This is an interview that Armin Navabi gave to Scott Douglas Jacobsen concerning how Armin remember his mom, and how her courage and dedication affected Armin’s life.
Scott: You tweeted a picture of your mom and pinned it on your Twitter account. It has 12,000 retweets, 17,000 likes and became viral on Reddit now. What is her story?
Armin: My mom was nine years old when her mother died from breast cancer. Her father remarried and the new wife asked my mom’s dad to kick out the 6 kids, which he did. After that, they had to figure out ways to survive on their own, which made them tough kids. She and her siblings were close.
My mom was very smart. In school, she did well. She wanted to go to medical school, but she ended up being a nurse.
Before Islamic Revolution…
Before the revolution happened in Iran in 1979, she was one of the people who joined the protest against the Shah. One time, she got attacked by the soldier with a gun. He didn’t shoot her, but he did point a gun at her.
My dad courted her, but she was always playing hard to get. She was always in the library. Every time she opened her book, there would be roses or chocolates there. They kept on going out for a while and then stop going out for a while. However, my dad kept on trying to win her back.
In the beginning, the revolution against the Shah was for freedom and not for Islam. But it became more Islamic. It took a turn in the way people did not expect. After the revolution, many people who participated in the Islamic revolution were shot and killed by those who came into power.
Big Sign in the Hallway…
My mom was in the hospital working at the time when Khomeini was either coming down from the plane or he was giving a speech. I’m not sure exactly which one was it. Everybody surrounded the television and watched the huge historical moment. She said something to the effect of “we’re fucked.” That comment made people turn around and look at her. The next day when she came to the hospital. There was a big sign in the hallway. On top, it said, “The whores of the West,” and under it were names. Her own was on it.
My dad became a surgeon during the Iran-Iraq war. They had this underground hospital where they kept on cutting arms and legs without anaesthesia of people who got shot. It was terrible.
One time, he wanted to treat some Iraqi soldiers. They asked him why he wanted to treat the enemies. My dad told everybody that if he was not allowed to treat them, he was going to leave. The doctors were really needed. My dad’s skills were in high demand, so they let him.
When he went to the cafeteria, he was shocked to see how many morality police were there. He asked them to leave and told them to have some respect for doctors. Suddenly, the soldiers started pointing guns at him. The other doctors surrounded my dad to create a barrier. That prevented the soldiers from firing since they were all doctors.
Someone came to my mom and said, “Jila! Jila! There’s this guy in the cafeteria and the soldiers try to shoot him, but the other doctors protected him!”
Her claim was that as soon as she heard that, she knew it was him. She ran to the cafeteria and that was when she realized that she loved him. As soon as she got there, it was all chaos. The soldiers, my dad right in the middle surrounded with doctors. My dad looked up and saw her. Then he said, “Hi, Jila!” She said, “Hi,” and ran away.
The Red Scarf…
Early after the revolution, the hijab was mandatory in Iran. My mother’s hijab was red, and she got arrested for it. It was a different time since it was not yet accepted to wear fashionable hijabs. As a punishment, she had to go to mandatory purifying lectures.
In the lecture, somebody was telling her, “My dear sister, why would you do this to our young men? They have sacrificed so much blood, so many lives for our revolution. They have died in war and you would tempt them with corruption like this?”
Her reply was, “No. You don’t understand. My hijab was red in honour of the blood that they have sacrificed for us.”
Necklace with Qur’anic Verses and Spells…
My mom was never Islamic or very religious. However, she did believe in god. In Iran, you can be a believer and pray to god and to the Imams when you need something, and don’t pray five times a day and don’t fast during Ramadan. You can be a believing Muslim who hates religious people.
She was very superstitious. She believed in witchcraft and wizardry. My mom would go and find these hidden wizards. She would pay them lots of money for the success of her sons. They would do spells and tell her the future. Once, she made me wear a necklace that has some Quranic scribblings on it. She put a stone in the chain. I still have it. She told me to have it with me during my exams. It was self-contradictory because these are Quranic verses. This is supposed to be a spell, but Islam is against casting spells.
Praying for Atheist Republic…
I myself went through a very religious phase. I took Islam very seriously. It was annoying to my parents. I tried to convert them. They didn’t pray. I was trying to get them to pray and to fast. They never went to mosque unless there was someone’s death or celebration. I didn’t want them to go to hell. They just wouldn’t listen to me.
