When most people hear the words Al-Qaeda, certain thoughts and images come to mind. But we are removed from what it means to be entrenched in a world of religious extremism. Yasmine Mohammed, whose book Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam recounts her experiences of being raised in a fundamentalist Islamic household and entering an arranged marriage with a man who, unbeknownst to Yasmine, turned out to be an Al-Qaeda operative.
Like women in ultra-orthodox Jewish or extreme Christian cults, women within the fundamentalist Islamic religion suffer a tremendous amount of religious abuse and trauma, especially where fundamentalist Shariah law is the “law of the land.” Yasmine grew up in Egypt and Canada, but her mother became involved in a more extremist version of Islam. Her book was incredibly moving and disturbing.
Yasmine is a human rights campaigner advocating for the rights of women living within Muslim-majority countries as well as those who struggled under religious fundamentalism in general. She is the founder of Free Hearts Free Minds, an organization providing mental health support for members of the LGBTQ+ community and free thinkers living within Muslim-majority countries where both “crimes” can be punished by execution.
From Secular Upbringing to Extremist Marriage
Yasmine’s experience is two-fold in that she was born into a family of origin that influenced her as well as having the larger group influence of the religion as a whole. We talk about Yasmine’s upbringing with a narcissistic mother, an absent father, and an abusive stepfather who had multiple wives who cruelly tortured her physically and psychologically. She endured corporal punishment.
Yasmine’s mother was born and raised in Egypt within a secular community. She had Christian friends and was not a person who prayed. She married Yasmine’s dad after meeting him at University, and they relocated to San Francisco. During the 60s and 70s, peace, love, and hippies abounded. Although her mother came from a more secular community, San Francisco was a lot for her, so she and her husband moved to Vancouver, Canada, where both Yasmine and her brother were born. Yasmine was the third child in the family.
When her mother was pregnant with Yasmine, her father abandoned the family. Her mother found herself a single parent of three children in a new country and community. She sought support and community at the mosque, not because of religious beliefs, but for the comfort of finding other Arabic speakers or people, she could connect with culturally. She met her second husband there. In fact, he was the caretaker of the mosque. However, he was already married with three children of his own, but he took Yasmine’s mother as a second wife.
Differences between Muslims and Islamists
Yasmine discusses the differences between people who are Muslim and those who, like her stepfather, are Islamists. Muslims practice their faith in their homes or mosques and are not concerned about politicizing the religion or expanding it, proselytizing or even converting people. Islamists are more authoritarian, politically minded and want to recruit and spread their fundamentalist ideologies. This means healthier respect for human rights shifts to the authoritarian, dissociative disorder level.
Yasmine talks about her mother being pulled into this way of thinking by her husband, who blamed her for her first marriage falling apart, telling her she wasn’t good enough. This exacerbated her mother’s belief that, for an Egyptian woman, being a single mother of three kids was a dishonor. She felt she failed as a human being. She thought she didn’t belong anywhere. She felt degraded and lacking in value. Her husband’s negative beliefs made it easier to draw her into extremist thinking.
Following the Rules
Yasmine’s mother started wearing the hijab, as did Yasmine and her sister. They were no longer allowed to have non-Muslim friends, they could not have birthday parties or ride their bikes, and they could not go swimming. It is interesting to note that these rules did not apply to their brother.
Music also became forbidden. Yasmine’s mother had a record player that Yasmine was always fascinated with and loved. One day, her stepfather grabbed all of her mother’s records and started breaking them while her mother stood next to him, looking down at the carpet. He also made the children break the records. Yasmine felt it was wrong and wanted to resist. She remembers thinking, “I’m not going to break my mom’s things like what is wrong with this man, you know, and she was not resisting. She just let him break her things. And that was the moment of realization that this man was in charge now. You know, he’s here to take over. And my mom was really diminished at that point. And she didn’t fight for herself. She just let it happen.”
Yasmine also recounts the corporal punishment she was subjected to at her stepfather’s hands, including the tortuous act of being hung upside down and beaten at the bottom of her feet. She reports this happening to her once, but her brother endured it quite often. She eventually told a teacher at school, who called the Canadian police and child services. The judge in the subsequent family court case decided not to rule on the apparent child abuse. He said that it is the family’s religious culture, and they can choose to discipline them violently in this way. NOTE: The United States, unlike most western countries, likewise permits corporal punishment by family members and, in some states, corporal punishment by teachers.
