Canadian physician Ali A. Rizvi wants to change the way Islam and Muslims are viewed in the West. Rizvi, who was raised Muslim but describes himself as an “agnostic atheist,” says that neither side of the political spectrum in the West gets it entirely right. Many progressives, wanting to defend a religious minority, ignore the parts of the Quran that conflict with liberal values. And many conservatives stoke suspicion of Muslims by assuming they all adhere to the most extreme tenets of their faith. The result, Rizvi says, is that progressives are often wrong about Islam, and conservatives are often wrong about Muslims. “It is more important now than ever,” he writes, “to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims.”
Born in Pakistan in 1975, Rizvi was raised by Shia Muslim parents — both professors. He began to struggle with his belief in God at a young age, after his three-year-old cousin died of leukemia. Rizvi’s family later moved to Saudi Arabia, where he attended a school for foreigners and encountered scientific theories that changed the way he thought. The Big Bang, he says, “seemed more magnificent and wondrous to me than ‘Let there be light!’ ” By the time the family immigrated to North America when Rizvi was twenty-four, he had abandoned his faith. He writes about this transformation in his book The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason.
Rizvi spent five years in the United States studying medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a trained oncologic pathologist who now works in medical communications in Toronto, Canada. He is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and performs in a rock band. Through his writing and public speaking, he attempts to dispel myths about Muslims. “There are more American Muslims having beers at bars after work,” he writes, “dancing at clubs on a Saturday night, regularly spending the night at their girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s place, or having non-halal steaks and fast food than there are who actually pray five times a day.”
Though Rizvi has lost his faith, he’s gained the support of many Muslim reformers, who challenge both Islamic fundamentalists and anti-Muslim bigots in their effort to promote a more moderate Islam. In some places these reformers face persecution by theocratic governments and risk isolation, imprisonment, torture, or even death — all to protect people’s right to choose or renounce their religion.
Muslims who renounce Islam are often called apostates and face hostility from other Muslims, even in the West. They may be disowned by their families and ostracized by their communities. When the state sanctions such discrimination, as it does in some Muslim-majority countries, apostasy can be punished by imprisonment or execution. “According to recent polls,” Rizvi writes, “a majority of people in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia support the death penalty for leaving Islam.”
Prejudice can make life hard for Muslims in the West, too. According to a Gallup poll, only 60 percent of Americans say they would vote for a Muslim presidential candidate — fewer than would be open to a homosexual president. Atheists fare worse than Muslims, and Rizvi counts himself as both.
I met Rizvi at the Humanist Canada “Imagine No Religion” event in Vancouver, British Columbia. We talked outside the hotel, where he was smoking his “biweekly cigarette,” a habit he despises. Then we sat down in the bar, ordered beers, and chatted. Despite the controversial nature of his views, he was curious, soft-spoken, and affable. During the interview his mother, Nayyer, and his pregnant wife, Alishba Zarmeen, dropped by to listen and offer their thoughts. We spoke of his life, his atheism, his Muslim identity, and how he seeks to lessen the tension surrounding Islam in the West. In his memoir Rizvi writes that his goal is to “let reformist Muslims, secular Muslims, questioning Muslims, agnostic/atheist Muslims, and ex-Muslims into the dialogue on Islam — so we can make it as diverse, varied, and complex as the Muslim world itself.”
Powell: What are some of the biggest misconceptions non-Muslim Americans have about Muslims?
Rizvi: That they’re violent. That they’re ticking time bombs. That the peaceful ones will turn on you. That none would support Trump. I know several. Conservative Muslims’ values are generally more aligned with those of the Republican Party. Most of them voted for Bush in 2000. Religious Muslims in the U.S. are a lot like religious Christians: some are fundamentalists, while others are more moderate or liberal.
Another misconception is that the women all wear the hijab (head-scarf), and the men all have a beard. The majority don’t. I always tell my non-Muslim friends, if you want to show solidarity with North American Muslims, buy them a drink. Alcohol consumption is forbidden in Islam, but there are many Muslims in the U.S. and Canada who drink beer and wine with their buddies and don’t wear beards or head-scarves. And not as many pray as you’d think, especially five times a day. You should treat them the same way you would anyone else, and hold them to the same standards. Recognize them for their achievements instead of reducing them to a tribal identity they were born into.
In Canada some Muslim immigrants make their daughters wear the hijab and send them to Islamic schools to protect them from Western decadence. They isolate themselves and don’t interact with non-Muslims, except at the supermarket and workplace. But in small towns where there are only a handful of Muslims, they have to interact and adjust, and the majority have adapted to Western norms, the way my family did.
I experienced more discrimination in Saudi Arabia than I have in Canada. In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, foreigners and Saudis are kept segregated. For example, foreigners could not attend Saudi schools. I attended the American section of the Saudi Arabian International School, which had students of about eighty nationalities. Our teachers, our textbooks, and even the earthworms for our biology class came from the U.S.
