'Muslims need to decide where they stand'
Waleed al-Husseini sat in Palestinian jail after daring to criticize radicals – but he says he is also under fire in France for his 'insensitive' ideas about Islam; Hamed Abdel-Samad is seen as radical because of his books; but both are unafraid of criticizing the religion in which they grew up, and they're not the only ones.
January 7, 2015, the date of the bloodbath at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was supposed to be a very special day for Waleed al-Husseini. The young Palestinian blogger, thrown into jail by the Palestinian Authority for "insulting Islam," was released thanks to an international campaign and found asylum in France.
He was ready to launch the promotion of his autobiography that day. As radical Islamists coldly murdered journalists and cartoonists for their irreverent humor, al-Husseini was signing the first copies of the book, in which he settles the score with Islam and Palestinian society.
"You can imagine how I felt," the 29-year-old told me as he recalled that bitter day. "I left the Middle East because of Islamic radicalism. Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) put me in jail because I'm an atheist, but the sword of Islam followed me to Europe.
"When I saw the French response to the terror attack at Charlie Hebdo, it was obvious it wouldn't be the last attack," he added. Al-Husseini said he was not surprised about the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13. "I was angry," he said. "Many Frenchmen traveled to Syria and returned.
"After Charlie, the French were busy blaming everyone but the terrorists. They didn't deal at all with the real root of the problem – Islam. They treated the terror attack only as revenge for the cartoons published in the magazine. But it wasn't only revenge. It was part of an attempt to impose a religious ideology on the West. It was therefore obvious to me that there would be more terror attacks."
'Close the borders'
Al-Husseini was born in Qalqilya to a traditional Muslim family. He was interested in the history of Islam from a young age and couldn't understand why there was such silence surrounding many subjects related to the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran. He began researching the subject on his own, first at libraries and then online. Finding answers to many of his questions, al-Husseini started a blog on which he posted his thoughts on problems in Islam. The blog caused a stir in the Palestinian Authority territories – and outside them. Al-Husseini received frequent threats to his life, while others praised his courage.
Al-Husseini ran the blog from an internet café not far from his home. The café owner, who became suspicious, began monitoring his computer use and reported him to authorities. Al-Husseini's ordeal had begun. He served ten days in PA jail and many friends and relatives cut him out of their lives.
When al-Husseini arrived at the French embassy in Amman five years ago and asked for political asylum, he did not expect what he found in France, which, in his opinion, had become obsequious to Islam. He founded the Council of Ex-Muslims in France, which preaches secularism among Muslims. "Here in France, if you look Arab, they immediately consider you a Muslim," says al-Husseini with a smile. "They don't consider that you might be a Christian or Jewish Arab. We want to show that there are people who left Islam and are atheists. We want to protect the idea of secularism in order to move forward, not backwards like we are now."
The French – especially the political, media, and academic elites – do not care for what al-Husseini has to say, he says. Mainly, they don't want to hear the sharp criticism of Europe's attitude towards Islamic terror. Yet al-Husseini is not a voice in the wilderness. Ever-increasing numbers of Muslim intellectuals, who fled religious persecution in their home countries, have been slamming Europe's treatment of radical Islam.
"There are lots of people who support us, including in Arab countries – although they, of course, can't speak freely," he says. "For me, Islam is the connection between the person and his God, not a lifestyle or an education. A change in this direction is possible, but it will take a long time. Why do people think there is only one Islam? This idea comes from Saudi Arabia and is disseminated through TV networks and online. Now we are seeing the results of this approach."
How does it feel to be Arab and Muslim in Paris after the coordinated attacks? Has anything changed?
"So far there's a different feeling from after the Charlie attack. Then, there were more than a few Muslims who secretly expressed happiness about what happened. This time, the attacks were directed at all the French people and Muslims must decide where they stand. The Muslims in France will wait to see how the French themselves react to the attacks and then decide how to proceed. I think that after two weeks, the same thing as what happened that other attack will happen. At first they commiserated, and later blamed the Charlie employees, whom they said invited the attack with their actions. A public campaign began against the magazine, not the terrorists. I'm afraid there will be more attacks and hope security forces can prevent them."
Why do these terrible attacks occur repeatedly in France, but not in Germany or Sweden?
"France has more Muslims than any other European country. There are entire areas where only Muslims live and can do whatever they want. They don't feel French. They don't care about the French Republic's values, only Islamic values. It feeds terrorism. The Muslims here consider themselves Muslims first and foremost and only then French. It's a very big problem.
"Why are we prevented from talking about the real problem? Why aren't we talking about Wahhabism? About all the incitement in the Koran? Anyone who dares criticize Islam is immediately labeled a fascist and a racist. We must be able to talk about this problem. If we continue being blind and don't talk about the problems in the Koran, there will be more and more attacks. A change will not come through the actions of an imam here and an imam there, but through formulating a general, united stance on the matter."
After all the attacks, do you feel people are listening to you more?
