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Robert Azzi and Another of Those “Ask-A-Muslim” Events
by Hugh Fitzgerald
“With ‘Ask A Muslim Anything’ Events, N.H. Man Hopes To Tackle Misunderstandings Around His Faith” is the title of a recent report at WBUR, which you can find here.
So here we are again, with one more of those Ask-a-Muslim-Anything Defenders of the Faith. There is a piquant aspect to this, in that the defender in question, Robert Azzi, is a Lebanese American, born a Christian, who as a young man was so impressed with “one close friend who had such an appealing, accepting outlook on the world” that he converted to Islam.
Azzi has been “encouraging dialogue” in New Hampshire, in “series of conversations that he’s been leading at community centers, churches and town halls across New Hampshire.
Many Muslim-Americans will tell you that this is a tough time for them. From the 9/11 attacks to President Trump’s proposed travel ban, Muslims in America feel besieged by discrimination and misunderstanding.
So Robert Azzi, a Lebanese-American Muslim who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, is hoping to clear up some of that misunderstanding by encouraging dialogue with an invitation to “Ask a Muslim Anything.”
At a recent event in the town of Dublin, in the southwestern part of the state, he welcomed a small audience with the traditional Muslim greeting.’”
“As-salamu alaykum. Peace be upon you.”
Azzi is a veteran photo-journalist who spent years in the Middle East, after growing up in New Hampshire, where there are very few Muslims. Azzi started these conversations a year and a half ago because of what he saw as growing Islamophobia. He wanted to address people’s fears and questions head on.”
“I challenge you to ask me challenging questions,” Azzi told his audience in Dublin. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
Among the questions he got on this night was: ‘Why are so many people in this country afraid of Muslims?’”
“It’s really interesting to me about why people are fearful,” Azzi responded.
Is that “fear” really a puzzlement? Could more than 30,000 attacks by Muslims on non-Muslims since 9/11 have something to do with why “people are fearful”? Might the incessant news, weekly or daily, of such attacks by Muslims, somewhere in the world, in New York, Washington, London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Toulouse, Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Wurzburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Turku, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beslan, Cairo, Alexandria, Mumbai, in Orlando, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, and hundreds of other places, make people “fearful”? Might the ISIS killers, in their videotaped appearances, quoting from the Qur’an to justify their mass-murdering of those they considered to be Infidels, or showing the world with what enthusiasm they decapitated a line of orange-suited Christians, just as Al-Qaeda so enjoyed putting online its beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, have something to do with making people “fearful”? Might the news of the mass rapes of Yazidi girls and the mass murder of Yazidi men, make people “fearful”? Might the attacks on Christians by Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iran make people “fearful”? Might the Muslim grooming gangs in England, with their thousands of young female victims? Does Robert Azzi think there is no reason to be fearful of Muslims, no reason to worry about what Islamic texts — the Qur’an and Hadith and Sira — teach Muslims about Infidels?
Azzi traces it [people being fearful] back to the 9/11 attacks, which he says encouraged the false impression that that’s when Muslims suddenly arrived in America, when in fact they have been here for centuries.
Azzi’s leap from the 9/11 attacks to when Muslims “actually” came to America is bizarre. The 9/11 attacks did not lead to anyone raising the issue of when Muslims came to America, as he claims. That matter was raised only some years later, and by Muslims themselves, propagandists who wished to engage in backdating of a Muslim presence, in an attempt to suggest that, as Barack Obama so memorably put it in his Cairo speech, “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.”
This campaign reached its absurd zenith when the State Department’s Phyllis McIntosh issued a report in 2004 entitled “Islamic Influence Runs Deep in American Culture.” In this report, she claimed that there was even a Muslim in Columbus’s crew: “Islamic influences may date back to the very beginning of American history. It is likely that Christopher Columbus, who discovered America in 1492, charted his way across the Atlantic Ocean with the help of an Arab navigator.” This is flatly untrue; that “Arab” navigator was a Jew, the converso Luis de Torres, who knew Arabic but was neither an Arab nor a Muslim. “May date back” and “It is likely that” are weasel words designed to protect from criticism a claim that is made up entirely out of whole cloth. Then there is that other dubious claim — made with very slight supporting evidence — that, among the African slaves brought to America were many who had been Muslims in Africa. Muslims, Azzi has claimed, “have been part of our historical and cultural experience for nearly 400 years.” Back to 1600? His earliest example, from 1706, is of a slave owned by Cotton Mather, named “Onesimus.” You can be sure that if he had any earlier examples, he would have mentioned them.
