April 21, 2017
Last week, a 23-year-old journalism student
was beaten to death by a mob outside the cafeteria of Abdul Wali Khan
University in northern Pakistan. Video shows dozens of enraged students
dragging Mashal Khan into the street, where he was kicked and bludgeoned to
death. His crime? The mob thought he had made fun of the prophet Mohammed.
This brutal spasm of violence in the
country where some of my family still live is the latest reminder that Islam
has lost its way. Even though I was born in Chicago, I can imagine the same
thing happening to me.
I am a 23-year-old aspiring journalist
working not far from Washington, D.C., and I am an apostate from Islam. I have
been for years. I grew up going to a Muslim school in the town of Franklin,
Mich., learning the Quran and classical Arabic.
Looking back, I would not have had it any
other way. I was immersed in a worldview and a literature that has shaped the
world for a millennium and a half. I understand the Muslim ethos, and I am
proud of where I come from. Although I no longer believe, I can remember what
it means to be enraged when someone mocks the prophet. Fundamentally, Muslims
are like everyone else. It is not easy to accept honest criticism of deeply
Today, however, unlike any other major
faith, Islam is in crisis. Our religion’s association with terrorism is the
most unnerving product of this crisis. When a suicide bomber blows himself up
or a jihadist plows a truck through a crowd, or a mob murders someone for
blasphemy, the standard response is to deny that it has anything to do with
Islam, and to ring the #Islamophobia alarm bells.
But it is dishonest to blame everything
from gun laws to climate change as cause for terrorism, all so we can avoid
opening the book on Islam. To run from this discussion now is an insult to
Khan’s memory. Only if we foster a culture of open inquiry will we have a more
liberal society where things like this are unthinkable. It falls on Muslims to
address two widely noted tensions in our religion. One is the belief that the
Quran is the literal word of God and that Mohammed only spoke the truth. The
other is that there can be no division of church and state in Islam.
Literalism is an immediate issue. Mohammed
sanctioned sexual slavery, encouraged his followers to kill anyone found
committing homosexual acts, and prophesied a climactic battle between Jews and
Muslims in which the Jews would be exterminated. Of women, he said: “Is not the
witness of a woman equal to the witness of half a man? … This is the deficiency
in her intellect.”
When faced with problematic narrations like
these, our scholars today resort to rationalizations and semantics. On the
matter of a climactic battle between Jews and Muslims, we are told that because
“righteous Christians, Jews and Muslims … will be united under one creed” by
then, they will be spared. This is the ridiculous argument of no less than Omar
Suleiman, a popular American Islamic scholar who tours on college campuses.
Cold comfort to Jews who would rather not convert. Being Mohammed’s PR agent
will not make the plain facts any more pleasant. Unless we call into question
the core doctrine that the Quran is the inerrant word of God, Muslims will face
a dangerous cognitive dissonance. And thankfully, there is precedent within
shariah for abrogation — even Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery in 1962.
The second major tension in Islam today is
that Mohammed never got around to saying, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,
and give unto God what is God’s.” He was an emperor while he was a prophet. He
prescribed taxation and redistribution, and instituted a legal system. Islam
was the state. Even today, Muslim-majority countries often have the qualifier
“Islamic” in their official names, from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to
the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where Mashal was beaten to death. Liberal
values do not fare so well in these countries.
According to the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom, more than 40 people in 2015 were on death row
or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan, more than anywhere else in
Mashal's death is a reminder to us in the
West how precious our freedom of speech is. But even in America, I have lost
some of my closest friends for criticizing the prophet’s edicts on
homosexuality at the University of Michigan. And although we are far away from
lynching a student for criticizing Islam, our college campuses are perhaps the
last place one can hear honest criticism of Islam. It has been said that
Islamophobia is “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate
morons.” It is hard not to see reason for this definition nowadays. A political
double standard has made Islam a hallowed victim — criticizing this religion,
maybe even suggesting that Mashal’s lynching had anything to do with Islam,
will get you labeled an Islamophobe.
I do not call for an overthrow of Islam.
Even as an atheist, I love this religion. I still feel the call to prayer in my
heart when it rings out from minarets. I long for a return to glory in the
Muslim world, when we translated treatises on math from Sanskrit to Arabic and
fables of wisdom from Arabic to Spanish. When we built the Taj Mahal, when gay
court poets dazzled their kings. That was not too long ago.
Today, in a part of the world where Muslims
lived the height of that glory, a student is beaten to death for blasphemy.
Islam owes him honesty.
Mahmood is a USA TODAY Collegiate Network fellow.