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Iranian protesters burn an Israeli flag during an anti-Israel rally at Enqelab-e Eslami (Islamic Revolution) Square. (Sobhan Farajvan via Getty Images)

We Were Taught to Hate Jews

‘It’s like asking me how often I drink water. Antisemitism was everywhere.’ Apostates, former Islamists, and an almost-terrorist on how they changed their minds.

The following five ex-Muslims grew up in Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, but they were all indoctrinated, they say, with the same views on Jews and Israel. They remember a childhood shot through with antisemitic moments ranging from the mundane (one woman recalls her aunt claiming Jews put cancer in her vegetables at the market) to the deadly (a former extremist went as far as to pick a location in London for a terrorist attack he planned to carry out at 17). 

These hateful ideas, repeated by their family members, religious leaders, and teachers, are part and parcel of the same animus, they say, that fueled Hamas’s attacks on October 7. 

Some of the people you will hear from below have received death threats for speaking out on issues like antisemitism and sexism in the Muslim world. One uses a pen name to protect herself and her daughter from her terrorist ex-husband, who is currently jailed in Egypt. All of them came to reject their loathing for Jewish people and the West, and have rebuilt their lives in the wake of their realizations. Here are their stories, which you can read or click to listen to each author recite in the audio recordings below.

“To enter our classroom, we had to step on a painting of the Israeli flag on the ground.”

When I was born, Iran was still free. You could drink and dance, and women could wear whatever they wanted. I’ll never forget my first day of school after the Islamic Revolution. I was six, and my mother entered my room with a long, dark, and formless manteau and a piece of fabric for my hair and neck. 

“My darling,” she said, “this is your uniform.” 

I didn’t understand. I pointed to my closet and said, “But I have so many other beautiful dresses.”

She explained that I had to wear it if I wanted to become educated. I remember seeing the boy next door walk out his front door. He wore the same clothes he always did. I knew, but couldn’t accept, that my life would change, and his wouldn’t.

At my school in Tehran, in my new shapeless uniform, we read the Quran every morning and repeated sayings like, “Down with the USA, down with Israel.” To enter our classroom, we had to step on a painting of the Israeli flag on the ground. There are still universities in Iran that have painted American and Israeli flags on the ground, but most students walk around them.

The Iranian people and the Israelis are victims of the same monster—Islamists. In 1999, I was imprisoned under Ayatollah Khamenei for speaking out against the marginalization of women. I was 24. I was afraid that they wanted to execute me in jail, but instead they released me in the hopes that I would lead them to my husband, who was one of the leaders organizing protests against the Iranian regime. Luckily, a friend smuggled me in the back of his car to reunite with my husband in secret. We lived in Turkey for six months before moving to Belgium and have been married for 26 years.

When I saw the problems that we face in Belgium regarding radical Islam today, I began to write opinion pieces on the subject and eventually entered politics. I was elected to the Belgian Federal Parliament in 2019. 

Islamists have ruined Iran, and they have destroyed the Middle East. Do we want to wait until this atrocity ruins everything in our Western countries too? As an elected official here in Belgium, I try to be the eyes and ears of some of the people who are sleeping.

Darya Safai, 48, is a member of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium. She was born in Tehran, Iran and lives in Belgium.

“It’s like asking me how often I drink water. Antisemitism was everywhere.”

I was 17 and living in Vancouver, Canada, when a teenage boy came up to me at school and pointed to my black hijab.

“You’re Muslim?” he asked. 

“Yes,” I replied, a little surprised he knew, since Muslims and women in hijabs weren’t a common sight in Vancouver at the time.

He smiled at me and said, “I’m Jewish! We’re cousins.” 

I remember recoiling and scrunching my face in disgust. He was understandably shocked. I’m ashamed of this reaction, but it was involuntary. It’s how my Islamist mother and her extremist Sunni husband raised me. After my mother and biological father divorced, she met a man in Canada who was living in a mosque at the time. He took her as his second wife, which is permissible in Islam.

Antisemitism was part of my Islamic education, and it was part of the colloquial discourse when I lived in Egypt for two years in my teens. It was infused into my family’s culture. How often did I encounter antisemitism? It’s like asking me how often I drink water. 

One time at the market, when I was about eight, my aunt picked up a cucumber and said, “Gosh, the cucumbers are so small this year. The Jews are putting cancer in the vegetables.” I told her that was impossible, but she insisted that “Jews can do anything.” 

