The Dream of a Tolerant, Progressive, Open-Minded Islam

Saïda Keller-Messahli is a Swiss woman of Tunisian Muslim background who wants to help bring about the reform of Islam. Many thanks to JLH for translating this article from Weltwoche:

“I Know I’m Disruptive”

Saïda Keller-Messahli is the best-known Islamism critic in Switzerland. She battles bravely against her radical co-religionists.

by Wolfgang Koydl and Andrea Diglas

The truth is, the woman can get on one’s nerves, and there are people who roll their eyes when she speaks into the camera. Whenever there is talking, debating or arguing about Islamism in Switzerland — and that happens more and more from year to year — she stands up and adds her thoughts. No matter whether it is about head-scarves or burkas, forced marriages, Salafists or young Swiss who go to jihad in Syria or Iraq, the best-known Islam critic of the land is broadcasting on all frequencies — online, TV, print, from Blick to NZZ to the “Club.”*

Saïda Keller-Messahli gets into things, and it is not just hard-boiled Islamists who don’t want to hear what the 57-year-old says. She cautions, and warns of the dangers that proceed from radical, fundamentalist Islam for our society and its freedom. By doing that, she disturbs the comfortable yet fatal self-deception of many Swiss whose misperception of reality leads them to believe that any kind of cultural and religious diversity per se constitutes an enrichment of society.

“I know I am disruptive,” says Keller-Messahli and smiles almost apologetically. “But if you question something, you always disturb someone, and if I don’t do it, who will? Very few people have the courage to be disruptive, because they fear the consequences. Who wants to go out on a limb?”

“The Other Side Is Not Sleeping”

The consequences in her case sometimes go as far as death threats. Anyone who gets into it with radical Islam has to know it is a personal risk to life and limb. “The other side is not sleeping. It is active in the net and it is watching us very carefully,” she says. All the world knows about the witch hunts unleashed on the British writer Salman Rushdie, the Somali human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the Mohammed cartoonist for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The terrors that Saïda Keller-Messahli endures are largely private.

Speaking of the threats which she has received “by mail, cell or telephone,” she says, with a reserve typical of this country, “It is a unique experience. I have lived in Zurich for more than 30 years and have always felt safe, even going somewhere at night. This feeling is now shattered.” Anyone who takes the trouble to seek out the pertinent web sites or Facebook entries will quickly determine that this inconspicuous woman evokes blind hatred among several hardcore fundamentalists.

Saïda Keller-Messahli does not look like a woman who seeks conflict or danger at any price. Elegant short haircut, sensible heels on her ankle boots, black pants and, as the only concession to style, a luminous floral blouse. Just as you might imagine a high school teacher would look — which she was for years. Until recently, she taught French, but now she has dropped teaching. She needs more time for her political work and her organization — the forum for a progressive Islam founded in 2004.

She has just butted into something again. It occurred to her that the mosque in Embrach in the canton of Zurich had taken the name el-Furkan. Unlike the authorities, Keller-Messahli heard an alarm go off. It is really an innocuous name. In Arabic, the word furqan means a contradiction and therefore making a choice, like for instance between good and evil, as is demanded of every person in every religion. But it had not escaped the Islam connoisseur, who slogs through countless blogs every day, that an organization with the name el-Furkan in Germany was being surveilled by the national security agency because it is probably recruiting young Muslims to go to Syria and Iraq. “The name was outright treasonous,” says Keller-Messahli. “I believe that el-Furkan wants to deploy in Switzerland by way of Embrach.”

Her vociferous protest had the result that the authorities sat down with the leaders of the mosque. And they gave the “all-clear.” “Not dangerous,” said the mayor, Erhard Büchi after a round table discussion. Keller-Messahli remains skeptical. “I just want everything that is said to be examined critically, not just naively believed.”

If she has a criticism of Western societies, it is that they have for too long ignored the danger of radical Islam. “Today we are finally taking them seriously,” she concedes, “but much too late.” People have often been gullible, closed their eyes tight. “In the name of tolerance and religious freedom, certain milieus in our society have not been scrutinized.” Keller-Messahli at least wants to keep things from going as far as they have in Great Britain, where it came out recently that radical Muslim organizations in Birmingham have taken over and turned around public schools, making them Islamic — from faculty to curriculum.

This mother of two grown sons would not have dreamt that she would become so passionately politically engaged. She was born in Tunisia in 1957 — the fifth of eight siblings in a poor peasant family. It was the same year in which founder and president Habib Bourguiba proclaimed the country a lay republic. As was customary at the time, her exact birthday was not registered. Later, her father registered it on the same day as the birth of the republic.

