But I’m Just Criticizing Religion

This seems to be a rallying cry for many atheists, particularly those who criticize Islam. And I do think that most really believe that’s all they’re doing, and aren’t consciously singling Muslims out due to racial bias. However, as I argued in my last post, reality is a bit more complicated than this assertion portrays, and I’m going to look at two historical examples of religiously and racially motivated prejudice to illustrate why I believe this is true.

Typical caveat: as a white woman, neither prejudice has affected me personally, nor has Islamophobia. Readers with first hand experience, please do correct me if I get something wrong.


Historically, anti-Semitism has manifested itself in dual ways: racial prejudice and religious prejudice. Take, for example, the Inquisition. Europe’s Catholic rulers drove out the Muslim Moors while also targeting its minority Jewish population–and this wasn’t just due to religion. To European Catholics, Jewishness, and the Jewish religion, were inextricably connected to blood. It’s why inquisitors like the infamous St. John of Capistrano targeted even conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity in order to escape persecution and death. Christianity was measured by blood, and not just by confession. In Spain, inquisitors believed in a concept called limpieza de sangre, or cleanliness of blood. Blood purity, in case the white supremacist connotations weren’t clear enough. Your status as a good Catholic depended on how many Catholic ancestors you could claim. Conversos, obviously, couldn’t claim very many. They were of impure blood. And they died for it.

I think you can also see echoes of limpieza de sangre in Hitler’s Final Solution. The rise of the Nazi Party was accompanied by laws that specifically targeted and forbade the religious practices of Germany’s Jewish community. Once again, religious prejudice was tied to racial prejudice–and we know what happened in the Third Reich.

Japanese Internment Camps

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans became the targets of an American government intent on rooting out foreign interlopers. Many Americans viewed their Japanese neighbors as subhuman, alien figures with allegiances to a foreign power–and religion played a role. Japanese identity, like Jewish identity, was actively characterized as a threat to American sovereignty not only because of its racial distinctiveness, but due to its association with Shintoism. According to many supporters of Japanese internment, Shintoism compelled Japanese Americans to obey the Emperor over the American government and to subjugate their non-Japanese neighbors.

That might sound familiar.

As a direct result of these sentiments, the American government interned over 110,000 Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor until the end of World War II.

So Why Is This Relevant?

When a ruling class targets a minority class, it’s never just about religion. Religious and racial prejudice have historically walked hand in hand. I’ve been repeatedly accused of trying to argue that we can never criticize religion, and I want to make it clear that this is not a thing I have ever or will ever argue. Rather, I’m arguing that our critiques need to be historically informed. We need to understand and acknowledge that religious prejudice exists and that it is linked to racial prejudice. We need to understand the consequences of reducing a community to a monolithically barbaric Other.

When white liberals say that the hijab is intrinsically misogynist, that’s what they’re doing. They are calling this symbol, which is not their symbol, which is, for better or worse, associated with a racial identity they do not share, backwards. They have declared open season on anyone who wears it. They have erased an individual’s specific relationship to this symbol and imposed their own meaning upon it and make no mistake, that is a form of cultural violence. That remains true when they attack a white convert for adopting it; we are delusional if we don’t believe there’s a racial component to that. How could a free white woman prefer the sexism of brown men? 

If we know our history, then we should know the consequences of cultural violence. This doesn’t mean we become cultural relativists. We can say unequivocally that female genital mutilation, or blasphemy laws, or other forms of oppression, are wrong and should be eliminated. But the roots of these laws are not to be found in religion but in something far more banal and universal: human nature. They are what happens when privilege goes unchecked and power is corrupted. This is not a religious problem. It is a human problem. And so it is absurd to assert that the hijab, as a religious symbol, represents a unique injustice unless it is always accompanied by oppressive practices. Of course, this is not the case.

It is convenient to characterize Islam as particularly violent and oppressive, but it’s not true. It wasn’t true when Catholic Christians, and later the Nazi Party, attacked Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t true when the American government attacked Japanese Americans and Shintoism. Lazy generalizations have profound consequences for those most affected by them. We need to remember that when we’re “just criticizing religion.”


