This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, November 18, 2014.
I’m Josh Zepps host of Harpo’s Life. This is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Speaking out against one’s religion is always a tricky business. Never more so than when the religion is speaking out against Islam. Final say on Matar is an Iraqi writer, public speaker, social activist who founded the Global Secular Humanist Movement. He joins us to discuss his life, his Athie ism, Islam and the Western world. Feisal. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate it.
So I’m fascinated to know, first of all, about your early years, your formative years in Iraq. You were born in 1981, is that right?
Yeah, yeah. I was born right after the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was was the president. And I lived almost half of my life in Iraq under his regime. So I started elementary school during Saddam and then the rest after the American invasion.
Yeah. And just to clarify, when you say the first Gulf War, you don’t mean that you were born you were born. Sorry, in nineteen nineteen ninety one.
Yes. Yes. As was the war on Kuwait. Yes. Iraq. Invasion of Kuwait. What was life like?
It’s really hard to describe. I mean, you have that tyrant who everybody is afraid to criticize, everybody who is afraid to even talk about anything negative. My first school of elementary school, you’ll have to stand up and say, may God save Tom Flynn saying so whatever to the future of the class. All the students have to stand up and pray, slapped down for saying that his picture is everywhere around the country. He made a fake elections that he won eventually by one hundred percent. Everybody voted for him. He had two crazy sons, Uday Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein, that if the war didn’t happen and he wasn’t out, we would have somebody like them to be the president. So it was really a continuous life under fear. Leave aside complete control of the media. There were only about three channels then. All of them are controlled by the regime. You’re not allowed to travel outside the country. The Internet’s only kind of start being open. And he opened the Internet. About 99 percent of the Web sites are closed. So you can only open the Web sites. Saddam Hussein approves of.
Yes. So you were 10 when 9/11 happened. Is that right?
Yes, I think so, yeah.
So do you remember do you remember in the late 90s and around the millennium when you were eight years old, nine years old, what the mood was like in your household?
Did your parents talk about Saddam Hussein? Were they able to talk about Saddam Hussein? Were they able to talk about democracy, about. About religion? What was the mood like or was it very closed?
Well, I mean, when it comes to 9/11, in my elementary school, the headmaster made the celebration day the day after 9/11 happened. And they were they were asking students to recite the Hadith and Koran. As for my family, I mean, I come from a Shia family. I’m originally from Babylon. But then we moved to Baghdad when I was eight and none of us were members of the Baath Party. And we’re obviously very critical of Saddam, not only inside the household. I always used to be warned by my dad and my boss never to talk anything outside the household. A box about my parents are liberal. They are off to America just recently, by the way.
All right. How long you came as a refugee as well, right? How long have you been in the States?
I’ve been one year and a half. Welcome. Thank you. So my parents are liberal.
I mean, they’re Muslims, but they are very highly liberal and very educated. My dad is a medical doctor and my mom is a lawyer. And religion was the much discussed in the house.
And were they able to practice? Was your father able to practice as a as a doctor and your mother as a lawyer, even though they weren’t members of the Baath Party under Saddam Hussein?
Yes. But you cannot really succeed much. I mean, his salary was extremely low compared to many other doctors. I mean, as far as I remember, it used to be like five dollars a month or something. And so it really depends on how close you are to Saddam Hussein and that’s how much money you will make. Mm hmm. It was really difficult.
Do you remember your parents reaction after 9/11?
I mean, they were very upset, actually, and they talked about how this radical Islam is a very terrible thing. And the people that were targeted at 9/11 had nothing to do with anything. They were just normal people. And I mean, there is a lot of hatred against America in Iraq because of the sanctions.
But my parents said that nothing justifies this.
And do you remember being 10, 11, 12 years old in the lead up to the Iraq war when it was clear that America was keen on invading? Were you afraid? Were you looking forward to it? Did you know what to think about it?
I had mixed feelings. I mean, and I still do about the Iraq war. I was optimistic. I mean, I did have a very idealistic ideals in America.
