Alienating good people

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“No battle for equality has ever been won by alienating good people.”

-Stephen Knight on his Godless Spellchecker blog

In the blog post linked above, Stephen Knight details a Twitter exchange with Mona Eltahawy, a feminist activist and writer working primarily on Arab/Muslim issues.  In their exchange, Mona asserts that women should be the ones leading the fight for women’s rights.  She further suggests that men should “[…] shut up and listen to women about women’s rights.  Women lead feminism. Not men.”

I find this argument problematic.  Full disclosure:  I’m a white male, so if you’re the sort who thinks my race or genitalia automatically disqualifies me from having a worthwhile opinion on women’s issues then you can save yourself some time and browse elsewhere.  (I highly recommend Sarah Haider’s presentation on Islam and the Necessity of a Liberal Critique at the American Humanist Association last year.)

Still here?

Ok.  Now I’ll certainly admit that Twitter, with its 140 character length limit, is hardly the place to have careful reasoned discussions about complex topics.  And were I a part of this discussion, I would have done my best to charitably interpret Mona’s comment.  Perhaps she wasn’t intending to completely discount male contributions to feminism?  Perhaps she really meant to just say that men should simply do more listening?  If so, I think she’d be right.  Far too many dudes go about their lives far too ignorant of what it’s like to live as a woman in their culture.  We do need to listen more.

Unfortunately, when questioned by multiple folks, Ms. Eltahawy doubled down and resorted to criticizing the identity and motives of those questioning her argument.  She even went so far as to very negatively generalize and disassociate herself from ex-Muslims, suggesting that too many of them have allied with “right wing, racist shits.”

This is really a case study in how not to defend your position.  Recognizing and avoiding these kinds of abusive or “guilt by association” ad hominem arguments is one of the first things you learn in any introductory philosophy or rhetoric course.  And if you’re still reading, it seems safe to assume that you see the problem with arguing that the value of a person’s ideas or contribution is determined by their genitals, race, religion, hair color, favorite food, etc…  (We have a word for that kind of thinking)

Typically, I only see this kind of logical fallacy employed when someone is embarrassed at the lack of reasons available to support their argument and wants to try to save face.  That seems very likely to be the case here for Ms. Eltahawy, though I’ll add the caveat that I’m no mind reader.

But what’s most frustrating in all this is that Mona Eltahawy, Stephen Knight, and Ex-Muslims in general are natural allies on a host of issues, not the least of which are gender equality, religious freedom, and the right to live without someone else’s religious beliefs being imposed upon you.  They certainly don’t agree on everything (who does?), but it seems an utter waste of pooled resources to alienate someone like Stephen or all Ex-Muslims just to save face.  Liberals can, and should, do better than this.

 

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The Regressive Left and its Opposition to Muslim Reform

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Arshia Malik, blogging for the Times of India, recently wrote a piece  titled “The Battle with the Regressives.”  In it, she castigates a section of the western political left* for prioritizing the opinions and concerns of Islamists over their victims.  She calls this section of the western political left the “Regressive Left,” a term seeing increasing use since being popularized by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz.

As she and many others have suggested elsewhere, the Regressive Left is characterized by its criticism of those who argue in favor of reform for Islamic theology and culture in favor of secular human rights.  The Regressives do this while simultaneously ignoring Islamists who are actively working to impose their theology upon societies all over the world.  Instead of focusing their energies on people who support laws that criminalize blasphemy, mandate death for apostasy or amputation of the hand for theft, allow child marriage, protect practitioners of female genital mutilation, and various other extremely harmful policies; Regressives act as though the best use of their time is to focus on the people who oppose these policies.

Recent examples include:

  • Goldsmiths University’s LGBT society aligned itself with Goldsmith’s Islamic Society after its male members heckled and attempted to bully Maryam Namazie, a female ex-Muslim reformer who had been invited there to speak.
  • Nathan Lean, Research Director at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding**, wrote an article highly critical of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani.  When publically challenged by Nomani to explain why he uses abusive language towards Muslim reformers, Lean refused to answer.
  • Nathan Lean later wrote another hit piece against Maajid Nawaz in the New Republic.  His primary interview sources in the article: members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group that Nawaz left during his de-radicalization process.  (Because people who want to impose their religion upon everyone else are reliably objective sources, right? )
    • Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal – yes that Max Blumenthal – wrote a similar hit piece in AlterNet.

An uncharitable reading of these pieces suggests a willingness to support religious fascists and bullies over those pushing for universal human rights.  Nathan Lean, a non-Muslim, even argues in his article criticizing Hirsi Ali and Nomani that Nomani’s work to increase gender equity in Mosques might be imposing equality upon those women who prefer a more traditional (read: gender apartheid) worship service.  To me, this sounds like someone who believes that universal human rights aren’t really universal – that cultural norms should be prioritized over human rights.  This is an extremely slippery slope that leads very quickly to excusing all kinds of abuses in the name of “culture.”  About to be forced to have your genitals mutilated?  That’s a shame little missy, but we wouldn’t want to impose our imperialist western “human rights” on you.  Had acid thrown in your face for being disinterested in some jerk who thought he deserved you as his wife?  Well, Miss, we can’t really speak out against the perpetrators because some women you grew up near speak well of honor cultures.  You’re a child forced to marry someone much older than you?  Sorry, ma’am, but that’s just how things are done in your country.  It would be awfully indecent to speak out against your culture’s norms.

