Features, Politics

What Makes a ‘Self-Hating’ Muslim?

I’ve recently returned from a study tour to Israel. As a Muslim visiting Israel I was put through considerable security, but was otherwise treated well.

Since my return, I have been surprised by the level of negative reaction I received from other Muslims, including some close friends and relatives. It’s as if visiting Israel equates with ardent support for Zionism and the wholesale rejection of the Palestinian people, neither of which I adhere to. However, I have returned with a more complex understanding of the issues at stake.

Wajahat Ali is an American attorney and writer, known for his contributions about the Muslim experience in The New York Times and The Atlantic. He writes eloquently about this strong faith. He also visited Israel recently. He interacted with Jewish settlers on the West Bank via a  program run by a group called the Shalom Hartman Institute and its Muslim Leadership Initiative. Based in Washington, the center has the laudable goal to help engage Muslim leaders and Jewish thinkers. Given Ali’s high profile, he made for an ideal candidate.

So what happened after he returned from Israel?

Ali came back only to find there was a groundswell of activism against him leading to attempts to block him from speaking at major Islamic conferences. One of his new found foes was the largest representative Muslim group in North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Another representative body, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), wrote a revealing letter to Ali outlining their reasons for cancelling their support. Ali writes about this experience in The Atlantic Monthly.

Some of the notable lines include: “The ISNA says its Muslim speakers are expected to ‘support broadly their values as a unifying Islamic organization.’”

And another: “[The ISNA] claims that other than ‘creed,’ there is ‘perhaps nothing more exemplary and unifying than our community’s support for the Palestinian people.'”

The episode exposes some interesting trends among Muslim communities. The Israel-Palestine issue is arguably more about territory than it is about religion. Extremists on both sides gain from painting the conflict as a religious one. It then attracts support from others who believe in a wider struggle between Islam and unbelievers. The Palestinian National Charter repeatedly mentions the words “Arab,” “nationals,” and “Palestinian,” but not once does it mention Islam. As Egyptian writer Khaled Diab wrote in a 2015 Haaretz column, the issue “ is essentially a secular-nationalist conflict over land, injustice and, to a lesser degree, identity.”

Then why should support for a Palestinian state be such an important part of being a Muslim?

One of the major tensions for many Muslims living in the West is whether to prioritize one’s religious identity over a national identity. Multiple Pew surveys have shown that a majority of Muslims living in countries like Britain and France state that they value their Islamic identity over their national one. It is strong Islamic teaching that loyalty to the umma, the global Muslim community, must be prioritized above all.

Repeated studies from think tanks such as the British Policy Exchange and the anti-extremism organization Quilliam have found that latter generations of Muslims growing up in the West are more likely to develop stronger religiosity. They express it through outer markers such as wearing a hijab or sporting a beard. Younger generations who have grown up in the West are also more likely to support the uptake of Sharia law or even express sympathy for Al Qaeda.
Their upbringing straddled psychologically between the conflicting ancestral cultures of their parents and the individualized, permissive West often leaves a vacuum filled by this form of “Identity Islam.”

When those who develop extremist views are interviewed, the most common grievance they report is the anger they feel when watching wars in distant lands where Muslims are killed, namely Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine. The wars themselves may be for very different reasons and are otherwise unrelated, but they all involve a connection with the Muslim umma. Notably, this anger is less apparent when Muslims are being killed by other Muslims, say by the Islamic State, or in Africa, suggesting the nature of the oppressor is all important.

When the ringleader of the 2005 London bombings, Mohammad Sidique Khan, outlined his reasons for the attack in a suicide video, he stated: “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world…until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.”

When Sidique Khan spoke of “my people,” he wasn’t referring to his fellow countrymen in Britain but to a politicized sense of a global community of Muslims. This attitude seeks to unite Muslims on the basis of their religious identity overriding all other aspects of affiliation.

In the case of Palestine, despite it being only partially related to religion, the issue is seen as the ultimate expression of Muslims as victims of the supreme oppressor, the Jewish state of Israel—underwritten by the Great Satan of America.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 2nd Aug, 2014. A man hold T-shirt ‘Boycott Israel’ during the ‘Save The Children of Gaza’ rally in Kuala Lumpur on August 2, 2014

Wajahat Ali’s crime is that by mere association with a Jewish group, he was tarred by important sections of the Islamic community as a traitor.  As outlined in the correspondence he received there is no greater market of group membership among Muslims than the wholesale support for Palestine and an antipathy to Israel.

