Athar Khan: Beyond Moderates and Fundamentalists

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Athar Khan is a frequent commentator on Canada’s Sun News Network and has been a member of the Toronto Police Muslim Consultative Committee for almost three years.

Khan was born in Pakistan but came to Canada when he was eight years old. He is a former Salafist and he promotes critical thinking and debate about Islamic teachings.

The following is Athar Khan’s interview with Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro:

Ryan Mauro: You used to follow the Salafist brand of Islam. Can you summarize what Salafism is?

Athar Khan: I wasn’t a radical but I was a Salafi Muslim. The latter doesn’t always result in the former.

Salafist simply means “of the salaf” or “of the companions,” referring to Prophet Muhammad’s close friends and family. The goal is to return to the way of the companions as they are believed to have properly followed Islam.

With this extreme nostalgia comes a strong emphasis on adhering to ahadith (the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions), in addition to the Qur’an. Innovation, modernization and reformation amount to sacrilege.


Mauro: Tell us about your journey into and out of Salafism.

Khan: I was never religious until I turned 15. That’s also when I entered high school. I was influenced by a friend who seemed dedicated to being a good Muslim, but more importantly he was very confident and had a strong sense of identity and purpose. It was the latter that really caught my attention and enticed me to adopt a similar persona.

Following my friend’s lead, I grew a beard, wore a thobe, started attending a Salafi mosque, listening to Salafi preachers, praying five times a day and fasting. My friend also organized and led prayers in school, a tradition which I upheld as I changed schools and we parted ways. For the next several years, my religiosity dissipated, only to resurge and then dissipate again.

When I entered university, I enrolled in courses about Islam. I immediately noticed how reluctant students were to criticize Islam and Muslims. I did not expect this from a university setting so I adopted a very critical stance. This was met with a lot of resistance and anger.

Finally, in a class about gender rights, I was basically told by a non-Muslim professor that I couldn’t criticize Islam in his class. This was after I challenged a Muslim girl who said Islam is great for women’s rights. That same girl also suggested on a different day that homosexuals can and should be cured and that her mother was a sexologist who did that sort of thing.

Yet, she received no criticism from anyone including the teacher for that comment. I was convinced then that I had to take my criticism to another level.

I have reached out to many mosques and to many Muslim Student Association chapters. Only one mosque allowed me to speak to its congregation about the importance of doubt, disagreement, debate and discussion.


Mauro: I’ve met Salafists in the U.S. who insist that Salafists can be committed to non-violence and democracy. What did you learn from Salafi preachers about the West?

Khan: Well, yes, they occasionally say that we have to follow the laws of the country in which we live, to the extent that the laws don’t conflict with our religion. At the same time, they speak of non-Muslims in an extremely vitriolic manner. I have also heard praises of terrorists on occasion.

I never heard any Salafi preacher explicitly defending democracy or separation of mosque and state. They were careful not to explicitly say we want sharia law here in Canada. However, they would constantly preach about the justifications for and the wisdom behind many elements of sharia law.

They say that the Western world is misguided; that the West has given into their pleasures, changed their religious texts and have no shame. And of course, we good Muslims have to teach them and bring them to Islam.


Mauro: What happened that made your devotion to Salafism decline?

Khan: After 9th grade, I changed schools and left my friend behind. This was the start of my de-radicalization, if I can call it that. I stopped attending mosque as much as I used to.

This was for three reasons: It wasn’t on the way back from school anymore, for one thing. I didn’t have my friend constantly pestering me to attend. And I was admittedly looking for a new identity. I also made new friends during this time.

While my religious tendencies did occasionally resurge, it was never quite the same again. In college, I became captivated with argument, something which I tested out a great deal in university. While there, I became enamored with the new atheist movement, leaving little change for my religious proclivities to gain ascendancy ever again.


Mauro: You have approached many mosques and Muslim Students Association chapters for speaking engagements, but only one mosque booked you. Why did this mosque have you speak while the others did not? And what was the reaction to your lecture?

Khan: I think the head of the mosque understood my intention was to help people, not insult them. I think he believed there was value in what I had to say. Other mosque leaders seemed to be worried that I might make Islam look bad or say things the congregation did not want to hear.

While there were some people looking around during my speech wondering what I was saying, many seemed to heed the message. I was simply stating that doubt is a good thing (even though Islam discourages it) and that disagreement is likewise a good thing, even though Islamic culture seems to discourage it.

Why? Because if one doesn’t have the capacity to doubt and disagree, he will inevitably follow just about anybody preaching just about anything.

As the late atheist Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities.”


Mauro: Based on your interactions with Muslims in Canada, do you find that large portions of the community agree that sharia’s proscriptions for governance and hudud punishments are outdated and should be scrapped? Is there an interest in reforming Islamic law?

Khan: A lot of Muslims believe that sharia law was revealed by God. In fact, it is hard to call yourself a Muslim and not believe that. I find that almost every Muslim I talk to says that while sharia law is from God, we humans are imperfect so we cannot implement it.

That begs the question: Then why was it revealed in the first place? But they will defend and justify almost all aspects of sharia by saying ‘this was applicable in that time” or “this serves as a good deterrence” or “this reflects the nature of men,” etc.

Essentially, the moderates and fundamentalists believe the same thing. The only difference is that the fundamentalists actually carry it out. There should be a third category called secularists or reformists who reject a giant part of Islam, a group which I would be prepared to associate myself with.


Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on Fox News.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org