Qanta Ahmed is the antithesis of an oppressed woman, who is beholden to her husband or male guardian for permission to leave the house or travel abroad. Straightforward, smartly dressed in Western style, articulate and fearless, she utilizes a fierce intelligence to criticize the ideology of Islamism that threatens the benign religion bequeathed by her parents.
And she is not alone. An increasing number of Muslim women are speaking out against Islamism or political Islam. They include international activists such as Raheel Raza, Elham Manea, Karima Bennoune and Maryam Namazie.
Ahmed is Associate Professor of Medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For two years from November 1999, she worked in Saudi Arabia. Her experiences inspired a memoir that explored many facets of life in the Kingdom, including the legal and cultural restrictions faced by women in marriage, divorce, dress, inheritance, travel and so on, as well as the universal humanity that binds all people and undercuts social and religious differences. While she appreciates current attempts at reform, including a twenty percent quota for women in the consultative Shura Council, she notes this unelected body is authorized to recommend, but not pass, enforce, or veto laws.
According to Ahmed, the rights of women in many Muslim-majority countries are stifled by a distorted interpretation of Islam. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, women's rights have suffered "terrible setbacks" exemplified by the experience of teenage Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who narrowly escaped assassination for the "revolutionary act of seeking an education and travelling to school."
In Pakistan, increasing Islamist influence has led to a decline in women's rights, although the privileged and intelligentsia enjoy much autonomy. An example of current victimization of Pakistani women can be seen in the Polio Eradication Initiative. Female participants are paid about $2.50 per day and must visit private homes to discuss the program with new mothers. Only women can do this work, as it is inappropriate for men who are not family to enter a house and speak with a woman in conservative tribal areas of Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban regards the vaccination program as a "secular enemy" that warrants destruction. Consequently, more than thirty female polio workers have been assassinated.
In the West, the ghettoization and insularity of some Muslim communities in countries such as the United Kingdom are far removed from the diverse and tolerant society of Ahmed's youth. She went to a Christian school and her family had Christian and Jewish friends. Today, many Muslim communities are characterised by isolation and Arabic dress. Religious expression in these enclaves contrasts sharply with that embedded in a "healthy, pluralistic environment" encountered by her parents when they migrated from Pakistan to the U.K. fifty years ago.
Although she has chosen not to veil her hair, Ahmed considers herself 'veiled' in the sense of demeanour, dress and conduct, and she attributes the current appetite for austerity and strict Islamic dress to the foreign influence of Islamist Wahhabi ideology originating in the Gulf, primarily Saudi Arabia. Islamist dogma is also central to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Islamic State and other jihadi paramilitaries.
Individuals who subscribe to this extremist "neo-orthodoxy" believe they are more pious and follow a faith of greater purity and validity. Their tendency to challenge non-Islamist Muslims deemed insufficiently pure was brought home to Ahmed when she addressed a meeting at Rutgers University, New Jersey. The subject was human rights of women and children, particularly in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, and was based on her own experiences. However, instead of a discussion about ways to assist fellow Muslims in those countries, she was attacked for daring to speak as a Muslim whilst unveiled.
She laments the Islamist focus on rituals such as methods of wrapping veils, concealing hair, or trimming beards, rather than interpersonal relations and the preservation of mankind. By excluding Muslims who don't ascribe to iconic symbols and practices, Islamists attempt to claim the entire Islamic narrative. They also aim to re-order the world into their version of a global caliphate grounded in a "reinvented violent jihadist ideology" at odds with the West.
Yet they have no compunction, she says, to use the instruments of democracy to attain political representation before proceeding to extinguish the benefits of a free society. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who rose to power in the wake of the 'Arab Spring' reduced human rights, particularly those of women, within a year of taking office.
Ahmed visited Israel because she was curious about Judaism and Israel, where Muslims comprise about twenty percent of the population. She discovered that women, including Muslim women, had better opportunities there, compared with prospects in many Middle Eastern countries. Muslim women physicians and medical students had the same expectations and leadership roles she had known in the U.K. and were free to dress and pray as they wished at work. Moreover, members of various Muslim sects were permitted to express their ideas, disseminate literature, and educate others about their faith; activities forbidden to minorities in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Along the way, Ahmed developed an interest in Project Rozana at the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. This venture, which aspires to improving the health of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, has trained over seventy-five West Bank Palestinian doctors and other health workers. It was initiated by a Palestinian mother, whose daughter was treated at the hospital for severe injuries after falling from a ninth floor balcony at her home near Ramallah. Ahmed is convinced that such a project offers a powerful antidote to Islamist views of interminable conflict with the West, and could serve as an oasis of collaboration for people of goodwill.
She draws attention to the Islamist ideology that vilifies the West in general, and Jews in particular. Clearly, Islamists are not a homogenous group; they can be violent or non-violent, Sunni or Shia. But eschewing violence, she warns, does not guarantee moderation.
Ahmed fears that the West is not sufficiently informed about the distinction between Islam, the personal faith, and Islamism, a totalitarian political entity. Similarly, she believes many Islamists have little insight into the delusional appeal of a radical ideology masquerading as authentic Islam.
While Islamists might wish for a viewpoint such as hers to be marginalised or ridiculed, she has persevered in striving to explain these differences.
As a campaigner for peace and pluralism, Ahmed is dismayed by the toxic lure of an Islamist doctrine that is supremacist, separatist, and hostile to secular Western values, and she calls for an urgent review of this ideology.