In the third and final part of this series, Lisa Bauer explains how the combination of her devotion to Islam and certain characteristics of her personality almost destroyed her.
Countless commentators have offered general reasons for objecting to Islam—it’s misogynistic, medieval, theocratic, and so on. I agree, and one can read innumerable critiques along these lines by Muslim, ex-Muslim, and non-Muslim writers. I wish to take a more personal approach. What was it about Islam as a religion that combined with my psychology to create the sad, terrified, timid young woman I was—and, truth be told, to some extent still am?
It’s not just that Islam is horrific in itself. Mix its teachings, rules, and general ethos with my own sensitive personality—add in my pathetic tale of being sexually exploited by the religious authority figure I trusted to guide me in Islam’s path—and you may come to understand how the experience made me such an emotional wreck. Someone better adjusted than I was might have been able to leave Islam with only mild regrets, pausing just long enough to curse the faith before moving on. Vulnerable as I was to begin with, Islam proved a soul-destroying experience—if the atheist I now am may use soul to denote my personality, deepest thoughts, and emotions. Indeed, I am far from certain Islam is finished with me. I do not know when its emotional effects will end.
If my Muslim journey did not destroy me, it came close.
Looking back, I suspect that one of Islam’s greatest attractions lay in how well it complemented my personality at the time. I was very shy. Islam values modesty, especially in women. I thought I was worthless. Islam teaches that humans are nothing before the majesty and power of Allah. I feared other people and new experiences. Islam counsels women to stay safe and protected inside the home. For these reasons, Islam was almost certainly the worst religion I could have chosen—it reinforced the weakest aspects of my personality. Indeed it sacralized them, telling me that my flaws were just what the Almighty Creator of the Universe most cherished in me. Instead of encouraging me to attack my weaknesses, it bid me to be proud of them.
I wish to examine each of these traits in detail, the better to understand how Islam, or Islam as I then understood it, preyed upon them. Of course, “Islam” is not a conscious being. It might be thought of as a mind virus, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins: pernicious, perhaps, but not purposeful. Still, what rendered me so susceptible?
First, Islam values self-abnegation in the face of Allah. Believers prostrate themselves each day before the Almighty in a posture of absolute servility. Not for nothing does Islam refer to believers as “slaves of Allah.” Islam rejects the Christian image of believers as children of God; Allah is not a parent but a master, with absolute power over his slaves who are nothing before his infinite might and majesty. Allah is an absolute dictator, far more so than in Christianity. His will cannot be questioned; one can only submit to it. A good Muslim expresses no desire or plan for the future without adding “In sha’ Allah” (“If Allah wills”). Not infrequently this gives rise to a passive, fatalistic mind-set, often with pernicious consequences. Allah has already mapped out each person’s fate. We are like grains of sand blown by the wind and of no greater importance in the eyes of Allah.
This self-abnegating woman found that oddly comforting. I already thought of myself as inconsequential. I don’t know the roots of my miserable self-esteem and lack of self-confidence—I can’t recall ever feeling otherwise. Perhaps it sprang in part from my inability to make friends. If I couldn’t make friends, it must be my fault. I must be the sort of person nobody would want to be around. Add to that my feelings of helplessness whenever I confronted a new or frightening situation. If all things were Allah’s will, then I needn’t worry so much about what I could and couldn’t do. If I was meant to do something, Allah would make it happen regardless of my shortcomings.
I seized upon Islamic ideas of female modesty. When the Qur’an teaches women to cover themselves and not “display their adornment,” this is no mere counsel against vanity and self-assertion. Women are taught not to make themselves too attractive for fear of arousing uncontrollable male desire. This was fine by me, since I regarded myself as completely unattractive already. Islamic rules on female dress meant I could hide what I thought of as my disgusting body in loose, long clothes, even if I didn’t quite have the courage to cover my hair.
