“He came to visit a home that I was renting in Karachi, and he went off for an interview. And he never came back. The man whom he was supposed to interview had set a trap for Danny. It was actually a kidnapping scheme. And Danny was never to be seen again.”
In 2002, Wall Street Journal correspondent Asra Nomani was in Pakistan to investigate the Islamist ideology behind the 9/11 attacks—in defiance of State Department warnings—when her colleague, Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped by ISIS terrorists—and brutally beheaded.
“That was the moment that I knew, deep in my heart, that we were in this war with this extremism. And what was that extremism defined by? It was defined by sectarianism and it was defined by the most illiberal of ideas, which is that there is a hierarchy of human value in the world,” explains Nomani. “And that’s when I first confronted the fundamental idea of ‘identity’ as a weapon.”
Since then, Nomani has become an activist on many fronts, first as a Muslim reformer—“I, as a Muslim feminist, was declared ‘Islamophobic’ because I dared to challenge the sexism within my faith and the intolerance,” she says—and now as an ardent advocate of parental rights.
“They want a dumbing down of the United States of America, and that is why they came after my son’s school,” says Nomani.
She is the author of “Woke Army: The Red-Green Alliance That Is Destroying America’s Freedom.” We discuss her book and talk liberal values, the line between free speech and character assassination, Big Tech, and soft power.
“Soft power can be more damaging and can weaken a nation and a people even more than bullets or bombs,” says Nomani.
Jan Jekielek: Asra Nomani, so good to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Asra Nomani: Thank you so much, it’s my honor. It’s so nice to have you in my home.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fantastic to be here. It’s a difficult time in American history. This is something you have been charting, and that we’ve discussed numerous times. You’ve always identified yourself as a classical liberal. Is this whole idea of classical liberalism here in America coming to an end?
Ms. Nomani: There’s a war for the values of classical liberalism. What are they? They are simple ideas like individual freedom, free speech, and the actual value of family. Also, there is something else really important to me, which is a sense of equality, and a sense that there is no hierarchy of human value. That to me is the greatest tragedy right now, because we are in this existential threat to that kind of value system in which we really do view each other for the human beings that we are. Unfortunately, I see the kind of sectarian, divisive ideologies that so many of us have fled in order to find homes in America. I see that now taking root in the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve approached this question from a number of different vantage points. I remember we were on a panel about religious freedom together. Then, you’ve been in the parental rights movement. How did you become this fierce defender of classical liberalism or cognitive freedom?
Ms. Nomani: To me it’s about cognitive consistency. It’s about living with ethical congruity. How did this happen? It happened through a childhood and young adulthood of living in the freedoms of America, but also an incongruence with many of the messages that I was getting as a young Muslim girl. I was born in India and my family came here to the United States to enjoy the freedoms that America has provided us because of the values of classical liberalism, and the opportunity for equal opportunity. Indeed, the hierarchies of human value that have existed in so many nations around the world were ones that we were abandoning, like women’s rights, equality, and free speech.
These were just joyful experiences that I had as a young girl growing up in the United States. But I was feeling an incongruence with some of the ideas that I was hearing and that were actually embedded inside of me from being a Muslim. Inside of the very traditional and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, you are denied principles like free speech, because you are ruled by laws of blasphemy that can judge you and criminalize you.
You are denied individual rights, because you are now defined by the collective sense of how you’re supposed to live, how you’re supposed to marry, where you’re supposed to travel, and what you’re supposed to do for a living. Through most of my life I was trying to find peace, and it was actually in tragedy that I found the greatest clarity of my life.
Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me about that.
Ms. Nomani: It was a reality I could never have imagined in my life. I had become a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. I have been able to rise to the highest levels of journalism in the United States of America. In the summer of 1969, I had arrived as a girl who knew not a word of English. Then, at the age of 23, I got a job at the Wall Street Journal.
How? It was because I had been affirmed and celebrated in the classrooms in which I had grown up, and by a lovely teacher named Mrs. Alki in seventh grade who handed me and all our classmates little green journals. With it I would become a young writer. That was the America in which I was able to prosper. Then, all of a sudden on 9/11, I saw this collision course between the most extreme interpretation of my faith of Islam and America.
