Religion

What Donald Trump Got Right In His Riyadh Speech

Obviously, I have some disagreements with what Donald Trump said in his Riyadh speech.

Talking about Iran as if it’s the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism — while praising Saudi Arabia, terrorism’s chief financier and home to both Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers — is disingenuous. Textbooks that glorify jihad, martyrdom, and fighting Jews and infidels are taught to Saudi schoolchildren to this day.

Moreover, saying that terrorists “don’t worship God, they worship death,” is the same kind of deadly, self-deluding rhetoric that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even George W. Bush peddled for years. Of course terrorists worship God — in fact, they do so with stronger faith and more piety than most other religious people. They don’t look at death as an end to be mourned like we do; they look at it as a transition to a better place, which is exactly what religion teaches. (To understand how this plays out in reality, read about the conversation I had with a Taliban supporter defending the murder of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan.)

Aside from these points and a few others, however, Trump delivered a good speech.

He openly referred to “Islamic terror,” “Islamists,” and “Islamic extremism.” This is even more honest than his preferred phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” Jihadists aren’t “radical.” They’re fundamentalists who adhere to the teachings and holy scriptures of their religion closely, which is what religions in general and Islam specifically (the word Islam means “submission”) ask of their followers. Many of my fellow liberals dislike the term “Islamic terror,” but in my view, as someone who grew up in Riyadh in a Muslim family, honesty should never be sacrificed for appeasement.

Talking about Iran as if it’s the primary culprit responsible for Islamic terrorism… is disingenuous.

Trump also differentiated between jihadist ideology and the Muslim people. He said he wanted “young Muslim boys and girls” to grow up with security and without fear. He asked his audience of Muslim leaders to “stand together” with him “against the murder of innocent Muslims.” And, like Obama, he condemned the Iranian regime while also expressing solidarity with the largely Muslim people of Iran, praising their culture and history, and rightly acknowledging that they are their regime’s “longest-suffering victims,” who have “endured hardship and despair” under their fundamentalist leaders.

This speech was an obvious, complete reversal for the Donald Trump who once wanted a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States a little over a year ago. It was more measured, moderate, and may even hold appeal for moderate and liberal Muslims in the Muslim world, if (and that’s a big “if”) they can dismiss Trump’s bigoted statements about Muslims in the past. A growing number of Muslims today dowant Western leaders to speak honestly about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist ideology that Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of, while not holding all of them responsible. Trump did not make this distinction before, but he seems to have at least touched on it in his speech. Ideas should be challenged, but people should not be demonized. “Islam” and “Muslims” are not synonymous.

Now, I am not a Trump supporter, and considering his past rhetoric, it may be too late for those who watched his speech to see him as credible. Moreover, the political undertones of Trump’s speech shouldn’t be lost on anyone. His choice to align with Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia) over Shia (Iran) is in line with America’s economic interests and Israel’s de facto alliance with the Saudis and other Sunni powers against Iran. This might seem like a pragmatic strategy temporarily, but could be devastating in the long term. I also know that Trump’s future — as a president who is at war with the American media, independent judiciary, and his own intelligence agencies — is anything but certain. I listened to his Riyadh speech, as I have many of his other reversals, with skepticism.

That said, we should give credit where it’s due.

We have had very little honest discourse on Islam. The left frequently regards any criticism of Islam to be bigotry against all Muslims. And the right frequently demonizes all Muslims because of problematic aspects of the religion. Both sides conflate criticizing ideas with demonizing people. But this speech — for all its flaws and oversights and the speaker’s questionable credibility — got closer to striking the right balance than many of us would like to admit.

If it’s received well, it could serve as an example to future Western leaders that one need not make a choice between challenging violent Islamic ideology and showing compassion and respect for Muslims.

‘Atheist Muslims’ could be the key to defeating Islamic terror

I was raised in three Muslim majority countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and arrived in North America in my mid-20s. Two years after I settled in Canada, September 11 happened. Nineteen hijackers acting in the name of my parents’ religion — 15 from a country I grew up in — flew fuel-laden airliners into the World Trade Center, killing thousands.

From the ashes, two opposing narratives began to emerge, as it happens with most issues in the US: one on the right, and one on the left.

And today, in a nation more divided than ever after a rancorous election season, the differences couldn’t be more stark.

