By Omar Mahmood
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 held faith.
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 the world.
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.
Omar Mahmood is a USA TODAY Collegiate Network fellow.