To Colleen Leary:
I am a liberal who like you, finds some ultra-right wing media outlets disturbing. I believe in protecting people from discrimination and bigotry.
I write you today because I have watched the comments of the Muslim speaker from the April 26, 2017 Portland State Inter-faith event, Unpacking Misconceptions. I have read the various reporting on that event and of Andy Ngo’s firing, including your May 13, 2017 editorial response in the Vanguard.
The topic at the center of this controversy—death for apostasy doctrine in Islam—has been completely ignored by anything written in the Vanguard about this event. As a result, I felt compelled to write an open letter to you that not only touches on the firing of Andy Ngo, but even more importantly, explores the allegedly missing context of the Muslim speaker’s remarks at the interfaith event.
I support gay-marriage, single-payer health care, and a strong social safety net. I believe in free speech and I believe that the best way to combat hate speech is not with censorship, but with superior ideas.
I believe that climate change is real and that we are not just national citizens with narrow national interests, but stewards of planet earth and a global community.
I hope that I have sufficient credibility with you as a liberal for you to hear my message. More so, I hope that this admission of my political beliefs is completely unnecessary for a fair consideration of my perspective. We should be able to hear one another across the political divide.
I believe in freedom of—and freedom from—religion. There are many devout Muslims in my family, and I fight for their right to be free of discrimination and bigotry. I support their right to practice and to preach their Islamic faith.
I also believe that we cannot progress as a society when we promote a racism-and-bigotry of low expectations. We cannot have one moral standard for most of us and another, lesser moral standard for Muslims. This is an insult to our Muslim brothers and sisters.
I feel empathy for the Muslim panelist who went into the event with good intentions and goodwill, and came out of that experience on the hot seat. I am genuinely saddened that this Muslim speaker is concerned for his safety and worried about how this episode might affect his family and community. Violence is never the answer. Given the death-for-apostasy topic at the root of this interfaith controversy, there’s an irony in our collective desire to avert violence and intimidation.
Reporting in The Vanguard
I have read the official coverage of the event by Jake Johnson in the Vanguard as well as Andy Ngo’s synopsis of events. I understand and appreciate that the panelists were students and that none of them had claimed to be experts in their respective faith traditions.
What the Muslim speaker said was no doubt, provocative and controversial. Reporter Jake Johnson advised us that:
…only a portion of the organizer’s quote that addressed the Quranic law about non-believers or infidels being “given a choice” has been shared on Twitter and Facebook without the preceding and following context.
Interfaith event sparks misunderstanding, goes viral
author: Jake Johnson
Andy Ngo did follow-up with a tweet of the full video recording that he had taken, which covers the “after” context. It leaves only the preceding context in question.
As an aside, perhaps an opinion piece by Jake Johnson is warranted. Given that Jake Johnson was reporting on the event, I’d like to hear his thoughts on how the before and after context to the Muslim speaker’s remarks exonerate the killing or exile of those “infidels” who choose to leave Islam. If Jake Johnson cannot justify this, then his remarks in the Vanguard do not represent accurate reporting. They represent the projection and the promotion of an apologetic narrative (“move along folks, nothing to see here!”). I will however, reserve judgment until Jake Johnson explains to us when and why he feels that killing ex-Muslims in a land governed by Qur’anic law is somehow morally acceptable.
In the full video clip taken, the Muslim panelist begins to answer the question about infidels. He finishes and then motions to another Muslim member of the audience, who takes to the mic and talks about non-Muslims having lived alongside Muslims, and non-Muslims being free to practice other faiths, such as Christianity and Judaism.
So we now have the “after” context—and it changes nothing. Perhaps Colleen, you think it does. If so, would you care to expound on that? Realize that living alongside people of other faiths short listed in your holy book is not the same as accepting an atheist who was once a Muslim. This is a clever sleight of hand to shift the subject and Muslim apologists invoke this maneuver all too often.
Sadly, there is actually no context that could walk back the Muslim panelist’s words which were captured on video. I appreciate that Jake Johnson was fair-minded enough to include the comment from interfaith panelist Benjamin Ramey, who tweeted in response:
As one of the panelists present at this event I would like to say that this speech is not taken out of context.— Benjamin Ramey (@NikolaosRamey) April 27, 2017
At the end of the piece by Jake Johnson, you’ve provided an editor’s note that repeatedly makes an appeal to a missing context. Yet neither yourself as editor, nor Jake Johnson as reporter, nor any audience member of that event can recall any qualifying or negating context that would change the implication of the Muslim speaker’s remarks. Please explain your understanding of the treatment of ex-Muslims under an orthodox Islamic state in light of the Muslim speaker’s comments that sounds anything other than hideous. You simply cannot. You cannot sugarcoat it either.
