‘In Israel, you can’t help but become a Zionist’…SAYS ISRAELI MUSLIM
“Islamism steals from Islam for its own totalitarian ambition,” says Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a physician and Muslim intellectual who defends Israel to the world • U.S. officials can’t distinguish between IDF volunteer and Muslim joining Islamic State, she says.Dr. Qanta Ahmed Photo credit: Yonatan Shaul
These last few years, I have been toying with the idea of gathering an assembly of intellectuals, political leaders and public opinion leaders to discuss the perils and prospects of Western civilization. Men and women who understand Israel’s role as a dam protecting the Western world from flooding and ultimate drowning. People of truth who would be decent enough to explore the complexity of the Israeli story, who would be prepared to stand courageously by Israel and defend its just cause.
One woman I would invite to this fantasy assembly is Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a scientist, intellectual, journalist, physician who specializes in sleep disorders, and a practicing Muslim. Ahmed is an expert on, and ardent opponent of, Muslim radicalization, and a great supporter of the State of Israel.
Ahmed was born in Britain to immigrants from Pakistan. She studied medicine and went to the United States to specialize. She spent time in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere as a physician and lecturer. She now lives in the United States, publishes articles in several journals and is a sought-after commentator in American and world media.
Ahmed arrived in Israel to receive an award from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, “in esteem of her courageous and relentless fight for human rights in the Muslim world, and for her active and uncompromising opposition to radical Islam and anti-Semitism; and with a sense of gratitude for her friendship toward Israel and the Technion.”
I met with her in Jerusalem, at the Begin Heritage Center, where the ancient city walls, seen from the balcony, served as a backdrop and subject for a fascinating conversation.
Q: You describe yourself as a religious person. You have a positive attitude toward religion and spirituality. In Jewish society there is a spectrum of attitudes toward religion. However, if we look at the Muslim world today, we see a kind of a reverse Renaissance, back to the seventh century, to the beginning of Islam.
“I would absolutely agree that there is a revivalism of really extreme practices, but to a degree that never existed in documented history. These are extreme manifestations purported to be a reconstruction of Islam. They were propagated right after the Iranian Revolution [in 1979] and have spread like a huge ripple from Iran to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, including to Pakistan, which underwent Islamization, and on to extreme brands of radical Islamism in al-Qaida and now in ISIS [Islamic State]. Its advocates love to claim that this is a revival of the original and authentic Islam but it is really a fictional construct.
“Even having lived in Saudi Arabia, a state that follows Shariah [Muslim law] without innovation, without modulation, still the kind of barbarity we see now passing in some of these Islamic groups exceeds even the harshest manifestations of Shariah law. So you are right that there is a reverse revivalism.”
Q: So what is the difference that you see between the revival of Islam and the Islam in which you believe?
“Well, one example is that nowadays it is not unusual for women to be stoned to death in Iran or in other remote areas, as one can see in recruitment videos indoctrinating Pakistani or Afghani children into the service of radical Islam. This in contrast to the five centuries of documentation of Ottoman history in which there is only one stoning recorded. So even though there are passages in the Quran which might suggest that these kinds of punitive actions can be taken, even in the case of adultery, they did not occur at the level of ferocity and frequency which now we can record.
“That is a deliberate revival which was introduced by the nascent ayatollahs of Iran. They use a special directive called Tazir, which gives jurists the authority by Islamic law to pass a ruling not based on precedent, but rather gives them the freedom to manipulate laws. In the past, this freedom was given only in situations of dire instability, yet they now use this power to the disadvantage of innocent people and punish them in any way they see fit.
“A good example would be the outrageous punishment of Raif Badari, a Saudi blogger who received the punishment of 1,000 lashes for publishing something on the Internet. There could be no precedent for this. Where did they get the number 1,000? This is particularly problematic when a fundamental value of Islam is that you cannot be a real believer if you do not have free will to choose not to believe. What kind of maker would choose compulsion in belief? That would be a weak maker. So Tazir as a phenomenon has been intensely pursued since the 1970s, in a way that really has become a distortion of Shariah.
“I have difficulty with the generalization of ‘the Muslim world.’ Muslims exist on every inhabited continent. They number 1.62 billion people. In the United States alone there are 69 different nationalities of Muslims. Every year in Mecca, over 183 different nationalities participate in the Hajj. So to talk about the ‘Muslim world’ is almost like talking about one-fifth of the world’s population.”
