Everything you always wanted to know about Islam, but were afraid to ask

Do all Muslims hate the Jews and Israel? Does Islam permit Muslims to lie while they gather strength to defeat their enemies? Where did this lust for beheading come from? Imam Abdullah Antepli handles a slew of unpleasant questions with candor and equanimity

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Imam Abdullah Antepli (Courtesy)
Imam Abdullah Antepli (Courtesy)

Over the past two years, in a bold, groundbreaking program, Imam Abdullah Antepli has brought three groups of American Muslim leaders to study Judaism at the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

During his most recent visit here this summer, The Times of Israel took the opportunity to ask Antepli some of the questions that trouble many Jews, and not only Jews, about Islam.

The exchanges below came toward the end of an extensive interview devoted to the Muslim Leadership Initiative that Antepli has pioneered together with Yossi Klein Halevi at Hartman.

Antepli, the chief representative for Muslim affairs at Duke University, answered plenty of supremely unpleasant questions earnestly, candidly, and with unfailing good humor. Indeed, it was the interviewer who got a little hot under the collar at certain stages.

The Times of Israel: How do the 6-8 million American Muslims generally view Israel?

Imam Abdullah Antepli: The widespread assumption among Muslims around the world, including in the US, is that the entire State of Israel is a Western colonial invention, imposed on the heart of Islam; a post-Holocaust European plan. It’s very commonly held that Israel is illegitimate, and that its relentless human rights violations against Palestinians perpetuate its illegitimacy.

And there’s no appreciation of any kind of Jewish historical legitimacy in this part of the world?

First of all, how can there be any such appreciation if all you know about the State of Israel is as a post-Holocaust reality? For many Muslims, Judaism’s connection to this part of the world is secondary, because the Palestinians are seen as the indigenous inhabitants or because they feel Judaism’s historical connection to the land should not be used to deny the Palestinians’ actual presence in the land.

US President Obama delivering his famed Cairo Speech in 2009. The president highlighted the need for social progress in his first major address to the Muslim world. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)
US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo on June 4, 2009. (photo credit: screen capture, YouTube)

Many voices in the American Jewish community are not helping much. They keep focusing on the Holocaust, and on the crisis narrative when it comes to Israel, instead of making the case for the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to this land. Even President Obama, when he went to Cairo to speak in 2009, said Israel has a right to exist because the Jews suffered too much in the Holocaust. It was such a low moment, I just crumbled in front of my TV.

In defense of my people, they have a very deep and legitimate connection to Palestinian suffering, and that suffering is very real. Without the elimination of that suffering, many won’t be open to hear anything else. The Muslim trauma over Palestinian suffering goes very deep. Just as I say to Muslims that they have to come to terms with Israel’s legitimacy, I say to Jews that they have to come to terms with the terrible consequences of five decades of occupation.

On campus, how do American Muslim students divide between those who think that Israel is terrible and has to be battled, and those who consider that to be an extremist and problematic approach?

It varies from year to year and person to person, but there seem to be two main camps. This is my eighth year at Duke, and I do interviews with my students when they first arrive. I ask them what are the things that you want to get involved in? How do you want to use these four years to shape your Muslim identity? And what are the things that you would like to feed yourself, areas that you will like to grow? There are students who say, All I want to do is pro-Palestinian activism. And there is maybe a slightly bigger percentage who say, The thing that I don’t want to do is pro-Palestinian activism.

Imam Abdullah Antepli at Duke (Courtesy)
Imam Abdullah Antepli at Duke (Courtesy)

This latter camp in essence says, “I am a product of a mosque or a Muslim community which was obsessed with this. I don’t want my American Muslim identity to be shaped by one type of political activism. Even if I am pro-Palestinian, the strong, almost exclusive BDS line, it’s not for everyone.” Others believe engagement might be part of the solution. This even includes some Palestinian-American students who are not impressed by the current stalemate, and want to see new, more effective strategies.

Are things getting better or worse?

