Waleed Al-Husseini is a Palestinian blogger and essayist, as well as the founder of the Ex-Muslim Council of France. He garnered international fame in 2010 when he was arrested by the Palestinian Authority, imprisoned and tortured for articles he posted, in which he criticized Islam. He has received threats and death threats. He is one of the most celebrated cyber-activists from the Arab world and now lives in France, where he sought refuge. He continues to be a defender of its secular, republican values.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Could you start by reminding us of the circumstances and motives of your dissent?
Waleed Al-Husseini: My atheism is the result of a long quest for the truth about what I saw happening in front of me. Obviously, nobody holds all of the truth, but during my research, I realized that religion in general, and Islam in particular, was highly incompatible with the values of human life. That was the beginning of my rejection of Islam. As time goes by, the horrors and crimes committed against mankind in the name of Islam seem to have proven me right. They have strengthened my conviction that it was the right choice to make.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Despite being jailed, tortured, threatened, persecuted and socially pressured, you have never given up your opinions or curbed your determination to defend them. How come?
Waleed Al-Husseini: Once I had made up my mind, I had to defend my new convictions against all sorts of pressures, whether in prison or in the street. To do so, I gathered my strength out of the weakness and archaism of the religious speech. I simply used intelligence against faith. The former opens the mind, the latter puts human beings in prison. It feels as if religious leaders practice some sort of psychological torture on their followers in order to dominate them. In Muslim societies, all the citizens live in a huge prison called Islam. I wish to remind the readers that, if I am deeply hostile to Islam as a religion, I respect Muslims as human beings and deplore the situation in which they have to survive.
Grégoire Canlorbe: "Mahometism," writes Tocqueville in his Writings on the Koran, "is the religion that has mixed both political and religious powers, and in a way that the high priest is necessarily a prince, and the prince is the high priest, and all the acts of civil and political life are ruled more or less according to religious law... This concentration and confusion established by Mahomet between both powers... was the primary cause of despotism and social immobility... which has always been a characteristic of Muslim nations."
Do you think that things can change? Or that Islam — and the Islamic world — cannot be reformed?
Waleed Al-Husseini: During the genesis of Islam — which looks in many aspects like a sect — the political power relied on religion in order to control and dominate society. Subject to certain exceptions, the situation has not changed in 1,400 years.
In his time, the prophet Mohammad had already made use and abuse of many fatwas, attributed to the angel Jibril, in order to justify what can never be justified. He awarded himself the right to rape young girls, in the name of polygamy, and used religious discourse to wage his wars, which he called "Islamic conquests." He also committed the first war crimes in the name of Allah — upon, he claimed, divine command!
The same methods are still common practice today, in the main Islamic countries. Iran is ruled by the Wali e-Faguih, the Supreme Leader, who claims he is "God's vicar on Earth". Saudi Arabia is under the rule of the "Keeper of the Holy Places". The king of Morocco is the self-proclaimed "Commander of the Believers". In the other Muslim countries, the rulers call themselves Wali al-Amr, "the tutor", a title that works as a deterrent, allowing imams to use religion in order to ban any possible objection to the tutor's authority.
The world is nevertheless changing and more and more Muslims wish to live without the oppressing "tutelage" of Islam. One can hope that the mentality of many will start to change for good, perhaps through the Internet and the social networks. They are the only space for free speech available to citizens; there is merciless opposition by the powerful against this "mass weapon." Faced with the horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam, more and more Muslims are turning their backs on this religion and are trying to release themselves from its yoke. It seems, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.
Grégoire Canlorbe: What is your opinion of the behavior and integration of Muslims in France? Is the Muslim community generally eager to proclaim and practice an open and enlightened Islam — even in spite of the alleged stigmatization and exclusion that are the daily lot of French Muslims according to the press?
Waleed Al-Husseini: The only ones who create stigmatization are the Muslims themselves. This is a tested strategy which consists of turning oneself into a so-called "victim" in order to tighten the links within the Muslim community and to claim that it is being targeted because of its faith. They try to blame the fight on their identity.
