"On Nawal al Saadawi, Alhurra Channel and the Limits of Free Thinking"


We live in a small universe, in which those who possess power have the ability to make that power resonate to every corner of the globe, and to leverage that power to levels that are truly unprecedented in human history. As human beings advanced technologically, so many of these technological inventions were designed to enable the individual to do things that individuals could not do just a short period ago. But the irony is that these very same inventions that empower the individual in a very localized sense are the same that allow power to be yielded by an elite to levels previously unknown in human history.

The khutbah today is a little bit unusual in that I will talk about something that affects us all as American Muslims, yet it is something that we hardly pay attention to. That is the way that our government uses taxpayers' money to help engineer and craft the faith of Islam around the world. The irony is that although our constitution demands the separation of church and state, and although within the national borders of the United States, the federal government would be severely constrained in its ability to craft, direct, interpret and pursue its interpretation of a religious faith, the secularism of the American government is intended to be a secularism within and without. It is supposed to be a secularism in terms of an objective distance towards all religious faith. The government is not supposed to choose among religions, it is not supposed to advance one religion while not advancing others. But this, in fact, is not the way things work once we deal with the impact of the federal government outside the borders of the United States, and here I am speaking specifically about Islam.


There are many examples that I could address, but I am going to focus on one example, because of recent events that I will share with you, and what these events tell us about the world we live in and the types of obligations that fall upon us as American Muslims. After the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration was concerned, to a large degree because of Al Jazeera channel, that the United States was getting bad press, particularly in the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world. So, using taxpayers' money, the United States created a television channel called Alhurra, which translates to “The Freedom Channel” or “The Liberty Channel.” The Alhurra channel was initially designed to represent the American point of view on critical issues such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and defending whatever US policies exist, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more broadly in the Middle East.


About 20 years later, the Alhurra channel has a thoroughly redefined, actual mission that we see in practice. It does not spend a lot of time talking about US foreign policy in the Middle East, nor does it spend a lot of time talking about American forces in Iraq or American forces in Afghanistan, but Alhurra channel has become a platform for a very specific type of perspective on the Islamic religion. Not on Christianity, not on Judaism, but specifically and particularly on Islam. Alhurra channel has become a regular podium for figures like Ibrahim Eissa, Islam al-Behairy and others that are spearheading what is self-described as “The Enlightenment movement” in the Arabic-speaking world.


The name is deceiving, because this Enlightenment movement does not talk about democracy, it does not talk about human rights abuses as committed by the Egyptian, Saudi or Emirati governments, nor does it talk about the human rights abuses committed by Haftar's forces in Libya, or the Emirati or Saudi forces in Yemen. In fact, it hardly talks about human rights at all, except for certain, specific types of rights for a very particular type of people. But this so-called Enlightenment movement is very much the type of thing that Ayaan Hirsi Ali here in the United States spearheaded some 15 or 20 years ago, when it said that the problem with Islam is the immorality of its very sources - that the Prophet of Islam was an immoral man and that the Qur’an itself is an immoral book - and that there is no way for Muslims to reform unless Muslims recognize the immorality of their Holy Book and the immorality of their Prophet.


Remarkably, the likes of Ibrahim Eissa and Islam al-Behairy do nothing but criticize everything Islamic in the most Islamophobic way. They criticize Islamic history, they criticize the Islamic Holy Book, they criticize the Sunnah of the Prophet, they criticize the Companions of the Prophet, they criticize everything. From their perspective, you can hardly find a saving grace in Islam at all. Because if you listen to Islam al-Behairy, Ibrahim Eissa, Khaled Montaser, Fatima Naoot and the like, you truly wonder what can possibly be a saving grace of this religious tradition. The Qur’an is flawed and immoral. The Sunnah is replete with immorality. Islam itself generated nothing but immorality.


That is not the problem. The problem is that Alhurra channel is a channel paid for by US tax dollars. The Alhurra channel is not a platform for diverse perspectives on the Islamic religion. It is not a platform for diverse perspectives on Christianity or Judaism, or for a free and open debate about the rights of Palestinians as well as the rights of others. It is not a platform for free and open debate on the merits and demerits of various Islamic thinkers throughout history. It is simply a podium for the Hirsi Ali-like critique of Islam, no other perspectives. A Khaled Abou El Fadl would never appear on Alhurra channel. The late Muhammad ʿImāra would never appear on Alhurra channel. Not because they do not want to, but because Alhurra will never allow them to. To me, this is no minor matter.


