Reflections on a fallen Counter-Jihadi.
September 11, 2001, was one of the happiest mornings of my life. I was seated at a computer, with a view of a green Indiana lawn. I had worked long and hard to get here: writing my dissertation on Polish-Jewish relations. I had spent years of my life eating, sleeping, and breathing Polish-Jewish relations.
In addition to my academic writing, I also broadcast short editorials via radio and I published in local print media. Anyone who heard or read me probably concluded, correctly, that I was a lifelong liberal. I spoke against misogyny and bigotry and for gay rights. I did not know a single person who voted Republican. David Horowitz was recognized, in my social circle, as Satan incarnate.
I stood up from the computer to take my breakfast break. I turned on NPR. Bob Edwards announced that one, no, now, two planes had flown into the World Trade Center.
You know that old line, "There are two kinds of people in this world"? Here's one such division. There are two kinds of people in this world. Some people had no idea why planes had flown into the World Trade Center. Some of us immediately knew why. I knew immediately.
Years before, in the 1980s, I had worked on a campus in Paterson, NJ. Passaic County has one of America's largest Muslim populations. I grew up with Muslims and count Muslims among my friends.
Back in the 1980s, on that Paterson, NJ campus, I used to spend hours debating with young Muslim men. Some of them – not all of them – voiced approval for terrorism. As we stood in a tutoring lab with wall-to-wall windows, one said to me, "Someday, when you look out this window and see a smoking ruin, you will know that we have finally done what Allah orders us to do."
I thought, "I'm just a nobody. There are wise and competent law enforcement officials in the US. They have this situation under control. It's not my place to intervene."
On September 27, 2001, the New York Times reported that Paterson, NJ, had served as a "kind of headquarters" for six of the 9-11 hijackers, including hijackers from all four flights.
On that September morning in 2001, I left my computer and my dissertation and I walked to the Indiana University Main Library. In the parking lot, I saw a pickup truck with a hand-lettered sign in the rear window. The sign threatened physical violence to Muslims. I walked toward the open passenger door. I had no idea what I was going to say or do. At the wheel was a bald man in heavy boots. I decided to focus on the immediate and concrete.
"That sign will attract trouble. There may be physical fights. You could get hurt," I said to the angry and scary looking Hoosier.
He informed me that he did not care if he were to be hurt. He was ready to beat up Muslims. I asked why. As we spoke, the man began to cry. Muslims had killed his friends in a terror attack.
I hugged the man. I urged him to remove his sign. I said that violence against random Muslims was not the best route for us to take.
What was the best route for us to take? The first, essential step: we must speak the truth about jihad. After September 11, 2001, I thought that that was exactly what would happen in the United States. I thought that the cataclysmic terror attack would cause media, education institutions, and church leaders to inform the public about jihad.
That first week after 9-11 was very silent in my home. US airspace was shut down. No planes flying overhead. There was another vital sound for which I was listening. The truth.
In place of the truth, what I heard was propaganda so distorted it render relatively bland the propaganda I had heard while living under Soviet Communism in Poland.
While the bodies were still smoking, I received a mass emailing to IU grad students. It instructed us to wear hijab in solidarity with Muslim women. This choice struck me as odd. Should we not, as a nation that had just been attacked, wear, say, flag lapel pins as a symbol of our unity? The local NPR affiliate broadcast a talk show dedicated to American bigotry against Muslims. One of my best friends said she wanted to go to Afghanistan to embrace Afghanis. If she needed to embrace someone, why not embrace the loved ones of 9-11's dead? This total lack of sympathy, among my liberal friends, for suffering Americans was a life-changing shock.
In national media, thought leaders announced that somehow Americans were to blame for the 9-11 attacks. This trend reached its nadir when University of Colorado Professor and faux-Native-American Ward Churchill called the victims "little Eichmanns." In this void without truth, in this toxic stew of lies, I felt as if I were suffocating, just like the first responders at Ground Zero.
Before September 11, 2001, all I had wanted to read, write, and publish about was Polish-Jewish relations.
But I had to say something.
I wrote my first ever words about Islam: "Islam and Terror: Some Thoughts after 9/11." I didn't want to write about Islam. I wanted those wiser leaders I had imagined when debating back in Paterson to take care of informing the American public about jihad. But somehow that just wasn't happening. Someone had to do it. My goal was to provide a direct counter to media's insistence on the following falsehoods: Islam means peace; Americans died because Americans did something bad and deserved to die; poverty causes terrorism; the best thing to do was to fully embrace and support, and never criticize, Islam, but, rather, to promote a relativism that insisted that how Islam handles violence is no different than how Christianity handles violence. It was hard to find anyone who would publish my piece. Finally, Answering Islam published it on their website.