First Country to Abolish Sharia

Tunisia is a stunning example of how a modern, cosmopolitan, tolerant and secular state transforms into a community where women are locked away or covered with cloth, and archaic religious ideas achieve the power of law. The change came with giddy speed, in the course of a single lifetime. The Republic of Tunisia in which Keller-Messahli was born had gender equality in marriage, divorce and child custody written into its constitution. It was the first Islamic country to abolish sharia as the source of laws. Its choice of clothing was oriented toward Paris rather than Kabul or Riyadh. Headscarves were worn mostly by old women from the villages. Veils were almost non-existent.

Today, after the upheavals of the Arab Spring, women are ambling through the streets of Tunis with niqab and face veil, and an Islamic party is the strongest political power. Not until February of this year has the country had a liberal constitution that is comparable to the constitution of 1957. And nonetheless, Saïda Keller-Messahli fears that her homeland could still tip over into some kind of a theocracy.

At home in her village, religion had never been an issue. “It was an organic part [of life]. Nobody got excited about it,” she recalls. That was also the case in the Protestant foster family in Grindelwald to which she had come as an eight-year-old through the agency of the aid organization Terre des hommes. Her father had gone blind; money was always short and the family’s economic situation had become precarious. The separation was surely not easy for a young girl. It wasn’t only the high mountains that frightened young Saïda. Homesickness was augmented by language problems. Her foster mother knew a few scraps of French. Otherwise they had to rely on gesticulating and imitation.

Five years later, the foster parents divorced and Saïda returned to Tunisia with a goal: earn money and return to Switzerland to study. She earned her money in part as a stewardess with the Saudi airline Saudia, and here is where she zeroed in on hypocrisy and mendacity in the strictly Wahhabi Islam of Saudi provenance. “The non-Saudi female employees were all housed in a compound in Jeddah, where the strict rules to which Saudi women are subjected did not apply,” she relates. “But we could observe our male Saudis colleagues, who were openly drinking alcohol and bribing the custom officials with gin and whiskey.”

At first, she shrugged off this and similar observations. She had more important things to do. At the end of the 1970s, she returned to Zurich, studied law at first (“because I thought could bring justice to the world that way”), then French and English literature and film studies. She became acquainted with her husband — a respected psychoanalyst, who died some years ago of a severe illness. She married, had children and began a family — a very normal life as a Swiss among Swiss.

Until a book came into her hands which, as she says, opened her eyes. “La maladie de l’Islam,” by the Turkish-French Sorbonne professor, Abdelwahab Meddeb.

“Suddenly it was clear to me that the Islamic world had lost the connection to the civilized world,” she confesses, and quotes a statistic according to which all 23 Islamic states in the world together published as many books in a year as Spain alone. “Islam is sick, and the sickness became worse after 9/11,” she believes. “Since then, the jihadis can be even more successful at servicing the feeling of injustice that is abroad in the Muslim world; the feeling of having been unfairly treated by the West — that West whose freedoms frighten them.”

No More Political Utopias

But what explains the attraction of the hate preachers? Why do young men, particularly — and increasingly also young women — from good backgrounds in the well-to-do and liberal West feel so drawn to them that they leave their secure life in Leeds, Lyon, Leipzig or Lucerne and lay their necks on the line for a crude, misanthropic ideology? “In principle, they are the same reasons as for other people in other societies and cultures,” thinks Keller-Messahli. “A general discontent with the consumer society which preaches nothing but growth while it destroys values, and makes people into commodities.”

In their consumer world, Keller-Messahli believes, these young people no longer see anything worth fighting for. They do not dream of political utopias; they have no goals worth striving for except for the next generation of iPhones. “And then these jihadis come and explain the world to them in simple terms. There is Good and Evil and you are fighting for the Good — and with God’s express blessing.”

And that is probably how it will continue, until Saïda Keller-Messahli’s dream of a tolerant, progressive, open-minded Islam is fulfilled. For the trend is moving in the opposite direction, toward the old, the allegedly tried-and-true. Not just with Muslims, but with American Protestants, Russian Orthodox. But she fights on, even though she “does not really know” why she is putting herself through this. “I only know that I cannot leave it alone,” she adds dryly. “The res publica has always been very important to me.”

And then there are also private demonstrations of her success, as not too long ago in a bakery in Zurich when the sales clerk addressed her in Arabic and congratulated her on standing up for the rights of women in Islam: “You are speaking to me from the heart. Keep it up.”

That makes it worthwhile to fight. Even if you get on some people’s nerves.

*   Blick = glossy news magazine; NZZ = leading national newspaper; Club = radio and TV discussion program.

