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August 9 2017

Asra Nomani

by Charlotte Hays

When Asra Q. Nomani, former Wall Street Journal reporter, cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, and outspoken feminist, appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to talk about the ideology of political Islam, especially as it applies to women, she expected a lively exchange of ideas with the Democratic women on the committee. After all, they claimed to champion the interests of women, didn't they?

As Nomani walked in to take her place in the hearing room, a man wearing a Muslim prayer cap heckled activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was testifying beside Nomani. Adding to the tension, the hearing was held on the same day that Rep. Steve Scalise, Republican from Louisiana, had been shot in an assassination attempt on Republican Members at baseball practice earlier that morning in Alexandria, Va. The attempted assassination made Nomani think back to a terrible time. It was the day when word came that her friend, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had been kidnapped and executed by Muslim radicals in Pakistan.Pearl and his wife Mariane were staying with  Nomani in her rented house in Karachi when he left for the supposed interview that was really a trap.  

Nevertheless Nomani, who had done what she called "murder boards"  and had also meditated in preparation for the hearing, was braced for tough questions as she arrived at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

They never came. Instead, Nomani and Ali, the Somali-born former Dutch parliamentarian, were greeted with silence from the Democratic women senators on the committee. Not a single question came from them. "I was prepared for aggressive conversation and debate," Nomani told a reporter, "but I was shocked to see that I had somehow put on an invisible cloak when I walked into the hearing room, from the perspective of the Democratic senators who champion for women’s rights and battle to be heard.”

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Nomani and Ali said that the reaction of the Democratic women to what they had to say was more than indifference towards two individual witnesses. “This wasn’t a case of benign neglect,” Ali and Nomani wrote. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat from Missouri, even questioned the premise of the hearing.  McCaskill said that "we should not focus on religion" and added that she was "worried" that the hearing would do just that. The only questions asked of Nomani and Hirsi Ali came from Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who organized the hearing, and Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines. "Just as we were invisible to the mullahs at the mosque," Nomani and Hirsi Ali wrote in the Times piece, "we were invisible to the Democratic women in the Senate."

"Muslim organizations have leveraged this idea that Muslims are a minority that needs to be protected," she said. "They want minority rights to trump any other conversation. They have convinced liberals that any criticism of Islam is bigoted. They are like the cigarette lobby was in discussing whether cigarettes are dangerous."

"What I noticed about Senator McCaskill right away is that she would not look me in the eye," recalled Nomani, who was surprised by the cold shoulder she and Hirsi Ali received. "While we made our opening statements, Sen. McCaskill sank far back in her chair and did paperwork while Ayaan and I were talking." Why are so many reluctant to talk about political Islam? Nomani believes that many people are uncomfortable addressing this matter because Muslim activists in the U.S. have sought to emphasize that Muslims are a minority. Thus, many people fear being labeled as "bigots" if they criticize aspects of even extreme forms of Islam. 

"Muslim organizations have leveraged this idea that Muslims are a minority that needs to be protected," she said. "They want minority rights to trump any other conversation. They have convinced liberals that any criticism of Islam is bigoted. They are like the cigarette lobby was in discussing whether cigarettes are dangerous."

It is Nomani's mission, however, to get people to face what she realizes can be an uncomfortable issue. "Ayaan and I went to the Senate hearing not merely as witnesses," Nomani told IWF, "but also as whistle blowers. We are saying that it is time for America to wake up and time for the West to wake up. I fear that, if we don't, the United States will become Europe. Europe is in shambles when it comes to the issue of Islamic extremism and the failure to assimilate." Female genital mutilation, a common practice in the Muslim world, already is quietly practiced in Muslim communities in the U.S. A doctor in Michigan, for example, was recently arrested for performing the operation on two girls. The younger was seven. An imam in a Northern Virginia mosque recently stirred up controversy by seeming to publicly advocating the procedure.

 "We've known Sarsour for years in the community," Nomani said. "She is not the symbol of liberated women she claims to be. The political left is aligned with the Sharia-loving Muslim right, and they are foolishly using Sarsour as a poster girl.

