Secularity, the concept of keeping ideas and thoughts separate from religious beliefs, presents itself in many forms, and is accepted in varying degrees throughout the world. This year’s Snider Lecture titled “The Muslim Enlightenment: The Rise of Secular Thought among Young Muslims,” held on Tuesday October 2, explored the potentially severe consequences of atheism and secular thought in countries dominated by Islam.
Dr. Ali. A Rizvi, an oncologic pathologist and award-winning author who made the decision to turn away from religion and become an “ex-Muslim,” lead the conversation.
Although Rizvi has chosen to turn away from religion, this does not imply that he condemns the practice of religion. “I believe strongly in freedom of religion. But a really important part of that freedom of religion is a freedom from religion. In a free society, that means respecting both someone’s right to practice their religion, and my right to challenge and criticize it,” Rizvi says.
Rizvi emphasizes the pronounced differences between challenging ideas and beliefs and demonizing people. “Because of my name and because of where I’m from and how I look, even though I am an atheist, I still get called a Jihadist or a dirty Muslim terrorist online quite a bit.” Islam itself is a set of ideas originating from its religious text, the Quran. To emphasize the difference in treatment between people and texts, Rizvi says that, “people have rights and are entitled to respect, [but] books, ideas, and labels don’t, and aren’t.”
Continuing on, Rizvi pulled up a 2012 study conducted by Gallup, an international public agency. Although the rising controversy of secular Muslims has garnered attention by major news outlets, Rizvi explains that “a lot of this kind of polling isn’t done very often, it’s increasing now,” highlighting how many secularists in the Muslim community refrain from speaking out because of the risk. According to the study, within Saudi Arabia, 19 per cent of surveyed individuals reported a non-religious stance, a further 5 per cent identified as convinced atheists. “We have every reason to believe that these poll members are underreported because of the taboos and the dangers that are associated with criticizing religion,” Rizvi says.
As the Enlightenment of the 18th century ushered in radical change and challenged traditional authority, secular Muslims gradually introduce new methods of thought in a similar manner through mediums of the 21st century.
Rizvi believes that the advent of the Internet acts as the primary driving force behind the insurgence of ex-Muslim activity. The Quran, being traditionally printed in Arabic, was largely inaccessible to those that were not fluent in the language. The internet has made this barrier a near non-factor for many individuals and the Quran has now become easy to simply analyze at face value. “What took me months and years to learn, any twelve-year-old can today just pull up online by keyword search,” he explains.
Beyond accessibility, the Internet has also allowed movements to gain more momentum than ever before, with Twitter being a notable medium to facilitate such causes.
To conclude, Rizvi notes a double standard that typically exists among separate religions. Devout Christians, as an arbitrary example, are often ridiculed by many for possessing homophobic or misogynistic beliefs. “When the same ideas come from Islamic communities, they just sort of throw their hands up and they say, […] ‘we have to respect it. This is their culture.’”
The prevalence of such a double standard possesses implications of bigotry; that those of the Islamic faith are not capable of enduring thoughtful, harsh dialogue.