In Wilmington, Delaware, students at the treasured Cab Calloway School of the Arts can join a club, “Free to Be You,” and they can call a hotline to report bullying. In my anti-bullying stand for free speech, I will host an after-school teach-in tomorrow, not far from the school at a coffee shop called (aptly) Brew HaHa! The dean of the school has cancelled a talk I was scheduled to deliver to students on peace between Pakistan and my native India after a local Pakistani man, Naveed Baqir—the founder of an ultraconservative mosque—smeared me, an Islamic feminist, as “Islamophobic.”
My new lesson to the kids: we must speak up with moral courage for the change we want to see in the world, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, India’s nonviolence leader.
Sadly, an “honor brigade,” or loose network of academics, activists, bloggers and others, defend the perceived “honor” of “true” Islam by silencing speech and calling reformers, like me, “anti-Muslim,” “House Muslims,” “native informants” and “Uncle Toms.” Last week on Twitter, I was called “Auntie Tom.”
My experience with the Delaware honor brigade emulates the politics, personalities and smears that make it so difficult to have honest conversation in too many Muslim communities around the world. Simple dynamics, like exhaustion and fear of controversy, put open debate at risk.
There are brave ones, whom I will meet tomorrow in Delaware, who stand up to bullying with courage. But, to our peril, with even well-meaning Americans, the casualty is a serious one: censorship.
“While Naveed, and maybe some members of his community, might be opposed to what they perceive you to have written and said, they are alone. They are not the Delaware, Lahore, Delhi Peace Partnership,” says Beverley Baxter, 71, a board member of the group that invited me to speak, and a fellow feminist. “They are not Wilmington. They are not Delaware. We’re ready to welcome you to Wilmington and anxious to hear what you have to share with us.”
Tunde Durosomo, another board member, wrote to his colleagues in the group, “The real victims are the 600+ students that are denied the opportunity to experience something different, to hear a different perspective, a different voice of Islam. How can we expect our youths, leaders of tomorrow, to have a balanced education and become free, critical thinkers when they are shielded from opposite ideas and thoughts that some may perceive as controversial or politically incorrect?
He added: “I am even more troubled by the fact that their schools, the citadels of learning, abdicated their responsibility in this regard by giving in to fear and intimidation.”
The targets of the ‘honor brigade’, on campuses from University of South Dakota to University of Michigan, have included films like Honor Diaries and American Sniper.
Earlier this month, Duke University cancelled a talk of mine after the Duke Muslim Students Association cited a Religion News Service blog, written two years ago by a Duke Islam professor, Omid Safi. The Muslim student group said Safi had “condemned” me for an alleged “alliance with Islamophobic speakers.” Anonymous websites like LoonWatch.com reposted the smear after Religion News Service pulled it. (I don’t have any “alliance.” As a journalist, I talk with everyone.) Duke re-invited me after I asked for evidence, expressing regret at the cancellation. Safi didn’t respond to a request for comment.
My run-in with the ‘honor brigade’ in Delaware began innocently enough three months ago when I accepted an invitation in early February from Kathleen M. Meyer, 72, co-founder and board president of the nonprofit group, the Delaware, Lahore, Delhi Partnership for Peace. A DuPont retiree who had worked in Vietnam for the U.S. government during the war, she gave her heart and soul to the nonprofit, holding board meetings at her home. In 2011, she started the organization with colleagues in Lahore, Pakistan, and Delhi, India. With a goal of promoting people-to-people relations between the three countries, the organization has grown rapidly with programs, projects and overseas delegations that educate Americans about India and Pakistan with programs, such as an annual educational series on the two countries, attended by about 2,300 Delaware high-school students. In this spirit of goodwill, Meyer asked me to talk to about 600 students about India and Pakistan.
Born in India, I have family in Pakistan, and I rode the “peace bus” in 2000 from Delhi to Lahore, with my dadi, or paternal grandmother. I accepted the invite and sent a clunky title, “Riding the Peace Bus: How to Find Healing—Personal and Political—for the People of India and Pakistan and their Diaspora,” but it was meaningful to me. Thirteen years earlier, in early 2002, my Wall Street Journal colleague and friend, Danny Pearl, had been kidnapped after he left a house I had rented in Karachi. He was later brutally murdered, and I had learned I had to find personal healing from the grief of Danny’s murder before I could imagine peace.