"We should care about the rights of everyone," Nomani said to IWF. "But why is it important to care about the issues of extremist ideology within Islam? Because these issues are not just about communities far away. We see governments, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, exporting their extremist interpretations of Islam to the United States--including ideas that that oppress women. Go to the mall in our Washington, D.C., suburb of Tyson's Corner, and you will see plenty of women wearing face veils, their eyes not even visible at times. We have to be awake, compassionate, and kind. But compassion doesn't mean stupidity."

Nomani is concerned that Linda Sarsour, an advocate of Sharia law, was national co-chair of the Women's March in January and that Sarsour's views attracted very little notice in the mainstream media. "We've known Sarsour for years in the community," Nomani said. "She is not the symbol of liberated women she claims to be. The political left is aligned with the Sharia-loving Muslim right, and they are foolishly using Sarsour as a poster girl. It makes me feel afraid for the country. It is the perfect expression of naiveté."

A progressive, especially on social issues, Nomani, by the way, would have been in sympathy with many causes embraced by the Women's March--except that she surprised a lot of people--including probably herself--by voting for Donald Trump. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Nomani confessed that she, a lifelong liberal, had cast her vote for Trump. Her views on political Islam were part of the decision. She wrote, "[A]s a liberal Muslim who has experienced, first-hand, Islamic extremism in this world, I have been opposed to the decision by President Obama and the Democratic Party to tap dance around the 'Islam' in Islamic State.

"Of course, Trump’s rhetoric has been far more than indelicate and folks can have policy differences with his recommendations," Nomani admitted, "but, to me, it has been exaggerated and demonized by the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their media channels, such as Al Jazeera, and their proxies in the West, in a convenient distraction from the issue that most worries me as a human being on this earth: extremist Islam of the kind that has spilled blood from the hallways of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai to the dance floor of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla."

How did a nice Muslim girl like Nomani come to embrace such iconoclastic views? Asra was born in 1965 in Mumbai in India. A paternal ancestor in her extended family was a famous Islamic scholar of India, Shibli Nomani, during the British Raj. Her father, Zafar Nomani, is an academic who fell in love with the United States while studying at Kansas State University in the early 1960s. When she was four and her father was a PhD student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, her parents decided to bring Asra and her older brother to the U.S., to join them. Their paternal grandmother dressed the two children in matching outfits so that they could be more easily identified and reunited if they became separated.

When Asra was ten, the family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where her father had a position as assistant professor of nutrition at West Virginia University, which would become Asra's alma mater (nice Muslim girls didn't go away from home for college, though Zafar Nomani eventually consented for his daughter to go to graduate school in international communications at American University in Washington, D.C.). She had an idyllic American girlhood. "I learned to swim at the YMCA  and befriended Nancy Drew, because I loved to read. I learned how to do a Christmas gift exchange at school--they still let us do that then--and attended a school named after Martin Luther King Jr." From the moment she arrived in the U.S., her mother eschewed the veil she had worn in India in her conservative family, and her father started a local mosque--but he was careful, Asra said, to avoid contributions from foreign sources, funding Asra regards as radicalizing. There were a few restrictions: Asra didn't go to Friday night dances with her American friends, because her parents would not allow it, believing that girls and boys shouldn’t dance together, and she didn't go to Friday prayers at the mosque because that was off limits to women and girls.

Asra also traveled to Guantanamo Bay--she felt she had to see for herself Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operative who confessed to beheading Pearl. "It didn't bring Danny back but I needed to do it to process the grief," she said.

Aspiring to a career in journalism, Asra worked on the school newspaper and had plum journalism internships, including at Harper's magazine. She worked briefly as an intern at States News service before being hired at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent fifteen years. She started on the commodities column, considered a place for rookies to cut their teeth. Nomani has worked for the Wall Street Journal in Chicago, Washington, and New York, regularly getting scoops on the airline and lobbying industries, which she covered. It was at the Wall Street Journal that she became friendly with Daniel Pearl.

