Social Commentary

What Chris Cornell Did for this Pakistani Kid in Saudi Arabia

It was late one winter night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when everyone else in the house was asleep, that I first heard the otherworldly, almost superhuman voice of Chris Cornell.

It was 1989, and I was fourteen.

I was watching a VHS videotape that I’d asked a friend to record music videos on while he visited family in New York. Of course, this is before the Internet, before MP3s, and well before YouTube and online streaming. This was at a time when we had to wait weeks to get our hands and ears on the latest music coming out of America. And music videos were a different story altogether. There were only two local Saudi TV channels—one Arabic, one English—and access to satellite or foreign channels was restricted for most of us. So it was really rare and really exciting to actually be able to watch the artists—whose voices and words you lived and felt and laughed and cried to—perform their craft.

My friend managed to squeeze 6 hours of MTV’s Headbangers Ball into the two-hour videocassette I’d given him, using a VCR setting called extended play. I waited anxiously until my dad got home, and we went to his house to pick it up. I brought it back, popped it into the VCR, and devoured it all in one go, watching and listening, late into the night, long after everyone else had gone to bed.

At the end of the six-hour metal marathon was a song by a band I’d never heard of.

It started with a slow, dark, ear-piercing riff constructed entirely out of feedback. Then, it came. That unreal voice, rising from the din of feedback, beautiful, demonically hypnotic, shaking your bones. I haven’t heard anything like it to this day. The song was “Loud Love.” The band, Soundgarden.

And then, two minutes into the video, the tape ended. I rewound it just to make sure. I popped it out and checked again. And again. But that was it. It was the end of the tape. I was desperate to hear the rest of the song. There were no rock music magazines available anywhere near me, none of my friends had heard of the band, and there was no Google to Google anything with.

Years later, I would go to my cousin’s house, and he would show me this wonder called the Internet. He would load up Yahoo’s search engine and say, “Ali, what do you want to know about? Type anything, anything you want, and it’ll find it for you.” And I would type in Chris Cornell. My first ever Internet search.

But back then, I didn’t have Google or Yahoo. All I had were those two minutes at the end of the tape, which I watched over and over again. I also took a tape recorder, held it in front of the TV speaker, and recorded it so I could play it in my Walkman headphones before going to bed.

It was that year that I moved to Pakistan to continue high school while my family stayed in Riyadh. American music was easier to get in Pakistan than Saudi, and I did manage to find some magazines with short articles about Soundgarden. But apart from that, even there, no one had heard of band. The album wasn’t available anywhere. Again, all I had were those two minutes of “Loud Love.”

Finally, in the spring of 1990, I got some great news. Another cousin from England was coming to visit us in Pakistan that summer. I wrote to her, asking if she would please get me the Soundgarden album. I sealed the envelope, rode my bike to the post office, and mailed the letter. She replied quickly (which means I got her letter about three weeks later) and said she would. About a week before her visit, she went to both Tower Records and HMV in London. No one there had heard of Soundgarden, and neither store had Louder Than Love in stock. But she asked them to order it for her, and picked it up a few days later. When she finally arrived in Pakistan, she handed me the tape.

“Loud Love” was the first song on Side B. I had to fast-forward to the end of Side A to get to it. Finally, I listened to the song from beginning to end, savoring every note. It’s hard to explain to young people today who can access any band or album they want online how exhilarating and euphoric it is to finally get your hands on a record you’ve been waiting months and months for. I was in love. I locked myself in my room. I closed my eyes and listened to the entire album. Then, I opened up the cover and followed along with the lyrics. And I listened to it again. And again. I still listen to it today. I have every lyric on that album memorized.

Those who know me personally have heard me say repeatedly, for decades now, that Chris Cornell is the single best singer who ever lived. Chris’s voice and music has been an integral part of my life in a way I can’t explain. What his voice does to me is what a potent drug might do for someone else. It’s beyond just a melody or a song. It isn’t constrained by the dimensions of any familiar format. It’s unbridled abandon—it’s carefree, wild, raw, animalistic. Chris Cornell is the only man whose songs I’ve listened to or sung at least every week since I was a teenager. My own band does very few covers, but when we do, it’s often a Chris Cornell song. Just last week, I sang “When I’m Down”to my seven-month-old daughter at bedtime. His melodies seem to have the same effect on her.

Less than two years after I first got hooked on those magical two minutes at the end of that Headbangers Ball tape, Soundgarden exploded into the mainstream with their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains as part of the Seattle grunge scene. Now, everyone knew them. Their albums were available at every record store. They transformed the music scene. They won Grammys. Johnny Cash covered “Rusty Cage.” Chris recorded the haunting, beautiful-beyond-words Euphoria Morning. And then, he did it all again with Audioslave.

I never met Chris Cornell, but like millions of his fans, I grew up with him and loved him deeply. There was something about his voice—it wasn’t just music to be listened to. It was helplessly, transcendently felt. It was intimate and transformative in a way that’s inexplicable. I don’t know what made him choose to end it all, but knowing what I knew of him through his art, I understand.

I wish I could have done for Chris what he did for me. Today, though, I’m that 14-year-old kid again. Desperate for more, but the song’s been cut too soon.

“And I’m lost


The words I’ll never find.”

— Chris Cornell, “Seasons”

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

‘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.


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.

Why Atheists Like Me Grieve for the Chapel Hill Shooting Victims

The execution-style shooting of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill is tragic, disgusting, and should be denounced by every human being of conscience.

The killer, who was reportedly motivated by a parking dispute, also happened to be a vocal atheist.

Being an anti-theist who grew up in three Muslim-majority countries — as part of a Muslim family I love, respect, yet frequently disagree with — I want to tell you why I’m grieving today for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and their families.

I rejected religion precisely because I wouldn’t accept “holy” books like the Quran or Bible that prescribe killing, fighting, and eternally torturing those who think or believe differently.

Atheists who adopt the same approach to others are no different from the violent religious groups they claim to be opposed to. And if there were a “holy” book of atheism that prescribed killing others (which there isn’t), I would unequivocally condemn and reject it too.

This is why I repeatedly stress how crucial it is to distinguish between anti-Muslim bigotry (which targets real human beings) and legitimate criticism of Islam (which targets ideas in a book).

Again: human beings have rights, and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs aren’t.

Many of my friends and family are religious, wear the hijab, or fast during Ramadan. We disagree on ideas, often vehemently, but we don’t hate each other. We engage in dialogue, we argue, we learn from one another — and then we go out to dinner. Most human beings are much more than what they believe. We all have much more in common as human beings than not. That basic principle, by definition, is what lies at the heart of humanism.

The right to believe freely is universal. I don’t want to engage with people who think the right of anyone to live, think, or say as they want — whether believer or atheist — is negotiable. I want to call out bad ideas, not blanketly demonize an entire people. That’s why I rejected religion in the first place.

Does this incident mean we should stop criticizing irrational beliefs? No. The idea that we shouldn’t criticize religion because it may encourage hate crimes against the religious is as absurd as saying we should never criticize U.S. foreign policy because it could lead to attacks on innocent Americans overseas. We should call out bad ideas everywhere — whether they come from holy books that instruct us to kill, or from the mind of an atheist murderer who, in this case, thought it was okay to kill those who believe in them.

Atheism is not a belief system or a doctrine. It is simply a rejection of irrational beliefs. Those who treat it as anything more, as Craig Stephen Hicks may have, should be condemned by all — no excuses.

My thoughts are with the three young victims of this horrific crime.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.