In our work to challenge the Islamist extremism that threatens Western civilization, AHA Foundation amplifies the voices of Muslim reformers who are bravely standing up to political Islam, despite the dangers they face.
Today, we are proud to present the thoughts of Raheel Raza, one of the world’s leading Muslim reformers. Raheel is a Pakistani-Canadian author, speaker, and activist who believes that her faith, Islam, has been corrupted—and she refuses to be silent, despite facing many threats from Islamists.
Here, we discuss with Raheel her latest book The ABC’S of Islamism: Everything you wanted to know about radical Islam, but were afraid to ask, why Islam needs a reformation now, the trouble with the concept of ‘Islamophobia,’ and much more.
*The opinions in this blog don’t necessarily reflect those of AHA Foundation*
AHA Foundation: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Raheel. First, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey?
Raheel Raza: I was born in Pakistan and had my early education in convent schools and college. I was always a “disrupter” and questioned the status quo by asking lots of questions and basically being told to be quiet because “girls should be seen and not heard.” I decided at an early age that I wanted to do both.
I was troubled by the patriarchy and misogyny I saw around me but it was challenging to speak out or take action. We lived in Dubai for ten years and migrated to Canada in 1989 where I found my voice and the freedom to follow my passion for writing and promoting human rights.
I was always a ‘disrupter’ and questioned the status quo by asking lots of questions and basically being told to be quiet because ‘girls should be seen and not heard.’ I decided at an early age that I wanted to do both.
AHA Foundation: Did this physical and mental journey from Pakistan to Canada influence your views on Islam and extremism in the modern world?
Raheel Raza: The short answer is “yes it did.” We left Pakistan due to the rise of Islamism. Our first few years in Canada were challenging as we tried to settle down in a new country as a family. As far as faith is concerned, I began to notice that the ideology we had escaped from was slowly creeping up on us in North America and this is when I decided to address these issues through writing and public speaking
AHA Foundation: What was the ideology you escaped from and how did it differ from Islam as you had understood it? What does Islam mean to you?
Raheel Raza: Islam (as it is practiced today) is very different from the core faith I grew up with. When I was growing up in Pakistan there was diversity of faith and culture. Religion was not thrust down our throats and I interacted with people who were Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus along with various denominations of Muslims without questioning their faith.
But then at the end of 1977 we had a new leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, who was impressed by Saudi Wahhabism. He started implementing harsh punishments, the segregation of gender, the forced covering of women in public spaces and various forms of sharia which were anti-women. He was also divisive and encouraged anger against anyone who did not practice Islam the way the Wahhabis taught it. And this was an extremely orthodox interpretation of Islam—not the one I was used to.
If you were to ask me “what Islam means to me” then I have a simple answer. It is belief in a higher power and respect for all humanity. To me Islam is about individual freedom and liberty while having a healthy respect for those on a different path. This is why part of my activism is speaking out for minorities and those who are persecuted for their faith (or lack of faith).
To me Islam is about individual freedom and liberty while having a healthy respect for those on a different path.
AHA Foundation: Why does Islam today need a more progressive interpretation? How did you come to this conclusion—and why did you decide to speak out so publicly and passionately about it?
Raheel Raza: In the final chapter of the Quran, God tells us that he has completed the faith for us. Yet 100 or more years later certain aspects were injected into the faith and we were taught that this encompasses Islam. For example, the issue of blasphemy raised its ugly head. Anyone can accuse a non-Muslim (and even a Muslim) of blasphemy without proof and the punishment ranges from imprisonment to death.
I was visiting Pakistan when the Governor of the Province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was lobbying against the dreaded blasphemy law and supporting Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was languishing in jail due to blasphemy charges. Taseer was murdered by his own security guard in broad daylight for his opposition to the blasphemy law. The sad part is that his murderer has been turned into a saint with his grave now a shrine where Pakistanis visit and put flowers.
There has been an emergence of “Quran thumpers” and “Hadith hurlers” who use selective man-made laws to implement inhuman punishments. As a result Islam today is more like a cult than a faith. Besides, I understand that the core message of Islam needs to be applicable and understood in the context of the times we live in. I felt ethically and morally compelled to speak out as I see my faith being hijacked by extremism and violence.
I felt ethically and morally compelled to speak out as I see my faith being hijacked by extremism and violence.
AHA Foundation: What led you to focus in particular on women’s rights within Islam today? Can Islam become more feminist?
Raheel Raza: Gender equality is a God-given inalienable right (for those who believe) and in secular terms it’s enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights.
I don’t think Islam needs to be more feminist—it’s the mindset of the patriarchal leadership that does not accept gender equality and that is what needs to change. The first woman of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija was a very successful businesswoman for whom he worked. She sent him a proposal of marriage and she was older than him. She financed the early Muslim community and if it wasn’t for her, Islam would not exist. The Prophet’s daughter was a great orator and there were female poets, judges and even warriors.
