Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My Correspondence with CJ Werleman Pt. 1


Often, I find CJ's views hard to believe. I find myself scratching my head, wondering whether he really believes this stuff himself or not. I've heard him speak to other evil 'New Atheists' like me, and in direct conversation he sounds a bit more reasonable, perhaps...something, somewhere along the line is being miscommunicated or misunderstood? Surely he can't *seriously* believe "atheists" are a threat in any way comparable to the religious fundamentalists of various times....

And to be honest, I'm kind of sick of the highschool atmosphere on twitter where everyone calls each other names, and nothing much is accomplished except for more tribalism. So I decided, to ask him directly in hopes that civil conversation would somewhat make him understand the plight of ex-muslims, oppressed by the ideology he so loves to defend.

And the thing is, I've seen the crazy atheists he speaks of, they attack me on twitter every day, because I won't agree with them that Muslims are inherently an inferior, savage people that need to either be wiped out or mass-deported back to Islamistan. These people are lunatics and not the least bit rational, and responsible for marginalizing already marginalized liberal Muslims. But how many of these crazy non believers exist in the world? On mine, Maryam Namazie's, CEMB forum's or Maajid Nawaz's twitter feed, it'd seem like a fuckload. Because we do spend half our time battling these intolerant irrational 'atheists'. But in the real world, who are we kidding, what is the percentage of atheist lunatics vs. theist lunatics. However, despite our battling bigoted atheists we are still put into the 'House Arab' or 'New Atheist threat' camp by CJ - this just doesn't seem remotely rational. So instead of finger-point, or accuse, or insult...I wanted to actually try and understand his veiws on this. I disagree with him vehemently, and think he's missing the mark here. If he pointed out these crazy Jihadist Joe type far right atheist bigots I'd be on board, but he points to those discussing ideas. It boggles the mind.

Anyhoo, credit where it's due. Good on him for welcoming civil discussion and for answering some of my questions. He was always nice and respectful to me during our email exchange. Though just when we were getting to the good stuff he did have to stop our conversation. Its a long shot, but I hope that this discussion and having someone take a step toward him may lead him to think twice before casually using slurs like 'house Arab' again, against people who are genuinely challenging the extremism their own community is engulfed by.

Below is our first exchange. Do let me know what you think in the comments, please try to keep it nice and respectful.

Part 2 coming soon.

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Hello CJ,

We spoke on twitter briefly on Friday, and I said I'd email. Thanks for agreeing to have a chat. Firstly, let me introduce myself, I'm Eiynah (a pseudonym - for safety reasons) - I'm a Pakistani-Canadian blogger illustrator and author of children's books. You may have heard of my letter to Ben Affleck: http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2014/10/25/comment/an-open-letter-to-ben-affleck/

So I guess you can tell that our views on religion, especially Islam differ greatly. As an Ex Muslim Atheist I feel very strongly about 'disempowering' the religion I grew up in. I was raised in Saudi Arabia, and spent some years in Pakistan as well.

I hope you will agree that Christianity is at a much better place now that it's had it's wings clipped and holds less power over people, than it was back in the time of witch burnings. I only want the same kind of liberation and progress for my community.
While I am a very vocal critic of Islam, I am also a very vocal critic of anti-muslim bigotry. A position that leaves me with few allies. As someone who agrees with a lot of (not all) the critique of Harris, Dawkins, Ayaan, etc ... I am what I guess you'd call a 'New Atheist', I'm not a fan of the term to be honest. And I feel it unjustly generalizes all vocal atheists as coming from a place of bigotry. I am as opposed to that generalization as I would be to generalizing all Muslims as extremists.

I don't disagree that there are bigots who hitch their wagons to vocal critics of Islam, it's happened to me a few times where my voice has been hijacked by someone who doesn't come from a place of compassion. My letter to Ben was published in "Jihadwatch" without my permission, and it made me cringe to see that. But, this does not (and should not) stop me from voicing my strong opinions against ideas that have been used to oppress me and people like me. I do my best to weed out the actual bigots who tag along, by calling them out, by sharing my views on anti muslim bigotry often. As a result I get called an 'islam apologist' and an 'islamophobe' for the very same piece of writing. In the same way my vocal criticism of dubious atheists who come from a place of bigotry can be used against me, to fuel anti-atheist bigotry. Which is also a very real problem.

