Recently on Pajamas Media, Supna Zaidi of Islamist Watch addresses the Atlanta murder and July 2008 “honor killing” of Sandela Kanwal. She asked the question concerning the July murder, “Does Islam Justify Honor Killings?” Her outrage over the murder and the increasing prevalence of ‘honor killings” in the Muslim world is not only understandable but an issue that deserves a much more resounding response from Muslims. As Ms. Zaidi astutely points out, “What kind of an ideology causes a man to show no remorse for murdering his own daughter, but rants and raves at being served ham sandwiches while in prison? The media picked up the story quickly and asked, "Is Islam to blame?" The facts she discusses about honor killings and their linkage to the practice of Islam by some and the corrupt legal protections in countries like Jordan and Pakistan are certainly true.
But Ms. Zaidi criticizes my comments on the issue in my brief CNN interview on the subject stating,
“Leaving honor killings at the doorstep of illiterate villagers, as Jasser does, ignores the problem on a humane level in favor of intellectual debate”
then she ends with this overriding conclusion:
“Neither Jasser nor Manji addresses the issue of accountability. Chaudhry Rashad was not raised in a vacuum. If moderates reinforce the line that honor killings are "dripping" with Allah or are part of Eastern culture, those prone to such violent acts will continue on the same path. No Muslim will claim theological authority to enforce change from the mosque. Nor will Muslims be forced to act now if the implication from Manji is that culture takes centuries to evolve. But if everyone starts pointing the finger at Muslim society collectively and asks, "why do you let this happen?" maybe change will finally come.
But the facts she uses to impugn my stance on the subject as articulated in the CNN interview in question of July 8, 2008 are mischaracterized. Her premise is clearly that even these “moderate Muslims” are apologists for an Islam which supports honor killings. As a dedicated anti-Islamist Muslim, it should be obvious to anyone who reviews my work that I share many of the goals against Islamists which Ms. Zaidi has in her work at Islamist Watch. But if the individuals she is watching include front line anti-Islamist Muslims like me, I am concerned that we are missing the real enemy while employing a self-defeating strategy. And that makes it even more important to correct the public record about my comments, moderate Islam, and honor killings.
First of all, a fair review of all of my comments in that interview, beyond the first few seconds, makes it clear that a very common mantra of mine about accountability in the Muslim community is again obvious despite Ms. Zaidi’s mischaracterization. I did point a finger directly at the Pakistani Muslim community in Atlanta for their apologetics. I did, contrary to her suggestions, call upon Muslims to act:
“Muslims need to stand up. I’m not going to say he’s not a Muslim. We don’t have a church that communicates or excommunicates people. What I am going to do is start a movement of Muslims that will stand up and say this is not only wrong; he should get the capital punishment. And we should start to have formal processes to protect daughters and children like his, so that when Muslims stand up and speak up – I don’t know if you heard the Pakistani community that stood up in Atlanta recently, in Georgia, and basically said that well, the family is depressed. Well, you know, they should stand up and say this is completely wrong, and immoral, and not Islam.”
If this isn’t demanding that Muslims become accountable against this barbarism, I don’t know what is. And I do take some umbrage with the implication from that I somehow care more about the victimization of Islam than about the real victim – Sandela Kenwal, a 25-year-old woman. Honor killings and the environment which feeds it is despicable and needs the full attention of Muslims across the globe. As I stated, clerics and medieval Islamism which fuels it needs reform and only Muslims can do that. But to dismiss Islam from being part of the solution, and to entirely dismiss endemic corruption, illiteracy, and the culture of misogyny as part of the problem is folly in my opinion. Over centuries Islam has become intertwined with all of these maladies, but moderates cannot be expected to modernize Islam while saying that “Islam is the problem” and especially we cannot submit that our own “reformed or post-modern” Islam is the problem.
Moreover, thus even more important than her mischaracterization of my comments, is the underlying implication about the standard to which anti-Islamist Muslims are going to be held in order to demonstrate our intellectual honesty or realism about whether the major problems in the Muslim community are also problems in “Islam.”
Ms. Zaidi stated “…with this, Muslims make honor killings a part of Islam.”
So the debate really comes down to this: what is Islam, what is not Islam, and who actually defines “Islam” as a faith?
As a genuine anti-Islamist Muslim I am working against the very same groups and ideologies Ms. Zaidi is in order to defeat the greatest ideological threat of the 21st century – political Islam. Make no mistake: we will never win this war of ideas by handing over the mantle of “Islam” to the radicals. Anti-Islamist Muslims calling what we practice “Islam” and calling out radical Islamists as “un-Islamic” is the best and in fact the only strategy from where I sit as a devout Muslim.
Ms. Zaidi’s rationale creates an untenable scenario for the very moderate Muslims she impugns. If moderate Muslims are going to be chastised for apologizing for Islam by stating that acts such as honor killings are “not Islam” (“our Islam,” that is), how does she expect us to be effective agents of change within “Islam”? We need to be credible, confident practitioners of our interpretation of our own faith of Islam in order to be perceived as what we really are – people who love our faith and don’t want to see it controlled and destroyed by the political agenda and corruption of Islamists. It is my belief, at least regarding our work as devout Muslims, that the most effective method of stimulating reform is to do so positively from a modernized Islamic position rather than negatively and critically as outsiders to “Islam” as Zaidi’s strategy implies.