It’s too soon to call, because there is a whole new wave of anti-Israeli sentiment — not anti-Semitic, most of the time — growing among 18-35 year olds in the United States. There is a very significant deterioration in Israel’s reputation, in its image, mostly among younger people. Israel’s recent wars and its coverage in popular media made clear to many that the state often falls short in upholding its ideals in these wars and in its treatment of the ethnic and religious minorities under its control. So much so, especially on college campus, that it’s almost becoming cool to be anti-Israeli. It became like being pro-abortion or pro-gay.

This trend became more visible from 2006, with the Lebanon war, and the beginning of social media, the beginning of people taking pictures and sharing in detail, challenging the official Israeli narrative. Then the tragic 2008 Gaza War. And the last heart-wrenching war was just another major blow. It strengthens both forces that I just talked about. One group says, “This is hopeless, I don’t want anything to do with it, and I want to live my religion free from any unhelpful political activism.” And other voices say, “Don’t you see: These people are nothing but a bunch of bloodthirsty, unethical, immoral tyrants. We should fight and boycott them.” And of course many variations in between.

Just look at the kind of reaction and opposition in some quarters to the Muslim Leadership Initiative. The death threats, the nasty attacks. I’m not a marginal, sell-out Muslim, or a self-hating Muslim. I’m a Muslim with years of service to my community and my country. I have a standing in the American Muslim community. It’s not that they don’t trust me, but if you look at what they are saying, they don’t trust Israelis.

Antepli Antepli, in traditional Afghan clothes, addresses a group of religious scholars in Wardak, Afghanistan in 2010 (Courtesy)
Antepli Antepli, in traditional Afghan clothes, addresses a group of religious scholars in Wardak, Afghanistan in 2010 (Courtesy)

How widespread among American Muslims, and Islam around the world, is the openness to Judaism that you stand for, as opposed to the anti-Semitism that you absorbed growing up in Turkey?

The inherent openness to Judaism is in Islam’s DNA and in Muslim history. It is widespread among global Muslim communities but it needs to be cultivated. Muslim anti-Semitism is different from Christian anti-Semitism. It’s true that the history of Jews in Muslim lands is complicated — it wasn’t as ideal as some Muslims like to think, but it also wasn’t as oppressive as some Jews today like to claim. It changed from country to country, but on the whole it was much better than under Christianity.

In its current form, most Muslim anti-Semitism is mainly shaped by post-1948 realities and it is in direct contradiction and violation of mainstream Islamic theology and 1,400 years of Muslim history. I’d also add: Many people who have criticized MLI are not opposed to Judaism, and in no way can be labeled as “anti-Semitic.” Their anger and opposition is to the State of Israel and Zionism as they perceive them. They just wondered why we had to go to Israel to engage with Jews. If we were to do MLI in the US with American Jews, it wouldn’t have been an issue to most Muslims.

There have been interfaith dialogue efforts where the Jewish participants find that credible Muslim leaders, especially from the Arab world, either don’t want to be involved at all or, if they do, are intimidated into not participating because the dominant voice of Islam is so extreme.

I think I am speaking about American Islam, but I would argue the same for global Islam: Anti-Semitic sentiment is on the rise, but it hasn’t taken over everybody yet. However, if we, as Jews and Muslims, don’t do anything about it, we may be heading in that regrettable direction. I still believe there is a substantial majority of American Muslims who, potentially, are open to opposing a hate message, open to having a better relationship with their Jewish neighbors. They see no contradiction whatsoever, as Muslims, in having better relations with Jews, but they don’t know how. There is a deep and promising future here in North America, based on our equal rights as Americans, that we should take advantage of.

Elsewhere, things are a lot more difficult. I’ve never said no to any invitation for interfaith dialogue or engagement, as long as I am available. And I am far from being the only one. I wish the media focused more on credible Muslim leaders who participate in these kinds of bridge-building efforts than on those who decline or fear to participate.

But what is being taught to Muslims? There is a president in Egypt who says publicly that Islam is becoming perceived as a religion of hatred, a religion that kills people, and that its leading scholars and teachers need to urgently re-orient Islam.