I wrote an anti-homophobia children's book last year set in Pakistan, promoting love and diversity for all. And I received death threats for it, I was called an anti muslim bigot and an 'enemy of god' for it, it was unbelievable considering it didn't mention religion, and only spoke about equality and love. You can see it here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/imaansheikh/pakistans-first-childrens-book-on-lgbtq

So if even such a gentle nudge towards 21st century values, and towards equality will result in me receiving threats from people of my country, my religion of birth... I ask you... how am I supposed to counter this kind of attitude without being a combative, vocal atheist? I have had a lifetime of staying silent, while people tried to impose their religiosity on me. Not everyone's opposition to Islam comes from bad intent or 'colonial narrative', people like myself should surely be testament to that? Bad, harmful ideas must be discredited imo. It is that distinction between critiquing ideas and generalizing people that not everyone gets.

My biggest issue with your stance is the fact that it seems you delegitimize even voices within our community who speak against Islam (not against Muslims) , and I consider ex-muslims part of the muslim community. You've said things like we are being 'co-opted by those who peddle pro-colonialist narrative', you use terms like native informant or 'paid brown face'. I would genuinely like to understand how, if you are anti racism you think its ok to use something like 'paid brown face'? Why is it ok to remove our agency, and assume we cannot think for ourselves? I assure you I'm just as combative with anyone peddling any sort of supremacy. Be it religious supremacy, racial supremacy or colonial supremacy...all are offensive to me. And I feel that not allowing us agency to speak against our own oppression, a freedom afforded to western liberals all the time (criticism of christianity is perfectly acceptable) is a type of colonial narrative in itself. Can you see how it might be perceived that way?

My other issue with your stance is that I feel you often misrepresent the views of those who oppose you. If I am mistaken, then please do clarify. I will agree with you that there is a toxic group in atheism that comes from a place that is irrational and bigoted, it's a small group from what I can tell, it would be ludicrous to compare it to the large group of islamists that exists in any way whatsoever...but it needs to be exposed and we all need to make an effort to weed these people out. However, I think you are pointing at the wrong people. I'll be happy to share some examples of this type of atheist, and how i think they are easy to recognize and distinguish from legitimate critics of Islam, if you are interested in hearing my perspective.

My intention is not to argue, but to have a (hopefully) productive discussion - where we can begin to understand each other's perspective's better. I don't know how you'd like to do it, or if you'd like to continue at all...but if you would...maybe we could email back and forth, and I can share our correspondence on my blog (with your permission) ? I thought it was great that you agreed to go on Lalo's podcast and debate him. It's always nice to hear civil conversation between people who hold opposing views.

-Eiynah

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Dear Eiynah,

Thanks so much for your email, and your invitation to engage in a civil dialogue.
You touch on a number of issues, of which would be impossible for me to address each of them in a single email reply, so I'll do my best to articulate from where I am coming from on the whole atheism v New Atheism thingy - in hope we can move forward constructively from there.

Firstly, it's important to define what and who the New Atheists are. In my book, The New Atheist Threat, I define New Atheists as those who align themselves with the anti-theistic views expressed by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Ayaan.

My overarching criticism of New Atheists is they miss the forrest for the trees. They believe religion is 'the' problem - when, in fact, extremism is the problem. For example, they don't say, "Radical Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today." Instead, they say, "Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today." (Dawkins). They don't say, "Radical Islam is a nihilistic cult of death." They say, "Islam is a nihilistic cult of death." (Ayaan.) They don't say, "Radical Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." They say, "Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." (Harris)

Violent extremism takes all kinds of forms, both religious and secular. New Atheists miss this. They miss this because their anti-theistic worldview blinds them to this reality. To admit extremism is the problem runs counter to their utopian mission of cleansing the world of religion.

Moreover, their hatred of Islam whole, rather than extremist Islam, prevents them from establishing bridges with genuine moderate reformers of Islam. Their hatred of religion also prevents them from establishing bridges with all kinds of pro-secular religious groups. Thus when New Atheists "build" bridges with Muslims, or ex-Muslims, it is to those who are tied to either the Islamophobic network, or the neo-con think tank industry. For example, Ayaan is paid by both the American Enterprise Institute, and ACT4America. Maajid has received funding from both the US & UK government for supporting counter-terrorism programs that are dependent on the surveillance of Muslim communities.