I would suggest that Ms. Zaidi revisit this strategy where moderate Muslims are supposed to acknowledge that murderers like Chaudry Rashad are practicing Islam. And in fact, I do acknowledge in the interview that they believe they are practicing Islam and that there are many Muslims who empower what they do through a medieval interpretation of Islam which needs reform. But I certainly can say all of that without “giving up the farm” on what is Islam. This is an untenable proposition for anyone focused on internal reform and runs against the life experience of truly moderate Muslims who live a coherent moral Islam and are anti-Islamist.
She extends her critique further, stating,
“Leaving honor killings at the doorstep of illiterate villagers, as Jasser does, ignores the problem on a humane level in favor of intellectual debate. The more secular, educated elites of Muslim countries may not be so backward as to commit such crimes themselves, but they know it is happening and prefer to look the other way…”
Without a doubt, the masters of apologia are Islamists who Ms. Zaidi so aptly monitors including various American Islamist organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America), and MAS (Muslim American Society). Few Muslims have been as critical as I have of their apologia and inability to be forthright with the public about the problems which arise from political Islam and the need for reform. Their apologia is obvious in their dissimulation and refusal to identify the ideologies and permutations of Islamism which feed Islamist-inspired terror. These organizations soak up the bandwidth of American media and governmental attention to Islam with victimology and obfuscation. They squander their resources and avoid needed areas of reform while they promote their agenda of “lawful Islamism” as Islamist Watch founder Daniel Pipes has astutely remarked. I hope those remain the types of groups Ms. Zaidi spends most of her time watching.
As President Abdurrahman Wahid mentioned in his 2005 Wall Street Journal piece “Right Islam vs.Wrong Islam,” anti-Islamist and anti-Wahhabi Muslims along with non-Muslims need to work to counter the Islamists in all of their permutations. We might as well pack up and go home and surrender to the Islamists if we are going to submit the realm of our own definition of Islam to the radical and politically motivated ideologies, behaviors, and corruptions of Islamists.
I am certainly realistic enough to fully understand if Zaidi felt that the “Islam,” which I was taught by my parents and grandparents and surrounding community, is not palpable in the public square and should work to assert itself in a more effective manner to change the dogmas which lead to the likes of Chaudry Rashad. I can also fully understand if Zaidi felt that the Islam which I practice, live, and teach my own children, seems to be very different from the radical Islam of Chaudry Rashad, HAMAS, Hezbullah, al Qaeda, or the political Islam (Islamism) of ISNA, CAIR, MPAC, ICNA, and MAS.
But, for the life of me, I cannot understand the wisdom of pushing forth the argument that Muslim realists like me or Irshad Manji, who are able to muster the courage to call a spade a spade should also give up the only fuel for our work which is the premise that we have a vision of Islam which is in harmony with the 21st century? I have previously repeatedly discussed the need for all Muslims to begin to more vociferously challenge the imams and clerics about the very reins of our faith which they exploit to justify their own medieval pronouncements and backward Sharia which they do in the name of Islam. But just because these clerics call it “Islam” doesn’t make their Islam, my Islam or “our” Islam.
Strategically, once I, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, and all other anti-Islamist Muslims give up the mantle of faith to those who are Islamist and are corrupt, we truly become useless. I cannot in good conscience say anything publicly which I do not tell my own children at home. If my children were to ask me about the association of Islam with honor killings, I would as powerfully as possible tell them exactly what I said in that July CNN interview – that not only is that not Islam, it is un-Islamic and violates every tenet of the Islam we teach them at home. This is the same truth that millions upon millions of Muslims would tell their own children if asked the same question. This is, yet, in no way to deny the truths which Zaidi does rightly note as far as the linkage of Islam to the justification of honor killings in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan and many other Muslim communities.
Based upon Zaidi’s premise, I cannot see how there could ever be a truly anti-islamist Muslim. If true reformers are going to submit the realm of Islam to the barbarians of Islamism what are we to call the faith that we practice and the faith in which we believe?
Zaidi asks if Mr. Rashad “grew up in a vacuum.” Other anti-Islamist Muslims and I can also fairly ask if she believes we grew up in a vacuum. I am not ready, now or ever, to hand over the mantle of Islam to any radical, cleric, or Islamist regardless of how much work we have to do to correct the dogma of today which is “their Islam.”
Yes, we Muslims have a lot of work to do. But I cannot see the wisdom of activists with whom I clearly have so much in common intimating that we are somehow ignoring the real victim. I never made such a connection and in fact felt that the best way to advocate for this victim and the prevention of such heinous crimes again is to clearly separate Islam from these actions and call upon the Muslim community to do so.
From where I sit, somewhere within the house of Islam, if we are to diffuse the Islamist threat which Zaidi is also focused on defeating, it can only be done through a civil war over what is and what is not Islam. By attacking both sides, Zaidi leaves nothing but scorched earth with no starting point for a modern Islam.
I am not ready to relegate my children and my children’s children to a lifetime of having our faith dictated by the actions and beliefs of Islamists, their clerics and their enablers. I am fully aware of the reality of what is done in the name of Islam by Islamists and their enablers. I am also fully aware that this journey will be a long one towards modernity and enlightenment from within our faith of Islam whose legal tradition is still often guided by medieval pronouncements which have yet to be reformed. AIFD and I may be only a few steps down a path which is miles long. But Zaidi’s critique, if heeded by strategists, is dangerous, since it leaves reformers no answer today within the faith. The prevention of any future murders in the name of Islam demands that Muslims teach one another that such actions are not Islam and the legal pronouncements which say so need to be changed and defeated.