Unbeknownst to Richard Dawkins the Feminist Revolution in Islam Has Already Begun

The revolution for women’s rights and equality within Islam began long ago. And it was initiated and is perpetuated by Muslim women themselves.

Despite this, renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently tweeted:

He followed this proclamation with the quotation of multiple verses from Islamic texts related to women garnering the ire of many Muslims, especially many Muslim women.

Dawkins’ statement reveals a striking lack of awareness of the existing work of Muslim women, including writings here on RD or elsewhere by Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Riffat Hassan, Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Ziba Mir Hosseini, Azizah al-Hibri, and myself among many others. It also includes the on-the-ground efforts of organizations such as Musawah, Sisters in Islam, Karamah, and W.I.S.E. Muslim Women.

These scholars, activists, and organizations have reinterpreted Qur’anic verses on women, men, gender, and sexuality; challenged laws that privilege men over women in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance; engaged in ritual practices to foster equality, such as female-led and mixed congregation prayers; and provided education to multitudes of Muslim women around the world.

Statements such as Dawkins’ also vividly highlight the multiple tensions Muslim women face in our struggles for equality and egalitarianism. We not only have to contend with patriarchal and androcentric interpretations, laws and practices that are found within Muslim traditions, but we also have to deal with negative rhetoric about Islam and Muslim women that emanates from sources outside of the tradition.

This rhetoric depicts Islam as different and foreign. And this depiction is not one of mere distinction; it is also concerned with evaluation and juxtaposition. Islam is viewed as “other,” but also as less valuable and in fundamental opposition to generally accepted norms and customs. Accounts of the plight of women in Islam are notoriously deployed to substantiate this view.

Negative rhetoric is also frequently packaged as a desire to “save” or liberate Muslim women. Concern for the well-being of Muslim women is unproblematic in itself. What is problematic is the paternalistic view that Muslim women are unconscious of their own needs and desires, incapable of articulating those needs and desires, and devoid of any agency in pursuing them.

Also problematic is the naïve assumption that Muslim women need to be and desire to be saved from Islam and Muslim men. Salvation rhetoric simplistically portrays Muslim women and Muslim men as fixed and opposite caricatures. Muslim women are voiceless, oppressed, and in need of rescue; Muslim men are oppressive, violent and opposed to egalitarianism. The saving of Muslim women therefore is seen as releasing women from the supposed twin “prisons” of Muslim men and Islam.

Muslim women continuously navigate these multiple tensions in our pursuits of equality, egalitarianism, and justice. We do this without forfeiting our diverse and deep connections with the tradition; through critical challenges to sources, interpretations and laws of the tradition; with creative and constructive visions of the tradition; and without succumbing to Islamophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

This is not new work or a new “revolution.” It is ongoing, and it is going on.

For those who genuinely ask “What can we do to help?” the answer is simple: Muslim women need allies. But allies are not saviors, disparagers, or dictators. Allies listen with depth, humility and compassion. Allies amplify the voices of others, rather than their own. And allies come to the table with a respect for the humanity, diversity and agency of those they wish to support.

  • What are a few examples of the “equalities” that muslim women are looking for? The right to drive a car, go outside without an escort, the right to attend school, relaxation of the dress code? Do they have more of these equal rights in a democratic society or in an Islamic majority society that follows Sharia Law?

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    Huh, I see religious Muslim women doing all those things all the time.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    When it comes to self-righteous Western atheists, “X needs Y” is usually code for “I’m uncomfortable with X and I wish it were more like me or something with which I’m much more familiar culturally.”

    Dawkins will be quite disappointed, I’m sure, when the goals of that revolution largely come to pass, and they don’t look like what he had in mind – and is still uncomfortable.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    Allies amplify the voices of others, rather than their own.

    Which is why Dawkins will never be a true ally, and indeed has no intent to become one.

  • Eric

    What Dawkins understands about religion could fit in a thimble with room to spare.

  • Where?

  • Adam Felton

    So Richard Dawkins highlights something the author seems to agree with…a need for a feminist revolution in Islam, and he asks what can be done to help…So what’s the problem exactly? I assume at least some of your goals overlap, in which case he should be seen as an ally in those respects.