But at the same time, I still remain skeptical because Saddam was not a the problem, obviously. I mean, Saddam is just a problem out of many. And we didn’t really know what to expect. My dad that I remember talked about that things may actually get worse because a lot of people are going to start revenge. And like these people who were privileged, Europe, Saddam Hussein’s regime, are not just going to leave it and say, oh, well, come democracy and let’s all look together and we are seeing their effects right now.
Do you remember seeing American troops for the first time in your city in Baghdad?
Yes. Like we live by the Air Force. And that’s where the United States entered Baghdad from. And a lot of the fights happened in front of our house, actually, American soldiers, one of the first foreigners I met in my life.
So it was kind of awkward moments. And I was a child that I just kept looking at the men of them. Actually, at the beginning. The American army used to be very friendly. But then things have changed after they started getting attacked and stuff. You weren’t scared of them? Not really. No, because actually they were like there was like a smile on their face that they were very friendly in the first week. So, like, they put the tanks in front on the highway and many of them, they were like saying, hi and how are you? Things like this. And I mean, my English wasn’t that good. Baghdad obviously just kept chatting with them for a while. And yeah, I mean, I had a lot of pleasant conversations.
So you kept living there as the as the security situation in Iraq deteriorated.
Do you remember a moment in 2004 or 2005 as things were getting worse, maybe 2006 where it was it was clear that this just wasn’t working out?
Yeah. I mean, when I went to a school, called in with a magazine, which is for people with high IQ, that means that distinguished and like in the first two weeks attending that then there was a suicide bomber went and blew up the police station in front of the front of the school.
And that was in 2004. And then they they start shelling like they started firing at my high school. And the headmaster, I remember, asked all the students to leave the school.
So me and a friend of mine, we were jumping from place to place to stay alive. And a lot of the houses, like we wanted to go to our house. Then the house kicked us out. They felt that we were a terror terrorist or something. And then I had to walk all the way back home, which was like ten, fifteen miles away and all of that. And the and the battle was still going on and things started getting worse, much worse in 2006. That’s when they blow up the Alaska mosque and west of west Baghdad got controlled by al-Qaeda. So al-Qaeda and I come from a Shia family. So I had to use a fake I.D. I suddenly fake I.D. when I passed the checkpoint. It helped that said, my life sometimes right at the same time. They used to close the streets by dead bodies of Shia people, but they start targeting.
She asked students and called about four or five teachers in my high school last year and the whole Muj like in 2005, 2006, the whole mood turned extremely sectarian. So your last name, which which is like your tribal name. Which decide what? How that. That’s how people know in Iraq, whether they are Sunni or Shia. It’s from the last name. Your last name became like the most important thing on your survival, because if you’re going to go through al-Qaida checkpoint and you’re a Shiite now, you’re going to be killed. And if you go through al-Mahdi Army checkpoint and you’re Irish, suddenly you’re going to be killed as well.
Did everyone just have to I.D.?
Not really. Baghdad became segregated. Al-Qaeda pretty much killed everyone who is a Shia in west Baghdad, or they ask them to leave their houses. And the Sunnis also were kicked out the front with Shiite Shiite dominated places. So the Sunnis are stuck working at Sunni implications and the Shia start looking a shot, Shia dominated areas. So Baghdad pretty much got segregated.
Did your parents talk about leaving Baghdad?
They think there’s like my parents are very old and they didn’t really feel a lot of motivation to leave because it’s just like they feel more comfortable at home and stuff. For me, I wanted to leave, says Saddam Hussein. I bet in real estate. And I don’t really see anything positive gonna happen in the next place in this decade. This situation is going to continue being a stalemate. But the reason my parents cameras simply is because every one of the families in the West right now. And also, I mean, that killing of my eldest brother contribute to that.
When did that happen? That happened in late 2007. How did it happen?
Well, I mean, he was actually going to walk in with two of his friends and he was stopped by one of these checkpoints that I talked with you about.
And then he disappeared. And we don’t know anything about him since then. But my prediction is that he got killed.
The period during which this is all happening and the whole thing is falling apart into this incredible mess is a period when your 15 years old, you’re 16 years old, you’re at a time in your life, which is ordinarily very confusing for people. You’re starting to you’re starting to grow into an adult. You’re dealing with all of these hormones and these weird feelings and everything.
How did you get through it? Did you read a lot? Were you able to go on dates or anything?
