Episode Summary

After neoliberalism took over the Democratic Party in the 1990s, American politics shrank. We were no longer debating what the government should do for us, or even if it should do anything at all, for the most part. Instead, our politics focused on who are we, especially in regards to the question of who is American?

Who are we and who do we want to be? These are questions that are old as time itself. Everywhere, as people discovered there were other people who lived next to them who thought differently about important topics such as religion, conflict has often been the result.

Unfortunately, even as American politics is opening up to people of more races and religions than before, many of these lingering resentments are still around.

Joining us in this episode to discuss some of this and how it impacted him is Wajahat Ali, he is a columnist with The Daily Beast and he is also more importantly for this conversation, the author of a book called “Go Back Where to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become an American,” which is just out in paperback.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Waj.

WAJAHAT ALI: Thank you, Matthew. I appreciate it.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well, so why don’t you give it a little overview about the book and why did you write it?

ALI: So, “Go Back to Where You Came From” is a love letter to a country that doesn’t always love the rest of us back. It’s about how you can fight for a country that oftentimes doesn’t fight for you. And it’s about this country called Enka, where many of us are.

Trying to achieve this thing called the American Dream, even as we’re living the nightmare, right? How do you feel when you’re both us and them, a citizen and a perpetual suspect? And I use kind of my own journey as a personal through line for the viewer just to step into my shoes or the shoes of those who, I think they call us Bipo now, Matthew, which sounds, which means Black, Indigenous, and people of color, but sounds like a sleep apnea machine or like a Terminator sent from the future to kill us. But apparently that’s what– I’m the “POC” of “BIPOC.”

But it’s especially the story of America from the perspective of those, especially Muslims and immigrants and especially in the last 25 years, right? Ever since the war on terror. How did we experience this America and how can we become the country that we sell to the rest of the world?

And I hope in the end, the book makes the case or inspires you to keep fighting for that country and to keep stretching it and expanding it so all of our children can be its co protagonists one day, and hopefully it’s funny along the way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think it is. Sometimes people, when they’re talking about your book that I’ve looked at is that they, they don’t note that you are not actually an immigrant yourself. So talk about that. Have you noticed other people sort of make that inference?

ALI: Yeah.

I was in a, I was, uh, when I, When I was first promoting the book on MSNBC, I think the producer gave Mika some wrong information. So right off the start of the interview, I felt bad for her. She’s like, so why did you come to, to this country?

And I’m like, well, I’m from California, but to some, New York is a foreign country. So the first time I came was 11 years ago, and she, and she could tell she was embarrassed. So I didn’t want to, you know, it was an honest mistake. But there are folks who think that I wasn’t born here, right? And I often ask, well, when did you come here?

And I’m like from my mother’s womb in 1980, the year of “Empire Strikes Back.” But it’s sometimes it’s, it’s, it’s sometimes the question isn’t innocent. When you get told to go back to where you came from, even though you’re born and raised in this country, much like if we remember Donald Trump when he was president, he told The Squad, those four congresswomen of color, go back to your country first and clean it up, and then come back. And he really fixated on Ilhan Omar in front of one of his many cult-like gatherings. And they chanted ‘send her back’ for 12 seconds.

That hit home for the rest of us. Because even though those four women are citizens and congresswomen, and three of them were born and raised here, it still wasn’t enough. And that’s the takeaway. No matter what you do, your citizenship or your belonging is conditional. It comes with an asterisk.

So even if you’re born here, and even if you’re a citizen, and even if you did everything right, if you’re not White, you are, quote unquote, a foreigner an other. And a potential enemy.

And I get told almost every day in some form or another unsolicited recommendation, ‘go back to where you came from.’ And I always ask like, ‘Hmm, the Bay Area, I would love to if you could pay for my rent. What do you mean by that?’ And it’s one of those situations where it’s an ugly taunt. And last thing I’ll say is people forget that it wasn’t just used against people of color, right? Irish, who are now considered White weren’t White. They were told to go back. Italians, Eastern European Jews. And Benjamin Franklin hated the Germans. So it’s like herpes. It’s been with America forever, this nativism and the xenophobia.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and it is a human thing, unfortunately, because you do have that dynamic in pretty much every country directed at people who are not from the native stock, if you will.

