Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Correspondence with CJ Werleman Pt. 2

So here's part 2 of our email exchange...I must admit, I chuckled a bit at the "I will now explain why I think I'm right" part :)

If you missed part one, you can read it here

This exchange ends on a particularly frustrating note, but worry not, there is more coming soon. 

The idea that atheism is a unifying factor in any way moreso than a disbelief in mermaids is a unifying factor, is incorrect and evident simply through this exchange between two atheists. 

The idea that New Atheists don't understand the impact of geo political influences, is also a complete falsehood. I haven't come across anyone who thinks there are no other problems apart from religion that contribute to religious violence, of course education, socio economic status all play a role. But so does belief in a violent ideology. It's the attempt to shift blame away from such a large contributing factor, that many object to,

How can one not see the links between Islam and Radical Islam? Radical Islam is just Islam followed literally, Islamism is just a fundamentalist, very plausible interpretation of *Islam* being politically imposed on others. All things point to the fact that yes, Islam itself is full of terrible ideas. I stress that using a distinction between Islam and radical Islam is important in terms of strategic communication at *some* times, because it's easier for the message to be absorbed by a larger amount of people if these distinctions are made. It's not to say Islam is lovely and separate from Islamism, or Islamic extremism.

The reference to 'war' as secular extremism is mind-boggling to me, a complete misrepresentation since war isn't actually motivated by 'secularism' in any way...and this lopsided idea that Islamic terrorism must be looked at in terms of geopolitical factors alone, while 'war' must be directly, inaccurately linked to secularism, without considering the geopolitical factors that may have lead to war - is a truly baffling idea to me. What is the end game here? Equating secularism with religious violence? What? Are we trying to say secularism is bad? Despite the evidence that secular countries do far better than non secular ones, especially in terms of human rights for their citizens? What is the purpose of this? I just don't get it...other than trying to comfort those who favour theocracy...

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Hi CJ, 

Thank you for your prompt response. I do think posting it on the blog will be helpful, so thanks for agreeing. A civil discussion will be far more informative than the usual angry words exchanged on twitter. 

The whole New Atheist thing you mention, definitely includes me as well (but doesn't describe me accurately or fairly).... I do think religion is a a major problem (not the *only* problem, of course, and none of the group you mention, think religion is the *only problem* either, as far as I know). In this century, Islam specifically is a problem, in the past ...Christianity has been a major one too. Despite feeling this way about Islam, I think Muslims are diverse, and practice their religion to different degrees - painting them all as extremists ignores the already marginalized, too few truly liberal Muslim voices. 

I grew up in a very liberal muslim family, they are wonderful people who have embraced my difference of opinion, my disbelief...and always encouraged critical thought (to a degree). However, that's not to say that the problematic parts of Islam are not visible even in the way liberal moderates practice. My aunts and mother wouldn't touch the holy books or pray when on their menstrual cycle, because its deemed 'impure'. Something that is mild perhaps but definitely used to make women feel lesser, impure and dirty. Something Islam is good at doing, but not alone in doing...most religions are guilty of this.

I personally fight against demonization and bigotry towards muslims, and I do it regularly...but I'm a vocal critic of the ideology simultaneously because I would like the bad ideas in Islam to be dispelled, discredited the people I love can live a freer, happier life. It's a fight towards human rights and equality. Not a fight to cast suspicion on 'all muslims'. 

What kind of 'secular violent extremism' are you referring to? And is it honestly comparable in quantity, frequency and severity, to religious violent extremism? 

When you say Dawkins/Ayaan/Harris criticize Islam and not radical Islam - I'd say it's hard to separate the role 'Islam' plays in 'radical Islam'. Islam itself provides a blueprint and framework for radical Islam, denying a link is counterproductive, just as much as holding every muslim under suspicion for radical islam is. I will say though, that perhaps being so blunt, is not strategically the most efficient way forward (I too am guilty of bluntly criticizing Islam at times). It's not inaccurate, but It may alienate people that would otherwise be a softening of terms in some situations and a distinction between Islam and Islamism, or Islam and radical Islam is important . Only because this is a conversation best done through baby steps imo. Would I like a religion free world? Sure. Would I like disbelief to be imposed upon anyone? Absolutely not. Imposition of ideas is far too religion-like for my taste. 

