“My Atheist Sister” by Simone G.

Simone G., one of the top entrants to the "I Am Inspired by Ayaan" Call for Essays

**This blog was submitted to the AHA Foundation as part of an “I Am Inspired by Ayaan” Call for Essays. The statements contained herein are not the views of the AHA Foundation but instead are a personal narrative by one of our terrific supporters.**

The first time I heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was back in 2007 when I was traveling around the world. In Whangarei, New Zealand I spotted a copy of Infidel in my hosts’ living room and was intrigued enough by Ayaan’s face to pick up the book. However as soon as I saw a quote of Christopher Hitchens praising Ayaan on the cover I put Infidel back on the shelf. “There we go again,” I thought. “She’s just another one of these new atheist types, trying to convince me how stupid I am for being a Christian. Big, fat yawn.” And that could have been that.

A few months later I was walking through the tourist shops in Bangkok’s Khao San Road when I spotted another copy of Infidel, this one neatly covered in foil. I read the summary on the book’s back and made the snap decision to put down a magazine with presidential hopeful Barack Obama on it and to buy Infidel instead. And that is how I ended up spending most of the next few days in my hostel room; instead of following my backpacker routine of seeing the sights I lay for hours on my bed and read about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life.

In some ways I could have foreseen that I would be captivated by the book, I have always loved to read people’s life stories, especially the ones that give me an insight into a world and mindset different from my own. However what surprised me was that inside the pages of Infidel I did not find a militant atheist preaching at me but a woman simply telling her story, someone who was passionate as well as reasonable and who against all odds felt like a sister.

From the outside mine and Ayaan’s backgrounds couldn’t have looked more different: Here was a woman who had been born into a tribal culture and been brought up by a devout Muslim mother and who in the midst of political upheaval had moved to various countries in Africa and Asia before she had even reached adulthood. I in contrast was born behind the Iron Curtain to liberal, atheist parents and grew up in a peaceful East German town that I hardly left for the first 19 years of my life. However there are parallels in mine and Ayaan’s life stories: We both went through conversion experiences (I from atheism to Christianity, Ayaan from Islam to atheism) and had our worldviews radically altered, each one of us ended up in the fundamentalist end of our respective religions and had to learn to grow up and grow out of it and we both were left disappointed when trying to engage with liberal academia and the left in general. Since I believe in the power of stories I will tell my story and explain along the way how it relates to Ayaan’s.

I was brought up in what I call the Far East of Germany, in a small town right next to the Polish border. Because of our Socialist/Communist history more or less everyone where I come from is an atheist, it is simply seen as the indisputable truth that there is no God. The sky is blue, the grass is green, there is no God, the end. I have a childhood memory of washing the dishes in our kitchen while my mother explained to me that God did not create man but that man created God. That made a whole lot of sense to me and was pretty much the extent of my religious education. Concepts like sin and redemption, prayer and the spiritual realm are alien to most East Germans’ thinking, these ideas are seen as remnants from a dark and unenlightened past which has been put behind us through science and rational thought.

In 1999 a friend of mine called Antje went for a high school exchange year to Florida. As teenagers we had been swapping Marilyn Manson CDs and Friedrich Nietzsche books (where I come from every teenager who considers himself a bit of a radical thinker reads Nietzsche at 16) and she was the kind of person who would always argue fiercely against religion. However two months after she had arrived in the United States I heard that she had gotten baptized, she had become a Christian. In typically East German fashion we friends back home were worried that she had been brainwashed.

Antje returned to my hometown in October 2000 and invited me to a Christian meeting held by a Swiss missionary. I went with her simply out of curiosity, I had never been to anything like this before and didn’t know what to expect. The Swiss missionary talked to us about Jesus and shared some of his missionary stories, for example how he had prayed for disabled people in India and had seen them healed. I remember sitting in the audience and getting increasingly angry because it seemed crazy to me that in the 21st century anyone could still sincerely believe in this God stuff.

After the meeting I was so upset that I immediately wanted to go home and I started asking Antje aggressive questions about Christianity. She finally told me to talk to the missionary instead and though I didn’t agree with everything he had to say he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. He invited me to sit down with him and to my utter amazement we ended up talking for two hours.

The missionary told me about Jesus’ death on the cross and how Jesus had died as an exchange for mankind’s sins, which made no sense to me since with my kind of upbringing I had no concept of God existing, much less of him becoming human and dying on a cross. The missionary also told me about his own conversion experience and how God regularly spoke to him through the Bible and though most of these things seemed a bit strange to me there was something about this man, a light and warmth and kindness, that I wanted to have too. Something happened to me during that conversation, it was as if someone turned on a switch inside of me, I suddenly had a strong feeling that the visible world is not all there is, that there is another reality beyond what we can perceive with our senses. Also instead of shrugging off Jesus as just another footnote in history for the first time in my life I was able to approach the subject of faith with an open, humble curiosity.

