The courageous Muslim reformer shares how she took her battle to Geneva to strike a blow for free speech.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Raheel Raza, a leading Muslim reformer, award winning writer, professional speaker, diversity consultant, documentary film maker and interfaith advocate. A founding member of the Muslim Canadian Congress, she is the author of Their Jihad . . . Not My Jihad. Visit her site at RaheelRaza.com.
FP: Raheel Raza, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
In our recent interview, we discussed your confrontation with the developers of the Ground Zero mosque and the threat you received from Sharif El Gamal because of it. Today, I would like to talk to you about your subsequent confrontation with Tariq Ramadan. You don’t seem to be taking too much time off between rounds.
Tell us what happened this time around in your courageous battle, as a Muslim, for freedom and against radical Islam.
Raza: Thanks Jamie.
On Thursday, September 17, International PEN, with support from three other organizations and the Norwegian Mission to the UN in Geneva, hosted a public meeting called “Faith and Free Speech, Defamation of Religions and Freedom of Expression” at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The consensus that emerged from the meeting was that criminalizing defamation of religion is not the way forward.
During the proceedings, there was an open session hosted by PEN about the issue of defamation of religion basically saying that freedom of expression should include the freedom to criticize religion. Among the speakers was Tariq Ramadan. He spoke at length about "the West," "Western values" and so on. I was amazed at how most Muslim speakers inevitably bring the larger debate down to the lowest common denominator, which is the victimhood status for Muslims in the West.
Adding fuel to fire was the Pakistani Ambassador who is a spokesperson for the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference). The Ambassador said that this panel was useless and he ranted for 5 minutes (way over time) about how Muslims are victimized and harassed in the West. At this point I put my hand up and told both of them off. The Ambassador got up and left the room when I started to speak.
FP: What did you say exactly?
Raza: This is what I said:
I am a Canadian of Pakistani origin and I’d like to totally rebut what the Honorable Ambassador has said. I have lived in the West for 25 years and I don’t know where he has been living, but I think Muslims have more freedom in the West than they have ever had in many Muslim lands.
When you talk about interfaith dialogue, there in absolutely no intra-faith dialogue going on between Muslim communities. Dialogue is a two way street, Mr. Ambassador. Sir, I am responding to what you said, so it is rather rude of you to get up and leave. However, I will say that for the rest of the audience here that this is absolutely unacceptable. And freedom of speech is the most important human right we have. And I totally support freedom of expression, even if it is against my faith. When he speaks about Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders has the absolute freedom to say exactly what he wants. It does not affect me personally and neither does it harm my faith.
The Western world was the first country, the Canadian Prime Minister and Americans were the first to condemn [the plan for] the burning of the Koran by the Pastor Terry Jones.
I would never have the absolute freedom to say what I want, the way I do here, in my own country of birth, so, certainly we are talking of equal treatment of Muslims here in the West.
I would also like to comment about… Professor Ramadan spoke at length about Western values, the Western World. This is not a debate between Muslims and the West. Unfortunately that’s what it comes down to, which is being divisive. We’re speaking here of human rights that extend to all faiths so, let’s get over this victim ideology that we, Muslims, are being persecuted.
And let’s talk about the freedom of speech of everyone in the room here today, and let’s get to the point of freedom of speech, and freedom of religious expression.
The video of Raheel Raza’s rebuttal can be seen here:
FP: What exactly was happening at the conference that you think provoked this stand you took?
Raza: Well, overall, it became clear that the idea of victimology plays well into the hands of the Islamists and so I wanted to make a clear definition between political Islam -- who I call Islamists -- and Muslims, like me, who are practicing and trying to promote the spiritual message of Islam.
The OIC have a powerful grip at the UN because their numbers are high and they have an unspoken agreement to stand up for each other, regardless of cause. So if the word "Sharia" is ever used in any resolution or speech and is connected to, for example, stoning of women, since Sharia is associated with the Muslim religion and is practiced in many Muslim countries, they will object and not allow that point to be documented.
FP: What was Ramadan’s response to you?
Raza: When I finished, he looked pointedly at me and spent the rest of the discussion explaining that he was not speaking entirely about the West, but that there are problems and we must learn to "listen" to the extremists as they are trying to say something. Then he contradicted himself by saying that Geert Wilders knows exactly what he is saying and doing and does it intentionally and we don’t need to listen to him. I found Prof. Ramadan waffling on many issues and he lacked clarity.
