I was raised in three Muslim majority countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and arrived in North America in my mid-20s. Two years after I settled in Canada, September 11 happened. Nineteen hijackers acting in the name of my parents’ religion — 15 from a country I grew up in — flew fuel-laden airliners into the World Trade Center, killing thousands.
From the ashes, two opposing narratives began to emerge, as it happens with most issues in the US: one on the right, and one on the left.
And today, in a nation more divided than ever after a rancorous election season, the differences couldn’t be more stark.
The right is clear: We’re at war with Islamic terrorists. They started it, and we must respond. We know the common denominator here, so enough with the political correctness — we must keep our country safe, and if that means profiling Muslims, restricting Muslim immigration or even “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as President-elect Donald Trump proposed last year, so be it.
No, says the left. We need to be nuanced. Read through our history. Islamists are simply responding to America’s atrocities around the world. We’re the imperialists who colonized them, held them down under the boot of the military-industrial complex and built our civilization at their expense. We must look at the underlying grievances and root causes driving this. The “biggest terrorist operation that exists,” according to uber-leftist hero Noam Chomsky, is actually the one being run by Obama.
Both of these narratives miss the mark. One assumes that Muslims are inherently violent because Islam is inherently violent. The other paints the act of criticizing Islam as bigotry against all Muslims.
The key distinction both sides miss is that Islam is an idea. Muslims are people.
Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect; ideas, books and beliefs don’t and aren’t. No belief is sacred, but our right to believe what we want is.
Not making this distinction leads the far right to demonize all Muslims because of the problems in Islam, and the far left to completely ignore legitimate problems with Islam in an effort to defend Muslims. The result? One side calling for a ban on Muslims and the other pretending Islamic terrorism doesn’t exist.
I’m a liberal atheist who grew up as part of a Muslim family. I’m not alone. Recent polls reveal millions of secular agnostics and atheists in the Muslim world, though you probably won’t hear about them unless they’re being flogged in prison, executed by the state, or murdered by a mob. A WIN/Gallup poll found that 19 percent of people in Saudi Arabia — the historical birthplace of Islam and Muhammad — identify as “non-religious”; for perspective, that number is 15 percent in Italy. The same poll shows that 5 percent of Saudis — over a million people — identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the US.
Secularists in the Muslim world are growing fast and targeted viciously within their communities. Make no mistake, these freethinking dissidents — fighting to bring universal values like free expression, liberty and equality to their people — are not shy about criticizing Islam. They are putting their lives on the line to do this, and many have died for it. They are your most dedicated allies.
But when you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.
After Trump announced his Muslim ban, Fareed Zakaria, one of the world’s most respected American journalists, felt he had to embrace his Muslim identity. “I am not a practicing Muslim,” he wrote. “My wife is Christian, and we have not raised our children as Muslims. My views on faith are complicated — somewhere between deism and agnosticism. I am completely secular in my outlook.”
Why embrace the Muslim label then?
When you fail to distinguish between the ideology we’re fighting and the people that make up our families, friends and loved ones, you’re shutting us out.
“As I watch the way in which Republican candidates are dividing Americans, I realize that it’s important to acknowledge the religion into which I was born,” he continued. “I am appalled by Donald Trump’s bigotry and demagoguery not because I am a Muslim but because I am an American.”
Do we really want to force well-integrated, patriotic American Muslims like Zakaria back into tribal categories under a President Trump?
The greatest thing about America is that it empowers people to rise above their birth identities. This is certainly true of American Muslims. Look at Muhammad Ali. Or Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who brought us the voices of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin. Or comedian Dave Chappelle. Or actor Aziz Ansari, who is avowedly secular but was incensed at Trump for unfairly targeting Muslims like his parents.
Reducing their identity to just “Muslim” doesn’t help successful, hard-working Muslim-Americans rise above it. It throws them back, categorizing, ghettoizing, and tribalizing them. It alienates those who would otherwise be allies.
We should be able to criticize any doctrinal idea openly while also standing up for the right of people to believe in them. The left’s failure to honestly address the Islamism problem from a position of moral strength has left a void that the Trumpian right has opportunistically — and successfully — exploited in a very divisive way, alienating reformist dissidents in the Muslim world who feel betrayed by liberals and conservatives alike. Today — more than ever — those fighting for freedom there need the support of those who love freedom here.
Ali A. Rizvi, a writer and a medical communications professional, is the author of “The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason” (St. Martin’s), out now. Twitter: @aliamjadrizvi