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October 15 2018

Qanta Ahmed

by Charlotte Hays

While Muslim leaders in the U.K. were vying for the strongest terms in which to denounce Boris Johnson for his typically colorful comments on the niqab--Johnson said it made women look like mailboxes—Dr. Qanta Ahmed quickly took to print and the airwaves to defend Britain’s  embattled former Foreign Secretary.

"As a Muslim woman observing Islam, I am fully supportive of Boris Johnson’s rejection of the niqab," Ahmed wrote in the London Spectator. "And I wonder how many of the former Foreign Secretary’s critics understand my religion, what this form of dress represents and the subjugation it implies. To defend the niqab and to defend Muslim women are, I can assure you, two very different things indeed."

Not only does Ahmed defend Boris Johnson's comments, but she also supports Denmark's legal ban on the niqab as she did France and Germany’s move to outlaw the niqab too. But isn't that limiting the way Muslim women practice their religion? Like a number of pluralist Muslims, Ahmed, an opinion journalist and  physician living in New York, argues that outlawing the niqab  is not restricting religious freedom because, in  all but the most marginal interpretations of Islam, the niqab- an extreme form of veiling- is not adopted. She points out that, by choosing to  dress modestly, she is veiled in the eyes of Islam without adopting a specific head dress, abbayah, burka, or chador.

In Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ahmed had the experience of performing a medical procedure on a Bedouin woman whose son anxiously hovered to make sure his mother’s  face  remained veiled while, draped and prepared for the procedure,  the patient’s torso was exposed.  

Rather than being required by Islam, Ahmed argues that the niqab far from being about religion, is in fact a political symbol: "an anti-Western pro-Islamist political statement opposing secularism." 

Ahmed, who made  the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca while living in Saudi Arabia, says that women are forbidden by Islam from veiling their faces there, at Islam's holiest site. She goes on to explain that the context of the niqab is also key.

 "[T]he adoption of the full-face veil, particularly in the modern secular world is far worse than looking like a letterbox. It’s both a symbol of cultural misogyny and a political marker for Islamist sympathies."

A graduate of the University of Nottingham in Britain, Ahmed, whose father, an architect, wanted her to become a doctor, first came to the United States in 1992 and immediately fell in love with the country. "President Bill Clinton had just become president. Rudy Giuliani was mayor….. this was a golden time in the United States," Ahmed recalls. At the completion of her residency and  subspeciality fellowships in New York, Ahmed found her application for converting her immigration status was denied. Learning that the Middle East was seeking out US- trained physicians, she decided to take a job in Saudi Arabia. It seemed like an adventure, she explained. Knowing both Islam and her Critical Care Medicine, Ahmed expected little by way of challenge in the Kingdom. In contrast, her parents, themselves also Muslim expressed misgivings are her relocation to Saudi Arabia, worried about the austere treatment she might experience.

Certainly it was an adventure, one that  included experiencing gender apartheid- being treated as a second-class citizen in a culture that marginalized women, designated women as legal minors and impeded a woman’s ability for movement, and travel.  

Ahmed had the experience of performing a medical procedure on a Bedouin woman whose son anxiously hovered to make sure his mother’s  face  remained veiled while, draped and prepared for the procedure,  the patient’s torso was exposed . Despite being a senior physician at  flagship quaternary level military hospital in the Kingdom’s capital, Ahmed was, as all Saudi women, denied the right to drive herself in a car.

Under Saudi Arabia's Sharia law, Ahmed was required to wear a black abbaya that concealed every part of her body, except for her hands and face.

"This was my first experience of enforced veiling. And my last," Ahmed wrote in The Spectator. While the abbayah consists of a headscarf and a cloak which conceals all one’s clothing, in contrast, the niqab conceals the entire face – in Saudi Arabia sometimes all but the eyes can be covered, in Afghanistan even the eyes are covered.

Ahmed's experiences in Saudi Arabia supplied material for her first book, In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom. “As I fastened the abbaya in front of a mirror inside the makeshift dressing room, I watched my eradication. Soon I was completely submerged in black. No trace of my figure remained. My androgyny was complete," she wrote in the book.

 Dr. Ahmed was in Riyadh on September 11, 2001, when she was shocked by the hostility to the U.S. (She thinks this is slowly improving.)

A new U.S. citizen, Dr. Ahmed felt that she could not vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate who would continue the policies of the previous eight years.  She saw a certain authenticity in Donald Trump's candidacy. But could she vote for him? For starters, there was something we might dub “The Aunt Problem."

Glad to return to the freedom of the U.S., Ahmed finally became a U.S. citizen in 2015. As a newly-minted U.S. citizen,  Ahmed faced a dilemma the next year: it was her first chance to cast a vote in an American presidential election, about which she was very excited. Until she sadly realized, she could vote only if she could square her choice with her conscience.

Dr. Ahmed had seen first-hand the effects of the Affordable Care Act on her patients. She had listened as ordinary Americans,  men and women, who came to her suffering from sleep disorders, spoke of having fewer opportunities, of being more fearful about their futures.

"I saw this myth of public health being offered in the form of ObamaCare," she says, "where patients would have a card saying well, we have healthcare, but they find out premiums are unaffordable, and even with premiums they had co-pays, and co-insurances that they couldn’t afford, and then treatments that I needed to order for them were not accessible on the plan, or were prohibitively expensive, so essentially they had a card in their pocket but no access."   

She could not vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate who would continue the policies of the previous eight years.  She saw a certain authenticity in Donald Trump's candidacy. But could she vote for him? For starters, there was something we might dub “The Aunt Problem."