I got on a plane to Pakistan like so many journalists did, defying all the state department warnings. A colleague of mine also headed to Pakistan, a journalist by the name of Danny Pearl. Danny was a great friend from the newsroom in Washington, DC. We bonded over beach volleyball and he introduced me to American music. I learned how to go to open mic night with him in this neighborhood called Adams Morgan. Danny was just a great guy.
On January 23rd, 2002, he came to visit a home that I was renting in Karachi. He went off for an interview and he never came back. The men whom he was supposed to interview had set a trap for Danny. It was actually a kidnapping scheme and Danny was never to be seen again. He never came back. Instead, what we saw instead were these things that they call sign of life photographs.
The photographs had a gun to Danny’s head. They had his hands in shackles. Literally, they held his humanity hostage, everything that was the beauty and joy that I knew of as Danny. Then, Jan, you know what we got? We got the ransom notes. First, they said that Danny was a spy for the United States. They used his American citizenship, and by proxy, him being white, to demonize him as a spy for the U.S.
A couple of days later, the local press reported that Danny was Jewish and that put a target on his back. He went from being a spy for the CIA to a spy for the Mossad Israeli Intelligence Agency. Danny was none of that. He was just a good guy who had learned to write using the pen for truth and justice in the world. In the weeks that followed, we learned that Danny had been slain, brutally beheaded.
That was the moment that I knew deep in my heart that we were in this war with this extremism. What was that extremism defined by? It was defined by sectarianism and it was defined by the most illiberal of ideas, which is that there is a hierarchy of human value in the world. Danny, because of being American, white, Jewish, and by being of Israeli ancestry, was now at the bottom of that hierarchy of human value.
That’s when I first confronted the fundamental idea of identity as a weapon to lay siege on not only the spirit and the soul, but also the body. Danny’s identity was used to justify his being taken from this earth. Jan, that is when I really came to recognize those classical liberal values that had allowed me to be the strong woman that I had become in the United States of America, were values worth fighting for. My first terrain was within my Muslim community.
Mr. Jekielek: Then, you became a Muslim reformer. In the process of doing that, you faced a lot of personal attacks. You’ve done some amazing investigative work figuring out what actually happened to you as a Muslim reformer. I want to touch on that as well.
First, I want to jump into your work here in Fairfax County, Virginia, where we are now, and in nearby Loudoun County, where you became a parental rights advocate. It very much centers around this idea of identity that you just pointed out. It’s the uniting issue.
Ms. Nomani: Out of Pakistan, my niece likes to say I brought back a souvenir and that was a little baby. I found out in the days that we were trying to find Danny that I was pregnant with a boyfriend that didn’t work out. But my parents embraced this new chapter in my life, welcomed me back to my hometown in West Virginia, and I brought this little baby into the world. I chose to raise him in America and brought him here to Virginia to go to the great public schools of Virginia.
There I believed that I could raise him with those same classical liberal values with which I had been raised and with which America had embraced me. He was a successful little boy. I became his Lego robotics coach and helped coach boy’s volleyball. It was here in this house that I worked with him on algebra, and we just had our own little life.
Then, we had the great success of my son being accepted into the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Like its name sounds, it’s for kids that are really smart in math and science, and entry was based on a merit admission back then. My son worked hard, and so did all the other kids. In the fall of 2017, he walked through the doors of the school. I became a PTA mom.
I learned that some of the most diverse communities in any school in the country were within those walls. We had sugar cane juice at the parent teacher meetings. We had biryani from India because the school student body is 70 percent Asian, 10 percent black, Hispanic and other identities, and 20 percent white. Of the white students, many of them are from Eastern European countries, children of immigrants who have fled communism.
Many of the Asian students are from India and from China. Many families had fled communism in China to create, just like my family, a new reality in the United States. Here we are, living a nice regular life. Then, the killing of George Floyd happens in the spring of 2020. All of a sudden there was a new race war launched, and guess what? Our kids at TJ were in the crosshairs.
