Is It Racist, Xenophobic, and Imperialist to Criticize Islam?

What does it mean when former and current Muslims point to problems in the “Religion of Peace”?

“You may not criticize Islam. You do not speak Arabic. You don’t come from a Muslim society. You are a white supremacist, imperialist xenophobe and you don’t like foreign, brown people.” So Islam’s apologists insist.

Brooklyn activist Linda Sarsour epitomizes this strategy for suppressing critique of Islam. “My hijab is my hoodie,” she insisted, in a 2012 CNN op-ed. With the “hoodie” reference, Sarsour explicitly linked herself with Trayvon Martin, a young black male who scuffled with, and was shot by George Zimmerman in February, 2012. Sarsour’s implication is that white supremacy motivated Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin. By extension, Sarsour insists that white supremacists want to hurt her because she wears hijab. Sarsour also linked herself to Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-American who was beaten to death in her own home in March, 2012. Sarsour insisted that Alawadi’s murder was a hate crime committed by white supremacists who don’t like foreign, brown people.

Sarsour knows that Americans feel guilty and sad about slavery and Jim Crow, and that they tiptoe to avoid any racist comment. She knows that Americans fear being called “racist.” A parasite of unearned pity, Sarsour lifts the mantle of protection cast over speech about African Americans, and worms her way beneath it. Rachel Dolezal can only weep with envy at this Caucasian woman’s success at positioning herself as a victim of white racism. That Sarsour parades as the same kind of victim as the descendants of slaves is an extraordinary coup, given the outsize historical role of Arab Muslims in the enslavement of not just of Africans, but of Europeans and Americans as well, and given Arab racism against blacks, whom they label “abid,” or slave.

Sarsour’s rebranding of her hijab as a feminist symbol is also a fabulous marketing coup, one that really should be taught in business schools. In many Muslim-majority countries, women can be harassed, tortured, raped or murdered for not wearing hijab.

UC Riverside creative writing professor Reza Aslan agreed with Sarsour. In a March, 2012 tweet, Aslan blamed “Islamophobic f - - - s” for Shaima Alawadi’s death. Other activists mounted “A Million Hijabs for Shaima” and “Hoodies and Hijabs for Justice” demonstrations and Facebook pages.

Investigation revealed that Shaimi Alawadi had been bludgeoned to death by her husband. Kassim Alhimidi faked an Islamophobic hate crime to cover his own, misogynist, tracks. One can find compilations of such faked hate crimes here, here and here. It is impossible not to conclude that concentrated effort has been exerted to demonize any honest critic of Islam as a white supremacist xenophobe who is likely to commit a hate crime against Muslims.

There are several problems with Islam-apologist dogma that any criticism of Islam is motivated by white supremacy and xenophobic hatred of foreign, brown people, and their insistence that criticism of Islam is linked to hate crimes against Muslims. The most obvious problem: America and the West host millions of foreign, brown Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians. There is no real threat of “Hindu-phobia,” “Buddhist-phobia,” or “Confucian-phobia.” Rather, Hindu guru Deepak Chopra, Buddhist reincarnate Dalai Lama, and Confucius-inspired Tiger Moms are beloved. Mahatma Gandhi has achieved virtual saint status – indeed Gandhi’s image graces the cover of Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints, a Catholic publication.

Clearly, Islam is different from Hindusim, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Clearly, the problem is not the foreign-ness or brown-ness of Muslims. There is a villain, an antagonist, a bad guy here, and that bad guy is not a white supremacist.  

Former and current Muslims, many of them foreign and brown, have produced a library of critiques of Islam that agree in every respect with non-Muslim critiques of Islam. There is a significant enough body of literature by those raised in Muslim cultures thoroughly to indict Islam on every count raised by non-Muslim critics. Both Muslim-raised critics of Islam and non-Muslim critics of Islam speak as one voice. Both groups agree that jihad and gender apartheid are problematical aspects of Islam. Both Muslim-born and non-Muslim critics point to the exact same Koran verses, hadiths, history and cultural trends. These facts are not racist, nor are these facts dependent on the culture of the speaker for their truth value.