No one knows how many of the slaves were Muslim. Estimates are given, without any evidence, from 5% to 30%, but both figures seem to have have been plucked out of the thin air. If there were more than a handful, why did the slaveowners not seem to notice their presence? Nor did the other, non-Muslim slaves. And even the handful of Muslim slaves who did arrive would have been living in an overwhelmingly Christian environment, not in a Muslim community, without mosques or madrasas or copies of the Qur’an necessary to help perpetuate the faith, and the Islam they brought with them in their mental baggage would likely have been extinguished by the next generation.
Azzi offers only conjecture, based on his assumptions about names, to produce what he thinks are examples of Muslims who took part in the Revolutionary War. He comes up with exactly six.
One veteran of the American Revolution at Concord and Bunker Hill was a freed slave named Peter Salem, who’s believed by some historians to have been Muslim. Other soldiers with Muslim names include “Salem Poor, Yusuf Ben Ali, Bampett Muhamed, Francis Saba and Joseph Saba.” “Who’s believed by some historians” is not exactly firm evidence. Why doesn’t Azzi name those historians? And where is their evidence? Peter Salem might well have been given his surname by slave-owners thinking of the “Salem” of the Old Testament (which later became, in Genesis 14, “Jerusalem”), or of the nearby city of “Salem” north of Boston named after it. The same could explain the “Salem” in “Salem Poor.” “Peter” is not a Muslim name. As for the others Azzi lists as those with “Muslim names,” “Saba” is both a Jewish and a Muslim surname. Neither “Francis” nor “Joseph” are Muslim names. Only two of the six he lists — Yusuf Ben Ali and Bampett Muhamed — appear likely to have been Muslims.
A handful of Muslims does not make Islam “part of the American story.” The first mosque founded in the United States, in a building borrowed for that purpose, dates from 1929; the first building erected as a mosque dates from 1935. Robert Azzi wants you to believe in a Muslim presence, both backdated and exaggerated, as a way of staking a Muslim claim to America, as if that would somehow make the ideology of Islam more American and, presumably, less disturbing. But what counts are what the immutable Islamic texts teach, not when Muslims arrived. Hindus and Buddhists arrived even later than the Muslims, but their beliefs, unlike those of Muslims, do not flatly contradict the First Amendment (as to both freedom of religion, and freedom of speech), nor do they represent a permanent threat to non-Hindus or non-Buddhists, as Muslims do for non-Muslims.
Azzi displays his victimhood: “Trump has ‘painted a crescent on my forehead and a target on my back,'” he claims, “with more than a hint of anger in his voice.” He has received threatening phone calls and hate mail.” How many? He doesn’t say. Just take his word for it. He’s a victim.
So to battle the fear mongers, the hate mailers, the sowers of discord, the enemies of coexistence, he has decided to let his fellow Americans hear directly from an American Muslim — that is, from Robert Azzi himself — as to what Islam is all about, in order to break down the intolerance that Muslims must endure.
A few nights later, at the Community Church in the neighboring town of Harrisville, Jack Calhoun posed a question that Azzi often hears: “Why don’t we hear more condemnation of terrorism in the name of Islam from the Muslim community?”
Azzi offers a terse answer: “Because you’re not listening.”
He points out that Muslims from Tehran to Istanbul to New York denounced the 9/11 attacks, while scores of prominent Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. But Azzi argues those stories are often overlooked in the current climate.