And they’re things that I think people are now finally beginning to start discussing but it’s still– it is a discussion that’s just really nascent at this point. And at the same time, I think, I mean you mentioned, this, this idea of BIPOC, a lot of people don’t really like being lumped in with everybody liked that. And so they see that type of designation also as sort of maybe problematic on the other side of the equation. I mean, is that what you meant by that? What’s your reaction?

ALI: Well, it, it’s just one of those situations where it’s messy, right? Because apparently some people decide, okay, now you’re the other. But then other folks who are allies say out of nowhere, “BIPOC.” And then a lot of people of color are like, what the F is BIPOC? I don’t want to be BIPOC. What is that, am I like, have I been set for the future to kill you?

It is interesting shifting terminologies and languages that we come up with.

But people sometimes forget that race itself is a social construct. Even White and Black didn’t exist until the 18th century where rich, wealthy, White male landowners wanted to differentiate themselves from Black folks, native Americans and poor Whites. And that’s where you see in American history, the first actual differentiation on paper between this thing called White and this thing called Black.

So it’s a way that human beings have always been, in a strange way, tribal. And some groups have tried to assert their superiority through othering. ‘I am not that.’ And in America, White supremacy has been tied to anti-Blackness. Like I am White because I’m not Black. And anything that is pro-Black is anti-White, right?

And so if Black people get their rights, that means it’s coming at my expense. And you saw this play out in 2016, Matthew, when it wasn’t economic anxiety. And the rest of us at the BIPOC kept trying to tell a lot of our colleagues, like, listen, just trust us on this. It isn’t economic anxiety, it’s mainly cultural anxiety that is driving Trump voters.

It’s like, no, no, no, because we can never use the R word racist, right? We have to go to the Rust Belt and listen to their grievances. And I’m like, trust me, they love him because he’s racist. And then all the data has come out in the past seven years. They’re like, okay. Yeah, yeah. So the main driver, not the only driver is cultural anxiety. And when they dug through it repeatedly, it’s this fear of being replaced and that we can no longer achieve the American dream. It’s being taken away from us by women, Black people, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ.

And the irony is, the rest of us, we’re on the wrong side of advantage. We’re like, I always joke about this, I was like, dude, if you only knew, we’re not trying to replace you. We just want an invite to the party. We want to eat this thing called meatloaf. We want to see if you guys wear shoes in your home. No one’s trying to replace anyone. Or at the very least just leave us alone. Let us have our own barbecue.

But this is part and parcel of American history. You just see it play out again and again. It’s like a reboot. It’s like the “Scream” franchise. Every couple of years they just add new characters and there’s a new villain and, and so I think Black has been the perpetual villain, but every once in a while they get replaced. I think right now it’s a drag queens and transgender, and about 10 years ago was Muslims.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and actually let’s talk about the Islam aspect of things, because I think that, a lot of the sort of right-wing messaging trends that we see now they really did kind of, develop in the aftermath of 9/11.

ALI: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: With respect to the Republican Party, the reactionaries who took it over, they actually are not even the majority of the party. Like Republican voters, generally speaking, don’t agree with their party on the issues. They don’t want to drastically shrink government. They don’t want to cut Social Security. And a majority of them actually support same sex marriage right now. Obviously, there are a few points of agreement, but overwhelmingly the Republican elite has a very different viewpoint of what government should do and what it should be.

And actually when I was at The Hill, I did polling for them and we asked people about school prayer and even Republicans didn’t want it mandatory right in school. So there’s just a lot of things that they don’t agree with their party on. And in the Cold War, when they were able to use the Soviet Union as sort of this opponent, this other, it was very effective for them to win elections.

But after it was over, they needed to have another other. And so for a brief, a few, like maybe what, 10 years or so?

