A Muslim’s Journey: Islam, Freedom, White Privilege, and other reflections

bookIn his new book Ali Rizvi advocates for both secularism and Islamic reform, around reflections on his personal life experiences from the Middle-East to Canada. It’s the best account I’ve read that shows, from the inside, how to criticize Islam without demonizing or hurting Muslim people in the process.

In his chapter on “letting go” he makes the helpful point that it’s one thing to grasp, on an intellectual level, the difference between criticizing a religion and being bigoted to a group of people, while quite another to “let go” of that guilty feeling that comes with taking a razor to religion for fear that you are doing the other.

“An attack on a religion — which is not a person but simply a set of ideas like any other [existentialism, structuralism, capitalism, communism, fascism, etc.] — comes across to people as a personal attack. When you put their religious beliefs under scrutiny, you’re prodding at their entire sense of being. You’re rocking the boat, criticizing and satirizing that one thing they need to cling to in order to keep their lives intact, their families together, and — in some cases — their heads attached to their bodies. Does this mean you should not criticize or satirize religious beliefs? No, quite the opposite — it’s the only way to break the spell. But in order to do it effectively, it is important to first acknowledge what you’re dealing with.” (p 67)

Religious ideas are precious in ways that other ideas aren’t, and striking at those ideas can be easily misconstrued as disrespecting people. However, that’s usually not an obstacle these days with Christianity. When an artist submerged a crucifix in a jar of urine, photographed it and showed it in New York, it was praised and given a cash award and commendations from the National Endowment of the Arts. Christians who were offended by the urine-soaked crucifix were censured for being narrow-minded and against free speech, and rightly so. American culture has reinforced the right to criticize and ridicule religions, and if people’s feelings are hurt by it, then too bad.

Except when it comes to Islam, in which case Rizvi’s above statements take full force. When artists draw cartoons of Muhammad, they are attacked by the same western media that praises artists who defile crucifixes. Cartoonists of Muhammad are, we are told, bigoted and racist. What makes this doubly offensive is that unlike the adherents of other religions, religious Muslims kill cartoonists for engaging in artistic blasphemy. In a perverse moral backwardness, leftists align themselves with jihadists by unwittingly enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws instead of the First Amendment.

More generally, people shield Islam from criticism by claiming that the doctrines of jihad, sharia, and subjugation of non-Muslims are distortions — or hijackings, or politicizations, or fringe-interpretations — of Islam, even though people like Rizvi know they are integral to Islamic faith, just as the resurrection is to Christianity. The desire to protect Muslim feelings is understandable, but as Rizvi says, this sort of strategy only ends up perverting the message of multiculturalism. By all means we must stand up for Muslim people and fight bigotry, but not by patronizing the religion of Islam.

“Widely cited as the foundational element of secularism in America, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli was a direct result of the United States’ first-ever brush with Islamic jihadists.”

Rizvi considers Thomas Jefferson, who eventually launched the first U.S. international war against jihadists in 1801. The origin of that conflict was sixteen years prior, at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean no longer had the protection of the British navy and were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms.

barbary-coast-piratesJefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was flabbergasted at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that they were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. All of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, but as Rizvi points out, this was over two centuries ago — long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, long before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, long before Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian revolution, long before Saudi Arabia and Taliban drone strikes and the Cold War and — most importantly — long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”.

The common claim that Islamists are motivated by political grievances is meaningless in any case, for as Rizvi says, Islam is inherently political. Warfare (jihad), terms of law and order (sharia), and territorial claims (to subjugate the world and bring all nations under Islamic rule) are at the root of what makes something political (p 42). By definition, groups like ISIS cry out against foreign policies, but those grievances, however sincerely articulated, have nothing to do with things like enslaving underage Yazidi girls, killing Turkmen Shias, throwing gays off rooftops, and executing Muslim apostates. It’s not even necessarily the case that Islamic governments want their grievances solved. Rizvi knows this firsthand from living in the Muslim world (p 137): Islamic supremacists use leftist narratives about oppression to their advantage, to deflect criticism and to further justify oppressing their own people. They thrive on grievances, which embolden them, open more avenues to paradise, and provide their raison d’etre.

“Saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.'”

When a Saudi court in 2008 refused to grant an eight-year old girl a divorce from her fifty-eight-year old husband, the leftist apologetics were predictable: this was simply a horrible cultural practice that had nothing to do with Islam. Except that it has everything to do with Islam. It’s grounded in the highest authoritative example of Muhammad, who married Aisha when she was six, and had sex with her when she was nine. As Rizvi says, this isn’t depicted in a one-off hadith. There are over twenty references to Muhammad’s pedophilia, in both the Qur’an and hadiths, and with further instructions on how to divorce women who have not yet menstruated. This is precisely why Saudi Arabia has no formal age limit on marriages, and why the Ayatollah lowered the age of marriage for girls from eighteen to nine when he reinstated Islamic law in Iran. Religion has everything to do with issues like this. They are inseparable from culture, indeed as Rizvi says, the separation between religion and culture is even more spurious than between religion and politics (p 48).

Rizvi also puts to bed claims about poverty and lack of education (p 91). The American-based terrorists — the 9/11 airplane hijackers, the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, American born Al-Qaeda mastermind Anwar Al-Awlaki, and the list goes on and on — were all well-off people, with no lack of opportunity. Some of them left prestigious careers for jihadist glory. Some had doctorates. In Europe too, many jihadists come from comfortable lives, decent jobs and middle-class incomes. It’s true that American income inequality and French unemployment are serious problems that are only getting worse, but one thing they are not responsible for is creating jihadists.

“What makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New.”

It’s well known that Islam borrowed heavily from Judaism and Christianity, but how precisely Islam originated remains controversial. The proto-Islam movement may have been a sect of Judaism, a Jewish sect of Christianity, or some kind of umbrella monotheistic group which saw itself as encompassing true forms of the two monotheistic movements. Whatever the case, certain ideas from both religions became relevant as Muhammad legitimated his holy wars: the militarism and warmongering of the (pre-exilic) Israelite period; the abstract New Testament ideas like submission (being slaves to Christ) and martyrdom (dying with Christ, who in turn died for one’s sins), and the promises and threats of eternal salvation and damnation. Combined, says Rizvi, they all yield the concept of jihad.

The militarism of the Hebrew Bible isn’t expansionist like it is in the Qur’an; it’s confined to keeping the land of Israel free of pagans and idolatry. But Jesus’ pacifistic commands to proselytize beyond Israel into the Gentile world certainly are expansionist. Nowhere in the Old Testament are believers told to subjugate unbelievers and force Judaism on pagans. But the messages of Jesus and Paul are strongly evangelical. There’s not much about the afterlife in the Old Testament, aside from the book of Daniel. But the New Testament is replete with ideas of suffering for the cross of Christ, and the necessity of being tribulated — persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — to have one’s faith put to the test in horrendous ways and be compensated in the hereafter. (The rapture was never understood to avoid this; it was the reward that came after.) Combine the worst elements from the two parts of the Bible, and there you have Islam, with a uniquely deadly means of propagating the faith (p 85).

“I grew up in countries where simply speaking our mind could get you sent to prison, flogged, or even executed. Early on, I promised myself that when I got to a place where I had the freedom to speak, I would. And I wouldn’t take my freedom of speech for granted, for even a day. But when I finally arrived in North America, I saw that things weren’t that simple.”

Rizvi’s chapter defending free speech is one of the best I’ve read, and I’ve read many. Against objections that “freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to offend”, he counters that is exactly what freedom of speech is, and always has been. Without the freedom too offend, there’s no point to free speech, and the most reformative revolutionaries throughout history could never have achieved the progress they did. Against claims that hate speech should be excluded, he points out the impossibility of letting the government determine what is hateful, let alone apply the standard objectively or consistently.