After 9/11, there were large demonstrations all over the the Palestinian territories to celebrate the attacks. There were smaller, similar demonstrations in Egypt. But most important, despite the condemnations by Muslim governments of the attacks — could they really have dared not to condemn them? — none of those same governments condemned the celebrations by the Palestinians and others. Why not? And there were large demonstrations against the 9/11 attacks, and in sympathy with the American victims in only one Muslim country — Iran.
“Muslims denouncing terrorism and violence didn’t fit the binary narrative that had taken hold in this country of us versus them,” Azzi says. “You know, there’s this great prayer in the Muslim community that says: ‘Please God, don’t let it be a Muslim.'”
This is an example of Extreme Victimhood. Azzi does not realize how offensive it is that the “great prayer in the Muslim community” after an attack is to first worry over how such an attack will affect Muslims, when they ought to be thinking about the victims of Muslim terror attacks.
Azzi want you to believe that Muslims “denouncing terrorism and violence” are not reported on. But he has it exactly backwards. The American and other Western media have been extremely eager to report on Muslims “denouncing terrorism and violence,” take these denunciations seriously even when they are clearly pro-forma, and are quick to report, too, the assertions by apologists, from Presidents on down, that the “real Islam” could not possibly have had anything to do with Islamic terrorism.
Azzi acknowledges that Islam has a problem with fundamentalism, but he claims that Christianity does as well. This is the usual tu-quoque argument. “Christian fundamentalism” may be a problem, but it is not a problem on the same scale, or with a similar origin, as “Islamic fundamentalism.” Where are the tens of thousands of victims of Christian fundamentalism all over the world? Just as important, where are the Biblical texts that command Christians to wage war on all non-Christians, to “kill them wherever you find them,” to “smite at their necks,” to “strike terror in their hearts”? Where are the equivalents in the Gospels to the 109 “Jihad” verses in the Qur’an? There are none. Nor is Jesus to be likened to the warrior Muhammad, who in his last ten years took part in 65 different campaigns, helped slaughter 600-900 prisoners of the Banu Qurayza, attacked the Jewish farmers at the Khaybar Oasis, killed them and took their women as sex slaves. Muhammad himself took the Jewish girl Saafiyah at Khaybar as his sex slave, raping her on the same day that he killed her father, husband, and brother. Whenever Muhammad expressed a desire to have those who mocked him killed, his followers were happy to comply. None of this apparently bothers Muslims, who regard Muhammad as the Model of Conduct (“uswa hasana”) and the Perfect Man (“al-insan al-kamil”). Azzi knows all of this, but he’s not about to volunteer such information.
What Azzi pretends not to know is that mainstream Muslims are all “fundamentalists.” That is, they take the Qur’an literally, some with more and some with less commitment to acting upon its commands. Azzi makes a curious remark, that “while we believe that the Qur’an is the literal Word of God that it is not meant to be read literally.” Who is this “we” for whom he claims to be speaking? Mainstream Muslims certainly are supposed to take the Qur’an literally. What theological grounds support Azzi’s claim that “it [the Qur’an] is not to be taken literally”?
“Do I condone the condition of women in most Muslim majority countries?” Azzi asks. “Absolutely not. I don’t condone it. I think they live a terrible life, and they live under terrible conditions. [But] there is nothing in Islam that supports or embraces that kind of horror or terrorism.”
Azzi admits that women in most Muslim countries “lead a terrible life” and “live under terrible conditions.” He then claims that “there is nothing in Islam that supports or embraces that kind of horror or terrorism”(against women). But if that is true, then what explains the miserable condition of women in “most Muslim majority countries” and the much better condition of women in the countries where Christianity has prevailed? Doesn’t Robert Azzi owe us an explanation for that “terrible life” of women under Islam that has nothing to do with Islam?
