Meet the 'Islamic Reformer' Who Protested Obama’s Mosque Visit

Asra Nomani has defended NYPD spying on Muslims and Islamophobic rhetoric in the election cycle

Photo Credit: Asra Nomani appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher

President Barack Obama’s first-ever visit to a U.S. mosque today attracted widespread attention – as well as skepticism, given the president’s role in bombing, spying on, and torturing Muslims throughout his two terms.

The presidential visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore also inspired a predictable Islamophobic backlash from the usual suspects, highlighted by inflammatory rhetoric from right-wing media pundits.

More unusual was a tiny protest outside of the Mosque under the banner of the so-called “Muslim Reform Movement.” This little picket gathered some media attention on Wednesday, but not enough to capture headlines. The group said its protest was aimed at “standing up for women's rights at mosques, as a symbol of broader rights in education, voice and work.”

What is notable, however, is the participation of Asra Nomani, a prominent writer and Daily Beast columnist listed as a contact for the protest. Over recent years, her writing has taken an alarming direction, as she has vehemently argued for more surveillance of Muslims and painted the mainstream of American Muslims as in the thrall of extremism.

Last fall, Nomani defended presidential candidate Ben Carson’s widely-criticized statement that a Muslim should not be president of the United States, a declaration he partially walked back after he uttered it. Her piece was entitled, “To This Secular Muslim, Ben Carson Had a Point.”

In addition, Nomani once wrote that the commonly-used Arabic phrase insh’allah, or, if God wills it, is “code inside the community for someone who is becoming hardcore.”

In 2012, Nomani penned the piece, “Why NYPD Spying Should Be Welcome News to U.S. Muslims.” She declared: “I’m relieved that our country’s largest police agency was monitoring our Muslim community as closely as the reports indicate. For the longest time I have worried that our sense of political correctness has kept us from sensible law-enforcement strategies that look at Muslims, mosques, and Islamic organizations.”

Nomani even defended the Islamophobic advertising boycott of the television show All-American Muslim. 

In an article published last July, Georgetown’s Nathan Lean placed Nomani among the ranks of “those whose brand of prejudice is of a milder variety.”

“Their personal stories of trauma to triumph, and their overtures of liberalism and reform have captivated Western audiences over the past decade,” he wrote. “Yet dampened as it is beneath the acoustic theme songs of public radio programs or the applause lines of late-night talk show audiences, their message is virtually identical to that of their more strident colleagues: Islam is a uniquely problematic religion and Muslims worldwide must embrace the ideals of the West to drag it out of its deep and dreadful slumber.”

Last month, Nomani was to be featured on a panel on “Muslim Women in the Fight Against ISIS” by the New America Foundation but the event was postponed. The DC-based New America enjoys close ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton through its president, the former State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne Marie Slaughter.

While Nomani’s small protest attracted little attention, a much larger debate raged over social media, in which many shared critical commentary on Obama’s mosque visit from an alternate, anti-war, anti-surveillance perspective.

This article originally stated that Nomani attended the Muslim Women in the Fight Against ISIS panel at the New America Foundation. It has been corrected to state that the event was postponed.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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