Unfortunately, the distinction between ideas and people isn’t so clear-cut, especially in the context of high-commitment faiths, where beliefs are not just abstract conceptual entities but core aspects of personal identity. At various points in his book, Rizvi explicitly recognizes this. “In much of the Muslim world where I grew up,” he writes, “religion is more than just a belief system. It is inextricably embedded in every aspect of people’s lives.” But for the most part he glosses over this in order to advance his argument that critiquing ideas is not the same as attacking the people who hold them. It would be more convincing to argue, as Stefan Collini does in his book That’s Offensive!, that people do take ideas personally, but should be mature enough to withstand criticism of their cherished beliefs, responding with counterarguments instead of violence.
Rizvi also pushes back against the argument that ex-Muslim testimony serves to “give ammunition” to anti-Muslim sentiments on the right. This, he argues, is to give his testimony a power it doesn’t have. “The reason that anti-Muslim bigotry exists is not because people like me are talking about what we’re talking about,” he said. “It’s because there are millions of people watching their TV screens and they’re seeing a guy drive a truck into a crowd in Nice, screaming ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or they see the Taliban go into a school in Peshawar and kill 132 kids, screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ and quoting from the Quran, and they look at this and they just put the dots together.”
Furthermore, Rizvi points out that even if ex-Muslim testimony is appropriated by demagogues on the right, the dangers of self-censorship are far graver. Recalling Osama bin Laden’s admiration for Noam Chomsky’s writings, he said, “Bin Laden was a huge fan of Chomsky, had his books, and quoted him in a few of his speeches. So should Chomsky stop speaking truthfully about the problems of U.S. foreign policy because Americans may get attacked around the world? Well, of course not. If something is true and needs to be said, it needs to be said.”
In fact, he argues, it is the failure of mainstream democratic politicians to openly and honestly discuss Islam and its relationship to jihadist terrorism that has helped create an intellectual vacuum and usher in Trump and the alt-right, who were only too willing to address it, but in a xenophobic register.
“It is more important now than ever,” Rizvi writes, “to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims.”
Rizvi wrote these words before Trump came to power accompanied by a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. The second point—that it is crucial to defend the rights of Muslims—could not be more relevant in America and Europe. But the first doesn’t feel so urgent, given how embattled Muslims currently are.
Rizvi acknowledges that Trump and the rise of the far right have made his job harder, because of the proliferation of anti-Muslim intolerance and the vast energy resources it takes to constantly oppose this. Yet he remains committed to the argument advanced in his book: Both the critique of Islam and the defense of the rights of Muslims “must go together.”