Modesty refers to one’s attitude as well as one’s outward appearance. Again that appealed to my faults—I was so intensely shy that I was an anomaly even among the other women at the mosque. I recall at least one telling me that my extreme modesty was something favored by Allah. I presume that a born Muslimah as timid as I would simply remain at home rather than socialize at the mosque. After all, women, unlike men, are not required to attend prayers at the mosque, and one tradition even states that the best prayer for women is that offered within the most private part of her home. (Ironically, many of the women I met at the mosque were rather outgoing by community standards or else I would not have met them there.) The idea of becoming invisible appealed to me. Occasionally, I fantasized about living in Saudi Arabia or some Gulf country where I could go about fully veiled, my personhood obliterated.
Still, as much as I yearned to hide myself, I also longed for some sort of recognition, an acknowledgment that I existed and had made an impression on somebody. It was a prescription for hapless openness.
I think one of the reasons I converted was the hope that I would finally find true friends. Somewhere in my mind also lurked the idea that by joining Islam, I might somehow find a husband. My high school and university experience had convinced me I would never find one by myself. Perhaps an arranged marriage would solve the problem, sidestepping the whole business of meeting people and dating. I genuinely thought that might be the only way I would ever find a man. Islamic communities are one of the few settings in the West where such things occur with any frequency. In addition, Islam teaches that husbands must support their wives financially in exchange for obedience, and this comforted me. So tattered was my self-confidence that despite my intelligence and my university degree, I feared I might not be able to support myself.
Even while my feminist side recoiled from the prospect of owing obedience to a husband, I clung to the thought that if my parents cut me off or disowned me because of my conversion to Islam, I could submit to an arranged marriage and be provided for. Of course, that ignored the very real question of what I would do if my husband later decided to divorce me, which Islam gave him the unilateral power to do. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead!
Muslim women are often taught to fear and hide from strange men, especially in more conservative Islamic societies. Here my discussion returns to the Jordanian Arab imam who first converted me and then took me for his misyar “wife.” Directly and indirectly, he very much encouraged in me the attitude that I should be timid and reclusive, avoiding most contact with the outside world. Interactions with other Muslim women were all right, but meeting and speaking to strange men should be avoided at all costs. Self-serving on his part as this was, it fit with my antisocial leanings, and I was more than happy to comply. He knew that I felt I must hide my newfound faith from my parents, whom I imagined would be quite hostile. Ye
t in his mind, it was much better that I continued to live under their roof. He encouraged me not to go out too much, except for necessities. Given that I hardly ever went out anyway, except to the mosque and university (I was taking several college classes at the time), this seemed a small imposition.
As it happens, my sexual attitudes had always been fairly conservative, so I found no difficulty in embracing Islam’s rigorous “no sexual contact outside of marriage” rules. This went by the wayside once the imam started to take an interest in me (religious hypocrisy when it comes to sex—what else is new?). Ironic as this may seem now, Islam’s rigid sexual mores were one of its great attractions for me. I loathed the way some men, especially those with money, authority, or fame, took advantage of women. Restricting sex within the bounds of marriage would provide a safeguard against that, I imagined. Of course, as I learned very painfully, marriage does nothing to prevent men from treating women as objects. The power differential between spouses in a traditional Islamic marriage is so great that the woman is essentially her husband’s slave. Yet I still harbored, even cherished, my idealized Western notion of marriage as a partnership between two essentially equal spouses. From this sprang my reluctance to place myself “under the control of a man” in marriage. Yet I truly never conceived what that might actually mean until I experienced it for myself.
The imam was likely attracted to my timid, quiet nature. Clearly I could be trusted not to talk about what was going on between us. When we were together, I became cringingly subservient, willing to do anything to please him as I imagined a good Muslim wife should, no matter how degrading or unpleasant it might be. I would respond to his abuses by apologizing for my failure to anticipate his whims. I felt grateful that he, busy as he was with a family and the duties of the mosque, deigned to spend a couple of hours with me in the afternoons or evenings. (It is worth noting that his real wife, an Arab like him, was not nearly so subservient—she was never shy about making her desires and displeasures known!)
