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Getting It Wrong About Islam: Check Your Secular Privilege, Liberal America

It takes a certain amount of hubris, writes Zouhair Mazouz, to frame the religious issues of the Middle East through the lens of America’s culture wars.
Pictured: A Saudi girl gets caught in the crowd of women visiting Al-Masjid an-Nabawi or Prophet Muhammad's Mosque, which situates Muhammad's tomb, in Medina, Saudi Arabia, September 15, 2016. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
It takes a certain amount of hubris, writes Zouhair Mazouz, to frame the religious issues of the Middle East through the lens of America’s culture wars. Pictured: A Saudi girl gets caught in the crowd of women visiting Al-Masjid an-Nabawi or Prophet Muhammad's Mosque, which situates Muhammad's tomb, in Medina, Saudi Arabia, September 15, 2016. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
COMMENTARY

“Don’t say that. It’s racist.”

I froze for a second. Although every cell in my body was urging me to respond, I could not utter a single word.

I had just been accused of racism by a liberal. As an American human rights activist, she had a respectable track record of advocacy. In her free time, she volunteered at Planned Parenthood. Her stances on gender equality, racial justice, individual liberties and religious freedom were unmistakably progressive.

But because I criticized the misogynistic treatment of women in predominantly Muslim societies, I was accused of racism. Against my own people.

...because I criticized the misogynistic treatment of women in predominantly Muslim societies, I was accused of racism. Against my own people.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris one year ago, Donald Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States. I rolled my eyes. Not because his rhetoric was utterly hateful and discriminatory, but because, deep inside, I knew that it would push many of his liberal opponents to take on the cause of defending Islam. And so they did.

In a televised debate at Drake University in Iowa last November, former Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley said, “We are going to be able to defeat ISIS because of the Muslim Americans in our country and throughout the world who understand that this brutal and barbaric group is perverting the name of a great world religion.”

Such is the pervasiveness of America’s polarized political discourse on Islam post-9/11. Whatever stances the right-wing espouses, liberals are compelled to advocate for the total opposite. What is lost in between is a crucial discussion on the role of religion in perpetuating injustice and violence in countries governed by Islamic law. As Republicans and Democrats settle their scores, nuance and context take a backseat.

I am what you might call a recovering Muslim. In 2013, I left the religion I grew up with at considerable risk to my safety. I did not and do not share O’Malley’s opinion that Islam is a “great world religion.” But, unlike him, I could not afford the luxury of my opinions. In my homeland, Morocco, we do not have a First Amendment. If you leave Islam, the police of the Commander of the Faithful will throw you in jail. That is if angry mobs do not get to you first.

Imagine my surprise as a newly free immigrant in the United States, then, when I was accused of reinforcing Islamophobia each time I criticize Islam. I found out the hard way that liberal opinion-makers had coined a term for the likes of me: “native informant.”

At least I was not the only one. The same slur is thrown at Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy, whose life’s work consists of documenting instances of gender oppression in the Arab world. To say nothing of British author Salman Rushdie, against whom a death fatwa was issued after his book "The Satanic Verses" was published.

Taking on these exiled figures, American Mideast scholar Monica Marks writes that their “...personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.” 

I found out the hard way that liberal opinion-makers had coined a term for the likes of me: 'native informant.'

It takes a certain amount of hubris to frame the religious issues of the Middle East through the lens of America’s culture wars. Such a tendency is even more disconcerting when displayed by American liberals, people who should know better. They would not want their country to have an official religion, as evidenced by their successive lawsuits against public school prayer. They would never compromise on a woman’s right to choose, now that Roe V. Wade is the law of the land. Their very ideological platform is rooted in standing with society’s underdogs: underrepresented ethnic groups, religious minorities, LGBTQs and free thinkers. Yet when Middle Eastern dissidents advocate for the same fundamental rights, liberals would rather not hear it. Why the inconsistency?

Middle Eastern expats eager to advocate for secular societies back home have no choice but to seek freedom of speech. When our liberal allies in America try to silence our plea, they imply that the Middle East does not deserve the same rights they enjoy here. Interpreting our struggles purely from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy is borderline ethnocentric. Surely, that is not the liberal thing to do.

Related:

Zouhair Mazouz Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Zouhair Mazouz is a Moroccan journalist, human rights activist and graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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