The right is clear: We’re at war with Islamic terrorists. They started it, and we must respond. We know the common denominator here, so enough with the political correctness — we must keep our country safe, and if that means profiling Muslims, restricting Muslim immigration or even “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as President-elect Donald Trump proposed last year, so be it.

No, says the left. We need to be nuanced. Read through our history. Islamists are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world. We’re the imperialists who colonized them, held them down under the boot of the military-industrial complex and built our civilization at their expense. We must look at the underlying grievances and root causes driving this. The “biggest terrorist operation that exists,” according to uber-leftist hero Noam Chomsky, is actually the one being run by Obama.

Both of these narratives miss the mark. One assumes that Muslims are inherently violent because Islam is inherently violent. The other paints the act of criticizing Islam as bigotry against all Muslims.

The key distinction both sides miss is that Islam is an idea. Muslims are people.

Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect; ideas, books and beliefs don’t and aren’t. No belief is sacred, but our right to believe what we want is.

Not making this distinction leads the far right to demonize all Muslims because of the problems in Islam, and the far left to completely ignore legitimate problems with Islam in an effort to defend Muslims. The result? One side calling for a ban on Muslims and the other pretending Islamic terrorism doesn’t exist.

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I’m a liberal atheist who grew up as part of a Muslim family. I’m not alone. Recent polls reveal millions of secular agnostics and atheists in the Muslim world, though you probably won’t hear about them unless they’re being flogged in prison, executed by the state, or murdered by a mob. A WIN/Gallup poll found that 19 percent of people in Saudi Arabia — the historical birthplace of Islam and Muhammad — identify as “non-religious”; for perspective, that number is 15 percent in Italy. The same poll shows that 5 percent of Saudis — over a million people — identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the US.

Secularists in the Muslim world are growing fast and targeted viciously within their communities. Make no mistake, these freethinking dissidents — fighting to bring universal values like free expression, liberty and equality to their people — are not shy about criticizing Islam. They are putting their lives on the line to do this, and many have died for it. They are your most dedicated allies.

But when you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

After Trump announced his Muslim ban, Fareed Zakaria, one of the world’s most respected American journalists, felt he had to embrace his Muslim identity. “I am not a practicing Muslim,” he wrote. “My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated — somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook.”

Why embrace the Muslim label then?

When you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.

“As I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realize that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born,” he continued. “I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.”

Do we really want to force well-integrated, patriotic American Muslims like Zakaria back into tribal categories under a President Trump?

The greatest thing about America is that it empowers people to rise above their birth identities. This is certainly true of American Muslims. Look at Muhammad Ali. Or Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who brought us the voices of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. Or comedian Dave Chappelle. Or actor Aziz Ansari, who is avowedly secular but was incensed at Trump for unfairly targeting Muslims like his parents.

Reducing their identity to just “Muslim” doesn’t help successful, hard-working Muslim-Americans rise above it. It throws them back, categorizing, ghettoizing, and tribalizing them. It alienates those who would otherwise be allies.

We should be able to criticize any doctrinal idea openly while also standing up for the right of people to believe in them. The left’s failure to honestly address the Islamism problem from a position of moral strength has left a void that the Trumpian right has opportunistically — and successfully — exploited in a very divisive way, alienating reformist dissidents in the Muslim world who feel betrayed by liberals and conservatives alike. Today — more than ever — those fighting for freedom there need the support of those who love freedom here.


Originally published on The New York Post.

The New Center: Between the Right’s Bigotry and the Left’s Apologism

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the International Criminal Justice: State of Play conference at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (Simon Fraser University) in Vancouver. My talk was on dissidents in Muslim-majority countries and their often overlooked role in the mainstream narrative on Islamism and potential reform. My audience included speakers Richard Falk, William Schabas, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor James Stewart, and former Canadian Supreme Court Justice and ICC Prosecutor Louise Arbour, most famous for her indictment of then-sitting Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević. The complete conference report can be read here.

In light of the devastating Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the ugly anti-Muslim demagoguery of Donald Trump, what I spoke about then feels even more relevant now.

My speech, entitled From Root Causes to Reform: The Challenges of Ushering Islam into the 21st Century, is transcribed below (comments providing context are in brackets).

***
I was raised in a Muslim family, in the Muslim cultures of three different countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. I grew up mostly in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a US ally with almost unconditional Western support, living there for close to twelve years. This land is the birthplace of Islam, its Prophet Muhammad, and its holy book, the Quran, elements that are revered universally by all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, regardless of sect or denomination. The monarch holds the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” referring to the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. It is the land that Muslims all over the world face when praying five times a day.