Islamophobia Is Real And You Should Care

My Muslim readers are, no doubt, shaking their heads at such an obvious title–and it’s an understandable reaction.

Many of my secular readers seem to be another matter.

Over the course of my engagement with the organized secularist movement in the US, I’ve seen a popular refusal to believe that a phenomenon called Islamophobia exists. While I don’t mean to set myself up as the Grand Arbiter of All Things Social Justice, I don’t think my claim to be an activist would mean very much if I didn’t address this. Let me be clear about a few things: I approach this subject from a postcolonial perspective. I’m not a secularist, as I’ve already said. And from a postcolonial perspective I think it is clear that not only does Islamophobia exists, it’s rooted in racism. Further, I want to argue that if you’re an atheist, you should not only acknowledge Islamophobia’s existence, you should combat it. Unless, of course, you’re not concerned when a minority belief community is attacked by other, more mainstream communities–and if that’s true, I invite you to engage in some self-reflection.

I’ve heard, repeatedly, that it’s acceptable to criticize Islam because it’s a religion, not a race. On the surface of things this is technically true. But dig deeper and you’ll find the issue is far more complex than many secularist soundbites allow. Islamic belief and practice is tied to ethnic identity. It’s no coincidence that far-right groups like the English Defence League mix a fair bit of racism in with their Islam-bashing. Islamophobia is at its root a fear of the Other, a reaction to minority, typically migrant communities. When you campaign to ban the hijab from public spaces, as the Parti Quebecois has proposed, you are further alienating an already marginalized community. This isn’t made less racist simply by claiming the hijab is oppressive-over the protestations of the women who wear it, women directly affected by it in ways that secularists are not.

This approach to secularism very clearly prioritizes one set of cultural values over another. But wait! secularists cry, we should do this or else we’re cultural relativists who can’t condemn stoning or blasphemy laws or female genital mutilation.

That’s not true either. Sharia, and the broader field of Islamic jurisprudence, is a complex thing. It’s not static. It can be interpreted in egalitarian ways as well as regressive ways. You can oppose stoning, or blasphemy laws, or female genital mutilation without condemning Islam because these practices are not necessarily Islamic practices.

For years, I’ve volunteered with a group called Femin Ijtihad. FI uses Islamic law in defence of women’s rights, relying on the concept of ijtihad or innovative legal reasoning to argue against patriarchal abuses of the faith. To some, this might be accomodationism. To me, it’s a pragmatic approach to one of the most pressing development issues of our era: gender inequality. In 2012, I organized a research project with two of my colleagues from Femin Ijtihad. Our purpose was to examine the affects of revolution on women’s political participation in Libya. When we asked them about the challenges they faced campaigning for women’s rights in the new, allegedly democratic Libya our sources were very clear: the secularists were often just as sexist as the Islamists, and as a result, women’s issues received short shrift.

Across the Arab world, women, including observant women, have been at the forefront of revolutionary change. It’s absurd, I think, to look at this and then attempt to argue that Islam itself is what holds women back, or that women couldn’t possibly interpret their faith in a way that would actually encourage them to participate in the political process.

And yet, we hear that Islam oppresses women.

People oppress women.

Atheist people oppress women. Christian people oppress women. Jewish people oppress women. No one has a monopoly on sexism. This fact is so obvious that to me that I believe it’s unquestionable that opposition to Islam is rooted in bigotry.

Take the outcry over Universities UK’s alleged support for gender segregation, after it published a report that stated universities hosting religious speakers could separate men and women to suit the speaker’s beliefs. The report used the example of an Ultra-Orthodox speaker, but from what I have seen, secularist critics looked past this to their favorite scapegoat, Islam–not that I think anti-Semitism would be a preferable alternative.

