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Islamophobia: the conversation killer

The left’s reluctance to confront problematic parts of Islamic ideology has allowed the far-right to hijack the narrative about Muslims, according to ex-Muslim and author Ali Rizvi.

Speaking out about women’s rights, the rights of homosexuals or the right of religious freedom should be encouraged and not shut down by claims of Islamophobia, says author Ali Rizvi.

Rizvi, a Pakastini-Canadian who lived in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before settling in Canada, is the author of The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. He was due to participate in a speaking tour of New Zealand in March which was cancelled because of the ill health of a fellow speaker.

Rizvi discussed with Newsroom some of the key ideas from his book which talks about Islamic reform and enlightenment.

He says the political left is wrong about Islam and the right is wrong about Muslims.

“There’s a difference in my mind between the ideology of Islam, which is a set of ideas in a book, and the identity of being Muslim. So Islamic ideology versus Muslim identity. This is a really, really key distinction.”

Rizvi believes the left and right conflate Islamic ideology and Muslim identity.

“On the left, they say, if you criticise Islam, if you criticise anything in the Koran that you don’t like then you are being a bigot against Muslims. They conflate it that way, any criticism of Islam is bigotry against all Muslims.

“On the right they often say, there are many problems in Islam – the ideology - and that means we must surviel all Muslims, we must ban Muslims from coming into the country or get rid of Muslim immigration.”

Separating the ideology from the followers allows meaningful conversation without bigotry to take place he says.

“If you criticise ideas, you challenge ideas, that’s when you move a society forward. When you demonise people that’s how you rip societies apart.

“The word Islamophobia doesn’t make that distinction either. The reason the Muslim Brotherhood like the term so much and use it so much is because it actually takes the pain that genuine victims of Muslim hate go through. They take that pain and exploit it for the political purpose of stifling criticism of Islam.”

“Beliefs and ideas are changing.”

Liberals who don’t discuss issues with passages in the Koran which promote smiting disbelievers leave a vacuum which the far-right has filled, he says, especially in the wake of the Paris attacks, or the San Bernadino shooting.

“When you see your local politician come on TV and say ‘this has nothing to do with Islam, Islam is a religion of peace’ - when that happens, that is a squandered opportunity for liberals to address this in a responsible way. When Trump and the alt-right come in and address it from a xenophobic and bigoted perspective – if that is the only door somebody is holding open for you when you are trying to escape a fire, you’re going to take it.”

He believes this has led to a demonisation of Muslims.

“The right is wrong about Muslims in the sense that just because there are problems in Islam doesn’t mean that everybody who calls themselves a Muslim represents the worst of what the ideology is.”

The left who traditionally champion issues like women’s rights are also letting Muslims down according to Rizvi.

“There are women in Iran ripping off their hijabs, which are forced upon them by the government and they are burning them, they are going to prison and many of them have been tortured, some of them have died, just for the right to be able to dress the way they want and to take off their hijab.

“When they are watching TV and they see a women’s march in the US where there are non-Muslim women wearing the hijab, putting on a hijab to show solidarity with Muslim women in the US - you can imagine how triggering and emotionally traumatic that might be for them.”

What he would prefer to see is a discussion around Islamic ideology not being silenced by calls of Islamophobia.  He hopes that will eventually lead to reform, secularism and an Islamic enlightenment.

He says in his experience fundamentalists know religious texts better than moderate followers. The Koran is written in Arabic, a language not spoken in large Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran.

“When it comes to the scripture, most of them [moderate Muslims] are not familiar with it. When you tell them, ‘yes, what Isis is doing is actually in Surah eight verse 12 where it says ‘God said to the angels I will cast terror into your hearts, smite the disbelievers on their neck and take their fingertips’.’ When you have a verse like that, they’re shocked.”

Despite some scripture sitting uncomfortably with moderate Muslims there is a hurdle to any suggestion the Koran could undergo a reformation. In Islam the Koran is considered infallible.

“That’s the biggest question of our time when it comes to Islam. Can we encourage reform when you have a concept of infallibility?”

The infallibility allows fundamentalists like Isis point to verses in the Koran they interpret literally to justify beheading disbelievers or keeping prisoners of war as sex slaves.

Rizvi says challenging this view is a big step, but it’s something he is seeing happen.

“Ten years ago, I barely met anyone who thought the Koran was not the word of God among Muslims.”

He says some practicing Muslims he talks to are unsure if it is the exact word of God.

“Beliefs and ideas are changing.”

The second part of Rizvi’s suggested path to Islamic enlightenment is reform. Once reform has happened he believes secularism and enlightenment will follow.

“Reform being nothing more than the space where you can have conversations, where liberal Muslims, conservative Muslims, fundamentalist Muslims, ex-Muslims, non-Muslims can all get together, and they can have an open conversation about these beliefs.

“When you have that open exchange of ideas, that is not tainted by threats of punishments for blasphemy or apostasy or using the islamophobia smear – you’re being Islamophobic, you’re a bigot, you’re a racist. When you free yourself from that, you bring all of these people together to talk about it, I think that’s the kind of reform which would work.”

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