Free Speech and Islam  — The Left Betrays the Most Vulnerable
Photo: Maajid Nawaz, TEDxBrighton

Free Speech and Islam — The Left Betrays the Most Vulnerable

Jeffrey Tayler
Jeffrey Tayler
8 min read

When surveying the ill-informed, shoddy work that at times passes as in-depth journalism regarding Islam these days, a rationalist may well be tempted to slip into a secular simulacrum of John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.  In reputable press outlets, articles regularly appear in which the author proceeds from an erroneous premise through a fallacious argument to a fatuous conclusion.  Compound all this — especially in the main case I’m about to discuss, that of the British former Islamist turned reformer, Maajid Nawaz — with the apparent intent to defame or cast aspersions, and you get worthless artifacts of journalistic malfeasance that should be dismissed out of hand, but that, given the seriousness of the subject, nevertheless merit attention.

For starters, a few words about premises and some necessary background.  Those who deploy the “stupid term” (see Christopher Hitchens) “Islamophobia” to silence critics of the faith hold, in essence, that Muslims deserve to be approached as a race apart, and not as equals, not as individual adults capable of rational choice, but as lifelong members of an immutable, sacrosanct community, whose (often highly illiberal) views must not be questioned, whose traditions (including the veiling of women) must not be challenged, whose scripturally inspired violence must be explained away as the inevitable outcome of Western interventionism in the Middle East or racism and “marginalization” in Western countries.

Fail to exhibit due respect for Islam — not Muslims as people, Islam — and you risk being excoriated, by certain progressives, as an “Islamophobe,” as a fomenter of hatred for an underprivileged minority, as an abettor of Donald Trump and his bigoted policy proposals, and, most illogically, as a racist.

Islam, however, is not a race, but a religion — that is, a man-made ideological construct of assertions (deriving authority not from evidence, but from “revelation,” just as Christianity and Judaism do) about the origins and future of the cosmos and mankind, accompanied by instructions to mankind about how to behave.  Those who believe in Islam today may — and some do — reject it tomorrow.  (Atheism has, in fact, been spreading in the Muslim world.)

Calling the noun Islamophobia “sinister,” Ali A. Rizvi, a Canadian Pakistani-born physician and prominent figure among former Muslims in North America, told me via Skype recently that the word “actually takes the pain of genuine victims of anti-Muslim bigotry and uses that pain, it exploits it for the political purpose of stifling criticism of Islam.”  In fact, denying Islam’s role in, for instance, misogynist violence in the Muslim world, said Rizvi, is itself racist and “incredibly bigoted, because you’re saying that it’s not these ideas and beliefs and this indoctrination [in Islam] that cause” the “disproportionately high numbers of violent, misogynistic people in Muslim majority countries, it’s just in their DNA.”

Also, remember that Islam claims jurisdiction not just over its followers, but over us all, with a message directed to humanity as a whole.  Which means Islam should be susceptible to critique by all.  People, whatever their faith (or lack thereof) deserve respect; their ideologies?  Not necessarily.  In fact, the cornerstone of any free society is freedom of expression – a freedom impeded by labeling as “phobic” those who would object to an ideology.

The misguided progressives who denounce “Islamophobia” and turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of, say, women, gays, and adherents of other religions in Muslim communities or in Islamic countries constitute what Maajid Nawaz has dubbed the “regressive left.”  Regressive leftists are not genuine progressives at all, of course, but deeply confused de facto apologists for the most illiberal notion conceivable: namely, that one group of humans has, on account of its religion, an inalienable right to dominate and abuse other humans — and to do so unmolested by criticism.

No better evidence of this strain of illogical, muddled intolerance of free expression exists than the suspicion and ire regressive leftists reserve for former Muslims and Muslim reformers working to modernize their religion.  In her moving, 2015 must-watch address, Sarah Haider, who is of Pakistani origin, recounts being called everything from Jim Crow to House Arab to native informant by American liberals for having abandoned Islam — by, that is, the very folk who should support women, regardless of their skin color, in their struggle for equality and freedom from sexist violence and chauvinism.

