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We Were Taught to Hate Jews


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The Free Press

‘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.

Madeleine Rowley

December 16, 2023

he 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.



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“Anti-Israel propaganda is a constant.”

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

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. 

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