The very history of secularism in the West has always suffered from this hypocritical paradox. On the one hand, secularism was declared a principle of the state within the internal dynamics of the state; but colonial powers throughout history, whether the British, the French, the Dutch, the Americans, have acted like missionary zealots when it came to their foreign policy. And they have been able to do so without any scrutiny from the law because of the doctrines of jurisdiction within the legal system. Courts will often not recognize anyone as having legal standing to bring a lawsuit against the US for the way it is spending tax dollars to promote a particular religious view. Courts will often not recognize that they have jurisdiction to force the government not to take sides on religious affairs when it comes to foreign policy. So, the solution is awareness and political pressure.


What the federal government does with something like Alhurra channel is it reinforces the image of the United States around the Muslim world as a hypocritical political force. On the one hand, the US says it defends democracy and human rights, and it is not for or against any religious faith. But on the other hand, all you have to do is tune in to Alhurra channel to see that the United States government in fact does embrace a stand on what type of Islam they deem acceptable in the world we live in today. This is long after colonialism has supposedly ended, to our very day.


But I raise this issue for an even deeper point. Recently, an Egyptian public figure, Nawal El Saadawi, passed away. El Saadawi's views on the Islamic religion are infamous, she has written 47 books to set out these views. According to Nawal El Saadawi, Islam, like all other religions, is a racist religion, a classist religion, and a sexist religion. According to El Saadawi, there is no hell, no heaven and no accountability. It is all a mythology. According to the same, hajj is a form of idol worshiping, so there should be no hajj. But Nawal El Saadawi was also opposed to any form of worship. You do not need to pray, you do not need to fast. Nawal El Saadawi believed that it was wrong of God to regulate sexuality and to forbid adultery, because according to her, this is your personal freedom, and any religion that tries to regulate these issues is sexist. Moreover, she wrote a rather well-known book where she argues that if God exists, then that is an unjust God who does not deserve to be worshipped. Moreover, she advocated a legal and official ban on the hijab throughout the Muslim world. In her view, people should be free to walk nude in the streets if they wish to do so, because it is a matter of personal choice.


Nawal El Saadawi was a medical doctor, not a deep thinker, but someone who shoots from the hip. Whatever made sense to her, she spewed out. By training, she is a medical doctor. By writing, a moderately talented novelist. And an abysmal philosopher, but because of the highly critical pronouncements someone like El Saadawi made against Islam, she has won a dozen prestigious awards from various European and American institutions. Although she does not have a PhD, or any academic qualifications, she was invited to teach at Duke for 10 years. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at one point. But even more, and this is the most critical issue, Nawal El Saadawi regularly, until the very last days of her life, would regularly appear on Alhurra channel as an honored guest, and would regularly appear all over Egyptian TV and Emirati TV as a great, deep thinker.


That would all be fine if those who engaged Nawal El Saadawi critically and analytically, like the late Muhammad ʿImāra, were also allowed to appear on the same news venues. But Muhammad ʿImāra was never allowed to appear on the Alhurra channel. Muhammad ʿImāra eventually was banned by the Egyptian government from appearing on TV at all. Muhammad ʿImāra was banned from even publishing articles in newspapers. So contrary to how the typical Orientalist jargon goes, if you are an atheist or if you espouse highly critical views of Islam, it is not that case that you are censored and that only the religious are given a platform. In fact, things have flipped into exactly the opposite. Al Azhar is not allowed to respond to what Islam al-Behairy says on Alhurra. The director himself admitted this openly, saying, "The Egyptian government does not allow me to as much as respond to what Ibrahim Eissa, Islam al-Behairy, or Nawal El Saadawi say on channels like Alhurra.” This is while people like Ahmad Sabee’ and Salman Al-Ouda are rotting in prison, and people like Muhammad ʿImāra were banned until the day they died.


To put it bluntly, there is plenty of dictatorship in the Arab world, but in countries like Egypt, the Emirates and even Saudi Arabia, that dictatorship is leveraged to privilege Islamophobic voices and to silence any rational, analytical, Islamic voices. The Alhurra channel, again, paid for by US tax dollars, is the very critical component to this equation. Alhurra never entertains guests like Fahmy Huwaidi or Muhammad ʿImāra. Muslim voices that have a long track record of supporting human rights and democracy will never be guests on Alhurra, all while the likes of Nawal El Saadawi are regular guests on Alhurra.