At 19, I was forced to marry an al-Qaeda terrorist named Essam Marzouk. My mother and her husband were sympathizers of a group called the mujahideen, which, after 9/11, would be folded into al-Qaeda, and they knew that Essam was a terrorist. My mother said I needed a man who was strong enough to control me, so that’s who she chose.

He was 36 and acting as Osama bin Laden’s counterpart in Canada. I didn’t want to get pregnant, but in Islam, wives can’t refuse their husbands. I gave birth to my daughter at 20. 

A year later, I took my mother to the hospital, and an agent from CSIS, Canada’s version of the CIA, approached me and told me that I was married to a terrorist. I knew he terrorized me—he beat me mercilessly, and once he punched me so hard that he broke his wrist—but I didn’t know that he was an actual terrorist. 

It took a little bit of time, but eventually, I got out. I did it for my daughter’s sake; my mother and Essam planned to have her circumcised, an abhorrent practice known as female genital mutilation, or FGM. 

When I was 25, I filed a restraining order against Essam while recovering from a miscarriage at my mother’s house. About eight months later, a woman from CSIS knocked on my door and handed me a black-and-white photo of Essam behind bars in Egypt. I was finally, truly free. I wrote a book called Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, and I now run a nonprofit called Free Hearts Free Minds, which supports ex-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries and all over the world. As far as I know, my ex-husband is still in jail in Egypt, but I do what I can to protect my daughter from him.

Yasmine Mohammed is an author and podcast host. She was born in Vancouver, Canada. She uses a pen name to protect her safety and has withheld her location and age. 

“Anti-Israel propaganda is a constant.”

Even though my parents were liberal—they never fasted or prayed, and they drank alcohol—I went to a conservative Shia school like all kids in Iran. Shia Islam is the second most widely practiced form of Islam worldwide, and most Iranians are Shia. At school, I became religious and truly believed what I was taught—that you could go to hell for committing the most minor of sins. I was terrified of going to hell. Once, I burned the skin on my arm just to feel what hell was like. I still have the scar.

At 13 years old, I jumped out the window of my school building in Shiraz, Iran, breaking both of my legs and arms and fracturing my back. I was confined to a wheelchair for seven months. According to Shi’ism, males can’t sin up until 15 years of age, so even though suicide is a sin, I reasoned that if I killed myself before I turned 15, it didn’t count as one, and I’d go to heaven. 

The only reason I didn’t try again was because I saw how it devastated my parents.

No amount of politics and military strategy will solve the issues in the Middle East because radical Islamists like Hamas welcome death. Just like I believed I found a loophole to avoid hell, Hamas believes dying for the cause of Islam will prevent them from going to hell. They want to become martyrs and go straight to heaven. Who wouldn’t? 

It doesn’t help that anti-Israel propaganda is a constant. When I was growing up, it was on TV and it was part of our school curriculum. For example, if a person was being stingy, someone might say, “You’re such a Jew.” We were told to chant “Death to Israel” many times in school, and once, I remember being excited because my teacher said we were going to burn the Israeli flag. We weren’t excited to be anti-Israel, per se; we were just little boys who were excited to watch something be set on fire. But it did the trick—we were eager to show hate toward Jews even if we didn’t know it. 

My school also took us to a yearly pro-Palestinian event, but it really ended up being a big “Death to Israel” event. 

I started doubting Islam at around 16 and was a full-on atheist by 18. While living in Iran, I founded an online group called Atheist Republic, which now has over two million followers. I moved to Canada on a student visa because I wanted a better education and I wanted to be free to express my opinions. It was also dangerous for me to remain in Iran as an atheist activist. My mother passed away from cancer, but she was very proud of my work as an atheist activist, and she died as an atheist herself. 

I believe the solution for the bloodshed in the Middle East today lies with the Iranian people, the majority of whom are more liberal and secular like my parents. We have an entire nation of 80 million people who are shouting for Zan Zendagi Azadi or Woman, Life, Freedom—that they want life in this world over the next one. 

Armin Navabi, 39, is an author and the founder of Atheist Republic. He was born in Tehran, Iran and lives in Canada.

“The word Jew was an insult.”

“The last hour will not come about until the Muslims fight the Jews, killing the Jews, such that the Jew will hide behind a stone or tree and a stone or a tree would say O Muslim, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. . .” 

I first heard this hadith—an instructional Islamic text passed down from the Prophet Muhammad—echoing throughout my neighborhood in Mosul, Iraq, from the minaret’s speakers during a Friday sermon. I lived in a neighborhood where most people practiced a strict, fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam called Salafism.

