"Islamism steals from Islam for its own totalitarian ambition," says Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a physician and Muslim intellectual who defends Israel to the world • U.S. officials can't distinguish between IDF volunteer and Muslim joining Islamic State, she says.
These last few years, I have been toying with the idea of gathering an assembly of intellectuals, political leaders and public opinion leaders to discuss the perils and prospects of Western civilization. Men and women who understand Israel's role as a dam protecting the Western world from flooding and ultimate drowning. People of truth who would be decent enough to explore the complexity of the Israeli story, who would be prepared to stand courageously by Israel and defend its just cause.
One woman I would invite to this fantasy assembly is Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a scientist, intellectual, journalist, physician who specializes in sleep disorders, and a practicing Muslim. Ahmed is an expert on, and ardent opponent of, Muslim radicalization, and a great supporter of the State of Israel.
Ahmed was born in Britain to immigrants from Pakistan. She studied medicine and went to the United States to specialize. She spent time in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere as a physician and lecturer. She now lives in the United States, publishes articles in several journals and is a sought-after commentator in American and world media.
Ahmed arrived in Israel to receive an award from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, "in esteem of her courageous and relentless fight for human rights in the Muslim world, and for her active and uncompromising opposition to radical Islam and anti-Semitism; and with a sense of gratitude for her friendship toward Israel and the Technion."
I met with her in Jerusalem, at the Begin Heritage Center, where the ancient city walls, seen from the balcony, served as a backdrop and subject for a fascinating conversation.
Q: You describe yourself as a religious person. You have a positive attitude toward religion and spirituality. In Jewish society there is a spectrum of attitudes toward religion. However, if we look at the Muslim world today, we see a kind of a reverse Renaissance, back to the seventh century, to the beginning of Islam.
"I would absolutely agree that there is a revivalism of really extreme practices, but to a degree that never existed in documented history. These are extreme manifestations purported to be a reconstruction of Islam. They were propagated right after the Iranian Revolution [in 1979] and have spread like a huge ripple from Iran to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, including to Pakistan, which underwent Islamization, and on to extreme brands of radical Islamism in al-Qaida and now in ISIS [Islamic State]. Its advocates love to claim that this is a revival of the original and authentic Islam but it is really a fictional construct.
"Even having lived in Saudi Arabia, a state that follows Shariah [Muslim law] without innovation, without modulation, still the kind of barbarity we see now passing in some of these Islamic groups exceeds even the harshest manifestations of Shariah law. So you are right that there is a reverse revivalism."
Q: So what is the difference that you see between the revival of Islam and the Islam in which you believe?
"Well, one example is that nowadays it is not unusual for women to be stoned to death in Iran or in other remote areas, as one can see in recruitment videos indoctrinating Pakistani or Afghani children into the service of radical Islam. This in contrast to the five centuries of documentation of Ottoman history in which there is only one stoning recorded. So even though there are passages in the Quran which might suggest that these kinds of punitive actions can be taken, even in the case of adultery, they did not occur at the level of ferocity and frequency which now we can record.
"That is a deliberate revival which was introduced by the nascent ayatollahs of Iran. They use a special directive called Tazir, which gives jurists the authority by Islamic law to pass a ruling not based on precedent, but rather gives them the freedom to manipulate laws. In the past, this freedom was given only in situations of dire instability, yet they now use this power to the disadvantage of innocent people and punish them in any way they see fit.
"A good example would be the outrageous punishment of Raif Badari, a Saudi blogger who received the punishment of 1,000 lashes for publishing something on the Internet. There could be no precedent for this. Where did they get the number 1,000? This is particularly problematic when a fundamental value of Islam is that you cannot be a real believer if you do not have free will to choose not to believe. What kind of maker would choose compulsion in belief? That would be a weak maker. So Tazir as a phenomenon has been intensely pursued since the 1970s, in a way that really has become a distortion of Shariah.
"I have difficulty with the generalization of 'the Muslim world.' Muslims exist on every inhabited continent. They number 1.62 billion people. In the United States alone there are 69 different nationalities of Muslims. Every year in Mecca, over 183 different nationalities participate in the Hajj. So to talk about the 'Muslim world' is almost like talking about one-fifth of the world's population."
Q: How do you distinguish between Islam and Islamization?
"Islamization is a good word, too, which has been used opportunistically by Muslim democracies as a means to show power and political expediency. But Saudi Arabia is a big patron of Islamism, which seeks to co-opt the public space, using a fictional imposition of Islam to their political advantage. Islamists acted this way in a Saudi theocracy, in an Iranian revolutionary democracy (as they call it), in a Pakistani republic.