As I grew up there, I felt that something wasn’t right. To this day, Saudi Arabia carries out public beheadings. In Riyadh, this is done at a public square that we expatriates referred to as “Chop-Chop Square.” For perspective, in the same month that the world was reeling with shock at the beheading of James Foley at the hands of ISIS — August 2014 — Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people, including some for the crimes of sorcery and smuggling cannabis.

The Saudi government, claiming the Quran and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) as its constitution, also amputates the limbs of those charged with theft. Religious minorities are not allowed to practice their religion. The women in the country suffer some of the most egregious human rights abuses of any in the world. They are banned from driving. They require the permission of a male guardian simply to work or travel. Victims of rape are often charged with fornication or adultery and sentenced to flogging if unable to produce four male witnesses to “prove” the crime.

In time, to my disappointment, I found endorsement for almost all of the Saudis’ actions in the Quran — the beheading of disbelievers in Verses 8:12-13; the amputation of hands for theft in 5:38; the practice of fighting Christians and Jews until they either convert or pay the jizyah tax — as ISIS does in Mosul, Iraq — in 9:29-30; domestic violence in 4:34; and so on. I was dismayed. When I asked my elders to explain this, they seemed just as taken aback as I did. As it turns out, very few of the moderate Muslims I knew had even read the holy book. That did not, however, stop them from trying their best to defend it. They would tell me not to read it “literally.” They questioned the authenticity of the translations, despite being shown several of them. They would explain that the fundamentalists were misinterpreting it, or taking it “out of context,” yet were at a loss to explain what the correct interpretation or context was. They would insist that any inaccuracy or flaw was somehow a metaphor for something more palatable.

So, like many people living in the countries I grew up in, I lost my faith. I became an apostate. As many of you may know, this declaration — simply that I’d changed my mind — is not one I could make in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as easily as I just made it here. I saw the scripture of my parents’ religion being used to justify everything from child marriages to the lashing of rape victims who could not produce four male witnesses to prove their innocence. And the biggest victims of all this were Muslims themselves. It wasn’t just me. There were many like me who wanted to speak up about these issues, but couldn’t. I promised myself that when I was in a country where I had the freedom to speak, I would.

I arrived in North America permanently in my twenties. Two years after I settled in Toronto with my family, the September 11 attacks happened. Suddenly, the conversation I had been having with myself for years was out in the open. The Internet was now here, and soon enough, everyone had a voice. This is where I found myself caught between two narratives, neither of which I could relate to.

The first was driven by anti-Muslim bigotry — what I call the “Fox News narrative”: all Muslims were closet terrorist sympathizers, we must implement stricter immigration policies to keep them out, and we must profile people with brown skin. These brown-skinned people, of course, included myself and much of my family and friends — never mind that the underwear bomber was black, Jose Padilla was Hispanic, and the Boston bombers came from the Caucasus mountains, which is literally where the word “Caucasian” is derived from. Most of those spewing out this prejudice happened to be very religious, right-wing Christians and Jews themselves [Pastor Terry Jones, Pamela Geller, and more], which didn’t give them much credibility in my eyes. I had read their holy books as well, and they didn’t seem much different from mine.

The second narrative — somewhat more disappointing to me personally — was from the liberal left, which I consider myself in alignment with. This was the narrative of apologism, where any criticism of Islam was conflated with bigotry. Criticizing Islamic beliefs or the contents of the Quran would promptly earn one the label of “racist,” “Islamophobe,” and in my case, “sellout” or “Uncle Tom.” Many liberals also seemed to excuse every atrocity committed in the name of Islam as some kind of reaction to Western imperialism or US foreign policy. Of course, they weren’t completely wrong — the causes of unrest in the Muslim world are complicated and varied — but I also knew first-hand that claiming these deeply held religious beliefs had nothing to do with the behavior they clearly engendered was disingenuous at best, and at worst, dangerous: it gave cover to the fundamentalists, even if inadvertently. [Fundamentalist governments and militant groups would use this far-left narrative of victimization as endorsement to further oppress their own people and strip away their rights.] Fundamentalists in Muslim-majority countries thrive on this narrative. Often, it’s the only good thing they have going for them.