It has reached the (frankly unbelievable) point where human rights activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and religious reformers like Maajid Nawaz, are being branded hateful, instead of being given the medals of honor they deserve. That’s beyond outrageous, and it’s all the proof anyone should need to oppose hate speech laws. But you can even throw all that out. There’s a more basic point relating to academic integrity, as Rizvi says. Criminalizing any speech infantalizes people: “It doesn’t just take away someone’s right to speak; it takes away your right to form your own opinions and response to them. By supporting a ban on hate speech, you’re allowing your government to regulate not just what someone an say, but what you can hear” (p 132).

Perhaps even more obviously: if we were to ban hate speech on the criteria urged by today’s leftists, the Qur’an, and for that matter the Bible, as Rizvi points out, would have to be the first to go. They are responsible for far more damage and suffering than crackpot theories like Holocaust denial (which is criminalized in places like Canada and Europe). Name the last time Jews suffered in any way because a book was published “proving” that the Holocaust never happened. Then think of the hundreds of jihad murders committed every day because the Qur’an requires it, or the entrenched homophobia in western culture on account of attitudes channeled by Leviticus and Romans. Seriously.

“If Obama had addressed the problem of Islamic terrorism honestly, from a position of moral strength, the likes of Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen would have been less able to jump in and channel it from a position of xenophobic bigotry.”

Rizvi wrote this book before the election and so he only touches on this point. Like the rest of us presumably, he assumed that Trump wouldn’t ultimately win. But now that Trump has taken the presidency, it’s worth lingering on the failures of the left, and the failures of the more centrist Democrats like Obama who have pandered to the left with their obscurantism.

Trump got one third of the Hispanic vote, and that’s a serious a wake-up call. It’s not just rural uneducated white men who were willing to overlook Trump’s bigotry. Even the feminist Muslim reformer Asra Nomani, whom I have always admired, voted for Trump, and this is one of her stated reasons:

“As a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the ‘Islam’ in Islamic State. Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations, but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me: Islamists.” (Asra Nomani: A liberal Muslim immigrant who voted for Trump)

Rizvi is right, and this is a point Sam Harris made about Brexit: that when we stop listening to truth and go out of our way to excuse the inexcusable, people retaliate in the voting booth — including the very minorities disrespected by Trump. Plenty of those minorities see him as the lesser evil, and I’m afraid we as liberals have largely ourselves to blame for this.

That damned Richard Dawkins. Checking our white privilege.

I confess I can’t stand Dawkins. Whenever I see a news piece about him online or in my Facebook feed, I ignore it as clickbait. It’s not that what Dawkins says is necessarily wrong; it’s that he goes out of his way to be inflammatory and contemptuous of those who dare disagree with him. Rizvi, however, makes a point I have to acknowledge. The aggressive in-your-face approaches of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are applauded by many Muslims who can only dream of speaking in this way. They are silenced in the oppression they receive at the hands of their governments and communities, and even families, all in the name of Islam. They are angry — and they are even more angry at the conciliatory and “respectful” approach that our leftists take towards an inherently oppressive religion.

Put bluntly, the patronizing respect for Islam is a luxury affordable only to those of us who live in free open societies. Liberals like to talk about white people “checking their privilege”, but that’s actually what they need to start doing — to stop patronizing Islam in the name of cultural tolerance. It may make us feel good or alleviate our white guilt complexes, or make us feel like we’re actually doing something good when we’re not. The real heavy-lifting is coming from people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, Sam Harris, Robert Spencer — and yes, even odious personalities like Richard Dawkins — who speak against Islam itself on behalf of those who know too well what it does to people.


A solid 9/10, this book is entirely a pleasure to read. I would recommend it for anyone who wants a critique of Islam that upholds the importance of the dignity of Muslim people. It also has sections explaining why Rizvi became an atheist, which were less interesting to me, but will be of value to others.


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