Asra Nomani has always considered herself a Muslim reformer. For more than 20 years, she has pushed boundaries within the Muslim faith to build a more inclusive community. But when Islamic extremists committed the horrendous attacks of 9/11, she knew she had to do more. As a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal serving in the Middle East, Asra has witnessed the dangers of political Islam and how it’s affecting the rest of society today.
*The opinions of Asra Nomani don’t necessarily reflect those of AHA Foundation*
AHA Foundation: A large part of your professional life has been combatting Islamism by using your voice and story to share about its dangers. For our followers, can you share your story, how it led you to do this work, and what that work has looked like?
Asra Nomani: For all of my life, born in India then raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, I have lived as a Muslim reformer, running with my hair in the wind and jetting around the world as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. However, it was on September 11, 2001, that I knew I had to challenge the extremist interpretation of Islam that motivated the 19 men who boarded planes to kill thousands of innocent people.
In October 2001, as U.S. bombs dropped in Afghanistan, I walked into the home of the man who is now a chief propagandist for the Taliban, a man by the name of Sohail Shaheen. At that time, he was the newly-deposed deputy ambassador to Pakistan. He had two wives—because of the interpretation of Islam by the Taliban and Islamists who espouse political Islam, he believed he could marry up to four wives.
Since the U.S. invaded, Shaheen and his fellow Taliban leaders have been enjoying a good life in Doha, Qatar; they have now risen from the ashes of defeat in 2001 and seized power in Kabul, with the cameras of Al-Jazeera live-streaming their disturbing coup.
It is a distressing turn of history, but on the anniversary of 9/11, I am reminded of not only the journey that has been my life, but the courageous journey of so many Muslim reformers. We are navigating violent responses from character assassinations to actual slayings of the body, in our bold and critical battle to challenge—and defeat—the ideology of Islamism.
Remember, 20 years ago, we faced a reality in which women were barred from driving in Saudi Arabia, female genital mutilation was happening throughout the world without challenge, it was unimaginable for women to lead prayer of men and women, the understanding of Islamism was remote and the concept of Muslim reform was hardly even articulated.
Today, this is what we have: women and girls have enjoyed more freedom than ever in Afghanistan for two decades, women can drive in Saudi Arabia, women have led men and women in prayer around the world, and we’ve gained a clearer understanding of the Islamist machine that must be challenged from America to Afghanistan.
AHA Foundation: You’ve done a lot of things that are seen as controversial in the Muslim world, specifically, speaking out about women’s rights and misogyny within Islam and Islamism. What are the dangers you see from Islamism and why are you compelled to speak out against it?
Asra Nomani: Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, we have made many advances, but as the tragic takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban continues, we see serious threats to women’s rights because of the backward, repressive interpretation of Islam that Islamists propagate. Can you imagine that in Afghanistan today, the Taliban has put up curtains to segregate men from women in university classrooms, and they are demanding that women cover their faces? Can you just imagine for a moment living your life without the sun kissing your face? It’s inhumane to deny women and girls such a basic right. You know that other rights, such as political engagement, public voice, and healthcare, are then casualties of this misogyny.
Why should we care? Because Islamism is the ideology of Taliban leaders stuck in the seventh century. They are supported today with delegation visits from the regime of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And now they will be propped up by a superpower called China.
Their support is growing. Who must stand up to this movement of tyranny? All of us!
AHA Foundation: Are these dangers as imminent as they were after September 11?
Asra Nomani: Since that fateful day, we have fought Islamic extremism. The dangers today are even more compelling. The Taliban have seized Afghanistan. The extremists have their Islamic caliphate. We had young people from Alabama to London joining the Islamic caliphate that was the delusion of ISIS. Young extremists will now find their destination vacation in Kabul, seeking to find jobs in their ministries of propaganda and religious extremism. The Taliban are more powerful today than they ever were in 2001. They have these superpowers backing them. And they are as repressive and extremist as they were in 2001. They will become a base for extremism that al-Qaeda could have only dreamed of creating. Hell will break loose.
“Women are still relegated to second-class status in mosques, stuck in basements, balconies, and separate rooms. At least we now have a clear debate against the authority of men over female rights.”
AHA Foundation: In addition to speaking out about reform in Islam, you also lead by example. You were the first woman in your mosque in West Virginia to insist on the right to pray in the male-only main hall. You organized the first public woman-led prayer of a mixed-gender congregation in the United States. What reactions have you received for standing up for reform so bravely with these actions?
Asra Nomani: I have truly understood what it means to be ahead of your time, and I know that it’s critical, in any movement, for progress to be “radical” and “revolutionary” to achieve good. It is now normative for women and girls to demand the right to walk through front doors and lead prayers. Nations from Morocco to Saudi Arabia have given new powers to women to be religious leaders with authority. Of course, we have not won enough rights. Women are still relegated to second-class status in mosques, stuck in basements, balconies, and separate rooms. At least we now have a clear debate against the authority of men over female rights.
