Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. She hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.
Five years ago, I took part in the largest single-day protest in U.S. history: the 2017 Women’s March, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. This was my first protest in my new country. The most amazing part of it was what didn’t happen. No one beat us up. No one arrested us. No one opened fire.
As someone who has been repeatedly targeted by a vicious authoritarian regime — like countless others in my home country of Iran — I found this to be an astonishing experience.
Yet I worry that other Americans might be creating precedents that could undermine our freedom to speak out. In December, the House passed the Combating International Islamophobia Act by a vote of 219-212. The bill, introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), mandates the creation of a State Department office to combat Islamophobia around the world and would require the State Department to include data on incidents of Islamophobia in its reports on human rights. (The State Department so far does not appear to have commented on the bill, though the White House has issued a statement supporting it.)
There is no question that the U.S. government should act to defend Muslims overseas wherever it sees crimes being committed against them — as in the cases of the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar.
But the U.S. government is already doing these things, and without needing to establish a new office of the kind that Omar is calling for. The bigger risk is that creating a mandate to monitor Islamophobia comes with its own risks. The legislation does not provide a clear definition of Islamophobia, nor does it make any clear effort to exempt the crimes of Islamist states against their own people. Is criticism of the Taliban a form of Islamophobia? What about criticism of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Can one criticize Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations?
Contacted for comment, Omar’s office responded by accusing me of “rehashing … bigoted Republican talking points.” The statement went on: “It’s the definition of bad faith to assume that a State Department envoy charged with monitoring and combating acts of official Islamophobia, which has amounted to genocide in some cases, would also condemn countries for their criticisms of oppressive regimes or terrorists.”
I should make clear: I have nothing against Omar personally. Like her, I have many relatives who are pious Muslims I love and respect. Like her, I identify as a feminist. And contrary to those who have tried to smear me as a partisan, I’m very far from being a Republican operative; human rights is a bipartisan issue for me.
The regimes that promote Islamist ideologies, such as those in Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, have armies of well-paid consultants and lobbyists who can use the rights and freedoms offered in this country to undermine the principles that uphold those freedoms. I fear that the legislation sponsored by Omar will play into the hands of those who wish to curtail free debate and criticism. (The website Govtrack, which follows the progress of legislation, currently assesses the bill’s likelihood of passing the Senate as low.)
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “phobia” as an “exaggerated fear” or “an intolerance or aversion.” But many women who live in countries such as Iran, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia have a rational fear of sharia laws. To call out laws that treat women as second-class citizens is not Islamophobia.
I have recounted my own struggles with sharia laws many times — including the challenges that I have had, and still have, with my own family. My mother is a devout Muslim who wears hijab all the time. I, on the other hand, challenged clerical rule with my journalism until I was thrown out of Iran. I launched a campaign against compulsory hijab, demanding that Iranian women be given the freedom of choice to decide their own destiny.
Will such criticism of compulsory hijab be labeled as Islamophobia?
Even before this legislation was introduced, many Iranian dissidents were feeling pressure from U.S. social media platforms to tone down their criticisms of Iran and the Taliban. Some activists have seen their social media posts removed, their accounts suspended. Criticizing the ugly practices of Islamists all too often earns you a demerit. If you criticize some aspect of Islam, you receive death threats from the zealots — and censorship and cancellation from the well-meaning liberals who don’t want to offend anyone.
Weeks after the Women’s March, I reached out to some of the organizers to seek their help for my campaign against compulsory hijab. I found that hardly anyone was willing to support my campaign lest they be accused of promoting Islamophobia.
The women of the Middle East can speak for themselves. Recently, I launched a campaign on social media using the hashtag #LetUsTalk. I simply put up two photographs: One showed me as a child in hijab. The other showed me as I am today, an adult who is free to choose how I wish to live. I urged women from the Middle East and Afghanistan to tell their own stories about how sharia laws restrain and harm women and girls. Hundreds have already shared their stories. Let’s not impose further burdens on their ability to do so.
By Masih Alinejad – January 25, 2022