Muslim women in the 7th and 8th centuries had rights to offer marriage, get a divorce, keep their earned wages and retain their maiden name. You have to note that before Islam, this was an era where newborn girls were buried alive, so the rights Muslim women had were revolutionary for that time.
But there was and still is a huge gap between theory and practice. In the subsequent years, power, politics and patriarchy usurped women’s rights completely and Muslim leaders felt insecure so they lashed out at the women pushing them back. Muslim women have been emotionally chained and physically forced to remain invisible and have no say in anything. The burqa, hijab and the relegation of women to the back of the mosque are all tactics used to ‘keep women in their place.’
The Prophet’s daughter was a great orator and there were female poets, judges and even warriors. Muslim women in the 7th and 8th centuries had rights to offer marriage, get a divorce, keep their earned wages and retain their maiden name.
AHA Foundation: Could you tell us about your recent book The ABC’s of Islamism: Everything you wanted to know about radical Islam, but were afraid to ask?
Raheel Raza: While I’ve been writing and speaking about political Islam for the past three decades, I felt that the average person in the West still does not quite understand the difference between Islam as a spiritual path and political Islam i.e. Islamism. I wrote this book to educate the masses about this difference. As an observant reformist Muslim, it’s important to me that we get the support of non-Muslims in our battle for the soul of Islam—and to achieve this, it’s important for non-Muslims to understand what Islamism is all about.
AHA Foundation: What prompted you to write it?
Raheel Raza: Islam today can be confusing, even for Muslims, because Islamists have garbled the core message to a point where inhuman practices and tribal traditions are passed off as Islam. In my public speeches, I would hear questions that showed the lack of understanding about Islamism so I decided to write a simple book explaining the ABC’s of Islamism
…Islamists have garbled the core message to a point where inhuman practices and tribal traditions are passed off as Islam.
AHA Foundation: Do accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ shut down legitimate attempts to discuss Islam in the modern world? Have you found it difficult to make your points because of this?
Raheel Raza: Yes of course they do—that is the exact purpose of “Islamophobia.” Islamophobia is focused on the ‘victim mentality,’ i.e. no matter what happens, Muslims are the victims. This mentality has worked well for the Islamists because you look around you and you see how afraid non-Muslims are of even asking legitimate questions. Therefore it is imperative that reform-minded Muslims be at the forefront of this struggle.
I have never let the fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’ hold me back. Well, they try but it doesn’t deter me. In today’s politically correct culture I don’t know if this phrase is acceptable, but it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black! And the Islamists’ push back against me is futile—the more death threats, lawsuits and personal threats I receive, the more I speak out.
…The Islamists’ push back against me is futile – the more death threats, lawsuits and personal threats I receive, the more I speak out.
AHA Foundation: Is free speech under threat, particularly regarding Islam?
Raheel Raza: The stifling of free speech started because of Islamists who did not want anyone questioning them or exposing their agenda. The ‘victim narrative’ was aimed at politicians who bought into it and the resulting partnership of the Islamists with the extreme left has led us to a point where, never mind critique, you can barely even mention Islam or Muslims in a sentence that is acceptable to the Islamist-leaning politicians and some academics.
The stifling of free speech has most affected educational institutions—which were supposed to be the bastions of free speech. Wokeness and cancel culture have silenced all voices of dissent.
AHA Foundation: What do you hope to achieve with your book?
Raheel Raza: My aim in writing and speaking has always been to create awareness. I didn’t think this would be difficult but with political correctness, woke culture and the rise of the extreme left, it IS a challenge.
I hope that people will read the book, realise that it has been written by a Muslim and feel encouraged to ask hard questions. I have always welcomed critique and questions because that helps me grow and inspires me to look for solutions to the problems that plague Muslim communities today. For me, it has always been important to know and acknowledge what others think.
I hope that people will read the book, realise that it has been written by a Muslim and feel encouraged to ask hard questions.
AHA Foundation: How has the battle to reform Islam changed in the past couple of decades? Are you optimistic about the future of a reformed Islam?
Raheel Raza: I am a born ‘optimist’ otherwise I could not do the work I do. Our purpose is to reform the way Muslims interpret and implement Islam in their lives and we have come a long way. But we still have a long way to go because we are dealing with a mindset that needs to change from the ground up. The education of both boys and girls is critical to this change but I don’t quite see that happening yet.
It’s an uphill challenge but working with people like our partners in the Muslim Reform Movement and other reformist organizations, we see that there is a genuine interest in bringing about change. It is happening slowly but surely and while I may not see results in my lifetime, I hope that the younger generation will pick up the baton and run with it.