“The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims.”

The biggest mistake the Left makes is that they do not understand or wilfully misunderstand the ideology of Islam. The biggest mistake the Right makes is that they criticise or demonise Muslims instead of focussing on the ideology.

“The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims.”

These words were tweeted by Ali Rizvi, author of the new book The Atheist Muslim…

Rizvi’s book is partly a plea for secularism and partly a defense of Islam as a culture…

…Like most issues… You had the liberals with their view, and the conservatives with their view, and I felt both of them were really missing the mark. They were both conflating “Islam” the ideology and “Muslim” the identity. Islam is a religion; it’s a set of beliefs, a bunch of ideas in a book. It’s not human. Muslims are real, living, breathing people, and to me, there’s a big difference between criticizing ideas and demonizing human beings.

…On the left, people were saying that if you have any criticism against Islam, then you were a bigot against all Muslims. On the right, it was like, there are a lot of problematic things in Islamic scripture, so everyone who is Muslim must be banned, or profiled, or demonized. Both sides weren’t making that distinction between challenging ideas, which has historically moved societies forward, and demonizing human beings, which only rips societies apart.

I think all of us have the right to believe what we want, and we must respect that right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to respect the beliefs themselves. That’s what this book is about. It’s about making that distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity, and explores how we can have an honest conversation about ideas and beliefs without descending into bigotry against those who might challenge or hold them.

…religion freezes culture in time. Religion dogmatizes culture and arrests its evolution.

…I think the left has a blind spot when it comes to Islam and the right has a blind spot when it comes to Muslims. When Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson say something that’s homophobic or misogynistic, people on the left descend on them like a ton of bricks. They’re very comfortable with criticizing and satirizing fundamentalist Christianity. But when it comes to Islam, which has many of the same homophobic and misogynistic teachings, they throw their hands up, back off, and say, whoa, hold on, we must respect their religion and culture.

…I’m a liberal myself, and I vote liberal. It’s part of our liberal conscience to protect the rights of minorities, as they should be protected. But that doesn’t mean we must protect and defend all of their beliefs as well, many of which are just as illiberal as the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists.

This is very frustrating to our liberal counterparts in Muslim-majority countries, who are fighting fundamentalist Islam the same way that liberals here fight fundamentalist Christianity, and they’re even risking their lives for it. Many have died for it. Yet they hear their liberal counterparts in the West calling their ideas “Islamophobic.” This is a devastating double standard for them.

Those on the right paint all Muslims with the same brush. The title of my book speaks to millions of people in the Muslim world who are atheist or agnostic but must publicly identify as Muslim or they’d be disowned, ostracized, or even killed by their families and governments. They’re atheist in thought but Muslim by presentation. They’re living a contradictory existence.

…They retain the Muslim label because the governments and Islamist groups in their countries won’t let them shake it off.

…This is the difference between religion and people. You can’t say, hey, I have a lot of Jewish friends who eat bacon, so Judaism must be okay with pork. It doesn’t make sense. So when I say that most Muslims I know are very peaceful and law-abiding, that they wouldn’t dream of violence, that doesn’t erase all of the violence and the calls for martyrdom and jihad and holy war against disbelievers in Islamic scripture. Most of my Muslim friends, both in Pakistan and here, had premarital sex and drank alcohol too. That doesn’t mean Islam allows either of those things.

The hard truth is there is a lot of violence endorsed in the Quran, and there are other terrible things…It’s dishonest to say that violent Muslim groups like ISIS are being un-Islamic.

…if you’re a young Iraqi man and your family was bombed by the US, your reaction may be that you may become anti-American. You might say, okay, I’m going to fight these guys. But would your reaction to US foreign policy be to start enslaving and raping 9-year-old Yazidi girls? Or forcing local non-Muslim minorities to pay a tax or convert to Islam, or be crucified publicly, as commanded in the Quranic verses 9:29-30 and 5:33? Or beheading Shias or apostates who have left Islam? Or throwing gays off rooftops?

That isn’t just the reaction of someone simply to US foreign policy. These are things they’re doing to their own people. Killing apostates and taking sex slaves… ISIS often puts out very accurate statements quoting the Quran that completely fit their actions.

…The thing is, we have had a lot of discussion about the US foreign policy and how that has caused problems in the Muslim world, but we somehow shy away from talking about the equally important religious, doctrinal basis for these terrorist acts. We shouldn’t deny either. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons we haven’t resolved this problem is that we are afraid to make the complete diagnosis.

…But the more interesting question for me is why is Islam, why is this particular religion, so appealing to them? Why do people prone to violence find Islam so appealing for their purpose?

The way we think about this is strange. We try really, really hard to dance around it. When someone tells us they did something for political reasons, we accept it easily. “Sure, they did it for politics.” When someone says, “I did this for money,” we believe them…

But when people say, “I’m doing this in the name of Allah,” and quote verse 8:12, which says, “Strike the disbelievers upon the neck and strike from them every finger tip,” and we see them doing exactly what those words say, we look at that and go, “No, no, it’s got to be politics. It’s got to be for money. Let’s see what video games they were playing.”

That’s the only thing I have a problem with. I acknowledge the other causes. I have explored them in my book. Yes, there are political grievances, and there are foreign policy grievances. We never deny those. So why do we deny that religion itself, the scripture itself, can drive these atrocities?

…Think of the [National Rifle Association] slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The typical liberal response to that, and rightly so, is no, don’t downplay the deadliness of guns. You can’t take them out of the equation. Even if they’re just a tool or prop, they’re central to it.

Now replace “guns” in that statement with “religion” or “beliefs.” Religion is a much worse prop in this case, because it’s got ideological roots. There are words in the scripture that command, verbatim, exactly the kinds of violent acts we see Islamic militant groups do. They’re not quoting Islamic Studies professors at Al-Azhar University. They’re quoting the Quran and Hadith.

…The failure of liberals to address Islamism from an honest and moral position left a void that allowed the Trumpian right to opportunistically address it from a position of xenophobia and bigotry.

…The thing is, most Muslims don’t really know too much about Islam. They were born into Muslim families, so being Muslim is a lot like a birth identity for them. And when you criticize Islam or a problematic verse in the Quran, or joke about Muhammad, they take it personally as an attack on them, on their identity.

… I would urge liberals to have this conversation openly, honestly, and responsibly. It’s already happening within the Muslim world. Several white Western liberals have confided to me that they agree with what I say, but won’t say it themselves because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled bigots or Islamophobes. I call that “Islamophobo-phobia,” the fear of being called Islamophobic. It’s a great way to shut down the conversation and silence people with colonial or white guilt.

I get that. That’s why the Muslim Brotherhood loves the term so much. It conflates legitimate criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry. And it exploits victims of anti-Muslim bigotry by using their experiences for the political purpose of censoring criticism of Islam. When you fall for that, when you hold back from standing up for your liberal values, you’re not helping to curb terrorism. You’re already a victim of it.


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