Sunday, January 31, 2016

Open Letter to Sam Harris

So a couple of weeks ago, I sent an email to Sam Harris, hoping to get some clarification on his views and recent support of Douglas Murray. It was a long shot, it's a complex issue and an uncomfortable one, but it was worth a try. I tried to approach him directly, but by now I assume I won't be hearing back (I get it, he's a very busy guy!) -- so I'm releasing my email as an open letter. These are important questions that need to be raised in an environment of increasing hostility in the online atheist scene. The 'heads' of the scene can do a lot more to build bridges than they do, imo. 

In this fight against radicalization the world will need all the liberal, progressive, ex-muslims they can get. Between the apologia/denial of the illiberal left and anti (im)migration sentiment of the right there needs to be a reasonable middle ground. Alienating secular immigrants is not helpful or productive at all. 

I know, I know, taking a stand against Douglas Murray's awful views on immigration is not going to go down easy with many of you. Since he's so excellent at taking on the regressive left/islamists.

I get plenty of hate from all sides any way, i'll manage if you send a little more my way. But know that it's pretty ridiculous to expect a person of Muslim immigrant background to accept generalizations and anti immigration views. It's just not going to happen. My bar isn't so low that anyone good at critiquing islam is automatically on my list of favourite people. And yours shouldn't be either.

(Screenshots, links, videos added later for the purpose of this blogpost)


Dear Sam,

I’m an ex-Muslim (atheist) Pakistani-Canadian blogger and illustrator who receives much hate mail, death and rape threats from Islamists for my work. As a woman, of Muslim background who took on the task of writing about sexuality, politics and religion I am subject to a lot of internet abuse. The islamist abuse - I have sadly accepted as part of the territory, but what shocks me every time is the abuse I receive from a certain strain of fellow atheists. I have been meaning to write to you for a while, but have been putting it off since it seems a mammoth task to explain my difficult position. After seeing parts of your exchange on Twitter with Maryam Namazie, regarding ‘collective blame’, I thought to finally sit down and do it.

I’m saddened to see an increasing rift, especially since the refugee crisis, between 'Western atheists' and ex-Muslim atheists, and I wish for it to go no further. So here I am. Maryam and you both are voices I admire greatly — I see a growing tension and I wish to offer my perspective on why this may be occurring.

You may remember me from my ‘Letter to Ben Affleck. I understand and relate to your positions on religion especially the unique problems that Islam is posing today. In a world where the left has completely abandoned liberals such as myself who stand firmly against the religious right, no matter what religion (and especially the one I was born into), I am glad to see you as an ally…as someone who stands in my corner and starts conversations which many like myself from muslim backgrounds have sacrificed their lives for. You start these conversations on a larger scale than I thought was possible, and you bring awareness to many people. For that I thank you, sincerely. I have interviewed and heard from several ex-extremists in Pakistan who say they were changed by watching your debates on YouTube.

I have personally seen the value of your voice and I will always have your back when people accuse you of being an anti-Muslim bigot. I believe your criticism of Islam is coming from a good place, a compassionate place and from a desire for betterment of the situation for all affected by it. It’s a rarer perspective to come by, as more and more people are attracted to this discussion.

There are charges of bigotry and racism being thrown around at almost anyone who dares to criticize Islam. I myself (as a Pakistani woman) have been accused countless times...of 'white supremacy', racism and other ridiculous things for opposing my own oppression. For writing a, what I thought was, polite and gentle letter to Ben Affleck and other defenders of the faith, I was even accused of ‘assisting genocide’. For writing a letter!

It’s a world gone mad.

I can personally relate to the frustration you and many others experience at this false charge. Not only are these accusers of bigotry at every instance of legitimate criticism adding to the confusion...but they are effectively diminishing it’s meaning and watering down instances of actual bigotry…till they are almost unrecognizable to those who aren’t immersed in the topic. Crying wolf too many times never did anyone any good.

Because so many false accusations are hurled at critics of Islam, we tend to take them less seriously, as we should. However, this has turned into a new problem where actual instances and bigoted stances are better camouflaged….and anyone speaking out against actual anti-Muslim bigotry is regarded as a 'social justice warrior', or 'regressive leftist’ - which was not the original intent of the terms, I’m sure.

I am a harsh critic of Islam - anyone that knows me or my work or follows me on twitter can see this, yet when I oppose blatant-anti Muslim bigotry I am accused of being an apologist for the religion I risk my life to oppose, by a certain type of atheist. On the flip side of the Islamophobia-shriekers there are those who think that people who make clear distinctions between people and ideas are apologists. These are the people who seek to demonize Muslims as a whole, who actually think its ok to generalize a large, diverse group as savages and rapists. I know these are charges hurled at you, and me, and Maryam….and they are false when directed at us but they are completely true for a growing number of far-right sympathizing atheists.

