“When well-meaning Westerners, eager to promote respect for minority religions and cultures, ignore practices like forced marriage and confinement in order to ‘stop society from stigmatizing Muslims,’ they deny countless Muslim girls their right to wrest their freedom from their parents’ culture. They fail to live up to the ideals and values of our democratic society, and they harm the very same vulnerable minority whom they seek to protect.”
–Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Western society is deeply flawed. It is undeniable that discrimination, bigotry and sexism still persist in Canada, the US and Europe. Politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have sparked a rise in white nationalism and Neo-Nazism across the West. Thankfully, people of all political convictions have met this wave of racism and xenophobia with great disdain and rejection. While these spikes in hatred greatly concern me, I am confident that liberalism will prevail in this battle of ideas against white supremacy.
However, what worries me more deeply is the lack of attention liberals have paid to the violence and oppression occurring in the Islamic world and in Muslim families across the globe. The persecution of Muslim women, homosexuals and apostates has largely gone unnoticed by feminists and social justice activists in the West. For instance, the fact that 98% of Somali women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) is often overlooked[i]. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, people are publically beheaded for "sorcery", voicing political dissent and other offenses[ii]. According to a 2011 Pew poll, 40% of Pakistanis believed that killing a woman for having premarital sex or committing adultery was often or sometimes justified[iii]. Another Pew poll found that 96% of Jordanians believed that homosexual behaviour was “morally wrong”[iv]. In a 2010 Pew poll in Indonesia, a country that many referred to as a moderate Muslim nation, 72% of the population supported Sharia law[v]. Sharia is a legal system that enforces cutting off the hands of thieves, requires a woman to have four witnesses to prosecute her rapist and legalizes child marriage.
It is challenging to face the reality that such a staggering number of people hold these views. But turning a blind eye to it is to fail the victims of this discrimination.
Fortunately, Muslim polling data on these issues in America is more promising[vi] (the polling results in Europe and Canada are not currently sufficient in my view). However, we cannot ignore the horrific, albeit anecdotal events that have occurred on US, Canadian and European soil in recent years. The terrorist attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino and London were front-page news. But many stories of violence committed in the name of Islam have gone under-reported. In December 2007, a Muslim father in Mississauga, Ontario murdered his daughter for her adopting of Western culture[vii]. On New Year’s Day 2008, an Egyptian immigrant in Dallas shot his two daughters for “dishonoring” their family[viii]. In July 2008, a Pakistani immigrant living in Jonesboro, Georgia murdered his daughter after she expressed interest in divorcing her arranged husband (who was also her cousin)[ix]. An independent inquiry led by Professor Alexis Jay discovered that approximately 1400 children had been sexually assaulted in the town of Rotherham, England between 1997 and 2013[x]. The investigation found that gangs of British-Pakistani men had committed the overwhelming majority of the offenses. The study concluded that police authorities had covered up and downplayed the epidemic due to fear of “giving oxygen” to racism.
Of course, we must remain aware that most Muslims condemn these heinous acts and beliefs. We must empower the peaceful majority to practice their religion without fear of being ostracized. We must encourage them to speak out against the extremists who have used their faith to incite violence and intolerance. Also, the hateful rhetoric coming from those on the far right must be combatted and invalidated at all costs. Anyone who inflicts physical harm on our Muslim fellow citizens must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Nevertheless, we must come to terms with the fact that Islamic fundamentalism currently poses a unique threat to societies at home and abroad. We must be mindful that the people most effected by Islamic terrorism and abuse are Muslims themselves. If we truly believe in defending their human rights and freedoms, we must acknowledge the threats imposed by their own political leaders, families and communities. The risk of offending those who disagree with us is a necessary one to take.
My criticism of the treatment of women and gays in Muslim communities is in no way meant to discount the suffering of those in orthodox Jewish and Christian circles. It is heartbreaking to see homosexuals excommunicated by their churches and families. It is embarrassing that many Christians and Jews believe gay marriage should be illegal or that women should be required to wear headscarves. But we have to be wary of false equivalency. Yes, a Christian bakery’s refusal to cater a homosexual wedding is an act of discrimination. But it is not the same as throwing gays off buildings to their deaths as is practiced in countries like Iran. Yes, it is misogynistic to force orthodox Jewish women to wear wigs. But this is not the same as forcing Muslim women to wear the niqab (some but NOT ALL choose to) which covers them from head to toe. Yes, FGM is practiced at alarmingly high rates in Christian countries such as Ethiopia (74%) and Eritrea (83%). But the vast majority of nations that enforce FGM at an over 80% frequency have majority Muslim populations. These include Sudan where 88% of women are circumcised, Somalia (98%), Mali (89%), Guinea (97%) and Sierra Leone (90%).
Again, sexist or homophobic acts committed in the name of any religion must be condemned. But it is clear that in the 21st century, Islam has posed the greatest threat to women, gays and other minorities. Many wonder why the Left has failed to recognize this fact. I believe the answer lies in our past.
The West has a dark history of oppression of minorities that still has consequences today. Our legacy of slavery, colonialism and segregation continues to put people of colour at a disadvantage in our society. Due to this ongoing discrimination, civil rights groups in the West have made a concerted effort to advocate for the freedom of these marginalized groups. Due to the recent surge of white nationalism in the US, it has become essential to protect these people against violence and oppression. Trump and the Alt-Right’s support for a ban on Muslims entering the US and a Muslim registry has specifically put those who follow the Islamic faith in dire need of our protection. It is obviously noble, just and admirable that liberals have come out adamantly against Islamophobia. However, some leftists have become so eager to defend Muslims against persecution that they deny or ignore the oppression imposed by Muslims themselves. They label those who criticize Islamic doctrine and the treatment of women in Muslim countries as sensationalists or even bigots. Left-wing college students have de-platformed speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who fight for the freedom of Muslim women. A civil rights organization called the Southern Poverty Law Centre recently declared Maajid Nawaz (who is himself a Muslim) an “anti-Muslim extremist”. Maajid is an advocate for Islamic reform and works to counter radicalization. The demonization of these courageous activists is tragically misguided. People like Ali and Nawaz are indispensable in the fight against extremism.
When we fail to recognize and combat the oppression of women, homosexuals and non-believers in the Muslim world, we hurt those who need our help most. We must stop playing identity politics. We have to admit to ourselves that while followers of all religions commit crimes against humanity, Islamic fundamentalists have been the 21st century's worst offenders. Let us hold two truths at once: We must defend Muslims who face discrimination from racists and white supremacists. But we must also advocate for the freedom of the victims of Islamic extremism and tribalism in Muslim communities at home and abroad.