Powell: How do the Saudis treat foreigners from other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan?
Rizvi: In Saudi Arabia we were called “Paki” [an ethnic slur]. They look down at you if you’re Pakistani or Indian or Bangladeshi or Afghan. There have been many news stories about how migrant workers from these countries are mistreated in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The wealthy often beat their Bangladeshi or Pakistani servants and rape their Indonesian maids. There have been reports of maids committing suicide.
Powell: What sort of discrimination do atheists suffer in Muslim-majority countries?
Rizvi: It’s severe, but we don’t hear much about it, because very few people there declare their atheism. Why would they? Look at what happens, even in officially secular countries like Bangladesh, where atheist bloggers have been hacked to death in broad daylight, and a government representative has responded by saying the attacks are unacceptable, but “we expect people to stop criticizing the prophet Muhammad.”
In a recent Gallup poll, 5 percent of Saudis said they were atheists. That’s more than a million atheists in Saudi Arabia alone. But, like homosexuals, they never speak out, with a few brave exceptions, such as Parvez Sharma, the gay Muslim documentarian who made a film about his pilgrimage to Mecca. He was only visiting, though; he doesn’t live there.
Powell: Which Muslim-majority nations have passed the most reforms?
Rizvi: Very few have made social progress. Even in moderate countries, the prejudice is tangible. In Turkey — the supposed model of a secular, liberal Muslim country — blasphemy is illegal. For two years in a row now the Turkish government has forcibly dispersed the annual LGBT pride parade in Istanbul using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Indonesia has made a good amount of progress, but there are reports of people there giving women virginity tests and caning them for standing too close to a man in public.
Powell: Don’t some religious Muslims feel oppressed by the secular government in Turkey? For example, Turkey has restrictions on wearing the hijab in government institutions and universities.
Rizvi: I don’t support banning the hijab. I support open dialogue and debate. In my view, the right of everyone to make his or her own choices is, for lack of a better word, sacred.
Powell: When did you start questioning your faith?
Rizvi: When I was five, my three-year-old cousin had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The family was called into the room during her last moments. Those who’ve seen a cancer death know how horrific it can be. She was gasping. I asked my dad what was happening.
He said, “She’s going back to God, Ali. God is taking her back.”
He made it sound as if that were a good thing, when it clearly wasn’t. Not only was she in severe pain, but my aunt and my mom were crying and praying desperately.
To my five-year-old mind, it seemed like an unbalanced game of tug of war, with God on one side and all of us on the other. We had no chance. Being all powerful, he could have finished it easily in one fell swoop, but he made it slow and excruciating, stretching out the agony for a three-year-old kid. Yet over the next few days — at the funeral, during the rituals — people said things like “God, please take care of her in heaven,” and “She’s in your hands.”
This didn’t make sense.
Powell: If suffering doesn’t fit with the idea of a merciful God, does it necessarily follow that the universe is without a supreme wisdom? Some might say that just because God is beyond our understanding doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.
Rizvi: I think you could make a respectable argument for a supreme wisdom or higher intelligence behind the workings of the universe. On this I am agnostic. But to take a leap and say that this intelligence, which supposedly created billions of galaxies, cares about whether you eat pork, with whom you have sex, or how “good” you are to your neighbor — while also demanding that you pray to him — seems a little ridiculous. If one does believe in a creator, the way to get close to him or her is not by way of books and archaic traditions. It’s by studying the creation all around us. That creation is called nature, and the study of nature is science.
I went through a religious phase when I was younger. I’d pray and take classes in Islam and the Quran. But then I’d see things that defied logic, like a plane crash in which hundreds of people would die, and the two or three survivors would thank God or Jesus for saving them. What did all those other passengers do wrong? Or there would be a deadly fire, and a copy of the Quran would be unharmed, and the headline would be “Miracle: Quran Survives Fire!”
I tried to come up with liberal interpretations of the scripture, and it worked for a while, but eventually I gave up. Later I started to see religion — especially Abrahamic monotheism — as sinister.
Powell: Why sinister?
Rizvi: The problem is the idea of infallibility. I’ll give you an analogy: I respect Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal.” Yet he was a slave owner. And not just a slave owner — he had sex with his fourteen-year-old slave when he was in his forties. I’d bet there’s no admirer of his, however avid, who would say that what he did was right. Now suppose he had claimed divine authority and infallibility, and his followers, to this day, defended his slave ownership and sexual relationship with a child and applied those values to their own lives in the twenty-first century. How would we respond?
This is the problem with Abrahamic scripture, particularly the Quran, which is considered the perfect word of God. If you find something that doesn’t fit your moral sensibilities, you either have to undergo intellectual acrobatics — what the apologists call “interpretation” — or you have to reject the entire book. Infallibility doesn’t allow you to pick and choose.
So, yes, I did go through a phase in which I tried to convince myself that verse 4:34 in the Quran, which establishes male authority over women and allows husbands to beat their wives, was somehow compatible with the idea that Muhammad was a feminist. But that phase didn’t last.