ALI: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: You can tell me what you think, but for about 10 years or so, the other became Muslims. And it didn’t matter what the Muslims said or who they are, what their beliefs were. As long as you were a Muslim, you were other and it didn’t matter, even if you were American for that matter,

ALI: I would say 20 years. I would say, even now, I’ll give you, I’ll say why 20 years is because if you look at Donald Trump, right? And, and you look at 2015 he realized, people forget this. It was actually Ben Carson, who’s the first one who kicked this off, because Ben Carson said, ‘Will you have a Muslim in your cabinet? He goes, only if they renounce Sharia.

And then he repeated the BS manufactured talking points. I mean, I did the research on this, where did this come from, Obama is the Muslim, the radical Muslim Brotherhood has taken over America. Sharia is threatening to replace the Constitution, right? These, these were manufactured fears and boogeymen, much like CRT, it’s the exact same playbook. They came out from some right-wing think tanks that are funded by right-wing billionaires.

And then they kind of seeded them out through the grassroots groups, megachurches, and then platformed it through local, national, international media. And it literally, perfect sound bites, word for word ended up in the mouths of politicians, especially before the 2010 midterm elections and the 2012 elections.

So Ben Carson, who was running for president said: ‘I won’t have a Muslim in my cabinet until he renounces Sharia, which is a totalitarian legal threat that seeks to replace the Constitution.’

Now everyone at that point was like, how dare he say that? Guess how the base responded? Huge spike in donations.

People came out to, I think his fundraiser that was in Cincinnati, huge social media engagement. And in November, I believe of that year, a few, a few weeks later, Donald Trump doubled down on it and said, okay, let me go on steroids and talk about a Muslim ban. And he was rewarded. So what really got Donald Trump just raring with the base was calling Mexicans rapists and criminals going after him, the undocumented and the Muslim ban.

And the first thing that he did in office, if you all remember when, with Steve Bannon and Steve Miller did, Steven Miller did, the Nazi adjacent members of the GOP, I think, MAGA friendly, I’m being very diplomatic. They tried to bum-rush that failed version of the Muslim ban.

First thing I remember when I went to cover a Trump rally, it was a few weeks before the election in Maine and Rudy Giuliani was the headliner. And after a while they weren’t like, they weren’t even talking about policies, Matthew, or like a speech. He just started saying ‘lock her up.’ And there was huge applause. Then he said, ‘build the wall,’ huge applause. ‘Muslim ban.’

And when you saw it in person, you saw this rage, this anger against women, this anger against Muslims and immigrants. And I think with Ilhan Omar just a couple of weeks ago, right? Kevin McCarthy picked on Ilhan Omar of all people. They keep picking on her. And the question is why, because she is like this trifecta, the hat trick, the boogeyman that they constructed in their dreams. It’s like “Weird Science.” I’m giving you an eighties pop cultural reference where those two teenage boys in the Johnny Hughes movie create the perfect girlfriend on a computer, Kelly LeBrock.

If Republicans could create their perfect villain: Ilhan Omar, Black woman, formerly a refugee, a Muslim who wears hijab. And on that canvas, they can create any type of terrifying story which they do with Ilhan Omar.

So I would say even now, Muslim is the boogeyman, even though it’s probably not number one right now as we’re talking, it’s probably drag queens and transgenders, but it’s become a very convenient top three boogeyman, which perfectly encapsulates everything we’re saying. Foreign, a threat, violent, not White, seeking to replace us, and something that we can easily create as a strawman to mobilize the base. And then as you bring in the Christian nationalist element of this, and that’s just like fuel to the fire.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And speaking of the Christian nationalist aspect, one of the things when Donald Trump first came on the political scene in the Republican primary in 2015, there were two groups of people that were his initial supporters. And they were actually self-identified liberal Republicans who–

ALI: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: Who remembered him as a New Yorker, who was, had been a Democrat and didn’t like George W. Bush. So they were willing to give him a shot at first. And those people mostly are gone now.

ALI: Mm-hmm.

SHEFFIELD: But they were there in the beginning, but then the other ones who were there were people who identified as evangelical but did not actually go to church.

ALI: Hmm.