When I became an atheist, it was a relief for them. In Iran, I started Atheist Republic. When I came to Canada, it started growing. Before I quit and started to focus on Atheist Republic, I had a very good job. I got the job that a lot of my classmates would have died for. I was working at a private equity firm as an analyst.
My mom was very supportive. You would think your mom would get angry because Mom and Dad had spent so much money on my education in order for me to get a good job. Now, I decided to work on activism.
She prayed to god that Atheist Republic would become successful. It was very ironic. I told her, “Mom, praying to god that my war against god would become successful doesn’t make sense.”
She said, “A mom has to do what a mom has to do.
Pigeon Experiment and Losing Faith…
She slowly started losing her faith. One thing that got to her was the superstitious pigeon experiment. Even pigeons can become superstitious by random things; the pigeons can be conditioned to develop superstitious behaviours in a belief that they will be fed.
She was like, “I’m like those pigeons.”
But then she said, “Maybe those pigeons feel good doing what they’re doing and getting a reward for it. Let me be superstitious. At least, I feel like I am helping you. Even when it’s not doing anything, it makes me feel good. Let me just have that.”
On her Deathbed…
I wish I called her more. I wish I talked to her more because she loved it when I talked to her. Some of my family members would get bored when I talked about religion and politics. But she would talk, listen and comment because she wanted to keep on talking to me.
When she got cancer, I think it was stage 3 pancreatic cancer. It advanced too much to do much about it. My dad wasn’t ready to let her go. They got her a VIP room at the hospital. Anything he said would happen.
I wanted to go to Iran, but they knew that I wouldn’t pass the airport. I would be jailed and on death row. My mom said, “Please don’t let my last memory of you be you in jail.”
So, I couldn’t go see her because of the book I wrote, “Why There Is No God”, and for founding Atheist Republic. If liking a post that offends Islam could get you in death row, imagine what making the largest platform for atheists around the world and writing a best-selling book on atheism could get you.
She told the doctors that she did not want to die without seeing her son. I feel partially responsible for this because I couldn’t go and see her. The doctors said that she couldn’t leave the hospital. But she said she didn’t care, she wants to see her son before she dies. She left the hospital and came to Vancouver.
Mom died shortly after because she wasn’t getting the care she was getting in Iran. When she got to Canada, she had to wait for a long time to see a doctor. That’s the bad part of the healthcare in Canada. The good part was they weren’t listening to my dad anymore but asking her what she wanted from them. She did not want chemotherapy. She said she’s done. My dad was trying to force her to do chemotherapy because he was not ready, but the doctors respected what she wanted for treatment.
I think it was like a month between the time that I was told my mom had cancer and the time that I lost her. Then I realized that I don’t have a mom anymore. I only had one month. She was happy that she was with everybody.
She was asking if I do think there’s nothing after this when she dies. I told her that’s what I think. She said it was good because she’s so tired. So, she didn’t believe in any of this anymore and was an atheist.
When I went to see her at the hospital, she had these headphones on and was listening to the Islamic prayer. It makes me sad, but makes me miss her more because she was so cute. She was like embarrassed and said, “Armin, I know this is all bullshit, but it’s really helping me. It really helps me with my pain.”
I was like, “Mom, why are you apologizing to me? You don’t need to be embarrassed. Just do whatever you want. Do whatever it takes for the pain.”
But it’s cute that she felt embarrassed to do something Islamic in front of me, which makes me sad that she felt like that.
Before her death, she told my dad that upon death she doesn’t want any Islamic ceremonies for her death. She didn’t want to get buried in Iran, but in Vancouver. In Iran, when a person dies, there is a ceremony held for that and another one 40 days after the death. She told my dad to make sure it does not happen. That no people come praying over her grave. There were a few attempts of this in Iran for her. However, my dad made sure he cancelled all the ceremonies because it was my mom’s wish that they have nothing like that.
A lot of people ask me, “Aren’t you sad that you’ll never see her again? Don’t you wish that there was a reunion or an afterlife that you’ll meet her one day? Isn’t that such a cold way of believing in the world?”
I would always say that even when you ignore the fact that we have to believe in things that are true, we have evidence rather than things that we like. You have to also understand that the afterlife doesn’t come with heaven only. The afterlife comes with hell. We were always told that most people will end up in hell. Based on what I was told in Islam, my mom would also be in hell and burning there right now. I might be very sad that I’m never seeing her again, but I am very much at peace knowing that she’s not been tortured by a sadistic god because she didn’t worship him enough.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Armin.