Two Iranian women spoke after me and challenged him on the fact that Muslims are more persecuted by Muslims than in the West. They gave their example and asked him why he doesn’t clearly condemn atrocities against Muslim women.
FP: And what did he say to them?
Raza: He said that this was not the forum for everything that has to be said and that they should visit his website where he has written about these issues.
FP: What do you think Tariq Ramadan’s agenda is? What exactly is he up to in your mind?
Raza: Tariq Ramadan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the blue-eyed boy of the Islamists, grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and brother of Hanni Ramadan who advocates stoning for adultery.
Prof. Ramadan is slick and well spoken but his basic message is not against Sharia or stoning – all wrapped up in a mantle of religiosity. I caught him out when he spoke about the “victimization of Muslims in the West” which has become the battle cry of all Islamists. This is why the Qur’an-burning incident will remain alive in their minds for the next four generations – it plays into their idea that all Muslims are suffering from Islamophobia (and I don’t support this concept).
FP: What is your own native land that you refer to? Tell us a bit about where you are from and your journey.
Raza: I was born and raised in Pakistan – not the Pakistan you see today but a different Pakistan. I went to convent school which was choice education and also studied in co-ed schools. My classmates were Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian and pluralism was rampant because religion was a personal choice. I guess I was born an activist and my father, an army dentist, supported me in activism. Pakistan was a beautiful country to grow up in. We learnt more about the West than they knew about us. Our academic courses and education was based on the British system and we lived a free, happy, life with an interest in music, science, intellectual debate and reading was the norm. Islam was our faith of choice because it allowed us to lead a moral and ethical life but it was not in-your-face.
In the 1970’s, Zia-ul-Haq took power in Pakistan and imposed religiosity down our throats. He laid the foundation for a Taliban-type regime, banning alcohol, forcing head covering in public and suffocated debate and discussion. Supported by Saudi petro-dollars, this ideology spread quickly. My husband and I decided this was not for us so we left. To my shock and dismay, the Saudi based, petro dollar Islam that was being imposed upon Islamic countries, followed us to North America. This led to 9/11 which saddened me but did not shock me as the writing was on the wall. My Jihad (struggle) became a battle to reclaim the spiritual Islam I grew up with which expected and allowed us to co-exist with others in harmony.
FP: What are your future plans? What are your hopes and fears?
Raza: I don’t fear people or opinions. People are free to like or dislike Islam and Muslims, but it should be an informed decision. Unfortunately, Islam portrayed on media or the Islam being practiced by radicals, is not the spiritual message of Islam. My hope is to be able to let North Americans see that a majority of Muslims are balanced and moderate, peace loving people. However, they are the silent majority and I hope they will see the light and wake up soon enough, so that the damage that is being caused to our faith can be healed.
You see, when the hijackers flew planes into the twin towers, they also hijacked my faith. Today, there are two parallel streams of Islam – political, radical and violent Islamists supported by billions by the Salafis and Wahhabis to brand their own ideology. And the spiritual, soft, beautiful message of a faith that is practiced by the Sufis who are not political activists. This message is the same as those that came before it – in fact true Islam resonates with Christianity and Judaism and can’t be separated from the two senior traditions as it has taken a lot of guidance from those teachings as mentioned in the Qur’an.
I am fortunate to live in a country, Canada, where I have a voice and I spend more time in Churches than most Christians do, because I have a message that we have more in common that differences. I believe that the initial solution to radical Islam has to come from within the Muslim communities. But we also need support from the mainstream where they need to engage with like-minded moderate Muslims to find solutions to the problem.
I’m concerned about those who hate Islam with a passion and are not willing to open their minds and hearts – for them I have no words. However, I am an eternal optimist and I know that most people are hungry to learn more so my work is reach out – not necessarily wait for results.
Ignorance about the spiritual message of Islam both by Muslims and non-Muslims has harmed us greatly and I know the only solution is to constantly build bridges, do damage control, and have interfaith dialogue -- which is why I thank you for allowing my voice to be heard on your pages.
FP: And we thank you here at Frontpage, Raheel Raza, for coming to let your voice be heard. You are always welcome to join us and we wish you all the strength and fortitude you need to fight your battle for freedom -- and against radical Islam.
Take care for now.