To re-brand.

But is he the maverick, confronting this bloodthirsty, extremist religion, or is the mainstream, tolerant Islam being perverted by a loud extreme?

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attending a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Cairo on August 2, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Ho/Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. (photo credit: AFP/Ho/Egyptian Presidency)

El-Sissi’s a dictator. He’s neither a maverick, nor tolerant. He is in the business of crushing his opposition and scoring cheap political points and he will misuse any reality which will help him in that regard.

However, your point is very valid. Islam as a religion and Muslims as people are increasingly perceived as evil realities by many non-Muslims, and it’s getting worse in certain circles, especially in the West. The conversation about Islam and Muslims globally has been hijacked by a small yet extremely loud and destructive group of people — terrorist organizations that are pure evil and who are doing evil, barbaric and inhumane business in the name of Islam: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah… you name it. The haters of Islam and Muslims don’t have to try hard to paint the image of Islam as a fire-breathing dragon. These rotten Muslim souls, through their savagery and insanity, do the job for them.

Our challenge here is to understand: How representative are these terrorists and savages? Are they real Muslims? And should Islamic theology and Muslim culture be defined by these blood-thirsty crazies? I hope not.

This is my struggle every day. People doing some insane thing in the name of Islam. They undermine the years of good work done by many outstanding Muslims in the United States with one crazy action. I believe I am more representative of the overwhelming majority of Muslims than ISIS. I believe that an overwhelming majority of Muslims subscribe to the Islam that is peaceful and merciful.

What does your Islam stand for?

It’s not my Islam. It’s mainstream Islam. It’s an Islam — like mainstream Judaism, like mainstream Christianity, like in Hinduism and Buddhism — that tries to keep its followers ethical, moral human beings, tries to connect them to the ethical, moral teachings of their faith and tradition. It’s an Islam that tries to inspire people to be better human beings and have better relations with their creator and their fellow human beings.

Forgive the devil’s advocate questions. There are those who say (in the context, for instance, of Yasser Arafat’s accords with Israel and the Hamas readiness for a long-term ceasefire with Israel) that the policies of Muhammad allow Muslims to be duplicitously nice and moderate toward Jews in the short-term, while building up the strength to destroy them.

I love the devil’s advocate questions, and I thank you for asking this question, which is one of the central difficulties and stumbling blocks between Jews and Muslims, globally but especially in the Middle East. When my Jewish conversation partners bring up this “religious permission and/or encouragement to lie and deceive” issue, I understand where they are coming from. Whenever skeptical Jews see or hear any “too good to be true” story with Muslims, they often go through what I call a “Yasser Arafat’s infamous Johannesburg Mosque talk” moment.

Palestinians are eager to obtain Yasser Arafat's archives (photo by Flash90)
Yasser Arafat (Flash90)

Most Muslims wouldn’t know or remember that talk, a speech to a group of Muslims leaked to the media, but many Jews, and certainly Israelis, do remember Arafat explaining the Oslo peace agreement as a tactical deception, and justifying that strategy through his understanding of Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with contemporary Jewry, as you mentioned in your question.

This is not the only incident that feeds that common stereotype that Muslims are religiously allowed, if not encouraged, to lie and deceive. Hamas leaders and others have regretfully used that Islamic language to justify their deceitful political moves.

Let me first explain where the stereotype comes from. Like all stereotypes, it has some partial truth to it. Islam, much like Judaism, has a very sophisticated legal tradition evolved over many centuries and through oceans of literature, presenting Muslim jurists’ and scholars’ debates, disagreements and struggles, to determine what is Islamically permissible and not permissible. For each argument, every jurist involved cited verses of Holy Qur’an and examples from the life of the Prophet to prove their point.