In mid-March, I saw a draft invitation. When I sent in my bio, I had mentioned my essay about the “honor brigade,” and I got a query back from the board president: “…explain the HONOR BRIGADE. It is not clear what it is. What your connection to it is, etc.”
The connection soon became evident. I was a target. On March 19, the board president sent out a message: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have cancelled our educational series program and luncheon….”
The “unforeseen circumstances” were the protests of a board member: Baqir, an IT specialist who had, ironically, voted for my original invitation and designed the invite. He had resigned the day before, battling the weary board president over me. She told members at the time that he threatened to picket the talk. He denies it. But it’s clear that board members who loved the Cab Calloway dean and wished her no harm were afraid she’d be dragged into a mess.
Baqir’s complaint was that he had read the Daily Beast columns I’d written on the difficult topic of “profiling,” my participation in Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Islamic radicalization, and my support of NYPD monitoring programs. He concluded that I was “Islamophobic.”
In an email, he tells me that my writing “puts myself, my family, my children and millions of other American minorities at risk of the after effects of profiling due to their racial, ethnic and religious background. Thats [sic] why I changed my mind, resigned from DLD board leadership in protest and am planed [sic] on issuing a statement.”
I am not “Islamophobic,” nor am I “anti-Muslim.” My father is Muslim. My mother is Muslim, and I am Muslim. But I also don’t live with my head buried in the sand. I am for honest threat assessments, public conversations and law enforcement strategies. And I am for critical conversations, not saving face, on the issue of Islamic extremism.
In my 2010 Daily Beast column, I chronicled how I had participated in an Intelligence Squared debate on “profiling” with a former CIA agent, Bob Baer, and an African-American columnist, Deroy Murdoch, on my team. We argued that race and religion are legitimate elements of threat assessments, like if police rule out African-Americans as suspects in a cross burning at an African-American family’s house and focus on potential white suspects.
I was emphatically clear: “profiling” shouldn’t be discriminatory, harassing or illegal.
We won the debate.
I wondered: What led this former board member to turn on me?
Born in Pakistan, Baqir earned a graduate degree in computer science from the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, started by the government of Saudi Arabia in 1980, as it brought its Wahhabi Islam to the subcontinent during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Islamization of Pakistan. He came to the United States, earning a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2009, according to his resume published online (PDF). The next year his wife, Amna Latif, and he started a school in Newark, Delaware, advertised on the web as Tarbiyah Islamic School of Delaware, where first-grade girls cover their hair with hijabs. Baqir says the school is “nondenominational,” and he asked that it not be named, for fears it would be targeted in some way. “I am requesting that you do not refer to Tarbiyah School in anyway,” he wrote to me. “Please do not make these children the target of your frustration.”
On the homepage of its website, a photo of teachers and staff shows five of 21 scarved women peering out from behind full-face black veils, only their eyes visible, over the shroud of a dark gown. Latif covers her face with a veil. The most puritanical interpretations of Islam require veils. The Deobandi school of thought, the driving ideology of the Taliban, militant groups and strict orthodoxy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, requires full-face veils for women, as does the Wahhabi and Salafi schools of thought exported to the world from Saudi Arabia. My mother’s family required she wear the face veil as a woman.
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 11, Baqir co-founded the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs. Five days later, the group uploaded its first post to its Facebook page. That night, by chance, the Washington Post section published online my “honor brigade” essay, ahead of its Sunday edition.
In late February, three Muslim students were killed in Chapel Hill, N.C., and though the FBI and police have acknowledged the alleged murderer was a hateful neighbor who was a sort of parking lot vigilante, they haven’t identified the murder as a hate crime. But, with the jury still out, many Muslim groups, from the Muslim Students Association to the new Delaware group, have reached a verdict.