This was my conflict — I wanted to be able to criticize Islam as one should be able to criticize any set of ideas, but I didn’t want to be seen to demonize an entire people — the people I was raised by and grew up with. Neither narrative made this distinction between ideas and people. It is crucial to emphasize the difference between the criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry: the first targets an ideology, and the second targets human beings. This is obviously a very significant difference, yet both are frequently lumped under the unfortunate umbrella term, “Islamophobia.”

Here’s the thing: human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred; the beliefs themselves aren’t. If anything, it was precisely because of the horrific abuses I had witnessed ordinary Muslims suffer under theocratic policies and Sharia law that I wanted to start a dialogue to help shatter the taboo of criticizing religion.

Now, we’re not going to be able to resolve the problem of bringing about a reformation in the Muslim world in this 15-minute time slot. But my message to you is this: There are many, many out there with stories similar to mine. There is an alternative narrative reverberating within these Muslim-majority countries that is quite different from the one we get here after it’s been filtered through their state-endorsed blasphemy laws and speech restrictions. Unfortunately, we don’t hear them — because most are silenced before they get to us.

A lot of them identify as liberals, yet feel betrayed by their Western liberal counterparts, who, sometimes for fear of being seen as Islamophobic (what I call “Islamophobia-phobia”) will overlook great illiberal injustices like the subjugation of women, or discrimination against gays, the moment they are endorsed in a holy book. Then, it’s hands off — because it is part of “their” religion, or “their” culture, which simply must be respected at all costs. “They” are held to a different standard — what is known as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

My good friend, Raif Badawi, is currently in a prison in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which he received in January, just three days before the Saudi ambassador to France attended the free speech rally in Paris, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. His crime, as many of you know, is blogging — the official charges were “adopting liberal thought,” “starting a liberal website,” and “insulting Islam.” Now, he is possibly even facing death by beheading for apostasy.

President Obama did not bring up Raif Badawi’s case in his last visit to Saudi Arabia. [Former Canadian] Prime Minister Harper — who has constantly been railing against the niqab and Islamist extremism — has been silent about Raif’s case despite the fact that his wife and children are living right here in Canada and campaigning tirelessly for his release. [This is the cost our fellow liberal dissidents across the Muslim world pay for speaking out. As their liberal allies, we must support them.]

This isn’t an issue that will be solved militarily. Each time one militant group is defeated, another emerges that is even more brutal, exploiting a new set of grievances to expand its recruiting power. And this is not a regional problem anymore, as evidenced by the Western passports held by thousands of ISIS members. This is also an ideological battle. We can keep trimming the branches, but there is an underlying ideology that has always been at the root of it. We saw it two centuries ago in Thomas Jefferson’s conflict with the Barbary States [before US foreign policy even existed]. And we still see it today with ISIS.

Thank you.

***
Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Guns, Terrorism, and Honesty

Which of the following statements would you say you agree with?

Pick as many as you like. My answer is at the bottom.

1. Better gun control is essential to curb gun violence.

2. Islamic jihadism is a dangerous ideology that must be fought.

3. Guns should not be banned or confiscated.

4. Muslims should not be harassed or discriminated against just because they’re Muslim.

5. We should aggressively criticize and even satirize the problematic aspects of Islam (the religion), as we would with any other religion or political ideology.

6. Day-to-day gun violence is more deadly than Islamic terrorism right now because it has killed many more people.

7. Islamic terrorism is more deadly than day-to-day gun violence, because if it actually succeeds in its stated goals (such as obtaining weapons of mass destruction as ISIS wants to do), it will kill millions more.

8. Anyone who kills innocents to advance a religious/political agenda is a terrorist — this could include Muslims, far-right Christian abortion clinic bombers, radical leftists from the 1960s, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.

9. Islamic terrorism is the most deadly form of terrorism in the world today.

10. Anyone who is mentally disturbed or disgruntled and shoots up his school or workplace is a criminal, but is not a terrorist — even if he’s Muslim.

11. All Islamic terrorists are Muslim.

12. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and should not have to apologize for the few that are.

13. The few Muslims that do commit terrorist acts do so in complete accordance with a plausible, legitimate interpretation of the Islamic religion.

14. Islamic jihadists are motivated by many legitimate grievances like US foreign policy and the nagging remnants of Western imperialism.

15. Islamic jihadists are motivated by Islamic doctrine, the words of the Quran and hadith, and the promise of an afterlife, eternally, in Paradise.