  • DKeane123

    Agreed. I found this line interesting. we also have to deal with negative rhetoric about Islam and Muslim women that emanates from sources outside of the tradition”. I fail to s how this statement is in any way negative rhetoric.

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  • Janet Cooper Nelson

    Thank you for this useful reply to Dawkins. He is one of several academics, journalists and public intellectuals who routinely voice eloquent and elaborate religious illiteracy without rebuttal or critique. intellectual and cultural bigotry are suspect foundations for this tone. But it is worth noting that many of these arguments and contentions are predicated on practices that credible scholars have long eschewed. When texts are ripped from their context and history and analyzed without the benefit of nuanced knowledge of the actual content and phenomenology of the religious Tradition, the results are predictably poor. It may be important to observe this blunt, if embarrassing reality. Some very smart people are making some very ill-informed assertions and presumably will at some point offer an explanation for this behavior. Calling it “scholarship” will not work. By contrast Lamptey offers useful work and material well worth a reader’s consideration.

  • joeyj1220

    I think the author is perhaps referring to 2 things: One is the term Dawkins uses “Needs a feminist revolution”. The author is saying there ALREADY IS a feminist revolution in Islam, which ties in to point two… perhaps the author feels (rightly so) that Dawkins can be so incredibly tone deaf when it comes to religion that he sometimes fails to see anything good emanating from those traditions.

  • cranefly

    The problem was him rubbing out of context Koran verses in their faces mean-spiritedly, as if it was self-explanatory that they could only be free if they joined him and his ideology outside of Islam, belittling and ignoring a longstanding tradition of feminist Muslim exegesis. That’s rude and ignorant and demonstrates that he has no intention of actually being helpful.

  • cranefly

    Showing that no feminist revolution would lead him to respect or understand Islam one iota more than he already does, nor would he even notice or acknowledge it. His real purpose was to be a pretend ally and claim a good-guy point while starting a tedious troll fight in which he could whip out his talking points about how bad Islam is and blindly and dogmatically refuse to acknowledge any non-violent, non-oppressive manifestation of it. There’s no problem an arrogant white man can’t fix with Twitter.

  • Duck

    “The revolution for women’s rights and equality within Islam began long ago.”
    Perhaps a fresh perspective is the thing that’s really needed? It’s so easy to get stuck in patterns of thinking that may be counterproductive to the very thing you’re hoping to accomplish. Who knows, maybe Dawkins can help.

  • NancyP

    At work. I work for a USA Catholic medical school, one of the women on the medical faculty was the lay head of the local mosque for a while. She doesn’t wear hijab, other faculty and residents do, no one cares.
    The problems with both Islam and Christianity (and any other religion) come when the religions are used as tools of politics to reinforce privilege of those currently in power.

  • NancyP

    Well, the revolution for women’s rights and equality within Christianity began long ago, too, and it still isn’t finished, not by a long shot. The original article is quite correct about the existence of a current dissident strain of Islamic feminism, and did not mention early 20th century precursors. No religion, or other large group of humans, is going to be monolithic in individual expression. Dawkins is only the atheist version of the very common “mansplainer” – I doubt seriously that he pays much attention to women’s opinions.

  • Rmj

    I suppose I could just restate the article:

    1) “Dawkins’ statement reveals a striking lack of awareness of the existing work of Muslim women….” Examples are then supplied.

    2) “This rhetoric depicts Islam as different and foreign. And this depiction is not one of mere distinction; it is also concerned with evaluation and juxtaposition. Islam is viewed as “other,” but also as less valuable and in fundamental opposition to generally accepted norms and customs. Accounts of the plight of women in Islam are notoriously deployed to substantiate this view.”

    Which is precisely where Dawkins’ ill-informed tweet comes from.

    3) “Also problematic is the naïve assumption that Muslim women need to be and desire to be saved from Islam and Muslim men. Salvation rhetoric simplistically portrays Muslim women and Muslim men as fixed and opposite caricatures. Muslim women are voiceless, oppressed, and in need of rescue; Muslim men are oppressive, violent and opposed to egalitarianism. The saving of Muslim women therefore is seen as releasing women from the supposed twin “prisons” of Muslim men and Islam.”

