This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of Atheist Answers: Rational Responses to Religious Questions.
As a candidate, Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. Once he discovered that would violate the U.S. Constitution, however, President Trump crafted his Executive Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries (exempting Christian refugees).
As an atheist, I understand the flaws in religious extremism. But I’m also a secular activist, and I would never support a law that discriminates based on religious belief. I opposed the ban, and sought to discuss its implications with those who understand them best.
I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have many positive interactions with strong believers. In fact, most of the time I’m reading hate mail from Muslims, Christians, and pretty much every other faith. But I will also defend their right to believe and not be discriminated against, and that’s how I met Azmia Magane, the chief of staff at MuslimGirl.net – the “leading website for Muslim women in the West.”
I recently spoke with Magane, a social worker and writer who is passionate about social justice, policy analysis, child welfare, and humanitarian causes, about Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and how to best repair relationships with the Muslim community. (Portions of the interview were edited for clarity.)
MCAFEE: What are your views on same sex marriage, abortion, and separation of church and state?
MAGANE: I think it’s not my business how anyone else chooses to live, and people should have free will to do what they want with their bodies. It’s not the role of the government to make those things illegal, because then there’s no longer a separation of church and state when these things outlawed based on Christian values. The laws would then be based on theology, and to me that violates the Constitutional premise of freedom of religion, if you’re forcing everyone to live under theology-based laws. I fully support everyone having free will and equal rights.
MCAFEE: Do you acknowledge that fringe groups like ISIS are based on disturbing interpretations of Islam? Or are they “not true Muslims”?
MAGANE: I would say “not true Muslims” because Islam is easy, and everything they’re doing is completely un-Islamic. If you’ve actually read the Quran or the basic teachings of Islam, there’s no way that you could come out thinking the things they do are compatible with Islam. They take advantage of people’s ignorance of the religion — both the public and the people they recruit.
MCAFEE: We disagree here because I see this as a “No True Scotsman” fallacy. I think that, by reading only excerpts of the Qur’an and applying the words to modern situations, radical members of the religion are simply misinterpreting the doctrine. This is similar to how Christians used the Bible to justify slavery in early America. What are your thoughts on that?
MAGANE: I don’t think it’s a “misinterpretation” and if it is, it’s a deliberate one that plays on people’s ignorance of the religion, because everything the Prophet did throughout history, and everything the Quran says runs completely contrary to their actions. Nowhere in the Quran does it say anything about burning people alive, throwing them off buildings, etc. In fact, the Quran speaks of mercy and decries harsh methods or speaking. The only warfare permitted is defensive and even then there are rules of engagement — no harming civilians, animals, property; anyone who is not an active combatant, etc. So it is very, very, very hard for me to understand how anyone can “misinterpret” these teachings, unless it’s willfully and deliberately done to suit an agenda.
MCAFEE: I think we both know there are violent sections of the Qur’an. After all, it’s based on the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. There are violent passages that, if misread and applied to modern times, can cause issues.
MAGANE: The violence in the Quran refers to again, times when defensive warfare was being fought.
MCAFEE: Exactly. Now imagine if you can stretch anything to mean “defensive warfare.” Imagine you see bombs raining on your neighbors each day and you are told it’s because of your religion. Can you see how some might be able to stretch definitions to mean something it doesn’t actually say? Or what if they just don’t read the “defensive warfare” part? They are read everything out of context from an early age?
MAGANE: No, they’re not reading the whole thing. Which is why I say if anyone has actually read the Qur’an and studied Islam, using it to justify the acts of ISIS is not rational. For example — 2:191: “And slay them wherever ye catch them…” Read the whole passage in context from 2:190-195:
“Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loves not transgressors. And kill them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for persecution and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, kill them. Such is the reward of those who reject faith. But if they cease, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God; but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression. The prohibited month, for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear (the punishment of) God, and know that God is with those who restrain themselves. And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.”
It’s self-evident this is referring to defensive warfare. It calls for restraint, reminds the Muslims not to transgress, and to cease hostility if they do not fight you. It says multiple times “IF” they fight you. As to our bombing campaigns in Muslim-majority countries: We absolutely have an unjustified aggression problem, and yes, we (the West) are somewhat responsible in creating these fringe groups. The majority of Americans are ignorant to America’s role in these countries and our pattern of warfare that includes proxy rule, proxy warfare, destabilization and regime-toppling with little to no post-conflict stabilization and nation-building. We have frequently ignored pro-democracy movements and forced people into living under an oppressive and violent US backed single-party political system; it’s happened in multiple countries. That’s why we’re at war in Yemen now.
MCAFEE: A lot of experts say ISIS appreciates when Donald Trump and others spread hate toward Muslims because it’s a good recruiting tool, and I agree. But that wouldn’t work if none of these terrorists believed in Islam. Do you see what I mean?
