"You have shamed the community,” a fellow Muslim in Morgantown, W. Va., said to me as we sat in a Panera Bread in 2004. “Stop writing.”
Then 38, I had just written an essay for the Washington Post’s Outlook section arguing that women should be allowed to pray in the main halls of mosques, rather than in segregated spaces, as most mosques in America are arranged. An American Muslim born in India, I grew up in a tolerant but conservative family. In my hometown mosque, I had disobeyed the rules and prayed in the men’s area, about 20 feet behind the men gathered for Ramadan prayers.
Later, an all-male tribunal tried to ban me. An elder suggested having men surround me at the mosque so that I would be “scared off.” Now the man across the table was telling me to shut up.
“I won’t stop writing,” I said.
It was the first time a fellow Muslim had pressed me to refrain from criticizing the way our faith was practiced. But in the past decade, such attempts at censorship have become more common. This is largely because of the rising power and influence of the “ghairat brigade,” an honor corps that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam. It meets even sound critiques with hideous, disproportionate responses.
The campaign began, at least in its modern form, 10 years ago in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — a mini-United Nations comprising the world’s 56 countries with large Muslim populations, plus the Palestinian Authority — tasked then-Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu with combating Islamophobia and projecting the “true values of Islam.” During the past decade, a loose honor brigade has sprung up, in part funded and supported by the OIC through annual conferences, reports and communiqués. It’s made up of politicians, diplomats, writers, academics, bloggers and activists.
In 2007, as part of this playbook, the OIC launched the Islamophobia Observatory, a watchdog group based in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, with the goal of documenting slights against the faith. Its first report, released the following year, complained that the artists and publishers of controversial Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were defiling “sacred symbols of Islam … in an insulting, offensive and contemptuous manner.”
The honor brigade began calling out academics, writers and others, including former New York police commissioner Ray Kelly and administrators at a Catholic school in Britain that turned away a mother who wouldn’t remove her face veil.
“The OIC invented the anti-‘Islamophobia’ movement,” says Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a frequent target of the honor brigade. “These countries … think they own the Muslim community and all interpretations of Islam.”
Alongside the honor brigade’s official channel, a community of self-styled blasphemy police — from anonymous blogs such as LoonWatch.com and Ikhras.com to a large and disparate cast of social-media activists — arose and began trying to control the debate on Islam. This wider corps throws the label of “Islamophobe” on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion. Their targets are as large as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as small as me.
The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. They bank on an important truth: Islam, as practiced from Malaysia to Morocco, is a shame-based, patriarchal culture that values honor and face-saving from the family to the public square. Which is why the bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism.
“Honor brigades are wound collectors. They are couch jihadis,” Joe Navarro, a former supervisory special agent in the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit, tells me. “They sit around and collect the wounds and injustices inflicted against them to justify what they are doing. Tragedy unites for the moment, but hatred unites for longer.”
In an e-mail exchange, the OIC’s ambassador to the United Nations denied that the organization tries to silence discussion of problems in Muslim communities.
The attacks are everywhere. Soon after the Islamophobia Observatory took shape, Sheik Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, grumbled about “defamatory caricatures of our Master and Prophet Muhammad” and films that smear Islam, according to the OIC’s first Islamophobia report.
The OIC helped give birth to a culture of victimization. In speeches, blogs, articles and interviews widely broadcast in the Muslim press, its honor brigade has targeted pundits, political leaders and writers — from TV host Bill Maher to atheist author Richard Dawkins — for insulting Islam. Writer Glenn Greenwald has supported the campaign to brand writers and thinkers, such as neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris, as having “anti-Muslim animus” just for criticizing Islam.
“These fellow travelers have made it increasingly unpleasant — and even dangerous — to discuss the link between Muslim violence and specific religious ideas, like jihad, martyrdom and blasphemy,” Harris tells me.
Noticing the beginnings of this trend in December 2007, a U.S. diplomat in Istanbul dispatched a cable to the National Security Council, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and various State Department offices. The cable said the OIC’s chief called supporters of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed “extremists of freedom of expression” and equated them with Al-Qaida.
Most of the criticism takes place online, with anonymous bloggers targeting supposed Islamophobes. Not long after the cable, a network of bloggers launched LoonWatch, which goes after Christians, Jews, Hindus, atheists and other Muslims. The bloggers have labeled Somali author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a born Muslim but now an atheist opponent of Islamic extremism, an “anti-Muslim crusader.” Robert Spencer, a critic of extremist Islam, has been called a “vicious hate preacher” and an “Internet sociopath.” The insults may look similar to Internet trolling and vitriolic comments you can find on any blog or news site. But they’re more coordinated, frightening and persistent.