Within that literature, when jurists and scholars debated whether it is permissible to lie and cheat, the term “taqiyyah” emerges. Some scholars argue that if your life is in danger — someone puts a gun to your head and asks: “Are you a Muslim?” and a “yes” would mean your death or that of someone else — you are allowed to lie or do and say things to convince them that you are not Muslim. (I’m pretty sure there is a parallel halachic argument.) It is a permission given by some Muslim scholars, only to be used in an extreme life and death situation, with warning stipulations that it not be abused. It is not commonly known by most Muslims and not commonly practiced.

‘Jews and Muslims have to revisit what we heard and learned about each other if we want to rise above the current depressing and disastrous state of affairs between us’

There is absolutely no scholarly or scientific evidence that “taqiyyah” is the heart of Islam and the secret sixth pillar of this religion. Lying, cheating and deceiving are cardinal sins in Islam, and are considered by the consensus of Muslim scholars of all backgrounds to be signs and acts of disbelief.

Having said all that, are there Muslims, Muslim leaders, who go and find out these religious permissions to justify their deceitful acts and lies? Absolutely yes. And when these abuses of religious practice are done by high profile Muslim leaders, especially if you feel existentially threatened by these people and their communities, and if all or most of what you hear about Islam and Muslims are these kinds of terrible examples, and you end up believing that nothing potentially good can come out of this faith tradition, who can blame you?!

But my question to my Jewish brothers and sisters in this regard is, if you overdo this stereotype and if you take it to the extreme, if you don’t go beyond these accurate but marginal horrible examples, and if you consider this to constitute all of Islam and all Muslims, and really make yourself believe that you can ultimately never trust any Muslim, or anything they say or do, what does this say about you? You will be a person with little to no hope; you will never take yes as an answer. Nothing will be good enough to accept and trust.

This problem is very much mirrored in many Muslim societies towards Jews, Judaism and Israel. Very often we reduce each other into destructive and toxic stereotypes. As Jews and Muslims globally, we need to diversify our sources of information about each other. We have to revisit what we heard and learned about each other if we want to rise above the current depressing and disastrous state of affairs between us.

But what is it about Islam that is producing such a loud and extreme stream? If you read the Old Testament literally, you could depict Judaism as a very brutal religion. There certainly are dreadful acts of Jewish terrorism. But the instinctive argument among mainstream Jews and Israelis would be that we condemn our extremists, whereas in Islam they are becoming dominant and the people who condemn them seem to be intimidated or drowned out. So I’m asking you two things. What is it about Islam that’s creating this terrible, brutal stream? And why is what you claim is the dominant part of Islam incapable of marginalizing that stream? (Days after this interview, alleged Jewish terrorists murderously firebombed a Palestinian home in the West Bank. The notion of a decisive Jewish claim to a moral high ground seems increasingly eroded by acts such as this — DH.)

At the risk of being a boring theologian here, this whole Muslim extremism and terrorism craziness is a product of four Islams. One, the religion of Islam. I am not one of those naïve Muslims that keep denying that this extremism, terrorism, ISIS, Boko Haram, have anything to do with Islam. That’s not true. I am sick and tired of those essentialist people who think Islam is either a religion of evil and destruction or Islam is completely a religion of peace. Both are wrong, inaccurate and dangerous. No religion is essentially one thing. No religion is essentially good or evil. It’s so simplistic and destructive to think that way. As much as I hate these evil people and terrorist networks doing evil business of bloodshed in the name of Islam, as much as I despise and abhor them, I can’t say they are not Muslim. They are a cancer within my world, and I and all others in it have a greater obligation to protect humanity from this cancer.

The second Islam is Islam as Muslims. In every religion, the theology and belief system manifests itself in the human experience differently. And we are talking about 1.7 billion people today.

If you look at all the bloodshed and savagery done in the name of Islam by Muslims anywhere in the world, and if you trace the ideological and religious roots of this violent extremism, you will always find that it is connected to, fed by, and grew out of Wahhabism and Salafism

The third Islam is Islam as history. In order to understand the kind of craziness that we are dealing with, this fire-breathing dragon in front of us, we have to understand the historical factors which brought us here. What recent Muslim histories gave birth to this very unimpressive contemporary picture of Islam and Muslims today.