Why are you Colleen, dismissing the testimony of a panelist at the interfaith event when you yourself were not even present? Is Jake Johnson as the reporter, versed in topics of theology and religion as much as an interfaith panelist like Benjamin Ramey would be?
Can we trust Jake’s assessment however well intentioned, when he failed to report on the fine distinction between coexistence with people of other faiths versus leaving the Islamic faith? Jake Johnson failed to catch this sleight of hand, but Benjamin Ramey did not. And neither did Andy Ngo, who did stellar reporting on related subject matter for the Vanguard. Will you then Colleen, not reconsider your position?
Let us stop hand waving around the context, roll-up our sleeves and dig in. Join me in a little exercise where we apply some rudimentary investigative journalism to validate this “missing context” claim.
Please Reject Identity Politics
As decent human beings, we often assume the best about other people. Sometimes, we are prone to mistakenly extend this goodwill to their associated religious beliefs. Yet not all religions espouse the same ideas, nor do they express the better or worse parts of themselves at the same times in history. Islam may be in the news today, but centuries ago, we would have been talking about Christianity, the Inquisition, and so on.
Projecting your wish for there to be an equivalence between religions onto a legitimate story about a disturbing religious doctrine is not responsible journalism. Rather, it is a dangerous obfuscation of the facts. It only emboldens the far-right to cover what liberal media often fails to. Instead of covering the controversy meaningfully by asking the right questions, the grand elephant in the room is ignored: the treatment of ex-Muslims. Right-wing media outlets pick up the slack and often for their own agendas.
Colleen, please don’t abandon your liberal principles on free speech.
Please don’t succumb to identity politics and assume that all minority belief systems are flawless and assume that if something sounds hideous, it can only be that some needed context was missing.
Please don’t curtail dialog and shift the focus from an important human rights issue that is rarely covered by liberal media in the West and which ex-Muslims have no way of talking about within Muslim countries of the East.
Please do think of the many victims of apostasy laws gone unchecked: those ex-Muslims who wish to exercise their human right to safely leave the religion of Islam.
“When [identity politics] spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups.”— Ali A. Rizvi (@aliamjadrizvi) February 17, 2018
I am an ex-Muslim who has studied the religion and that is why I have made the informed decision to leave it behind. I still respect those who choose to stay. We do not have to respect beliefs in order to treat all people with dignity.
Allow me to unpack the significance of what transpired at the interfaith event of April 26th, 2017. Let’s talk about that allegedly missing context from the timeline:
- An audience member asks the Muslim panelist about Qur’an 5:51 and the concept of “infidels”. Does anyone who was present, dispute this?
- The Muslim panelist summarizes Qur’an 5:32 in response. Does anyone who was present, dispute this?
- Andy Ngo starts recording. The video clip you see begins at this point in the interaction. Does anyone who was present, dispute this?
- The Muslim panelist makes his remarks as captured on video. What exactly is it that you think he is refusing to “sugarcoat”?
And some, this, that you’re referring to, killing non-Muslims, that [leaving Islam] is only considered a crime when the country’s law, the country is based on Quranic law—that means there is no other law than the Quran. In that case, you’re given the liberty to leave the country, you can go in a different country, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. So you can [emigrate] on a different country, but in a Muslim country, in a country based on the Quranic laws, disbelieving, or being an infidel, is not allowed so you will be given the choice [to leave or to be killed].
Muslim panelist speaking at PSU’s interfaith event
- Another Muslim member of the audience takes to the mic to chime in about Qur’an 5:51 and how Muslims lived and worked side by side with the Jewish people of Medina.
Notice how this Muslim member of the audience bypasses any mention of people leaving Islam per se? Study this material enough and you’ll see this pattern too, of Muslim speakers dodging the issue of people leaving the faith by instead citing episodes of pluralism with Christians and Jews. There’s an agenda here: exclude discussion about apostasy from Islam. It’s just not good for sales.
Death for Apostasy Doctrine in Islam
From the Muslim panelist’s response transcript, we can tell that he was nervous and searching for the right words. Fair enough. He was responding to a question that he wasn’t quite expecting. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, it is clear that the Muslim panelist was referring to the doctrine of death-for-apostasy under an Islamic (Qu’ranic) legal system.