MAGANE: Again — you can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig. But yes, I see what you’re saying. However, that does not make what they’re doing Islamic, nor will it ever. They cannot change Islam to suit their agenda. Both Daesh and anti-Islam extremists are two sides of the same extremist coin. They both use similar tactics for recruitment, and rely heavily on propaganda and groupthink.
MCAFEE: Donald Trump campaigned on the idea of barring Muslims from traveling to the United States. Do you consider Donald Trump’s seven-country immigration ban a “Muslim ban?” Why or why not?
MAGANE: Absolutely. For starters, the ban excludes “minority religions” from Muslim-majority countries, meaning it absolutely applies to Muslims because non-Muslims could be exempted. Therefore, it is literally a “Muslim ban.” Donald Trump himself has called it “the ban” on Twitter, and several of his staff have referred to it as such, although they keep going back and forth about whether or not it’s a “ban.” The language was such that even green card holders were not being allowed to enter. In essence, that’s a ban.
Additionally, this is absolutely going to foster further extremism and anti-American sentiment. No one is going to like you when you’re separating them from their families, or locking them inside a country while America & others are participating in bombing campaigns that destroy homes and lives, and disrupt infrastructures for healthcare and food delivery, leaving them to become victims of direct war violence, or killed by indirect effects of war, such as starvation and otherwise preventable diseases. It feeds right into Daesh’s narrative that the West is at war with Muslims; look how DJT and his administration is treating the Muslims who have legal rights to be here. Some of the people who were detained were actually Muslims who worked for the US government and served alongside US troops on Iraq. Where’s the “support our troops” coalition at now? Silent. Not to mention — the claim that this will decrease domestic terrorism is completely irrational. It ignores credible data that clearly shows the majority of domestic terrorism in the US is carried out by US citizens.
Just a few days ago, a white Canadian citizen who supported Trump and Marine La Pen murdered six Muslims who were praying in their mosque. In one night, he killed more people that refugees from all seven of those countries on the ban list combined. According to the CATO Institute, the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum seeker are one in 2.73 billion per year; the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack by a refugee are 3.64 billion per year. Do you know the odds of hitting the Powerball? One in 1.75 million. You literally have more of a chance of hitting the Powerball. So yeah — given all this, I absolutely believe it’s a Muslim ban.
MCAFEE: Do you think this ban will have any long-term effects? Will people blame Trump and his administration or white Americans in general?
MAGANE: I don’t think anyone should blame white Americans in general. That’s collective blame and punishment, and is in fact embracing the same ideology driving these policies — collective blame and collective punitive measures. No one should be blaming entire groups of people for the actions of few. However — can we blame white supremacy? Absolutely.
Moreover, I’ve seen tons of white Americans, including the AG Trump fired, standing up against these unjust policies. Do I think people will blame the Trump administration? Absolutely, and rightfully so. Trump’s administration is made of people who are vocally anti-Islam, and/or lavishing praise on rabid anti-Islamists. Trump himself has made statements that he thinks “Islam hates us.”
As far as the long-term effects, absolutely there will be long-term effects. Iran and the US have had shaky relations since 1953 when the Eisenhower administration ran a coup on their elected leader and installed a violent and oppressive regime that ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution. I don’t see this as making things any smoother between the two countries. The African Union chief has condemned this policy as well, and chastised America for taking Africans as slaves but not refugees. Never forget this policy could literally kill people; we are talking about refusing entry to people from countries with major humanitarian crises: Countries with an ongoing genocide (Sudan, Darfur), countries on the brink of starvation that may be out of food by April 2017 (Yemen), countries where there are millions of people internally displaced due to war and armed conflicts.
We denied Anne Frank refuge, and we all know what happened to her. You’re also stopping people from attending weddings, funerals, births; ruining businesses, careers, educations… these are life-changing events with life-long implications. People say Obama did this before, but it’s a false equivalency. Obama’s 2011 policy targeted one country in response to a specific threat. It targeted only refugees and Special Immigrant Visa applicants from Iraq. It also never banned or stopped admissions of Iraqis who fell under either category. Obama’s policy was reactive. It wasn’t a broad ban like Trump’s.
MCAFEE: Do you think more can be done by the Muslim community in denouncing these terrorist individuals and groups?
MAGANE: I have very strong mixed feelings about this. The notion that the “good, peaceful” Muslims have to apologize for the “bad dudes” is offensive because it’s inherently suggesting that this is a “Muslim thing” and it’s not. Extremism and terrorism have no religion. On the other hand, when you’re visibly identifiable as Muslim, whether you like it or not, you’re now going to be tokenized as the de facto spokesperson for a billion people. It’s important to realize this and carry yourself accordingly. Unless you tell the world who you are, the world will try to define you.
We do need to show the world who we are so we aren’t defined by the media’s negative representation of us. Polls reveal that more than half of Americans believe they’ve never met a Muslim, so there are valuable educational opportunities to be had when we have these dialogues. At the same time, the idea that we need to apologize for something we had nothing to do with is rooted in the concept of collective blame and punishment. Collective blame is dangerous because it not only dehumanizes us, but also drives violence. Constantly having to prove your humanity is exhausting.