"In the Arab Muslim world it is very difficult to talk about these things. But here, there's criticism of Islam that I can express in Arabic but cannot say in French. No one will arrest me here, but they will accuse me of being radical. I get warned that the radical right will use what I say towards its needs and objectives and not the goals I seek to advance, and so it would be better for me to shut up. People think any criticism of Islam is Islamophobic. That's the view that dominates European public opinion and it is funded by the Saudis. Because the wealthy of the Gulf states are involved in the French and European economies, governments and parties here don't permit talking about Islam. Particularly the leftist parties. The French left seriously hurt the secular worldview when it allowed the debate over allowing the wearing of hijab and halal food at secular state schools. Bringing Islam into the schools did not help treat the problem."
So what needs to be done to end the problem?
"We need to close the borders and initiate teaching of a different Islam. In the long run, we have to try to work towards reform within Islam. I know the road is long, but we have to do it – especially the Muslims living in banlieues. We need to teach them French values. They need to feel they are French first and foremost. We need to involve them in French society, not let them live in ghettoes. Almost everyone is Muslim in Saint-Denis, and they live like they did in Morocco, Egypt or Palestine. They need to get involved in French society, learn about other cultures. That will make them less aggressive."
Aren't you afraid of saying what you think?
"I'm not afraid for myself, but for the values of the Republic, and mainly for freedom of speech. Anyone who tries to talk about Islam encounters the argument: 'We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.' The Muslims are what scares me."
Do you see any connection between what's happening in France and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
"In the case of this terror attack, no. The connection was clear in previous attacks. In the past, the perpetrators always claimed their actions were related to the situation in Palestine and that's why they attacked Jewish targets.
"This time, they're talking about the situation in Syria and Iraq. But hatred of Jews comes from the Koran. The philosophy of Islam is built on hating Jews. In Palestine, I learned Jew-hatred and jihad in school. What will happen to all the generations that are raised on this education? Will they be for peace?
"Just now, by the way, I wanted to meet up with my family in Israel, not in Palestinian Authority territory. But I decided to give it up because of the situation."
'Mohammed still controls us from the grave'
Hamed Abdel-Samad, son of an Egyptian imam, is conducting a similar struggle in Germany. He has written several books critical of Islam since moving to Germany at the age of 23. Days after its publication, his latest – "Mohammed: the Reckoning" – reached the top of the bestsellers list, even though many stores preferred not to put it on display out of concern of Muslim reactions and despite the disapproval of much of Germany's cultural elite.
Abdel-Samad, 45, has 24-hour police protection after a number of fatwas were declared against him. In his books, he dares touch the holiest of holies in Islam – the Prophet Mohammed.
"Freud already settled the score with Moses and there was no global revolution against him for it," Abdel-Samad says.
"There were reckonings with Jesus, some satirical, like 'Monty Python's Life of Brian'. Every historical figure has received some kind of criticism, except for Mohammed. I am against a 'do not touch' approach to Mohammed, because he doesn't deserve it. Mohammed serves as an example for many violent Islamists who do today exactly what he did in his time: Wars of conquest, beheadings of prisoners of war, aggressive attitudes towards the adherents of other religions and non-believers, the oppression of women. The score should have been settled a long time ago with this person, who died 1,400 years ago, but continues to control us from the grave and devices what coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims looks like.
How did we get to this situation?
"Because of the strange division of labor that exists within Islam. The extremists murder in the name of Mohammed. The conservatives give this legitimacy through the texts they teach in schools and mosques in the entire Arab world. Even if they don't explicitly call for murder and say they oppose terrorism and ISIS, they spread hate in the name of Mohammed.
"And there are Muslims who don't want to deal with the problem and mystify the prophet, claiming he was a peace-loving, warm person – which is untrue. They repeat the same mantra: ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and other terrorist organizations are unrelated to Islam. Nothing is related to Islam. Almost the entire Muslim world is unrelated to Islam. It's an escape from reality and from responsibility. And because you cannot touch the prophet, the Islamic theologians and Western experts on Islam come and repeat this game. There are Western experts on Islam who present him as the noble savage, a typical Orientalist view. This unholy alliance between fundamentalists, liberal Muslims, theologians and Orientalists is what has until now prevented serious and thorough criticism of Mohammed that would allow us to understand the danger that lies in this figure.
"What's sad is that it's not just the radical Islamists threatening us, but intellectuals from the liberal left demand that we respect the believers' feelings. Who takes care of my feelings when I read in the Koran that the unbelievers are horrible, terrible people?"
How did the European left become a partner in silencing debate about Islam?
"In Germany, it's reaching the wrong conclusions from German history. People say: because we were so bad to the Jews, we are not allowed to criticize the Muslims, because that's racism or right-wing radicalism. Many Germans who say similar things to what I say are immediately labeled as Nazis. And that's false. Of course there is a radical right and anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Germany. But criticism of Islam is something else. It's related to enlightenment, to teaching, to humanism.
"There are also financial interests: Germany does business with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and the whole Arab world. These are deals worth billions and they don't want to be seen as hostile to Islam in those countries. And there are also a lot of lobbyists in the media, academia and economy who are tightly linked to the Gulf states and are trying to disseminate these views. In general, among European intellectuals criticism towards Islam is attributed to the radical right."
Isn't that a kind of racism?
"It's reverse racism. Muslims are treated as wards that must be protected because they aren't really developed. Don't wake the savages or they'll bark. Anyone who takes Islam seriously needs to criticize Islam."