Criticism is not Islamophobia

Criticism is the oxygen of journalism. Here at the Jewish Journal, we will criticize anything that we believe deserves criticism, including religion. We will criticize preachers who use Christianity to express hatred and bigotry toward gays as much as we will criticize religious Jews who use the Torah to humiliate women rabbis wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall.

Personally, I’ve shown my revulsion at some of the stuff written in the Torah — like the admonition to stone your son to death if he desecrates the Sabbath—and I’ve railed against missionary Christians who twist the Torah in order to convert Jews.

But I have to confess — like most of the mainstream media in America, I’ve been very reluctant to criticize Islam.

When, several years ago, virtually every American paper refused to publish satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, I should have criticized that response. I understood that fear and intimidation probably played a role, given the riots that followed their publication in a Danish paper.

But it’s not as if the media has ever been afraid to publish cartoons that make fun of Jesus or Moses or Buddha — so why should they single out Muhammad for special treatment?

If you ask me, I think it’s time we stop walking on eggshells with Islam.

It’s not healthy. This notion that any critique of Islam equates to Islamophobia is absurd and patronizing. It says to Muslims: “We criticize Judaism and Christianity because we think they can handle it, but we don’t think you can.” That’s insulting to Islam and to Muslims.

Every religion needs a good dose of criticism. That’s how they improve and become more human. That’s how they shed their outdated and immoral layers, like slavery and oppression of women. Where would Judaism be today without the centuries of relentless self-reflection and self-criticism that goes on to this day?

How could it be wrong or Islamophobic to criticize a religious text that might justify the stoning to death of women or the killing of infidels?

After terror attacks that appear to have an Islamic connection, such as last week’s Boston massacre, we often hear defensive talk about how Islam is a “religion of peace.” To back this up, Muslim commentators like to quote a verse in the Koran (Surah 5, verse 32) that mentions the Talmudic idea that if you kill one human being, it is as if you have killed an entire world.

The problem, though, is that commentators usually fail to mention the verse that immediately follows, which is anything but peaceful: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.”

Verse 32 works for me. Verse 33 turns my stomach.

The way I see it, the future of Islam and its reputation in the world will hinge on which verse will win out—verse 32 or verse 33.

So far, it looks like the wrong verse is winning. Since 9/11, close to 20,000 acts of terrorism have been recorded throughout the world under the name of Islam, many of those against Muslims themselves.

It’s suicidal and counterproductive for the world to pretend that violence-prone religious texts like verse 33 do not exist, especially if those texts are used to instigate violence against “infidels” and other mischief-makers.

Religions shouldn’t get an automatic pass at respect. They have to earn it. If you’re a member of a religion where some members use the religion as an excuse to kill people, your job is not to convince me that you’re a religion of peace, but to convince your co-religionists who are actually doing the killing.

It’s ironic that verse 32 borrows from Jewish texts. Muslims who believe in that peaceful verse might want to borrow something else from the Jews: a big mouth.

These Muslims of verse 32 have been too quiet for too long. If they want the world to show more respect for their cherished religion, they must rise up and make more noise against their violent minority who believe in verse 33.

There’s no dishonor in self-criticism. Jews do it all the time. Maybe that’s why you don’t see much criticism of Islam in Jewish papers—we’re too busy criticizing ourselves.

But criticism is not an end in itself– it must lead to results. The Muslims of verse 32 must win the moral battle against the Muslims of verse 33, even if it takes a century. And they must not recoil at criticism that may come from outsiders who have good intentions. In fact, they must use it to shame their violent cohorts.

Constructive criticism of violent texts is not Islamophobia. It’s the beginning of positive change. Painting all criticism of Islam with the Islamophobic brush is just as wrong as painting all Muslims with a violent brush. It suffocates debate and the very process of evolution.

To borrow from another Jewish mantra, constructive criticism is good for the Jews, good for the Muslims and good for the world.

A Jew murdered in Iran

In the wake of the gruesome murder of a 57-year-old Jewish woman living in the Iranian city of Isfahan nearly three weeks ago, a group of Iranian-Jewish activists in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., have banded together in an informal group hoping to raise public awareness of the murder and to help bring the murderers to justice. This new group, known as the Jewbareh Committee — named for the ancient Jewish ghetto in Isfahan where the victim, Toobah Nehdaran, was murdered — released a statement last week calling upon Iranians and the international community to push for a real investigation of the case.

“The Jewbareh Committee has appealed to all the kindhearted Muslims and neighbors in Isfahan and around the Jewbareh district, as well as to honest police officials to observe the situation, report any suspicious findings and push authorities to launch a fair investigation into this matter,” the statement said.

Following online news reports of the murder, committee members reached out to contacts in Iran, including an alleged eyewitness, who said that on Nov. 26, Nehdaran, a married Jewish woman, was strangled, then repeatedly stabbed to death, and her body was mutilated in a ritual manner by thugs who had broken into her home.