The brave, Somali-born ex-Muslim (and advocate of reforming Islam) Ayaan Hirsi Ali has received even harsher treatment, and to this day, for her outspokenness about her former faith and for making a film in 2004 portraying misogyny in Islamic societies, has to live under armed protection.  (The director, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated that year by an Islamist on the streets of Amsterdam.)  There are many other examples, but the point is this: those who criticize or abandon Islam may well be taking their life into their hands.  Quisling regressive leftists add insult to the injury (or worse) suffered by these people, who, by any progressive standards, should be celebrated.

The latest cases of regressive leftist skullduggery target Maajid Nawaz himself.  With the neuroscientist and groundbreaking “New Atheist” Sam Harris, Nawaz (who, again, is Muslim) recently co-authored Islam and the Future of Tolerance — a book of dialogues between the two men covering the prospects for reforming the faith that is the leading cause of terrorism the world over.  For engaging in this much-needed conversation — probably the most-needed conversation imaginable these days — Nawaz has suffered a hail of abuse from regressive leftists.

“Well-coiffed talking monkey,” “porch monkey,” “House Negro” and “House Muslim” are just some of the insults he has had hurled at him.  He also finds himself the object of an insidious attempt at discreditation — an essay in The New Republic entitled “What Does Maajid Nawaz Really Believe?” written by Nathan Lean.

Lean’s screed is wordy and rambling, and leaves the gullible among its readers bewildered, thrashing about in thickets of innuendo, and inclined to conclude Nawaz is a disreputable character, if not demonstrably guilty of anything outright reprehensible.  The bio note at the foot of the page describes Lean as the author of a book about Islamophobia (so, yes, the spirit of Hitchens’ “stupid term” will permeate his piece), but it makes no mention of his employment at the Saudi-funded Prince Alaweed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, where he directs research at the “Pluralism, Diversity and” — yes — “Islamophobia project.”  This is something readers should at least be aware of.

Anyway, so, according to Lean, what does Maajid Nawaz really believe?  Lean cannot tell us, since he nowhere offers Nawaz’s own words on the subject, which are a matter of public record and are (for example) available here.  Nawaz “didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment” — which is understandable, given Lean’s long record of issuing “Islamophobia” alerts.  Nawaz has stated that, “There is no such thing as ‘Islamophobia.’  No idea should be immune from scrutiny.”  Coming from a Muslim who slogged through five years in an Egyptian prison for Islamism (specifically, for association with the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir organization), such a declaration carries weight.

Lacking any correspondence with Nawaz himself, Lean relies on interviews with those (including Islamists) who at least at one time knew Nawaz.  But even before he gets to them, Lean, in the very first graph, presents Nawaz as a turncoat dandy, as “ambling” about an Oxford debating hall “sporting a slick black tuxedo and a gelled coiffure,” urging his audience to “accept the motion that the American Dream is a noble ethos to which all people should aspire.”  Hardly what one should expect, as Lean has it, from a “self-described former ‘radical.’”

We then learn that Nawaz has been “ingratiating himself in [sic] the growing union of neoconservatives and hawkish liberals who believe in Western exceptionalism and the efficacy of power, especially military power, to expand its influence and protect its interests” against the “alleged threat” posed by Islamism.  (Alleged?)

Nawaz, Lean reports, has been all over the airwaves hyping this “alleged threat,” even “stroll[ing] through the streets of the French capital with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, explaining the need to confront the religious species in the genus terrorism,” and worse — horribile dictu! – even speaking to Fox News about it.  Furthermore, Nawaz has been “jet-setting” about, “mingling with thought leaders and politicians who believe that his journey from fundamentalism to freedom gives him the authority to opine on a broad range of topics related to religion and violence.”

Lean sarcastically refers to Nawaz’s renunciation of radicalism — again, arrived at after years in an Egyptian prison — as coming via a “Damascene conversion,” and then tells us that those in the know around Nawaz find his “dramatic tale of redemption isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”  A man identified only as “a friend from Nawaz’s college days” believes him to be “neither an Islamist nor a liberal . . . .  Maajid is whatever he thinks he needs to be.”  A current affiliate of Hizb ut-Tahrir and former cell-mate “remembers Nawaz as a guy who wasn’t particularly religious, but [who] labored to appear committed to Islamism in an effort to win popularity and promotion.”