Robert Azzi cannot possibly have managed to forget so much of the Islam he is attempting to defend. According to the Sharia, Muslim women can inherit half as much as men (Qur’an 4:11); their testimony is worth half that of a man (2:282); polygamy is licit (Muhammad, the Perfect Man, allowed himself at least twelve, and possibly as many as fourteen wives), and so are sex slaves, “those whom your right hand possesses”; a Muslim man is allowed to beat his disobedient wife, though “lightly”; a Muslim man need only pronounce the triple-talaq to divorce his wife; and women are described as inferior to men, both in the Qur’an, for “the men are a degree above them” (2:228); and in the Hadith, that is, in Sahih Bukhari 6:301: “[Muhammad] said, ‘Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man? They replied in the affirmative. He said, ‘This [is because of] the deficiency in her intelligence.’” None of this is mentioned in Azzi’s meretricious account of Islam.
And Azzi argues that America has been complicit in propping up some of the regimes that oppress women.
Azzi immediately attempts to deflect the blame from Islam, and the texts and teachings that explain the oppression of women in Muslim societies, onto America, which is “complicit” in “propping up some of the regimes that oppress women.” This is a curious remark coming from someone who has been quite at home in the most oppressive regime for women of any of them — that of Saudi Arabia — where he even made friends with members of the ruling family. Azzi has worked over many decades taking photographs in Saudi Arabia, and even published a portfolio of photographs of the country with an introduction by His Royal Highness Prince Saud Al Faisal. His work on Saudi Arabia has been consistently uncritical. See, for another example, the praise he offers this cruel theocratic state in “Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom and the Power.” Rather than America, isn’t it Robert Azzi who has an unrivalled record of being “complicit” in the mistreatment of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and, by extension, in the rest of the Muslim world?
Azzi knows perfectly well that the American government does not endorse in any way the oppression of women anywhere. Inability to change another country’s policies does not equal complicity. What would he have America do about the Muslim countries, and about those verses in the Qur’an and stories in the Hadith that support the mistreatment of women? How would Robert Azzi react, if the American government were to stop being “complicit” by ending support for these regimes, including military or other forms of aid? He would be outraged. And he would be particularly exercised if the American government were to make an example of Saudi Arabia, one of his favorite subjects for photographs, with a regime clearly dear to both his heart and to his bank account.
Does Azzi think America should end its support for Saudi Arabia until that misogynistic regime allows women to drive, or to work alongside men, or to be able to travel without the permission, or presence, of male relatives? Does he think the American government should downgrade relations with any country that permits polygamy? I doubt it. One would like Robert Azzi to tell us exactly what he thinks of how women are treated in Saudi Arabia, and what he would have the American government do to show it is no longer, as he puts it, “complicit” in the mistreatment of Saudi women. Would he ever have the decency to admit that his own previous work on Saudi Arabia was uncritical, at times even fawning — which explains that introduction-cum-endorsement of his “Saudi Portfolio” by His Royal Highness Prince Saud Al Faisal — and would he accept the charge that he, too, has been “complicit” in promoting a view of the country that downplays the oppression of women, and certainly does nothing to connect that oppression with Islam itself?
These are all questions for study and discussion.
The Harrisville audience is, for the most part, sympathetic, welcoming Azzi’s effort to open a dialogue about Islam.
“I think it’s essential,” Tom Porter said after the event. Porter is a lawyer, conflict mediator and Methodist minister who teaches at Boston University’s theology school. “And I like his approach. That he’s saying, ‘I’m not going to tell you all the good things about Islam; I’m going to answer your questions. I want to be in dialogue with you.’ I consider him a soulmate.”
Though Azzi describes his desire for a “dialogue,” what he offers, rather, is a Q-and-A where he, with his “answers” to those ask-anything-questions, always has the last word. And while he may promise that “I’m not going to tell you all the good things about Islam,” — there are so many, after all — he is certainly not going to tell you anything bad about Islam. Misogynistic Muslim societies, he insists, have nothing do with the real Islam, though Azzi never tells us where that widespread misogyny might come from, preferring to switch the focus of attention, and object of blame, to the “complicit’ Americans.
“Janet Selle, who came to Harrisville from Keene, said she appreciated what Azzi had to say about the “gentleness of Islam.”