    So Dawkins manages to be both chauvinistic and paternalistic. But that’s okay, because he’s talking about Islam? And Islam doesn’t deserve the respect of our study and the humility of admitting our ignorance of the subject, just the derision accorded to something that is wholly other to our Western experience?

    I wonder how Dawkins would react to someone who claimed their ignorance of zoology made them better informed on the subject than the Oxford don, and in their ignorance they want to be his ally to lead him away from the false thinking about animals that his field of study has led him into?

  • My point is that muslim women enjoy many more rights and privileges in a Christian dominate society than they do in Muslim dominate society. Where Islam theology is more dominate in the political climate (ie Saudi Arabia) women have fewer opportunities to travel without escort, attend school, hold jobs and must wear burqaas. It looks like that is all part of Sharia Law.

    It will take a mighty fearsome feminist revolution to make overcome such gender prejudices. Yet most imams that I’m aware of are actually trying to implement more and more parts of Sharia Law into Western culture. The net result of all that would be a serious degradation of current women’s rights and privileges.

  • Craptacular

    “Huh, I see religious Muslim women doing all those things all the time.” – Fired, Aren’t I

    So your contention is that the Islamic feminist reformation was successful?

  • Craptacular

    Wow…never knew one could pack so much into a two-line tweet. He is truly a master communicator if you were able to dig all that out of his two brief sentences.

  • Liya

    Good article, yet your definition of an “ally” is a bit one-sided. Allies not only listen with compassion, they fight for you , they encourage you when you are too scared to stand up and demand rights , etc. They are already there – you are not.
    Look at allies of LGBT folks, we were fiesty, pushy bastards :), helping those in the closet out , even if closet felt comfortable and safe. That’s how we all won.

  • cranefly

    Polemics work through loaded language. There is a lot of context in this situation, and he is not some random guy on the internet well-meaningly asking “how can I help?” He is a well-known male chauvinist with a huge, hawkish following, proudly on a well-known ideological crusade.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    Interesting, because one would think at least in their own communities there would be a ban on driving, etc. – similar to Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities in secular Israel that ban women and men from riding in the same parts of the secular bus, walk on same sides of the street, etc.

    But I’m not seeing it.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    I live in Philadelphia – so, everywhere. Women pull their cars up outside mosques wearing a niqab, etc.

  • cranefly

    There are Muslim-dominated countries that had female presidents before us.

  • PorlockJunior

    Maybe he can. Then again, maybe he can’t on any terms he’d accept.

    After all, in fighting the pernicious stupidity of creationism, he has lots and lots of allies. Alas, quite a large number of them are not engaged in the rest of his anti-religious crusade (sorry!); these he calls Neville Chamberlain evolutionists. He does not consider this a compliment–just in case anybody came in late–and does not choose to work with them.

    So, perhaps he could be of great value to the Islamic feminists once cures them of Islam. I would not advise these women to waste any of their valuable time waiting for his help, much less making efforts to obtain it.

  • PorlockJunior

    Gee, I guess I should read to the end of the comments in case someone has made the same point far more economically.
    Naw, I’d still want to belabor the point.

  • andrew123456789

    Dawkins can’t hide his arrogance even when he pretends to care. He also seems ignorant of the history of Islam, its roots. This hard to forgive considering he’s an academic. Even though he’s speaking completely outside his element, he should know that things aren’t so obvious when interpreting texts.

  • PorlockJunior

    Has anyone ever noticed that the indubitably smart and intellectually accomplished Richard Dawkins displays the same type of anti-itellectualism as the creationists?

    Of course he doesn’t know anything about what various religious people actually say– what they say is so profoundly, obviously, unmitigatedly wrong that no honest non-idiot *could* believe it! Try to tell him about the beliefs of Christians (etc.) with intellectual credentials to match his? Want him to devote time to learning about that totally wrong-headed stuff? Ridiculous!

    I.e., exactly the attitude of the noisiest of the creationists toward Evil-lutionism.

  • andrew123456789

    Small correction, but these days it’s probably good to point it out: Muslim, not Islamic (a word which these days denotes a sort of radical politicization of a particular view of islam).

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    hey, you do you.

