“My whole body was suffocating. My head throbbed, and my skin oozed sweat from every pore … dressing like the kuffar was evil. I would go to hell if I dressed that way … when the Caliphate rises, if you’re not wearing hijab, how will you be distinguished from the nonbelievers? If you look like them, you’ll be killed like them … wearing a niqab [face veil] you feel like you’re in a portable sensory deprivation chamber. It impedes your ability to see, hear, touch, smell. I felt like I was slowly dying inside … I didn’t even know who I was anymore – if I even was somebody at all.”
Yasmine Mohammed is a spitfire, a term once applied both to World-War-II-era combat aircraft and to superstars like Jane Russell who played hotblooded women who didn’t let anyone push them around. Yasmine is a forty-something Canadian ex-Muslim, atheist, educator, and activist. (I’m going against convention here and referring to the author by her first name. She shares a last name with Islam’s prophet and founder, and I want to avoid confusion.)
Yasmine was raised by a strict Muslim mother who was the second wife of an equally strict stepfather. She was in an arranged marriage to an Al-Qaeda member. She left Islam and she is now married to a non-Muslim. Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam is her first book. And what a first book it is. Unveiled is a can’t-put-it-down instant classic. Authors Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nonie Darwish, Wafa Sultan, Kate McCord, Jean Sasson, Nawal el-Saadawi, and Phyllis Chesler, move over. There is a new star in your literary firmament.
The subtitle of Unveiled, How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, is a bit misleading. Yes, Yasmine takes on actor Ben Affleck’s October, 2014 appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time HBO show. On that broadcast Maher and Sam Harris, both atheists and critics of Christianity, bemoaned their fellow liberals’ attacking them for also criticizing Islam. Ben Affleck exploded – no pun intended. Affleck, a normally cool and ironic actor, devoted a freakish amount of zealotry to shielding from analysis clitoridectomy, throwing gay men off roofs, and suicide bombings. Affleck yelled, waved his arms, furrowed his brow and interrupted. Any criticism of Islamic doctrine is “gross, racist, ugly.” Affleck offered zero facts. Facts are not necessary. Become apoplectic, smear any critic of jihad or gender apartheid as racist, pose and preen and signal your own superior, culturally relative virtue, and the good liberal is done. We’ve all met versions of this Islamapologist, though most are not as good looking as Affleck.
Affleck’s Islamapologism outraged Yasmine Mohammed. She notes that Affleck made a film, Dogma, that mocks Christianity. She insists that liberals like Affleck do great harm to real, live human beings. “It was unforgiveable for Ben Affleck to deflect criticism of this ideology that has caused so much suffering in the world … no one in the West cares if Muslim women were being imprisoned or killed … for not covering their hair … that bloggers in Bangladesh were being hacked to death … because they dared write about humanism … this seemingly well-meaning, white-guilt ridden man was standing in the way!” Affleck’s immorality, cowardice, narcissism and ignorance, so paradigmatic of Islamapologists, prompted Yasmine to write her book. Unveiled, she says, “is for anyone who feels a duty to defend Islam from scrutiny and criticism … you are deflecting the light from shining on millions of people imprisoned in darkness.”
“At times Western corporations actively support the very things brave women fight against. The 2019 Sports Illustrated featured a burkini.” Nike put a swoosh on “religiously prescribed modesty clothing … How can we fight Western patriarchy while simultaneously supporting Islamic patriarchy?” Yasmine asks.
Liberal Islamapologists’ constant shielding of Islam from critique is not merely a debate question for Yasmine Mohammed. Decades ago, young Yasmine told her teacher, Rick Fabbro, that she was being abused. She showed Fabbro bruises on her arms, caused by her stepfather’s beatings with a belt. Her stepfather wasn’t punishing Yasmine for any wrong-doing; he was merely taking out his own personal frustrations on her body. Fabbro reported the abuse. A Canadian judge ruled that Islamic culture allowed severe “corporal punishment.” “I never felt so betrayed in my life … how disgusting to allow a child to be beaten because her abuser happens to come from another country!” Children are being abused, Yasmine reports, “because their government is hell-bent on cultural and moral relativism.”
Yasmine is not alone. In 2010, a New Jersey judge refused a restraining order to a teenage Muslima who was raped and tortured by her arranged husband. The husband told the wife, “this is according to our religion. You are my wife, I can do anything to you. The woman, she should submit and do anything I ask her to do.” The judge agreed, asserting that spousal abuse is sanctioned in Islam. The Islamapologism of useful idiots like Ben Affleck causes real harm to real victims.