"If I were not Muslim, I would look at the world's Muslim-majority countries and ask myself, 'What is Islam?' Because when you travel to these Muslim countries where I have traveled, the basic fundamentals of Islam are not these.
"First of all, there is freedom not to believe. Second, there is recognition of other religions, which are mentioned in the Quran.
"My family has practiced the freedom not to believe for over a century. And we are not unusual. We are from a British-Indian background, like millions of others."
Distortion of Islam
Q: You are speaking of a cultural retreat regarding Islam, a rejection of the universal values attained in the last few centuries.
"I expropriate my family visits to Pakistan to learn about the country. But if you look at what Pakistan has done in the name of democracy! Pakistan was created by a Muslim secular democrat, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who studied law at a prestigious London institute. In a speech he gave before the first day of the establishment of Pakistan at the Constitution Club in Karachi, he said, 'In the new state your creed will not be the business of state. All will be free to go to their temples, churches, mosques.'
"Unfortunately he died soon after, within the first year of Pakistan's founding as a state. Immediately after his death, appeasement steps were made toward extreme Muslim clerics who first wanted to agitate against the Hindus, and then later decided to agitate against minorities. The ideal of a secular democracy was that there was a space for Islam but also for everybody else. Pakistan was founded to create a space for Islam out of the fear that it would be a persecuted minority in India. In fact, Pakistan was created with the idea of a Muslim 'Zion' without the religious history, really for a political safeguarding of what was a minority in the huge India. But now there has been an absolute perversion of these ideals.
"When Pakistan was founded, one year before Israel, 24% of its population was non-Muslim. Today it is 3%. Pakistan sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council, overseeing people's human rights, including that of Israel's, when at the same time, as a state, it has legally enshrined the persecution of minorities by denying their electoral representation. This goes unchallenged in the West and Pakistan is still called a Muslim democracy.
"The modern Muslim world has achieved something remarkable. It has countries with constitutions, with positions in institutions like the United Nations, but has not a single institution that you could point out that even purports to be truly democratic. The Islamists -- different to the Islam as I know it -- are boldly exploitative. Islamists love elections. [Turkish President] Recep Erdogan himself said that democracy is a one-way train. They will use elections and parliament in order to get to their destination and then they will increase the Muslim commitment of their country.
"What we see in the public space in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries often does not reflect the sentiments and desires of the ordinary people. Even though I am visibly critical of both those countries, people are absolutely in agreement with my arguments because if you know Islam you cannot justify what happens in the name of Islam.
"You do not need to go to the extreme of ISIS, a new organization, one or two years old. You just look at Pakistan, Jordan, some parts of Egypt, and see how they enable violence against women. How come women are not given the freedom to pursue a divorce? Islam says that a man cannot forcibly remain married or deny his wife a fair divorce and means of support."
Q: You lived in Saudi Arabia and even published a book on the subject ("In the Land of Invisible Women"). How did you find that experience?
"I lived there for two years and later traveled back and forth for about 10 years. When I moved there I was very naive. I had not read anything about the country beforehand. I was a doctor finishing her training. My work visa in America was ending and I needed to continue working. I worked at the time in an intensive care unit and was managing trauma ICU and I heard they were looking for that position in Saudi Arabia. So I thought, how hard could it be?
"Well, it was very hard. First of all, it was 15 years ago. I was younger, less diplomatic, fresh out of training, with great confidence and not much patience with other people. Everything was so different. The only thing that was familiar was my reflection in a white coat in the hospital windows. But as soon as I would leave the hospital environment, the scenario of patient and doctor, everything was changed. As a doctor I was initiating life support, doing dialysis, preparing families for the worst regarding their loved ones. Outside that space I could not even bring my car to Saudi Arabia as I was not allowed to drive. I had to relinquish my passport as soon as I entered the country to my employment representative. The objectification! I was invisible because of my gender, even though I was used to leading medical teams for years."
Q: Did your "invisibility" protect you from sexual harassment at least?
"This is a point which I never thought of. But no, you can be simultaneously rendered invisible and objectified. So, in one sense, when I was in my arena, as an expert, with as many credentials if not better than the men, I really had to assert myself aggressively. And then outside work hours, as soon as I left the boundaries of the hospital compound I had to wear a scarf on my head and risk being accosted by the religious police if it was not sitting correctly on my head."
