Readers: I received the below email from a “James Adams” (which s/he discloses is a pseudonym) in October of this year. It is an apology for abuse s/he subjected me to on Twitter.
As someone who addresses issues many find sensitive or controversial, I regularly receive hateful tweets, emails and Facebook messages. Some of this hateful behavior has even turned into real-life stalking. Threats and intimidation are a regular occurrence. I do struggle with how often to discuss these challenges as I find that many sensationalize human rights work by making themselves and other activists into living martyrs, making activism fit for TV rather than for social change. At the same time, I do believe that the targeting of women activists with stalking, rape threats and other kinds of harassment needs to be more widely discussed and more proactively addressed.
I won’t deny that periods of risk have contributed to periods of silence on this blog. A stack of police reports and a personal routine focused on staying safe speak to the many dangers this work presents. The words of Karima Bennoune resonate: “everything looks different once you have seen ‘death to’ before your name,” but I do my best to make every day a meditation on the bounty with which I am blessed and the privilege in which and with which I operate. Others fought and died for the enormous freedoms I have. People continue to be tortured, imprisoned and killed for demanding basic freedoms. If I don’t use the freedoms I have to help others secure and maintain theirs, I don’t deserve them at all. Ultimately, I choose to live life, not focus on how it may end.
The email below is not the first email of this nature I have received. Occasionally, I will receive an email from someone who sent me abusive messages on social media or to my email. Sometimes, individuals bravely tell me who they are, what they sent to me when they bullied me, and what they were dealing with at the time that inspired them to behave in the way that they did. In many cases their emailed apologies are touching, and I respond positively. In all cases, I do my best to see sincerity in the apology and move forward constructively, even if I do not respond.
This particular message, however, left me thinking: who needs these apologies? When abuse happens in a public forum (like Twitter), who is silenced? I am not, even if I am afraid for my personal safety. But others might be. That is why I am responding to “James Adams” here, rather than via email. My response follows his or her original message.
The original message from “James Adams” is captured here in a screenshot, and is also copied and pasted below the screenshot for easier reading:
I want to preface this by saying that I am an Ex-Muslim agnostic now.
Firstly, sorry for the long email. I do hope you go through all of it.
Secondly, I want to let you know that I’m writing this email under a pseudonym for fear of exposing my identity and to make sure you don’t think it is my real name.
Thirdly, I started using twitter several months ago. At the time, I was one of those fundamentalist and literalist-types. I was against progressive Muslims like yourself and agreed with all the traditional Islamic interpretations on homosexuality, apostates, the niqab, rape and all the various other controversial areas. I came across your twitter handle a few days later (I can’t remember how though) and I concluded, at the time, that you were “engaging in bid’ah (innovations)” by trying to modify the traditional Islamic narrative. One picture, in particular, which set me off the edge was from some Ahmedi conference you visited because I considered the Ahmedis as the “kuffaar” at the time. So, because of all of this, I started trolling and saying hurtful things to defend what I felt my religion stated.
Later on, I was blocked by you and eventually suspended by twitter. After that, I started looking around twitter and started going through the links, the council of ex-Muslims posted, especially the videos debunking the scientific miracle claims in the Quran. Then I moved on to watching other Youtube shows like the magic sandwich show and the jinn and tonic show, and then finally, I started reading and listening to people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Since I am from a Muslim country, this was the first time I had been exposed to the perspective of the atheists. After listening to all of this and doing some of my own research, I realised that my conviction in the divine nature of the Quran was based on false claims.
I became an agnostic henceforth and I find myself in a persecuted minority, just like you find yourself in (Well you would if you lived in a Muslim country). I haven’t even told my parents about my deconversion, My contempt for Ahmedis, homosexuals, ex-Muslims, Shias, the West, all vanished as soon my childhood indoctrination was removed.
Several months after interacting with you, I felt the need to do something about the pain my comments caused to the point that I am paranoid now (Not kidding) at not being able to clarify my current stance and at possibly having broken the law, even though I used a pseudonym then and I don’t live in the U.S.
Therefore, I sincerely and humbly apologise for all the hurtful comments I made. I hope you accept my apology.
First, I do want to thank you for writing me. It certainly sounds like you have undergone quite a transformation in your worldview, and I hope that you are safe and at peace with your truth.
James, you are not the first to write me an apology for abusive behavior online. I will take your apology as sincere, and as my heart and faith require, you of course have my forgiveness.
Your email did raise a few things for me, though, that I would ask you to explore at your own pace.
I don’t know which of the many who have harassed or threatened me you are. Were you the one who called me a “conniving Jewess,” or the one who called me a “slut” who “should have my flesh burned,” or were you one of those who tried something more serious? Did you just curse at me and question the veracity of my faith, or were you one of the would-be –rapists, or the man who threatened to slice off my breasts? You may have been one of the many to call me “blasphemous,” or a “kuffar”/“kafir”, or something else. I just don’t know. You do suggest that perhaps you broke the law, so most likely you did more than call me an obnoxious name. Like many, you relied on anonymity to frighten me and to try and silence me. Like many, you failed at the latter, though perhaps not at the former. Like many, if I did report your behavior you still got away with it. And even in this, your apology, you ensure that I have no recourse by not disclosing who you are. What does it mean that even in your apology those you abused are denied justice?
Here’s the thing. I received your apology, and as I said, you have my forgiveness. But what about those who watched our exchange? Where was the damage really done? You may have directed your bile at me, and perhaps you did commit a crime. I admit that you may have been one of those who cost me sleep or even tears, but never my will. I have continued and will continue in my work to end gender-based violence and human rights abuses committed in the name of religion or culture. But what about those who may have been silenced over the course of time you harassed me? I realize that you cannot possibly know who they are or the extent of the damage your words caused. However, you must understand that while I may have been your target, I may not have been the one to feel the worst of your blows. In your efforts to “defend” your particular brand of Islam (I neither believe nor accept that your behavior was “Islamic”), how many did you silence? After all, bullies seek to silence more than those they are pummeling with words or fists. They assume their position out of insecurity, usually, and use intimidation to cause others to bend to their will. Those who fight back are few. Many never try, doing their best to avoid becoming the next target.
In short, I am not the one who truly needs your apology, though I appreciate it.
I ask that you take some time, when you can, to reflect on these points. I don’t write this to make you feel bad, but to help you understand the broader impact of lashing out. Everyone deserves better than the insecurity and pain that drives them to bullying, and those who are bullied deserve a voice too.
I further ask that you take your new perspective and make a positive contribution to end the kind of toxic thinking you once embraced. If you can, consider making a financial contribution to groups supporting women, minorities and dissidents. I do not know where you are located, but some excellent groups include Karma Nirvana (UK), Women Under Siege, RAINN, and The Trevor Project. You may also consider volunteering your time with an organization working to end violence and/or bullying.
Finally, while I choose to remain a Muslim, I understand that you have chosen to leave the faith. Should you find yourself in need of support, you may find the Council of Ex-Muslims forums useful.