The fourth is the social, economic and historical factors. If anybody believes that the theology of Islam, the belief system of Islam, produced ISIS, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, that’s not only wrong and misleading, it will not solve this problem. But if you believe that what we have in front of us, this cancer, this evil business in the name of Islam, is a product of both Islam as a religion and a product of deeply failed societies, deeply failed global foreign and economic policies, and historical and cultural factors, then you will come to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s point: Few are guilty of producing these monsters but many, many are responsible. Until and unless the global human community recognizes the spectrum of root causes which caused this evil cancer of Muslim extremism and terrorism, and takes part in eliminating these root causes, we will continue to see this cancer spreading and destroying.

I understand the need for historical context, but please be more specific: What happened that allowed this to flourish?

If a society is functioning and healthy, it reveals the best of every aspect of that society, including the religion. But if a society is deeply failed and rotten, and its social institutions have been destroyed, it reveals the worst of anything, including religion. That’s exactly what you are seeing. Look at the societies which produced this cancer. In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is in single digits for men and women. Seventy percent of the nation has never been introduced to electricity. The level of brokenness and dysfunctionality of these societies is an important factor in producing this craziness.

Second, the mother of all evil is the Wahhabi and Salafi ideology. If you look at all the bloodshed and savagery done in the name of Islam by Muslims anywhere in the world, and if you trace the ideological and religious roots of this violent extremism, you will always find that it is connected to, fed by, and grew out of Wahhabism and Salafism. Throughout Muslim history, there have been many such fringe extremist and violent religious groups perverting Islam and shedding blood in the name of Islam but none survived and grew into as monstrous a level as Wahhabism and Salafism. For the first time, such evil ideology met with petro-dollars. For the first time, a small, marginal, extremely literalist and violent ideology was supported by a sovereign state through billions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also supported by deeply failed Western policies. They not only supported Saudi Arabia, and allowed it to export this cancer all over the world. But also, in the context of the Afghan War against Soviet Russia, they allowed this evil ideology to get military training, to learn how to kill and destroy.

It was a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of situation. The cancer, this form of religious extremism and violence that we are dealing with, its root, its most recent manifestation, happened in the 1980s in Afghanistan, and it spread to the rest of the world from there.

So the two things happened: First, the violent ideology, a horrible perverted ideology of Islam, received financial and state support in Saudi Arabia. Second, it received recognition and somewhat unintentional spreading around the globe.

Where does Iran and the regime in Iran fit into that?

It’s absolutely within the framework. The theocracy of Islam that you see in Iran, it’s an anomaly. When the prophet died in 632, that ended the first and only theocracy in the history of Islam, until 1979. We never had anything like it in 1,400 years. We never had a situation where people holding religious office were also running the country. But when a society crumbles through decades of tyranny and dictatorship, supported by short-sighted global foreign policies and economic policies, these kinds of anomalies are produced. The regime in Iran is far from being Islamic for me.

How should Islam be grappling with that regime in Iran?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran on July 18, 2015 (Guardian screenshot)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran on July 18, 2015 (Guardian screenshot)

If deeply failed societies are producing these cancers, we have to bring the Muslim majority of the societies to a functional level. Once they recover their health, once they become functional democracies, functional societies, the problem will be solved by itself. The regime in Iran brought so much destruction to Islam and Muslims and continues to do so. It made many Iranians themselves hate Islam or religion altogether.

The deal that the world has just signed with Iran is going to massively fund this anomalous and dark religious sovereign leadership.

I am a supporter of the Iran deal. The problem is the regime. It is evil. It is a perversion and distortion of Islam, and it is producing and spreading cancer around the world in the name of Islam. That regime has to go. That so-called Islamic regime needs to transform itself into a just governance which upholds the ideals and morals of Islam. The noble people of Iran deserve much better than this. The Iranian regime disgusts me. I see in its existence a direct violation and contradiction of the Islam that I live. It’s deeply painful to me and many others to see one of the richest civilizations, 10,000 years old, end up with such a destructive regime.