“People who have seen the body talk of mutilation as a result of multiple stabbings following the strangulation of the victim,” said George Haroonian, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish community activist and committee member. “Our investigation indicates that the victim’s body was surrendered to the family and the local rabbis, who had requested it on Nov. 29.”

Conflicting stories have emerged from Iran in relation to the murder, but committee members have confirmed that the victim’s two sisters — one of whom is blind — were living with her at the time of the murder and were tied up but not killed by the intruders. 

Committee members said Jewish leaders in Tehran have been spreading rumors that Nehdaran’s murder was as a result of a botched robbery in hopes of absolving local authorities before any investigation, out of fear of reprisals from the regime against the Iranian-Jewish community.

But Haroonian said that the burglary explanation was unlikely. “One witness overwhelmed by the scene believes that it is highly improbable that burglars would have killed someone in this manner,” Haroonian said.

According to the committee’s statement, a more plausible motive may stem from an official legal complaint, filed with local authorities in recent years, by the Nehdaran family against the nearby Kareem Saaghi mosque. The dispute began when the mosque’s “religious radicals” allegedly took over a portion of the family’s land when the family refused demands to sell its property to the mosque.

The committee said the motive of robbery did not make sense, because the victim’s family was poor and living in a dilapidated home in one of the poorest areas of Isfahan. 

Committee members say they believe Nehdaran’s murder may have been premeditated because it took place during the Islamic month of Muharram, a holy time for religious Shiite Muslims, when they publicly mourn the killing of their prophet Hussein through large public rallies, as well as a time when religious fanatics have, for centuries, killed non-Muslims in Iran.

In recent years, Iranian-Jewish community leaders in the United States have avoided commenting on the status of Jews in Iran and do not openly criticize the Iranian regime for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community still remaining in Iran. Despite this, the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) issued a statement to the Journal, calling on Iranian officials to bring Nehdaran’s killers to justice.

“We strongly request the local authorities in Isfahan to launch a prompt, credible and thorough investigation of this murder, overseen by the highest authorities in the country and to provide for immediate, adequate and effective security for all residents of this terrified community,” the IAJF statement reads.

The L.A.-based  30 Years After (30YA), a nonprofit Iranian-Jewish group, also condemned the murder and called for help from international human rights organizations.

“Our community is saddened and outraged by this heinous, targeted murder of a Jewish woman in Isfahan,” 30YA President Sam Yebri said. “This tragedy brings to light the precarious situation of all religious minorities in Iran who face discriminatory laws and random acts of violence, condoned by the Iranian authorities.”

Currently, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still live in Iran, most of them based in Tehran. Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said that despite discriminatory laws and constant threats to their lives, Jews remain in Iran for a variety of reasons.

“First of all, it is very difficult for more traditional people in Iran, whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, to leave the country because it’s their homeland,” Nikbakht said. “It is also very difficult for elderly Jews to leave, because they are sick or just set in their ways — and a lot of Jews believe that they can just outlast the regime. After all, Jews have been living in the Jewbareh in Isfahan since the time of Cyrus the Great, for more than 2,500 years, and believe they can continue living there.”

Nikbakht said official Shiite Islamic laws in Iran are discriminatory against non-Muslims. While a non-Muslim who murders a Muslim will face the death penalty, a Muslim who murders a non-Muslim will not be charged with the death penalty or imprisonment and can typically get off by merely paying the non-Muslim victim’s family “blood money,” he said.

The life of a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian — all of whom are viewed as dhimmis (second-class citizens), according to Iran’s Islamic laws — is worth one-twelfth  the life of a Muslim in blood money, Nikbakht said. At the same time, nonrecognized dhimmi “infidels” in Iran are not so fortunate.

“A Muslim who murders an ‘infidel,’ such as a person who is a communist or from the Baha’i faith — can get away with the crime by simply stating that the victim ‘deserved to be killed’ because he was an infidel according to the Islamic laws of the land,” Nikbakht said.

According to a 2004 report by Nikbakht, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated since 1979 by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody, and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American-Jewish groups, the Iranian-Jewish community in the United States, and particularly in Los Angeles, worked to  publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz who were imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately, the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the so-called “Shiraz 13” were released.

In Iran, the state-run media has not yet reported on Nehdaran’s murder, and Iranian officials have not released any official statement concerning the murder.

Three alleged suspects have been arrested and are currently in custody, but no official investigation has been launched, according to committee members in contact with the Jewish community in Isfahan.

Committee members said they have just begun efforts to reach out to American-Jewish community organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for help and have not yet developed a formal plan to approach elected officials or human rights groups.

Representatives at the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read Karmel Melamed’s blog, Iranian American Jews, go to