I personally do criticize flawed forms of secularism too, like there are some things I find problematic in French secularism. Bans on prayer in public, sending a girl home for a skirt thats too long, because it shows an affiliation with religion? Banning hijabs, crosses, kippas - these things are unfair to me and anti-secular. My opinions change on the niqab though, because that demands anonymity, which affects others. Its important to remember though that this is not comparable to the lack of equality in non-secular societies.

"None of the New Atheists are religious scholars; none have studied Islam in an academic sense" 

Does this really matter though? There are countless numbers of hate-peddling, extremist imams, even the leader of ISIS if i'm not mistaken who *are* religious scholars - does that make them more qualified to discuss religion? Even Zakir Naik, someone often hailed as a 'sensible', moderate islamic preacher said he supported Bin Laden in terrorizing the US, he said every Muslim should be a that ok because it comes from someone who is a scholar and has studied islam in an academic sense?

If there are so many interpretations of Islam anyway, and i agree with you that its inaccurate to define 'one true islam' when everything from wahhabism to sufiism exists, why would we discredit anyone's interpretation? As for Ayaan, she has lived experience with Islam, that cannot be discounted. 

"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)

Muslims largely, are not receptive to anyone who criticizes the faith, whether they are muslim or not. I have seen some 'pro-reform' muslim activists who claim to have more 'feminist' interpretations of scripture, etc. But the way I see it, it's just blatant denial of the horrors contained within scripture. Muslims (or theists generally), especially liberal muslims will be more receptive to anyone who legitimizes their cognitive dissonance. Rather than acknowledging the misogynistic verses in the Quran, they will pretend they have just been 'misunderstood' scholars throughout time. Its the claim of infallibility that I have serious issues with, if its so wonderful and perfect're not really 'reforming it'. 

"But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. " (4:34) Quran

Denying that this verse is misogynistic helps no one, its one thing to say all muslims are wife beaters (which is inaccurate obviously) but its another to say that scripture doesn't provide the raw material for someone who wishes to justify such an act. What 'context' is this ok in? 

"Their lack of expertise in these areas reduces their criticisms of Islam to slogans, cliches, generalizations, and yes, bigotry."

I feel, again, this is a misrepresentation. Harris and Dawkins are usually good at separating ideas from people. However, there is definitely more room for nuance, I agree. And isn't that what the Maajid and Harris co-authoring and co-speaking achieves? In my opinion, since being in touch with Nawaz, Harris has learned to soften his approach and speak about Islamism, islamists, etc. Nawaz has taught him some valuable things and still as the person of colour in that duo he is called a 'lapdog' or 'porch monkey' ? How is that ok? 

"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."

Quick question, what are your thoughts on the term Islamophobia? 

Ayaan explained how she ended up with AEI, and thats because the left abandons people like her, people like me. I personally would like to think I'd never make an alliance with the right wing, but if I had her security concerns, perhaps I might. Like I said, I don't agree with everything she says or does, and feel there are some valid criticisms to make...but those are not the ones i've seen you make. Her earlier ideas about convincing Muslims to convert to Christianity were bizarre and not at all something I'd agree with, but I haven't heard her talk about that in a while. Just like you changed your opinion on Muslims and Islam, it's possible that she is also now softening her stance on Islam, because that is the productive way forward. Her new book is about reform, not battling Islam, this is a change in attitude and a welcome one. Because religion isn't going anywhere for a while. Whatever her alliances, and her thoughts on islam, based on her own lived experiences are - i don't think she deserved to be called a 'paid brown face'. I don't mean to put you on the spot, and I'd like to thank you for listening, and engaging with this type of conversation. It's important that we talk about both our grievances in a civil manner, imo. 