Q: How do you distinguish between Islam and Islamization?
“Islamization is a good word, too, which has been used opportunistically by Muslim democracies as a means to show power and political expediency. But Saudi Arabia is a big patron of Islamism, which seeks to co-opt the public space, using a fictional imposition of Islam to their political advantage. Islamists acted this way in a Saudi theocracy, in an Iranian revolutionary democracy (as they call it), in a Pakistani republic.
“If I were not Muslim, I would look at the world’s Muslim-majority countries and ask myself, ‘What is Islam?’ Because when you travel to these Muslim countries where I have traveled, the basic fundamentals of Islam are not these.
“First of all, there is freedom not to believe. Second, there is recognition of other religions, which are mentioned in the Quran.
“My family has practiced the freedom not to believe for over a century. And we are not unusual. We are from a British-Indian background, like millions of others.”
Distortion of Islam
Q: You are speaking of a cultural retreat regarding Islam, a rejection of the universal values attained in the last few centuries.
“I expropriate my family visits to Pakistan to learn about the country. But if you look at what Pakistan has done in the name of democracy! Pakistan was created by a Muslim secular democrat, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who studied law at a prestigious London institute. In a speech he gave before the first day of the establishment of Pakistan at the Constitution Club in Karachi, he said, ‘In the new state your creed will not be the business of state. All will be free to go to their temples, churches, mosques.’
“Unfortunately he died soon after, within the first year of Pakistan’s founding as a state. Immediately after his death, appeasement steps were made toward extreme Muslim clerics who first wanted to agitate against the Hindus, and then later decided to agitate against minorities. The ideal of a secular democracy was that there was a space for Islam but also for everybody else. Pakistan was founded to create a space for Islam out of the fear that it would be a persecuted minority in India. In fact, Pakistan was created with the idea of a Muslim ‘Zion’ without the religious history, really for a political safeguarding of what was a minority in the huge India. But now there has been an absolute perversion of these ideals.
“When Pakistan was founded, one year before Israel, 24% of its population was non-Muslim. Today it is 3%. Pakistan sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council, overseeing people’s human rights, including that of Israel’s, when at the same time, as a state, it has legally enshrined the persecution of minorities by denying their electoral representation. This goes unchallenged in the West and Pakistan is still called a Muslim democracy.
“The modern Muslim world has achieved something remarkable. It has countries with constitutions, with positions in institutions like the United Nations, but has not a single institution that you could point out that even purports to be truly democratic. The Islamists — different to the Islam as I know it — are boldly exploitative. Islamists love elections. [Turkish President] Recep Erdogan himself said that democracy is a one-way train. They will use elections and parliament in order to get to their destination and then they will increase the Muslim commitment of their country.
“What we see in the public space in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries often does not reflect the sentiments and desires of the ordinary people. Even though I am visibly critical of both those countries, people are absolutely in agreement with my arguments because if you know Islam you cannot justify what happens in the name of Islam.
“You do not need to go to the extreme of ISIS, a new organization, one or two years old. You just look at Pakistan, Jordan, some parts of Egypt, and see how they enable violence against women. How come women are not given the freedom to pursue a divorce? Islam says that a man cannot forcibly remain married or deny his wife a fair divorce and means of support.”
Q: You lived in Saudi Arabia and even published a book on the subject (“In the Land of Invisible Women”). How did you find that experience?
“I lived there for two years and later traveled back and forth for about 10 years. When I moved there I was very naive. I had not read anything about the country beforehand. I was a doctor finishing her training. My work visa in America was ending and I needed to continue working. I worked at the time in an intensive care unit and was managing trauma ICU and I heard they were looking for that position in Saudi Arabia. So I thought, how hard could it be?
“Well, it was very hard. First of all, it was 15 years ago. I was younger, less diplomatic, fresh out of training, with great confidence and not much patience with other people. Everything was so different. The only thing that was familiar was my reflection in a white coat in the hospital windows. But as soon as I would leave the hospital environment, the scenario of patient and doctor, everything was changed. As a doctor I was initiating life support, doing dialysis, preparing families for the worst regarding their loved ones. Outside that space I could not even bring my car to Saudi Arabia as I was not allowed to drive. I had to relinquish my passport as soon as I entered the country to my employment representative. The objectification! I was invisible because of my gender, even though I was used to leading medical teams for years.”
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