Still, I felt very alone.
Little by little, I began to find other counter-jihadis. Ali Sina launched Faith Freedom in late October, 2001. Jihadwatch.org launched in 2003. Wafa Sultan made a big splash in 2006. Every year there were more of us telling the truth.
All of us, whether we spoke on stages big or small, faced the same challenge. We were characterized, not as merely not speaking the truth about jihad and gender apartheid, but as bigots who hated, and wished harm to, Muslims. Jihad wasn't the problem. People who spoke the truth about jihad were the problem.
And we all worked, on stages big and small, to show that that charge was libelous and destructive. "Counter-Jihad. We're about truth, not hate," I wrote. "Is it racist, xenophobic, and imperialist to criticize Islam?" I asked. No, I showed. "I want to end hatred: Emmie, a Muslim-American woman speaks," I wrote, about a Muslim friend who is simply a wonderful human being.
For many, it doesn't matter how much truth we speak. The power narrative right now remains as it was on 9-11. In much of mainstream media, at workplaces, on Facebook pages, and in intimate conversations with friends, articulate critique of jihad is not just taboo, it is demonized and punished.
In August, 2017, news broke of Pakistani village elders ordering the rape of a girl in retaliation for her brother's alleged rape of another girl. This was not the first time a Pakistani girl was ordered to be raped in retaliation for her brother's alleged crime. I posted about this outrage on Facebook. I mentioned "qisas," Islamic retaliation in kind. Qisas informed ISIS' decision to burn to death Muath Al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot. Qisas informed Iran's decision to gauge out a man's eye. Rape disgraces a family's honor. The family of the rapist must be disgraced with a retaliatory rape.
One of my Facebook friends was himself outraged. This friend is a public Christian. He lives in the US. He is a husband and father. About what did he voice outrage? Not about the rape of Pakistani girls. No. He posted to protest, repeatedly and adamantly, against my mentioning retaliatory rape as representing "justice" as conceived by Muslim men in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I was besmirching Islam's good name by posting about this rape on Facebook. I must be reprimanded, repeatedly. A Christian, American man did this. Such is our public culture today. Mentioning retaliatory rape of an innocent girl is an outrage that must be stamped out. The rape itself, and the reasoning behind it, must not be mentioned as an outrage.
Such shielding of Islam from critique occurs not just on in social situations. Robert Spencer recently noted that President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Defense Secretary Mattis did not mention Islamic terrorism in their 9-11 remarks.
I'm no Robert Spencer. I'm not a superhero. I feel the loneliness, the weight of the suppression of free speech, the demonization of heroes like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, even by mouthpieces like the Southern Poverty Law Center, now discredited not just by conservatives, but by leftwing NPR. And so I rejoice every time another member joins team counter-jihad. And so I rejoiced one night, some years back, when I was surfing the web and I stumbled on a video starring two young men I had never heard of, Nabeel Qureshi and David Wood.
The video had bargain-basement production values. Its one prop was a very bad blonde wig. Its low-budget quality was part of what made it so great. Its amateurishness shouted loud and clear: you don't have to be rich to be a counter-jihadi. You don't have to be sophisticated. You don't really even have to know how to make a good video. Just write the right script and point the camera and get it done.
This then-unknown quantity, David Wood, stands in a pulpit and pretends to be a Christian minister. He says things like "God hates Muslims" and "God wants you to kill and be cruel to Muslims."
Parishioners in the pews, listening to Wood, shout him down. How dare he say such hateful things?
Then Nabeel Qureshi takes to the pulpit. He begins to preach the exact same sermon, only switching the word "Christian" for "Muslims." "God wants you to hate and kill Christians," Nabeel preaches. As he preaches, the Koran and hadith verses he is quoting flash on the screen.
The parishioners in the pews, rather than condemning this sermon, applaud it, saying that "Other cultures are very interesting," "It doesn't sound so bad when he says it," "This is their culture. Don't be intolerant," and, "That's not violent. You have to understand the context."
This video makes the point that Politically Correct people adopt two different standards when assessing speech by Christians and speech by Muslims. When a Christian speaks intolerantly, Politically Correct people voice condemnation. When Muslims, quoting the Koran and Hadith, voice religious justifications for violence, the Politically Correct silence themselves, or justify such speech by saying, "We can't judge other cultures."
This video's satirizing of the thought processes of Islam-apologists is funny. The video, though, ends on an ominous note – with actual footage of David and Nabeel being arrested, in the United States of America, in 2010, for no other crime than publicly telling the truth about Islam.