On March 1, 2015, reporter Margie Fishman published an article in the News Journal, with a video in which Baqir says, “We are safe only until something happens. North Carolina three weeks ago was just as safe as Wilmington…as Newark or Delaware is today, and then all of a sudden, that tragedy that killing of three innocent people, that shook the whole Muslim community across the U.S., not just in North Carolina, that they’re not safe anymore.”
The journalist chronicled Baqir leading prayer at University of Delaware’s Perkins Students Center. She wrote: “Leading the service, Baqir urged attendees to redouble their efforts to communicate the true image of Islam. Instead of spouting anger, he said, shower naysayers with kindness.”
About two weeks later, Baqir protested my speech, which of course IS his right. Board members heard that Baqir had threatened to picket the Cab Calloway school. He denies he made that threat, but the possibility of controversy made the situation very awkward for the nonprofit group, which runs on a shoestring budget, sweat equity and goodwill with community leaders like the school’s dean, who had been part of a 2014 delegation to Pakistan with the group, including Baqir.
On March 21, the group’s board president accepted Baqir’s resignation, reinstating the talk. But board members were worried about the veiled threat they had heard that Baqir would picket the Cab Calloway school.
That next Tuesday, Baxter, the feminist board member and president of the state chapter of the International Women’s Forum, says she met Baqir at a hip local coffee shop, Brew HaHa! Over a hot berry tea, she had one objective: to save their friend, the dean of Cab Calloway, from controversy.
Earlier, Baqir had sent Baxter a link to an article by an anonymous writer, “Danios,” on LoonWatch.com to argue that I was “controversial.” She had dismissed it as “hate-filled, over the top, emotional screed.” Now, he repeated allegations that mimicked the Duke professor’s attack on me. Baxter wanted to just protect her the school dean.
Three hours later, she says she had no reassurance. “He just kept that threat out there,” she says. “It made us all anxious.”
I definitely have a difference of beliefs from Baqir, but would defend his right to express them. He had started a mosque, Masjid Isa ibn-e-Maryam (“Jesus, son of Mary”), known in the community as ascribing to the strict Salafi and Deobandi schools of thought. Baqir says it doesn’t. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says.
On the first Friday of April, a University of Delaware professor of Islam, Muqtedar Khan, led the prayer and delivered the khutbah, or sermon. He had cofounded the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs with Baqir. “There are only two kinds of people in the world, Muslims and potential Muslims,” he said. “Think of others as potential Muslims. Everybody is a potential Muslim.”
In an email, Khan wrote that he was trying to encourage interfaith dialogue with a concept of non-Muslims as “dar ul-dawah,” or “house of education,” rather than dar ul-harb, or “house of war.” (I believe there are Muslims, and lots of other “kinds” of beautiful people in a dar ul-wadud, or “house of love.”)
Last week, the group’s beleaguered board president asked Baqir for a reassurance that he wasn’t going to picket.
This past Friday, before the holy Muslim prayers, she got her response. At 11:26 a.m., Baqir sent an email to the nonprofit president, copying the dean at the Cab Calloway school, claiming “many” parents would have their children boycott the talk because, he alleged, I am anti-Muslim. He said he expressed his “concerns” to “the chief of FBI for Delaware, U.S. Attorney [Charles Oberty], representatives from state and local departments of home land [sic], and members of state police and Wilmington police” at a “cultural awareness training” the day before. “They have assured me that I am within my rights to express dissent and displeasure on this issue,” he wrote.
That was a no-brainer. I’d assure him he had a right in the U.S. to free speech, and our battle is one of ideas.
And interestingly, at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Kimberlynn Reeves, a spokeswoman, said, “Mr. Baqir did visit the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a cultural awareness training on Thursday, April 16. However, the statement by Mr. Baqir concerning his conversation with the U.S. Attorney referenced in the email thread below was overstated. Although neutrality and impartiality are the cornerstone of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is willing to work with any party who is trying to improve community relations within the District of Delaware.”
In his email, Baqir said on the day of the event “we will be issuing a press release on behalf of the 14 mosques in Delaware, and possibly through Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs,” the group he started in January, and “the Council on American Islamic [sic] Relations (CAIR).” The Council on American-Islamic Relations didn’t return messages seeking comment.
