Social Media Activist-Blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr, a digital revolutionist, recently spoke to Associate Editor Shazia Kamal Farook about his new book “My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind—and Doubt Freed My Soul”—a work that chronicles his path to finding himself through cyberactivism.
I’ll go straight to the highly politicized term in the very title of the book-“Fundamentalism.” How have you described it and dealt with that term in these pages?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: First of all, thanks for your interest in the book.
Given that this book is going to be marketed mainly within the United States, the term “fundamentalism” widely refers to the upholding of religious belief in a strict and literalist manner. That’s what I mean by the term when I use it.
For these reasons, I didn’t discuss the term explicitly in the book since I chose to convey much of the ideas in a narrative-driven style that merges memoir with political and philosophical thought in a way that makes it clear where I stand.
In hindsight however, and after witnessing a few people’s negative reactions to “fundamentalism” being used in the subtitle, I was reminded that some interpret “fundamentalist” to mean someone who adheres to his or her faith’s fundamental principles. I don’t use it to mean that at all. I think the term “dogmatism” would have been better and more accurate.
As the only Sudanese blogger in social media for a long time, you remained anonymous for many years for safety reasons. What happened when you claimed your identity in the blogosphere?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: For as long as I blogged since 2006, I’ve regularly received threats and intimidating messages. In the old days, those messages had somewhat of an effect, and made me think twice about what I had to say before I said it, but eventually I got used to it and became dismissive of them.
I was aware that by revealing my identity during the Arab uprisings of 2011, I’d be making a risky move, but it had to be made nonetheless. I was getting fed up of the suffocating anonymity. I wanted to say what I had to say openly and frankly using my real name.
Ever since I revealed my real identity on my blog and on Twitter, nothing worthy of mention has happened in the online realm. Offline however, it’s a different story. I didn’t realize how widespread my readership was, especially my Sudanese readership. Individuals and family friends often reacted with “Oh my God, this whole time it was you!” They thought I was “rocking the boat too hard.” I respect where they’re coming from, but I can’t say the same about the few hardline Islamists who reacted vehemently and with utter intolerance.
Also, my opinions are now in plain view for any interested authorities, which obviously includes the Sudanese government’s security apparatus. They can keep reading, and I’ll keep writing and expressing myself. It’s my human right.
In the part, “The Painful Heartbreak,” you write, “In times of weakness…I wish I could just go back to the orthodox comforts of yesterday, but I can’t and I won’t.” Is this statement pointing to your relationship with Islam, the pre-digital era, or both?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: When I wrote that, I was specifically referring to my pre-blogging relationship with Islam. There wasn’t much to question at the time. Things were basic and straight-forward: do this, don’t do that. Fulfill the five pillars. Be faithful, and so on.
Problem is, it was too straight-forward, especially when I had to stand on my own two feet and truly, intellectually the grasp the “why’s” behind the obligation to believe and stick to the “instruction manuals.” I was never satisfied with that dry, rigid, overbearing approach, but I still chose to go ahead with it nonetheless, because I felt trapped without alternatives.
Thanks to blogging and the Internet though, I eventually had to confront the question marks head on. I could now employ the most powerful private investigator the world had ever seen: Google. I began reading about Islamic history amongst other subjects, and realized that much of what I had been brought up to believe was essentially a lie. No, Sharia as commonly understood and practiced is not holy. The four Sunni schools of thought are not holy. They’re man-made and they’re open to severe criticism and scrutiny. With these lies exposed, I became more emboldened and irreverent, which then leads us to the next part of the book “The Messy Divorce,” in which my relationship with Islam had to come to a complete end. Well, almost. Before “The Reconciliation” that is.
Hence, I entered a period of mental torture in which I struggled with the loneliness that often came along with being a stubborn misfit. In those times of weakness, I sometimes truly did wish to “just go back to the orthodox comforts of yesterday.” But I didn’t. The liberation was worth the anguish.
You write about a rather lustful affair with atheism while struggling to understand Islam.
Amir Ahmad Nasr: Despite my major disagreements with some stances espoused by New Atheist voices like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, I still very much appreciate parts of their work, especially those targeted at the wide-spread dogmatism of religious belief.
The simple fact is, the large majority of religious believers worldwide are born into their respective religion, and stay within it not because of faith or true evidence-based conviction, but because that’s what they’ve been brought up to believe.
There’s hardly any critical thinking and intellectual honesty in religious discourse worldwide amongst the masses, much of it being conservative and archaic.
Hence, when there are unfortunately few Muslims within Islam willing to scrutinize the religious tradition so that Muslims can come to the faith out of conviction, the New Atheists fill up a very important gap and serve that purpose.
Unfortunately they do so in a troublesome manner that too often crosses into demonizing Muslims themselves and failing to see the diversity of interpretations within the Islamic tradition.
Nevertheless, given where I was a few years ago, their work had a positive effect on me, and I’m generally grateful for it.
As the Sudanese-born American scholar of Islam, Abdullahi An-Na’im says, “If I don’t have the freedom to disbelieve, I cannot believe.” My affair with atheism helped me attain the freedom to disbelieve, without which I’d have never arrived at the approach that finally gave me peace and clarity: evidential mysticism.
What was it like to shift your thoughts from the web to a physical book? What ultimately led you to make that leap?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: By 2008, after two years of obsessive blogging, I began experiencing a profound mental and psychological shift, and I wanted to reflect on it through writing. I wrote what ended up being a long draft blog post. I never published it. It was too personal. So I copied the text into a document on my computer, and expanded it gradually.
By then I had already gotten serious about turning it into a book I could perhaps digitally publish using a pen name.
I just could not not finish it. The damn book just had to come out of me. Otherwise, I’d have killed myself, because my “muse” would have never stopped bugging me about it. And so here we are, except I signed with a major publisher and decided to write and speak openly with my real name.
Why publish this book now? Aren’t you waiting to see what may come about as a result of the revolutions? Do you not want to figure out where else your journey with your faith might take you?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: Because, I saw young Muslims struggling with religious belief in an age of hyphenated identities. They were tormented but reluctant to question, just like I was, and I realized I could help.
I also wanted to document for historical purposes the digital activism prelude to the Arab uprisings that swept the region in 2011, and to showcase how a small dedicated network of individuals can help trigger a revolution–literally.
As for figuring out where else my journey with religion will take me, I have to say, I’ve arrived at a standpoint is quite set, and which I hope can provide an alternative between religious belief and nihilistic atheism.
Your digital media project, “The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media” featured 60 speakers in 60 seconds each for a total of 60 minutes. It brought forth some of the most pioneering activist-bloggers from the world over to comment on the status and future of Islam in the age of new media. What did you learn from this e-gathering?
Amir Ahmad Nasr: One of the most eye-opening things I learned from it was a sentiment captured beautifully by Fatemeh Fakhrie of Muslimah Media Watch who said: “with greater Internet access will inevitably come greater female participation. Muslim women are already actively engaging online through blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The future of Islam is bright because Muslim women can use new media to access knowledge, participate in conversations, and shape Islam, equally with men.”
I thought to myself, “wow!” This is awesome. We really are living in a time when Muslim women have an opportunity to express their voices on an unprecedented scale unlike ever before. It’s high time Muslim women united to cleanse out the Islamic corpus of patriarchal toxins.
Shazia Kamal Farook is an Associate Editor at Altmuslimah.com and studies International Affairs at Georgetown University.