Majid Rafizadeh speaking at the United States Congress, on December 7, 2017. (Image source: Valter Schleder/Wikimedia Commons)
When I received a letter from a Shiite religious preacher from the United Kingdom, it did not surprise me. I receive many similar letters from extremist Muslims all over the world, as well as Western liberals, socialists, and others. Each time, opening these letters, I prepare for criticism of my careful scrutiny of my religion. As expected, the letter began with a familiar suggestion: "Stop criticizing your own religion."
The letter went on to support this instruction with promises of the media and Western progressives favoring me and becoming far more supportive of me, if I were to align my views with their preferred talking points:
"If you stop criticizing Islam, the West will certainly be more welcoming of you, and you will receive more offers and opportunities to further your career."
What is it that I say that rankles the left so much? I refuse to be apologetic for radical Islam in the West. I refuse to gloss over the darkest consequences to which rampant extremism has led. I do not waffle beneath the idea of multiculturalism or tolerance; some things are not meant to be tolerated. The message of the apologists is clear: Get in line. Send out the same messages that others are: about all aspects of Islam being a loving and benevolent religion. Focus on this and sweep the crimes against humanity under the carpet.
I truly wish I could.
Clearly, it is not hard to see why so many of my colleagues have succumbed to this pressure. My path would indeed have been much easier if I had picked up the politicized view and marched forward with the others who have chosen expediency over truth. But I found it impossible to fit in and merge with the mainstream Islamic apologists in the West. The memories of what I have seen, and the atrocities that I know are still being committed, haunt me, and drive me to speak for the voiceless. My purpose has never been to make the West like me or to receive personal benefits from sharing my experiences. My purpose has always been only to stop the torment that my people have endured at the hands of merciless tyrannical Islamist regimes and groups.
I was born and raised in majority-Muslim societies, in the two dominant sects of Islam, Sunni and Shiism, in both the Arab and Persian worlds. The experiences that my family and the people around us went through shaped me in a way that it is inconceivable not to realize how dangerous sharia and Islamist rule can be. As a result, my mission has been to address these underlying problems, explained in my books, in the hope that it might help to usher some reforms from within the religion. Muslims such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser and Salim Mansur, to name just a few, have also been advocating reinterpretation.
What the Islamic apologists have to understand is that I, and others like me, are not going to strike a Faustian bargain in order to benefit and fit in with the mainstream. There are some values, such as raising awareness and helping subjugated women who are often effectively enslaved and tortured in many ways under Islamist rule, that are far more important than solely serving one's personal interests.
Another purpose behind these messages is to analyze the words "the West". It seems when people such as the Islamic preacher say that the West will like you and you will benefit more if you do not criticize Islamism, the "West" does not represent all Westerners, but seems mostly to refer to institutions and figures of the political far left. These extremist Muslims may also be referring to organizations or social media outlets that do not report facts but ideology. They appear to address matters as they wish they would be, rather than by looking at evidence. Unfortunately, many of these universities, institutions and outlets happen to be the giant and the dominant ones in the West.
When I first came to the U.S. to teach on a Fulbright scholarship during the Obama administration, it was intriguing to see how many institutions and figures did not like to hear or report any criticism of Islam. This flight seemed to represent a total double standard. While these Westerners appeared totally fine with strongly criticizing religions such as Christianity and Judaism, they did not treat Islam the same. It was a shock to discover, quite quickly, that it was acceptable for them to criticize their own religions, but not all right for me to criticize mine. It was not possible to make sense of it.
In Iran and Syria, where I grew up, one can get arrested, jailed, tortured and even executed for saying anything that may not be positive about the dominant religion of the land, Islam. On the surface, for those who wanted to reform Islam, the only place to do so appeared to be the West. After all, so many political leaders consistently boast about the value of freedom of speech and freedom of press. Where else could a reform of a highly restricted religion occur?
If something like this were attempted in a country where sharia law is enforced, one would face severe consequences for even attempting to criticize the religion. We all assumed that here in the West, it would be safe to question and criticize anything. Instead, so many institutions utilize a far more subtle method of silencing criticism. Some of these methods include labeling anyone who says anything remotely negative about Islam -- even those who offer constructive criticism and the opportunity for reform -- as promoting "Islamophobia."
Please just accept a simple message: If you think criticizing Christianity and Judaism is constructive, and a way to modernize and create reform, then please apply the same rule to Islam.
The more you conceal or disregard constructive criticism of Islam, the harder you are making it for reforms to occur and the easier you are making it for Muslim radicals to prevail. There are currently, around the world, atrocities being committed every moment of every day in the name of Islam; your goal should not be to be politically correct or fiercely protect this religion, but to heal its wounded and offer support to those that want to eliminate the abuses. Glossing over the often unspeakable acts to which sharia can lead will only empower those individuals who have malevolent intentions, while subjugating the most vulnerable to their cruelty.
If, as you claim, your core values are upholding freedom of speech, freedom of press and open discussions about Christianity and Judaism, these values should apply to Islam as well. Support the voices of those who have experienced sharia law first-hand, and call for reform.
The reason I criticize the radical elements of my religion is not because I have hatred in my heart, but because I desire to protect those who have been abused and abandoned by their leaders. With open eyes, I am not willing to hide from the truth, no matter how great the benefit or profit.
Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated scholar and serves on the advisory board of Harvard International Review, an official publication of Harvard University.