MCAFEE: What are your thoughts on Sharia law? Is it true that there’s an effort to enact sharia law in the United States?
MAGANE: Muslims do not want to take over the US and make anyone live under sharia law. That is pure anti-Islam propaganda. Any practicing Muslim is going to practice sharia law, as is their right under the Constitution. However, fear not — no, we don’t want to “kill infidels” or anything. There’s not a single country that’s a good example of sharia law in action — the US is actually closest to having a sharia system!
Sharia law actually facilitates freedom of religion, as non-Muslims are not to be governed by it. Islam actually prohibits forcing religion on people. Sharia law guides how Muslims write wills, inherit, marry, divorce, funeral practices, etc. Sharia law also requires Muslims to follow the law of the land they live in, so for American Muslims, that would be ensuring we are in compliance with the Constitution and whatever other federal, local, and state laws apply.
MCAFEE: In your view, do people that are not Muslims need to follow Islamic laws? Such as not drawing the prophet Muhammed?
MAGANE: No, I don’t; that’s actually a ridiculous idea to me, and I would never expect that. It interferes with freedom of religion, which is something I believe in. The Prophet himself didn’t expect non-Muslims to follow Islamic laws. The Charter of Medina, written by the Prophet, is a great example of pluralism. The charter stipulated that Jews should be governed by the Torah versus Islamic laws, and established a fair and just judicial system. It denounced warfare as a form of conflict resolution and sought to end the tribalism contributing the political unrest. I do think that people should have basic human decency and treat others how they want to be treated.
I’ve never seen the Prophet drawn in an innocent gesture; it’s always been in a really distasteful, vulgar, and outright hateful manner. That’s deliberately provocative and hateful — why would you want to spend your very limited time on earth doing things like that? There are so many more productive things you could be doing with your time. Those people don’t make me angry — although I know that’s what they want. I feel sorry for them because carrying hatred for a billion people has to be a heavy and exhausting burden.
MCAFEE: A lot of people say that Islam is in need of a reformation. Would you agree with that, and is there a peaceful way to accomplish it?
MAGANE: No. Islam doesn’t need reformation. Islam is perfect; Muslims are not. People tend to conflate culture with religion. For example, female genital mutilation. It’s well-documented that Islam does not condone this, nor prescribe this. It completely conflicts with the teachings of Islam. FGM is a patriarchal practice that pre-dates Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. FGM is supposed to preserve a woman’s “chastity” by making sex less pleasurable for her. Yet Islam is actually a sex positive religion, and says that sex should be a mutually enjoyable experience. Part of a woman’s marital rights are that she enjoy sex.
Another cultural issue that’s conflated with Islam: Honor killings. Again, this is a cultural practice that pre-dates Islam. For a marriage to be valid, it must be consensual on behalf of both parties involved in the marriage — the bride and the groom. Islam is abundantly explicit in this. Harmful cultural practices are contrary to the teachings of Islam. Islam even addresses some of them directly, such as female infanticide. Islam forbade the killing of baby girls when that was a widespread cultural practice.
Islam is a pro-social justice religion that was created as an an equalizer; to improve humanity. Unfortunately, like all of humanity, there are problems — but it’s inaccurate to say that these problems are because of Islam. They’re not. The same problems that plagued the world prior to Islam — nationalism, tribalism, classism, racism, patriarchy, sexism, gender inequality, and violence against women — are still in existence today. They never magically disappeared. They do not discriminate based on religion. These are problems that plague humanity; they are not exclusive to Muslims. It’s not Islam that needs reformation; it’s people. The best way to jumpstart the revolution? Educate yourself. Have a radical love for humanity and goodness.
MCAFEE: What message do you have for secular humanists who love Muslims but think Islam can be dangerous (in the same way that Christianity is) because it fosters an “us vs. them” mentality?
MAGANE: First and foremost, thanks for being an ally — the support from allies is appreciated. As far as Islam being “dangerous,” literally anything can be weaponized when it falls into the wrong hands. That kind of narrative — the “us versus them” — is always going to be dangerous, no matter who the parties are. It’s categorically dehumanizing.
The reality of the situation is that extremist groups on both sides — those who have hijacked Islam and those who are anti-Islam — want to exploit the “us versus them” idea. That’s their absolute goal. It’s our job as individuals in a civilized society, irrespective of religious beliefs or lack thereof, that we don’t allow that to happen.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of belief, I hope this dialogue will help you see into “the other side.” We are not enemies here… we are all fighting for equal rights under the law.
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of Atheist Answers: Rational Responses to Religious Questions, The Book of Gods, The Belief Book, Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer, and Disproving Christianity and other Secular Writings. He is also the founder of The Party of Reason and Progress and a frequent contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee, who writes about science, skepticism, and faith, attended University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.
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