  • FredO

    Dawkins is a loathsome and odious bully, who advocates that those who disagree with him be treated with “mockery” and “contempt” . He’s an excellent popularizer whose scientific contributions are paper thin.

    He claims that in the universe there is “…no good, no evil..just blind pitiless indifference”. So why tell so many others what they should do and think ?

    Exactly why are we listening to this raving misanthrope ?

  • gilhcan

    The subservient condition of women in Islam and the continuing, even expanding, ,jihads against those who dare to claim any independent rights for women can hardly be called the start of a revolution. When great numbers of men join women in demanding independent respect for them, it might be considered the start of a revolution. When Islamic women–all women–are cease to be considered nothing more than pieces of meat and bearers of men’s children, perhaps that will be the start of a revolution.

  • gilhcan

    As long as religious thinking and practice contradict proven scientific, sociological, and psychological reason, it is religion that is illiterate. Religion began in ancient mythology. It must rise millennia beyond that origin to have any right to be considered reasonable. It has not done so.

  • But not in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, rural Pakistan.

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  • Janet Cooper Nelson

    The phrase “religious thinking and practice” refers to a non-existent reality. There is no monolith of religious thinking or practice. Thinking that has “contradicted proven scientific, sociological and psychological reason” emerges in every generation both from within religious communities and beyond them.
    For example, work to change immigration law, care for refugees across the globe, prevent licensed psychologists from overseeing torture, address structural poverty and racism, end capital punishment and mass incarceration, and creating covenants between warring communities is carried forward daily by religiously-based initiatives. This probably isn’t reasonable to do– but it is important. The people who design and do it are motivated by a belief that it is sacred work and matters, ultimately. They may be right.

    I do not deny that there are benighted, bad actors and actions that are dressed and driven forward in religious forms and language. Equating this destructive conduct with “all religion” is not reasonable. It is religious antipathy, and it flourishes in a climate of religious illiteracy. Identifying it clearly may suggest a solution and may enable people of good will to ameliorate it.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    but yes in Turkey, Indonesia, UAE, and Egypt.

  • mnemos

    On the one hand – it is good to acknowledge what is being done, and that various people are working on it. On the other hand, the list of women in the beginning of this are all working outside the majority Muslim world – typically in the US or England, with one exception in South Africa. You may feel in solidarity with Muslim women outside the Western cocoon, but that doesn’t mean you are.

  • Duck

    Granted Dawkins isn’t known for his pro-religious views and a person has to wonder what he’s up. However, the revolution for women’s rights is hardly his failure, rather it’s the result of unfair societal attitudes that are often based in religious beliefs.

  • Duck

    Dawkins is not a fan of religion and has never pretended to be and I appreciate his honesty, whether I agree with him or not. Whereas religions often promote equality but do not deliver. I find it baffling that people will on one hand defend their religion while on the other find themselves in direct opposition to it. You would think that where a truly ‘benevolent’ God is concerned there would be no need to fight for impartiality. Have you considered that religion could be the problem or is it just easier to blame someone else.

    I do not mean that we should not fight for our rights but fight on the basis of just because it’s the right thing to do – rather than trying to find some justifiable basis in a religion (among others) that is inherently biased.

  • PorlockJunior

    Oops.

    Thanks for the correction.

  • My prayers go out today for the 20 Muslim Men murdered by terrorists today in Abha, Saudi Arabia will praying in their mosque.

  • danainnyc

    “Don’t quote what our religious texts actually say, that’s offensive.” Muslim women and societies are doing so well at their “feminist revolution” that they don’t need allies. Especially white male English allies. So don’t take the proffered help and do it alone. But try not to get all bent out of shape when your “scriptures” are quoted back to you and they sound misogynistic. Because they actually are misogynistic. Good luck with that load of putrid “tradition”.

  • phatkhat

    There is a difference between culture and religion, though they feed into one another. Not all forms of Islam are the same, no more than are all forms of Christianity. After all, there is a war on women right here in America. Perhaps we should worry about our own problems first.

  • phatkhat

    ALL the Abrahamic scriptures are misogynistic. It is a matter of degree in the society that dictates how badly women are treated. And a lot of atheistic men are misogynists, too, including Dawkins.