In between these two extremes you will find liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims battling both Islamists who wish to silence our critique and anti-Muslim bigots who wish to demonize us and our families. There is constant abuse from both sides, and it gets harder and harder to walk the tightrope of productive discussion and rational critique.

I am explaining this, because I know you may not deal with both sides of this abuse on as great a scale as many who are personally discriminated against for having a muslim background do. I just wish to show a bigger picture…with people’s paranoia and anti-refugee sentiment coming out, this is enhanced. The gap between immigrant ex-Muslim atheists and ‘western' atheists grows. And we should be natural allies.

While there are obviously fair concerns about large numbers of people migrating to any country who may not share values or who may hold extreme beliefs, we see those who are minorities within this group further marginalized. Just as they are by the left’s refusal to address the problems posed by Islam. The blanket hate and lack of compassion towards people who want a better life, or are fleeing, drowning to get away from the same extremists we also loathe, detracts from any legitimate points being brought up in regards to immigration/migration.

At a time when we should be discussing values and things like behaviour towards women, we have people either trying to disassociate or hide the backgrounds of actual criminals and rapists (as seen in the recent incident in Cologne), or we have people trying to use such news to demonize immigrants as a whole. Its a vicious cycle pushed further to the extreme from all angles, where the reasonable middle ground is drowned out.

We should be discussing better screening processes, how to change bad ideas that may be carried over when migrating, into good ideas…we should be discussing the values we should not compromise on simply because people arriving are members of minority groups, we should discuss the physical limits of absorbing people, so we don’t cause towns to be overtaxed, we should discuss problems and methods around integration, especially the problematic attitudes towards women - but instead too many are busy denying negative effects all together *or* discussing the fact that we shouldn’t bring 'these people' in at all, or that we should prioritize Christian refugees over Muslim ones. Yes there will be no jihadis among Christians, but by simply making this statement we are refusing to acknowledge that many Muslims who don’t practice the hardline version ISIS demands are also at great risk. As an immigrant who was given the chance to leave a religious country and enter a non religious one, I can’t in good conscience support denying that chance to others (with reasonable precautions and vetting of course). It is not an easy issue to navigate through, as there are valid points to be made for and against, but its one we must tread on carefully and sensitively to ensure that important points are not being silenced by blind support or blind hate on either side.

While you may criticize Islam from a place that is in support of those who seek to change it, better it, leave it…there are many, many who would rather close their borders and have nothing to do with people of Muslim background at all. (In fact many of us are under constant accusations of being secret islamists, myself, Maryam, Maajid - “once a Muslim, always a Muslim" rhetoric is used to silence our opposition of anti-Muslim bigotry). Sure they will cheer liberal/ex Muslims as they criticize Islam, but will turn their backs on us or go silent the second we oppose the demonization of people who look like us, our families. This is not about brown skin, but bigotry against perceived adherents of a faith. Ex muslims, even Sikhs face anti-Muslim bigotry. This is simply not opposed enough in the so called ’new' atheist scene. And by the descriptions I hear of it, I am apparently a ‘new’ atheist myself…because I refuse to sit silent in the face of religious injustice.

When you partner up with someone like Douglas Murray to do a podcast specifically on migration and the refugee crisis, there are some mixed messages being sent. While he is not an open bigot like Trump or Carson, and he is eloquent, makes many excellent points in his criticism of Islam & the failures of the left, he does reside somewhere on the spectrum of people who otherize and generalize Muslims. As his story about Jews in Malmo being 'chased out' (1:39:05 on your podcast) by increasing numbers of ‘Muslim' populations indicates, as his saying things like “why would you allow an increasing number of Muslims into your society” (1:40:15 on the podcast)  indicates…this is not to deny that there aren’t clear problems with Muslim populations, this is to say that he makes no effort to make a distinction between marginalized liberal muslims who oppose this hate and intolerance, and the majorities who support it. The label ‘Muslims’ tars all kinds of Muslims…not just Islamists. He is not entirely wrong, because Muslims are causing these issues certainly, but we must not forget about the Muslims that are also victims of such intolerance, misogyny, homophobia. We are the ones who suffer the anti-Muslim backlash from Murray’s generalizations…where people less intelligent and less nuanced than him spit on us and tell us we are scum.

It was not without your prompt in the podcast that topic of future Ayaans and Maajids being amongst these refugees was brought up. It was you who said these people deserve to be given citizenship…these are not the points Murray is concerned with. His simplistic view is that "Europe doesn’t owe anyone anything"…as if he wouldn’t do the same if him and his family were in such a desperate position. His position seems to be not one of compassion. And this takes away from some very valid, important questions he does ask, "would Europe be able to take in millions of Syrian refugees? What will we do once they are here? Do we have any jobs for them or places for them to live?"