To silence us, many Muslim reformers are framed as traitors to Islam. In my case, my detractor alleged I am someone who “demands” that law enforcement “profile minority Americans on the basis of their race, ethnicity and religion.” I don’t demand any such thing, nor do I support any policies that are discriminatory, harassing or illegal.
Less than half an hour after receiving the email, Julie Runschlag, the Cab Calloway dean, responded: “I am sorry to inform you that Cab Calloway can no longer host this event.” She ended: “We are not in a position to be in the midst of this controversy.” A Red Clay Consolidated School District spokeswoman declined further comment.
The decision had been made. Board members of the nonprofit felt they had to respect the beloved school dean. She was a progressive feminist, but they concluded she was protecting her students from controversy. The besieged president of the nonprofit and the board decided to continue to host a lunch at a local private club.
A Pakistan-American board member, Nasim Hassan, who actually abstained from voting for inviting me to speak, says his former colleague had “crossed the limits of decency.”
In an interview this week with me, filled with many interruptions, Baqir said, “I was not bullying.” He said he didn’t ask for my talk to be canceled, and he charged me with “bullying” him by calling for comment.
He later wrote to me: “In the end I would like to say that it is unfortunate that you plan on portraying me in an unkind manner because of the potential of a single piece of paper as a press release. Look who is bullying DLD [Delaware, Lahore, Delhi Partnership for Peace] and Cab Calloway that they must host you or else they are denying your right to free speech.” He added: “It is ironic that you would consider writing a whole article criticizing my right to write a single piece of paper that I haven’t even written yet.”
But this isn’t about the speech, Delaware or me. The lifeblood of our country is free speech, and we have to talk freely about our failures, too, to be able to exercise free speech.
“Freedom to think and to express oneself is a God given right. When Muslims censor fellow Muslims while the rest watch, it says two things: one, those Muslim bystanders need to live up to the ideals of Islam and defend dissenting voices; and two, don’t blame non-Muslims for discriminating against our community when we do it internally,” says Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values and an American-Malaysian songwriter and singer.
I accepted an invitation to a smaller lunch than had been planned with the community, and I booked the new venue for my talk, now a teach-in. After lunch, I’ll head to Delaware Avenue with my parents and son, Shibli, 12, to park myself in the conference room of Brew Ha-Ha! on Delaware Avenue from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., for anyone who wants to, well, exercise our First Amendment rights.
I’m homeschooling my son this year, and my lesson was going to be on peace, healing, India and Pakistan. Now, not far from the flapping American flag of the school where I wasn’t allowed to speak, the lesson will be a different one: free speech.
Update from Wilmington:
My parents, son and I ventured to Wilmington, De., in the early morn this week, and I successfully spoke to about 19 leaders in the Delaware, Lahore, Delhi Partnership for Peace and their guests, after a talk to about 600 students at Cab Calloway School of the Arts was cancelled after a local Pakistani man launched a smear campaign against me.
I had told the group, “I will still be coming to Delaware and presenting my talk, even if it’s from the sidewalk, with just my parents and son to hear my voice.” We had a welcoming lunch instead, boycotted by a number of people in the Pakistani-American community because of the smears that had been spread about me.
We talked about women’s rights, peace, poverty and terrorism. I told the group: “We have to decide, in each one of our lives, if we are going to feed our wounds and act out with anger, bullying and violence, or we are going to rise to our higher selves and transform grief into positive action and peace.”
Afterwards, in a glass-enclosed conference room at BrewHaHa! on Delaware Avenue, I spoke to a small group of locals about my topic, “Riding the Peace Bus.” One woman noted: “Someone tried to hijack the peace bus,” she said, but indeed we had kept it on the road.
My mother, Sajida Nomani, said: “Numbers don’t matter. We met the best people.”
Not to take any risks, after first sitting with my back to the street, I changed seats so I could see onto the street, at any passerbys. Later, a metaphor for our experience, I accidentally burnt my arm from the steam on a tea kettle in a Wilmington, café, the sting of the burn soothed only by the memories of deep conversations with new friends in one town in America, importantly standing up for free speech.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @AsraNomani.