We are trying to engineer an Islam that we deem acceptable. And remarkably, this Islam has no sacred text, it has no sacred history, it has no tradition in itself because part and parcel of the message of these so-called enlightened, is that the Islamic tradition should be completely deconstructed and thrown away so that Islam has no sacred space and no sacred territory, no sacred epistemology. Then, what remains of that Islam? Nothing remains of that Islam. It is no longer an Islam.


The remarkable, authoritarian tools of the state are regularly leveraged to promote what are clearly Islamophobic outlooks in the Muslim world. It is no longer the case that if you are an atheist who mocks God, the Qur'an, or the Prophet, that you will not find a platform in the Middle East. In fact, if you are an atheist who mocks God, the Prophet, and Islam, you will be given a monopoly of platforms in a country like Egypt or the Emirates. The only "Islamic perspectives" that are allowed to appear are the likes of Nawal El Saadawi or Ibrahim Eissa.


You might be tempted to say, "But wait. Is the Muslim world not going through the pangs of an Enlightenment birth? Is that not what Enlightenment is about, freedom of thought? That you have no sacred space, it is only human reason that is sacred. Is Alhurra not simply giving a platform to freedom thinkers who can spark an Enlightenment in the Muslim world, that would help bring the Muslim world to the 21st century?"


I have two responses for you. If this is what you think Alhurra is doing, then you know nothing about the history of colonialism and the history of imperialism. No country helps another to bring it within the range of competition with itself. The United States has no interest in helping Muslim countries develop to the point that they can compete on free and fair terms with the West.


But secondly, and a far more important point, I am astounded at the ignorance of so many who pretend to have knowledge. The Enlightenment in Europe as a movement, in its very first articulations, arose wedded to a spirit of love of scientific investigation. Figures like Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz and Newton were fundamentally not about sexual freedom or about denying heaven and hell. They were about the love of scientific research and scientific discovery. But even more importantly, the Enlightenment in Europe was fundamentally a skepticism not directed at the idea of the sacred, but a skepticism directed at those who monopolized power in the name of a divine right or in the name of the public good. So the Enlightenment in Europe, when you talk about the thought of people like Bentham, Voltaire, Montesquieu or Rousseau, the Enlightenment was deep skepticism about those who say, "We are in power and you should trust us to do what is good for you." Its skeptical outlook about matters of faith or initially its Deism was a secondary matter to its principal objective. The principal objective is to demystify power and to reject the idea that those in power know better, that the ruler knows better than the ruled. The Enlightenment in Europe was not a revolution initially for sexual freedom. It was a revolution about scientific and political freedom.


That is the critical point. The so-called Enlightenment movement in the Muslim world never talks about political freedom. It never talks about democracy, it never critiques the dictators in power. Nawal El Saadawi, who criticized God, the Prophet and everything Islamic, never had one critical thing to say about Sisi and his government, never had one thing to say about the 100,000 political prisoners rotting in Egyptian prisons, never had a single thing to say about the assassination of Khashoggi, never had a single thing to say about the authoritarianism of Mohammed Bin Salman or of El-Zayed.


The likes of Khaled Montaser and Ibrahim Eissa and Fatima Naoot and Shakhrur and all of them, yes, they trash Islam night and day, but they don't tell you you have a right to choose your own leader and you have a right to vote leaders out of office. They don't tell you that it is wrong for the rulers to arrest someone because of their opinions and torture them. They never talk about torture in state prisons. While they talk about banning the hijab, they never talk about the sexual assaults committed in political prisons in Egypt, in Syria, in the Emirates, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen, in Libya - not a single word.


So, yes, Alhurra has the “enlighteners”, but those “enlighteners”, again, paid for by US dollars, never talk about Sisi's dictatorship. Even when 35 European countries condemned the abysmal human rights record in Egypt, not a single word was uttered on the Alhurra channel about the human rights violations committed by the Sisi government, not a single word. The day the UN report came out about Egypt, what was Alhurra channel talking about? The evils of the Qur’an, the evils of the Sunnah, the evils of the Companions, given through Ibrahim Eissa, Khaled Montaser, Islam al-Behairy and the likes. They had nothing to say about torture, rape and murder that take place all over the Muslim world. That is the big, crucial difference.


