By Ali A. Rizvi
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.
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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.
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