On my birthday, June 7th, 2020, the principal of the school, Ann Bonitatibus, sent all of our families an email. I thought it was like my little birthday email, and I got it that night. But it was a scolding in which she said that families from such diverse backgrounds and with such stories of struggle coming to the United States needed to check our privileges. She said that we needed to change the racial demographic of the school, so that it would match the racial demographic of the county.
What is the racial demographic of the county? 20 percent is Asian, whereas, 70 percent of the school is Asian. We were the wrong kind of minority now. It was for 18 years then that I had been seeing this reality of identity politics inside my Muslim community, and a new identity politics emerging in the United States. Now all of a sudden, I was in the crosshairs, and so was my son and all these amazing families.
That summer I recognized really fast that the same type of identity politics that had targeted my friend Danny Pearl, had shifted to a new group in the United States; Asian families, immigrant families, and anybody who refused the narrative of this network that I call the woke army. A new fight began.
Mr. Jekielek: You found yourself in the crosshairs. On the other hand, you jumped in and started working on it.
Ms. Nomani: Honestly, Jan, I didn’t even know the extent of it. It’s like everything where you just jump into the deep end and you don’t even know where the waters will take you. I didn’t realize the abyss that it is. You can use so many metaphors. It’s like jumping into quicksand, because it will suck you up. It’s like going into these dark waters of poison and toxicity that will try to spit you out so hurt and so damaged.
But the lesson that I had learned from my years earlier fighting for Muslim reform was that you just have to stick to your core values, and you have to be unapologetic for what they are. That requires a lot of meditation and reflection so that you are always guided by those values and not any kind of negative objectives. Because those that oppose you will try so hard for you to abandon your values so that you will become like them. That’s a constant mental check every day.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s an alliance of people with illiberal values. Please tell me, what is this woke army? It doesn’t make sense that there would be such an alliance.
Ms. Nomani: Yes. When you think about it seems contradictory. That is partly why this alliance is unholy—they really contradict each other’s values. Half of this unholy alliance that I confronted is the Islamists, which describe those people in Islam who believe in political Islam, the Muslims who want theocracy, and people who believe in religious law as the law of the state.
That’s a very, very dangerous prescription for the secular democracies that we have. It’s also a destructive order for any nation. Think of Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and how their regressive interpretations of Islam have become just inhumane forms of denying people’s human rights and civil rights.
These Islamists have now aligned with the Leftists in the United States and around the world. They manifest in so many different forms like socialists, communists, and even Antifa sometimes. They work together to undermine classical liberal values and the freedoms that we know in the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: As we were preparing for this interview, I learned that this whole alliance was catalyzed to some extent by the Trump candidacy, and then the Trump presidency. Please explain this to me.
Ms. Nomani: In the early days of the Muslim reform movement we were challenging the Islamists in the way that they’re interpreting the religion in mosques, in the political states, in the world like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. You’re going to just swoon at the idea of this, but I was glamourous, the hero of the month. That was what our liberal community embraced, where the values of women’s rights challenged tyranny. It was a really fundamental idea that you think would be consistent all through the history of the United States.
But something really frightening happened. I noticed with the start of the Obama administration that the Islamists were now aligning with the Democratic Party, and they were entering into this unholy alliance of values. They actually do not believe in ideas like my body, my choice. They do not actually believe in equal rights or the kind of LGBTQ rights that the Democratic Party was embracing.
I saw that build up. I saw money start flowing into the Muslim organizations from traditionally liberal philanthropists. I wondered how they could justify it. I realized they were using race. What the Islamists had started to do was take this really complicated legal theory of critical race theory and declare that Muslims were a race, and you were being racist if you dared to criticize extremism within the faith.
What they developed for themselves in the war of ideas was a shield. That kept developing through both the Obama administrations. When the 2016 election was happening, that alliance first tried to defeat Donald Trump as president. When he won, on the night of the election, I saw the battle cry go out from the Islamist organizations for literally an overthrow of the government.