Powell: How would you like to see Islam change?
Rizvi: President Obama said, and I’m paraphrasing, that it’s a human right of all people to practice their faith as they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear. This secularism is what Muslims need. My friend Sarah Ager, a Muslim convert, supports this ideal. She changed her faith from Christianity to Islam, and she thinks Muslims should have the same freedom.
Going back to scriptural infallibility: For the longest time the Torah was believed to be the actual word of God as revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, but only a small percentage of Jews believe that today. Christianity has a similar history. For centuries the Church did terrible things to nonbelievers — slavery, the Inquisition. Even today there are pockets of fundamentalist Christians trying to live by Old Testament rules, like in Uganda, where the government outlawed homosexuality. But Christianity, for the most part, has been reformed. I don’t see any reason why this won’t happen with Islam someday.
Secularism — the separation of religion and state — sets the stage. It allows both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It lets us not only revere certain ideas, but also challenge and satirize them. These are huge changes that won’t happen overnight, but they are already happening due to the Internet. Maryam Namazie, the founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, says the Internet and social media are “doing to Islam what the printing press did in the past to Christianity” — allowing people access to forbidden ideas.
For many of us the Internet is a source of jokes, cat videos, memes, and so on, but for young people in the Middle East it’s a window into the rest of the world. Twenty years ago in Saudi Arabia my dad would get Time and Newsweek with pages removed or lines blacked out. The government censors were committed to preventing Saudis from seeing the bare shoulders of a woman in an advertisement. Since the Internet came along, their efforts at censorship have been frustrated.
Powell: Is Islamic fundamentalism a threat to the West?
Rizvi: Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to everybody. Islamic fundamentalists are often also Islamists — people who believe Islam should play a prominent role in politics and public affairs, and who support imposing Islamic law on others. And Islamists at times become jihadists — Islamists who are willing to use violence and holy war in order to achieve their goals.
Violence isn’t necessary to the spread of Islamism — or communism, or any other ideology — but violence is often used to help spread it. Many Islamists today publicly renounce violence and hold lectures instead. They know they can’t use force as much as they used to, and they are trying to hold on to the youth, who are getting more and more secular.
But others only wear the guise of academics, like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American PhD who became an al-Qaeda leader and hugely influential jihadist. His rhetoric promoted the violent aspects of Islam. The Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters, and the Orlando shooter all cited al-Awlaki as an inspiration. He was not an uneducated man bereft of opportunity. He had “Dr.” in front of his name, as do Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. But individual jihadists aren’t the issue. You can trim the branches all you want; if the roots are firmly entrenched, they’ll just keep coming back.
Culturally I’m Muslim, just as there are atheist Jews and “cultural” Christians who don’t have strong, if any, beliefs but still take part in the rituals, holidays, and traditions. They reject the ideology, but they don’t want to let go of the identity, the memories, the community, the family, the sense of belonging.
Powell: What are the “roots” in this analogy?
Rizvi: The roots are Islamism, the desire to impose a certain interpretation of Islam on others. People often point out that Christianity, too, was violent a few hundred years ago. That ended through a period of reform known as the Enlightenment. Leaders of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, were accused of blasphemy and forced into hiding, but today the people who threatened them are hard to name. Why? Because they are on the wrong side of history.
Powell: Can the roots be trained to grow in a more peaceable direction?
Rizvi: The way forward, I think, is multifaceted. For some young people my approach of rejecting the faith is too stark, and reform and reinterpretation may be more alluring.
Powell: How has your career as a scientist affected your beliefs?
Rizvi: Let’s put it this way: We’ve had religion for thousands of years, and it didn’t save my three-year-old cousin. Now, nearly forty years after my cousin’s death, more than 90 percent of cases of lymphoblastic leukemia see complete remission after six weeks, thanks to science.
Powell: So you’ve given up the Islamic faith, but you still identify as Muslim?
Rizvi: Culturally I’m Muslim, just as there are atheist Jews and “cultural” Christians who don’t have strong, if any, beliefs but still take part in the rituals, holidays, and traditions. They reject the ideology, but they don’t want to let go of the identity, the memories, the community, the family, the sense of belonging. I like Ramadan and Eid, the feast that ends a month of fasting. I get together with my family, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
There’s a distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity: Islam is a set of ideas and beliefs in a book; Muslims are human beings. Ideas and beliefs don’t have rights; human beings do. Ideas and beliefs aren’t entitled to respect; human beings are. Challenging ideas moves society forward; demonizing people rips societies apart.
Many people conflate Islam and Muslims, but suppose you told me that most of your Jewish friends eat bacon. Would this mean Judaism is OK with it? Of course not. Countless Muslims drink, have premarital sex, and reject jihad. But that doesn’t mean Islam is OK with premarital sex and alcohol, or that jihad is not a part of Islamic doctrine. Islam the religion isn’t defined by the actions of its adherents. It is defined by its canonical texts, primarily the Quran, which is revered by all believing Muslims around the world, regardless of sect or faction.