Ibn Warraq was born in India; his Muslim family joined the mass exodus to Pakistan after its founding in 1947. Local educational options were limited to madrassas, so Warraq’s father sent him to the UK for schooling. He studied Islam at the graduate level with the influential scholar William Montgomery Watt. The 1989 fatwa ordering the death of author Salman Rushdie was a turning point for Warraq. Even nice Muslims insisted to him that Rushdie must be killed, and even Westerners who were quick to criticize Christianity refused to critique Islam or defend Rushdie. Warraq, who had been a shy child, and an apolitical teacher and businessman, began to publish Islam-critical articles. In the three decades since; his activity has been wide-ranging, and it includes publishing Why I Am Not a Muslim in 1995.

Ali Sina was “raised in Iran, educated in Pakistan and Italy and now lives in Canada.” He has run Faith Freedom since October, 2001. This website is an exhaustive, fully documented indictment of jihad and gender apartheid. He describes himself as “probably the biggest anti-Islam person alive.” He challenges anyone to debunk a single one of his claims. If his detractors can prove him wrong on any point, including that Mohammed was “a narcissist, a misogynist, a rapist, a pedophile, a lecher, a torturer, a mass murderer, a cult leader, an assassin, a terrorist, a mad man and a looter,” he will pay them $50,000 and remove his website. His website remains up, and his prize remains in the bank, because no one can refute Ali Sina on the facts. Rather, they attack him as a person. “People have to dismiss me some way, they have to put me down in one way or another. I’m a Jew, I’m a Christian, I’m a Hindu. I’m whatever people want to say in order to discredit me. But they can’t ignore my questions.”

Wafa Sultan is a Syrian-American psychiatrist. As a child, she witnessed the heartbreaking mistreatment of her formidable grandmother, mistreatment that was sanctioned by Islamic gender apartheid. As a doctor, Sultan had a front-row seat to horrors, including encountering a female patient who had been raped by men who used a drinking glass as a prophylactic. Sultan’s niece killed herself after she, at age 11, was married off to a 40-year-old. Sultan cites Koran verses and hadiths that support gender apartheid in her 2009 book, A God Who Hates.

Nonie Darwish is the loving, salty, no-nonsense, Egyptian grandmother we all might wish we had. She lived her first thirty years as a Muslim in Egypt, the daughter of Colonel Mustafa Hafez. Hafez founded and oversaw the fedayeen group who killed Israeli civilians between 1951 and 1956. When Darwish was eight years old, her father was assassinated by Israel. She grew up hating and blaming Israel. “No one can escape the overwhelming anti-Semitic propaganda and the venomous hatred that my culture of origin advocated against Jews,” she says. How did a girl who grew up hearing lurid folklore of how Israelis would entertain themselves by killing pregnant Arab women become a critic of Islam? The seeds of change were sown in her childhood. She got used to mosque sermons that called for death to Christians and Jews. One day, over a loudspeaker, she heard such a sermon in the presence of a Christian friend. “May God destroy the infidels and the Jews, the enemies of God. We are not to befriend them or make treaties with them,” the amplified imam raged. “My friend looked scared, and I was ashamed,” Darwish reports. She immigrated to the US. “I owe my change to America.” 9-11 was a turning point for Darwish. “When I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States I took this pledge to heart and I decided to speak out of respect for the 3,000 Americans who died on that day.” Darwish is the author of many books, including Wholly Different: Why I Chose Biblical Values Over Islamic Values.

Mosab Hassan Yousef is the son of a founder of Hamas. He was first arrested at age ten for throwing rocks at Israelis. As the eldest son, he was expected to carry on in his father’s footsteps as a leader of terror attacks against Israel. He was arrested many times. He developed doubts about Islam when, in prison, he witnessed Hamas members’ sadistic and irrational treatment of each other. He converted to non-denominational Christianity and published Son of Hamas in 2010.

Nabeel Qureshi’s parents were Pakistani. He has an MD and two MAs in Christian apologetics and religion. In his 2016 memoir, Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus, Qureshi describes his excruciating spiritual crisis. As a college student, Qureshi was a devout Ahmadiyya Muslim dedicated to, and confident in, defending Islam against any criticism. His friend David Wood informed Qureshi that Mohammed ordered his followers to rape war captives even as their husbands witnessed their wives’ violation. Qureshi had been extensively educated in Islam and he was certain that this accusation could not be true. Qureshi writes, “The mere suggestion was outrageous. He was implying that the Koran condoned rape … That was not the Islam I knew … My Mohammed was a liberator of slaves and a commander of saints, not a conquering captor leading an army of rapists. Islam would not allow such an atrocity. It could not … I lashed out at David, rebuking him for trying to drag my prophet through the mud. This was lower than low … I was taught that he (Mohammed) fought to elevate the status of women.” Later, he writes, “I lay prostrate in a large Muslim prayer hall, broken before God … tears blurred my sight.” Eventually Qureshi confronted the Muslim sources he had not been exposed to, and realized that Wood was correct. Qureshi’s 2016 book No God But One details his theological reasons for converting from Islam to Christianity.