Murray is not the bigot that Trump is or that Tommy Robinson is, but he is certainly an apologist for such bigotry (such as that of far right nationalist group EDL’s), and downplays its harmfulness. He is someone who thinks Robert Spencer of Jihadwatch is a brilliant writer and scholar. This is where it gets muddy (around the 4:50 mark).

Yes, absolutely the left fails and I call it out time and time again, you’ve even shared work of mine that calls out the left for it’s failings on your twitter.

But just as the far right is emboldened by the failures of the regressive left, the regressive left is emboldened by the bigotry of the far right….it is people like me, Maajid and Maryam who are stuck in the middle of this, between a rock and a hard place.

Murray’s apologia for Christianity is frankly off-putting, that he assumes no religion other than Islam is really worth discussing. It is a small picture he sees, if he can’t see the harm caused by other religions and the necessity to discredit them all. Just because Christianity is largely disempowered in Europe, doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful elsewhere, or that faith schools are ok. It is that insistence that we must *only* discuss Islam and excuse away the rest that indicates to me some form of residual attachment, some form of toxic tribalism. I understand that there are harmful beliefs to varying degrees and Islam is undeniably at the forefront of it today, but I make no mistake of excusing the rest. Certainly we can prioritize and emphasize, but we can’t devolve into apologists for other harmful beliefs simply because of our dislike for one that is currently more harmful.

Murray on Religion's place in the world, granted this piece is from 2013,
but I heard this sentiment on Sam's recent podcast with him too.  *cringe*
Let's not forget what the world was like when Xtianity held power. It's only because it's defanged
that it is less harmful now. I do not wish to empower it again in any way.

I consider myself a reasonable person and always willing to change my opinions based on evidence, I listened to your podcast with Murray a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding him. I listened to more of his talks and appearances, and found him to be excellent when taking down opponents like Asghar Bukhari, but its his tribalism, apologia for Christianity, compassionless stance on immigration, refugees that I can’t reconcile with. To hear you being ‘honoured’ to speak with someone who time and time again demonizes immigrants like me, was disappointing. Also your point regarding Ben Carson...I know it was twisted and misused against you by all the usual suspects. I get what you were doing with that comparison, you were trying to highlight the extent of regressive left’s failings. But still, I found that way of framing the issue very odd…to put it so that you have to pick Ben Carson in this pairing, a known anti Muslim bigot - when you yourself are charged with this by so many confused people. So I must respectfully disagree. I’m no fan of Chomsky, let me add. But having the US run by a creationist would be harmful in all sorts of ways…and I’m not sure I can accurately measure the harm both of those hypothetical candidates would do to make this comparison. In an environment that is highly confused and emotionally charged, this message was unclear for those who may not be so knowledgable about the topic or about your views.

Criticism of Islam is bound to attract those who wish to hear it taken apart for tribal reasons, not secular, rational reasons. It happens to my work all the time, my ex-muslim voice is hijacked by far right lunatics to further their own xenophobic agendas…and it happens to your voice too, through no fault of your own. But with such bigots who hitch their wagons to fair, rational criticism of Islam, there needs to be encouragement to unhitch. There isn’t much currently.

There needs to be an effort to distinguish your position and that of Murray’s, rather than the conflation I see (or at least I’m hoping to hear there is a clear distinction) …which is why i think criticism of islam has to be done along with criticism of anti muslim bigotry, in detail and often…to create a less hostile environment for ex Muslims…and for liberal Muslims, so that productive critique can happen. So that we can be true allies without feeling there is little room for us. When I hear from toxic atheists every day, I despair - and i am not comparing them to islamists…there are no atheist death threats…but there r people who call me arab scum, tell me our food is dirty, that we are savage for dipping our hands in our ‘hummus', that everyone of muslim background should be sterilized because they can’t be trusted….that the pew polls should be enough evidence to convince me that it is ok for people to discriminate against my family, because they are likely to be intolerant and savage… after hearing those things all day (along with the usual Islam apologia) - I am emotionally drained, and incredibly disappointed when I hear people like Douglas saying it’s a terrible idea to allow more muslims in. If there was ever a time to separate your stance from Murray's…this would be it….this era of Trumpian nonsense.

This is perhaps the third version of this email I’ve written. It’s been difficult to write to someone I admire like yourself, and say I disagree. I do so with the utmost respect, but I felt this was a point that needed to be discussed. I have just started a podcast, which was banned and taken down from youtube by people (islamists) who constantly target my social media presence. My first guest was Maryam Namazie, I am not someone important or famous, and this is a long shot, but I would be incredibly honoured if you would at some point consider coming on for a chat about immigration/migration with an ex-muslim immigrant.

I will never misrepresent your positions, but since it’s happened to you so many times, I can understand if there is hesitation. Please know that I am an ally and a fan…who wishes to bridge gaps rather than see them increase. My sincerest apologies for such a long email!





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