  • Abdul Rahman

    What first seem like some kind of joke, is nothing more but an ordinary and straight up display of utter ignorance when comes to islam.

    “rubbing Koran verses in their faces mean-spiritedly”

    The Quran repeatedly claims to be perfectly clear, and any kind of interpretations are off limit as said in Ali Imram 3:7 and in: 6:114, 11:1, 16:89, 24:34, 27:1, 28:2, 41:3, 57:9, 65:11

    What Dawkins does is quoting verses which are just by their origin “mean”, not out of context, not mean-spirited, just simply “mean” and derogatory, misogynistic and oppressive. And to support them, there is a huge collection of hadiths and cultural influences. He quotes the quran for what is stands. as said in the above ayahs, there is no room for interpretation.

    As for the so call existing “feminist revolution in Islam”. Please, spare me the laughs. The few among the 1.7 billion, is nothing and means nothing, and it’s obvious by looking at the situation of any women living under islam today. Regardless of what you say, facts are to the contrary. Just look at the lives of women in any islamic state and tell me there is a feminism going on …. What a joke. You are disgrace to every women who suffered, suffers and will suffer under the rule of bronze age primitive suppositions like islam.

  • Abdul Rahman

    I’m sorry, you sad “Christians” and intellectual in one sentences, that alone invalidates your credibility.

  • Abdul Rahman

    Quite to the country. Thanks to Dawkins, our Ex-Muslim UK community is exploding. With huge number of new members coming from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Saudi in recent year. His work on evolutionary biology and his filled with reason debates has opened many eyes and made huge impact. For the longest time I would never imagine to leave islam. Now I can’t believe I didnt do it earlier. And there are hundreds of people just like me, thanks to him, across all kind of religious denominations.

  • Abdul Rahman

    Couldn’t agree with you more!

  • Abdul Rahman

    How about some reality to your lies. Most illiterate among all religious denominations, are muslims, and among muslims, 70% illiteracy is among women. But please, do tell me about women in islamic states… don’t be shy….

  • Abdul Rahman

    “But not in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, rural Pakistan,”…

    Maldives, Somalia, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Nigeria, Jordan, Senegal, Tajikistan, Mali, which also happen to be the highest in violence against women….

  • Abdul Rahman

    Turkey 🙂 You mean the country that has over 1,000 honor killings in the past 5 years ? Bravo.

    Ironi. Explosion.

  • Abdul Rahman

    Exactly.

  • Abdul Rahman

    Because the ” raving misanthrope” on his worst day is of far greater contribution to modern society and secularism that you could every be at your most prime.

  • Abdul Rahman

    and what roots are you referring too? I would love to learn about my history from someone who clearly know “so much” about it. Please, do enlighten us.

  • cranefly

    The nature of text is that it can’t not be interpreted. But that is more than I care to get into. You yourself reference “cultural influences,” and that’s a start. I have lived in a Muslim nation and met Muslim feminists face to face, so yes, there is a feminism going on. Certainly not everywhere, but it is going on. Have a nice day.

  • andrew123456789

    It sounds to me like you should learn it period. And take your sarcasm elsewhere. I’m not impressed, and I’m giving you absolutely zero more of my time.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    [citation needed]

  • Graeme Sutton

    A movement does not equal a revolution. What you have is, at best, a revolution in progress and since he clearly meant that Islam needed a successful feminist revolution and stated that those outside islam have an obligation to help I don’t see what you’re complaining about.

  • The_Bustle_in_Your_Hedgerow

    Racist much? Try your last line this way: “There’s no problem an arrogant Jew can’t fix with Twitter” or “There’s no problem an arrogant black man can’t fix with Twitter.” Really nice, cranefly.

  • The_Bustle_in_Your_Hedgerow

    Wonder if you think it’s mean-spirited when people throw Levitical laws in Christians’ faces (even though traditional Christianity — Catholicism and Orthodoxy — treats them as no longer applicable in the New Covenant). Happens all the time anyway.

  • The_Bustle_in_Your_Hedgerow

    I’m thinking that the two women who were just beheaded for “witchcraft and sorcery” could’ve used a little more than emotional rescue and some “you go girls” from people.

