Responding to a Former Bully

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:

james adams

Hi,

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.

Regards

***

My response:

Dear “James”,

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.

In peace,

Raquel

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Congratulations to two wonderful friends

Last year, two very dear friends asked me to officiate their nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony. It was a tremendous honor to do so. This blog post contains the entire khutbah (sermon) I gave plus the nikah ceremony. I post this here  in celebration and honor of their first year of marriage – and to many more!

Me officiating Yazmin and Patrick's nikah
Me officiating Yazmin and Patrick’s nikah

Bismillah ir rahman ir rahim: we gather here today in the name of God, the most gracious and most merciful.

Dearest family and friends: thank you so much for being here to celebrate the union of this incredible couple.

Yazmin and Patrick chose each of you to be here because of the important contributions you have made to their lives.

Your presence here is a great blessing, and I know each of us is thrilled to see Yazmin and Patrick declare publicly what they know already: that their love is enduring, powerful, and sustaining.

The Quran, Islam’s holy book, tells us that God intentionally created the “diversity of our tongues and colors,” making us people of many nations and tribes, so that we might come to know one another. This marriage is infinitely blessed by the coming together of two very different families, who are here today to express their love for Yazmin and Patrick and their support of this marriage, as well as their commitment to know one another, trust one another, and love one another as family. This wedding doesn’t just bring together a couple.  It also brings together this couple’s most important source of strength after their faith in God and their love for one another: all of us gathered here today. Having met many of you this weekend, and after sharing a wonderful evening together last night, I have no doubt that Yazmin and Patrick’s marriage is uniquely blessed by love beyond measure.

It is my great honor to preside over Yazmin and Patrick’s nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony. I realize that for some, this is your first Muslim wedding. Perhaps for all of you, it is the first with a woman presiding. Whatever your faith, and wherever you are on your own path to truth, we are honored to have you here and ask that, in the words of Rumi – you come whoever you are, as you are. One of the many wonderful things about today is that the values Yazmin and Patrick share – including a steadfast commitment to equality, justice and meaningful diversity – are evident in every aspect of this ceremony and this weekend’s celebrations. As the nikah is the public declaration of a couple’s commitment to share a life together, there is something especially beautiful about how Yazmin and Patrick are expressing their values today.

The nikah ceremony is very simple: it consists of a short sermon, followed by the bride and groom each confirming, in the presence of two witnesses, that they accept one another in marriage. The bride and groom then sign a marriage contract, which details their responsibilities to one another and serves as a record of their union.

One of the requirements of the nikah is that the khutbah, or sermon, be based on verses of the Quran dealing with “taqwa,” or “awareness of God…God consciousness.” It is hard to imagine what could possibly bring one greater awareness of God’s presence on Earth than the love He places between two people – especially when that love drives them to promise one another a lifetime of partnership based on compassion, trust, and the constant quest for mutual understanding.

The Quran speaks of many signs sent by God to His people, as messages of His omnipotence and love for His creation. One of these signs is the coming together of two people in love. He says: “by one of His signs, He created you from dust, and now you are human beings spread over the earth….by another sign He created for you mates from among yourselves, so that you may incline toward them, and He has placed love and tenderness between you.” (30:21)

This verse speaks of being drawn to one’s spouse as something divinely inspired, and so thought out by God that even the slightest feeling of tenderness is His work. Patrick, the look I saw on your face as you watched Yazmin practice her walk down the aisle yesterday; and Yazmin, the light in your eyes when you speak of Patrick – these are each moments of Allah working through you, drawing you closer together in order to strengthen you on your individual and shared paths.

Patrick, I only met you in person just yesterday, and your kindness, attentiveness, warmth and quick humor are immediately apparent. It is obvious to see why you and Yazmin once knew one another as friends. It is my having met you through Yazmin’s words about you, however (from excited text messages, blackberry messenger conversations in the middle of the night, and hours of talking over sushi), as well as the growth I’ve seen in her as a person – – – that have made it so obvious why your long friendship turned into a lifelong love. Roughly a month ago, Yazmin came to meet me for one of our marathon chats – and I remember very vividly the sight of her walking over to the table, sitting down, and glowing with a peace and incredible joy I had never seen in her before. While Yazmin has always been someone who celebrates life and cultivates joy whatever her circumstances, to say that she seemed to be a changed woman does not feel the least like an overstatement. For the next several hours, she told me how deeply loved, supported and safe she feels with you; and that, quite simply, she didn’t realize that she could ever feel the way you make her feel. She has found in you the person God created for her. The Quran tells us that when we find our lifelong mate, that that person is our garment – our cloak and our comfort, as we are theirs. (Quran 2:187.) It is clear to me – and I believe to all of us who know Yazmin – that you are the one who was sent to be her cloak and comfort, and she yours. In marriage, you will hold and protect one another through every difficulty and every joy.

Garments of course do not only protect us from the elements – they also adorn us. The beauty of your love has already begun to do the same: you both embody the joy that Allah has placed in your hearts when He brought you together. As each of you accomplishes your individual goals, and as you work toward and achieve mutual ones, your pride in and appreciation for one another will serve as witness to the love and devotion between you.

Yazmin, my friend and soul sister: I join your family and friends in being awestruck at your resilience, conviction, and beauty of spirit. We have all had the incredible gift of your support, grace, humor and strength, which have all enriched our lives in ways so great, they are impossible to quantify.

The Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah (peace and blessings be upon them both), was much like you: she was a strong, self-made woman. She was deeply connected to her family, and bold enough to have run an empire. In fact, it was she who proposed marriage to Muhammad, who was a younger man. Like you, she was a force to be reckoned with. In breaking with expected conventions, she raised not just herself in honest conviction, but the entire ummah – or community of believers. When those around her were unsure of their path, she asked them only to speak their truth. Indeed, she was the first to comfort Muhammad when his revelations filled his heart with fear; asking of him: “Hast thou not been loving to thy kinsfolk, kind to thy neighbours, charitable to the poor, hospitable to the stranger, faithful to thy word, and ever a defender of the truth?”

Muhammad spoke of Khadijah in this way: “she hailed my mission when everyone else shouted against it. She lent me the support of her conviction when there was hardly a believer. She enlivened my heart when I felt lonely and deserted…she believed in me when all others disbelieved; she held me truthful when all others called me a liar. She sheltered me when others abandoned me; she comforted me when others shunned me. Khadijah was sent to me by Allah.”

Yazmin, you have done all of these things for your family and friends. You have been ever true, ever loving, and ever compassionate, and always brave. We know that as you have shared your love and truth with us, you will share it in an even greater, more profound way with Patrick.

Your responsibilities to one another are vast, the greatest of which is to remember that in both joy and sorrow, you are, as the Quran says, “created of a single soul” (4:1), meant to love and protect one another. One of the great blessings of a truly Islamic marriage is the harmony in which men and women are intended to live. While the Quran speaks of “husbands,” and “wives,” the word “mate” or “spouse” is not gendered within the text even if it is being used to refer specifically to the husband or the wife. This indicates that both genders, while different, share the same role in protecting, valuing, and loving one another. The Quran also says that whether one is male or female, men and women are “members of one another” and “spiritually akin to one another” (3:195). In his final sermon, the Prophet Muhammad told believers that yes, husbands have certain rights with regard to their wives, but reminded his community that women also have rights over their husbands (and yes, he chose the word “over”). He reminded men that women are partners and helpers, entitled to be fed and clothed in kindness; and reminded women to remain true to their spouses. In this final message, he reminded Muslims that nothing is legitimately theirs unless it is given to them freely and willingly, without compulsion and free of injustice. The same is true for one’s heart and body in marriage: Yazmin and Patrick’s marriage will be a blessed one because they come together willingly and freely, rejecting inequity and injustice, and striving only for sincere love, mutual respect, and unfailing mercy.

Yazmin, may you continue to live the boldness and bravery of Khadijah, the always curious and questioning nature of Aishah, who became one of Islam’s earliest and most trusted teachers; may you continue loving God and your fellow man in the way of Rabia – never out of fear or compulsion, but always for the sake of God’s beauty, relentlessly seeking truth and light.

Patrick, may you continue to live with Muhammad’s mercy and strength as your example; the perseverance of Musa (Moses) as a source of resilience; and the passion, reason, and conviction of Ibn Rusd – known in the West as Averroes, as your guide.

May you both remain on this journey together, committed to loving one another, challenging one another to grow in love, honesty, and courage; addressing one another always from a place of mercy, remembering the words of Persian poet Hafiz: “There is only one reason we have followed God into this world: To encourage laughter, freedom, dance and love.” We believe in you, and you have renewed belief within each of us. May Allah bless and keep you always, using your love as an example of His work on earth. We love you, and cannot wait to see you take on the world together. Ameen.

Islam requires that two witnesses be present when the bride and groom sign their nikah contract. Could the witnesses please join us onstage now?

I will now ask the bride and groom to confirm that they accept one another in marriage. I will speak first in Arabic, then in English, so I ask Yazmin and Patrick to wait until I ask them to respond and repeat after me, so that all have the benefit of understanding the agreement they are making.

RAQUEL: Yasmeen, hal taqbali Patrick Zawjan laki?

Yazmin, do you offer your consent and accept Patrick as your spouse? If you do, please repeat after me: Na’am qabilt

YAZMIN: Na’am qabilt

RAQUEL: Patrick, hal tuwa’afiq alaal mahur al mu’aayan wa taqbal Yasmeen zawjan laka?

Patrick, do you, having agreed to provide Yazmin with a marriage gift, accept her as your spouse? If you do, please repeat after me: Na’am qabilt.

PATRICK: Na’am qabilt.

I will now ask our witnesses to confirm that they have heard and understood Yazmin and Patrick’s agreement to be joined in marriage. I will speak first in Arabic, then in English, so I ask the witnesses to wait until I ask them to respond and repeat after me, so that all have the benefit of understanding the questions and responses.

RAQUEL, turning to Yazmin’s uncle: “Hal tashadu ma aqaadna?”

Are you a witness to this declaration? If so, please say, “Na’am.”

YAZMIN’S UNCLE: “Na’am.”

RAQUEL, turning to Yazmin’s uncle: “Hal tashadu ma aqaadna?”

Are you a witness to this declaration? If so, please say, “Na’am.”

YAZMIN’S UNCLE: “Na’am.”

Yazmin and Patrick sign nikah contract.

Witnesses sign over their shoulders.

RAQUEL: Al aan, wifqan li-shiaa’ir wilayit XX, wa deen al Islam, bi idnilah, ashadu bi annani qad atmamtu aqd an nikah bayna Patrick wa Yasmeen.

Barak allahu laka wa baraka laya wa jama’a baynakuma bikhayr.

I now testify, that by the laws of the state of XX, and also by God’s will, according to the laws of faith of Islam, you are wedded to one another. May Allah bless you, and have His blessings descend upon you, uniting you in goodness.

Witnesses may leave the stage.

The bride and me doing a little makeup shopping on the eve of her wedding (I not only did the nikah, but also her makeup - LOL!)
The bride and me doing a little makeup shopping on the eve of her wedding (I not only did the nikah, but also her makeup – LOL!)