SHEFFIELD: And so it was a, it’s a fascinating dynamic. Because you kind of see that now things have slightly changed in terms of his support. It’s a cross section of evangelicals, whether they attend or not, but this idea that being a Christian is something about identity rather than action. And it’s about who you are not rather than who you are.

ALI: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly– it’s almost like this desperate defense against modernism, right? And I saw it. I’m a practicing Muslim, you see, within my communities also.

I always tell some Muslims, I say, you know who you all remind me of? And then they’re like, who? Christian nationalists. And they get so offended. You remind me a lot of evangelical Christians.

And I tell this to evangelical Christians, that the “Jesus Camp” people, you guys will get along with some Muslims and they’re like, how dare you say that?

Because religion is both a shield and a sword against modernity. And it has to do a lot with identity politics. It has to do a lot with what we are not, we are not you, we are not this. And it’s, instead of expansion, it’s almost like constriction.

Instead of expanding the tent, it’s making the tent small and smaller. And the fear is, and you know this Matthew, you lived through this, if we expand the tent, the center will not hold. Everything will fall apart. Our daughters will become lesbians with tattoos on their lower back. Our sons will become daughters. Everything that we’ve built will end. And we will no longer have power. We will no longer have supremacy.

Trying a different model of engagement and openness and charity and kindness, it’s replaced by fear and anxiety and loathing and self-loathing, right? And projection and hypocrisy and violence.

And so that explains why so many of these individuals, because so many people who don’t come from religious backgrounds or have studied this or come from religious communities, are like: ‘I don’t get it. Why are these people behaving like they’re saying they’re Christian, but they’re not Christian?’

And I’m like, because Jesus is a mascot for them to validate all their fears, their paranoia and their supremacy. And William Boykin, who used to be part of the George W. Bush’s administration, I mean, he said it. He’s a Christian nationalist, he’s now in the right-wing talk circuit. But he said Jesus will return with an AR-15. [Colorado Rep. Lauren] Boebert has said something similar. So it’s militant Jesus, right?

They reject this whole saying of the pacifist Jesus. They pick and choose the scripture, parts of the scripture that validate their White supremacy. And like with any group that is fundamentalist or extremist, that is motivated not by love or service, but by fear and hate, you get this Christian nationalist movement.

And what’s really terrifying about it is they believe — they like to quote the “Blues Brothers,” ‘we’re on a mission from God’ — their hate has a celestial stamp of approval with all that zealousness. And so that is really a terrifying aspect of this White supremacy that we have always engaged with that leads to xenophobia and anti-Blackness and, and anti-Muslimness.

But I know you talk about this, Matthew, but I feel like America still does not talk about the Christian nationalist aspect of White supremacy, especially with what we’re dealing now with what you call the MAGA movement that has, it’s still not the majority of conservatives, but has nonetheless, like a virus taken over.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s true. And with the parallels you were talking about with Islam, I mean, there’s that famous meme of the of the White woman with her gun and her Bible and then the Muslim woman who was I guess she was a member of Hezbollah, and she had her gun in her Quran and it was funny because the White woman who was in that meme, people knew who she was, and they were sending that meme to her. She was like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t get it. What’s the comparison here?’

ALI: And like you hear, you hear some people say, American Taliban, you’ve heard Y’all Qaeda, you’ve heard White ISIS. Because if you’ve studied this, and if you’ve been through this, you know that the DNA is very similar. It’s just the superficial. The wardrobe is different, but the DNA is very similar when it comes to violent extremists.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And of course you see this in other parts of the world as well. I mean in India, for instance, they’ve got a Hindu nationalist party that’s trying to — well they’re not just trying — but is actively discriminating against anyone who’s not Hindu. And then, of course in a lot of Islamic countries, they actively discriminate against non-Muslims.

But I guess what’s kind of weird though, is there is some kind of fungibility with regard to American right-wingers and how they view the Islamic world now. So now they basically, through Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, now they’ve decided that they love Saudi Arabia, they can’t get enough of them. And Saudi Arabia hasn’t changed one bit and since 9/11. And in fact, they’ve gotten worse, you could argue in a lot of ways. I mean, they weren’t conducting invasions of other countries at that point in time.