There are literally tens of thousands of pro-liberal, pro-reform Muslim activists, who have an actual Muslim audience, but these reformers are routinely ignored by New Atheists because it's not reform that New Atheists actually want. What they want is Islam gone. By any means necessary, including "militarily." (Ayaan)

Insofar as criticism of Islam is concerned, I am all for criticism of religion. I am all for criticism of anything, so long it's done in an intellectually robust and constructive manner. On this score, New Atheists fall short.

None of the New Atheists are religious scholars; none have studied Islam in an academic sense; none are experts in anthropology, geopolitics, and history. None can read or speak Arabic. None are at all familiar with the Middle East or Central Asia. Their lack of expertise in these areas reduces their criticisms of Islam to slogans, cliches, generalizations, and yes, bigotry. Their ignorance is trumpeted loudly in each of their respective books. (and I include my earlier books). They provide superficial interpretations of Islamic scripture rather than contextualized criticism.

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune is an example of the kind of genuine intellectual criticism of Islam I'm talking about. Note again the sub-title: fight against Muslim Fundamentalism.

Her book outlines dozens of stories of those who have risked their lives battling Islamic extremism, but she is clear throughout that extremism is the problem, not Islam. You see, once you acknowledge the problem is extremism and not religion itself, you can then identify what socio-economic-political conditions cause extremism to thrive, and once you identify those conditions, you can work on fixing them, and once you fix them, you end extremism.

New Atheists wholly overlook these drivers of religious extremism, for in their minds, the problems starts and ends with religion.

Dangerously and ignorantly they, in fact, praise extremists as the "most pious." How does this help efforts to combat extremism - when you're telling extremists they're following Islam "perfectly"? How does this help the efforts of the world's top 120 leading Islamic authorities who have each issued statements that ISIS' interpretation of scripture is not only de-contextualized but is actually "anti-Islamic"?

Dawkins/Harris/Ayaan/Hitchens are myopic, and unhelpful. Thus why the field of counter-violent-extremism (CVE) ignores their critiques of religion/Islam. Thus why all who are serious about CVE should ignore them, too.

Best regards

CJ

P.S: If you think it's helpful to post our exchange to your blog, I am ok with that.

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Read part 2 here

5 comments:

  1. Hello Eiynah,

    I do agree with both of you on several fundamental issues. I do have one problem with those who identify as New atheist horsemen though. Either you do think that their commentary on issues in the "Islamic world" is driven by their New atheistic views (whatever the hell that means) or it isn't. If it is, then it is not a good sign for new atheism
    Hitchens, for example, was a vehement promoter of liberal values using forced illiberal values! He was an apologist for Iraq war
    Harris has called for torture, profiling, installing dictators in Muslim majority countries, nuclear first strikes, and is a clear apologist for Israel crimes (again according to him because they are more liberal than the other side, this makes occupation justified), and although he did not actively support Iraq war he framed it as a strategic failure rather than a moral one (like Vietnam war apologists), and he clearly showed his willingness for Saddam to be replaced by a more "benign" dictator using military force or sanctions (which already had killed 500,000 Iraqi children). He thinks US as a well-intentioned giant, and that single statement is enough for showing how delusional he is. That Harris constantly tries to explain "away" these kind of things, by issuing sometimes contradictory statements does not change the fact that he indeed did say those things.
    Ayaan called for peace prize for Netanyahu and has called for military war on Islam
    Maher, is another apologist for Israeli atrocities, his "reasoning" being that they don't have gay bars in Gaza and something in that line.
    Dawkins, the most benign of them, has turned the Ahmed's story into a conspiracy theory, simply because he couldn't believe a Muslim might have done something benign.
    And this is in addition to various sexist, sometimes racist comments from all of them and in particular Harris.
    Dennet is actually the only one who sticks to his own work which is criticism of religion and philosophy.

    Now, you might say this is UNRELATED to new atheism, which is a far-fetched statement, but even if we accept that premise, we still should question the rationality and liberality of these people. And these are hardly lunatics, they are dangerous ideologues. They provide the intellectual justification for their own side's crime. If you are more comfortable with fascist atheist, or right-wing atheist, or asshole atheist I will go with that. I also do know that there are a lot of atheists like you who identify as new atheists and are far more rational than any new atheist horseman. So I don't think playing with labels would change anything.