Sadly, I was genuinely grateful to have what I did of this man. Time and again I thanked Allah for guiding me to him. I had convinced myself that he was the best I could hope for, indeed better than I deserved. He wasn’t physically abusive (leaving aside his enthusiasm for anal sex), and he seemed interested in me. Despite his warnings that this was all just a “good time” to him and that I shouldn’t get too attached, in my loneliness and vulnerability I think I eventually convinced myself that I felt real love for him.
In the early stages of our relationship, I was painfully aware that our actions were grossly haraam (forbidden), and this caused me intense guilt. In my loneliness, I found myself ignoring my own moral and ethical standards—anything to be with him! But then came our misyar marriage, after which I felt that Islam had legitimized our relationship. I had no real objection to being somebody’s second, third, or fourth wife—beggars couldn’t be choosers, I figured. Even so, misyar marriage didn’t allay all my misgivings. I still felt guilty that he was betraying his wife and children with me. I detested that we had to hide our relationship, but since what we were doing was permissible under Islamic law I somehow managed to swallow my objections and continue on. He was the Islamic scholar who had been educated at elite Islamic universities, and if he said our arrangement was okay, then who was I to argue?
I must point out that awful as he was, the imam merely personified Islamic values, at least as they are understood in certain Arab Muslim cultures. A Muslim man from a more liberal background might have had more enlightened attitudes toward women and marriage, but assuming he was devout enough, he would no doubt value modesty, obedience, and a retiring nature as qualities to cherish in a prospective spouse. That attitude toward women is so deeply ingrained that even fairly modern Muslim men from such cultures who enjoy the company of independent, outspoken Western women will still seek out these qualities when it comes to looking for a wife. Such is the culture, formed in no small part by the religion.
Because I wanted to be an obedient, submissive Muslimah, I found myself acquiescing to picayune Islamic regulations that I might otherwise never have dreamed of honoring. A woman shouldn’t travel alone, defined as going farther than about ninety miles without a male guardian to “protect” her. (The distance was calculated from how far a camel could travel in a day, demonstrating just how ancient this rule is!) At the very least, she needs permission from a man to travel. Instead of being angry about this, I accepted it, actually phoning the imam on a couple of occasions for permission to travel to a nearby city with my family! In addition, a married woman should not leave her home without her husband’s permission. This standard could not be realized fully—we didn’t live together, after all—but he told me to stay home as much as possible, which I did. Other rules restrict prayer, fasting, sex, and even touching the Qur’an during menstruation, and I accepted those too, repulsed as I was by them. A Muslim submits to Allah in all things, and since I wanted to do my best to live up to the new religion I believed I’d freely chosen, I obeyed even the most archaic and misogynistic rules.
Muslims are taught to patiently accept whatever disappointments and disasters life may bring. This too I found weirdly congenial, though the fatalism and passivity Islam encouraged was the last thing someone as fearful as I might need. When I was a child, I’d had bold dreams for my future. As I got older, I lost my grip on those dreams. It wasn’t that the ambitions of my childhood were replaced by more realistic and attainable goals. Rather, I became so convinced that I was incapable that they disappeared entirely. I believed muddling through life was the best I could hope for, an attitude Islam cruelly exploited. Islam also teaches that a woman’s highest honor is to be a wife and mother, so I began to think that that, too, was the most I could aspire to. I lost hope that I would ever amount to anything … and yet I felt guilty about that. Teachers and parents had told me for years that I had great potential, and here I was throwing it all away. When I become emotional about the years I wasted as a Muslim, I wonder how much I’m also mourning the loss of my dreams.
Living without hope is very hard.