Otherwise, how can we explain the absence of firm, frank, sincere and massive condemnations after the attacks perpetrated by a Muslim minority in the name of Islam? The Muslim masses seem to have difficulty distancing themselves from violent activists; they give the impression that their activists are defending the majority of Muslims against some sort of attack. But I cannot see one scintilla of evidence of a plot against Islam.
We must also stop confusing Arabs with Muslims. All Arabs are not Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. Iranians, Egyptians and Turks, for example, are not Arabs. The Arabs, ethnically speaking, are a minority in Islam.
I find it difficult to speak of Muslim integration in France. In fact, except for a tiny minority, they are not really looking to integrate themselves. To Muslims, by definition, the Koran and Sharia (Islamic law) are superior to any law drafted by men. Islam claims to transcend borders and does not recognize nationalities. It is a view that partly fuels the radicals. Hence there is the difficulty for Muslims to speak about the wish for an open and tolerant Islam and to practice it. They are immediately accused of treason and apostasy.
As long as the founding texts of Islam are not reformed and rewritten in a sound way, that allows Islam to acquire an enlightened ecclesiastical authority at its head, integration seems unreachable. In addition, more and more Islamists refuse to integrate into a society that they deem godless and that they wish to convert.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It is sometimes argued that Wahhabism, the doctrine that historically inspires the terrorists who claim to belong to Islam, is a form of heresy and not a return to the "basics" and the literal meaning of Islam. In other words, there is nothing traditional or fundamentalist in the doctrine of Wahhabism, which appeared belatedly in the 18th century, professed by Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and denounced by his own brother Sulayman ibn Abd al-Wahhab and other respected ulemas — religious scholars — within the Hanbali School, the most austere of the four Islamic law schools. How would you sum up the defects and merits of the Islamophile argument?
Waleed Al-Husseini: It is true that the "drifts" of Mohammad Ibn Abdel Wahhab were vividly denounced by his brother. It is also true that the Wahhabi doctrine served as a social and religious basis for the al-Saud family to establish its power in Arabia — a typical example of the connection between religion and politics. But it is not the only instance in that field.
In the 20th century, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was also taken to task by his own brother over the sectarian and violent drifts of his writings. More recently, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, denounced the policy of the Supreme Leader, who has been using religious power to strengthen his political and economic influence on Iran. But these dissenting robins do not necessarily indicate the arrival of spring. For Islam, regardless of all its stripes — whether it is Wahhabi, Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood or Iranian Shi'ite — feeds on the same source, the Koran.
Today, Muslims apply the same methods that prevailed in the time of the Prophet. The barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim countries that behead and violate human rights, had already occurred during the Islamization of the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic conquests.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler all tried to conquer the world. They all failed. An illiterate prophet from the desert also tried to achieve what Alexander and his successors dreamed of. How do you assess the spread of Islam? Do you think Islamists could finally achieve Mohammad's world domination scheme — and subject the West?
Waleed Al-Husseini: According to their speeches, the Islamists indeed have set themselves the goal of conquering and ruling the entire world. If they manage to do it, they will not owe their success to their intellectual power or their faith, even less to their military force, but to their adversaries' cowardice.
Except for Iran, Islamic countries or organizations produce no weapons, no culture, no food and no civilization. Without the West's contribution, they would starve. Please let me remind you that the Western companies discovered and exploited the oil that enabled these countries to develop.
The idea that the influence of Islam would go beyond the borders of the ancient Empires does not seem an appropriate comparison.
Grégoire Canlorbe: After the attacks in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan Theater in 2015, a lot of Muslims around the world raised their voices to exonerate Islam from any ideological responsibility and to blame the massacres on a so-called "judaeo-masonic conspiracy," the aim of which was supposedly to discredit Islam.
Two psychological options seem possible. Either these individuals, deep down in, condemn the attacks but turn a blind eye to the responsibility of Islamic ideology because they cannot bear thinking that the terrorists are also Muslims. Or they approve of those attacks, at least unconsciously, and actually desire to see Islam conquer the West and sap Christianity of its power — a wish they cannot openly declare in public.
Of these two options, which one is the most plausible or widespread in your view?