'Anti-Semitic and religionized fiction'
Q: One month ago, when the Vatican recognized a Palestinian state, I wrote an open letter to the pope, in which I stated that I see this as an attempt to continue to crucify the Jewish people as had occurred in the last two millennia. There is a false assumption that if they sacrifice the State of Israel, the Jewish people, peace will come. This is a false assumption because look at what is happening around us. Today's Christians are like past-day Jews.
The only surviving Christian community in the entire Middle East is in Israel, and this is the irony of history: The Jew is now protecting the Christian.
I learn from your writings that as a Muslim you see a kind of naivete by Western civilization in terms of how it treats the danger ahead of it.
"I agree. However, I don't know if it is naivete. The last few years in the United States have been very disturbing. There is the denial of ISIS: You cannot get American politicians to talk about Islamism. Many will refuse to talk about radical Islam and claim that those jihadists have nothing to do with Islam.
"Islamism is a very sophisticated 21st century ideology; like Marxism, but even more noxious because it is religionized. That is why Islamist anti-Semitism is more dangerous even than the Nazi anti-Semitism, even though it would be hard to imagine a diabolical phenomenon as the Holocaust and God forbid anything equal that or even approaching it.
"I think the Nazis did not have the religious legitimacy that Islamists claim for their anti-Semitic claims. What do Islamists say to an illiterate Muslim or to a Jew or Christian? 'It is in our religion to see Jews as our enemy. It is a religious jihad and that is why we do martyrdom operations.' This is a religionized fiction.
"We have a problem, as the United States claims that these people have nothing to do with Islam, but that is not true. Islamism borrows and steals the images, metaphors and language of Islam for its own totalitarian ambition. It did not come from a vacuum. Islamism was invented in Egyptian prisons and was influenced by Marxist writings. Then they created a man-made movement that looked like a religion.
"There is a phrase in Farsi, 'the viper in your bosom.' You nurture the viper, you feed it, and one day it bites you. So Islamism is the viper in Islam's bosom and Muslims willingly, or unwillingly, enable this.
"Simultaneously, the United States' administrations deny Islamism. They disallowed the use of the term Islamism by federal agencies. It might be called naive but it might also be called a willing collusion to promote misinformation."
Q: Perhaps this is the modern version of the radical "chic," like the attraction of young people to the image of Che Gevara who became an icon even though he tried, tortured and murdered innocent political rivals. The same can be said of the use of the term "human rights." Every human has rights, except the Jews, who do not have the right to a state of their own.
"The other way I look at it is that human rights only matter if somehow they have been limited by Israel in combat. The ongoing operation in Saudi Arabia and Yemen is much bloodier than the one that took place in Gaza but the international community is not even reporting on it. No one is interested. At the same time as Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip last summer], Pakistan carried out one of its own huge operations on its northwest frontier. They displaced 400,000 people and then carpet-bombed the area. Nobody cares about this. Where are the inquiries on this?
"But this is an absolutely hypocritical assessment."
Q: Because the Jews have no right to defend themselves?
"This is a very important point because that is what is unique about anti-Semitism. People make anti-Semitism into racism, but that is inaccurate. Racism is bad, like sexism, like xenophobia, but anti-Semitism is saying, 'You have no rights as a human being and your existence is an affront.' Also, anti-Semitism is always poised as self defense from 'world-dominating Jewry.'"
"It is hard to believe that the intellects in the United States, who won the Cold War, cannot recognise a totalitarian ideology. "
"I often quote Professor Bassam Tibi, an exile from Syria publishing in Germany. He writes that as soon as the Ottoman Empire fell, Islamism began to grow. And the biggest boost to Islamism was the Six-Day War, since it made impotent pan-Arab nationalism."
Q: Because the secular theories collapsed.
"And this drove the Muslims over to the Islamist option. But we never see any dissection in any serious forum in the United States. I cannot believe that the Obama administration is so ignorant of Islamism, since so much is published, even just in academic political science publications, aside from the media. The administration has simply made a choice to ally with Iran and to see it as besieged, victimized and in need of elevation."
Q: How do you see the consequences of such a policy?
"I think it is a disastrous phenomenon as it will give legitimacy to Iran in a way that no one in the region currently has, not even Saudi Arabia. A second problem is that this will give Iran -- a government which has members openly communicating on Holocaust denial -- the look of a legitimate superpower, which has a one-on-one relationship with the United States.