AHA Foundation: Being on the front lines, fighting for the protection of women’s rights within Islam and for reform, comes with great personal costs. How has your life changed?
Asra Nomani: Since I began speaking out, I have most felt the stab of character assassination, but that’s not nearly as bad as so many others. My heart breaks for the courageous women and men from around the world who have lost their lives in pursuit of their divine right to live as they wish. Teen girls in Canada were murdered by their own father for the alleged crime of living without covering their hair. Atheist former Muslims have lost their lives in Bangladesh for daring to blog about their musings. Today, Raid Badawi is still in jail in Saudi Arabia for the alleged crime of his poetry.
AHA Foundation: In July this year, you spoke at the summer training for AHA Foundation’s Critical Thinking Fellowship campus program. What was your message to the fellows?
Asra Nomani: Before 9/11, I could never have imagined the threat that Islamists feel from free thinkers. But they are truly so frightened of us, they seek to destroy us. What I have learned most of all is that we must persevere. In the summer of 2004, I laid in my bed in the fetal position in West Virginia, paralyzed, as the men at my mosque put me on trial to ban me from the mosque. My mother stood in the hallway, and she told me, “Asra, you don’t live in a village. You are free. Do not be afraid. Have courage.”
I wiped my tears, and stepped forward, with my parents beside me with their unconditional love and clarity that Islam and religion must be a vehicle for lifting the soul, not suffocation. We are so fortunate that my beautiful and courageous parents—Sajida and Zafar Nomani—are still with us, in their 80s, believing in all of us and our fight. My mother—a woman who had to cover her face when she became a teen—was the first in our family to read the books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and she saw the wisdom and clear analysis in Ayaan’s much-misunderstood rejection of her experiences with Islam. My mother and father stand with us in our advocacy for a progressive Islam that honors women and humanity.
AHA Foundation: Next year in January it will be 20 years since your friend and colleague from The Wall Street Journal, reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted and murdered by Islamic militants in Pakistan. How did this loss affect your fight against Islamism?
Asra Nomani: Indeed, on Jan. 23, 2002, Danny Pearl left for an interview from which he never returned, because of extremism that we had allowed to metastasize in our world. Every moment that men and women have challenged our battle for Muslim reform, I see Danny’s face before me, like a light. He was goodness and humanity incarnate, and the fact that the men who kidnapped and murdered Danny did so in the name of my religion gave me the clarity and will to challenge them and their beliefs. I don’t wish a January 23rd moment on anyone, but I hope the loss of Danny from this world will catalyze all people to understand the profound cost of this thing that is extremism within Islam. And motivate all to support Muslim reform and its values.
AHA Foundation: Recently, your work has also shifted towards the cancel culture movement. When did you begin to see this as an issue and why did you feel the need to speak out against it?
Asra Nomani: I have seen Wokeists come together with Islamists in pushing dangerous ideas in our school systems through, for example, the division of children as “oppressors” and “oppressed,” anti-Semitic “ethnic studies” curriculum and the hijacking of the teaching of 9/11. Last month, the Virginia Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, blessed a webinar by a Muslim convert who taught teachers to call the 9/11 hijackers “extremists,” not “terrorists,” and to bar discussion of Islamic extremism. She also argued that teachers should not teach about American exceptionalism.
Thankfully, earlier this year, I helped to start a new nonprofit organization, Parents Defending Education, in which we are challenging the intrusion of Wokeism into our Pre-K-12 schools. We challenged this hijacking of history, and the Virginia Department of Education removed the webinar. I hope everyone will join our mailing list at Parents Defending Education. It was the Democratic apparatus that put this narrative forward, much as its power brokers tried to deny Ayaan and I our voices years ago, and it is only with our insistence that reason and rationality prevailed.
AHA Foundation: Personally, how has your work fighting against Islamism been similar to that against Wokeism? What about the differences?
Asra Nomani: Islamism and Wokeism are both about indoctrinating everyone from politicians to children. They both hijack race to press their grievances for communities who are ill-served by their efforts. They shame people for immutable characteristics—from gender to race and sexuality—creating a new hierarchy of human value that is racist, intolerant and bigoted. We must recognize that segregating people based on race or gender—as both ideologies do—is illiberal and unacceptable. We must hold equality and humanity as our north stars.
AHA Foundation: What do you think the role of students is in protecting free speech and other freedoms in the U.S., and the world?
Asra Nomani: The future depends on students and our youth. It is our youth who can protect our freedoms of free speech and equality for the future they will inherit. We must include them in every debate and every solution. Protecting our country’s and world’s freedoms means protecting their futures. Years from now, it will be their story to tell of how they stood up with courage and clarity for goodness and freedom.