How did you keep your mind centered and evolve some kind of outlook on the world that you obviously have now evolved because you’re such a kind of public intellectual?
When you were going through that trauma, I mean, I went through a lot of phases of depression seeing all of this going on. But I think it really became I would call it an Iraqi mentality. I mean, you live in a situation in which, like, you never know what’s going to happen the next hour. You may live with you may die. So, I mean, I’ve I’ve had this outlook that I don’t need to focus on the present and I really need to focus on getting myself out of this place. When I saw all of this happening, I kept my mind focused mostly on the future. And that’s actually how I kept my optimism and I thought reading a lot. I’m a huge fan of philosophy myself, that my motto of life from Jefferson said that I’m a huge to believe, but I’m like, the more I work hard, the more I see of it. Yeah, I took that vision and I continued with it until I left Iraq back in 2009.
What were you reading? And were you outspoken at the time? Was it was it possible for you to air any any thoughts, any philosophies while you were in Iraq without fearing for your life when the Iraqi elections happened back in 2005?
That was the first elections seeing all the sectarian moves happening in Baghdad. I was very afraid that if if an Islamic party, mainly a Shiite party or a Sunni party, won, they going to take over. Things are getting worse. And I was brought up, unfortunately, because they only going to focus on their sect and they going to increase the hatred which already exists. That has been going on for hundreds of years. So I started getting very vocal about supporting secular candidates from 2005 until I left. Then I started writing blogs here and there and conversations with people in public and make them feel ashamed of themselves for supporting sectarian parties. Obviously, that didn’t go well, but I have no regrets over it. And I still do it even when I’m in America. I keep writing and like I write sometimes in Arabic and to Arabic news outlets, and I continue to make them feel guilty and they should about the continuous destruction of my country.
Your outspoken as an atheist. As a secularist, obviously. Do you feel at all like a Muslim? Does Islam play any role in your life?
Definitely. I mean, I grew up in Muslim dominated country and I live in Muslim countries until I came to America. So Islam was around me all the time. And Muslims, I would say, because Islam is an ideology saved up enough, like disagrees on that. But I mean, I think we studied Islam for 12 years in Iraq in public education. And I understood it. And I did a lot of research on it and made a lot of discussions with a lot of scholars. Then it had a big effect in a way that it controlled most of my life. And knowing the regulations and knowing what the talk and I mean, I still use when I talk in Arabic, I still use a lot of religious words, because even if you are an atheist, like maybe you are non religious and you don’t say like when somebody tells you something while I call or something like this and you don’t respond with the same religious tone, you’re probably going to put your life in danger. So you’ll have to learn how to live Islamic Clie even if you’re not a Muslim. Things like Ramadan, which is a fasting month and holidays, lol. I mean, even though I would say that especially Baghdad, when it comes to Iraq and obviously Kurdistan, but that’s kind of a different country. It’s is that it’s more open up eating in public. I mean, you can do it to some extent, but there’s some other places. But I mean, that’s downtown Baghdad. But if you are outside of downtown and you eat in public, you may also put your life in danger if you are in the south or if you are in those places like Fallujah, everybody.
And if it’s something in public you may get killed of. So knowing Islam and knowing how to regulate your behavior is very important.
You mentioned Ben Affleck there for people who don’t get the reference. Some weeks ago, he was on Bill Maher’s show on HBO and Sam Harris was another guest. And they were talking about the difficulty that Western liberals have in talking honestly and openly about the challenges that radical Islam poses. And Affleck took the exquisitely predictable, politically correct, progressive, liberal line of saying that there is nothing Islamic whatsoever about Islamic extremists and that to even suggest that they are motivated by religion is to impugn an entire is to impugn all Muslims. How do you think that Western liberals ought to think about the conversations that they have around Muslim extremism?