Islam teaches that humans should be eternally grateful to Allah for everything, since he is the creator and sustainer of the universe. The proper attitude of a believer is to be shakir (grateful), as contrasted with its antonym, kafir, which means “ungrateful” as well as “unbeliever.” No matter what difficulties and hardships a Muslim faces, she must always remember to be grateful to Allah; what happens in this world is nothing compared with the eternal rewards and punishments in the hereafter. The effects of this can be disturbing. Believers will thank Allah profusely for the tiniest crumbs of luck thrown their way even as the rest of their world falls apart. Still I could understand its appeal. During low moments, I would remind myself to thank Allah that I was alive, that my parents and family were well, that I’d found Islam, and so on, small things that I tended to overlook. Even a drink of water or a piece of cake was something to treasure and for which to give thanks.
Sometimes, while I inventoried what I was fortunate enough to have and thanked Allah for it all, I wondered about those who were not so lucky. What of devout Muslims who died or were gravely injured in some horrific natural disaster? What of those who lived in grinding poverty? Was Allah looking out for me and not them? Yet everything th
at happened was the inscrutable will of Allah, and no one had the right to question what he might choose to grant each of his slaves. Imagine a cruel and unpredictable dictator giving you an expensive gift while ordering the person next to you to be executed. Standing before him, you probably are not going to spend much time pondering how unfair and arbitrary the situation is; you’re going to be glad that you were not the one executed! In short order, you will be on your knees in a posture of servile gratitude, cringingly acknowledging his kind magnanimity. When the Qur’an instructs the believers to always “fear” Allah, it is speaking quite literally.
Still, why was it so unfair? There must have been millions of Muslims more worthy of my (relative) wealth and (relative) good fortune than I; why were they being “tested” so frightfully? They might receive their reward in paradise, but that promise rang a bit hollow. I suppose that introspective as I was, I spent too much time musing about things like that, but the sheer injustice of it all always distressed me.
As my faith wavered, I began exploring atheist Web sites in earnest. One of the sites I found especially intriguing was RichardDawkins.net. Despite feeling a bit irritated by what I felt was the strident tone of some of the items I read there, the site’s frequent updates meant that some new article about religion was always being posted and discussed at length. Many of the commenters impressed me with their evident intelligence and thoughtfulness. Strangely enough, I had not previously heard of Richard Dawkins. In all my reading, I’d never even opened the book that was the basis for the site The God Delusion, aside from one brief glance in a bookstore. I recall being unimpressed by what I gathered was an argument that “science shows God is unlikely to exist.” Fortunately, I resolved to keep an open mind.
What happened next would change my life. Again. But I get ahead of myself.
As I look back from my hard-won vantage of unbelief, I see so many red flags I should have spotted then. Wasn’t it too easy to convert to Islam? When I first entered the mosque seven years ago, neither the imam nor anybody else seriously questioned my knowledge of Islam, how confident I was in my decision, or whether I actually understood what I was getting into. All that was really required was that I stand up and recite the shahadah, the testimony of faith, before at least two witnesses. By contrast, many other religions require potential converts to undergo some course of study sometimes lasting a year or more. Admittedly, I was so determined to convert at that point that even the prospect of undergoing a lengthy “apprenticeship” might not have dissuaded me, but I have to wonder how attractive Islam would have remained after seeing it from the inside for several months. There is also the issue of people converting who know nothing about Islam, a factor that may help explain the fairly high percentage of converts who end up abandoning the faith. You can convert on the spur of the moment—in the heat of passion, as it were—and only realize much later that you’ve let yourself in for something you did not anticipate. (This is starting to sound like an ill-considered Las Vegas wedding!) At the time of my own conversion, I did not understand fully what I was embracing; but the fact that I managed to overcome my deep fears and find the courage to go to the mosque, a terribly forbidding place to me at the time, suggests that I was completely serious. I’d given a great deal of thought to the notion of converting to this strange, complex religion, and as a result I felt obligated to honor my vow by dutifully following the rules and adopting the mental attitudes of Islam.