After that conversation I went home smiling from ear to ear because I felt so ecstatic and I called my perplexed best friend to tell her that I had just met this guy who had talked to me about “Christianity!!” That night I wrote in my diary that something life-changing had happened. I instinctively knew that though it took my rational brain weeks to catch up with what was going on here, why I suddenly was so interested in going down the God path (there is a well-known passage in the Bible where it talks about being spiritually born again and where God’s Spirit is compared to the wind, we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes but we can see its effects; in the same way I can’t explain what happened to me that evening but I can see the after-effects, I suddenly had faith and I have never lost it since).

That evening in my bed I prayed my very first prayer ever, saying something along the lines of, “When I talk to myself maybe I am not the only one who can hear me but someone out there is listening too…” I had also been given a small New Testament but no one had ever taught me how to read a Bible or how to pray so I simply memorized the Lord’s Prayer (I knew this prayer was important to Christians) and I repeated it again and again while sitting on the washing machine in my family’s bathroom.

I became involved with a small group of Christians in my hometown, most of whom had recently converted from atheism to Christianity too. Through them I learned a little bit more about the faith and they suggested that I should get baptized and so publicly announce that I had become a believer in God and a follower of Jesus. I knew with a surprising clarity that I wanted this Christian thing so on 30 January 2001 I got baptized in an East German bathtub in front of a small group of fellow Christians. None of my family members attended my baptism since the whole thing was just too alien for them. Four days later I moved to London to work as an Au Pair and since my dad still didn’t know that I had become a Christian and I had no idea how to explain it to him – after all it didn’t even make sense to me – I simply wrote him a postcard saying, “London is great… by the way I have become a Christian and gotten baptised… All the best” (A gay friend of mine once pointed out how we both had a coming out experience. He had to come out to his family about his sexuality and I had to come out about having become religious. In all fairness my mother dealt pretty well with it – not that her resistance would have changed my mind anyway – she would have just been far less surprised had I for example told her that I am pregnant or a lesbian.)

My main task since then has been to reconcile this conversion experience with what I thought I knew about the world. No one had ever told me that what had just happened to me was possible, that a content and indifferent atheist like me could suddenly turn into a believer. While Ayaan with the help of rational thought has worked her way out of a pit of superstition and restrictive traditions I found myself at the opposite end of that spectrum, I was suddenly the little island of faith in a sea of atheism and no amount of logical reasoning could explain how I had ended up there. That is also the reason why I find radical atheists like Richard Dawkins so tiresome; coming from East Germany their anti-religion arguments are nothing new to me, I have heard them all since I was a little child, but these new atheists are too arrogant to even just listen to the other side of the story, to consider the opinion of someone who has traveled from atheism to faith, because in their minds believing in God equates to being a moron.

The years after my conversion turned into what I now call my ‘fundamentalist phase’. Newly converted 19-year-old me jumped straight into the world of faith and it took me several years to learn how to navigate my way around it. I had moved from a small town, predominantly white East Germany to multicultural London and joined a big, loud Pentecostal Church that was attended by over a hundred different nationalities. Despite the complete change of environment I took to London like a duck to water, I have always been a big city person at heart and meeting people from all these different cultures felt exhilarating.

However I now realize that for the first four years of being a Christian I was living in a religious bubble, cultural diversity didn’t necessarily translate into a diversity of thinking. I found myself in a church environment where people would use super-spiritual language, where going beyond acceptable Christian behavior made you a ‘backslider’ and where everyone seemed to have similar opinions since asking questions wasn’t exactly encouraged. Also we were consistently pushed to evangelize which I did not appreciate, I am happy to talk about my faith but I find treating someone as nothing more than a potential convert dehumanizing. A lot was preached about being holy and set apart from the world so for quite a while I would only read Christian books and listen to Christian music. While reading through Ayaan’s account of her years as a radical Muslim I felt a consistent sense of déjà vu, with its emphasis on evangelism, holiness and group thinking her fundamentalist phase reminded me a lot of my early years as a Christian.

As time passed I became increasingly disillusioned with my situation, church was supposed to make me feel alive and closer to God but instead I felt caged in and despite all the Pentecostal talk about miracles and wonders there was a dullness and colorlessness to that world. However I had had no previous church experience so I didn’t know what else to expect.

I have always found a refuge in music so over time I started listening to Non-Christian music again because there was a transcendence in many Non-Christian songs that was ironically lacking from church. Also starting a BA in Journalism and Contemporary History in 2004 was an important turning point for me. At university I was suddenly surrounded by all kinds of people; Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, a best friend who turned out to be gay. And just like Ayaan, whose Political Science studies had made her rethink the world, I was strongly impacted by my university classes. I took a history module entitled ‘Stalinism’ and one day while pondering what I had learned in class it suddenly dawned on me that my church had the same culture of dogmatism and group thinking that had happened under Communism. It is probably unfair to equate a church whose main problem consisted of being too pushy to an authoritarian regime that has killed millions of people but I saw the same fundamentalist attitude and discouragement of dissenting opinions at the heart of both environments, this mindset that puts an ideology, a cause above the people the ideology was created for in the first place.[1] Not long after that realization I changed churches.

