Politics & Policy

In the Company of Prophets

Intolerance in the Academy: Muslim students protest at UC Irvine.
One Muslim’s journey into Islamism, courtesy of Rutgers

Ben Affleck’s fury and Bill Maher’s puzzlement in the now notorious TV segment made for a collision that perfectly captures America’s misunderstanding of Islamism, a totalitarian imposter of Islam. Impassioned, both men skidded headfirst onto the perilous battlefield where civil pluralistic Islam is pitted against Islamism. It’s a messy battle for non-Muslims and atheists alike, as the segment showed. But for Muslims caught in the crossfire, it’s a bloodbath.

Recently, I addressed the Hillel House at Rutgers University on human rights in the Islamist World — matters on which I have worked, as a physician and a Muslim woman, for many years. The Hillel House filled with a sea of youths from diverse backgrounds: Jewish men and women, Muslim men and women, many ethnicities, a uniquely American tapestry.

The students listened as I spoke of Riyadh, Malakand, Mingora, Karachi, and the many places in between; I described how Islamism legitimizes lethal intolerance of women and minorities of Muslim and other faiths, how Islamism eliminates democratic freedoms, and how it places anti-Semitism at the core of its theology.

I described the Pakistani teenager I met in Malakand — groomed as a Taliban suicide bomber — who had pulled back from the brink of self-detonation. I recounted the fears of Christian nurses at Karachi’s Ziauddin Hospital, whispering to me how they worried about fabricated charges of blasphemy, which is punishable by death in Pakistan. I quoted Father Edward Joseph, who spoke with me at Pakistan’s largest Catholic Diocese: “Just as Christ had his Cross to bear, so, too, do we,” he said, as we sadly studied the blast damage to the cathedral windows, scars of an Islamist bombing. Finally, I recounted my own experience as a Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia, and the burdens of state Wahhabiism as I had lived them.

With great anticipation, I invited questions. Leaping up, a Muslim man explained that his father had been executed by the Pakistani Taliban. The room was silent in sympathy when he launched into an angry diatribe ridiculing my depiction of Islamism. I shouldn’t be speaking of Islamists, he said. Why was I calling his father’s assassins “Islamists” when those Taliban terrorists were acting “outside of Islam”? Quickly he went onto discredit my identity as a Pakistani, labeling me an Islamophobe.

Other Muslims also told me that by speaking up about Muslims who are suffering in Islamist societies, I was intentionally stoking the Islamophobic climate on the Rutgers campus. One woman gestured to her hijab, her face flushed, shouting: “Who are you to talk about these victims, when you aren’t even visibly Muslim?” For good measure, she added that I was personally responsible for the post 9/11 escalation in the harassment of veiled Muslim women.

I was stunned.

All this occurred after I had detailed my own experiences as a victim of misogyny and gender apartheid and after I had discussed the body of work I’ve assembled by meeting Muslims and other victims of Islamist retribution around the world.

I had touched a nerve. Exposing Islamism is intensely threatening to its sympathizers. Islamism — an explicitly totalitarian transnational movement that politicizes and fictionalizes Islam so that it becomes a vehicle for oppression — hides beneath the veil of true Islam. Attempting to unveil it enrages many Muslims.

Islamophobes take little interest in nuance. As Muslims, we are 1.6 billion in number, in multiple denominations. Islam’s practitioners include over 180 nationalities (68 of them here in the United States). But despite the intense American focus on us since 9/11, our diabolical split is overlooked — not the Sunni–Shia divide but the gulf between Islamists and non-Islamists.

Liberals such as Ben Affleck similarly ignore nuance. Unable to distinguish between pluralistic Muslims and nonviolent Islamists, they mistakenly champion nonviolent Islamists as innocuous Muslims. In fact Islamists, even nonviolent ones, are diametrically opposed to the fundamental values of diversity and pluralism that pluralistic Muslims celebrate; nonviolent Islamists are a direct threat to the liberal secular democracy that enshrines humanism.

In all the fracas, anti-Islamist Muslims such as I, caught in the squeeze, are easily silenced. Just as Maher left anti-Islamist Muslims out of the dialogue, so, too, the Muslim students at Rutgers sought to exclude me. It was far more important to them to suffocate and shame me than to advocate in behalf of vulnerable fellow Muslims. In struggling to silence me, they revealed themselves as — at the very least — Islamist-sympathizers.

Their tactics – organized disruption, attacks meant to ridicule my appearance as un-Islamic and delegitimize my personal and ethnic identity — are strategies to evade engagement on the fundamental question of why Islamism is not Islam. This is how Islamism works, and this is how it is at work on the beleaguered American campus.

Concerns about the contraction of public space and free speech on American campuses are rising, whether those who are marginalized are Christians, as Princeton scholar Robert George recently discussed, or liberal secularists, or figures of controversy such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who provoked such outrage among Brandeis students and faculty that the university cancelled plans to award her an honorary degree. For Muslims who dare to step into the debates central to Islam today, the space for reasoned discourse is shrinking. We face derision and worse if we discuss jihadist ideologies and acts, Islamists’ war on secularism (such as the attack on polio programs in Pakistan or girls’ education in Nigeria), or the totalitarian ambitions of Islamists as revealed in the Arab Spring or in mere academic debate on American campuses.

Hillel director Andrew Getraer informed me that Rutgers was known for its “militant climate” and that the students who had disrupted my talk were Muslim members of SJP (Students for the Justice of Palestine). SJP has a track record of abusive and combative — even violent — public disruptions such as the one I experienced. SJP is an on-campus branch of the national Muslim Students Association. Its actions seem to warrant its identification as a radical student group. Trying to understand what happened, I corresponded with former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy. “Who were these students?” I asked him. He wrote:

The Muslim Student Association (MSA) was the foundation of the Brotherhood’s infrastructure in the U.S. in the 1960s. MSA now has about 600 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. Heavy-duty indoctrination programs groom students for Muslim Brotherhood membership. Several top terrorists got their start as leaders of U.S. MSA chapters. MSA considers itself the same organization as the Islamic Society of North America, even though ISNA started about 20 years later. (ISNA, of course, is the Brotherhood’s main umbrella organization in the U.S. and was proved in a 2007–08 trial to have played a big role in financing Hamas.)

His final remark captured my own unease: “I wish they were just students, but there is much more to it.”

Driving home late that night, I felt alone. Mine was the only vehicle on the road. In the steady rain, it was hard to see too far ahead — much like being an anti-Islamist Muslim, which is lonely work that leads me to I know not where. As my desolation deepened, the words of the Prophet Hillel surfaced: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

And I knew, despite my distress, that I was compelled, through commitment to my conscience, to confront Islamism. I was reminded of what the Prophet Mohammed urged each Muslim to do: expose injustice. I knew the words well:

Whoever sees a wrong and is able to put it right with his hand, let him do so; if he can’t, then with his tongue; if he can’t, then in his heart, and that is the bare minimum of faith.

Soothing myself, I knew in my core that in exposing Islamism, I was doing just that. Consoled at last, in the company of prophets, into the dark, I drove on.

— Qanta Ahmed, M.D., is 2014 Ford Foundation public-voices fellow with the OpEd Project, a member of the board of directors of Women’s Voices Now, and the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, an account of her experiences as a physician in Saudi Arabia. You can follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.

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