Powell: Do you see anything unusual about a nonbeliever celebrating religious rituals and holidays?
Rizvi: No, because virtually everyone does it. So much of our history, art, literature, and music comes from religion. The word goodbye is a shortened form of “God be with you.” Thursday was originally “Thor’s day.” The mythologies of the past were once religions, and it’s likely that the religions of today will become the mythologies of the future. Almost every Western Muslim I know celebrates some aspect of Christmas.
Powell: Is it possible for secularism to appropriate events of religious significance and remain secular?
Rizvi: Yes. Remember that secularism isn’t anti-religion. It separates religion from the state, making religion a personal choice that can’t be imposed on us by society or government. We’ve seen what compulsory, state-sponsored religion did in the history of Europe, and we see it happening now in the Muslim world.
Powell: Can’t scripture be seen as symbolic rather than literal?
Rizvi: That’s certainly an approach many of my reformist friends take. I think it could work if we got rid of infallibility. You can go only so far with the symbolic, because some of the commands in the Quran are crystal clear.
Over the centuries, as we’ve learned about the nature of reality through science, more and more scriptures have become “metaphorical.” Prominent Muslim scholars like Reza Aslan will tell you, “No matter what you do, please, please don’t read the words of the Quran literally.” The scholars want you to put down the Quran and let them tell you what it really means. Unfortunately terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are quoting scripture, not Reza Aslan.
Powell: Let’s get back to your own story. When did you tell your family you no longer believed in God?
Rizvi: My siblings and I used to question our faith a lot, and we shared our opinions with our parents, who were university professors and encouraged us to be critical thinkers, even if they disagreed with some of our conclusions. My parents saw me making this transition in my late teens and were concerned that I would speak out in public or to friends. Although we don’t always agree, they were the reason I came to the conclusions I did. And I’m not just saying that because my mother’s sitting here, too.
Nayyer Rizvi (mother of Ali): My concern was his safety. Why say these things? I worried that Ali would forget who he was with and say something aloud. I would tell him, “They are Wahhabis, and if they hear this, you could be in big trouble.”
Powell: Who are the Wahhabis?
Nayyer Rizvi: Wahhabism is an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam found in countries like Saudi Arabia. Its followers prefer the term Salafism. The name “Wahhabism” comes from the founder of the movement, Ibn al-Wahhab. It’s sometimes wrongly characterized as a “reformation” movement, when actually it’s an effort to return to the purest form of Islam, as practiced by the earliest generations of Muslims after Muhammad.
We are Shia Muslims.
Ali A. Rizvi: The Shia-Sunni division in Islam began with a conflict over succession: Sunnis believe that the prophet Muhammad’s friend Abu-Bakr was his rightful successor, while Shias believe Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali was. Although the two groups both read the Quran, they differ on their sources of hadith, the prophetic teachings and traditions. This conflict has now lasted for more than 1,300 years.
Nayyer Rizvi: My father taught that all religions are chapters of the same book. Prophets coming at different times preached their ideas differently. The prophet Muhammad came at a time when the human mind had developed more capability for abstract thinking; hence Islam is considered by many of its followers to be the most advanced religion.
But my mother and grandmother also thought of Buddha as a prophet who conveyed the same message: treat humanity with kindness and justice. This is how we raised Ali and his siblings. We had huge family arguments — my brothers, my children — but we’re very close, and we’ve kept our Muslim identity.
Later on, Ali’s openness in public discussions became worrisome. The first article that he posted, which went viral, caused great excitement among his siblings and friends. My reaction was disappointment and shock. I believe a whisper lands better in the ear than a shout. He was logical and analytical but was aggressively condemning religion. For me ideas that contribute something positive are more appealing, and love is better than hatred.
I’m still worried for his safety and wish he had a more subtle way of expressing his views.
Powell: How do you feel now that you live in Canada?
Nayyer Rizvi: Even Canada cannot be taken as a safe haven. Religious minorities who left everything behind to come here are struggling to hold on to their identities. They take any criticism as a threat. Here, too, a brother might kill his sister for not wearing a hijab.
Powell (to Ali A. Rizvi): Have you received death threats?
Rizvi: Oh, yeah. All the time I get e-mails from people saying they’ll do this or that to me. Right-wingers and neo-Nazis tell me that I, and all Muslims, should get out of the country or else. Then I get threats from Muslim fundamentalists, calling me an apostate. Most of those come from overseas, so I generally ignore them, but you never know. My wife, who’s also an atheist, receives threats that are much more violent and often sexual. What I get is nothing compared to the things men say to her.
[Somali-born women’s-rights activist] Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets so many death threats she has hired armed bodyguards. Hirsi Ali’s done amazing work to oppose forced marriage, honor killings, and female genital mutilation, but when she says parts of Islam encourage violence, many liberals call her a bigot. Brandeis University gave her an honorary degree but was forced to rescind it after protests piled up from groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Because no liberal think tank would take her, she joined the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Now leftists are even more upset with her.