    Pointing to West crimes and to Islamist crimes are not mutually exclusive. If somebody points to one and defends the other, he is not a rational liberal human being. Period. Have you ever seen Greenwald or Chomsky doing this? I haven't. They might point more to their own side, but they never hail the other side. Most NA horsemen do so.

    Religious criticism is different from dehumanization. Maryam Namazie for example is an inflammatory critique of religion but she is also an avid supporter of Muslims as human beings. Karima is another good example. But you cannot say about most NA horsemen. That one of them (SH) has a friend as a Muslim reformer does not remove the need for him to stop dehumanizing Muslims.

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    1. What exactly does "New atheistic views" mean? A more recent view of lack of evidence of gods?

      If you think Sam Harris advocates torture and racial profiling, you have either misunderstood his views gravely... or haven't read his own words, or are misrepresenting them. Either way, thats a very inaccurate claim to make. I suggest you read up on Sam's views.

      No one is denying the crimes of one side over the other, however if you cannot see the difference between savage beheadings and slayings according to an archaic, brutal misogynistic text, or war for national interests, then I can't really help you. These scenarios, while both awful, are not comparable.

      "Have you ever seen Greenwald or Chomsky doing this?" - yes. I

      t's cringeworthy how often I see Greenwald make excuses for Islam's crimes, he denies lived experiences of people like me. This is not about tribalism, please don't make it so...it may be for some people and those people are in the wrong.

      "Religious criticism is different from dehumanization." - indeed, except people keep blurring the lines, and the hate Harris and Dawkins get is for religious criticism. I don't agree with Dawkin's tweets re: Ahmed the clock kid. But I certainly wouldn't say those tweets were dehumanizing all muslims. Why is there no proportionality regarding these people's comments? Immediately defensive people jump to accusations of bigotry and dehumanization, accusations of them being anti muslim colonialists or genocidal maniacs... scale it back... if you don't want to water down the gravity of actual anti muslim bigotry... which would be terribly unfortunate.

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  2. Firstly, a big shoutout to you for stepping up and asking for a civil conversation with, CJ. It's been long overdue imo.
    I hope he decides to pick up where he dropped off, and continue the conversation, warts and all, and that it's seen by as many as possible. Obviously this is just an intro, and I'm not sure how far the conversation got, but it's good to see CJ not spewing hate for a change. (Not sure why he does this on Twitter, as it accomplishes nothing positive. I'm sure he wishes to see an end to extremism, just like everyone else).

    Looking forward to part two.

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    1. Thanks! Yes his tweets are truly something else.

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  3. Thanks very much for posting this. If I might add my own view:

    I've become extremely frustrated by some of the more famous so-called "New Atheists" who claim that they are criticizing all religions equally but who really discriminate against Muslims. For example, some (including Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins) have made statements that I think exaggerate the difference between Christianity and Islam, seeking to make Christianity seem better than it is and generalizing about Muslims. Some, such as Sam Harris, have advocated things like profiling against Muslims (while trying disingenuously to rephrase it and claim it's not really profiling) but don't advocate the same when criticizing other religions, even when discussing violent acts done by people of other religions.

    On the other hand, I think that there are also those who try to silence legitimate criticism of Islam under the argument that, because Muslims face bigotry, we should not bring up legitimate criticism either. Liberal Muslims like Irshad Manji and Mona Eltahawy are met with hatred from fellow Muslims for speaking up on issues of sexism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination in Islam. I've also seen Muslims who claim they're the "moderates" when really the only civil rights issue they focus on is anti-Muslim bigotry (while favoring or ignoring other issues, including sexism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination). They don't represent those of us who want equality on all fronts. Also, I think it's unfair to ask that someone who criticizes religion has to have an academic background in it. Liberal religious believers share their experiences all the time and get support, so why can't those who've been hurt by religion share our experiences, too? Criticism of religion can happen from many angles (academic, comedic, sharing of personal experiences, etc.) and all of these things can contribute to the conversation. Look at Christianity for example: there are books that look at it academically, comics that do satire, memoirs of people who left the religion, etc.

    Ani

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