24 thoughts on “The Dream of a Tolerant, Progressive, Open-Minded Islam

  1. I’ve lost Gandalf of Up Pompeii. Does anyone know what has happened to him? Thank you.

    • Me too. Does anyone know what happened to him. Up Pompeii used to pick up more UK related issues. Was it taken down or did it go of its own accord?

      • Don’t know for sure but it was a great and popular blog. Can’t believe he just wandered off one day and forgot to come home. Either the dhimmis or the Muslims would have got him, there is virtually no trace on the net. Come back Gandalf whereever you are.

  2. How did Muslims get into Switzerland?

    Did they read “The Camp of the Saints” and aim to fulfill its prophecy?

      • Creepy stuff. “We are here:The Muslims of Switzerland”

        The top commenter on this (quite new video) said:

        Muslim fanatics try to prove how “peaceful” they are by menacing the Swiss with a treasonous and seditious video.
        Will Switzerland be the next European country with Muslim “no-go zones” and constant terrorist threats?
        Yes, very “peaceful!” [/sarc]
        Note also the cynical use once again of the BOGUS term “Islamophobia” as part of their VIOLENT jihad and global conquest.

  3. Go to :
    and see the video under:
    Tarek Fatah responds to a Canadian Senator on matters of Islam and national security.

    And see the perversion of democracy vs logical, clever, realistic thinking.

    To hell with the TRAITOR Class who have no logic.

    • I went to the website. The man (Tarek) does a great job on putting the Senator in his place, but I am amazed that Tarek can still say he is a Muslim since he preaches against the violence called for in the Quran by the allah god (or was it Muhammad making it up?) The good people in Islam need to leave their religion. I believe Jesus Christ’s words (confirmed by His many miracles) that He is the Son of God and the Only way to the Father, One in Being with the Father. As a Christian, I would ask all these good people who are Muslims to come to Christ.

      • Very few people who feel the need for a faith feel able to reject that of their parents, however peculiar.

    • Is anyone takeing note of the FACT that our wannabe buddiies from Hell start all invocations to the Dark Side with a prayer for defeat of the infidel

  4. Says Saïda Keller-Messahli:

    “Islam is sick, and the sickness became worse after 9/11,” she believes. “Since then, the jihadis can be even more successful at servicing the feeling of injustice that is abroad in the Muslim world; the feeling of having been unfairly treated by the West — that West whose freedoms frighten them.”

    Assuming she’s sincerely not doing taqiyya as a “Better Cop” (the new-and-improved update on the Islamic Good Cop), there are problems with her position. Most importantly, I’ll mention one: She’s richly demonstrating a strange incomprehension of the reasonably inferred fact that the overwhelmingly massive source of that sickness she’s seeing in the Muslim world is Muhammad, the Qur’an, the Sunna — in short, Islam. Not merely “radical” Islam, not merely “Wahabbist” Islam, not merely “Salafist” Islam — but rather Islam, the whole Islam, and nothing but Islam.

    Were she to comprehend this, she would of course suddenly find herself in quite a quandary, as the Muslim she is and continues to be. The fact that she seems to comprehend no such quandary should be, at the very least, deeply disquieting for us in assessing whether she is Friend or Foe.

    Stranger than an intelligent supposedly reform-minded Muslim showing utter lack of comprehension for this problem, is the ostensibly anti-Islam person who seriously entertains her sincerity as viable for the Counter-Jihad. This isn’t the only time Gates of Vienna has showcased a Muslim “reformer” like this without any editorial caveats (thus implying respect, however guarded and grudging). I’ve often wondered whether deep down, there is not some logical nexus between the Real Problemers at the Gates of Vienna Circle and those who insist on a viable taxonomy of Muslims.

    • Hesperado —

      I don’t feel the need to explain to our readers what they should think about the material I post. They’re intelligent enough to make up their own minds.

      Everyone who reads this blog with more than cursory attention already knows my opinion about “moderate” Muslims and Islamic “reformers”. They know my take on the topic without my having to describe it.

  5. “A general discontent with the consumer society which preaches nothing but growth while it destroys values, and makes people into commodities.”And sometimes I think I’d be in a “struggle” that would not just be an “inner spiritual” one. For precisely the reason this lady cites – a culture which turns us into nothing more than consumers, with no higher a goal than buying a new iPhone or clocking a game on x-box, getting drunk or “scoring” with as many people as possible of the opposite sex. A purpose that dies along with the person, leaving nothing behind…

    Yet, when one objectively views the “achievements” of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State – without the rantings of a preacher or an inner hatred of America and Israel to skew the mind, then surely it’s clear that their form of “struggle” creates an even bigger evil than the consumerist one? Surely it’s worse to leave behind only death, destruction and oppression than nothing at all?