ALI: And, but look at Russia, man. We’re old enough to remember. Like, I joked about this. If Ronald Reagan was to come back to life and find out that his party praises Putin, he’d probably be like ‘Just put me back in the grave and roll me over,’ right? It just goes to show you how White supremacy, is malleable. It shifts, it adapts, it evolves.

I think Saudi Arabia is a fantastic example because even in the 2015 campaign, people forget that Donald Trump was hitting Hillary Clinton on Saudi Arabia, he made her return her money and openly said these racist claims against Saudi Arabia and then when it came to doing the tit for tat transaction: ‘Eh, you go ahead and kill a US journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, because you’re good for business.’

And he actually ended up praising Mohammed bin Salman, the brutal crown prince of Saudi Arabia, basically the dictator. Disavowed his own CIA and intelligence, disavowed Turkish intelligence and praised his strength.

And then Jared Kushner, and I have to mention this because you mentioned this and people don’t talk about it enough, a week before MBS consolidated his power, it was like a “Game of Thrones'” red wedding. And who was in Saudi Arabia, Jared Kushner. And MBS bragged that he has Jared Kushner in his back pocket.

And the first trip that Donald Trump took to a foreign country was Saudi Arabia, where he does a curtsey in front of the king. And Jared Kushner somehow just gets a $2 billion loan from Saudi Arabia for his business. Hmm, Matthew, hmm! So I guess it’s all good when you’re getting paid. All is fair.

SHEFFIELD: Well, as long as you’re a Republican.

Look, I mean, Jared Kushner just himself, let alone Donald Trump in his Saudi golf tournament stuff, Kushner himself, he makes Hunter Biden look like a dollar store thief.

ALI: Yeah, you look, he makes him look like a boy scout who was just caught once with his hand in the cookie jar.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, basically. All right, well, so let’s maybe get into the, the book itself. So it’s a memoir and you’re going through some of your experiences. What were some of the experiences that stood, that stand out to you that were some of your favorite to recount?

ALI: Yeah, so it’s like memoir-ish. It’s a different type of beast. And some people are like, I don’t understand this book, the way it’s structured. And that’s deliberate, right?

It’s a memoir which takes a slight detour to commentary, which takes a slight detour to history, but hopefully it’s weaved together in a entertaining enough narrative fashion that you go along for the ride.

And overwhelmingly, the response has been excellent, I’m a very pleased with that. But you know that? That’s the question, is how do you fit a life into 235 pages? Because I wanted to make it nice and tight for readers. What do you choose to highlight? What do you choose to not highlight? And some of the things that I focused on were the first part was the origin story.

Just so before we get to the heavy stuff, people can step in my shoes. Growing up a brown-skinned kid in the Bay Area where my parents thought it’d be hilarious not to teach me English. So I only knew three phrases of English when they dropped me off at preschool. I learned English at the age of five in English as a second language.

In first grade, I was a fat kid. In the eighties, Matthew– when there was no Dove soap commercials about body positivity, there was no Lizzo– if you were a fat kid growing up in the eighties and nineties, you remember, there were only two types of kids back in the day. Normal kids and fat kids, and every day was World War III. So the trauma of wearing husky pants.

I’m left-handed, the only left-handed person in my family, and you learn what that means if you’re Asian and left-handed. So basically it’s about that fish out of water and how this fish out of water goes to school. And that’s where you learn your place in the American hierarchy.

School is oftentimes the– when I ask people, when I give speeches and presentations, when you ask a lot of folks who are immigrants and people of color, like when was the first time you got hit with like a racist statement? The age that they come back to me with Matthew is five. Five and six.

School, that’s where you learn, oh, I’m a sidekick. I’m a villain. I don’t belong. My people aren’t in the history books. And how does that shape you? So in response to that, people like us and people like me especially, were desperately looking for heroes because I consumed pop culture and stories.