"The biggest casualty of the Arab Spring is the United States. We have supreme military power and huge economic resources, but what the Arab Spring revealed was the U.S.'s unbelievable ambivalence. It could not pick sides at the time of the fall of [deposed Egytpian President Hosni] Mubarak. Now with [current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sissi, only because he is a strong man has the administration found its footing.
"The United States is impotent also in the face of Syrian genocide. Its relations with Israel are very curious at such a critical time when the U.S. needs a strong relationship with Israel in order to make Jordan feel confident, as well as Lebanon.
"When I heard Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009, I thought it was a shame that a speech like this was not given by a Muslim leader in Cairo about the need for engagement with the U.S. Also, the prominence of the Palestinian issue on Obama's agenda annoys so many Muslims from other regions, like from Bangladesh. There are over a billion Muslims who do not live in the Middle East and do not list the Palestinian issue as their top priority. Yet I do not wish the Palestinians ill. I am as pro-Palestinian as I am pro-Zionist."
"I call the Palestinian issue a scatoma, a blind spot that people cannot see past."
"The United States is as disengaged in this process as it is disengaged in the rest of the Middle East and the North African region. The United States has made a conscious decision not to engage in Syria, and gives aid to Syria to document the genocide, which we might have been able to exercise our muscle against, as the United States is the only one who can have 'boots on the ground.'
"Why has he United States not led a coalition of Arab countries against ISIS? We are a bystander to genocide, as we were in Bosnia, Rwanda and other places. What is becoming of us as Americans with this inaction? Action does not necessarily mean sending air campaigns. At any event, in medicine you have two routes of action: immediate intervention or using time as a diagnostic tool. Well, the United States has had four years to diagnose the situation. It is almost a long as the Second World War, and we have not come up with a solution. If I was an enemy of the United States I would think of it as impotent.
"We have no leader, no Churchill. He knew to recognize the enemy and he knew that words may be even more important than weapons. No war is won without words, without national political will. It is boots on the ground that make the United States accountable. But when it is the Muslim extremists on the ground, radicalizing more and more children all round the Middle East, then the U.S. is seen as impotent."
Q: One could say that this is the consequence of the mechanism of political correctness that took over Western discourse after the Second World War. You cannot mention that the terrorists are Muslim, only "radicals."
"In 2012, I was brought in to testify as an expert for the Department of Homeland Security on Muslim radicalization in the United states. I opined, as a Muslim, that there was a need to investigate Muslim radicalization in the United States. My testimony was reported by the Democrats in the committee as 'dangerous.'
"Thus, Obama's administration has a false construct of civil rights images, even if only regarding the plight of Muslims in America. However, this is not a civil rights issue, nor is it Islamophobic to say that any suspicious groups that may pose a danger should be investigated. The problem is that the current administration accepts that it is a civil rights issue and retreats from the conversation. I call this a militant ideology. These are people who do not understand the difference between an American Jew volunteering for the Israeli army and an American Muslim joining ISIS."
The UN bias
Q: Speaking of double standards, this week the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights published a report on Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer. What is your opinion of it?
"Unfortunately the U.N. cannot be considered an impartial judge on matters relating to Israel, as indicated by the disproportionate resolutions concerning Israel in contrast to the U.N.'s willful and repeated blindness on matters of human rights when it comes to many other member states, including member states in the Muslim majority world, foremost in the Middle East. For that reason any report by this body cannot be considered an unbiased assessment and makes interpretation problematic.
"Additionally, I recently read of a report where the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon relented to pressures not to list Israel's IDF on a list of notorious entities which deliberately target children. The U.N. also decided not to list Hamas on the same category -- shocking that Hamas is made equivalent to the IDF. The IDF is a military I regard equivalent to the British Army or the U.S. Army. So that the fact that the U.N. had a dilemma to classify the IDF in the same status as Boko Haram, the Lords Resistance Army, ISIS and also Hamas points to a serious lack of perspective which must surely be subjective and not objective. For these reasons, an impartial assessment of Israel's engagement in Operation Protective Edge cannot be rendered by U.N. agencies.
"To be sure, too many Palestinian children and women lost their lives under Israeli fire in Gaza during Protective Edge, and Israel expressed regret while pursuing its conflict with restraint and observing international laws of war. Yet the contribution of Hamas to enmeshing women and children and innocent men in conflict remains unaddressed, its use of child and youth soldiers and its clear responsibility for pursuing guerrilla tactics in violation of international laws -- storing armaments in hospitals, using schools as shelter for weapons -- all ensured civilian losses in Gaza would be unavoidable."