Hamed Abdel-Samad is from a small village in Egypt. He is the son of a Sunni imam. Between ages four and twelve, he spent six hours a day memorizing the Koran. While in university, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, who ordered him to walk in the desert heat for hours while carrying one orange. When exhausted, he was ordered to peel the orange, bury it in the sand, and eat the peel. He recognized this absurdist exercise as an attempt to break his will. “This is how you make terrorists,” he says. After he stated that Islam has fascist tendencies, a cleric issued a fatwa against him on Egyptian TV. In an appearance on German TV, citing canonical texts, Abdel-Samad argued for the Islamic basis of ISIS. He says that Mohammed can never be a role model for people in the twenty-first century. “He made his living from war, selling slaves, the tax he was imposing on unbelievers, and assaulting tribes’ caravans. I cannot consider a man a role model who was married to nine women at the same time. I cannot have someone as a role model who executed hundreds of prisoners of war who surrendered to him. I cannot have somebody as a role model who married a six-year-old girl while he was over fifty years old.” Further, he says, “I don’t believe in the reform-ability of Islam … You cannot screw the Koran till it fits our time. As long as they (Islamic ideas) are from God, who am I, who are you, to correct God?” Rather, he argues, we must look anew at Islam as a human creation, and regard Muslims, as human beings, as capable of reform. Abdel-Samad published Islamic Fascism in 2016; he has his own YouTube channel.

Sara Azmeh Rasmussen was born in Damascus, Syria in 1973, and raised as a Sunni Muslim. She immigrated, alone, to Norway to seek asylum. She converted to Christianity and now is a secular humanist. In one video she said she would consider Islam again if she could enter the mosque through the front door, rather than through a side, women’s entrance, and if she could enter that front door alongside her husband, and without hijab. “I have forsaken the faith,” she says, “because I couldn’t feel a sense of belonging in Islam as a young woman … I prayed the five prayers. I recited the Koran. But when I was 16, 17 years old, I felt that a God that doesn’t give me worth and dignity and who asks me to cover a body that he himself has created is not my God that I loved as a child.” In March, 2009, after Oslo’s International Women’s Day ceremony, Rasmussen burned a hijab on camera. In 2012, in response to the cartoon crisis, she posted her own hijab-protest cartoon of Mohammed on her blog. In a 2013 video, Rasmussen, displaying her graduate-school knowledge of Islam and her respect for Muslims, begs Islamic leaders to consider women’s God-given dignity. She asked, “What happens to a body when it is paralyzed on one side? What happens when opportunities for half the population is limited? … Women do not need to look like mobile, black tents.” She demands to know what Koranic support there is for hijab, pointing out that no one knows the exact meaning of the Arabic words used in the one Koran verse that refers to women’s garments or anatomy. Rasmussen argues that Islamic scholars have updated Muslim traditions in order to accommodate modern commerce, but they have not updated Muslim traditions in order to accommodate women’s lives. “My only goal” she says “is that our Muslim communities move toward welfare and freedom.” She opposes any bigotry against Muslims, and she has participated in all-night “watches” around mosques to guarantee Muslims’ safety.

Nowadays one can turn to YouTube for videos starring twenty-and-thirty-something Islam-critical, Muslim-born commentators. Cairo-born, former Muslim, Hussein Aboubakr fearlessly critiques jihad in a Prager University production. “I left Islam because it’s misogynistic,” says a Pakistani-born lawyer who cites the Koran, a book she largely memorized. Muhammad Syed, Sarah Haider and Ghada cite Islam’s treatment of women as reasons for leaving Islam.

Many more such Muslim-born critics of Islam could be mentioned. 2015 saw the publication of Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Albanian-American cartoonist Bosch Fawstin’s The Infidel and Inside Jihad by Egyptian former extremist Dr. Tawfik Hamid. There are many more, including Sandra Solomon, Abdullah Sameer, Aynaz Anni Cyrus, Isik Abla and Walid Shoebat.