Growing up, I heard only negative things when it came to Jewish people and Judaism. The word Jew was an insult—a person might call someone a Jew if they did something wrong or were being cruel and uncaring. But by the time I heard this hadith, at 14, I was already starting to reject many aspects of my religion and decided to reject this hadith.

As a teenager, I sparked debates about Islam on Facebook. I was drawn to debating—there was no formal debate club at my school in Mosul like there are in the U.S. or the UK, so I used social media to discuss controversial topics. I created a post and asked about the historical accuracy of the Prophet Muhammad slaughtering one of the Jewish tribes at Medina. The majority of responses told me that it did happen and that the Jews were traitors who deserved collective punishment.

I started getting into trouble at school and was sometimes kicked out of class for refusing to wear a hijab, which I saw as something that took agency away from me. I was dabbling in a minority sect of Islam called Quranism, which rejected hadith and the hijab, and I was reading internet blogs and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in secret. It wasn’t long before I became known as an apostate at my school.

When ISIS took over Mosul in 2014, my parents feared for my life. My mother knew that if ISIS captured me, I would be stoned to death for how outspoken I’d been. I escaped to the Kurdistan region of Iraq three months after ISIS took control, and then I boarded a plane to London alone. I was 17. 

I took off my hijab on the flight to the UK and never put it on again—that was almost ten years ago. I worked basic jobs until I graduated from the London School of Economics, and now I work as a management consultant for a large consulting firm. Though my parents still live in Iraq, and we have since reestablished a close relationship, I do not miss Mosul. My life started the minute I landed in London.

Rana Mallah, 26, is a consultant in London. She was born in Mosul, Iraq.

“At 17, I started to plan a terrorist attack in London.”

I was radicalized at age six. My parents practiced Wahhabism, which is a subset of the broader extremist Salafi movement. They taught me that Britain was the enemy, even though I was born in London. 

One day when I was 14, my father and I went to a Jewish home because my father was doing some business with them. The couple had a toddler who smiled at me and wanted to play. The parents told me it was okay to play with him, and as I was playing with the baby, I thought, “I hate them, but they don’t hate me. They trust me with their child.” That’s when I began to question the antisemitism that had been drilled into me for nearly a decade. Another time, I was sitting on the couch, and my father sat next to me and said that Allah punished Jews because they were an evil race of people. I remember thinking, “How is an entire race of people evil?”

Unfortunately, these doubts didn’t stop me from becoming a Muslim extremist, and at 17, I started to plan a terrorist attack. I plotted to set off a remotely detonated IED in East London at Canary Wharf, a bustling business center near Central London. But I got only as far as the method of the attack and the location before I abandoned the idea because I thought, “What about all the innocent people who might get caught up in the attack and die? How is that right?”

Even though I believed in this ideology of hate, I was still friendly, approachable, and fairly popular in my public school. I had plenty of Christian and Jewish friends.  

Obviously, this was a very strange, cognitively dissonant part of my life, not only because I was friends with people I was planning to kill but also because I’ve known I was gay since I was eight. 

According to several hadith, the specific punishment for someone like me is execution by being thrown headfirst off a building or being stoned to death. I grew up hating myself and thought if I successfully executed a terror attack, I would be caught, I’d go to prison, and the rest of my life would be decided for me. 

After I brought myself back from the brink, I started speaking out against terrorism. That’s when my doubts about Islam started to creep in, and I began to research all the questions I had about it. When my parents found out I was gay, my dad said the only way he would allow me to live at home was if I agreed to be exorcised—the Muslim version of conversion therapy. 

I had nowhere else to go, so I agreed to it, but the effect it had on me psychologically was traumatic. Three months after that happened, I left my home, and I never went back. I no longer have a relationship with my family. I do have concerns about becoming a target for speaking out about this, but I wouldn’t say I’m afraid. I’ve made peace with the idea that I’m willing to die for my values. That’s one thing that hasn’t really changed about me from my extremist days until now. 

Today, I’m an agnostic deist and totally reject organized religion, but I still understand how extremist Muslims think. They believe in something so much that they are willing to die as a martyr for it. There’s just no frame of reference for that in the West.

Sohail Ahmed, 31, is a student at Cambridge University. He lives in London.

Madeleine Rowley previously wrote for Michael Shellenberger's Substack Public. Find her on X @Maddie_Rowley_ and on Substack at From the Periphery. 

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