Yeah, I mean, I’m in my view, on on Islamic extremism in this way. I mean, if I mean using common sense is that if the ideology itself is peaceful, as many people claim, we will see that the Islamic extremist and Islamic fundamentalist will be the most peaceful people on Earth. By this logic, because if the ideology of the fundamentals of the ideology are our piece, we will see that the Muslim fundamentalist tend to be the most peaceful people. And we’re not seeing that, obviously. And what’s happening when it comes to the discussion of Islam? It’s obviously true to say that Muslims are not monolithic as people. There is no group of people that is monolithic. But it’s also fair to say that the percentage of people who are who follow Orthodox interpretation of Islam, I’m not a minority in the Muslim world. And, well, actually cared about is that the view that adulterers should be stoned to death or when it comes to women are being second class citizens or views about homosexuals and et cetera? These people have to be killed or for committing adultery or homosexuality is not a minority view within the Muslim world. But the worst places to be a homosexual and to be a woman in this world tend to be a Muslim native country. There are 13 countries that executed people for being atheists, are free thinkers and skeptics. And all of these 13 countries are Muslim democratic countries. These are facts. These are statistics. And these are laws that exist in these nations. And we are seeing a news every day about people executed for this reason. So Islam is definitely not a race. That’s a fact. It’s true that Muslims in America are minority and liberals tend to champion this subject of minority rights. So what they are afraid of and I think that they have good intentions. I don’t think that Ben Affleck is evil. Are people like him are evil. But what happens is that they think that if we’re going to criticize Islam, that’s going to increase the rate of hatred against Muslims in America and Muslims in America out of minority. And we shouldn’t protect them for what this is to some extent has some validity to it. But it’s also a very bad way to deal with the topic of Islam because Muslims behave so differently. Actually, that’s a lot of studies done on this topic, is that when a group of people is a minority, they behave so differently than when they are the majority. And when we talk about the Muslim world, we’re obviously not talking about America because it’s not part of the Muslim world. And Muslims make what minority? And I’ve met a lot of Muslim progressives. And here’s actually the proof of what I’m saying is that most of the Muslim progressives live in the West.
What you see here in America of this open minded Muslims is mentally ill Western phenomena because they have integrated to the culture over here. So Islam is a planet cholesterol in their life. And it’s not dictating their life versus if they were living in the Muslim world.
So when we’re talking about Islam and what Muslims believe. We’re obviously talking more about Muslims who live in countries in which they make up 99 percent or even more than 50 percent compared here in America in which they make one percent. And nobody takes. I mean, people like Reza Aslan and or Jelly talks about these topics on on the media. Nobody takes him seriously in the Muslim world that I support moderates and reformers all the way. But I think what is this on the front? These people are they say that this is what all Muslims are like or this is what Islam is like. And if you go walk the detail, I mean, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, actually has a page in Islamic studies.
And Reza Aslan thinks that people would I actually wrote that e-mail for him. I told him that if you all to look for people who have the credentials to talk about Islam, maybe you should have a discussion with Baghdadi because both of you guys have a credential spoke about Islam. So obviously, people like Reza Aslan and others are not in any sense that representative of what the majority of Muslim world believes.
They certainly seem to be representative of what the majority of Western liberals believe. How do you respond to you know, here’s the thing that he will constantly say is Islam is not monolithic. There is no single version of Islam. There is ISIS’s version. But then there’s also the version that more than one hundred million Indonesians believe where they get up in the morning and they lead normal lives. You go to Malaysia and look at how women are treated. These are perfectly normal societies that manage to integrate Islam into into what we would regard as being perfectly tolerant ways of living.
Well, I mean, Indonesia is always used as like the perfect example.
It’s the one. They’ve got two examples is Indonesia and Malaysia. That’s that’s it. That is always it.
Yeah. They lived in Malaysia. Actually, there are about 14 percent or 15 percent of Indonesians who believe that other states should be killed. And that’s about 40 million people. So Nick Kristoff actually mentioned that this is like in New York City. Look, there is only 40 or 40 million people who believe that they should be killed. That’s love. Looked like a very important figure. That is what is like the racism of low expectations. Indonesia. So much behind when it comes to human rights. Yes, obviously they are better than Afghanistan. But is it really good as we think as it is? Imagine if a Republican, a social conservative Republican, say that he is against gay marriage and we will see all the liberals getting so angry. Look at how much a bigot this person is and how much he’s backward then. But how about in Indonesia? The majority of people are against gay marriage. They’re trying to paint this beautiful image of how Indonesia is like. It’s not really. Yes, it is better, obviously. And I and I agree with the point that Muslims and Islam is not monolithic. But the best version, if they cannot use Indonesia as the best version of Islam, they are really putting a very low standard. It’s just like saying that Sarah Palin is an intelligent. That’s. You are. You’re setting a very low standard for intelligence. If you say that you are setting a very low standards for human rights, if you think that Indonesia is kind of an exemplar for all of the best version of Islam.