They were chanting the same chant that they had been chanting in Tahrir Square in Egypt to overthrow the Mubarak regime and bring in the Muslim Brotherhood. Concurrently, most people know that the Democrat groups and the far Left in the United States were rallying against Donald Trump. An activist named Linda Sarsour in Brooklyn put out the battle cry from the East coast, and rallied people to the streets of New York to join the resistance. That’s when “The Resistance,” was coined.
Donald Trump isn’t even in office yet. He has simply been elected, but now the woke army has been galvanized to go into the streets. We all know what happened in the weeks and months that followed. Linda Sarsour became a leader of this new movement called the Women’s March. It wasn’t just a march for women, it was a march for women opposed to Donald Trump.
Who were they starting to exclude? They wanted to exclude Jewish feminist women from Israel. In this woke armies’ new order, there was a hierarchy of human value, and in their universe of intersectionality—the new term that they were introducing to the political landscape—Israeli feminists were at the bottom. Because to women like Linda Sarsour from the Muslim establishment, they were the colonizers, and they were the white supremacists.
Jan, it was just so obvious to me that this new network was now going to work to not only undermine Donald Trump, but also the freedoms that we know in the United States. Because they were now aligned with people with very illiberal ideas, with a vision for the world that is not one of equality and human rights. That’s when I really became aware of the threat that we were facing as a nation.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the vision of the woke army?
Ms. Nomani: The common vision as I can now see it unfolding on the political landscape and in our K-12 schools is multifold. There is this real hope to bring the sectarianism that divides a nation to our country. We can see it happening everywhere now. We see it from the workplace to K-12 schools. We see segregation and separation of people based on identity. It’s so disheartening for me to see this, as a young girl who grew up in the United States where we had defeated those ideas. They want a dumbing down of the United States of America.
That is why they came after my son’s school, where they were coming against the idea of meritocracy, including merit-based education and admission. We have seen that whittling away in our system with the absence now of advanced placement classes and honors classes. There’s a new concept called equitable grading, which is getting rid of Ds and Fs, because it makes kids feel bad.
There are concepts like equal outcomes for every child. They are bringing into their universe a dumbing down of the United States. Finally, the thing that I want to really emphasize is with my friend Danny, they slayed him. They took his body from this earth. What we also have to take seriously is the slaying of people’s spirits, and the demoralizing of human beings to the point that it is spiritual death. I don’t say that lightly at all.
So many people feel helpless and hopeless against this woke army. They are living in fear of being canceled for what they say. They work in jobs where they sought to accomplish, and where they spent their entire lifetimes. Now, they live in almost intellectual prisons and spiritual prisons, because they are not self-expressing.
I know what it can mean to the soul to live in shame. In those months after my friend Danny’s murder, as I lived with this reality of that murder and the prospect of bringing my son into the world as a single mother, I knew shame. I know how much of a dark shadow it can cast on our lives. It can plunge a person into depression and anxiety, and these are crises that we’re facing in the United States. It is a war on the spirit of America and Americans. I don’t want to see that happen to a single child, let alone a human being.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to clarify one thing. Initially, when you were talking about the people that killed Danny, you were talking about Islamic terrorists. Then, you’re talking about the woke army in general, but it’s a leap to go from one to the other. People may say, “Asra, you’re conflating two very different things here. These people, maybe they’re misguided, but they’re going for social justice.” But on the other hand, you have these violent extremists who decapitate people.
Ms. Nomani: A lot of people have seen the ways that totalitarian regimes and tyranny ultimately do lay claim to people’s lives. We have the testimony of the parents from China who fled the Cultural Revolution as children. At that time, it started as ideas and then children had to turn their parents in. Parents were also cast as the enemy of the state. Lives were lost. We can see on the streets of our cities that people think they can lay siege on other human beings, sometimes because of their identity.
That kind of racial injustice was one that I thought we had rejected as a society. I thought we were all connected by the idea that nobody could be targeted because of their identity. But now, we see targeted assaults on Asian families and on immigrants, not by the far-Right, now as it’s so often cast, but by activists of the woke army. I’m so impassioned about it, because I do know that violence happens only after you have embedded really divisive ideas in a society that pit people against each other.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you have a chapter in your book about character assassination? This is something that you yourself experienced. You went on this journey with the help of a lawsuit to try to figure out who was behind this. Those are two things I want to explore.