Maajid has received funding from the govt before perhaps, but from what I know I don't think Quilliam is govt funded anymore. And how many things are government funded? That doesn't mean they are bad or have ill will towards Muslims. It's a leap to make that judgement about Quilliam, especially considering half the time Maajid is battling anti-muslim bigots. Do you genuinely think he has an ulterior motive? I'm not sure if you heard Cameron's recent speech that Maajid helped on, I thought it was brilliant, because it included muslims as part of the solution, rather than alienate them in an 'Us Vs. Them' narrative. I firmly believe Maajid is an excellent voice on this and many groups can learn things from him, how to separate people from ideas and how not to be discriminatory towards Muslims. 

Those atheist bigots you speak of, do exist somewhere...and they need to be outed, I just don't believe that Dawkins et al are coming from a place of bigotry. There are valid critiques to be made for all of them too, no one is perfect...ever. But I don't think calling them bigots for criticizing 'Islam' the idea is valid. Dawkins says some weird stuff on twitter that I would never defend. But the word bigotry is important, and i don't wish to water it down by using it lightly. 

I've also spoken with and interviewed several young people from Pakistan who have been deradicalized through watching Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins videos. So thats why I think they are important, valuable voices. They are not going to reform Islam, nor do they set out to do that themselves.... but they are useful in getting the conversation started on a larger scale. 

"their utopian mission of cleansing the world of religion." 

I feel that education, information and even mockery are what they'd like to use to dispel the harmful ideas around religion, it's not a mission to forcefully  'cleanse' the world as you imply. 

Anyway, my apologies...this email has become far longer than intended, so I shall end it here. Look forward to your response.



Hi Eiynah,

I think we've now illuminated the difference between our respective positions: you believe religion (Islam) is the problem, which is also the view of the celebrity New Atheists I had mentioned earlier. Whereas I believe extremism is the problem, and that extremism has identifiable roots.

More specifically, you believe Islam is the root of extremism, whereas I believe socio-economic-political realities are the root of extremism.

I will now explain why I think I'm right:

If I wanted to show you religious extremism in America, I'd take you directly to the Old South. Why? There you will not only find 9 out of the 10 poorest states in the country, but you will also find the most hyper-religious.

Further, each of these poorest states are Red states (Republican). Why is that relevant? Republicans favor lower tax revenues and reduced spending on education, welfare, and healthcare. On the flip side, the least religious states in America are reliably Blue states - where governments favor higher taxes, an increased spending on education, welfare, and healthcare.

When you examine America alongside other modern Western countries, it becomes even more interesting. If you removed America's Old South and scarcely populated interior states from the equation, America looks equally as irreligious as the most irreligious nation states in the Western hemisphere. 

The least religious nations on the planet include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and Canada.

Now what do each of these countries share in common? Social/political/economic stability, high rates of taxation, universal healthcare/education, robust welfare; and each of these countries are ranked in the top 10 most livable - as measured by access to employment/education/healthcare, affordable housing, security, crime, and so on.

In other words, the best vaccine we have against religious extremism is stability/peace/security coupled with economic liberalism i.e. where the size of the state is greater, and the level of poverty is reduced.

You can then apply this same rule for Islam in the Muslim world. Where do you find more extremism? Turkey (stable/democratic) or Afghanistan? Indonesia (stable/democratic) or Yemen? Malaysia (stable/democratic) or Pakistan? 

You can see this trend within each respective country, too. I lived in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, for more than a decade. Do you find Islamic extremism in the capital Jakarta or out in the boon docks of Banda Aceh? Bandung or Sulawesi? And so on.

I worked in Jakarta for a number of years. Most of my friends are educated, and middle-upper class. While they all still pray 5 times per day, and fast for Ramadan, all live a life that is consistent with high-minded humanistic/secular standards. 

In conclusion, New Atheists have a flawed strategy for tackling religious extremism, because they're yet to identify the problem is extremism. You will never convert extremists to a moderate form of religion via New Atheist youtube videos, speeches, and blogs, no matter how good the content's intentions. You can only defeat extremism by tackling the socio-economic-political factors that foster the conditions for extremism to thrive.