Though Yasmine opens and closes with mentions of Ben Affleck, The bulk of the book is not about liberals empowering radical Islam. Rather, it is a riveting memoir of child abuse and recovery. Yasmine’s mother is one of the most vile characters I have ever read about, and I’ve read a fair number of books about Nazism. “Mama” quite literally tortures her daughter, all in the name of making her a good Muslima.
Islamapologists will no doubt hit upon this aspect of the book. “Yasmine Mohammed’s critique of Islamic gender apartheid and jihad can’t be taken at face value. She was raised by an abusive mother and molested by her mother’s male companions. Child abuse is her problem, not Islam,” they’ll say. Further, some will accuse Yasmine of stoking the flames of xenophobic hatred. “By speaking in such detail about your abuse, you make all Muslims look like monsters!” they’ll say.
No, Yasmine does not stoke the flames of xenophobic hatred. In fact, Yasmine dedicates her book in part “to those of you who feel compelled to demonize all Muslims. I hope you will see that we are all just human beings and we battle our own demons.” She rejects racist terms like “sandn—-r” and insists that no one should misconstrue her “personal journey out of faith as an invitation to be hateful to those still in it.” After reading this book, I felt great compassion and fellow feeling for Yasmine Mohammed, a woman who lived most of her life as a devout Muslim. Yasmine will, no doubt, arouse that same compassion and fellow feeling in many readers.
It’s also very true that horrific child abuse occurs in non-Muslim societies as well as Muslim ones. There are several features, though, that distinguish Muslim child abuse and non-Muslim child abuse.
In her book Wholly Different, Nonie Darwish discusses the Islamic emphasis on hiding sin. Darwish contrasts this emphasis with the Judeo-Christian tradition of confession of sin and subsequent redemption. Darwish heard an Egyptian sheikh say on TV that if a follower of a sheikh witnesses the sheikh committing a sin, the follower should say, “it is my eyes that committed the sin” for having witnessed a power figure do wrong. The holy man is “masoom,” infallible or free from sin. The Islamic view of public exposure of sin feeds a culture based on pride and shame. The Koran is replete with references to “shame,” “disgrace,” “humiliation,” and “losers.” These concepts contribute to thwarting attempts at rescuing abused children. If you can’t see, or talk about child abuse, you can’t address it.
Another cultural factor: submission to an overwhelming sense that everything “is written.” “Any effort to try to create your own destiny is meaningless … your whole life is written before you take your first breath,” Yasmine writes.
Yasmine describes Islam as a pyramid-shaped power structure, with unquestioning obedience required at all levels. Men submit to Allah, women submit to men, and children submit to adults. Yasmine cites a hadith that describes power descending from the ruler, to the man, to the woman, and then to the servant. There are ethnic pyramids of worth as well. Rich Gulf Arabs are superior to poor Muslims from Pakistan and India.
In such a system, “women rarely support one another. Each woman is too concerned with saving her own skin … We hold down our screaming five-year-old daughters and allow a woman to take a razor to their genitals because a man will prefer her that way.” Girls are close to the bottom of the pyramid of power. Yasmine mentions the 2017 Norwegian film What Will People Say. In the film, the main character, a child of Pakistani parents growing up in Norway, abuses a cat. Why? Because she’s on the bottom. She’s been taught that you deal with frustration by abusing the person, or animal, beneath you on the pyramid of power. The cat is the innocent and defenseless target.
The Allah who is the pinnacle of the Islamic pyramidal power structure is a sadist whose graphic torments are detailed in the Koran. Don Richardson, in Secrets of the Koran, writes that one in every eight Koran verses is a threat of damnation. Hell is graphically described as a place with vivid tortures. By contrast, according to Richardson, the Old Testament mentions Hell once in every 774 verses, and it is never described so graphically.
In the Koran, Allah burns off the skin of the damned. They grow new skin, and that skin, in turn, is burned off, for all eternity. Young Yasmine dared ask her mother, “Won’t I eventually get used to it?”
No, her mother replied. “Allah will make sure that every single time it hurts as much as the first time.”
The hadiths, as well as the Koran, contain graphic tortures of Hell. In one hadith, Mohammed reports that he saw women hanging by their hair, with their brains boiling. Their crime? They refused to wear hijab.
Total, unquestioning obedience under pain of eternal damnation is pounded into Muslims several times a day, with the daily prayers. Islamic prayer indoctrinates Muslims in mindless obedience and group, not individual, behavior. Yasmine details the robotic movements that must accompany each syllable. These syllables, she says, are meaningless to most Muslims, who don’t understand classical Arabic. They must merely memorize syllables and repeat them over and over to the point where the mind is numbed. When praying in a group, they must stand touching other Muslims. This physical contact provides an extra layer of surveillance. If a Muslim shirks a given, required movement, other Muslims will not only see it, they will feel it. Too, Muslims are assured that their prophet is watching them pray, “Make your rows straight for I can see you behind my back.” Any deviation from prescribed activity is automatically a ticket to Hell. If you don’t touch another Muslim while praying, you leave room for Satan, and you will be punished. “Do not leave any gaps for the Shaytaan. Whoever complete [sic] a row, Allaah will reward him, and whoever breaks a row, Allaah will forsake him.”