Among those attitudes is a near obsession with death and the afterlife. Serious Christians believe in a world to come, but Islam goes an extra step. The Qur’an and other Islamic texts teach that this life is nothing but play and amusement, a brief prelude to the terrors of the Last Day and eternal reward or punishment in the hereafter. A good Muslim should keep death in mind at all times, the better to keep to the straight path. This dovetailed perversely with my own longtime tendency to obsess about death; I’d been melancholy and depressive even as a small child. Back then, growing up in no particular religion (an attempt at Catholic indoctrination took place later on), I’d worry anxiously about what would happen after death. If anything, my lack of belief in an afterlife contributed to my preoccupation with what lay beyond the grave. Later on, no matter how sincerely I convinced myself that I had embraced Islam, the part about the hereafter never quite stuck for me. The Qur’an endlessly repeated that I could be certain of a life after death, and as a believing Muslim I was supposed to draw deep comfort from that. But here my carefully cultivated attempt at faith failed me—I could never really, fully believe it. I could “believe” that Allah would look after me and make everything all right today, if that was his will. But when it came to belief in an afterlife, well … I didn’t know how the imam or people at the mosque could be so sure that there would in fact be anything on the other side. That issue being unresolved in my mind, my new religion’s incessant focus on death and the afterlife merely heightened my distress.
One aspect of Islam that renders it so incomprehensible to many Westerners of Christian background is its cornucopia of incredibly detailed rules for everything—from which foot to use when entering the mosque to the proper way to slaughter an animal. One must not defecate in the direction of Mecca; men must not wear silk or gold; one must not drink or eat off of gold utensils; and so on. Specifically religious rituals such as prayer and ablutions are painstakingly elaborated in voluminous works written and added to by dozens of scholars. This conception of an all-encompassing and insanely detailed sacred law is familiar from Judaism, if not all that widely followed today, but it is almost absent from Christianity. Why does it matter whether you wash your face or your arms first when doing wudu’ (ablution)? The traditional justification is that Islam is not just a religion in the way that term is often used in the West but a way of life. Far from something you can put away in a little box and take out once a week at the mosque, it is something to be lived, touching every aspect of life.
In theory, this could be a good thing—every action could remind one of Allah, especially with all the specialized du’as (supplications) that faithful Muslims often recite to go along with their actions. But for me, the actual experience of trying to live my life in accordance with the divine law of Islam was sharply unpleasant. Like many converts, I obsessed over the rules, terrified that my prayer might not be accepted because I’d had a hole in my sock, or perhaps I hadn’t done my wudu’ absolutely correctly. Born Muslims are often more casual about such things, though this sometimes leads their more punctilious neighbors to criticize them for not doing it right.
I developed an obsessive-compulsive focus on ritual correctness. Sometimes I would spend more energy worrying whether I had passed gas (which renders one ritually impure) than concentrating on my prayers. Needless to say, one can’t live like that for very long. Either one learns to be less obsessive over the details, or one gives up the entire practice. I ended up doing both, though not at the same time—first I found myself slackening in my observance, much to my own disappointment. Later I decided (rationalized?) that the minutiae mattered less than what my intention had been—after all, Islam puts great store on the niyah (intention), without which any act of worship is void and worthless.
Why did I subject myself to rules I
often found arbitrary, sometimes even ridiculous? That was what Islam, as I knew it, required. I had made a permanent, public commitment to this religion and I intended to follow through with it. Islam is very emphatic about the importance of loyalty—loyalty toward the religion as well as the loyalty of Muslims to one another. Since all Muslims are brothers and sisters, leaving the religion means turning your back on them. I think of myself as being a loyal person and also a stubborn one in the sense that once I make a decision about something important, I am inclined to follow through to the proverbial bitter end.
The worst of it was that Islam had convinced me that all these rules and attitudes were in fact things I had freely chosen for myself. Having chosen to embrace Islam of my own free will, I had therefore chosen to follow its regulations. I wanted to honor the promise I’d made to Allah and to myself to be the best Muslimah I could be, circumstances permitting.
