A program of the Center for Inquiry
What changed my mind about Islam? I’d like to think that my mind changed me.
My earliest memory—or at least my most emotionally pungent—was watching human blood trickling into an open sewer in Karbala, Iraq. The country was then a year away from Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex a neighboring country and thirteen years away from his statue being pulled to the ground by American tanks. It was Ashura, commemorated by Shia Muslims as the day that Muhammad’s grandson Hussain Ibn Ali martyred himself, his troops, and their families on the swords of the armies of the Syrian King Yazid, who had attempted to change the Sunnah (the teachings of Muhammad) in the seventh century. On Ashura in some parts of the Islamic world, men walk through the streets atoning for the death of Hussain by flagellating their own bodies with chains that are sometimes attached to blades. I remember watching this in Karbala and even then thinking about the pointlessness of the whole spectacle.
When I grew older, I attributed the similarities between Shia self-mutilation and the self-crucifixion of Filipino Catholics at Easter time to coincidence, and not—as I would yet later learn—that literal and servile interpretations of Iron-Age fictions tend to mimic one another.
The day the Twin Towers fell, I was living in Canada. Morning classes at my university were cancelled. I ran back to my dorm room and watched the footage of the collapse over and over again. Shattering despair almost overwhelmed me. That night, in the prayer room of the Muslim Students’ Association, the young imam paranoiacally warned his panicked congregation (of which I felt like a sham member) that the white man’s gaze would result in a calculated witch-hunt of all the Muslim students on campus. The imam’s predicted witch-hunt never came, but growing concern about the politically correct way to deal with Islamic reactionaries began to threaten any honest discourse about religion in my classes. I remember being in a political science class and losing my temper because a fellow student had (correctly) claimed that Muhammad had the “sketchy” habit of marrying young girls. At the time I still considered myself a Muslim. I angrily told the presenter that his use of the word sketchy was offensive—in that idiotic way that people say, “to me as a Muslim”—even though he’d used it accurately. That moment and that diatribe are things I feel remorse for, because my sense of outrage cannot be measured purely by the force with which I feel it.
I remember watching Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry debate religion with Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe and finding myself moved by Hitchens’s sincerity in defending Fry against the barbaric ideas that would condemn his friend for his sexuality. “Hitch” would later describe the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie as the moment when the fog between everything he loved and hated would lift. In Hitch-22, he wrote that the role of the public intellectual was to argue for complexity, yet when the time came, to argue for simplicity to avoid obfuscating things. The divide between the literal and the ironic was for me the divide between my friends and my enemies; of barbarism, despair, and the toxic union of self-pity, self-hatred, and self-righteousness going against fatherhood, friendship, comedy, intellectual curiosity, movies, rock ’n’ roll, even the all-important mini-skirt: all the things that collectively gave—and still give—me the fleeting feeling that life does have a point.
I consider myself an atheist, an a-Deist, and an anti-theist. I consider all religions to be part of the same unnecessary fiction about a prime mover in the creation of the universe. And I find the bleating proselytisms of the Abrahamic religions, in particular, poisonous and insulting to our relationships with one another and the natural world.
Outside my window, the city recovers from a snowstorm. The gray, wet sidewalks that once saw solitary walkers and people waiting for the bus after the late-night shift now stand witness to salt stains and scraped knees. The sun peeks through the clouds today; there is small talk around the office about spring. Louis Pasteur once observed that chance only occurs to the prepared mind. I’d like to take issue with that, because one might think that it involves a conscious will to get somewhere in particular. I left religion because I never thought I had a choice—everything I love versus everything I hated: where’s the choice in that?
My memories have the curious ability to contort themselves into narratives, and so, mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator—change only the names and this story is about you.
Reef al-Khalil lives in the gray port city of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. He divides his time between being a father, watching movies, reading fat books, and grumbling all through the Christmas season.