This video thrilled me to my core. I loved it that Nabeel and David were just two regular guys. They were obviously working on a shoe-string budget, if any. They were passionately committed to truth, they acted on their passion, and they produced a video that, while lacking in polish, abounded in truth's raw power.
Nabeel Qureshi was born and raised a devout Muslim. He met David Wood, a new Christian, in college. Nabeel challenged David to defend his Christian faith. David, with a boldness that too few Politically Correct Christians would exhibit, met Nabeel's challenge. After years of debating, Nabeel converted to Christianity. Nabeel's 2014 book Seeking Allah: Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, which I review here, tells this story in the simplest of terms, in the most reader-friendly way. I'll be frank – I appreciated the insights Nabeel's book shared, but I wish it had been more intimate, and more literarily ambitious. But here's the thing – Nabeel's no-flourishes prose reaches readers. As I write these words, Amazon lists Nabeel's book as the number 1 bestseller in Christian apologetics. In 2016, Nabeel published No God but One: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity, which I review here. This, too, became a Christian bestseller.
Clearly, Nabeel was reaching people in a very special way. Why?
To state the obvious – Nabeel was tall, dark, and handsome. He had that easy self-confidence that sons who were deeply loved by their parents radiate. Too, Nabeel was a convert from Islam to Christianity, and people love conversion stories. That he was trained and lived as a Muslim, the descendant of Muslim missionaries, added, for some, an air of authenticity to his work.
There's an element of Nabeel's ability to reach others, though, that I must mention. My mentioning this will make some uncomfortable. I hope readers can hear me out on this. I am reporting an objective fact, an objective fact that all those invested in counter-jihad must consider.
Nabeel was a Christian, and he acted out of one of the most controversial forces in history, Christian love. In his final public testimony, a YouTube video made just days before he died of stomach cancer on September 16, 2017, Nabeel emphasized that his every word and deed as a counter-jihadi was motivated by Christian love. "When we talk to people about our beliefs, we should do it through a lens of love, and the whole point should be to bring people together to the truth … my whole point in teaching is for love to reign. As you consider my ministry, I hope it leaves a legacy of love, of peace, of truth, of caring for one another. That's my hope and my purpose behind this … Our God is a God of love. That should be what keeps us driven … Whether you're talking to a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, whoever you are talking to, may it be out of love."
All this talk of Christian love might comfort you, amuse you, enrage you, or terrify you. Let's be clear: Nabeel wasn't talking about the kind of Politically Correct love that says, "Other cultures are very interesting," when confronted with jihad, sex slavery, clitoridectomy, child marriage, honor killing, and capital punishment for apostates. We know that Nabeel was not that kind of Politically Correct Christian because he publicly chastised such attitudes in the above-linked video. We know Nabeel was not that kind of Politically Correct Christian because in his book he detailed the agony he felt when he was forced, by David Wood, another loving Christian, to confront the raw ugliness of Mohammed's endorsement of sex slavery, a sex slavery that is sanctioned and carried out by Muslims today.
No. Nabeel Qureshi endorsed, and acted on, and built his huge success on, a much more problematic Christian love. It was the kind of Christian love that David Wood extended to him. It was the kind of Christian love that says, without pussyfooting, "Your facts are incorrect. Here is the evidence. Your life will improve if you act on this more accurate information."
No, Christians are not instructed by Jesus to impose their beliefs through violence. Matthew 10:14 specifically instructs Christians to move on if rejected.
But these are inescapable facts: Nabeel Qureshi was a highly successful counter-jihadi, and he himself identified, as his motivation, the very Christian love that commands its practitioner to care enough about other human beings to want to save them from their beloved lies. I'm not saying that one must be a Christian to be a successful counter-jihadi. I acknowledge that some atheists prefer Bill Maher or Sam Harris to Nabeel Qureshi. I am saying, though, that counter-jihadis owe it to themselves to study this man, and see to what extent his success can be emulated as the struggle continues past his death. Counter-jihadis need to look at two things.
First, Nabeel died as one of the most powerful and beloved counter-jihadis in the world. He spent most of his life as a devout Muslim. I know otherwise well-meaning people who have fallen into the trap of conflating Islam with Muslims. Muslims are not Islam. Muslims can be reached with truthful speech. It happened with Nabeel, and Bosch Fawstin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish, and many others. Anyone tempted to feel hostility towards Muslims as people would do well to remember Nabeel Qureshi.
Second, when we attempt to reach others, we do well to remember that Nabeel reached New-York-Times-bestseller status not by speaking from his spleen, but from his desire to touch and elevate his interlocutors and audiences, including Muslims.
