Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”
“You have shamed the community,” a fellow Muslim in Morgantown, W.Va., said to me as we sat in a Panera Bread in 2004. “Stop writing.”
Then 38, I had just written an essay for The Washington Post’s Outlook section arguing that women should be allowed to pray in the main halls of mosques, rather than in segregated spaces, as most mosques in America are arranged. An American Muslim born in India, I grew up in a tolerant but conservative family. In my hometown mosque, I had disobeyed the rules and prayed in the men’s area, about 20 feet behind the men gathered for Ramadan prayers.
Later, an all-male tribunal tried to ban me. An elder suggested having men surround me at the mosque so that I would be “scared off.” Now the man across the table was telling me to shut up.
“I won’t stop writing,” I said.
It was the first time a fellow Muslim had pressed me to refrain from criticizing the way our faith was practiced. But in the past decade, such attempts at censorship have become more common. This is largely because of the rising power and influence of the “ghairat brigade,” an honor corps that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam. It meets even sound critiques with hideous, disproportionate responses.
The campaign began, at least in its modern form, 10 years ago in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — a mini-United Nations comprising the world’s 56 countries with large Muslim populations, plus the Palestinian Authority — tasked then-Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu with combating Islamophobia and projecting the “true values of Islam.” During the past decade, a loose honor brigade has sprung up, in part funded and supported by the OIC through annual conferences, reports and communiques. It’s made up of politicians, diplomats, writers, academics, bloggers and activists.