And so that leads me on this journey to create stories with me and my friend. And that, that kind of leads to this chapter where I talk about exactly what you and I have just discussed is why do so many Americans in the 21st century have this archaic view of Muslims, when we also have like Muhammad Ali and Ilhan Omar and all these Muslim cab drivers and teachers and educators? But when it comes to Muslims, you don’t, you don’t see me, you see Osama and ISIS.

So I talk about it like, like why America has a relationship thanks to politics, history, and media. And then I focus on how I try to change that. And then the crisis, if you will, the plot twist in the book, which then takes on a different trajectory is 9/11, which I call this, this crisis in the timeline, right?

There’s always a pre-9/11 and a post-9/11. And for me, I was 21 years old, a senior at UC Berkeley, Pakistani Muslim-American man, about to graduate. And then 9/11 happens.

And ever since that moment, it’s the post 9/11 world, where I have to defend 1.7 billion people and 1400 years of Islamic civilization and prove my patriotism. And how it feels right from overnight being like this suburban Muslim kid who was the good minority to overnight becoming the villain.

And the second plot twist, which I talk about more in the book is a few months after 9/11. I grew up middle class, upper middle class suburban kid, and then my parents both get arrested. And overnight I’m living the American dream and the American nightmare. Overnight we lose everything. And overnight I become the bad minority, lose the credit, lose the money, lose the home.

And now I have both parents in jail. I’m the only child. I have to leave school and take care of my grandmothers. And then I see another version of America and Americans, the one that is oftentimes marginalized and mocked. The poor, the people of color, the ones who are lazy, the ones who are in jail.

And so my experiences, I believe, have given me a very expansive and panoramic view of this country called America. And then I try to give you some of my recommendations about how you can still have some hope and fight for the country, want this country to become. So I hope I give you a Cliff Notes without too many spoilers.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, one thing that you talk about or aspect of your growing up is, you kind of are realizing when you’re going through puberty, talking about putting pictures of beautiful women on the wall. That you’re kind of navigating between the sort of Americanized, commercial sexual dynamic that people are accustomed to, or surrounded with, and then sort of the traditional Muslim dynamic as well. And there’s some tension there. Let talk about that a little bit.

ALI: Yeah. See, see that’s interesting. I’m glad. You’re the first person that brought that up. And I think it’s because of your religious background and you understand what it’s like to come from a practicing religious family, right?

Because we are practicing, but people see us and they think, oh, my mom doesn’t wear hijab. My father doesn’t have a beard. And with me, with my life, what I do, people assume that I’m quote unquote secular, which means good Muslim by the way.

Secular means safe, Muslim, neutered Muslim, the Muslim who drinks alcohol. And once they realize I don’t drink alcohol, I’m practicing. It’s always fascinating, even in liberal circles to see them just — they don’t know what to do with me.

Because to them, religious people are like– I always joke– you’re either a carnivore or like vegan. And I’m like, most people are actually like omnivores. It’s like a mix and match. You can believe but not be too religious. Or you can be religious about a few things. But we just don’t understand religion. We don’t talk about it well in this country, which is hilarious because it’s such an oddly religious country.

So there is this, scene I have in the book, where it’s puberty, I’m like 13 or 14, 13 years old. And I remember it was like the nineties. And all of a sudden, you see girls. And my mom used to have these magazines, like these Vogue magazines and there were the supermodels back in the day. And the supermodels used to be Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiver, Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, and a few others. A heyday! It was glorious times, Matthew.

And so for whatever reason I’m like, ooh, women pretty. And I put these photos up on my wall one day, and my mom comes up and she goes: ‘What the hell is this? This is disgusting. Oh my God, wait till your father comes home. Keep those photos up. Let’s see what your dad says.’

And I’m all of a sudden like embarrassed. And my dad, my dad comes. And he is tired, he comes from work, and my mom says, look at this.

And my father sees these women on the wall, and I, I swear to God, I see him smile. Then he catches his smile, eats it, and he goes, ‘ It’s fine. It’s fine, Samina.’

My mom’s name is Samina. And my mom’s like, ‘What?’

He goes: ‘Just let him have it.’