On the other hand, a charitable reading of these examples might suggest that these Leftists are so concerned with combatting anti-Muslim bigotry that they have drawn the line at anyone who says something that might be used as ammunition by right wing racists and bigots.  But even with this charitable reading, the effect seems rather chilling when it comes to honest discussion.

If we pursued the same policy in other areas, we’d soon be condemning nearly every piece of literature or spoken word the world over.  It is trivially easy to derive violent theologies from the Bible, Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita.  Likewise, history shows that it takes very little mental effort to derive anti-human philosophies from the writings of Marx (e.g. Soviet Communism) or Nietzsche (e.g. Hitler’s Aryan superiority).  Each of these works contain material that can be used as ammunition (or even further inspire) bigotry when read in certain ways or within certain cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly question the writers of these works.  But we can do so with members of the current Muslim reform movement.  And they are not hiding their motives or their purpose.  Useful resources include:

*Full disclosure: I consider myself a leftist in most areas.

**That’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Tala of Saudi Arabia – the foremost exporter of Salafi (read: extreme Sunni fundamentalist) theology to the world.  Which means that Mr. Lean’s funding is coming from someone invested in promoting an ideology directly opposed to the Muslim reform movement.

The Muslim Reformation and Obama’s Realism

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I’ve long considered religious faith, when understood as a method of coming to conclusions about reality, to be among the worst problems plaguing humanity.  I’ll expand upon my reasons for that in a future post, but suffice to say I’ve long been motivated to help people reason their own way to this conclusion as well.  I think the world would be a significantly more prosperous, egalitarian, and peaceful place were this to happen.  But recently I’ve begun to think that helping people to move away from religious faith, while still admirable, isn’t alone necessarily the best and only path available to us.

Last year I read the excellent Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz.  In it, Nawaz points out how tremendously unrealistic it is to think that the solution to Islamist extremism is to de-convert the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.  And he’s got a point.  Cultural change takes time, especially when the beliefs needing revision are strongly held.  As much as I’d like to say that the solution to Islamist extremism is to engage people in dialogue and help them work through the problems that accompany their religious faith (see Street Epistemology), a broader multi-pronged approach seems more likely to be effective/practical at this point.

As a result, I’ve come to agree with people like Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani,  and Maryam Namazie who favor an Islamic Reformation.  And I’m not the only one.  Well known atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others have shifted their efforts to more unambiguously support Islamic reformers.  (Nawaz’s well-articulated distinctions between Muslims and Islamists appear to have been extremely helpful in this regard.)

Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic presents President Obama as coming to very similar conclusions – albeit from the opposite direction.  From the beginning of his presidency, Obama has echoed the patently absurd notion that Islamist extremism has nothing to do with Islam.  This, despite the never ending stream of specifically Islamic theological justifications that Islamist extremists offer us through their propaganda on a daily basis.  Or the violence that makes absolutely no sense in the absence of Islamic theology (Throwing gay people from rooftops, the recent attacks on Christians in Lahore, Pakistan during Easter celebrations, or the murder of Asad Shah).

Obama’s concern about naming Islamism as an underlying causal problem appears to be that it could enflame the xenophobic bigotry of the political right in the U.S., further stigmatizing non-violent Muslims and putting them at greater risk of violence.  And that’s certainly a concern I share.  But I agree with Nawaz that failing to be straightforward about the situation at hand only feeds a narrative that Obama – and liberally minded folks in general – doesn’t understand what’s really going on.  And this comes across as classic denialism.  As a result, the only people willing to loudly talk about the problem of Islamism are the xenophobic bigots.  And so, we liberals have ended up ceding the discussion to some of those least capable of constructively addressing the issue.

I am pleased to see that, privately, Obama appears to recognize Islamism as a significant underlying problem.  I’m not convinced that he’ll be publically forthcoming about that during the rest of his term.  Nor am I convinced that either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will publically recognize it if either of the two of them are elected.  But perhaps they might find other, less publicized, ways of supporting a reformation in Islamic theology?  Perhaps they might nudge the prodigious power of the US media voice to support reformers?  Perhaps they might find ways to fund organizations seeking to confront Islamism’s theology, or assist refugee Muslims with assimilating into their newfound cultures?  I’d prefer that this be more broadly coupled with a publically stated opposition to Islamist theology.  But it would be better than the head-in-the-sand denialism of the “nothing to do with Islam” canard with which we’ve so far been inundated.