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book review

Ali A. Rizvi could be applauded for questioning faith – a position that would be considered heretical in most Muslim societies.Alishba Zarmeen

Ali A. Rizvi was just five years old when his view of God shifted from the "merciful" and "compassionate" supreme being that his Pakistani Muslim family had instilled in him, to one capable of "cruel, sadistic, and obscene" acts. It happened while visiting his aunt's home in London to say goodbye to his three-year-old cousin, Sana, whose battle with childhood leukemia was coming to a gruesome, undignified end.

As his mother and aunt turned to the Koran to console themselves, he asked his father to explain why the family was praying to a God who seems to be tormenting a child? The father muttered something about Sana returning to her original place, back to God.

"And right there – years before I would even know the meaning of the word skepticism – its seeds have been sown," Rizvi writes in The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. It's one of several powerful revelations in a passionate, timely but, ultimately, muddled plea for secularism and reform in Islam.

A Canadian surgical oncologist who grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Rizvi is better known as an occasional columnist for the Huffington Post, where he has explored the challenges of Muslims who leave their faith, sometimes known as ex-Muslims and other times as atheists – or, to their critics, apostates. His book weds the tenets of the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens to a narrative of a journey from faith to doubt. To Rizvi, science not only trumps the blind faith that the Abrahamic religions require, but its transparency provides a pattern to place or restore order in the universe.

With The Atheist Muslim, the author takes on an equally ambitious agenda: setting the stage for a conversation among Muslims in the Western world and Muslim-majority nations – estimated at 1.5 billion people – to bring about a new age of reason. He plots out a multistep program that begins with rejection of scriptural inerrancy (the belief that every word in the Koran is that of God and must be followed to the letter); reformation; secularism; and, finally, enlightenment. He separates the religion, which he sees as a set of ideas, from its followers, a community. This tactic allows critics of Islam to avoid falling into the anti-Muslim bigotry of, say, the new far right in Europe or the United States, while also continuing their reformist quest.

None of this will strike readers of Judeo-Christian backgrounds as remarkable or new, but it's (relatively) rare and heretical in most Muslim societies. Rizvi's willingness to take the faith from within despite physical and emotional risks should be applauded and protected. That doesn't mean he argues his way into atheism fairly or methodically.

Despite his clinical credentials and appeals to reason, Rizvi reverts to a pugilistic mode when discussing anyone who disagrees with his positions or those of the New Atheism in general. (His reverence for Dawkins and Harris borders on idolatry.) He castigates "moderate" Muslims and Western liberal commentators as apologists for literal or extreme interpretations of Islam. This hostility to what he believes to be mere political correctness leads Rizvi to perform the same "intellectual acrobatics" and cherry-picking that he accuses his opponents of doing. He peppers over the extreme positions of bloggers such as U.S.-based Pamela Geller while suggesting that liberals' inability to take on radical Islam has created the vacuum that Donald Trump and France's Marine Le Pen have exploited.

Quite the stretch, that, and one that absolves right-wing extremists of responsibility and places it on the laps of the centre and left instead. Here and elsewhere – in a HuffPost column in 2015, he described Trump as "possibly the most liberal conservative the GOP has seen in decades" – Rizvi's political and moral compass cries out for recalibrating. And although the book was probably in print when Donald Trump Jr. made his now-infamous analogy between refugees and poisoned Skittles, it's not a stretch to see echoes of the same uncompromising sentiment in Rizvi's discussion of infallibility in a chapter on metaphors and misunderstandings in the Koran: "If there were even a single, small fly in a glass of otherwise pristine water, would you drink it?"

A pattern emerges in The Atheist Muslim: This journey to reason has its own dogmatic side and leaves little room for the ambivalence and nuances of history, politics and lived experiences. He's right of course not to overplay the role of imperialism or American interventions in the Muslim world and call it on its homegrown legacy of intolerance. But is it not possible that complex situations require complex diagnoses and are the result of multiple, interlinked factors? Does everything have to be reduced to liberalism or faith? As bombs rain down on Syria and Yemen, can we blame survivors for clinging to their belief in an eternal afterlife, one of religion's more comforting narratives?

As valuable as parts of The Atheist Muslim are – the personal narrative shines – it arrives at a moment when it may kick-start a reformist movement in Islam or furnish excuses for new bigotries and horrors. It's the book's strength and, potentially, fatal flaw.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the author of Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) and Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.