“The prayers are mind-numbingly repetitive. There is no room for the slightest variation. Every ceremonial motion and every word is specific and methodic, stripping … Muslims … of any individuality. Get in line. Follow the herd. No distractions … The meaning [of prayer] was never discussed … Questioning only lead to anger and admonishment,” Yasmine writes. Islam is so thorough in outlining how Muslims are to live that there is a specific ritualistic way to cut fingernails and dispose of clippings.
When Yasmine finally does learn the meaning of the words she’s been repeating, she realizes she’s been indoctrinated. “Nearly twenty times a day, I was referring to non-Muslims as the enemies of Allah. I was chanting that Muslims who became friends with non-Muslims were doomed to Hell, that non-Muslims were the vilest of animals, only fit to be used as fuel for the fires of Hell, that Jewish people were sub-human … I remember one of my aunts lamenting that the cucumbers were smaller this year because the Jews were putting cancer in the vegetables … At least five times a day over a billion people are droning on, calling for the death of all non-Muslims.”
Yasmine describes her younger self being bound, whipped, caned, and locked up. Mama tells little Yasmine that she has no value whatsoever. Indeed, Yasmine is told again and again that she is a slut, prostitute, and whore, even though she is a chaste virgin, and, later, a dutiful wife in an arranged marriage. Don’t worry that reading a book about graphic child abuse will be too upsetting. Yasmine’s descriptions are searing, but brief. The reader never forgets that the author of these nightmarish accounts is an adult powerhouse who managed to break free both of her tormentors and the Islam that her tormentors cited as justification.
After each incident is described, Yasmine offers a corresponding quote from Islamic sacred texts that is used to justify such tortures. Young Yasmine must kneel at her mother’s feet and kiss them. This is because Islam teaches that “Paradise is under the feet of mothers.” Mama determines whether Yasmine will go to Heaven or Hell. Yasmine is bound and hung upside down from a hook used to hang the lamb sacrificed for the Eid holiday. A woman, a sacrificial animal, little difference. “Hang your whip where members of your household (your wife, children, and slaves) can see it, for that will discipline them,” says one hadith. Another, “Teach your children to pray when they are seven years old, and smack them if they do not do so when they are ten.”
Yasmine does not cite Koran 18:65-81. In this passage, Musa, meant to be the Biblical Moses, is depicted as following and learning from Khidr, a “slave of Allah.” Khidr murders an innocent child. Musa objects. Khidr reprimands Moses for objecting. Khidr explains that the boy’s parents were Muslims and “we feared lest he should make disobedience and ingratitude to come upon them.” In the place of the child Khidr murdered, Allah “might give them in his place one better than him.” The Koran itself offers a passage often interpreted to mean that Muslim parents have the right to life and death over their own children.
When discussing honor killing, Robert Spencer reminds his readers that, “A manual of Islamic law certified as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy by Al-Azhar University, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam, says that ‘retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.’ However, ‘not subject to retaliation’ is ‘a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring.’ (‘Umdat al-Salik o1.1-2). In other words, someone who kills his child incurs no legal penalty under Islamic law.”
I admire Yasmine for being so frank as to recount how long she stayed loyal to her abusive mother, and to religious observance that she felt to be destroying her very sense of self. Again and again the door swings open and Yasmine walks past that open door and back into the sick, twisted prison of her mother’s oppressive hold. Again and again, Yasmine sees utterly plainly how destructive her mother is, and yet Yasmine continues to live with her and crave her love, a love this poisonous viper would never bestow on her precious daughter.
Yasmine marries the man her mother tells her to marry, though she does not love him. This man, Essam Marzouk, beats Yasmine so badly she miscarries their second child. Eventually, slowly but surely, Yasmine breaks her conditioning, leaves her family, abandons her veil, and marries a non-Muslim man. The reader rejoices for her.
This reader has one problem with Unveiled and other media produced by some Ex-Muslims, including the Ex-Muslims of North America. These ex-Muslims decide, “I discovered that Islam is oppressive, therefore, all religion is oppressive nonsense.” Their dismissals are based not only on scanty knowledge of the scripture and dogma of other faiths, but also ignorance of how other faiths have influenced society.