Powell: Hirsi Ali did make some inflammatory statements about Islam, calling it a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” At what point does criticism of a religion become a condemnation of its followers?
Rizvi: When you’re criticizing an ideology — and all religions are ideologies — it’s almost impossible to avoid criticizing those who subscribe to it. Her phrasing sounds shocking and offensive, but try applying it to Christianity. Millions of evangelical Christians eagerly await Jesus’s Second Coming and the Rapture, because they believe the afterlife matters more than life on this earth. That’s nihilistic, and it fetishizes death. As for the word cult, what is the real difference between a religion and a cult, apart from the number of adherents?
I agree with Hirsi Ali on most — not all — of her ideas, but I don’t always use the same approach. For example, though I think her description of Islam, as codified in its holy texts, is technically apt, I might choose different words to communicate with my audience.
Today many Muslims in Western countries are more accepting of dissenting ideas, but there is always a danger. If the wrong person hears me speak or reads what I’ve written, he could follow me home and stab me. Avijit Roy, the Bangladeshi American blogger, once translated my article “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims” for his blog. Roy went to Bangladesh in 2015, and while there he and his wife were attacked in public by Islamists with machetes. She survived, but he was hacked to death — all because his blog promoted secularism.
After that, I was shaken. I considered forgetting about the book. My wife and I were planning to have a kid, and our life was peaceful and comfortable. Was it worth it? I talked to my friend Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, a writer and activist born in Iraq; he helps dissidents in the Arab world. His brother and cousin were killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. After he founded the Global Secular Humanist Movement, he was forced into hiding. Eventually he received asylum in the U.S. He’s fluent in Arabic and reads the tweets demanding the killing of atheists. So he knows that, in our home countries, he and I would be targets. The threat of death is real. Thankfully that sort of assassination hasn’t happened in Canada. There’s been jihadist activity, like the ISIS-inspired shootings at Parliament Hill in 2014, but that was not directed at any specific individual.
Anyway, Faisal and I came to the same conclusion we do whenever people tell us to back off: we should double down. Every time someone is killed for speaking out, it makes it even more important to speak out. If there are more voices — if we spread the risk — the jihadists won’t know who to target. What’s happening now is that every time an apostate is killed, hundreds more announce they are apostates, and Muslim reformers stand in solidarity with them and support people’s right to criticize religion. After al-Qaeda members killed employees of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015, some people still blamed the writers and cartoonists for making fun of Muhammad, but a lot of voices placed the blame correctly on the murderers and their ideology.
Powell: What about in North America? How difficult is it for Muslims to integrate into society here?
Rizvi: Surprisingly not so difficult. In the U.S. and Canada, Muslims are already well integrated, and many are known for accomplishments that go beyond their religion. Fazlur Rahman, the Bangladeshi architect, designed the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. The co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, signed everyone from Led Zeppelin to Aretha Franklin. On television there’s Dr. Mehmet Oz and comedian Dave Chappelle. In sports you have Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the late Muhammad Ali. Journalist Fareed Zakaria identifies as a Muslim, even though he’s agnostic.
Studies on gender equality, education, income, home ownership, and so on show that American Muslims do better than the average American. This is not the way it is in Europe. A lot of that has to do with how we define our culture in the U.S. and Canada. The French, for example, will say, “This is French, and this is not French.” But we’re countries of immigrants, so our identity is not as rigidly defined.
The U.S. also offers less social assistance than most European countries. A lot of immigrants in Europe receive free healthcare, schooling, and so on. It’s often more than they had in their home countries. As a result, some will become complacent and stay within their community. But in the U.S. immigrants have limited concessions from the government, which encourages them to make their own way in society. That’s not to say European-style social assistance is bad, but it does have side effects.
Powell: How much discrimination have you experienced as a Muslim?
Rizvi: Some, especially online, but I experience a lot more for being an atheist or an ex-Muslim, and that discrimination comes from Muslims as well. Despite what you read, prejudice toward Muslims doesn’t seem to be as big a problem in North America as it is in Europe. Our friend Maajid Nawaz is from the UK. Today he is a Muslim reformer, but he went through an Islamist period when he was younger. As a teen he was called a “Paki” and racially targeted. He was even attacked once by neo-Nazis with machetes. He felt victimized for being brown, and that’s when he was recruited by the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. They offered him a community and a chance to fight back. He became Muslim first, British second.
But our family has always identified as Canadian first. We feel integrated.
Today many Muslims in Western countries are more accepting of dissenting ideas, but there is always a danger. If the wrong person hears me speak or reads what I’ve written, he could follow me home and stab me.
Powell: You were living in Canada on 9/11. What do you remember about that day?