Did Janet Selle “appreciate” what Azzi has to say because she wants so much to believe his feelgood remark, despite the paucity of supporting evidence? For where is this “gentleness” of Islam? Has it been on display in the “Palestinian”– and not only “Palestinian” — celebrations of terror attacks that have killed American workers in New York and Washington, on 9/11? Are the murderous attacks by terrorists on Jewish men, women, and children in Israel and the “West Bank,” with the victims blown up,shot, stabbed, on busses and at pizza parlors and even at family Passover celebrations, by Muslim terrorists treated as heroes for smashing in the heads of three-year-olds? Has that “gentleness” been on display in the attacks on innocent Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, or the attacks on Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh? Is that “gentleness” on display in the handiwork of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, the Taliban and many other terrorist groups, not just in their attacks on Christians, but against the wrong kind of Muslims (e.g., Shi’a), or those who, by the lights of the fanatics, are deemed insufficiently Islamic? Has the “gentleness of Islam” that so impressed Janet Selle what comes to mind when we consider those more than 30,000 attacks by Muslims on Infidels since 9/11? Has that “gentleness” been on display in such Qur’anic verses as 9.5 (the Verse of the Sword), 9.29, 8.12, 8.60, 2.191-193, and 47.4, a representative half-dozen of the more than 100 jihad verses that Janet Selle can easily google up and ponder, far from Robert Azzi and his deeply deceptive inveiglements. Has Selle been impressed with the “gentleness” of Muhammad in calling for the murders of those who mocked or attacked him, as Asma bint Marwan, Abu ‘Afak, and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf? Or are we right to think that Janet Selle is unfamiliar with those blood-curdling verses, and those assassinations of Muhammad’s enemies, and unlikely to seek them out, in her eagerness to accept Robert Azzi’s insistence that Islam’s “gentleness” is just one more bit of evidence that ISIS and similar groups have “nothing to do with the real Islam.”
Her comment suggests she’s been easy to convince:
“It’s really important to hear the other side [the “good” and “true” and “peaceful” Muslims like Robert Azzi], and not just radicalism or the fundamentalists [ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the “extremists” who “distort” the peaceful religion] that he talked about. It’s important to hear where the belief really stems from,” Selle said.[And that would be….?]
“Azzi says these have been tough years for Muslims like him [victimhood again –tough years for Muslims like Azzi, who might get an occasional dirty look, but not for the non-Muslim targets of Islamic terrorism all over the world who might be shot, stabbed, run over, blown up?], but the positive response to these evenings gives him hope.”
“It reinforces in me [sic] that these are really good people,” Azzi says. “You know, the haters aren’t here. The haters don’t come out. This is a Muslim town hall. I’ve never used that line before, but that’s what it is.”
Comment: Janet Stelle believes it is “important to hear where the [Islamic] belief really stems from.” Of course — it comes from the immutable Qur’an, the Hadith, and the Sira. But that’s not what Robert Azzi will be talking about. His sanitized version of Islam keeps out all the many disturbing verses and stories in the Islamic texts, admits to some unacceptable behavior by Muslims but insists, with enough feeling to convince such terminally naive Infidels as Mr. Porter and Ms. Selle, that this behavior has nothing to do with Islam, though he apparently deems it unnecessary to furnish an alternative explanation.
The people who don’t show up at Azzi’s events do so not because, as he falsely claims, they are “haters,” but because they know too much about Islam to be able to endure listening to Azzi’s blend of victimization, tu-quoque, taqiya, and outright lies. Their desire not to have to listen to such nonsense is understandable. But if they can possibly steel themselves and show up for these events, painful as it may be, and come armed with questions that Azzi, who has invited everyone to ask him, as a Muslim, anything about Islam, will not be expecting, and for which he will have no satisfactory reply, the result could be most salutary. You will be doing this as a service to your fellow Infidels in the audience, to provide more than a momentary stay against confusion. If you don’t show up, that audience will have only the meretricious Robert Azzi upon whom to rely, and he has for a long time been honing his skills in presenting a soothing, innocuous, plausible, and entirely preposterous version of Islam, that many people are all too ready, even eager, to believe.
First published in Jihad Watch.