Yasmine says, again and again, that her encounters with non-Muslims were like encounters, as she herself puts it, with “angels.” There’s a reason that the non-Muslims Yasmine encountered treated her with concern and decency. That reason is their training, very different from her own. They were raised in a Judeo-Christian society, that upholds Judeo-Christian values.
In the Old Testament, God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. God stops the sacrifice. For hundreds of years, Jews and Christians have understood this story as separating God’s chosen people from the surrounding Canaanite society, where child sacrifice to Moloch was practiced. Archaeology confirms Biblical accounts. Various Phoenician societies around the Mediterranean, including the Canaanites and Carthaginians, left evidence of child sacrifice. Child sacrifice was also practiced by several Native American cultures, including Chimu, Inca, Maya, Aztec, Mississippian and Pawnee; it possibly occurred in Ancient Greece, and child sacrifice occurs today among Hindus in India.
Contemporary scholars debate whether or not the Isaac story was originally understood as a stand against child sacrifice, but Christians and Jews themselves understand it that way, and that interpretation was explicitly advanced by a Jewish scholar eight hundred years ago. In any case, Biblical verse after verse condemns parents killing their own children.
The New Testament could not be more dramatic in emphasizing the value of children. God, the omnipotent creator of the universe, enters time in the body of a helpless infant born of a lowly peasant girl, among stock animals in a stable. Jesus famously says, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as little child shall in no wise enter therein.”
Pregnant with Jesus, Mary recites the Magnificat, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.” Jesus says, “The last shall be first, and the first, last,” and “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Again and again, the Bible overturns the pyramid of power.
Early Christian critic Celsus, a Greek Pagan, dismissed Christianity as a religion that attracted those on the bottom. Christianity, Celsus sneered, is a religion of women, of children, and of slaves. The Pagan Roman legal code attributed to Romulus allowed for the murder of female children, and female infanticide was common in the ancient, Pagan world. A Greek comedy from the third century BC records, “Everyone, even a poor man, raises a son; everyone, even a wealthy man, exposes a daughter.” Rodney Stark theorizes that Christianity’s remarkable success can be attributed partially to Christianity’s remarkable respect for the personhood of women and children, even female infants. “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born,” said the Didache, “a first century manual of Church teachings.” Early Christianity’s valuing of young, female human beings is unforgettably depicted in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, about a Pagan girl who converts to Christianity and boldly asserts her own full worth in the face of murderous Pagan opposition. Finally, of course, Christianity mandates confession and repentance, rather than the hiding of sin.
Non-believers have only a partial picture when they refuse to consider how Judeo-Christian teaching and Christian faith have fostered the features they value in Western Civilization. Yes, child abuse occurs in Christian families and institutions as well as in Muslim ones. But there is a difference between, say, Jordan, a relatively modern Muslim-majority country, and the United States. In Jordan, honor killing is a perpetual problem. Families practice it; authorities look the other way. The ancient Koran story of Khidr, a revered Muslim character who killed a child because the child might someday embarrass his devout Muslim parents, is carried out daily in Muslim countries. In countries with a Judeo-Christian heritage, killing your child because the child might embarrass you is not supported by the wider society. Some cultures provide guardrails and tools that can be used to dismantle human dysfunction. Other cultures provide scriptures that uphold hate and abuse.
Not just honor killing oppresses Muslim women and girls. Clitoredectomy, child and forced marriage, and polygamy are all part of day-to-day life. Sharia dictates that women inherit half of what men inherit, and the testimony of two women equals the testimony of one man. Women cannot pray when they are menstruating. In a hadith, Mohammed himself cited the ban on women praying during their menstruation as proof that women are “deficient in religion” and make up the majority of the damned in Hell. A woman, Mohammed insisted, must satisfy their husband’s demand for sex, even while riding on a camel’s back. One could go on. Denigration of the value of the lives of girls and women is deeply embedded in the Koran and hadiths.
Rodney Stark ended his book The Victory of Reason with a quote he attributes to a Chinese scholar. “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”
I hope (and pray) that the aversion that immersion in Islam taught ex-Muslims to feel for all religion does not blind them to the impact of the Judeo-Christian tradition on what they value in kuffar society – including the right to self-identify as an atheist, and not be killed for doing so.
Yasmine Mohammed’s book is receiving terrific reviews on Amazon. Yasmine deserves more. Krista Tippett hosts On Being on National Public Radio. Tippett markets a soft-focus, touchy-feely Islam. Terry Gross frequently features memoir authors on Fresh Air. Tippett, Gross, the New York Times, all should provide Yasmine Mohammed with a platform. Truth and courage demand it.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery