Here in Sydney, Australia, where I've been lecturing for a week, I may have had one Australian-born waitress or waiter and one Australian-born taxi driver. As is my wont, I ask all of them where they were born and, whenever possible, have some discussion about their native country.
I say "whenever possible" because, unlike in the United States --where taxi drivers, whether foreign- or American-born, are known for being talkative -- that has not been my experience in Sydney, where apparently the influence of the famous British reserve is still very much in evidence. I ask where the driver was born, he responds, and the discussion is pretty much ended.
But the waiters and waitresses have been quite willing to talk, and one of these discussions was of particular interest.
After attending a performance of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" at the magnificent Sydney Opera House, my wife and I dined at a nearby Italian restaurant overlooking the Sydney Harbor. I asked our young, personable waitress where she was from, and she said Iran. I then did what I almost always do when I meet an Iranian -- spoke the only thing I know how to say in Farsi (Persian): "Let's all go study with the ayatollah."
Many years ago, I asked an Iranian friend in Los Angeles how to say that phrase, figuring that if I were ever in Iran and arrested by the Revolutionary Guard, that might help me considerably more than, let us say, "Where is the men's room?"
It has become a terrific icebreaker with just about every Iranian emigre I have ever met. Some laugh out loud; others immediately "correct" me, insisting that the ayatollah is the last person anyone should ever study with; and others don't know what to make of me.
Our young waitress laughed herself silly and wondered how I ever learned such a phrase. I explained that I have numerous Iranian friends, living, as I do, in "Teherangeles" -- the name Iranians in Los Angeles give to the largest Iranian community outside of Iran, and a name with which she, though living in Australia, was well familiar with.
I asked Shakila if she was Muslim. She told me that though one could say she was a Muslim, she did not identify as such, that in fact she was an atheist.
She was not the first Muslim-born atheist from Iran I have met. And from what I am told, an entire generation of atheists has been produced by the Islamic Republic of Iran. How could it be otherwise?
Nothing produces atheists like despicable religious people. They do far more harm to religious faith than all the atheist writers and activists in the world put together.
Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, the ayatollahs, Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, the Taliban and all the other Islamist organizations actually decrease the number of believers in the world.
Over the course of time, people do not judge religions by their theology. Yes, some people convert to a religion thanks to its convincing theology. And many remain in a religion because of family ties, cultural norms and sheer inertia. But over time, religion -- and faith in God itself -- is judged by its fruit. Which is how it should be.
And the best known fruit of Islam today -- countries calling themselves Muslim, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Taliban Afghanistan, not to mention Islamist groups -- is so ugly that many millions of people are increasingly repelled by religion and by God.
It is not entirely fair, since there are beautiful people in every religion whose goodness goes unreported. But when the best-known actions of some of the most religious people in the world are kidnappings, slaughter, torture, mass murder of innocents, suicide bombings, beheadings and treatment of women unknown in recorded history, religion and faith in God suffer everywhere. Shakila is not alone.