Nabeel Qureshi, tall, dark, and handsome, bestselling author of multiple books, who reached thousands through public talks, YouTube and Facebook, is no more. On August 30, 2016, he announced on Facebook that he had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. He acknowledged that his prognosis was "grim." He asked us to pray for a miracle. We did. Nabeel died on September 16, 2017. He was 34, the father of a young daughter.
I cried for this man I never met. I cried for a couple of reasons. Here's one. My brother Mike was a very smart man and an outspoken atheist. His words were like bombs at family gatherings. In his late twenties, Mike had a conversion experience. He became a devout Christian. He was attending a Christian seminary in Texas. He was a handsome, charismatic guy, and deeply loved on campus and in his church. He had a wife, a toddler son, and a newborn daughter. And then, at age 34, he died of cancer.
Nabeel. Mike. Why, God, why?
A question so vexing that it has caused some to lose their faith.
Some of us are convinced that we have encountered powerful evidence for a loving God. Given that belief, we conclude that there is something about suffering and death that the human animal needs. We conclude that a loving God would not put us through all this for no reason. I'm not saying that God smites us. I'm saying that verses like Ecclesiastes 9:11, Job 21:7, and Matthew 5:45 suggest that God allows events to play out – from rainfall to drought, from success to cancer. The final accounting, we believe, occurs after death, and not in this realm. Miracles do happen, but not all the time. God did not smite Nabeel. God also did not heal Nabeel, at least not on this earth. We understand this as unfortunate, if not unjust.
My favorite Biblical conversation about apparently unjust suffering and death is a short passage, but it is also a wide and deep passage. Corta pero ancha, as they say in Spanish.
John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, is about to be decapitated by Herod. A man facing death, John dispatches his followers to ask Jesus who he is. Jesus responds with a rather sharp question. "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes? No. Those dressed in fine clothes are found in king's palaces. Then what did you go out into the desert to see? A prophet?"
In other words, Jesus is reminding John that it was John who left conventional society and went out into the wilderness. If John had wanted a softer life, he could have just stayed home. But John didn't stay home. He went out to the wilderness to find God. Finding God is sometimes a risky thing to do, especially when you live under Roman oppression. Jesus is acknowledging that John will suffer and die, but he will suffer and die as a full man, not as a Roman slave. He has, indeed, encountered his destiny, his God.
Nabeel could have blown off David Wood's questions. But Nabeel did not. He entered the desert, the wilderness, the same wilderness entered by John and Jesus in their search for truth. Nabeel suffered, but he found the prophet he sought. He didn't choose that prophet because it was easy or remunerative or because it pleased his parents. No. Nabeel's journey to the wilderness opened a rift between him and his beloved parents. Nabeel received death threats; the first was a note attached to his car. Confronting the truth of Mohammed, a man he had been indoctrinated to adore, agonized him, and drove him to his knees.
Yes, Nabeel was successful and blessed for a time. He became a husband, a father, an MD, a bestselling author. He accomplished more in 34 years than many do with the Biblical three score and ten years. And Nabeel believed in God when times were good. We know his belief was not shallow because he continued to believe in God even after the painful surgery that removed his stomach, even after jaundice, even after the doctors told him that he could consume no more calories, and his only remaining treatment would be pain medication to make his passing as easy as possible. Even then, he believed.
In a way, God blessed us by not intervening in the course of Nabeel's cancer. God let us know that he loves us all equally, and we will all have to take up our crosses. Disease and death are fates common to everyone we love, and to ourselves, as well. Yes. Nabeel served God as few do. But Nabeel's successes did not exempt him or his family from the pain that we all feel.
God also let us know that our admiration for Nabeel, and our tears at his death, are our commission. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, people asked, "Where is God?" The answer came in the form of human beings. The Cajun Navy left Louisiana and traveled to Texas, on their own dime, to rescue, with fishing boats, complete strangers. Police Sergeant Steve Perez, a 34-year veteran, attempted to report to work under deadly conditions. His police car was trapped in a flooded underpass. He gave his life to serve others.
Nabeel is gone. Where is Nabeel? Near the end of the 1960 film Spartacus, Romans, closing in on rebellious slaves, ask that Spartacus, the rebel leader, be handed over. If he is handed over, the slaves will live, and escape crucifixion. The slaves rise up and announce, "I am Spartacus!" The pain we feel over Nabeel's death is God's memo to us. That pain is our invitation. Don't miss Nabeel. Be Nabeel. Join the counter-jihad. Remember his early, low-budget video that coruscated with the power of suppressed truth. Nabeel and David didn't start out at the top. They didn't wait to be given permission. They, just, publicly, in t-shirts and jeans, told the truth. And now they are both world famous. Miss Nabeel? Be Nabeel. Tell the truth. With love.