Aki Muthari is a journalist, illustrator and painter and an outspoken atheist and feminist. She was born and raised in Sri Lanka and moved to Canada with her family in 1993 as a result of the civil war.
She has been very vocal about systemic misogyny and sexism in her personal life and society. Her works express her profound frustration with identity politics and her absolute disgust for tribalism and moral hypocrisy. She states her objective as "to ultimately give voice, solidarity and empowerment to those persecuted by cultural and religious atrocities so those responsible for their abuse will be held accountable, because the only way we can destroy systematic abuse is by tackling it directly."
The following is her interview with Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland about Islamism and the persecution of atheists.
Clarion Project: Why do you think liberals in America have had such difficulty supporting atheists in Muslim majority societies, despite the obvious persecution they face?
Aki Muthali: Liberals in America have difficulty supporting atheists in Muslim-majority societies because they not only have a lower expectation of how Muslims can behave as rational people, but they also erroneously conflate the anti-Muslim bigotry faced by Muslim minorities in the West to how Muslims abuse atheists and non-Muslims in the East.
Their narrative has been, for a long time, that Muslims are always the victims regardless of where they reside. They justify this dishonest narrative with everything from the Christian conquest of Spain in 1492, to the birth of Israel in 1948, to white guilt and Western imperialism. There's no limit to how far a Western liberal will betray actual liberal values to make up for the guilt they erroneously feel towards their own country.
Their priority is consoling their indignation (regardless of how misplaced it is) — not human rights.
Clarion: What drove you to be so outspoken on issues of human rights violations perpetrated in the name of religion?
Muthali: Religion has always irked me as far back as when I was four years old. My earliest memory was questioning my relatives about why we go to temples and their response was, "You ask far too many questions for a girl."
I've been told that so often that I could never forget it. My family (along with hundreds of thousands of other non-Buddhist families) were also persecuted by Buddhist supremacists under the sanction of the Sri Lankan government.
The military joined the attacks. Hospitals were destroyed, women and girls were raped, men abducted in white vans never to be heard from again, etc.
My eldest brother had leukemia, and he died because there were no safe way to get to a government hospital in time. By the time he arrived to the hospital, it was too late. I saw grandma praying under the bunkers one time, I asked her why. She told me so God can protect us from the bombs and bullets, and I remember thinking how absurd it was considering how God allows hateful people to attack us in the first place.
So much rape, murder and slavery has been committed in the name of religion. The older I got, the more I learned — and the more I learned, the more I realized religion is a system of contempt and segregation.
Clarion: What reaction have you had personally to your criticism of Islamist imperialism?
Muthali: I have lost many friends by simply denouncing Islamism. I had also received many rape and death threats.
A former Muslim friend revealed my identity to an Islamist which prompted him to dox me on Twitter. I have to live with the the knowledge that this Muslim friend, whom I had been friends with for 20 years and shared my secrets with is now intentionally putting me and my family in danger. Just because I dared to criticise Islamic misogyny and sexism.
But I also accept the fact that if I want society to change for the better, I'll be making a lot of enemies — most of whom I'll never even meet in person, but certainly a few I'd come into contact with at some point in my life.
Clarion: Many feminists in the West feel that it is "white feminism" or "imperial feminism" for Westerners to critique human rights abuses perpetrated against women and girls by Muslim majority societies (e.g., male guardianship laws, FGM), since Westerners should not interfere with other cultures.
How do you respond when you run up against such arguments?
Muthali: This is the kind of argument that I personally find to be intentionally deceitful and always used to deflect the actual points of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the Islamic world.
I have been called a "colonial feminist" for addressing VAWG in Muslim societies many times. The argument is so weak, cheap and completely bigoted. If one becomes aware of or witnesses human rights abuses, one is obligated to expose and condemn them. That's what any decent human being would do.
It doesn't matter whether they are white or brown or Christian or Muslim or atheist. Abuse is abuse, and nobody gets to tell me or anybody else that we shouldn't intervene because we are not Muslims.
If we left Muslims to resolve the issues within Islam, then the abuses would continue to be perpetuated the same way the Crusades, Inquisition and Salem witch-hunts would exist today if we had left everything to Christians/Catholics back then.
Clarion: You have been highly critical of specific commentators such as Reza Aslan, Linda Sarsour and Mehdi Hassan whose work frequently misrepresents criticism of Islamism as bigotry.
Why do you feel they are so problematic?
Muthali: Reza Aslan, Linda Sarsour and Mehdi Hassan all have a dishonest narrative that portrays 1.6 billion Muslims as victims of atheists and secularists while keeping mute on the atrocities committed by the Sunni supremacists worldwide.
They hijack liberalism and want people to appease Muslim privilege that continues to dehumanise non-Muslims and atheists/secularists. Some Muslims still hold slaves in the 21st century — why are they not talking about this prevalent issue in the Arab world? They weep and wail about the "power structure" of Western racism while completely and deliberately ignoring the same "power structure" of Muslims that is responsible for egregious human rights abuses in not just the East, but also the West.
If human rights matter to them at all, they wouldn't be ignoring abuses committed by Muslims. Yet they do, which leads me to conclude they are simply fighting for the Muslim privilege than anything else.
Reza Aslan endorsed Islamism in his book, yet people are cheering for him because he's a charming person who bleats on about how cruel the criticism of Islamism is.
He intentionally conflates Muslims to Islamism, then argues it's Islam-critics who generalise "all Muslims." It's difficult to tolerate people like that.
Clarion: What can be done to change the discourse in the West on Islamism?
Muthali: I believe more vocal atheists, secularists and liberal Muslims must be given an outlet to express the consequences resulting from Islamism in order to educate the masses who readily accept any deceit from people like Reza Aslan and his sycophants.
In order for any positive discourse to take place — we need intellectual honesty, and so far, everyone from Reza Aslan to Cenk Uyger are deflecting the actual points of discourse with their puerile outrage, leaving no room for an intelligent conversation. We need to amplify the voices of those affected by Islamism — not those who defend it.
We know any critic of Islamism will end up in a prison cell like Saudi blogger Raif Badawi or condemned like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so we must take people just like them and provide them with a voice if they cannot use their own, and if they are able to escape and find safe haven in secular nations — we put them on the podium.
We let them talk, so their experiences and their honesty exposes the dishonesty and misinformation coming from people like Reza Aslan and Linda Sarsour.