"I was astonished at how well then candidate Donald Trump was doing," Ahmed recalls, "but when he was disrespectful to the Gold Star mother at the Republican convention, that's when I decided I could not vote for him. She was a Pakistani woman, she had her hair covered, she looked like every single one of my dozens of aunts. I found his treatment of this mother, whose son had died for the United States, and who was grieving, repugnant."

So it is a little surprising that, in the second year of the Trump administration, Dr. Ahmed says she is experiencing social ostracism for the sin of finding positive things to say about Donald Trump's policies, especially with regard to terrorism and the Middle East.  

"Some in my social circle were disenchanted that I had the audacity to speak to the public in a constructive manner about somebody they found repellent," she said in her British-accented English. "But I've traveled to Egypt, I traveled to Oman, I traveled to Jordan.  I just came back from Kurdistan a few months ago.  And I asked people I met in those countries, 'What do you think about the new president?  How are we doing in Kurdistan?'  I wanted to know all about their lives, now that the battle with ISIS is over, how did the United States help you?  

"What I heard all over the Muslim world is that 'this president recognizes extremism,'" she says. President Trump is not Candidate Trump, she observes. She adds that Muslims in the region repeatedly explained to her, "He understands the difference between good Muslims and bad Muslims.  He is an enemy of the bad Muslims; he is a friend to the good Muslims."

Ahmed, like other pluralist Muslims, is adamant on the distinction between  the religion of Islam and Islamism ( aka political Islam).  In her publications, she has urged the U.S. Department of State to designate the powerful Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.

She is also concerned about the growing influence of Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women's March. Sarsour once was flatteringly portrayed in the New York Times as a "Brooklyn homegirl in a hijab." Sarsour has called for jihad (holy war) against President Trump. Questioned about this, Sarsour insisted she means nonviolent jihad.

Ahmed has not met Sarsour in person but encountered Sarsour when Sarsour seemed bent on discrediting the "Honor Diaries," a 2013 documentary about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ahmed appeared in the documentary. "When you use the word jihad on an American president," says Ahmed, "at an extremely polarizing time, when real Islamic jihadism is happening, it is not a benign comment. "

"What I heard all over the Muslim world is that 'this president recognizes extremism,'" she says. President Trump is not Candidate Trump, she observes. She adds that Muslims in the region repeatedly explained to her, "He understands the difference between good Muslims and bad Muslims.  He is an enemy of the bad Muslims; he is a friend to the good Muslims."

"And with Islamism you bring up the issue of nonviolent versus violent," she continues. "It’s not about nonviolent jihad or violent jihad.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is nonviolent Islamism versus violent Islamism. 

 "The Islamism that, you know, casually is called radical Islam that ends up on television, it’s a suicide bomb, it is the subway attacks, the airplane attacks, the shoe bombers….  Before anything like that can happen there has to be a huge underbelly of nonviolent Islamism, which is extremely alive and very powerful."

Ahmed worries that some accept Sarsour as "an icon of resistance without recognizing what she actually represents."

Ahmed has made waves advocating surveillance for radical mosques. In a New York Post column headlined “Islam & the NYPD: Why We Should Cheer Cops’ Work,” she argued:  “The relentless campaign to paint the NYPD as Islamophobic is itself an offense to Islam. In fact, our faith compels American Muslims to stand with the NYPD.”

Most American Muslims, on the other hand, deserve our support. "And the other thing America needs to do is to strengthen civil Islam, pluralistic Islam," Ahmed says. "We should have university programs that are not funded by patrons of Islamism like Saudi Arabia, or a baldly Islamist state like Turkey.  They should be funded, maybe, by the United States government, by monies that are neutral, where there isn’t an investment made by a patron client of Islamism, allowing  real academic scholarship and not just scholarship that supports an existing world view.  That’s what I think we need to do.  We need more political scientists, and less  political pundits."

Twenty-seven years after first arriving in New York City, she remains excited about  her adopted country. "I still cannot get over the congenial, mundane, and innocent activities that constitute the American life," she says.  "I still find it utterly enchanting."  

As a young girl, Ahmed originally wanted to be a BBC journalist. Her role models were the globally acclaimed reporters Kate Adie and Christiane Amanpour. "They would wear camouflage clothes and they would go to warzones, and that’s what I wanted to be.  And my father said no. He said there’s no way you are going to be a journalist.  “There’s no one on TV that looks like you; you are going to be a doctor”.  And he enrolled me in medical school, and that was it." It may not have been her first choice, but Ahmed admits that medicine has been "a phenomenal career for me."

In addition to being a physician, Ahmed writes widely, publishing on four continents and appears frequently on multiple TV networks. In recognition of her growing work, in 2010, Ahmed became the first Muslim woman and first physician to win a prestigious Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge and in February 2016 she was nominated to Life Membership in the Council on Foreign Relations. She serves on the board of directors for the non-profit foundation Women's Voices Now which empowers women and girls through short film and she serves on the Next Generation Council and Committee for Combating Contemporary Antisemitism at the USC Shoah Foundation, the movement founded by Stephen Spielberg to preserve the memory of genocide through oral testimony and promote global tolerance.

Twenty-seven years after first arriving in New York City, she remains excited about  her adopted country.

"Last weekend I was driving somewhere in Queens,  it was Saturday afternoon and I took some shortcuts to avoid traffic, and I saw Americans walking their dog,  I saw an American father playing ball with an American son, and I saw, a kid with a lemonade stand, and I still cannot get over the congenial, mundane, and innocent activities that constitute the American life.  I still find it utterly enchanting."   

Too many Americans take these freedoms and the decency that remains in so much of our society for granted, but not Ahmed.  She not only appreciates them, but is doing her part to defend them here and build support for true equality and liberalism around the globe. 



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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