Before anyone asks: I don’t think religious speakers should be able to force men and women to sit separately. At the same time, I do think that religious students should have the option to sit separately if they choose. And yet we have secularist figures like Maryam Namazie organizing literal posses to force ‘segregated’ students apart. If students have been forcibly segregated, she might have a point, but I am concerned that students who voluntarily separate will also be targeted. In fact, this has already happened, and it has not been condemned by secularists.

And that’s mild stuff compared to Islamophobic hate crimes, in the UK and the US, too. From mosque vandalization to a shooting rampage at a Sikh gurdwara (Sikhs are often mistakenly targeted as Muslims because they wear turbans), it’s obvious that Islamophobia exists and can have deadly consequences. The Southern Poverty Law Center has speculated that rates of these crimes remain high due to anti-sharia rhetoric. Unfortunately, that rhetoric is produced by the left as well as the right.

In the UK, the murder of a soldier by an Islamist extremist provoked mass demonstrations by the English Defence League and a rash of mosque vandalizations–even the racially motivated murder of an elderly Muslim man.

Words have power. And it’s disingenuous to pretend that they cannot convey bigotry if they’re targeted at a religion. We don’t privilege all religions equally in the West; it’s a lasting legacy of colonialism. You cannot reasonably claim that attacking Islam is the same as attacking Christianity, because attacks on Islam occur within a specific social and historical context that cannot be extended to Christianity.

Around the world, atheists face severe consequences for their beliefs. We can all agree that’s injustice. But we should also be able to agree that it’s an injustice when anyone is persecuted for their beliefs.

For these reasons, I think it’s time more secularists acknowledge the existence of Islamophobia, and address it in their own communities.

This Is Not A Discussion

This post began life as a pensive reflection on my life as a homeschool apostate. I’ll be blunt: I’m too angry to write that post. I spend so much time trying to separate myself from extremism and militancy that it’s personally frustrating to be so stymied by anger now. But that is where I find myself.

I am furious with homeschool parents who, for days, have been telling me that I’m just bitter: a barely competent child whose rage can be invalidated and debased as ‘lashing out.’

I am weary of Christian patriarchs like Chris Jeub who feel obligated to repeatedly insert themselves into the discussions emerging from our stories of homeschool abuse. This week, Jeub hastened to assure his fellow homeschoolers that we “apostates” haven’t really abandoned the faith; that we’re just asking questions. In doing so, he reduced our entire movement to a monolith more palatable to his fundamentalist audience. It didn’t matter that many of us, like myself, have abandoned the faith and are happy for it. But we’re here, patriarchs, and we’re not going anywhere, so you might as well admit we exist.

Jeub’s post is so distressing to me because I see it as a ploy to retain some control of the narrative we’ve tried to produce. Let me be very clear: this story is not about Chris Jeub. It’s not about any patriarch, for that matter. It is about us. Don’t you dare re-center this around yourselves.

It is time for you to sit down and pass the mike. The guinea pigs are talking.

You had your chance to run your social experiment. Now the results are in and patriarchs, it doesn’t look good for you. You deliberately created a cultural hierarchy that enshrined your privilege as divine right. The people you’ve oppressed for decades are trying to speak now, and every time we make a sound you drown us out.

I am not looking for a conversation. I think the time for conversation has passed, if it ever existed at all. If you’re not willing to discard Christian patriarchy completely, to acknowledge the horrifying damage it wreaks on those rendered powerless by it, then you are not my conversation partner: you are the enemy in my fight for liberation. If you are not willing to stop viewing your children as property to be controlled, there is no discussion to be had.

Moreover: I think it actually endangers the fight against Christian patriarchy to view its proponents as conversation partners. They actively perpetuate oppression, and I don’t see it as my responsibility to train them in the ways of allyship. Their voices have been so dominant for so long that I believe it will be impossible to make ourselves heard as long as they’re still speaking. There have been calls for conversation. But conversation is only really possible if both partners are operating as equal, and those of us who left Christian patriarchy aren’t yet equal to those who perpetuate it.