  • The_Bustle_in_Your_Hedgerow

    Tell that to Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, the Jesuits, Benedict XVI, and so on. Science became a force in Christendom for a reason (even the scientific method was invented by a Franciscan). Learn some History.

  • cranefly

    Yes, absolutely.

  • cranefly

    At this point I’m sure you’re a troll and there’s virtually no point in talking to you, but since there really are people in the world who might think you’ve made a valid point: It is racism that tries to construct a false equivalency between the calling out the paternal arrogance of privileged groups and dismissing the voices of marginalized groups. Richard Dawkins is the one guilty of the latter; please direct your righteous indignation accordingly.

  • gilhcan

    A movement cannot be considered to have begun until it is significant enough with followers and action to upset the status quo and cause positive changes. Islamic women have not yet achieved that status.

  • Whiskyjack

    I think you’re confusing Francis Bacon with Roger Bacon. Roger Bacon did indeed advocate a form of empiricism, but it was a long way from being the type of scientific method found today. Admittedly, there is no common definition of what constitutes the scientific method, but most versions of it include experimentation, not simply observation.

  • DKeane123

    I had to look it up to. If you search for “70% Illiterate”, you will find a 2005 PDF from UNICEF with the information. Poverty also plays an issue – some of the poorest countries being Muslim. To do an apples to apples you would have to look at a few religions from multiple countries of similar economic status. I wouldn’t be surprised if Islam still was close to the bottom.

  • Camera Obscura

    Considering his role and statements in “elevatorgate” especially his “Muslima” statments as part of that, Richard Dawkins has no credibility in addressing Islamic feminism. He doesn’t even have any credibility in addressing atheist feminism.

    Muslim women will be the people who determine what feminism among Muslims consists of because they are the ones who will bear the burden of struggle in forcing changes. They will have to have the support of men in their countries and in their communities and families because they will have to have their agreement in whatever changes can be made, that is a process that involves persuasion as much as it does opposition.

    I researched Islamic feminism for a blog post I wrote a number of years ago. I was shocked to find out that there was feminism among Muslims going back more than a century, with such people as Huda Sha’arawi and the Egyptian Feminist Union. You can go through high school, university and grad school in the West while being entirely ignorant of the hundreds of thousands, billions of people in Islamic cultures and countries but not be aware of your ignorance. I would bet almost no one who gasses on about women and Islam online has bothered to do any actual reading of what Muslim women have done or said or thought about their lives and their rights.

  • Camera Obscura

    I wish you idiots would learn what the term “bronze age” means. Islam didn’t even start until well into the age of steel. Neither did Judaism, by the way, Iron is mentioned in books such as Genesis and Exodus, Christianity as well.

    Atheists are slogan repeating bots.

  • Abdul Rahman

    I know, nothing more laughable than total idiots commenting on stuff they absolutely have no idea about. So, how does it feel to be one of those ?

    If you knew just a little bit about islam, you would know that islam was build upon its primitive Jewish and Christian predecessors, selecting a chunk here and a shard there. Its founding narrative likewise takes place within an astonishingly small compass, and relates facts about extremely tedious local quarrels. And given Judaism was born in a Bronze-age, the ideology of Islam is therefor of a bronze-age.

    Now, I highly recommend simple wiki reading, before you make another comment and embarrass yourself in public.

  • SebaKL

    Seriously? I think you are little confused.
    Judaism continuity spanning more than 3,000 years. Judaism has its roots as a structured religion in the Middle East during the Bronze Age.

  • SebaKL

    Cheers, Abdul Rahman!

  • Camera Obscura

    The scriptures of Judaism talk about Iron as well as bronze, as I noted. And Judaism, as it exists today, is a more recent development than the religion described in the scriptures. Christianity is certainly not a “bronze age” religion, neither is Islam.

    Given the insanity of modern atheism, maybe we should call it an ideology of the “plutonium age”. Like that element it is artificial, the product of destructive technology and massively poisonous and dangerous.

  • Boko999

    Glad to see that Muslim women have everything under control what with their brilliant ( I must assume) reinterperatation of a plain reading of the Koran.
    Let’s just hope they can get their “Brothers in the Religion of Peace” to listen.
    Good luck with that.