However I never rejected my faith nor did I ever stop believing in God. I knew exactly where I had come from and my conversion experience had just been too remarkable for me to be able to write it off easily. Also at the heart of Christianity is the belief that through the person of Jesus we can have a direct relationship with God and this relationship is what has sustained me over the years. The faith I felt on the day of my conversion grew over time into a deep-seated desire to bring glory to God, my circumstances and the opinions of others notwithstanding, and in the last few years has developed into a full-blown love for God. It might sound crazy to an atheist but I feel an almost consistent closeness to God and at times a love for him so strongly that I have to stop myself from starting to cry in random places, like at a bus stop or while walking through a supermarket aisle.

After I finished my BA I traveled around the world for seven months and amongst other things went to the very free-spirited Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert, stayed in a Buddhist temple on top of a Japanese mountain and retraced Cambodian history by visiting Angkor Wat and looking at landmines and other reminders of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

However from these travels one seemingly innocent incident still stands out in my mind because it represents on a small scale my journey of faith. In February 2008 I flew from Australia to Japan where I was about to meet an Australian gay friend of mine. He was teaching English in Tokyo and I knew him from an online music forum but I had never met him in person. While sitting on the plane I watched Louis Theroux’s documentary The Most Hated Family in America about the Westboro Baptist Church whose members are infamous for protesting at US soldiers’ funerals and for carrying signs that say things like ‘God Hates Fags’. I was so impacted by this program that after the credits started rolling I just sat there speechless and stared at the screen for twenty minutes. What hit me was that in these Westboro Baptist hate figures I recognized parts of my former fundamentalist self. Of course my beliefs had never been anywhere near as extreme as the beliefs held by the Westboro Baptist Church but because I had been down that same road I could understand how its members had ended up traveling towards some very outrageous views, how they had become stuck in a fundamentalist cell in their brain. Maybe that is one of the reasons why Jesus asks us to love our enemies because we have far more in common with them than we would like to admit. That I had this humble realization while getting ready to meet a gay friend of mine was just the icing on the cake.[2]

During these travels I also encountered Ayaan’s writing for the first time and partly inspired by Infidel I started an MA in Social Anthropology in 2010. I saw myself delving into other cultures and mindsets just as I had done while reading Ayaan’s book, however my MA did not work out as I had imagined. I studied at London’s Goldsmiths College, the kind of liberal, arty place where people will talk a lot about social justice and want you to subscribe to publications like the Socialist Worker (As someone from a former Socialist country that always made me laugh, “Sorry mate but been there, done that.”). As the months passed I realized that something was missing, I went to classes about the History of Anthropology, the Anthropology of Rights, the Anthropology of Religion and various other subjects but the material taught just did not impact me, there were none of the sudden moments of insight I had experienced while doing my BA. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong but looking back the main issue was that the teaching was permeated with cultural relativism. Instead of having my mind opened I felt I was slowly being indoctrinated with a certain type of liberal thinking that at closer inspection turned out to be empty and toothless.

At one point I wrote an essay about Lila Abu-Lughod’s article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?[3]; partly because through Ayaan’s books I had become more aware of the situation of Muslim women worldwide and partly because Abu-Lughod’s article exemplified everything that I considered to be wrong with my Anthropology studies. In the article the author argues that the West’s obsession with the veiling and general oppression of Afghan Muslim women is just a distraction from the real issues, from the economic and structural problems that have been caused in the region by years of Western military intervention. Though I don’t think the West is without fault Abu-Lughod’s arguments for respecting the Afghan culture of veiling veer towards the ridiculous when she makes statements like the following:

“My point is to remind us to be aware of differences, respectful of other paths towards social change that might give women better lives. Can there be a liberation that is Islamic? And, beyond this, is liberation even a goal for which all women and people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language we must use?[4]

Abu-Lughod is basically arguing that Muslim women might just not be as interested in equality or self-determination as their Western counterparts are, she involuntarily dehumanizes Muslim women by turning them into an ‘other’, a different female species that just isn’t that interested in gaining basic human rights. The conclusions drawn at the end of the article are just as meaningless. Instead of offering real solutions Abu-Lughod only makes a few blanket statements about us all (but really mainly the West) having to interact peacefully and fight against global inequality so that the world can be a more just place. Abu-Lughod’s empty rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the work done by the AHA Foundation, whose practical, down-to-earth approach to combating the oppression of women is one of the main reasons why I donate to this organization on a monthly basis.