Rizvi: I was driving to the lab to work on my graduate degree in biochemistry when the first plane hit the North Tower. Fifteen minutes later, when the second plane hit, I thought, It’s got to be Osama bin Laden. A lot of people in Pakistan considered bin Laden a hero because three years earlier he had bombed U.S. embassies in Africa, and President Clinton had failed to kill him with cruise missiles. Pakistanis were impressed by how bin Laden had stood up to the U.S.
Many in Pakistan hate the U.S. because, as they see it, the Americans cut and ran after the Afghan-Soviet war. Yet if they get the opportunity to move to the U.S., they’ll take it. It’s a strange, conflicted relationship. But before 9/11 almost everyone I knew from South Asia — even people living in Canada and the U.S., even some of my own relatives — supported bin Laden to some degree.
Alishba Zarmeen (wife of Ali): It’s true. I was in Pakistan when the U.S. killed bin Laden in 2011. They canceled public events. The army was everywhere. The reaction to bin Laden’s death would have been even more severe if Bush had been president instead of Obama.
Rizvi: Pakistanis tend to like Obama. When he came to Egypt in 2009 and said, “As-salaam alaikum” — Peace be upon you — it made an impression. His father was born in Kenya. He had the same skin shade as many Muslims. His middle name, Hussein, was shared by millions of people over there. Though many Muslim-majority countries are oil rich, there’s often not enough money for the common people, and unemployment is high. A lot of people there saw Obama and thought, How come this guy who looks a bit like me; whose father’s family is Muslim; who once lived in Indonesia, the most-populous Muslim country; and whose name sounds like mine can become president in the U.S., and I can’t even get a job here? Just by being elected president, Obama made people think. We saw the results of this with the Arab Spring. We don’t really know what other effects it may have in years to come.
You can’t have freedom of religion without free speech. You have to protect all of it: the Bible and the Quran and my right to say, “These books are full of fairy tales.”
Powell: What did you do after 9/11?
Rizvi: I moved to Buffalo, New York, and drove to Toronto almost every weekend. I made hundreds of border crossings, and for two of those years, before I became a Canadian citizen, I had a Pakistani passport. The U.S. had this program called NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), in which you were photographed and fingerprinted every time you passed over the border. I got to know the immigration officials. My passport said I’d been to Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and they knew I had a degree in biochemistry — all red flags. But they treated me fairly.
My brother, Hussein, who also lived in Buffalo, often rode with me. When he crossed, the officials would joke and say, “So you’re Hussein, like Saddam Hussein?” After Obama was elected, he’d tell them, “No, like Barack Hussein.”
Powell: What do you think about the use of the term Islamophobia to describe prejudice against Muslims?
Rizvi: The problem is that the word conflates prejudice against Muslim people with criticism of Islam as a religion. Anti-Muslim bigotry is real, but it shouldn’t be called “Islamophobia.” You can’t be bigoted against ideas, only people. Anti-Semitism is not called “Judeophobia.” I’m not just splitting hairs. In the West, Muslims are a minority group, but in Muslim-majority countries the governments often use religious doctrine to persecute, censor, oppress, and kill people. And the governments paint anything opposing their oppression of their own people as Islamophobia. Over here Muslim women choose to wear the hijab proudly; over there that same hijab is forced onto women by their governments, communities, and husbands. For me, challenging such oppression goes to the heart of liberal values. But when I criticize Muslim theocracy, people on the left accuse me of being “Islamophobic.”
Certain things are bad across the board: misogyny, hatred of gays, xenophobia. When these things appear in a KKK manifesto or come out of Donald Trump’s mouth, we all condemn them. But if I point out how Islam encourages them, I’m told I have to be respectful of those beliefs. While the Right demonizes anyone with a Muslim-sounding name, the Left can’t tell the difference between legitimate criticism of Islamic doctrine and anti-Muslim bigotry. So it lumps reform-minded Muslims like Maajid Nawaz together with bigots. The Southern Poverty Law Center included Nawaz on its list of “anti-Muslim extremists,” when he is a committed Muslim and against anti-Muslim bigotry. He is also against Muslim extremism — which, as an ex-Islamist himself, Nawaz knows something about.
Powell: Should we ban hate speech?
Rizvi: No. I’m a free-speech absolutist. People say that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to offend, but every revolutionary idea — including the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad — pissed off a lot of people at the start.
The U.S. has it right. When the Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals of soldiers with GOD HATES FAGS signs, the Supreme Court ruled eight to one in favor of the church. There’s no such thing as free speech if you don’t have the freedom to offend.
Powell: What about cartoons of Muhammad, which many Muslims consider hate speech?
Rizvi: If you start banning any speech, you’re not just limiting the freedom of the speaker; you’re restricting my freedom to hear ideas for myself and decide how to respond. You’re letting the government decide what I can and cannot hear. After the Charlie Hebdo killings my Muslim friends and I had lengthy discussions. Some of them complained that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were obscene and tasteless, but in the Quran there are verses that support making captured, married women into sexual slaves or forcing Jews and Christians to convert or pay a tax.
It’s not just Islam. Look at the Old Testament. Leviticus 20:13 says homosexual men should be killed, and 24:16 says blasphemers should be killed. Deuteronomy 22:20–21 says a woman who’s found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death by the entire village at her father’s doorstep. This is more than hate speech; it’s an incitement to violence.
I asked my friends what was more offensive: the Hebdo cartoons or those Quranic verses? ISIS follows those verses to the letter. If you’re going to ban hate speech, those verses would have to be first to go. You can’t have freedom of religion without free speech. You have to protect all of it: the Bible and the Quran and my right to say, “These books are full of fairy tales.”
The way to combat speech you don’t like is to make a stronger counterargument. Calls to ban “offensive speech” on college campuses threaten secularism and democracy. If we in the West make it illegal to offend, then dictators overseas will say, “Hey, you do it, too.” And their governments not only ban speech; they imprison offenders or censor by assassination.
President Obama’s 2016 commencement speech at Howard University says it perfectly: “Don’t try to shut folks out . . . no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.”
Free expression is fundamental to liberal democracy, and secularism is not the opposite of religious freedom. The opposite of religious freedom is hostility toward certain faiths or toward all religion, like in Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Under a secular government we can all practice whatever religion or set of moral precepts we believe. The Muslim world needs to embrace this and stop referring to free speech, gender equality, democracy, and individual liberty as “Western values.”
Powell: What exactly do reformist Muslims believe?
Rizvi: Reformist Muslims hold diverse beliefs but generally come together on a few principles: They advocate for separation of religion and state. They encourage liberal interpretations of scripture that attempt to reconcile Islam with modernity. Many propose that scripture is not necessarily infallible but “divinely inspired.” And they value and promote free expression, civil liberties, and freedom from as well as of religion.
Powell: What obstacles do they face?
Rizvi: To someone who believes in scriptural infallibility, any attempt at reform crosses, by definition, into heresy or apostasy.
People who call for a more progressive interpretation of Islam do so at great risk. Jibran Nasir is a politician in Pakistan who is pro-secular and bravely stands up to the Taliban. Another Pakistani, Salman Taseer, tried to challenge blasphemy laws and was assassinated by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. The bodyguard was executed but became a hero to fundamentalists and moderates as well. Search online for pictures of his funeral and look at the size of the crowd. You’ll be amazed at how many “moderate” Pakistanis celebrated his action.
There are thirteen Muslim-majority countries that punish atheism and apostasy with death. This is all rooted in fundamental Islam, especially Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, where atheism is officially a terrorist offense. I wouldn’t even talk skeptically about religion with my closest friends there as a kid. If anyone had gotten upset and reported me, my father could have been whisked away in the middle of the night by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — the religious police. I’d have been lucky even to find out what happened to him.
Powell: You just referred to “fundamental Islam.” Is that different from “fundamentalist Islam,” or are the two interchangeable?
Rizvi: I don’t think there’s a difference. As Faisal Saeed Al Mutar points out, if an ideology has peaceful fundamentals, its fundamentalists are peaceful. Atheist author Sam Harris writes, “The principal tenet of Jainism is non-harming. Observant Jains will literally not harm a fly. Fundamentalist Jainism and fundamentalist Islam do not have the same consequences, neither logically nor behaviorally.”
To say violent Islamic fundamentalists are distorting peaceful Islamic fundamentals is as bizarre as saying a capitalist obsessed with profit at all costs is distorting capitalism. Fundamentalists are who they are because of the fundamentals to which they adhere.
Powell: One of the most chilling moments in your book is your exchange with a Taliban member. Could you talk about that?
Rizvi: I don’t know if he was a Taliban member, but at the very least he was a supporter. I documented the conversation and translated it from Urdu. We were talking about the massacre that happened in Pakistan on December 16, 2014, when the Taliban killed 141 people in Peshawar. All but nine were children. He boasted about the glory of death. In Urdu the word for death is intiqaal, which means “transition” or “transfer” and doesn’t connote permanence. So, in this man’s mind, these children weren’t dead; they had undergone a “transition” to a better place. He didn’t think it was a big deal and told me that if my faith were pure, I wouldn’t either. This man also said, “We’re not hypocrites; we kill ourselves, too.” He referred me to the Quran, verse 3:169: “People who die in the way of God are not dead. Don’t call them dead. They are alive, but we don’t perceive it.”
When people take such beliefs to an extreme, they can start to value death over life. Despite how chilling the man’s words sounded in that context, almost all religions teach the same thing. At funerals people say, “She’s in a better place now.” How does this differ from what that man was saying? The only difference is this guy really believed it.
Powell: What about a more nuanced notion of life after death? Perhaps it’s just something beyond our comprehension.
Rizvi: It would be nice if more people subscribed to that view, but it isn’t the way the major monotheistic religions frame it. I have no problem with the idea that I was dead for 13.8 billion years and missed everything from the dinosaurs to the moon landing and felt nothing until I came into existence in 1975. The idea that I’ll go back to that after I die is quite comforting.