Waleed Al-Husseini: Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, Muslims discreetly approve or at least try to justify the attacks. The adherence of Muslims to Islam prevails over their adherence to a nation or a country. It is inconceivable at this stage that Islam will side against those who strictly apply its teachings. However, some leaders brilliantly handled taqiyya, or "dissimulation": they verbally condemned the attacks while refraining from castigating Islamic ideology.
Regarding conspiracy theories, they are denied by the Islamists themselves who keep on promoting terrorist attacks and promising more. The attack against Charlie Hebdo was first established by an Iranian fatwa issued in 2006 against a Danish cartoonist and his magazine — accusing him of insulting the Prophet — as well as against any media, including Charlie, that dared to publish the cartoons.
Terrorists are also indoctrinated in mosques, then enroll in terrorist groups where they can put what they were taught into practice.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It is now fashionable among intellectuals sensationalized by universities and the media, such as Tariq Ramadan and Michel Onfray, to acknowledge a positive side to the ideology embraced by terrorists. They imply that "radical Islam", apparently a code name for Islam itself, promotes a warlike ideal of self-sacrifice and heroism which, since the advent of capitalism and the consumer society, has deserted our Western way of life. They also imply that Islam, which prohibits wine, gambling activities and statues, constitutes a remedy for the "decadent" permissiveness of Western societies.
What would you reply to this fashionable speech?
Waleed Al-Husseini: Tariq Ramadan, who is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, delivers a public speech which pretends to be peaceful, but which is totally contrary to the content of the conferences he discreetly held in the suburban areas, notably after the 9/11 attacks. There, he exhorted young girls to wear the veil, vigorously criticized the laws of the French Republic that were against ostensible signs of religion in public areas, and he raised the issue of a supposed American-Zionist plot against Islam. I have not seen one scintilla of evidence of that, either.
It is worth here reminding everyone that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, tested in Egypt, consisted in surfing on the wave of extremism among terrorists, systemically defended by lawyers paid by the Brotherhood, in order to gain notoriety and go ahead with its political agenda. Egyptians have been suffering from this complicity ever since. French Islamists and their spokesmen seem to be tempted by the same scenario: paying lip services by condemning barbaric acts while defending terrorists in a hidden manner and continuing on their path.
Finally, I do not understand why the Islamists, who seek asylum in the West in order to benefit from its wealth as well as freedom of religion and speech, want to impose the Islam they ran away from. If the decadence and materialism of the West do not suit them, they would do better to go back home. Those who stay should comply with the laws of the Western country they chose, and respect them.
Grégoire Canlorbe: In addressing Muslims, if you had to recall only one argument in favor of pluralistic mores and beliefs, individual freedom and the prohibition of "any interference by any family, parental or official public authorities in the private lives of men and women", what would it be?
Waleed Al-Husseini: I kindly invite them to embrace democracy which guarantees freedom in all its forms, and which necessarily goes along with secularism: it leaves religion to religious followers, politics to politicians, justice to judges. This separation between secular and religious affairs on the one hand, and between legislative, executive, judicial powers on the other, is the best driver of creative and economic development and consequently the best driver of human development.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add a few words?
Waleed Al-Husseini: I would just like to say to Muslims that Islam is not an accident of fate. Since they did not choose it when they were born, they can leave it at any time. But although many of them have made the leap, they are not always ready to claim it openly. Professed apostates are indeed persecuted in traditional Muslim societies. Some, like me, get arrested. Others get killed. That's the situation prevailing in Muslim countries. Meanwhile, in Western countries, apostates are regularly reproached for supposedly being "racist" or "Islamophobic." We should get support, not be ostracized. We know what Islam really is. If you want to be informed on Islam, you should listen to ex-Muslims, not to any type of Muslim. We should get more support to share our view and our experience in the public debate and to fight against terrorism and fundamentalism. Thank you for your good questions.
Waleed Al-Husseini is the author of an autobiography, Blasphemer! Allah's prisons! edited by Graset in 2014 (re-issued in 2015), as well as articles in Le Monde, La Règle du jeu and Libération. His blogs are "la voie de la raison" and "I'm proud to be atheist".
Grégoire Canlorbe, a journalist, currently lives in Paris.
Initially published in French in slightly different form on the website of the Institut Coppet.