But all the isolationism, tough power, muscling for decades, it didn’t work. If anything, it made the regime stronger. That “top to bottom, I’m just going to hammer you down,” it has not worked and it is not working.

If this deal fulfills half of its promise, if Iranian society opens up and transforms itself, it will take care of the regime problem.

You don’t think that the regime is sophisticated enough to ensure that that doesn’t happen?

I don’t think so. Look how Soviet Russia has disappeared.

The noble people of Iran deserve much better than this. The Iranian regime disgusts me

This despicable regime, it’s not anybody’s paranoia, and it’s not only Jews and Israel who are worried by it.

Regretfully, your government made this into an Israeli show, as if Israel is the only country in the world that is worried about Iranian nuclear power, worried about this regime doing evil things in the name of Islam. And I mainly blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for this. If you look at the region, many Muslims have similar concerns and fears about the regime in Iran. They don’t despise it any less than Israel, any less than Netanyahu. This should come out clearly.

But as an American, I think this deal is good for us, and it has so much potential that should not be dismissed so quickly. Diplomacy and engagement should be given a chance.

I know it is not the purpose of this MLI program to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for goodness sake, if you guys haven’t got some good ideas about how we can make this better, with all the empathy and mutual exposure, then really, who does?

I am not divorcing us from the conflict entirely. If you are in the business of Jewish-Muslim relations, that is impossible. You are right: MLI has very little to do with the conflict and its main focus is North America. MLI is all about improving Jewish-Muslim relations in North America. However, if the MLI kinds of approaches are implemented and become a large scale reality in North America, if we can improve the Jewish-Muslim discourse, we can be a better role-player in this conflict too.

I am just talking about America because I believe in an American future. I believe that as American Muslims and American Jews become more connected, they will develop new relationships that will reframe their identity. Then we may be able to play a more constructive role in this conflict, God-willing. So far all we do is import conflict and hopelessness from the Middle East to America and are seemingly incapable of reversing that flow of negative energy.

Do you share my sense that the free world, that part of the world that values the gift of life, has got to take a much more grassroots approach in tackling the Islamic extremism that is celebrating death.

Absolutely, but I wouldn’t let the “free world” off the hook that easily and over-idealize ourselves. That “free world” causes as much death and destruction, if not more, through other means and evil dealings. However, I totally agree with your sense that humanity will heal from the cancer of Muslim extremism and terrorism if we play a role in helping the societies struggling with it to gain social, economic, cultural and civic health, mainly through a bottom-to-top, “grassroots” approach, as you said.

Surely you have to fix that at a very fundamental level, which means via education, and moderate spiritual leadership and media. Are there efforts to marginalize extremism in those areas?

Many encouraging efforts are taking place all over the world on this front. One has to go beyond the headlines of popular media, to more diverse sources of information, to see these efforts.

I want to be that voice — the voice that’s saying, This is despicable — to these alienated young people

I’ll give you a few examples from initiatives that I am involved in. More than 90% of the radicalization, especially in the West, is happening online. The FBI are wire-tapping the mosques, but mosques are not producing these people. What’s producing them is online hate messaging. I am part of a group of Muslim leaders that are talking with IT specialists, app developers, to intervene both on the prevention side as well as on the treatment side. How can we intervene and reach out to these disillusioned, highly alienated, deeply broken young men between the age of 18 and 35? This is the problem.

If I’m an alienated, unhappy Muslim, I won’t want to use your nice app. I want to read that nasty stuff.

One can do a lot on the prevention side. But once you’ve got the poison, a whole different strategy is needed. A much more vigorous intervention.

In my own youth in Turkey, in 1983, ’84, there were people recruiting in the mosques for Afghanistan. I was this close, I was so passionate a convert, so zealous, I wanted to live my religion, I wanted to please my God.

Which you thought meant?

Go and fight against the infidels.

And that didn’t happen, because?