And you kind of, in hindsight you realize, oh yeah, your dad was once a teenage boy. And the second thing, which is an un-PC thing to say, but I think is accurate thing to say, for many dads is like secretly, I think a lot of dads, even though hopefully we’ve gotten better about this, are like, oh, my son’s straight. He likes girls, phew.

So it was just one of those situations where you assume in this traditional Muslim family, you don’t do that. But then you also realize Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, there’s boys who go through puberty, sex is normal.

But we kind of have made it so abnormal, and we’ve made it a source of so much guilt and so much sexual repression across all these religious traditions, that it does such a damage to men and women, and relationships.

Where I was very lucky, and I mentioned this in the book also, is that my parents, from that moment on, you kind of saw that there was an opening where I could talk to them about this stuff and it’s not something that’s dirty. Does that make sense?

And that’s where I was very lucky compared to a lot of my friends where, believe it or not, born and raised in America within these religious families, not once have their parents ever talked to them about girls. And it did have an impact on their relationships and their marriages, because instead of sex being seen something as just normal and awkward and weird, and you learn through it, it’s seen as something shameful and evil.

And the joke, I think I mentioned this in the book, the joke was puberty, you go through it like, let’s say 13, all right? Don’t touch a girl. Don’t have sex with any girl until you get married. If you do, you go to hell. And then you fast forward, you’re 30 years old. What the hell’s wrong with you? How come you’re not married?

And you’re like, wait, what? And so these are things I think if you grow up in some religious communities, across the board, I found that a lot of folks who read the book, they’re like, oh, we have that dysfunction as well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it is very relatable. I mean, like in the Mormon community that I was born and raised in, they have that exact same dynamic. You’re supposed to go from zero to a hundred without any instruction. (laughs)

ALI: Without a seatbelt, without any instruction, without a driver’s license.

SHEFFIELD: And without having gone to 20 or 30.

ALI: And it’s your fault, right? And then the funny thing is people don’t realize, and this, you know what? It goes back to what we were saying, almost the hypocrisy. Because human beings are just human beings. We live our life. It doesn’t matter. You can’t tell people: ‘Stop being sexual,’ it just doesn’t work. ‘Be abstinent.’

And then you find out all these stories. Same thing with Mormons. I know this because I have Mormon friends. Same thing happens. And then you find out later people are having sex. People make mistakes, then people feel so guilty. And people feel so ashamed and it messes up their relationship with God.

It often then manifests itself through misogyny, Matthew, and then women themselves are blamed being impure, and the men then get kind of like, get, get off scot-free due to these double standards, right? Then the men who are out having sex with all these women, then they want a pure wife. And then I’m like, what do you mean pure wife? You’re the one who’s having sex.

It just leads to so much, it leads to so much self-hate, confusion, loathing, pain, dysfunction, misogyny.

And you sit there and go, gosh, if you just had a normal conversation, if you had sex ed, if you had body positivity, you could still be religious about it, and you could actually introduce a loving, forgiving God who says: ‘You know what? People make mistakes. It’s okay. Just because you did this doesn’t mean you have to be that. It’s normal. And people do this, and you don’t have to hate yourself or the other gender. Talk to me about it. And guess what? Your parents and uncles did the same thing. It’s normal.’

They’re like: ‘What? We never knew that. We were just like, everyone’s a spartan. No one has sex or sexual thoughts and feelings.’

And if you f up, you sit there and cry and feel guilty and you promise never to do it again, but then you do it again, which increases the self-loathing. And then you get to the age of 28, 29, 30, and your elders who told you that you’d go to hell if you touch a girl, now they’re on your back for not getting married.

And you’re like, ‘But you didn’t even tell me how to date girls to talk to girls.’

And they’re like: ‘What? You should have learned that.’

I’m like: ‘Where? You told me not to watch those movies or take sex ed!’

So I feel like this is where a lot of Mormons, a lot of Muslims, a lot of Christians who grew up in these communities, even though thank God my parents weren’t like this.

And that’s why I mentioned that section in the book, and I’m glad you picked up on that. Because I wanted to offer a different path for religious communities, and something which was funny as well. It’s one of those situations that I think people will be like, oh, we can do this better.

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