Indeed, those raised as Muslims in Muslim-majority societies, including speakers of Arabic and persons who have memorized the Koran, have produced such an outpouring of criticism of jihad and gender apartheid that if you archived all their books, print and online articles and public talks, these works would fill a library. These critics are young and old, male and female, urban professionals, former village dwellers, and prisoners, from nations across the Muslim world. Some converted to Christianity. Others are outspoken atheists. A few continue to identify as Muslim. They include former jihadis themselves. As for that charge that critics of Islam suffer from white supremacy and don’t like brown, foreign people? Muslim-born critics of Islam range in skin tone from the strawberry blond Bosch Fawstin to the equatorial African Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

And there’s more: there are non-Muslim critics of Islam who were born in majority-Muslim countries and who speak Arabic. Bat Ye’or, author of the 1985 book The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam, was born and grew up in Egypt; her family was Jewish. Brigit Gabrielle is a Lebanese Christian. Her 2006 book, Because They Hate vividly describes what it is like to be at the receiving end of jihad terror. Sam Shamoun, prolific contributor to “Answering Islam,” was born in Kuwait to an Assyrian Christian family. Raymond Ibrahim was born in the US to Coptic Christians; he is fluent in English and Arabic. These critics, too, cite the same two problematic aspects of Islam: jihad and gender apartheid. They, too, cite the same canonical material as their fellow critics.

The above-listed critics of Islam must go to extreme measures to protect their very right to life. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for just one example, participated with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the creation of a 2004, ten-minute TV movie, Submission, that addresses Islamic gender apartheid. For that act of courage and conscience, on a public street, in broad daylight, Mohammed Bouyeri shot van Gogh over ten times, cut his throat, attempted to decapitate him, and impaled him with a knife stuck in his chest.

The above-listed critics of Islam, if parents, must go to bed every night praying that no new Mohammed Bouyeri finds their children. Their children may not grow up with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins, since families typically break off contact with apostates. No honest, rational person could argue that these critics converted as part of a search for gain. In contrast, Islam’s apologists compete for hefty thank you checks from funders like Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who has an estimated net worth of $17 billion.

What of Christian converts to Islam? They agree as well. Converts to Islam also see jihad and gender apartheid as significant features of Islam. John Walker Lindh is merely one of many converts to Islam who rapidly, after their conversion, joined active jihad combat. Katherine Russell, Tamerlane Tsarnaev’s widow, converted to Islam, married a man who cheated on her, beat her, and called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Russell covered herself with hijab and fantasized about the rewards granted to wives of jihad martyrs. After singer Cat Stevens converted to Islam, he voiced approval for the assassination of Islam-critical author Salman Rushdie.

Before his conversion to Islam at age 17, Hamza Yusuf grew up as Mark Hanson, the Christian son of American academics in Northern California. Today, as one of the world’s most influential scholars of Islam, Yusuf has insisted that jihad is an act of mercy – if everyone were a Muslim, there would be peace. Two days before 9-11, Yusuf said “America has a great tribulation coming to it.” Yusuf justified violence in response to criticisms of Islam, saying, “If you push buttons … see what happens.” Yusuf embraces the Islamic teachings that women are deficient, that women constitute the majority of the denizens of Hell, and he counsels against women playing sports. Yusuf performs a fandango worthy of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist to justify the Koran 4:34 instruction to husbands to beat their wives. His verbal contortions include him careening from English to Arabic to pop psychology – “codependency!” – to references to 1930s films. When husbands, in obedience to the Koran, strike their wives, Yusuf counsels, it “is just a way of bringing them back into their body.” Mohammed is fair in everything and Allah wants this (wife beating.) “What Allah wants, we accept.” To not allow wife beating, Yusuf says, would “humiliate” Arabs; “These are men. They are Arabs. They are proud,” he says.

Scholar, author, and activist Ingrid Mattson, a Christian convert to Islam, praises the work of a Muslim scholar who advances jihad. When asked about the Taliban’s treatment of women, Mattson said, “In their minds, they are protecting women.” Of Koran 4:34, which states that men are superior to women and men should beat women they suspect of disobedience, Mattson says, “The husband takes these steps to try to bring their relationship to where it’s supposed to be.”

Some Christian converts to Islam reach the breaking point when they can no longer stomach defending jihad or the teaching that Muslim men can rape war captives in the presence of their husbands. This very teaching is what drove Brother Ismail, an American convert to Islam, out of Islam. So, yes, Christian converts to Islam, as well as Muslim-born critics of Islam, see Islam as a religion that calls for and justifies jihad, and that “protects” women by beating them.

