Cover Story

Dissident voices

"Dissident voices" Continued...

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

Hamid knows that the Quran's violent verses are the problem, and he thinks the solutions lie in the text. One of the main reasons Islam is so hostile toward non-Muslims is the Quranic principle of abrogation: Where there is a contradiction, later verses cancel out, or at least modify, earlier verses. The Quran's warring verses thus matter more than its peacemaking ones: In Mecca, Muhammad lived peacefully with nonbelievers; when he was forced to flee to Medina, fighting them and spreading Islam became the norm.

Hamid says the Arabic word translated as "abrogate" has another meaning-to write down or document. So instead of canceling out previous verses, the abrogation verse could mean that if people forget Allah's wonders, he simply provides new ones to document.

It's an interesting idea, but a lonely one against both classical and radical Islam.

Hamid may have walked with the Zawahiri radicals decades ago in Cairo, but now he calls himself "Muslim by faith, Christian by heart . . . and above all, human."

"Son of a papermaker"

Seeing Ibn Warraq in a public video, with shaggy black hair and thick white beard, is a rarity for the reclusive critic of Islam. But he allowed it, he says, because he usually does not look like that. He dyed his hair and grew a beard.

Even "Ibn Warraq" is an alias-it has been the pen name used historically by Islamic dissidents and means "son of a papermaker." He launched his career with his scholarly and most famous book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, after the Salman Rushdie affair. "It was a very aggressive book," he says. "I was really angry." Warraq was mortified that so few Westerners defended Rushdie's right to author The Satanic Verses.

The alias is to head off the kind of death threats and fatwas issued against Rushdie. Not even Warraq's affable brother, he says, knows that he critiques Islam for a living.

Warraq was not always such a vigorous critic. Of Pakistani origin, his father sent the motherless 10-year-old to English boarding schools to circumvent a grandmother pushing him into local madrassahs. Warraq saw his father only once more, at 14, before his parent died four years later. At school, he lost himself in books and became "pathologically shy," afraid of invitations to dinner or tea. Rational, secular humanist ideas slowly shaped his thinking.

At 19, Warraq had English tastes and habits and felt English, but his darker skin prompted locals to ask, "Where are you really from?" An ensuing identity crisis led him to study Arabic at Edinburgh University under W. Montgomery Watt, a famous Orientalist and expert on Islam. In his book, Warraq criticized his old tutor for being too accommodating of a faith he came to reject.

Warraq later studied philosophy and moved to France in 1982, where he met his wife. There, he worked for a travel agency as the Rushdie affair broke, taking tourists to the Far East via Pakistan. He met friendly Pakistani pilots on the way but was shocked that, however nice, they were "quite convinced that Rushdie must be killed. I didn't want to tell them that I was an apostate myself."

As it happens, Warraq got his first unlooked-for break in an American secular humanist magazine. Free Inquiry usually ran pieces titled, "Why I am not a Methodist" or "Why I am not a Mormon"-no ex-Muslim had appeared in its pages. Warraq filled the gap, and he has since written several books on Islam.

Warraq, 60, describes himself now as an agnostic and says reformation is hard because moderate Muslims are tough to identify and do not take to the streets. "Islam has a kind of 'publicness' to it," Warraq said. "You have to manifest publicly, have to go to prayer five times daily. It makes it difficult to turn it into a private religion."

"Not the monsters we thought"

Nonie Darwish was born in 1948 in Cairo to an elite Egyptian family and spent her first eight years in Egyptian-controlled Gaza. Her father headed military intelligence there, as well as the Fedayeen mission that launched guerrilla attacks into Israel. Eventually, Israeli forces assassinated him.

Darwish and her family returned to Cairo and soon received a visit from President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a government official. Darwish, her brother, and her sister lined up to greet the men and one asked, "Which one of you kids will avenge your father's blood by killing Jews?"

The siblings were embarrassed by the question. "It made me think that if I loved my father, I had to kill Jews." Her father's death did shape her, she says, but in unexpected ways: She rejected Islam, now describes herself as a Christian, and runs a website called ArabsforIsrael.com. She has written a book titled, Now They Call Me Infidel.

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