I am no stranger to anti-semitism. Growing up I heard many a conspiracy theory espoused by clerics in suburban mosques. They spoke of Jews and global domination. I had never met a Jew until I attended high school, before which depictions of wealth, miserliness and hooked noses was all that I knew.

In one Muslim tradition, Muhammad slaughtered hundreds of Jews and is glorified for it. According to the story, an army was defeated in Medina after which Muhammad turned on the residents of the Banu Qurayza tribe (who were previously neutral). He murdered hundreds of the men before dividing the spoils of conquest among his Muslim followers. The tale is not recounted in the Quran but is in the hadith, collections of actions and sayings of Muhammad, and the sira, his biography. The story is referred to with pride among scholars and clerics. There is however no other historical record of said event.

The fact this story elicits pride among Muslims is evidence of Israel’s central place in the broad humiliation of the Islamic world. No other issue better highlights a collective Muslim grief about the decline of the Islamic world and the dominance of nonbelievers. This is in despite of the great complexities on the ground and how ridiculous it is to think 1.8 billion Muslims should share an united view. This strain of Identity Islam and its overlaps with Israel is starting to impact the local politics of the Western countries.

Prior to the last British election, there was considerable controversy surrounding the Labour Party and its relative silence surrounding anti-semitic views amongst its supporters. The rising Muslim population in Western countries like Britain, where around five percent of the population are of Islamic background, is placing pressure on center-left parties. Muslim communities overwhelmingly vote for progressive parties but this is creating a degree of strain surrounding Israel, and at least the perception of greater tolerance for anti-semitism. Author Howard Jacobson publicly withdrew his support for British Labour exactly for this reason.

In Australia, there are large Muslim populations in outer suburban areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Australian Labour too has courted the Muslim vote by expressing strong support for a Palestinian state to the extent there have been several motions at major party conferences calling for unilateral recognition of Palestine. These have so far been quashed, but for how long?

Modern strains of Identity Islam will continue to challenge the foreign and domestic policies of Western countries well beyond terrorism prevention. Wajahat Ali and I have both learned the symbolism of what any association with Israel might mean to our perceptions of purity as a Muslim. There is no equivalent of a ‘self-hating Jew’ in Islam, but if there was we would likely be tarred with the label.


Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia-based psychiatrist and author. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. TarsTarkas says

    You cannot appease extremists, and those who condemn people who merely travel to the Holy Land, or associate with ‘the oppressor’, are that. Their ultimate goal is the conquest of the whole world (the first step being the recapture of any land that was ever Muslim or thought to be Muslim, followed by forced conversion of the inhabitants). And once victory is achieved they then will fight bitterly and bloodily, and interminably over who then rules the world based on minute differences of doctrine, opinion, or interpretation, and woe be to those who find themselves on the losing sides.

  2. Paul says

    Out of 1.8 billion muslims how many believe in the Koran which tells Muslims to kill the infideli if they do not convert to Islam or leave Islam ?

    • I often use this statistic. Let’s say only 10% of Muslims (lowball) hate the West and support radical Islamic extremism…that’s 180 MILLION people on this planet who are crude and warlike. Scary numbers.

  3. ga gamba says

    The Palestinian National Charter repeatedly mentions the words “Arab,” “nationals,” and “Palestinian,” but not once does it mention Islam.

    I think there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Palestinian Christians exist. Not many, but they’re there. Next, the Palestinian National Charter was written in 1964, so we need to look at the context of when the main voices of the Palestinian movement arose, e.g. the PLO and its dominant factions Fatah and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). These were leftist in ideology – the PFLP is the Marxist-Leninist hardliner of the organisation – formed during the era of anti-colonialism, which had many supporters not only in the third world but also in the West. The non-aligned movement had genuine clout. The PLO needed the support of the secular leaders in the Arab world such as the pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Lastly, it needed the support of a big player, and to better align with the USSR and its proxies the stink of religion needed to be dropped.

    Reading the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, a.k.a the Hamas Charter, we find it declares its members Muslims who fear Allah, who will raise the banner of jihad, and who seek to establish the Islamic state in Palestine in place of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Israel is to be obliterated or dissolved. In 2017 Hama released its updated Document of General Principles and Policies.