Have Islam’s apologists acknowledged that Muslim-raised, brown and foreign critics of Islam speak as one voice with white, American, non-Muslim critics of Islam?

No, they have not. Rather – believe it or not – Islam’s apologists call brown people “white supremacist;” they call women working against female genital mutilation “patriarchal misogynists;” they call those who work with indigenous freedom fighters “imperialists.” In short, Islam’s apologists don’t care how much they lie, as long as their rebranding, marketing campaign succeeds, and as long as critical examination of and free speech about Islam are as squelched as if Stalin himself were controlling the discourse. Or, indeed, as if Mohammed himself were controlling the discourse. Mohammed ordered the assassination of poets who criticized him in their verse.

Lawan Hawizy, a Kurd born in Iraq, now lives in San Francisco. He criticized hijabs as symbols of “subjugation.” Leftists called him “Islamophobic … some kind of Uncle Tom … You are a white person criticizing Islam.”

“They get annoyed at me because I am not as angry at the West as I should be to fit their narrative. That blinds them into a black hole … I was born in the Middle East. I studied Islam” for twelve years. “No set of words infuriates me more,” Hawizy says, than when Islam’s apologists say, “This isn’t the true Islam” in response to coverage of terror attacks.

In a recent video, Muslims called Ayaan Hirsi Ali a white supremacist, oppressor, colonizer, and representative of the patriarchy. The comments under their video are even more colorful. One post refers to Hirsi Ali as “a zionist slave full of lies.” In a March 8, 2011 tweet, Linda Sarsour said that she would like to “whip” Ayaan Hirsi Ali and take away her vagina. The woman Sarsour wants to “whip,” the woman another Muslim referred to as a “slave,” is black; please remember that the word for “black” and “slave” is the same in contemporary American Arab insults. Hirsi Ali is a survivor of female genital mutilation – and Sarsour wants to remove her vagina.

The Linda Sarsours and Reza Aslans who play the “white supremacist, xenophobic, Islamophobia” game want to erase the reality of objective facts, facts whose truth value does not depend on the identity of the speaker. No one needs Arabic language skills to criticize jihad. We know how Muslims interpret given lines in the Koran because Muslims publicly state their interpretations. Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the American People” quoted extensively from the Koran to justify terror. Muslim societies, no less than Christian ones, are subject to sociological analysis of objective data. Maps of sex ratios, for example, show us that women and girls have a harder time surviving to adulthood even in wealthy Muslim countries than in those countries, even poor ones, most influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Using facts like life expectancy and literacy rates, news sources and aid agencies regularly compile lists of the worst countries to be a woman. There’s a reason those lists disproportionately include Muslim-majority societies. See here, here, and here. There’s a reason why, in this year of the refugee crisis, most of the countries sending refugees into overcrowded rubber rafts on perilous seas are Muslim countries whose inhabitants are desperate to reach non-Muslim territory – see here for a list of refugee-producing nations. Pew research shows that significant majorities of Muslims across the Muslim world agree that “A wife must always obey her husband.” Opinion polls show distressingly large numbers of Muslims, worldwide, who express support for various terror attacks.

Yes, there are such things as white supremacists. Yes, there are bigots who don’t like Muslims. But when it comes to responsible criticism of Islam, criticism that adheres to scholarly rigor, the words “Islamophobe,” “white supremacist” and “imperialist” must be recognized for what they are: propagandistic smokescreens whose only goal is to protect an edifice, Islam, from the same necessary and cleansing intellectual sunlight that is permitted to illuminate every other belief system. Jihad and gender apartheid hurt real, live human beings – most of them Muslims. Every day another little girl like Ilham Mahdi al Assi, who was raped to death at age 13, is forced to “marry” an adult man. Another Mallali Nurzi, trapped by an arranged marriage and no civil rights, burns herself to death in Afghanistan. Another Iqbal, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani dancer, is attacked with acid. There are more Sarahs and Aminas, two Texas teens who were honor-murdered by their father. There are more like Mayar Mohamed Mousa, a 17-year-old Egyptian girl who died from complications during an FGM procedure. Every day another boy is lost to dreams of bringing on the caliphate by shedding the blood of innocents – or his own blood. These human beings deserve the truth. Those who squelch the truth about jihad and gender apartheid aid the fist, the bomber, the hand holding the razor. Those courageous enough to tell the truth bring closer the day dreamed of by lovers of freedom and dignity, heroes like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, and Hamed Abdel-Samad.