While the Muslim panelist didn’t cite a Qur’anic verse to justify the killing or expulsion of one who gives up their belief in Islam, what he did refer to is a concept most clearly obtained from the Hadith. This is the large body of reported sayings of Islam’s founder and prophet, Muhammad. It is second only to the Qur’an.
The Qur’an itself is not explicit about the killing of apostates. Many reform minded Muslims maintain that killing apostates is never justified. Such Muslims reject the hadith which support the killing of apostates, citing the very obvious human rights violations that such a belief would entail. Additionally, these Muslims argue that Qur’an 4:137 hints at people alternating between belief and disbelief and thus, there are grounds to reject death-for-apostasy doctrine as truly Islamic.
Moderate Sunni Muslim scholar Shabir Ally argues that death is not the punishment for apostasy in Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims have written the book Murder in the Name of Allah to proffer the thesis that death-for-apostasy wasn’t originally part of Islam.
Some destructive ideas in religion however, die slowly. There exist vocal Muslims (especially in Muslim countries) who unabashedly refuse to expunge death-for-apostasy doctrine from Islam. Here’s a request from Abdullah Sameer, an ex-Muslim in Canada, asking other Muslims to denounce death-for-apostasy doctrine. These Muslims continue to dodge as well:
Hardy, see this: pic.twitter.com/22JwJ9jllc— Abdullah Sameer (@abdullahadam) May 8, 2017
It happens. Some people dont even want to admit that killing others for apostasy is wrong
Do you understand now, why having Muslims in America on record for these controversial beliefs is so vitally important to move the conversation forward, toward real religious tolerance?
Regrettably, there are numerous sayings of the Prophet of Islam as recorded in the hadith on this topic which fuel the justification for killing ex-Muslims. I’ll provide just one reference for you, out of dozens that are possible:
If you want to understand just how prevalent these orthodox ideas are amongst Muslims, I encourage you to watch this synopsis (15 minutes) of Pew Research data by a member of the Muslim Reform Movement, Raheel Raza. She is one of several brave Muslims trying to reform the faith from within.
Still not convinced? Here’s an article featured in Yahoo! News from Australia, where the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir plainly acknowledges death-for-apostasy as an Islamic doctrine. This group also operates in Canada and the United States, visiting orthodox Sunni Muslim mosques to spread their hardline political Islamic ideology.
But let’s return to the Portland State interfaith event.
At that event, the Muslim panelist spoke of the option for an apostate to leave Muslim lands ruled by Qur’anic law, as a way to spare their life. I myself have not seen such a generous accommodation for the apostate in Islamic source material. At most, the hadith speak of giving the apostate three days to recant—and if they do not—to kill them.
Why would the issue of killing apostates even come up if an apostate could simply migrate to another land? How many people would choose to stay and face certain death if they could simply emigrate? Being “asked” to leave is a watered down euphemism for a more common and much more pernicious religious teaching: execution for disbelief.
Even if migration was an option, could you imagine this hypothetical?
You Colleen, are told that you must leave your home in Portland as well as the job that you love, because you have decided that you are no longer a Christian—and America has only one law now—that of the Bible. Apostates are to be killed or exiled. Your children are now to be uprooted from their schools. Given that you no longer believe in the truth-claims of Christianity, your neighbors and the United States government consider your physical presence in America unacceptable. As such, you will be subject to execution if you refuse to leave the United States.
When you read Islamic rulings on the ex-Muslim question from orthodox Muslims, the above concession to emigrate to non-Muslim lands instead of a beheading sound downright magnanimous!
This orthodox view of death-for-apostasy-in-an-ideal-Islamic-state is not fringe among Muslims. Not even in America. To be sure, most orthodox Muslims do not believe it appropriate to exact vigilante justice. After all, beheadings should be conducted in an orderly and regulated fashion. Such Muslims believe it the job of authorities in an Islamic state to carry out your beheading for the crime of disbelief (after having been a Muslim).
In a sane world, the moral repugnance of this religious doctrine would require no further comment. Yet orthodox Islam of both Sunni and Shia varieties believe that ex-Muslims should be killed in an “ideal” Islamic State. Most if not all ex-Muslim bloggers who critique Islamic doctrines receive death threats despite their vocal rejection of anti-Muslim bigotry.
The following one-minute clip taken from a talk show in Britain gives you a glimpse of just how much the question of death-for-apostasy is dodged by orthodox Muslim speakers and why it was so significant that Andy Ngo was able to document these remarks on an American campus.
When it comes to this subject, Muslim speakers trip up on their own words (notice a pattern?) because they know that what they have to say won’t be received favorably (i.e. sugarcoating required).