16. Islamic imperialism (whether the 7th century Arab kind or the Ottoman kind) has done just as much harm (if not more) to the world than Western imperialism.

My answer:

All of them.

None of these points contradict each other. Go ahead and read through them again.

Gun violence, Islamic terrorism, and anti-Muslim bigotry are all real, serious problems that need to be faced head-on. It’s disingenuous to be in denial about one or the other just because you have a certain political affiliation. These don’t have to be conservative or liberal issues. Don’t make them be.

#Solidarity with the victims and their families in San Bernardino.

#ExMuslimBecause: Thousands of Former Muslims Are Speaking Out After Paris —

Where are all the secular liberals in the Muslim world?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question. The answer is both unsurprising and heartbreaking. In Muslim-majority countries, they are often being lashed and imprisoned for blogging, hacked to death in open daylight, or sentenced to death for writing poetry. Here in the West, they are often being disowned from their families, ostracized from their communities, and even murdered by their own families in “honor killings.”

As for those who choose to leave the religion altogether, the outcome is even more sinister. There are thirteen countries, all Muslim-majority, where atheism is punishable by death. And Saudi Arabia — the birthplace of Islam, its Prophet, and the location of its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina — has declared that all atheists are terrorists. Remember, this is also the home country of not only Osama bin Laden, but fifteen of the nineteen hijackers from 9/11.

When simply changing one’s mind comes at such a high cost, it isn’t surprising that you don’t hear much from secularists, atheists, or agnostics in the Muslim world.

But this last Thursday, that changed. Maryam Namazie‘s Council of Ex-Muslims of Britainstarted the #ExMuslimBecause campaign last week, encouraging dissidents from across the Muslim world to come out and say why they left Islam.

The response was tremendous. By early Friday morning, #ExMuslimBecause was the U.K.’s top trending hashtag. We heard from secret LGBT Saudis; women who had been forced into marriages; closeted atheists in Egypt and Pakistan tweeting under pseudonyms; young women disowned by their families in the U.S.; and more.

I’ve compiled some of the most popular tweets below. Some come from a purely rational place, and others are understandably angry — which is relatable if you think of what so many ex-Muslims go through. There are also tweets from Muslims who did not take this trend too well, as well as those who were supportive. What you’ll see below is the often unheard, third side to the international conversation we have been witnessing since the Paris attacks — a conversation that represents an increasingly reverberating alternative narrative that is developing across the Muslim world, where atheism is on the rise. While some of it may seem shocking, it is important and should be read by everyone who wants to understand narratives from the Muslim world otherwise all too often silenced before reaching us.

A few points to keep in mind as you read further:

1. Being part of Muslim families and communities, ex-Muslims not only receive the same bigoted treatment as other Muslims, but are also persecuted (often severely) by Muslims who consider them heretics and apostates.

2. Ex-Muslims often find themselves caught between the anti-Muslim bigotry of the far right that demonizes all Muslims, and the apologism of the far left that conflates any legitimate criticism of Islam with “bigotry” or “Islamophobia” — à la Ben Affleck’s tantrumon Bill Maher’s show last year. Criticizing Islam (an idea) and demonizing Muslims (a people) are very different things.

3. Many ex-Muslims feel betrayed by their liberal counterparts in the West. The fight against Islamic jihad should come from a position of moral strength, not xenophobic bigotry. This is a fight that liberals should take on themselves before it’s hijacked by the far right.

Here are some of the tweets:

 

 

 

 

 

Some Muslims weren’t happy with the trend:

But other Muslims were very supportive:

And some non-Muslims who had also left their religions showed solidarity:

If you are an ex-Muslim with a story, you can participate by:

Tweeting the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain: @CEMB_Forum
Messaging the council on Facebook: www.facebook.com/exmuslims
Emailing rayhana.sultan@gmail.com or maryamnamazie@gmail.com

If you’re in North America, you can also contact these other great organizations:

Muslimish (for questioning and ex-Muslims): Muslimish.com
Ex-Muslims of North America: EXMNA.org

And if you’re an ex-Muslim in a Muslim-majority country, you can get your story out there by contacting Movements.org, an organization that puts dissidents in oppressive countries in touch with international journalists, writers, lawyers, government officials, and more.

The next time you hear someone speaking as if they represent all Muslims in their view of the faith, remember that their voice isn’t the only one.

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