Because I met a group of other Muslims who said, “This is despicable and God won’t be pleased by such Islam.” I want to be that voice — the voice that’s saying, “This is despicable” — to these alienated young people.

We have identified what attracts them in the first place. We sort of identified their sources of alienation, their rejection from their own societies. And there are so many public American voices, including some Jewish ones, fueling the fire in various ways. Telling these young Muslim men, “You don’t belong here!” There’s Sue Myrick, former Congresswoman from North Carolina. She says every Muslim working in government needs to be scrutinized and their phones need to be listened to. I’m telling my students, “Love your flag, love your government, serve your government and country”. But somebody from a very high, much more prominent position, is saying, “Even if you make it there, you’re not going to be recognized, you’re not welcome, you don’t belong here.” And she’s far from being the only prominent American figure saying and believing these regrettable things about Islam and Muslim Americans.

We are trying to create some alternative online spaces where people can air their legitimate criticism of US foreign policy, on the plight of the Palestinians and more. Islam puts conditions on your ability to defend yourself or express your anger. It tames the demons in you.

You’re trying to engage at a theological level?

Absolutely, and more. There are some psychological, social, cultural factors that need to be addressed. Many of these people don’t have role models in their lives, they don’t have male role models. The Muslim communities are not really functional in general. They don’t always produce good husbands, good fathers, functional families. And this is part of the problem.

They don’t know any better, they don’t know that it’s possible to live a Muslim life and express your anger and frustration about what’s going on in Muslim communities, but still not be crossing the line to the violence.

It may not be entirely true, but many Jews like to think that our religion is relentlessly questioning and can reconcile with modernity, whereas Islam is seen as unquestioning, trapped in the past and doesn’t evolve. This is a misrepresentation?

Every propaganda is based on partial truth. If it’s a complete lie, it doesn’t stick. If someone says Muslims are eating their own children, if you have any kind of common sense, you will say, “Oh, come on now.” Having said that, there are societies despicably discriminating against women, mistreating women, like Iran, like Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan. Seemingly stuck with horrible cultural practices. It’s indefensible.

And not authentic Islam?

No, absolutely not.

Within Islam, the woman should not be walking three paces behind?

Try doing that with my wife, and see how far you get.

Abdullah Antepli at home, with his wife Asuman, an ER nurse at Duke regional hospital, daughter Zainab and son Jacob Arif (Courtesy)
Abdullah Antepli at home, with his wife Asuman, an ER nurse at Duke regional hospital, daughter Zainab and son Jacob Arif (Courtesy)

And a woman should not have to cover her entire body?

No. Islamic dress codes for women and men are not too different than Judaic and halachic ones. Muslim women certainly do not have to cover their faces; no religious requirement for that. The rest of it, again similar to Judaism, is a matter of negotiations between theology and certain cultural and ethnic practices over time.

And she should be allowed to watch volleyball.

And drive, and have fun. There are certain Islamic rules and cultural Muslim practices that need modification and improvement in our modern time. Certain family law practices, inheritance law practices, can discriminate against women. There are ongoing debates and struggles among Muslim Jurists and within Muslim majority societies.

But there’s absolutely no way you can justify with anything in Islam women not driving, female circumcision, or honor killings, for example. Absolutely not. If anything, there is institutionalized, theological religious law fighting against these kinds of brutal inhumane practices and patriarchy in general.

Beheading the infidels?

Absolutely not.

So where does that come from? How do they justify it within Islam?

We have crazy people, after hundreds and hundreds of years, trying to go back to the original medieval practices of law and to implement them again today. Again, this makes it seem like it “comes out of nowhere.” That’s not true. One should point out and analyze the historical circumstances and context behind this insanity.

It’s as if the Jews were now saying we have to stone people to death for turning on a light on the Sabbath?

Exactly, denying 2,000 years of human experience and progress. I hope Jews and Judaism and other religious communities will not be challenged in this way by a group of followers who want to implement ancient legal rules and practices in modern times at all cost. I know many within Judaism and Christianity who would give it a try, God forbid.

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