Afterwards I talked to one of my Anthropology lecturers about Abu-Lughod’s article and also mentioned cases of honor violence that had recently happened in the West. His only response was that cases like these are often used by the conservative media to exacerbate Islamophobia. My lecturer was so steeped in the kind of liberal thinking that portrays Muslims as a minority oppressed by right-wing Islamophobes that instead of looking at the root causes and victims of honor violence he just shifted the blame to the right-wing villains populating his liberal worldview.

Also as time passed I noticed a subtle indoctrination in some of my fellow students, they swallowed the liberal ideas about gender, race and religion just as easily as I had swallowed religious teachings during my time as a Christian fundamentalist. It saddened me to see people’s minds being closed in a university setting out of all places. Unsurprisingly I left university far less of a liberal than when I had entered it and since then I have had no burning desire to re-enter higher education.

The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015 has shown how far the mindset I encountered during my MA has spread beyond university walls. The Western media was quick to condemn the murders as an attack on the freedom of expression but especially in left-leaning publications like the UK’s The Guardian words of condemnation were often followed by a “but…”; “the killings were wrong… but maybe these cartoonists should have drawn less offensive cartoons”, “no one should fear for their lives when expressing their opinion… but maybe we should try to understand our fellow Muslims better and respect their religious sensibilities”, “this behavior is unacceptable… but maybe if these Muslims wouldn’t have been discriminated against because of their race and religion that wouldn’t have happened”. Freedom of expression was slowly being eroded in the name of being culturally sensitive, the mainly white and male victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were just not the right kind of victims for some members of the left. James Kirchick in his brilliant article Rock, Paper, Scissors of PC Victomology (which has the subheading Muslim > gay, black > female, and everybody > the Jews) sums up nicely the mindset through which parts of the left have maneuvered themselves into an ideological dead-end:

“The discussion of vital issues today has been reduced to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which the validity of one’s argument is determined not by the strength of your reasoning but by the relative worth of the immutable qualities you bring to the table, be it skin color, sexual orientation, or genitalia (or, in the case of pre-operative transsexuals, wished-for genitalia). In the game of Race, Gender, Sexuality, black beats white, woman beats man, trans beats cisgender, and gay (or, preferably, “queer”) beats straight. In recent years, as the liberal imagination has grown to embrace new victim groups, supplementary categorical rules have been added to this list: Trans beats gay and Muslim beats black. ”[5]

I have no intention of declaring everyone on the left as closed-minded and unaware of the shortcomings of their worldview, after all on the political spectrum I am still leaning towards the left myself. However because of my personal experiences with Socialism, religious fundamentalism, radical atheism and narrow-minded liberals I am wary of any group that displays dogmatic qualities, that deems a cause as more important than people, that suppresses dissenting opinions and that exalts some people groups and vilifies others.

Herein lies also the reason why the two organizations I give to regularly are the AHA Foundation and the Peter Tatchell Foundation. I might not agree with their founders on the existence of God but I very much agree with their principled but still down-to-earth approach to fighting injustice. For example I first saw Peter Tatchell at an event entitled “Organized Religion is the Greatest Global Threat to Human Rights” and though I can’t say I agree with that statement (as history has proven humans don’t suddenly ascend to a state of justice and peace just because religion is taken out of the picture) I admire the man for his purity of motive, he will fight for the rights of absolutely everyone, whether that person is Jewish, gay, black, female, Muslim, transgender or a heterosexual white male. In the same way I admire Ayaan for addressing the issues many others are afraid to talk about while still coming across as reasonable and relatable. I am even more amazed that threats to her life have not stopped her from pursuing justice and though I am not sure I would have the same kind of courage in her place I will certainly keep on supporting her along the way.

 

 

[1]          Jesus talks about this in the Gospels when saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The main recipients of his anger were normally the religious leaders of his day who put their interpretation of the Mosaic Law above the people who were supposed to benefit from the law. Jesus called these leaders “hypocrites” and rebuked them for being so over-zealously religious that they tithed everything, even a tenth of their spices, but at the same time neglected “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness”. Unsurprisingly they were the ones who ended up sentencing him to death on a cross.

[2]          Another facet to that story is that my friend went down his own fundamentalist road shortly after I visited him in Tokyo. He read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and was so impacted by the book that he spent the next few months trying to convert people to his atheistic point of view and argued with everyone about the evils of religion. It got to a point where we decided not to discuss the subject of faith at all in order to keep our friendship intact and I simply waited for him to come off his zealous high. Today he lives in London and is one of my best friends.

[3]          Abu-Lughod, Lila, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist. Volume 104, No. 3 (September 2002): p.783-790

[4]          Ibid., p.788

[5]          Kirchick, James (2015, February 26). “Rock, Paper, Scissors of PC Victimology”. Tablet Magazine. Retrieved from http://tabletmag.com

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