The poverty of boycotts
Q: The reason you are in Israel is that you were invited to accept an award from the Technion. Over the last few years, an academic and economic sword has been dangling over Israel. How do you see this matter?
"I am glad you asked me. I am horrified by boycotts. When it comes to the United States administration it may be naivete, but when it comes to the academia I don't think it is naivete but a willing choice. A willing collusion with Islamism.
"I was in the U.K. in 2012 studying suicide bombings when the flotilla incident was brought up in the media. Israel was presented as the only aggressor and all the others as peacemakers. There was almost no debate in the media about any position, so I became curious about the subject of boycotts. I then decided to visit Israel for the first time in my life and I wanted first thing to visit academic institutions to see why so many want to boycott them. A few days before I came, I read an article about Professor Dan Shechtman, a Nobel Prize laureate, and that is how I connected to the Technion. On my visit I learned that there were many minority students for whom the Technion set up a mentoring program, out of a sense of duty to develop the talents of their students as a national asset irrespective of their background or origin.
"Following this, I wrote an article called "The Poverty of Boycotts," stating that if a boycott is enforced it would harm also the minorities. Thus, in order to ever aspire to side by side coexistence, this must start with the intelligentsia.
"A year later, during Operation Protective Edge, an anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist propaganda article was published in The Lancet, which is the world's premier medical journal, called 'An Open Letter to the People of Gaza.' The letter held any Israeli academic or scientist who did not petition the Israeli government to oppose the Israeli military operation as personally responsible, as if they had blood on their hands for 'the massacre of the people of Gaza.'
"I was astonished by this letter, as well as by the fact that it was printed without a counter argument, and without any editorial comment that this letter did not represent The Lancet. I ended up leading a counter-letter to combat this argument step by step together with Israeli leading academics, four Nobel laureates and three presidents of Israeli universities. At first the responding article was rejected (without explanation) but it was then published following intense pressure. The response was beyond our imagination."
Q: How do you explain your defense of the Israeli academia to your colleagues around the world?
"The reasons I defend the Israeli academy are: 1. I know it for what it really is; 2. The Israeli academia is not homogeneous; 3. My belief that if you permit what has been done to the Israeli academia, the same can be done to other disputed groups of physicians -- gay physicians, for example; 4. I also believe that academia is the last apolitical space which we can all share. As a doctor you treat all populations with no barriers, with no distinctions. Physicians hold a very special place in society. Once society loses the morality of the physician, the morality of the fabric of society is over (see how Nazi legitimacy was boosted by German physicians' support).
"If we have the world's premier medical journal publishing political invective which dehumanizes you, now in the multimedia age millions of doctors can be influenced. If the Israeli academia can be dehumanized as responsible for a massacre, then we are not that different from those physicians who gave license to the Nazi ideology to conduct its lethal mission.
"The reason I say this is that I really see the physicians as torch-bearers of ideals. We treat patients indiscriminately, whether they have means or not, soldier side-by-side with a terrorist. Medical doctors are still the moral fiber and core of society, whether you are in a Muslim, secular, or Jewish society.
"What happened in The Lancet was under the disguise of a public health paper. The conflict was used to push an official view to dehumanize Israeli academia. That isn't an academic position; that is a militant Islamist position."
Q: In one of your articles you described yourself as an accidental Zionist. Explain this.
"I never had anything to do with Israel until late in life. I was never in Israel until 2013, even though I am well-traveled and lived in three continents. I met Israelis here and there, and knew something about Judaism. I trained with a lot of Jewish doctors, and I experienced some Jewish rituals -- a seder, a brit, a funeral. Little by little you see glimpses of the faith and then you recognize your own. Then I became interested in radical Islam, and somehow I found myself here in Israel.
"I found myself on one of my visits at Hadassah hospital [in Jerusalem]. I have visited many hospitals, but the most exciting thing was actually when we were in an elevator in Hadassah. I was with a very busy doctor, and I looked around the small, packed elevator. What I saw around me was a Muslim lady in an abaya and hijab, next to her a man who looked like he was from the 18th century with a striped jacket, white socks and a special hat, next to him was a man with payot. In front of me was the busy modern-Orthodox doctor, and I am the one who is the Muslim who looks like she is secular.
"And I realized that all my worlds -- the people I used to treat in Saudi Arabia, the patients and doctors in New York, my modern-Orthodox friends, Israelis living in America -- all of my worlds collided in this elevator. And they don't collide anywhere else. It is little moments like that in which you can't help but become a Zionist."