    So… kudos to this lady, and I share her dream of a “tolerant, progressive, open-minded Islam” – even though, at present, such an Islam remains as realistic as the thought of pigs flying.

  6. Based on the story so far everything seems like a natural progression and very predictable. Has implementing quotas to explode any concentrations of indigenous anywhere been tried yet? Couldn’t Muslims just be given an allotment of Muslim only representatives without our distasteful democratic process? How’s about their own independent state or region?

  7. Don’t beleive that Islam ever had a connection with the civilised world-there can never be such a thing as moderate Muslim, sadly the teachings of Islam don’t offer an opportunity to become such-to follow even the most basic Christian values will never be, it remains therefore a despotic, political, ideology. One that creeps like a cancer across Western Europe.

  8. I don’t applaud this woman much. (Sound of 1 hand clapping.) I don’t doubt that she’s getting death threats, or that those threats should be taken seriously. But notice how she lays much, of not most, of the blame for radical (i.e., bad publicity) islam at the feet of the West and our economic system:

    “But what explains the attraction of the hate preachers? Why do young men, particularly — and increasingly also young women — from good backgrounds in the well-to-do and liberal West feel so drawn to them that they leave their secure life in Leeds, Lyon, Leipzig or Lucerne and lay their necks on the line for a crude, misanthropic ideology? ‘In principle, they are the same reasons as for other people in other societies and cultures,’ thinks Keller-Messahli. ‘A general discontent with the consumer society which preaches nothing but growth while it destroys values, and makes people into commodities.'”

    I don’t doubt the spiritual emptiness of the consumer society of the West. But K-M ignores the obvious question of why it is that only muslims — not Christians, Hindus or people of other Infidel faiths — respond to that spiritual void by turning to murder in the name of their satanic god. She seems to be of the opinion that the problem with islam is not islam, but the West and their valueless economic system.

    • Not just the sayings; the “example of the prophet” — the whole pattern of his life. What’s left of Islam when its founder is acknowledged to have been a sociopath whose example inspired violence and evil among his immediate followers and many others through the generations?

  9. The question still remains of why a sophisticated woman, obviously ethical, would pray with the words of a man like Muhammad, and revere him as a prophet and man of god. There’s a logical disconnect there. If you read about his life, you would cross the street to avoid getting too close to a horrible person like Muhammad. And yet, she remains in a religion that reveres him as the perfect man, as does Irshad Manji and the other reformist Muslims.

    I don’t mean to question the sincerity or bravery of Keller-Messsahli, but just wonder how far her logical position will go. It has a huge disconnect at its root.

    I think what happens is that she has a message of warning about Islam, and would rather put her energies into the publicity she is getting, rather than dealing with the side issues that would emerge from a public apostasy. Like being on even more death lists than she is on now. Also, she gets more attention with her message as a Muslim than as an apostate, which is a good thing.

  10. People like Keller-Messahli, Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan appear to genuinely wish to reform Islam, remove the violence, misogyny and hatred (and thereby remove about 60-80% of it). Yet they still remain Muslims – I often wonder, why? Is breaking up really so hard to do? People raised as Christians seem to have no problem abandoning Christianity when they reach their teens.

    • Yes it is, when the official punishment is death and when plenty of vigilantes will carry it out. Though being a Muslim heretic isn’t much safer.

      Leaving the religion of one’s birth may be especially difficult for people who do have a moral conscience and who take the notions of good & evil seriously. For as long as they can remember, good & evil have been defined as adherence to that religion. Throwing aside that religion means going over to the evil side, which can be very troubling and even terrifying — therefore the preference for saying the problem isn’t the religion but the way that people have wrongly practiced it.

      Another factor is that throwing off the religion of one’s childhood may seem like a betrayal of the parents and grandparents who taught you to follow it, and who may have been genuinely solicitous of your eternal well-being.

      I was once at a funeral of a devout Christian women when one of her sons, in delivering a eulogy, stressed her faith and said that her greatest wish was that her children would all follow her in that faith. It’s hard to believe he was unaware that some of his siblings had not maintained that faith in adulthood, so it sounded to me like a reproach to them — i.e. “Some of you have disappointed your mother by abandoning the faith she taught you.” (Apparently it didn’t occur to him that they would have felt like hypocrites by maintaining a formal attachment to a creed that they could not sincerely believe anymore.)

  11. ”For the trend is moving in the opposite direction, toward the old, the allegedly tried-and-true. Not just with Muslims, but with American Protestants, Russian Orthodox.”

    Protestants as far as I know when they go progressive will soon apostatize. Progressivism is destructive to Christianity and the Patriarchal structure that the scripture teaches in society as well as in family.

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