In 2002, Asra Nomani found herself living in Karachi in Pakistan, on leave from the Wall Street Journal, writing for Salon and finishing her first book, Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love, an eclectic spiritual quest involving Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism. Daniel and Mariane Pearl came to stay with her in her house in Karachi. One night, when Daniel was off, supposedly interviewing somebody in Karachi, Mariane and Asra became worried: Daniel was not answering his phone. He always picked up, even if just to say, "Can't talk now," and would call back later.

As the women became increasingly worried, they looked at Pearl's computer--he hadn't even password protected it. "I started seeing red flags right away," Asra recalled. The two women called the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Consulate. The Marine on duty at the consulate told Asra to call back in the morning. At dawn, at the call to prayer, they called again and were given the names of two Pakistani police officers the Regional Security Officer at the consulate trusted. "They rushed to the house and immediately suspected me because I was from India," Asra said. She convinced them she was safe and her house was converted into "an operation to find Danny."

"I realized that there was something strange in the back-and-forth Danny had with the man who set up the supposed interview, but I never imagined that Danny would be kidnapped and murdered." Asra knew something was terribly wrong when crestfallen police officers showed up at the door one night, five weeks into the search for Danny. "That's when the Pakistani officer we called Captain stood at the door and told Mariane, 'I couldn’t bring your Danny home.'" Asra was comforted by saying the Islamic prayer for protection, for Danny’s soul, Mariane, and their unborn baby, Adam. "In the trenches of life, I turned to my faith for courage, protection and hopefulness. My faith was a part of me in the darkest moment of my life, and it gave me light. But an extremist interpretation of my faith had also led men to take Danny’s life. I knew then that it would be my life’s mission to challenge all interpretations of Islam that cast darkness in our world and replace them with an Islam of grace," she said.

Asra had a reason to try forge a better world. In Karachi, she had "violated an edict" of Islam with a boyfriend she had planned to marry and learned, in the fourth week of Danny’s captivity, that she was pregnant. It was a crime under Sharia law in Pakistan for a woman to be unmarried and pregnant. After seeing Mariane’s baby safely into the world, in Paris, she returned to the U.S. and safely had her son in her hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.

"Just as we were invisible to the mullahs at the mosque," Nomani and Hirsi Ali wrote in the Times piece, "we were invisible to the Democratic women in the Senate."

For four intense years, Asra Nomani led the Pearl Project, founded by Nomani andBarbara Feinman Todd, director of journalism at Georgetown University. They investigated Danny’s kidnapping and murder. Thirty-two graduate and undergraduate students acquired investigative skills by interviewing and delving into other sources. Through their reporting, they pinpointed twenty-seven people involved, far more than the FBI found. Asra also traveled to Guantanamo Bay--she felt she had to see for herself Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operative who confessed to beheading Pearl. "It didn't bring Danny back but I needed to do it to process the grief," she said.

In 2015, Asra became a cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, which describes itself as "a global coalition of Muslim reformers." It can be argued that Muslim reform is actually making a new religion rather than reforming Islam. But that is a debate for another time. The organization includes Zuhdi Jasser, author of Battle for the Soul of Islam, who is often seen propounding a reformed version of Islam on television, Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow and author of Their Jihad--Not My Jihad, and other Muslim moderates. Nomani is author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of IslamNomani has said that reform Muslims must "take back the faith" on principles of peace and social justice, women's rights, and secular government. Part of her re-examination of Islam was going on a hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. She took her parents (her father was required as a chaperone) and her then-small son.

Given the tenor of Washington, especially in progressive circles--Asra's set before she came out of the closet as a Trump voter--it is irresistible to ask her: Does she regret voting for Trump? "It was very tough on me to watch the sword dance," she said, referring to the ceremony in which the president participated in Saudi Arabia, purveyor to the world of the radical Wahhabi ideology of Islam.  "But I know that, in his art of the deal, Donald Trump may just be able to get the Saudi regime to the table in a way that no administration has been able to do in the past – and get its leaders to actually abandon its extremist ideology and reform, joining us in the 21st century.”

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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