Watch the last 10 seconds of this clip for the clincher. Watch the entire clip for context on how the question is continually dodged until the host insists that the Muslim Imam provide a direct answer.
How to Make a Positive Difference
Do you want to help the Muslim student on the interfaith panel?
Do you want to help the Muslim Students Association (MSA) to which he belongs?
Do you want to help the orthodox Muslims of Portland and beyond?
If so, then please do not censor people for bringing immoral religious beliefs to the surface, where we can all scrutinize them.
If sensible liberal media outlets fail to properly report on the questionable statements of religious speech and instead, punish those who do report on it, is it any surprise that right-wing media outlets will be even more frenzied in their coverage?
In my estimation, legitimate outrage is exacerbated by far-right media outlets in part because liberal media has conceded the important role of discussing Islam critically. Your decision to fire Andy Ngo only further concedes the moral high ground. You have sided with those who would see ex-Muslims killed (in an “ideal” Islamic state, of course) over those who are victims of orthodox Islamic ideology and intolerance.
Of course the remarks from the Muslim interfaith panelist are going to get people upset. But you should allow the facts to be shared and encourage compassion for those who you wish to be spared any possible blowback. You cannot however, expect people to withhold reporting on facts because anonymous comments made on ultra right-wing media outlets that we cannot control, will froth at the mouth with anger and abuse.
The Muslim speaker espoused a doctrine that throws ex-Muslims under the bus. Who do your actions help? Not the ex-Muslims who are victims of the religious doctrine endorsed by the Muslim speaker. Instead, you have decided to rationalize post-hoc that there must have been some missing context to the Muslim speaker’s statement.
Can you please open your eyes to see beyond identity politics and to understand that religious minorities can oppress their own religious minorities within?
As Muhammad Syed, co-founder of the Ex-Muslims of North America aptly put it:
… [The Vanguard’s editorial] response talks about the context & political climate and 'distress' to the Muslim student. While completely ignoring #ExMuslims at PSU, in the US and around the world. Currently over a dozen countries criminalize disbelief, many more outlaw dissent against Islam by blasphemy laws. It is not merely an issue of bad governance but overwhelming majorities of Muslims in countries like Pakistan / Egypt support the death penalty for #ExMuslims
He goes on to say:
If we can't have honest conversations about the problem even in the West where the state isn't out to murder us, how can we change attitudes? I don't perceive the student in question as an enemy but simply someone that doesn't understand the harm his faith causes to others.
Instead of trying to quell the controversy by firing your multimedia editor who shared the Q&A excerpt, you should welcome the opportunity for the interfaith event to fulfill its stated purpose and to unpack misconceptions. In the case of orthodox Islam, death-for-apostasy is not a misconception: it is what many students are taught in conservative mosques and student groups across America.
It’s high time we stop ignoring that fact. It’s high time that we engaged in that crucial dialog about human rights and Islam.
If you want to help this Muslim student, then help him challenge this immoral belief. I’m not asking him to give up Islam outright. There are plenty of Muslims in America who reject orthodox Islam and embrace human rights. Don’t you want to see more Muslims in America (and the world for that matter) adopt more inclusive conceptions of live-and-let-live wherever they may reside? Well, that is not going to happen if you pretend that more context would have exculpated the Muslim speaker’s remarks. It’s not going to happen if you shield Islamic beliefs from legitimate criticism.
Muslims are a minority in America, yes. And we ex-Muslims are a minority within that minority. Do you not care for our safety and for our human rights? We have been working hard to raise awareness of this crucial doctrinal issue that affects our lives and our safety. Only with more Muslim allies in America rejecting death-for-apostasy can we hope to help the world abandon 7th century tribalism.
Your punitive censorship of Andy Ngo sends a message. The message we hear is that you do not mind contributing to and exacerbating the rife confusion already present in a post-facts world. The message we hear is that you are happy to post-hoc rationalize any religious beliefs that you do not understand, especially if the subject happens to be Islam.
This is the tragic failing of the liberal left. The abandonment of your true liberal allies—ex-Muslims.
Neither you, nor I, nor Andy Ngo can stop right-wing media outlets from publishing material that they have legitimate grounds to be outraged about. If you’ve read this letter in full, then you know that there was no context that would have put the Muslim student’s remarks in a humane light.
I empathize with that Muslim student. I do not see him as my enemy. I hope that this Muslim student stays safe. I could feel him struggling with the question as I watched the video. Perhaps the moral repugnance of the answer he gave is weighing on his conscience. This is a good thing. This is how reform and self-reflection lead to better ideas and to moral growth.