    • Brian Albert says

      I’m not surprised that the Israel-Palestine conflict has grown in importance to the worldwide Muslim community. In orthodox Islam, all of the territory conquered by the first four Caliphs is considered ‘waqf’, holy ground to be ruled by Muslims in perpetuity until the end of time. That Jews would militarily defeat Muslims and establish a Jewish state on part of the waqf is considered an abomination. Orthodox Muslims thus consider themselves duty-bound to struggle against the existence of Israel. Accepting Israel means disobeying God. This is why the conflict is more ideological in nature than territorial. This is why previous Israeli offers of statehood to the Palestinians have always been rejected.

  4. The Ambassador says

    I wonder where the counterargument on this website will be posted? The support for Israel from evangelical Christians in the United States is to an absurd extent. This religious identity that you claim Muslims apply to this conflict can be said by Jews and Christians as well. This isn’t something that is isolated to Islam.

    • Gandalf says

      I think you got a bit confused here. The author is not a supporter of Israel, he has simply traveled to Israel and met with Israelis. Moreover, there are plenty of Christians and Jews all the around the world who meet with Palestinians on a regular basis. Many Christians around the world are very sympathetic to Palestinians. There are also plenty of Jews around the world who are critical of Israel. In fact, many Jewish American liberal Jews are critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian demands. It is only when a Muslim expresses support for Israel or simply meets with Israelis that boycotts and physical assaults are being threatened. There is no Jewish or Christian equivalent of Salman Rushdie or Ayaan hirsi Ali who have to hide due to violent threats by Muslims. We all know how violent Muslims can be when they feel like their pride has been compromised. Just try to publish a charicature of Muhammad.

    • Jack B Nimble says

      ‘….Modern strains of Identity Islam will continue to challenge the foreign and domestic policies of Western countries well beyond terrorism prevention…..’

      I agree, but what are we then to make of this statement by VP Mike Pence: “[I am] a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” Source: Wikipedia article “Mike Pence.” Where does his being an American citizen and a patriot figure into all that??

      Or how about this quote from 2010 from now minority leader Charles Schumer: “My name as you know comes from a Hebrew word. It comes from the word shomer, which means guardian…… My ancestors were guardians of the ghetto wall in Chortkov and I believe Hashem**, actually, gave me the name as one of my roles that is very important in the United States Senate, to be a shomer for Israel, and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.”
      **i.e., ‘God.’ Link: https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/31870/does-schumers-name-give-him-more-authority

      It is very fashionable on Quillette to slam the identity politics, intersectionality, tribalism, etc. of the left, but fairness and adherence to liberal democratic principles require that tribalism be condemned equally wherever it occurs. Religious-identitarian politics are a growing problem around the world, in Burma/Myanmar, Turkey, Israel, the US, Poland, etc.

      Tanveer Ahmed is rightly concerned about obtrusive displays of religiosity among Muslims in the West: hijabs for women and big beards for men. But what about virtue- or identity-signaling among Christians in the West? Wearing crosses outside of clothing, or displaying other Christian symbols, is so common in Western countries that it usually goes unremarked. But isn’t wearing a cross or putting a fish magnet on a car bumper just another example of signaling behavior? Criticizing or banning only some forms of public religiosity would seem to be an example of ‘viewpoint discrimination.’

      • OleK says


        I’m not seeing your point here regarding Christian “identity signalling”. Many people wear crosses who wouldn’t identify as Christians except maybe in name only…or not even that..simply wear them as jewelry. Christianity keeps shrinking most places around the globe. Sure, the Evangelical sub strain can be concerning regarding their eschatological viewpoints regarding Israel, but even so, it is more keeping the Middle Eastern Islamic countries in check as opposed to “conquering”. Where are these Evangelicals pouring into Middle Eastern Countries? The prior admin’s “Arab Spring” policies re: Libya etc has done far more to change things…and not for the better…than the crazy Evangelical narratives (no matter how concerning one’s paranoia may lead one to believe).

        • Jack B Nimble says

          @OleK — Yes, the Christian cross does appear and re-appear in many contexts in Western countries, including lots of gory horror movies–vampire films, the Exorcist, etc. That is why I included the fish symbol–it doesn’t carry as much cultural baggage here in the West. If the # of Christians is shrinking around the globe–and I’m not sure it is–that is irrelevant to the point I was making.