So do you think that Muslims have to leave the faith in order to detach themselves from that, or is there a way to be a nominal Muslim? The way I suppose your parents are where you are.
You’re Muslim, you’re a believer, but you’re secular and you don’t want it to have anything to do with politics.
Yes, I mean, I think that it truly depends on how would they be able to do it and where. I mean, Islam needs information. That’s something that I think nobody should deny. And on a pragmatic level, I mean, I don’t really care if people still believe in religion, but they are good people. What I care about is action. I mean, obviously, if we’re going to say it’s logically consistent to support gay marriage and still believe in Islam, of course it’s not. But if you’re going to support gay marriage and then maintain belief in Islam, then that’s good.
How would they be able to do it?
That’s a I think that there is definitely needs to be an honest conversation about these verses that advocate for violence and advocate for segregation and discrimination in the Koran and the Hadith, because denying the existence of them is definitely a problem. That is a problem of religious moderates. I like religious reformers than just moderates. The difference is that reformers acknowledge the existence of these verses and they say we have to ignore them or we have to to some extent have new interpretations other than little interpretations of they. That may not sound logical, but it’s definitely far, much better than to deny that Islam has anything to do with violence. That is, I think, the problem of religious moderates, and that’s why I don’t like it. I don’t think that religious moderation is the problem. That’s the solution. Religious, religious sort of formation is the solution is acknowledgment. So having an honest discussion about the faith is definitely a very important thing to do. And I don’t think that it’s necessarily for them to leave the faith. I mean, we have we have seen it in Christianity in which you’ll see Christians say and I live in Washington, D.C. and I have a lot of churches actually around that supports marriage equality and things like that. And they follow the logic that Jesus loves everybody. And that’s cool, though. That’s what they want to believe. That’s cool. But at the same time, they ignore all the verses in the Bible about everything that talks about violence. So if something like this can happen to Islam, I’m not. I mean, we always think of things like, oh, well, Christianity got reformed. Islam is gonna have its way. We don’t really have a 300 years to wait. That’s number one, because what we have is extremely destructive technology right now. That’s religious extremism can actually destroy the whole world. I mean, before it was religious extremism existed. But it’s not as powerful as it is now, not because of the numbers, but because of the technology. We cannot really wait for an organic formation. We have to push for a formation. We cannot just sit down and wait. That’s number one. And number two is that Islam itself is much less bendable and much less open to reinterpretation versus Christianity. And that goes into back to the history of the faith and how it was formed. And who is the role model of that faith. I mean, you have I if you’re going to make a comparison between Jesus and Mohammad and what these people are going to be compared to. So mostly Jesus is compared to a philosopher or like a hippie guy who who who was talking about stuff versus Mohammad is always gently compared to people like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and he was himself a warrior. So that image plays a very major role in who do you think is your role model, the life. So I’m not really sure how an Islamic reformation can happen, but I do know that without acknowledgments of these problems in Islamic doctrine, a true reformation will not happen and moderation is not the solution.
What do you think the long term game plan is for humanity? Are you an optimist or a pessimist in light of what’s going on with ISIS or even just in your country? What how do you think things are going to unfold in the 21st century?
So when it comes to my weather, I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I think I have mixed feelings. As I said, it’s like I believe in getting shit done. I’m not really huge believer, like things that are gonna be OK if we’re not going to work hard for it.
