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The Ayaan Hirsi Ali problem: why do anti-Islam Muslims keep getting promoted as "experts"?

Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali attends a book presentation of Reformiert Euch! Warum der Islam such aendern muss — Refurbished you! Why Islam must change, on April 20, 2015, in Berlin, Germany.
Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali attends a book presentation of Reformiert Euch! Warum der Islam such aendern muss — Refurbished you! Why Islam must change, on April 20, 2015, in Berlin, Germany.
Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

A 2011 Air Force Research Laboratory white paper has been widely and rightly criticized in recent weeks for making a number of offensive and unsubstantiated claims about Islam, including that wearing hijab — the Islamic headscarf — is a form of "passive terrorism."

The article, titled "A Strategic Plan to Defeat Radical Islam," was published online a few weeks ago by the website Public Intelligence and had been reissued by the Air Force as recently as last summer. It is shocking and irresponsible that such an outrageous claim was included in a military report, but perhaps most surprising of all is that the author was not some far right-wing pundit, but a Muslim.

The writer is Tawfik Hamid a self-proclaimed "Islamic thinker and reformer, and one time Islamic extremist from Egypt." He is currently a fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and is the author of a number of books on radical Islam.

But it's not just this one report or this one author. Hamid is part of a long line of "pseudo-experts" on Islam, and he represents a much larger problem in which fringe Muslim Americans pushing an anti-Islam agenda are promoted as legitimate experts, thus mainstreaming ideas that are both offensive and incorrect.

These pseudo-experts typically argue some version of the idea that Islam is inherently violent and oppressive and needs to be reformed or defeated altogether. Their views are treated as legitimate by virtue of their religion; they are Muslim or formerly Muslim themselves, so they must know. This doesn't just lead groups like the Air Force Research Laboratory to portray junk analysis as correct; it also promotes fringe ideologues as legitimate representatives of Islam and of Muslim Americans, when they are anything but.

Most famous is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch-American author and former Muslim who argues for a complete reformation of Islam, calling it "the new fascism" and "a destructive, nihilistic cult of death." She demanded a Western-led war on the religion and was cited as a source of inspiration in the 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Breivik, the right-wing shooter who killed 77 people and injured 319 in Norway. Hirsi Ali later sympathized with Breivik’s argument that he "had no other choice but to use violence."

Despite these horrific statements and her dubious background, she was recently awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize by the State Department, which lauded her for being a "defender of liberal democracy" and for going into hiding after receiving death threats for an anti-Muslim film. She is frequently invited on news programs to comment on Islam. No doubt her constantly shifting stories and claims about Islam would be critically challenged if not for her "credibility" as a former Muslim.

A fellow laureate of the Lantos Prize is Irshad Manji, who argues that the entire religion of Islam requires reform. Manji has also testified against "political correctness" around Islam at a Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on the Fort Hood shooter, strongly implying that the FBI intentionally withheld critical information that could have stopped the shooter because of its fear of speaking out against Islam. This was despite openly admitting that she had absolutely no knowledge of whether FBI officers actually withheld any information. Her only claims to expertise were her negative personal experiences in Islamic school and her current status as a "reformist" Muslim.

Zuhdi Jasser, the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, was relatively unknown to the Muslim American community until he testified at Rep. Peter King’s extremely controversial homegrown Islamic terrorism hearings in 2011, where he stated that Muslims are "long overdue for an ideological counter-jihad." He claimed that Muslim American leaders, including imams, are contributing to radicalization by not actively campaigning against political Islam or for the separation of mosque and state.

Jasser's are ideas we would more easily recognize for what they are — and would likely reject out of hand — if not for the fact that Jasser is himself Muslim.

Asra Nomani, the co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, has called for government intervention in mosques for alleged "gender apartheid" and has denounced the hijab in mainstream media by calling it a "misinterpretation of Quranic verses," putting her at odds with major Muslim schools of thought, which she rejects. She testified at the fifth King hearing in 2012 on the alleged Muslim denial and deflection of extremism, which she states is directly tied to Islam. Despite her fringe beliefs, she regularly receives mainstream media attention as a purported representative of the Muslim voice.

Also at the 2012 King hearing was Qanta Ahmed, a British Muslim physician specializing in sleep disorders. There, amid rising Islamophobia and anti-Sharia state legislation, she dismissed mainstream Muslim concerns that their civil liberties are at stake. She later echoed this sentiment on CNN, where she regularly appears as a representative of the Muslim community, speaking after the murders of Muslim American students in Chapel Hill.

Jasser, Nomani, and Ahmed all supported the New York Police Department’s overwhelmingly condemned surveillance of Muslim Americans, again putting them at odds with the mainstream community — and perhaps indicating why they are promoted despite their fringe views.

All of these so-called Muslim "reformers" are not accepted by most of the Muslim American community, yet media and government present them as authentic and authoritative Muslim voices. So why, with so many other credible, authentic, respected Muslim Americans they could choose to speak on Islam and extremism, do the government and media continue to rely on this small handful of anti-Muslim zealots?

The optimistic answer is that it’s mere carelessness — government and media want to be seen as having brought in "authentic" voices from the community, but they don't check to see whether the people presenting themselves as such are actually respected by the larger Muslim American community. The perhaps more realistic answer is that it’s bias, either conscious or unconscious — they hold preexisting Islamophobic views and seek out "authentic Muslim voices" who confirm these views.

As a Muslim, I don’t appreciate government and the media portraying these Muslim "reformers" — who conveniently gain prominence by convincing the world how horrible Islam is — as legitimate voices who supposedly speak for me.

But the consequences of this go beyond my own feelings. Promoting the views of these few extremists as "authentic" representatives of Islam stifles the voice of an entire community, provides support for inappropriate and even dangerous policies, and makes it harder for those outside the Muslim community to distinguish between credible experts and people pushing their own personal agendas.

No single person can speak on behalf of a religion with more than a billion adherents or even the millions of American Muslims. But there are many, many people out there speaking on Islam and extremism whom Muslim Americans ourselves generally consider to be fair representatives of our views. These are the people the government and the media should be consulting — not a few eccentric ideologues who reinforce the already all-too-prevalent Islamophobic views of many Americans.

Wardah Khalid is a writer, speaker, and analyst on Middle East policy and Islam in America. She previously worked as a CVE consultant and is an activist in the Muslim American community. Find her on Twitter @wardahkhalid_.

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