          I should have added a PS to my original comment, to the effect that Pres. Trump [despite all his personal failings and all the problems with his 2016 campaign] did manage to cobble together a non-identitarian campaign slogan–MAGA. Despite his public hating on immigrants and people of color, Trump’s message of American greatness resonated with enough non-white voters to help push him over the top [in electoral votes]. HRC, on the other hand, put most of her campaign chips on the group-identity idea that suburban Republican women would overwhelmingly reject the lecherous Trump–and that obviously didn’t happen.

      • Doug Deeper says

        Religious people showing symbols of their religion was never a significant problem in the West until 9/11 opened our eyes to the supremacist, violent nature of those in power in the Muslim world. Whether nation states, Saudi Arabia, Iran, now Turkey, and nearly every other Islamic state, or the many terrorist entities with their many “lone wolf” adherents, those in power in the Muslim world share this violent, supremacist nature. There are NO significant countervailing powers in that world. Thus to suggest that Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Mormons or any other important religion poses the same threat as Islam makes no sense.
        The Middle Ages ended 1000 years ago.
        Identity signaling by non violent, non-supremacist religious people is NOT the problem.
        When a religion is controlled by violent people and their powerful apologists, the rest of us have a problem.

      • Beny says

        There are many important differences between Islam and Christianity. One in particular should be mentioned: while Christianity has evolved and became increasingly liberal, with very few exceptions, Islam is still stuck in the eighth century.
        We that live in Christian majority countries are not threatened by religion. Not sure you could say the same about Islamic countries.

        • Jack B Nimble says


          ‘….We that live in Christian majority countries are not threatened by religion…..’

          As my original comment made clear, I want to live in a liberal democracy, not an ethno-religious state like Israel, Turkey, India, Egypt, etc., etc. Attacks against secularists and religious minorities in those countries are disturbing, but do not affect me personally.

          Well-meaning people in the US who seek to impose their religion and their values on others ARE a threat, particularly when they attempt to enact coercive laws like anti-abortion statutes.

          Granting your point about important differences between Islam and Christianity, Roman Catholicism–particularly with its emphasis on ‘natural law’–does make very explicit universalist* claims, as does Islam. Catholic integralism [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integralism#Catholic_Integralism ] resembles in some respects ‘political Islam.’ And so on….

          *that is, universal authority, not universal salvation

          • Nick Ender says

            Jack B Nimble

            Your point is granted. Where Christians seek political power to impose a theocratic state they should be resisted. However this is 2018 and I know of no Christian threat to liberal democracy that is anywhere close to that posed by Salafist Islam (and it’s adjacent theologies).

            As others pointed out, there’s actually no mainstream biblical interpretation of Christianity that lends itself to the creation of a theocratic state. Forgive my somewhat oversimplification of Christian theology here but, as you may know Christians believe that you are saved by faith and faith alone. Following the Ten Commandments or any other religions law does not grant you access through the pearly gates as it were. So it naturally follows that making people fallow Christian moral doctrine does nothing as far as saving souls is concerned. Which is the primary focus of Christendom. Further, Christians do not believe you are born pure and are then corrupted by a corrupt world (as Muslims do), so reshaping the world along biblical lines does nothing to assuage original sin. You can see how the opposite belief, that of a “purity at birth”, would lend itself to the desire to see sharia law imposed on all mankind. You would be saving all those pure souls from eternal torment in hell by beating your wife with a stick no thicker than your thumb… That is what the West is up against. It’s not that radical Islamist are trying to punish us, they are trying to save us. A much more dangerous motivation if you ask me.

            P.S. As much as I enjoy Quillette for its publication of unpopular and counter cultural essays, I agree that it has become a bit of an echo chamber.

  5. I believe the self hating jew equivalent in islam would be apostasy, and the punishment death.

    You sound like a reasonable guy. You will see then that you confirm western fears in this article. We know muslims don’t assimilate, that their loyalty is elsewhere. Until this changes, and our people of faith are not insulted by the term “unbelievers”, things will continue as they are going – badly.

  6. John says

    “The fact this story elicits pride among Muslims is evidence of Israel’s central place in the broad humiliation of the Islamic world.”
    The most elegant summation of the middle Eastern problem I have yet seen.
    The EXISTENCE of Israel constitutes a central humiliation of the umma of Islam.
    And the obvious answer is……?
    Talk of 2 state solutions is just window dressing for the self deluded but useful fools of the left.

  7. John says

    The obvious answer is… history since 1948.
    The strange allegiance between the Austrian corporal and the Mufti; between the Western leftist cognitive elite and Islam, on the face of it not obvious bed fellows.