There is a deeper question that this entire episode presents us, which few are talking about. This is a teachable moment where we can have a discussion about death-for-apostasy laws within Islam. We should be kind but firm in challenging people who hold these beliefs. We should ask them to reflect on the ethical depravity of what they are espousing.
I recommend that PSU hold a public debate between Muslims who believe in death-for-apostasy versus those who reject the concept. Have the entire debate recorded. Have the Vanguard report on it.
Perhaps the Muslim speaker from this most recent interfaith event can take part. It would be an opportunity for him to both justify and to clarify his beliefs.
I encourage Muslims to study Islam critically, and I am happy if orthodox Muslims simply let go of their death-for-apostasy beliefs. One can be a Muslim and still reject death-for-apostasy doctrine as the morally repugnant idea that it is.
Colleen, shouldn’t this be the forward march of progress that you promote with your editorial powers and oversight?
If you want to help Muslims in the current political climate, do not shield their bad ideas from scrutiny. Do not give the far-right legitimate grounds and exclusive control of the dialog that questions the compatibility of orthodox Muslim values with American values. Help Muslims shed the cancer within by highlighting regressive ideas that have no place in a free and liberal society.
There was no context that could put the Muslim speaker’s remarks in a different light. I hope that you see this now.
Death-for-apostasy is a well established belief within orthodox Islam. There was an understandable moral outrage to the remarks made by the Muslim speaker at the interfaith event. That is not the fault of Andy Ngo. He was just the messenger.
Consider this hypothetical: the current health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare dropped the provision to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions. Would you fire Andy Ngo for sharing the views of a member of congress admitting to this embarrassing reversal of an election promise? Would you cite as justification, that ultra-far-left media outlets could use this to put the congressman’s safety at risk in his next local town hall meeting?
Don’t blame the messenger. Don’t suppress the facts. Evaluate and investigate the contents of the message.
Firing Andy Ngo is not the way to protect the Muslim student and I believe that you owe Andy Ngo an apology. Publish an opinion piece from the Muslim student if you’d like. Encourage him to clarify his position on this topic.
Realize that when you invoke punitive measures on your staff for merely reporting the facts, the message that we ex-Muslims hear is that you care more for the rights of those who oppress with murderous injustice than the victims and the targets of death-for-apostasy doctrine.
Reason on Faith
This incident and the firing of Andy Ngo has been written up in several publications. A small round-up of the salient coverage follows.
- Fired for Reporting the Truth. May 12, 2017: Andy Ngo tells his story in The National Review.
- Portland State newspaper fires editor for quoting Muslim student’s Koran comments. May 12, 2017: Greg Piper reports in The College Fix.
- Portland Reporter Fired For Posting Video of Muslim Speaker Saying Atheism is Punishable by Death. May 14, 2017: Ian Miles Cheong reports in Heatstreet.
- Andy Ngo - Fired for Reporting on Islam. (video) May 13, 2017: Lalo Dagach talks to Andy Ngo for Episode 16 of the Lalo Dagach Podcast on YouTube.
- Campus Reporter Is Fired & Reason Why Tells You How Out of Control PC Culture Is. May 12, 2017: Victoria Taft summarizes for the Independent Journal Review.
- Commentary. May 12, 2017: Muhammad Syed, co-founder of EXMNA, makes an important plea regarding what this event teaches us.
- Student Reporter Fired for Sharing Video of Muslim Explaining Death for Apostates Under Sharia Law. May 12, 2017: Hemant Mehta writes on the Patheos blog, the Friendly Atheist.
- Interview with Andy Ngo – Formerly at the Vanguard, Portland State University. May 15, 2017: Scott Jacobsen reports in Conatus News.
- Portland State paper says it fired editor who quoted Muslim for ‘ongoing breaches in trust’. May 16, 2017: Greg Piper reports in the College Fix.
- ‘Fired for Reporting the Truth’ | Believe or GTFO. (video) May 17, 2017: Matt Christiansen breaks down what happened, analyzing the Vanguard editor’s responses for the Matt Christiansen YouTube channel.
- Censoring You to 'Protect' You. May 25, 2017: Douglas Murray reports for the Gatestone Institute.
Reporting and editorial from PSU’s The Vanguard:
- Interfaith event sparks misunderstanding, goes viral. May 1, 2017: Jake Johnson provides the initial reporting on the event for The Vanguard.
- In response to ‘Fired for reporting the truth’. May 13, 2017: Colleen Leary presents her editorial response to Andy Ngo’s article in the National Review.