Leading anti-Islamist Critic Qanta Ahmed Says U.S. 'Tragically Late’ on Syria

Speaking at a counter-terrorism summit in Israel, Ahmed says that unless Islamism is confronted, 'we will only see a region with pseudo-democracies.'

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Qanta Ahmed, a leading Muslim critic of Islamist extremism, chided the Muslim world Monday for not doing more to stop the bloodbath in Syria and worried that U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans for a strike against the regime of Bashar Assad were coming “tragically late.”

“No one in the Muslim world has stepped up to lead an intervention on their own behalf. As usual, it’s left to the U.S. to act. This puts our president in an impossible situation,” said Ahmed, an author, sleep-disorder specialist, and most famously, an outspoken opponent of fundamentalist Islam and even non-violent Islamist political movements. Here in Israel on her second visit after coming for the first time in May, she said she had come in her capacity as an “anti-Islamist Muslim,” adding, “I refuse to give up Islam to the Islamists.”

Ahmed began her speech at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya’s World Summit on Counter-Terrorism, the 13th of its kind, by quoting an example of an Islamist speech that rings like a battle cry.

"The mosques are our barracks; the minarets our bayonets; the domes are our helms. the believers are our soldiers." It might like sound like something out of the Al-Qaida handbook or perhaps a more hardline wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Ahmed offered, it is from an Islamist poem read allowed by the then-mayor of Istanbul in 1997.

Today, that mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is prime minister of Turkey, a country with which Israel once had a strong strategic alliance. Erdogan’s Islamist leanings, she indicated, is the reason. “Erdogan himself has said, ‘Democracy is a train. We take a ride on it and we get off when we reach our destination.’” From recent tensions in Turkey to the bloodshed in Egypt and Syria, the underlying struggle pitting Islamist forces against secularists – as well as Sunnis against Shias – is what’s fueling the fire, she argued. “Make no mistake, this conflict within Islam is originated by Muslims, is being waged by Muslims, and the vast majority of its victims are Muslims. These conflicts are deepening the abyss between major sects in Islam. Unless we confront Islamism or unless we castrate it, we will only see a region with pseudo-democracies.” Ahmed published a controversial op-ed in USA Today last week under the same, somewhat shocking language: “Castrate Islamism.”

Ahmed, who has roots in India and Pakistan, was educated in the United Kingdom, and now resides in Manhattan, has become something of a glamorous gadfly – along with women such as Aayan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, and Mona Eltahawy. And although the most conservative Islamist circles view these eloquent women as apostates, their words reverberate loudly across the globe.

Ahmed acknowledged that in a U.S.-led attack on the Syrian regime, some of the same Islamist forces she opposes, such as the Al-Nusra Front, might be strengthened.

“We’re already seeing that Syria is already fragmented into multiple states. I am fearful for many reasons, and I’m in no position to give our president advice. In the U.S., we have battle fatigue. But the next anarchic scenario may be met with even greater engagement by Islamists. But even insisting on the removal of Assad, who in my opinion should have been extinguished months ago, may not necessarily lead to any kind of democratic leadership.” She added: “I can understand to why the president has been so reluctant, but that reluctance has come at a great price.”

Qanta Ahmed. "I have empathy for both sides - but I think there's an unfair portrayal of Israel."Credit: Tomer Applebaum

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