Some day, yes, that might change. But in order for that change to occur, Christian patriarchs are going to have to recognize that it’s not their turn to speak. They’re going to have to cede power first.

Setting the Boundaries

Revelations that Doug Phillips of Vision Forum had a long-term affair, likely with a much younger woman who worked for his family without pay, have revived crucial interest in Christian patriarchy’s attitude toward relationships and consent. Phillips isn’t a mainstream figure; he’s a proponent of the Quiverfull movement who doesn’t think women should vote. He’s also a figurehead in the so-called Stay at Home Daughter Movement, which encourages young women to forsake higher education and careers in order to remain at home, under their fathers’ “protection.”

Obviously, that protection didn’t extend to Phillips’ young victim–and I use “victim” quite deliberately here. I agree with Julie Anne Smith of Spiritual Sounding Board that the Christian patriarchy movement grooms young women for abuse, consciously or not, by brainwashing them into compliance and encouraging them to forgo developing skills necessary for independent lives.  There is a very clear power imbalance present, even in relationships between adults of the same age, because of an overwhelming emphasis on male dominion. I believe that Phillips knew exactly what he was doing. I think he sought this woman out at a young age specifically because of her vulnerability. I think this a.) because that’s how predators work and b.) because the movement idolizes regressive gender roles.

Take the infamous Elsie Dinsmore series. Though they stopped selling the series this year, for fifteen years Vision Forum pushed the books as a wholesome alternative to worldly fiction for girls and formerly ran an essay contest based on the series. Unfortunately, Vision Forum has removed that page from its site and I can only find a cached pdf copy that doesn’t link to the full essays. You’ll have to trust my memory instead. I read the essays while still in college and had to restrain myself from picking up my lumbering school-issued PC and throwing it across the room after reading essay after essay by girls who credited the Dinsmore books for encouraging them to forgo a college education.

The series, which is available on Project Gutenburg if you feel like torturing yourself, stars Elsie Dinsmore and lauds her submission to her physically abusive father and her eventual marriage to Mr. Travilla, one of her father’s friends. Dinsmore is eight in the first book, which also features this stupendous quote from Travilla: “He (Elsie’s father) is not to take you away. I have made a bargain with him to let me keep you . . . call me papa in the future.” And so she did.

This is Vision Forum’s approach to romance. This is what they promote to their stay at home daughters. That’s why I, like Julie Anne, don’t really believe Phillips’ victim consented to the relationship. The environment in which it occurred is intrinsically coercive.

I was not a stay at home daughter. My parents had the sense to encourage me to attend college and pursue a career of my choice. But even their version of soft patriarchy granted my father a position of unreasonable power in our household and condemned me to a lifetime of submission to men.

As a college student, I became the victim of an attempted rape, the culmination of an abusive, controlling relationship. It’s something I’ve written about before on this blog, and while I don’t enjoy writing about it, I will when I think my experience is relevant. Unfortunately, it’s relevant again. You see, Christian patriarchy–even soft patriarchy– doesn’t talk about consent. It doesn’t talk about relationship abuse. It encourages men to control women, and it expects women to submit to that control. And even though I was a non-theist and a feminist by the time I survived the attack, I blamed myself for what happened. I provoked it. I’d worn pajamas around a man, and just the year before, our student chaplain had warned women that wearing pajamas around men made them think about sex. And instead of going to the police when it happened, I continued to submit.

It’s incredible, really, how even the most absurd beliefs can embed themselves inside your psyche and stay there.

I am not that girl any longer. I’m older, wiser, and a bit tougher. I suppose that’s the up side of surviving something like that. You don’t make it unless you become stronger than you were, and I do not believe I’d submit to that abuse now. I think that’s partially because I know my real enemy: Christian patriarchy, the system that had shaped me and my attacker, too.

If the Christian church is concerned about abuse, it will have to divorce itself from patriarchy in all its incarnations. It’s too late for me, and for Phillips’ victim, and for many, many others, but it’s not too late to protect the women and girls whose faith still compels them to participate in Christian community.