Like any world religion, Islam employs such elements as rituals, art, and sacred stories to appeal to the emotions and thus attract and retain members. A sensitive and often emotional young woman, I proved painfully susceptible to their influence. One major factor in my conversion had been the awe-inducing impact of Islamic art and architecture—what had caused these people to create such beauty? Islamic rituals like the adhan (call to prayer) affected me tremendously as a fresh convert; hearing the adhan recited live in the mosque for the first time was an overwhelming experience. I was also mesmerized by the rhetorical power and sweep of the Qur’an, ridiculous as that may seem today. After repeated readings, it spoke to me on a profoundly emotional level. Recitations of it in Arabic could bring me almost to tears, never mind that I didn’t understand the words. It was like music, I thought, although it is considered highly offensive to compare the noble profession of Qur’an reciting with mere singing! Being a part of the Friday jumu’ah (congregational) prayer was stirring also: I was part of a global multitude united in the worship of Allah. For similar reasons, I was moved by photographs or television news clips showing millions of pilgrims on the hajj crying out to Allah with all their might. These people had pinned all their hopes and dreams on their deity. How could I say they weren’t right, ignorant as I was? Who was I to be so cruel as to declare that it was all for naught?
Finally I asked myself: of all the things Islam had come to mean for me, how much of it beyond my initial decision to accept the faith genuinely represented a choice? I certainly didn’t feel free to jettison the aspects of Islamic law I didn’t particularly care for. What right had I, an ignorant young American female convert, to question the consensus of thousands of knowledgeable scholars who had devoted their lives to the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence across the centuries? This brings up a yet larger question: to what extent are any believers actually free when it comes to deciding what to accept and what to reject? If the believer is absolutely convinced that the religion requires her to do or profess X, Y, and Z, she will do her best to rationalize this in her own mind, even embracing beliefs and actions that would be abhorrent under other circumstances. Sex segregation was something I generally opposed, yet I accepted women’s prayer sections unthinkingly.
Granted, I wouldn’t accept just everything that some lunatic might claim in the name of Islam—I found Islamic fundamentalism utterly repulsive. I still had my liberal principles, however submerged. Blowing yourself up to kill innocent civilians or crashing airplanes into buildings or stoning adulteresses were all wicked, evil deeds, and none of them had anything to do with the Islam I imagined myself striving to follow. Yet was that response too pat? The fanatics knew their Islamic texts and traditions, too! On what basis could I deny their legitimacy? I couldn’t, really. And on what basis could I claim that my understanding of Islam, not theirs, was the correct one? Like any religion, Islam consists ultimately of what Muslims say and do, and if a substantial number of them embrace (for example) disgustingly archaic attitudes toward women—based in no small part on what the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet actually say—then how can an ignorant new convert contradict them? How can a newcomer reliably decide among interpretations?
For all these reasons, I found the act of finally leaving Islam terribly difficult. I felt I was betraying someone or something. Not Allah, since I no longer believed in him by the time I made the break. Perhaps I felt most that I was betraying myself and my vow to remain Muslim. I was like a wife reluctant to break her solemn vows by leaving an unhappy marriage. I imagined that sticking with my faith against all obstacles might prove that I was sincere. Giving up would mean acknowledging that I’d been wrong, that I’d wasted my time in futile prayers and fasting. I’d put so much of myself into Islam; leaving would be an acknowledgement that it was all for naught. Moreover, I felt badly about turning my back on the Muslim friends I’d made, though we weren’t especially close. I would be betraying the most important thing in their lives, and that distressed me. I might even have felt a twinge of guilt about deserting the imam, though I had long since had my fill of his thoughtless treatment of me.
Leaving Islam may have been the hardest thing I ever did—yet I saw no other option if I sought to be intellectually honest with myself.