One prominent target of the honor brigade’s attacks was Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper where several staffers were recently killed by Islamic extremists. According to some accounts, as the killers massacred cartoonists, they shouted: “We have avenged the prophet Mohammed.” The OIC denounced the killings, but in a 2012 report, it also condemned the magazine’s “Islamophobic satires.” Its then-secretary general, Ihsanoglu, said the magazine’s “history of attacking Muslim sentiments” was “an outrageous act of incitement and hatred and abuse of freedom of expression.”
Charlie Hebdo is not the only evidence that, to self-appointed defenders of the faith, a call to kill the message can very easily become a plan to kill the messenger. In January 2011, a security officer for the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, assassinated him after Taseer defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. In court, supporters laid flowers on the shoulders of the assassin in approval.
Murderers like him would be much harder to radicalize in a climate that welcomed debate about Islam rather than seeking revenge on its critics. But in so many Muslim communities now, saving face trumps critical thinking and truth-telling. This is why reform from within Islam is so difficult. In my experience, if you try to hold the community accountable, you’re more likely to be bullied and intimidated than taken seriously.
When Rupert Murdoch recently tweeted: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible,” he was criticized for indelicately saying all Muslims were responsible for the acts of a few. But I do believe we bear collective responsibility for the problems in our communities.
After my threatening meeting at Panera, I kept advocating for women’s rights in the mosque and in the bedroom. Among other things, I argued that Muslim women have the right to orgasm, an intimacy too often denied in societies with a tradition of female genital mutilation.
Then came the death threats. In the fall of 2004, my parents and my son picked me up after I spoke at a conference. “Somebody wants to kill you,” my father said from behind the wheel of our gold Dodge Caravan, his voice trembling. The death threat was posted on Muslim WakeUp!, a now-defunct progressive website. The offender told the FBI that he would stop harassing me, and he did. More prosaic taunts in the past decade have called me a “Zionist media whore,” a “House Muslim” and many other unprintable insults.
Two years ago, Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, was so battered by online attacks aimed at silencing her that she experienced a physical response to the stress and anxiety, and ended up in an emergency room. When I met her in her office near the White House, she pulled up her sleeves to show me the marks left by IV injections that the hospital staff had administered to get her necessary fluids.
“The attacks just killed me,” Al-Suwaij said, wearily.
Bullying this intense really works. Observant members of the flock are culturally conditioned to avoid shaming Islam, so publicly citing them for that sin often has the desired effect. Non-Muslims, meanwhile, are wary of being labeled “Islamophobic” bigots. So attacks against both groups succeed in quashing civil discourse. They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells, avoiding important discussion.
For my part, I have continued to write, calling on American Muslims to root out extremism in our communities and arguing that certain passages of the Qur’an are too antiquated for our times. As I see it, the injunction to “stand out firmly for justice even against … your kin” is our divine “see something, say something” mandate. But too often, this passage is misused as a justification for attacking our own.
While we still have a long way to go, I have seen progress since I started calling for women’s rights in mosques and challenging the extremism I saw in American Muslim communities. Our mosque in Morgantown, a mostly male congregation, elected its first female president a few years ago, and she was largely accepted as a leader. But most women still shuffle through the back door and pray in a separate balcony.
Four years ago, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group, announced programs to discuss “taboo topics” such as homosexuality, interfaith marriage and extremism. Recently, young Muslim leaders in Northern Virginia started an initiative to create mosques that promote assimilation, interfaith harmony and women’s rights. Later this month, a new group, the Women’s Mosque of America, will hold a female-led prayer service in Los Angeles, a rare event in Muslim communities.
Next month, the Obama administration will hold a conference on challenging violent extremism, and President Obama last year called on Muslim communities to “explicitly, forcefully and consistently reject the ideology of Al-Qaida and ISIL.” But his administration isn’t framing extremism as a problem directly tied to Islam. Last month, by contrast, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi acknowledged that there was an ideology problem in Islam and said, “We need to revolutionize our religion.”
When I heard Sissi’s words, I thought: Finally.
Beyond these statements, though, we need a new interpretation of Islamic law in order to change the culture. This would require rejecting the eight schools of religious thought that dominate the Sunni and Shiite Muslim world. I propose naming a new one after ijtihad, the concept of critical thinking, and elevating self-examination over toxic, shame-based discourse, laws and rules. Such a project could take the power out of the hands of the status-quo clerics, politicians and experts and replace it with a progressive interpretation of faith motivated not by defending honor but acting honorably.
Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.