To see the perplexities of modern Islam, take four-and-a-half minutes to watch this video recently broadcast on the Egyptian television station Al-Nahar, and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. The host is Riham Sahid, who is interviewing “Dr. Noha,” a Wahhabi (“Salafist”) Muslim whose full name is Noha Mahmoud Salem.
In a reversal of roles, the apparently liberal host interviews the hijab-clad doctor, but it turns into a shouting match about what “real” Muslims believe, with the host taking the Islamic hard line: Allah and not Muhummad wrote the Qur’an, sharia law should be implemented everywhere, and Allah answers all prayers. (Sahid claims that Allah would give her a million pounds if she prayed for it, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t.) It’s quite startling to hear Sahid, seemingly a modern woman clad in Western dress, espousing chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning adultresses to death (of course she doesn’t mention the male partner).
It turns out that Dr. Salem wore the hijab to hide her identity, for she says things that brand her as an apostate under sharia law, and therefore as someone who, according to that law, must be killed. But it’s heartening to hear the courageous doctor stand up for her views, calling much of Islam “a myth,” asserting that Muhammad himself and not Allah wrote the Qur’an, and claiming, based on experience, that Allah doesn’t respond to prayer. Salem’s statements make her seem only a hairsbreadth away from being an atheist.
In fact, according to a profile in last year’s Egypt Independent, she is. After 29 years of marriage, her Muslim husband, who beat her and treated her like chattel, divorced her. She gave up Islam, and all religion, after rereading the Qur’an, and remarried another atheist. Ironically, the ceremony was Muslim, and, to satisfy the family, both bride and groom swore fealty to Allah.
Sahid gets really exercised at the challenges to her faith, and winds up calling Dr. Salem “ignorant.” Sahid boasts, not realizing the irony, “I am proud to be an ignoramus.” Finally, the exasperated Sahid boots her interviewee out of the studio, saying that she had wasted her time with a “crazy woman.” But it is Dr. Salem who is rational and Sahid who believes in fairy tales.
Kudos to the immensely courageous Salem! It’s easy for us to criticize Islam from the safety of our computers in the West, but it’s people like Salem who take the very real risks that we don’t bear. Egypt, though often seen as one of the less extreme Muslim nations, has a populace whose beliefs are simply frightening. A Pew Research Center poll of Muslim nations taken last year revealed that 74% of Egyptian Muslims think not only that sharia should be the official law of the land, but should apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims. And while interpretations of sharia vary from country to country, 70% of Egyptian Muslims think that corporal punishment should be meted out for theft and similar crimes, and 81% agree with Sahid that adultery should be punished by stoning. Finally, a full 86% of Egyptian Muslims say that those who leave Islam should be given the death penalty. Salem, in other words, has a target on her back. I wish her well but fear for her safety.
It is brave people like Dr. Salem—risking their lives by speaking out against the dehumanizing strictures of Islam—who are the only chance for the “religion of peace” to become truly peaceful. That is why it was so ludicrous for Brandeis to withdraw its offer of an honorary degree to the courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who travels with an armed bodyguard because of her outspoken apostasy. Yet Hirsi Ali, scorned by many liberals, continues to decry the oppressive sexism of Islam.
To complicate matters, Sahid herself recently crossed swords with an Islamic cleric on another television interview, refusing to wear the veil to conform to the cleric’s beliefs (the clip is here). In that case, it was Sahid who walked off her own show. It is so curious, and a mystery to me, that a woman who refuses to wear the veil nevertheless advocates stoning adulterers and chopping off the hands of thieves. Can she be considered a moderate Muslim? I don’t think so. At least in the debate between Sahid and Salem, the “moderate” is really an extremist, while the true Muslim moderate is an atheist.
Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.