Nawal El Saadawi was heralded all over the West as a free thinker, simply because she trashed Islam. All of these institutions gave her prestigious awards, including Time Magazine, who put her on one of their covers and declared her as the liberator of women, because she rejected the institution of marriage, because she said that there is nothing wrong with adultery and fornication, because she mocked everything that the Qur’an has to say to or about women. But none of these institutions and organizations asked her, "Nawal El Saadawi, there are 100,000 people in your country being tortured every single day. Do you have anything to say about that?" "Women are raped in Egyptian political prisons every day. Do you have anything to say about that?" Nothing. While she openly criticized God, she publicly refused to say anything critical about Sisi.


What do you say about the hypocrisy of Western institutions that elevate such a woman to the status of heroes? And what do you say about the constitutional violation of our government, taking on a radical agenda, such as that proposed by the likes of Hirsi Ali, for deconstructing Islam in the modern world and doing so using American tax dollars? If American Muslims want a cause, I would strongly nominate this cause for you. Places like the Alhurra channel either should be true platforms for freedom of thought, or they should be promptly shut down. How could it be that we, American taxpayers, fund a television channel that broadcasts seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and does nothing but trash Islam?


The Prophet said in part of a Hadith, "You are witnesses, one upon another." It is not the case anymore that what happens in the Muslim world stays in the Muslim world, and that what happens in the United States stays in the United States. It is not the case that Islamophobia can explode in the West and have no impact in the Muslim world, leave alone in places like India, China and Burma; in the same way that it is not the case that ISIS can try to establish a state in Iraq or Syria and that would have no effect on the rest of the world.


The shahada that we now carry is a global shahada. When we testify, it is easy to testify to win the approval of the traditional handlers of elite power, the same elite that were behind the institutions of colonialism, the same elite that gloated upon the fall of communism, the same elite that looks at Islam as a natural and instinctive enemy because of its doctrines of egalitarianism, justice and truth. That same elite celebrates superficiality in thinking, and glamorous but entirely vacuous points, like sexual freedom, personal freedom, the majesty of reason. That same elite has done something that is very pernicious. They have fooled so many Muslims into thinking that just trashing the Qur’an and trashing the Sunnah means that you are a free thinker.


What they skipped over is that the impetus and soul of freedom of thought that gave rise to the Enlightenment was a mad rush to invest in scientific inquiry and to promote scientific inquiry. That doesn't exist in the Muslim world. There is a mad rush in the Muslim world to invest in and consume luxury items. There is no connection between critical thought and scientific investment. But even more importantly, the Enlightenment was a deeply skeptical movement about the privileges of power. The Enlightenment was about the type of monopoly of power that kings, queens and noblemen enjoyed. The Enlightenment went hand in hand with the French Revolution and the English Revolution. None of those people that are sponsored by the Alhurra channel are about that. They never talk about democracy. They never talk about human rights. They never talk about limiting the abuses of those in power. They only talk about the evil of Islam and Islamists, and how Islam is a problem.


This is why I cannot celebrate someone like Nawal El Saadawi as a freedom thinker. I cannot celebrate her as a good novelist, because I have read too much literature and she is not. I cannot celebrate her so-called freedom of thought because that freedom of thought was directed only at what would win her admiration in the West. But it had nothing to say to the thousands of people that sit rotting in political prisons as we speak. Her critical insights turned a complete blind eye to the numerous human rights abuses committed against street children, all over a country where she lived and died, like Egypt. Every day in Egypt, street children are sexually abused, trafficked and even killed; their organs harvested and traded on the open black market. Nawal El Saadawi had nothing to say about that. Yet she’s a freedom thinker? A defender of human rights?



The Prophet in a Hadith said, "It is possible that you would know the people of heaven from the people of hellfire." Those around him asked, "How?" He said, "Who has a good reputation and who has an ill reputation." I often wondered, if the Prophet lived in our day and age, would he say the same? When a woman like Nawal El Saadawi, who in her last will and testament said, "I do not want my body washed and I do not want anyone to pray on me," because she did not believe in God, the Qur’an, or Islam, is called a great Islamic thinker on the Al Arabiya channel, Alhurra channel, the Egyptian channels, the Emirati channels, even the Saudi channels, it is no wonder why some Muslims go insane and do crazy things.


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