Ponder the last statement.  Given the attendant risks, why would anyone just pretend to be a radical Islamist, and not only join Hizb ut-Tahrir, but strive to attain “popularity and promotion” within it?

Lean spills much more ink trying to convince us that Nawaz may not have really been an Islamist, but only posed as one, and may not have renounced the Islamism in which he may never have actually believed because he actually turned against it.  (You should be confused after reading that.)  What could have motivated Nawaz to give up those Islamist views he possibly never held?  “State dough,” and oodles of it, doled out to the Quilliam Foundation (a think tank Nawaz established in London to counter Islamist extremism).  “Last year,” writes Lean, “Nawaz drew a salary of more than $140,000.”  But how on Earth can receiving remuneration for working to end Islamist violence be held against Nawaz — or anyone else?

Two thousand words into his piece, Lean declares his failure to reach a conclusion about Nawaz’s probity, which he appears to have been impugning throughout: “Whether a genuine conversion or an opportunistic about-face, it’s impossible to know with certainty what compelled Nawaz to leave Hizb ut-Tahrir and espouse his current agenda.”  (His “agenda?”  Again, countering Islamist extremism.)  Not having decided what Nawaz really believes doesn’t stop Lean from backhandedly maligning him with a characterization he attributes to his onetime Islamist buddies.  They “see him as an Islamic Judas Iscariot, a Muslim who turned his back on his fellow believers when state coffers flung open.”

Lean plods on for another thousand words, but I’ll spare you further exegesis, with one exception.  Nawaz’s collaboration with Sam Harris “who . . . has advocated racial profiling and torture,” (false: see here and here, in addition to here), Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher (whom Lean accuses of spreading “extreme ideas” — false again, but decide for yourself), as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali only serves to confirm his disreputableness.  (If in fact Nawaz is disreputable.  Remember, Lean cannot say for sure.)  Their shared “extreme idea:” pointing out that something in Islam needs to change – a statement with which no unbiased follower of world affairs would argue.

Enough with Lean’s piece.  The larger issue is not only that reform-minded Muslims and ex-Muslims face danger from repressive Islamic regimes (in, for instance, Saudi Arabia, where atheism is legally equated with terrorism, or in Bangladesh, where secular bloggers are routinely hacked to death by Islamists), they suffer slings and arrows of disdain from those witless progressives who decry “Islamophobes,” “porch monkeys,” “House Arabs,” and so on.  Their much-suppressed voices of reason are, though, beginning to find an audience.  Check out this fine essay by Zubin Madon, which contains the following quote from the Pakistani-Canadian blogger Eiynah about the plight of former Muslims:

We are cast out of conversations about our own communities and lives, we are refused platforms in mainstream media to avoid offending Muslim sentiments, and more recently we are viciously targeted on social media.

This is disgraceful treatment from progressives, who should be standing shoulder to shoulder with these courageous souls endeavoring, often at great risk, to live free and dignified lives without religion.  They, and all Muslims working to end Islamist violence (including, of course, Maajid Nawaz), deserve our full-throated support.

Again, people deserve respect, but ideologies, however cherished, must be examined, discussed, and assessed rationally.  Those ideologies found wanting must be discarded.  This is already happening, at least in more enlightened parts of the world.  Religion is already on track to go extinct in nine of the most developed, peaceable countries.  Nonbelievers are rapidly increasing in number in the United States.

We need to dump the concept of “Islamophobia” in the waste bin of history (and drop our reluctance to criticize other religions, too), return to Enlightenment principles (which include unfettered speech about religion), and start working for the common good, free from superstition and metaphysical dogma.

The best way to begin would be to cease disparaging and defaming former Muslims and Muslim reformers and extend them a wholehearted welcome to the progressive community.

Now that would be progress.

See also: Free Speech and Islam — In Defense of Sam Harris

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Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1.