One other factor influenced my ultimate decision to forsake Islam for atheism. During the days when my internal struggle between faith and skepticism was near its height, I saw an announcement that Richard Dawkins would be giving a lecture not far from where I lived. I decided to go. Why not? It was free, and he might not come this way again. Perhaps I could even lend a surreal touch to the proceedings by showing up in my hijab, making the point that some Muslims are open-minded enough to want to hear “the opposition” for themselves! And that is just what I did—a most unusual move for me, given how timid I usually was about displaying outward signs of my Islam. I thought the incongruity was just too delicious to pass up.
By its very strangeness, the notion helped me find the courage to carry it out. I attended the lecture in full hijab, and none of the atheists gathered there attacked me, insulted me, or (as far as I could tell) even noticed me. That was a small revelation in itself: the experience of discovering something about which I had no reason to fear.
The lecture was interesting enough, although in keeping with my observant demeanor I refrained from applauding or laughing. It just would not do for a devout Muslimah to join in laughter at the ridicule of religious practices! As the speech continued, I sensed that Dawkins might be more understanding and less dismissive than his reputation as the world’s most famous atheist suggested. By the time I left to go home, I had somehow conceived the idea of writing to him and sharing my own doubts. This was very much out of the ordinary for me; never before had I wanted to write to an author or any other well-known figure. Besides, I was a little nothing—what were the odds that a famous scientist would read what I had to say? Still, I had the feeling that he might be sympathetic to my plight, and I very much wanted to share my feelings about religion with somebody who might be able to understand, even a complete stranger. (Leave aside for the moment the evidence of my relationship with the imam that my intuitions regarding whom to trust were not to be relied on.)
But in the case of Dawkins, I was only writing a letter—well, an e-mail. I knew that he rea
d at least some of his mail, for he frequently made note of letters that readers had written him. I wrote carefully, fretting about how ridiculous it would probably sound. When the e-mail was done, I asked myself, What’s the worst that can happen? and hit “Send.” At least I’ve managed to write down how I feel, I thought.
Words cannot express how shocked I was when Dawkins responded to my plaintive e-mail. I could hardly believe that somebody that prominent actually expressed concern and support for me! He offered to send me some books, his own and a couple by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which I gratefully accepted.
When the books arrived, I actually broke down and wept. I simply couldn’t believe that a total stranger could be so kind to me. I wrote Dawkins again, thanking him profusely.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, I quickly set about reading the books, one after another. Certainly they gave me more to think about. And though I’d read much of the literature critical of Islam before, immersing myself in it now massively increased my dissatisfaction with Islam. It helped me understand and articulate to myself, if nobody else, exactly what I personally found reprehensible and untenable about that—or any—religion.
Looking back, it’s little short of incredible that the mind virus known as Islam held me in its thrall for so many years. Given my own vulnerabilities and the way that faith exploited them, it is to some degree understandable. Yes, I now feel anger, but directed at whom? Islam, after all, is just a religion, a set of beliefs and rituals and laws, a particular ethos. It doesn’t have a mind or will of its own. It didn’t intend to make me a miserable basket case—that just happened. I suppose that I am angry at myself for not seeing through the whole charade far earlier, but again, my history and personal weaknesses left me especially vulnerable to Islam’s lure. Of course, the imam deserves plenty of anger for having taken advantage of a fragile, vulnerable, frightened young woman and leaving her an emotional wreck. Yet even his actions were largely informed by his faith as he understood it. Which deserves greater blame, the imam or his religion? I can’t say; I suspect they’re inextricable. In any case, I don’t feel any hatred toward him, just anger mixed with a good deal of regret—even, perhaps, a bit of pity.
I can only hope that the combined effect of Islam, the imam, and my own personality doesn’t finally end up destroying me. It came close, and in my darkest moments I fear it may yet prevail. Still, I hope that my horrific experience has offered me an opportunity to learn and to change. Now I can try to change the traits that left me so susceptible, without Islam or the imam holding me back and keeping me mired in the same old attitudes and habits. My future path will be difficult, but I hope that I will emerge a different and better person—one with increased understanding and compassion gained from bitter experience.