Yes, a New Atheist book might convert a moderately religious person, who was already highly/reasonably educated, and most likely from a stable-democratic Muslim majority country, but that's it. That's the end of their game. Their books/blogs/speeches will never resonate with extremists or highly uneducated Muslims who reside in broken/failed states.

It's for this reason no one outside of the New Atheist echo chamber takes the New Atheists seriously. Most who see the world as it is, which is just about everyone outside of the echo chamber, can see that the New Atheist approach/thinking is clearly a waste of time.

Kind regards

CJ Werleman


  1. Eiynah: I admire your determination. I've read/listened to a lot of CJ's tweets, articles, debates and conversations and I think that any exchange with him is useless at this point, but I really applaud your intentions.

    CJ's definition of New Atheism changes drastically depending on the smear he wants to spread in each situation. Anti-theists, pro-Western, pro-government, anti-Muslim, neo-con, etc... mixing concepts from moral, philosophical, economic and political background as if they were interchangeable or linked in some way. If New Atheists are those who meet all those characteristics, that's a very specific and small group of people that doesn't include CJ's usual targets. If New Atheists are those who meet at least one of those characteristics, the definition is unfair and useless.

    At the beginning of your exchange with CJ he defines New Atheists as "those who align themselves with the anti-theistic views expressed by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Ayaan." That definition is, again, useless, without a description of those anti-theistic views (or at least what CJ think they are). For example, he routinely says that Stalin was also anti-religion, and look how that turned out. Without clarifying starting points like that, I can't see how any exchange with CJ, however civil, will give any positive result.

    Another of CJ's main points, that he fails to define clearly, is "extremism". Without a clear definition he can manipulate the word and compare unfairly "religious extremism" (literal interpretations of doctrine) with "secular extremism" (where there's no doctrine to interpret literally). "Extremism" can mean "beliefs or actions that most ​people ​think are ​unreasonable and ​unacceptable" (subjective, dependent on year, culture, age, etc and not inherently bad), "a tendency to go to extremes, especially in politics" (again, subjective)... When CJ says that the problem is "extremism" without a clear explanation of what he means by that is, once again, useless.

  2. "Yes, a New Atheist book might convert a moderately religious person, who was already highly/reasonably educated, and most likely from a stable-democratic Muslim majority country, but that's it. That's the end of their game. Their books/blogs/speeches will never resonate with extremists or highly uneducated Muslims who reside in broken/failed states."

    I never think of Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens books convincing or resonating with the current extremely religious (though they very well could & might) But I see their books being more influential on the potential next generation, the youth that might be on the brink of heading down a road to extremism and want to hear the other side's view. Reason typically wins out in face-offs and that is why their books are so crucial.

  3. Eiynah - In sharp contrast to your beautifully reasoned and articulated thoughts, CJ's disingenuous responses ring hollow and expose his inferior IQ. Suffice it to say that I will henceforth put him in the same bucket as Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other 2nd string idiots on the right and ignore all of his future work.

  4. Yes, most religions are guilty of a similar practice. I am from a Hindu background, and a couple of generations before me, women were not even touched while they were on their period. The generation before me reduced this, but to the level that they would not ask girls to sir for holy rituals while on their period. My generation does not care much about any such qualms.
    Of course, I speak only about one particular family and I suspect we might be more forward than the average.
    It all begins with good intentions. My mother told me the rationale - earlier, there simply weren't enough products for clean and sanitary menstruation. Women used cloth mostly, and there was fear of infections spreading. Idols used to be one of the most frequently touched objects in the household (perhaps the kitchen and lavatory being others). And hence, to minimize risk, they'd ban women from touching or visiting all these places.
    Yes, it all begins with good intentions. (Mostly). But when religion or people don't keep up with the times, discrimination results. Now, most Hindu men won't understand the rationale, but will just say "Even my holy book says women are impure while on their period. Who am I to say otherwise?"