I am also a pathologist who has conducted dozens of autopsies, so I’ve seen death up close. It’s all going to end, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have had this sliver of time. I value life, as frail and ephemeral as it is.
Powell: What do you think is behind the trend toward secularism among the youth of the world?
Rizvi: They’re seeing what a resurgence of fundamentalism has brought, even in moderate Muslim-majority countries like Turkey. The Internet is a factor. Keep in mind that a majority of the world’s Muslims don’t speak or understand Arabic, the language of the Quran. Some of the largest Muslim populations in the world — in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, and so on — aren’t Arabic-speaking. Muslim prayers are in Arabic as well, and we were all taught them, but few of us knew what they meant. I grew up learning to read and write and recite Arabic while barely understanding any of it. I just knew the sounds of the words.
The Quran was placed at the highest point in our house, on top of a bookshelf in the living room. We had to do an ablution ritual even to touch it. Menstruating women weren’t allowed to touch or recite from it. Its contents were largely a mystery except to the minority of Muslims who bought translations, which were often disputed.
Today, though, when ISIS quotes verses 8:12–13 of the Quran before beheading an apostate, any twelve-year-old can go online, find those verses, and read multiple translations in dozens of languages. Because of the Internet, Muslim kids today know exactly what’s in the Quran.
Powell: Can’t the Internet also be a source of misinformation for young Muslims, particularly propaganda that leads to radicalization?
Rizvi: Yes, absolutely. Terrorism has come of age with the Internet. The Islamic State’s supporters aren’t coming out of just Iraq or Pakistan. They’re in Belgium, France, Britain, Canada, and the U.S. Most jihadists in the West aren’t refugees or illegal immigrants. They’re legal citizens with Western passports. There are kids sitting at computers in our cities, in our neighborhoods, being inspired and groomed by slickly produced ISIS propaganda videos and social-media posts. Donald Trump can ban all the immigrants and build all the walls he wants; it won’t keep out the Internet. This war ultimately has to be fought in the battlefield of ideas.
Powell: What do you think of the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting mostly Muslim-majority countries?
Rizvi: The ban is a terrible idea. The process to immigrate is already very rigorous. The president’s ban makes no distinction between people like Osama bin Laden and the reformers and dissidents who are spearheading an Islamic Enlightenment. There are millions of atheists, agnostics, and secularists in the Muslim world who have to identify publicly as Muslim; if they are honest about their beliefs, it could have dire consequences. Their governments and the Islamists in their societies won’t let them speak. A ban on all Muslim travel to the U.S., as Trump originally wanted, would have kept my family out, and millions of others who would be our allies, who believe in the values of free expression, equality, and individual liberty. Sixteen years after 9/11, terrorism is alive and well. But by overreacting and abandoning our fundamental commitment to human rights and civil liberties, we lose.
Powell: How can the U.S. improve relations with the Muslim world?
Rizvi: The U.S. needs to encourage the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh and the hijab-rejecting feminists in Iran who are calling for reforming the faith. The U.S. has been trying to bolster moderates in Iraq and Syria for decades now, but the moderates often turn out to be not all that moderate. And when new, more-extreme jihadist groups come out, all the others become “moderate” by comparison. Al-Qaeda has said that ISIS is too extreme. Does this make al-Qaeda “moderate”? The Muslim world doesn’t need moderation. It needs reform.
Powell: Have you personally convinced any practicing Muslims or other religious believers to walk away from their faith?
Rizvi: When I first started speaking out, I was lambasted for my positions, but then the private messages started coming in, mostly from young people: “I can’t say it openly,” they might tell me, “but I agree with everything you say, and so do my friends at school.”
To date I’ve gotten thousands of such messages. In at least a handful of cases, people who a year or two ago were outright hostile toward me are now questioning or abandoning Islam. It’s amazing to see.
Powell: Are you trying to convert others? Is that your goal?
Rizvi: I don’t look at it as conversion. Do you convert people to oppose slavery? To stop persecuting gays? To tolerate the right of all people to practice their religion? I want people to be free to believe as they wish.
It’s hard to talk someone out of an ingrained habit. My background is in cancer pathology, and I’ve struggled to quit smoking myself. Clearly the best way to reduce smoking is to prevent young people from picking up a cigarette in the first place. That’s my goal with Islam. For every angry message I get from people calling me a “sellout” or a “House Arab” or a Muslim “Uncle Tom” — exceedingly bigoted terms, by the way, implying all brown people must think the same — I get multiple messages from young people who tell me to keep doing what I’m doing.
I once had an argument late into the night with members of my extended family, who were asking what I hoped to achieve by writing my book. The very next morning I woke to an e-mail from the son of two of the relatives I’d argued with. He said he agreed with me, and all his friends followed me online. He ended by saying, “Please don’t tell my parents I sent you this.”