any kind of what we call liberal values, who were threatened or their families threatened by Al Qaeda or other insurgency groups operating in Iraq, and they suffered the consequences. I am one of those lucky ones who survived the threats and left the country, but there are many right now who are having nightmares every night and are scared of getting killed every day for expressing their views.
These things are very difficult to explain to those who have spent most if not all of their lives without getting a threat of being beheaded for saying men and women are equal.
So it's a moral duty in my opinion for those who have an understanding of what's going on, and have survived, to speak up for those who can not speak for themselves, shed a light, make awareness about what's happening there, and fight for the human right of freedom of expression.
As for the most positive change in my life for the past 8 months, I would say being loved so much, being so much in love and having the right to say who I love and what I love.
I largely agree with you on the liberal left. I remember after the bin Laden raid in 2011, Chomsky wrote an article with a premise that can pretty much be summed up by this line from it:
"We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic."
This is the kind of false equivalency I hear about all the time.
In Pakistan, where I'm from, even some of the most educated and progressive people I know consider the Taliban's terrorism equivalent to the drone strikes. I mean, I'm not an unconditional supporter of US foreign policy either, but there's no comparison between the Western world and groups like the Taliban, or Al Qaeda in Iraq. To make a comparison, you first have to establish some sort of balance on both sides -- for example, give the Taliban the same military might and nuclear arsenal as the US. Now who do you think would be worse?
Western countries like the US barely use a fraction of the force they have the capacity to because whatever their flaws, they are still bound by a code of ethics -- and as democracies, accountability to their people. If the Taliban or Al Qaeda had even a tenth of the weaponry that the US does, you'd already have entire countries razed to the ground. I think many writers confuse neutrality with objectivity.
You used to correspond regularly with Christopher Hitchens from Iraq. I didn't agree with him on everything, but I respected him immensely because he actually experienced the places he wrote about on the ground while they were acutely mired in conflict. This man was reporting on Joseph Kony in 2006 while sitting next to child recruits in northern Uganda, got beat up in Beirut for defacing Syrian Social Nationalist Party posters, and chilled with the Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson -- while these academic liberals only travel to give talks at universities.
I could go on about the hypocrisy of Western liberals on Islam forever, so I'll try to keep it short and sum it up here.
The thing that bothers me most is the racism of lowered expectations.
If a white man raised here took his wife and daughters out dressed in burkas and veils, all hell would break loose. But if I did it as a brown man, the emphasis would be on "respect" for my "culture".
In this way, many liberals and moderates -- as well-intentioned as they may be -- end up providing cover for fundamentalists and terrorists without even realizing it. As you mentioned in one of your videos, foreigners -- especially Muslims -- know the trick to shielding their ideas from criticism by Westerners: simply call them racist, bigoted, or Islamophobic. Now, nobody's saying anti-Muslim bigotry doesn't exist -- but just like in Pakistan where they use blasphemy laws to shut you up, here they accuse you of bigotry, racism, and Islamophobia to achieve the same purpose -- never mind the fact that Islam isn't a race, and attacking ideas is not bigotry.
This is definitely a topic we should explore further. But I wanted to touch on some basics.
What led you to be an atheist, and especially to speak out about it? I know we both are also are part of some "ex-Muslim" groups, a label that I don't necessarily identify with but do have understanding and sympathy for. Do you identify as "ex-Muslim"? Why or why not?
What you said about Chomsky reminds me of a man I met after my speech in Berkeley, California. I was talking about Al Qaeda's beheadings of Shia Muslims and non-believers, as well as suicide bombers and so on, and he told me, "We have the same thing here." I didn't know how to respond to him apart from asking him what types of drugs he is taking, because he seemed to be having out-of-reality experiences.
People generally mistake me, or Hitchens, for being dogmatic supporters of post 9/11 U.S foreign policy, while we are actually not. I can't speak for Hitchens, but I can speak for myself. I have been a huge critic of the management of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I just supported the removal of the genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein, who killed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in brutal ways, including use of chemical weapons, invading a neighboring country, and threatening the whole region.
I used to email Hitchens about how the Iraqi and Arab media covers the war and about Iraqi people's general opinions about the war and post-Saddam Iraq, etc. Hitchens had strong relations with the Kurds, and the Kurdish prime minister was one of his best friends, as well as Ahmad Chalabi, so I was simply a fan who thought that he was the writer who most closely understood the situation in Iraq and had a solution for it. He was a friend of many Iraqis and had a very charismatic as well as an open mind. I was merely about 17-18 years old when I used to talk to him. He used to ask questions, and he was always looking to be corrected if he was mistaken.
I am pretty saddened that we lost him, but I am more saddened about what you mentioned about Western liberals' hypocrisy. Many of them have betrayed us liberals in the Middle East and other Muslim countries, and sided with the Islamists against us.
The reason why many liberals from the Middle East side more with conservatives here in the States than with liberals is because they feel they won't be accepted by Western liberals while conservatives tend to understand where they come from.
I spoke a dozen times about Islam not being a race but an ideology. I started mentioning it at the beginning of each speech because I started getting hate mails immediately with labels like "racist, hater of brown-skinned people." This is despite the fact that I am brown-skinned myself and millions of Muslims are not brown-skinned, and there are a lot of Muslims who are white too.
But as Thomas Paine said,
"To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead."
It is a moral duty for those us who are writers and public figures who have lived in these two worlds, the Muslim and the Western, to explain to the general public the differences between both, and which values are better, and which values need to be reformed.
I myself was raised by a liberal educated family. Religion was not forced on me in any shape or form and I am so grateful for this. Islam was forced on me from the society and the environment that I grew up in, but I never bought into the idea of religion at all. I was a deist most of the time even though I had my doubts. Then I moved on to being a deistic agnostic, and then I became an agnostic atheist, which I still am.
I like the term "freethinking humanist" because that's what I have always been. I don't consider myself an ex-Muslim; maybe an ex-Muslim culturally, even though I am more western-cultured than Arab-cultured or Muslim-cultured.
How about yourself? Did you have similar transition periods or were you raised Muslim?
This conversation will continue in Part 2.