In addition to physical torture, emotional abuse also occurred. This included not being allowed to think for themselves. It was discouraged. Asking too many questions was seen as the devil whispering in their ear, and they were bad people for having questions. Yasmine talks about “sitting in this nonsensical head, you know, every time you try to go in a direction, you just bang your head into a wall. So you stop, you stop thinking.”
Islam is Perfect. Muslims are Not
She talks about the belief system drilled into them that “Islam is perfect. Muslims are not.” This was the rhetoric whenever questions were asked about things such as terrorist attacks like Al-Qaeda hijacking civilian airplanes and flying them into buildings.
We talk about the indoctrination that leads to the belief systems allowing physical violence and murder. I discuss my experience of being so indoctrinated with the Moonies that during my deprogramming, I was in a car on the Long Island Expressway and thought about snapping my father’s neck because I felt I was being taken away from God and had an obligation to do everything in my power to stop it. It speaks to the damage that mind control can do.
Yasmine talks about the view people have of Islam as something different, special, exotic, and Eastern. However, she emphasizes the importance of recognizing that these views, while true, should not cover up fundamentalist Islamic human rights abuses. Atrocities are done in the name of religion. For many people, it isn’t “politically correct” to criticize anyone else’s religion. One big issue is that many Muslim countries are oil or natural gas-rich, and their leaders are incredibly wealthy.
In some cases, leaders fund madrassas (schools) that teach Salafism or Wahabism, which encourages hatred of Jews, Christians, and Americans. They are politically powerful, and criticizing them is labeled bigoted or Islamophobic. Additionally, in the Middle East, criticizing the Muslim religion is often a matter of life and death, as we see in Iran amid the current protests for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people.
Supporting the Protestors in Iran
Yasmine discusses the paramount importance of supporting women’s rights as well as all protestors who believe they wish to save their country from the Islamic Republic. However, there are geopolitical issues in that Iran has large oil reserves. They also have tight relationships with countries like Russia and China, so everyone needs to take an interest in what is happening in Iran from human rights and geopolitical sense.
Arranged Marriage, Deranged Life
Yasmine talks about her arranged marriage to a man she felt she couldn’t leave, but when her daughter was born, she was filled with the desire to protect the baby, to never let her know unhappiness. When her husband and her mother began talking about having female genital mutilation performed on her daughter and what age would be appropriate to have this done on her, Yasmine describes it as “coming out of this trance.” She knew she had to leave and the reasons she told herself for not doing so, such as only having a high school education, no longer mattered. She needed to protect her daughter.
She discusses the benefit of living in Canada, a secular society, as this helped her to be able to continue with her life away from her family. She was able to procure student loans. She could go to University and make a life for herself and her daughter away from the trauma of her childhood. Women and gay people don’t have the same opportunity in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, or Somalia. They live where their community, law enforcement, and government prevent the ability to move freely, so leaving is a life-and-death venture. Yasmine describes them as living in “open-air prisons.”
Letters from the Community
After writing Unveiled, Yasmine received letters from many people around the world relating to her story and sharing their own stories with her, discussing how they are not living in a Western world, so they cannot speak for themselves. This made Yasmine realize she needed to do something to help them, and her organization Free Hearts Free Minds, was born. Free Hearts refers to the LGBT community, and Free Minds refers to free thinkers. Both are groups that can be executed for what Islamist governments sees as crimes.
Free Hearts Free Minds offers psychological support and group support for ex-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries to assist them in living healthy, happy, and meaningful lives.
Humanity: The Tie that Binds
Yasmine’s story illustrates that extremist religions are not just alive and well in far-flung parts of the world. Their influence reverberates around the globe. We are not just protecting minority communities when we fight for the rights of people unable to freely speak for themselves. We are protecting our neighbors and our family because, at the end of the day, we are all human, and humanity is the tie that binds us regardless of geography. Women’s rights, gay rights, and children’s rights are all fundamental human rights, and we all need to support those experiencing discrimination.