  8. Ira Slomowitz says

    As an Israeli (American ex-pat) I see first hand what you are experiencing. Many in the Israeli-Arab community are in the same position that you are. They contribute to Isreal’s success in multiple fields (healthcare is just one example) and if they speak about themselves as Israelis they are immediately shot down by their own, extreme leaders.
    If we are not even allowed to talk to each other, let alone empathize with each other, how are we ever going to share this land?

    • Constantin Draghici says

      To Ira Slomowitz,

      I salute your wise and conciliatory comment. Cheers!

  9. Constantin Draghici says

    Disturbing although sincere is how I would describe this article. Three main points are being made: 1) Muslims being curious about Israel face a backlash and ostracism; 2) The “umma” is very touchy and characterized by a collective supranational identity that gets hurt whenever the war with the infidel happens at home (historically there was no problem when the “umma” fought the infidel in the “land of war”); 3) Israel is a supreme insult to all Muslims and that’s that as far as that country is concerned (two state solution? – you must be kidding!).

    Clearly the enlightenment values are in retreat among younger Muslims and I found frightening the author’s admission that until high school (meaning throughout key formative years) he was fed a steady anti-Semitic diet.

    I salute however the attempt at opening a dialogue, even on such shaky ground that is, at least, not based on deception. Can there be any doubt that a Muslim majority Western nation will absolutely and irrevocably lose its identity and all its key values?

    • augustine says

      “Can there be any doubt that a Muslim majority Western nation will absolutely and irrevocably lose its identity and all its key values?”

      Much more will be lost than key values.

  10. Bolland says

    What ‘should’ make a ‘self hating’ Muslim is, after truly confronting the ideology you have no choice but to ‘submit’ to, that you persist in being one.

  11. Deafening Tone says

    “The Israel-Palestine issue is arguably more about territory than it is about religion. Extremists on both sides gain from painting the conflict as a religious one. It then attracts support from others who believe in a wider struggle between Islam and unbelievers. The Palestinian National Charter repeatedly mentions the words “Arab,” “nationals,” and “Palestinian,” but not once does it mention Islam. As Egyptian writer Khaled Diab wrote in a 2015 Haaretz column, the issue “ is essentially a secular-nationalist conflict over land, injustice and, to a lesser degree, identity.”

    I have many problems with this paragraph. As someone who has studied the conflicts in this area (and their spread globally) at a doctoral level for 10 years, here are my rebuttals:

    1. Pitting territory against religion is a false dichotomy. Better: the Israel-Palestine issue is arguably about territory infused with religious meaning.
    2. Citing the text of the Palestinian charter and the absence of mentions of Islam or religion is to unnecessarily attempt to prove a negative. The Palestinian national charter was written to form the Palestinian national identity on terms acceptable to the U.N. and the global community in preparation for legitimization as a distinct people group. It’s a political document, and citing religion as legitimization as a people would be the first step in demanding a theocracy. Those are not solid grounds for gaining recognition.
    3. Haaretz is squarely in the Palestinian camp and focuses nearly all of its ink and daily ire against Israel. It will define the conflict in a way that reduces the role of religion in order to perform the function in #2, above.

    A better way to view the conflict is to recognize the parties that support the Palestinians the most: the Muslim community. One has to come to terms with that reality. Also, consider that Israel was birthed in the still-smoldering ashes of the ruined Ottoman Empire, the greatest empire Islam had achieved. Israel carves a distinct, alien chunk out of the map that tells the story of the greatest territorial expansion of Islam in its history. It sits like a sore on the memory of that empire and contributes to further loss of face (humiliation) to those for whom that collective memory is deeply meaningful.

    • Deafening Tone says

      My field is sociology of religion. In regards to this statement:

      “Repeated studies from think tanks such as the British Policy Exchange and the anti-extremism organization Quilliam have found that latter generations of Muslims growing up in the West are more likely to develop stronger religiosity.”

      One should know that this effect is true for ALL immigrants of ANY faith, including otherwise irreligious immigrants. When you immigrate to an unfamiliar country/culture, becoming religious (or more religious) is a way to easily and quickly make valuable social connections. That’s not to say there isn’t heartfelt commitment among many (and the corresponding religious outcomes); rather, it is to point out the function of religious social structures in helping immigrants form community bonds that ease the transition.

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