Ms. Nomani: I had been a young student of the art of propaganda as a master student at American University. I had actually studied it from a professor who had come to the United States from Iran who had witnessed the Iranian revolution. It was a propaganda that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and brought this Islamist interpretation of Islam to power. I knew how propaganda can be used in the war of ideas, and then also be weaponized to slay enemies of the ideas that these character assassins are promoting in the world.
The first witness that I had of that was my friend Danny Pearl. Before Danny’s killers slayed him, they waged a character assassination campaign on him; first as an American, then as a Jew, and then as a son of Israel. That was used to discredit him as a human being and to dehumanize Danny.
When I came back to the United States, I started challenging the interpretation of Islam that was used to dehumanize Danny. What did my enemies do? They started their campaign to dehumanize me, and they assigned all sorts of ulterior motives to my campaign. They turned the word Zionist into a slur and used that to discredit me.
I knew that character assassination has been used since the beginning of time against any political enemy to try to eliminate them. But the internet had allowed these assassins to be anonymous, just like you said. They wore masks and I didn’t know who they were. In the summer of 2017, I learned that there had been an article published about me on an anonymous website called Loonwatch.com. It had been created literally on April Fool’s day 2009 to smoke out the so-called loons, who they called Islamophobic.
Who was in that category? None other than me. I, as a Muslim feminist, was declared Islamophobic, because I dared to challenge the sexism within my faith and the intolerance. Their new allegation was that Muslim reformers are funded by the government of Israel. That was enough for them to try to eliminate us as credible voices in our community.
In the larger narrative in the United States, I was going from a glamor hero to zero. I wondered, “Okay, what is this? Who are they?” I learned that in the U.S. you can file a John Doe complaint. It’s a complaint of defamation that I was alleging against these anonymous character assassins.
Mr. Jekielek: The defamation, to be clear, is that you’re funded by Israel.
Ms. Nomani: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a falsehood, as I understand it.
Ms. Nomani: Yes, exactly. I’m an open book. I was ready to have them go through my bank accounts. I feared nothing in terms of disclosure. So, there I was. Here at my dining table, the same one where I taught my son math and reading and writing, I filed subpoena after subpoena against the platforms that are called internet service providers that gave voice to these people. Who are they? Folks like Facebook, Twitter, and places where they could have their anonymous identities.
There was one platform that a lot of people might have heard of called GoDaddy, where you can register a website. They had registered Loonwatch.com at GoDaddy. I sent off my little subpoena. The anonymous accounts have a certain number of days where they can fight your subpoena. They didn’t fight it. One day, Jan, I got a thumb drive. In that thumb drive was all of the backend documentation for the people who held that account at Loonwatch.
It was every phone call they had made to the customer service office. It was every complaint that they had filed. I went through the hundreds of pages, and in the U.S. you got to pay with a credit card when you sign onto these subscriptions. There, I found that this character assassination campaign had been led, funded, and run by an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR], an organization that touts itself as a civil rights organization for Muslims.
But what they had been doing for years, and what they continue to do, because Loonwatch continues to stay alive as a website, is run this domestic disinformation and character assassination campaign, not only against Muslim reformers, but also ex-Muslims, conservatives, the Republican Party, nations like Israel, India, and anybody who dares to challenge their Islamist interpretation of the Muslim faith.
Speaker 3: We reached out to the Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, but did not immediately receive a response.
Ms. Nomani: That was a really liberating day. You might wonder why should I bother? Why did I spend this time? Character assassination is a weapon of war. It was really important for me to understand who the combatants were in this situation. It led me to half of the woke army, because CAIR had now embedded itself in the Democratic Party, and in the far-Left and progressive organizations of the United States. They were now laying siege on America.
I put them in my book and I documented them, because I want people to read the book and see the blueprint for how the woke army works in the United States. I want to save readers the suffering that I’ve experienced in order to learn these lessons. I also want folks to understand this tactic of character assassination is so often used to make you lose your own confidence about your value system, and to make you wonder and doubt yourself.<