And I have when it comes to Iraq, I mean, there are signs of hope. If you’re going to go in Kurdistan, I mean, it’s pretty much a success story of the US invasion of Iraq in terms of their respect for human rights and not not try to paint a very beautiful image. I mean, they also have some problems. But at the same time, they are doing far, much better than provinces in the south and the west. So, I mean, Kurdistan is picking up Bush a lot. The international community to kind of make Kurdistan a success story in the region and in that way that a lot of people can follow it as a role model within the Middle East and within Iraq in particular, because they are going to see that, oh, look, Kurdistan is doing better because they have this system of they have this constitution, they had better leaders. They have leaders who follow this type of ideologies while we are screwed. And the problem is look at our leaders and look at our values. And we need to they don’t need we need to look at the media to see New York and then decide, but rather look at a place and a province which is a hundred miles away. So I think that Kurdistan can play a role in changing people’s ideas. But for now, ISIS is not the only problem or ISIS did not come out of nowhere. It came as a result of a lot of bad decisions since the war and the sectarian mood and the sectarian culture that exists in Iraq and that leadership of those lot of parties. So a lot of things have to change at the moment. We’re just going to kill all of ISIS, all of those who are members of ISIS. In just a few weeks, you’re going to see and you’ve growth coming down just like al-Qaida. We’ve got to out a lot. Then one week later, al-Qaida got Ayman al Zawahiri. So it’s not like they are just a bunch of crazy people. And if you kill them, that’s all. Mission accomplished. It’s definitely an ideological warfare. I mean, a lot of this was done on how to how to make the concept of jihad less appealing to people. And that’s something that Colin Foundation has actually worked a lot to on the idea of martyrdom and jihad and heaven. I read a lot of the terrorist actually magazine published them in Arabic. And I read a lot of their articles. And most of the articles talk about how beautiful jihad is. They actually really have a marketing strategy of appealing to young men. And they also also talk about identity. You’ll see that these people like who are fighting with ISIS right now. They come from a lot of countries. It’s Iraqis mainly. That’s true. But many of them come from outside. And what’s what’s the bringing them from the U.K., from France, from Canada, from Australia. Is this issue of identity? Is that when they see other Muslims are fighting. They feel that they should stand by them. So the solution is definitely is going to be to ruin this concept of moderate them and jihad and makes it make it less appealing because the problem is not going to. ISIS is just an example of this, just like the end of the bubble. It’s just it’s the conclusion of Islamic extremists. And it has it has taken so many forms. I mean, Boko Haram and so many other terrorist groups that exist in other parts of the world for completely different reasons. It’s definitely the logical workwear. And that’s the situation of stalemate, which is now the situation in Iraq and Syria as well. Is that what you have is. Areas controlled by the government, which are Wolseley, belong to the same sect of the government. I mean, not what the government controls in Iraq. The Iraqi government is mostly the Shiite areas of Iraq. Most of the Sunni dominated provinces are controlled by ISIS. So this situation is going to continue until the concept of these guys are infidels. And we cannot talk to them. And that’s that’s a belief shared by both sides. I mean, not al-Maliki was the prime minister of Iraq, encountered sectarianism. He’s a Shia version of Islamic extremism. Maybe not as extreme as ISIS, obviously, but the whole mood has to change. And that’s going to take lots of hard work and lots of time.
Feisal, you’ve said that many Western liberals have betrayed moderate Muslims and have betrayed liberals in the Middle East and other Muslim countries. This is an opportunity to speak to an audience of probably majority progressive Western people who really should be your allies. Wrap this up here. What would you what would you say to us?
Well, listen to our stories. That’s number one. And look at the fox. Stop using this example of. Well, I have this Muslim friends and he is not a terrorist.
And therefore, any criticism of Islam under this concept that when you criticize Islam means you’re criticizing all Muslims and you’re generalizing on all all Muslims.
That is that there is a difference between talking about doctrine and ideas and people. That’s what needs to be differentiate within liberal mindsets, because that’s how Ben Affleck responded. It’s very obvious that they were talking about a doctrine and ideas and those who take and they’re going to talk about people, those who take the extreme version of these ideas. So we’re not talking about your hypothetical. Friend that you grew up with in West Virginia and a lot of people, personal lives. Whenever somebody talks about lost loved ones, they always think about the people that they know. And whenever they want American Muslims and they always have this positive image of Islam and wild reality, when Islam is dominating force in this country, in countries like Pakistan and Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it’s a completely different equation.
Yeah. Feisal, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. Great to talk to you.
Thank you. Our interview with.