In Defence of The Rubin Report: Long Live the Circle Jerk!

The Rubin Report’s first episode on Larry Kings Ora TV network, featured author and controversial public figure: Sam Harris. The shows namesake Dave Rubin, sat down with Harris for over an hour to hash out his views, and talk about the unfair attacks on him by what is now referred to as the Regressive Left. Rubin had previously worked on The Young Turks network, which was co-founded by Cenk Uygur. Uygur also hosts the show: The Young Turks, a show which has provided a platform for Harris’ attackers and is now actively involved in the campaign against him. Rubin admits that the unfair treatment of Harris by Uygur and other Regressives, played a role in his decision to leave, which led him to embark on his mission of opening up discussions around difficult issues. The Rubin Show has certainly delivered. Harris’ fans – like myself – were extremely pleased with Rubin’s approach to the interview and the topics being discussed, and there was a real sense of change coming, a momentum we all wanted to keep going through retweets, blogs posts; any support that would help spread word of this brilliant new show that was doing what it preaches, namely combating Regressives, promoting free speech and actually listening to the views of others.

Indeed, Rubin reported that the response to Harris’ interview was largely positive. However, the Regressives wasted little time dismissing the interview and the show. The Rubin Report went on in subsequent episodes to feature other atheists and advocates such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Gad Saad, Douglas Murray, Sarah Haider and Ali A. Rizvi. It was thusly labelled a new atheist circle jerk, where neo-con atheists got together to bash Muslims. Fine. This was expected. But less expected was the change in tone of the shows supporters, after a number of guests featured on the show, did not align with their views. Never mind how soft Rubin was on Harris – someone we agree with – but did you see how he let Larry Elder and Tommy Robinson rattle off their bigoted views unchallenged? What is this a right-wing circle jerk? Sounds to me like an orgy of epic proportions if nothing else. I understand the criticism to a certain extent. I’ve previously argued that it’s possible that Rubin hesitates to push back, because in many cases it’s the first time he’s really hearing the other side’s arguments, and he’s unsure of his own views. If this is the case it is also a good thing, because he will learn to sharpen his ideas on the whetstone of the opposition, and it also means he’s open to changing his mind, a rare quality in this world of identity politics. However, I think more likely; Rubin is bringing us a show like we’ve never seen before. We’re used to shows like Real Time, The Young Turks, Bill O’Reilly etc. The hosts and the panel challenge each other, sometimes belligerently, and poke fun at one another, which is all well and good. Their followers cheer their hero’s and boo the opposition from the side-lines, and the net result is, no one has really heard anyone. To me this is not what The Rubin Report is about.

The Rubin Report isn’t about scoring points for the left, or the democrats, or for atheists, or any other group. It’s about fleshing out people’s views – especially unpopular and marginalized views – on important topics. Rubin does a brilliant job at this and as far as I’m concerned he should expose himself and his audience to as many different views as possible. He should ask probing questions to flesh out the ideas of those people, so they can be assessed fairly and on their own merits. Its then up to us, as the audience, to grapple with those views. We can agree, be neutral, or disagree, in whole or in part, or we can challenge those views in whatever forum we wish, as I have done with my blog piece on Rubin’s exchange with conservative Larry Elder. But the whimpering disappointment being voiced from some viewers suggests to me that they were never serious about the premise in the first place. It sounds like they’re scared for others to hear controversial views they don’t like. “Tommy Robinson is an actual bigot, and Rubin just let him espouse his bigotry unchallenged”. Well I hate to break it to my fellow viewers, but Regressives draw little distinction between the views of Harris and Robinson, and they bemoaned the fact that “Rubin gave the bigot Sam Harris a free ride on his new show”. That’s something you should keep in mind.

And for all the objections that The Rubin Report is providing a platform to these right-wing crazies – Harris or Robinson depending on your perspective – he also provides a platform for liberals, intellectuals, scientists, dissenters, and most recently an Iraqi female atheist named Lubna whose identity has to be hidden for her safety and for the safety of her family. Lubna is not a celebrity or public figure, she is being given a platform purely so people can be aware of the plight of secular people’s in the Middle East, a worthy cause I’m sure you’d agree. I had the pleasure of speaking with Lubna briefly on twitter a few weeks ago. A truly courageous person, facing some impossible decisions going forward. I assume not many will be whining about the fact that Rubin let her speak with impunity about her situation or her views. Of course, some Islamists would do this and much more, because her views are deeply offensive to them. And with that I hope you take my point.

In Defence of The Rubin Report: Long Live the Circle Jerk!

Support the Muslim Reform Movement I Implore Thee

If you haven’t signed the Muslim Reform Movement’s petition yet, you simply must. Muslim reformers are becoming more vocal, or perhaps more accurately, are gaining more traction in the media, and are starting to organize themselves very well, as the MRM demonstrates. The reforming voices are acting like a beacon for others, and as that beacon shines brighter, the shadowy figure of Islamism and Islamic Conservatism is being pushed out to the fringes. Alas, we will never be rid of them completely, with scripture like the Quran or the Bible anchored to a concept of an omniscient and omnipotent God, extremism will never truly disappear. But as it was with Christianity, Islamism whether jihadist or conservative, is more mainstream than many Muslim’s care to admit.

As an atheist I love debating the existence of God and the truth claims of religion. It’s an important conversation to have. It improves ones reasoning skills and sharpens ones character by mere participation. Atheists and Christians have been having this conversation for some time now. We take for granted the fact, that this was not always the case, and it’s certainly not the case for too many Muslim’s in the 21st Century. Whether you’re a Muslim living in Saudi Arabia or Britain, or just attempting to have the conversation in the family home–where you should feel the safest–in all these cases, too often, Muslim’s are gambling with their lives and their freedom, and risking social isolation and desertion by family members and peers. Reformers have the unenviable task of not only legitimizing an interpretation of Islam that allows for their groups declaration, that they’ve collectively and so beautifully constructed; but they must also render such conversations about truth and God, benign and mainstream. Now this isn’t to say I want reformers to break down these barriers so I can pull out Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists in order to convert more Muslim’s to atheism. That would be a cynical mission indeed, and some Muslim’s fear that allowing such conversations to take place, will water down the faith, and therefore won’t give an inch. They can relax, this isn’t an atheist conspiracy.

The Regressive Left often fuel this fear. It’s fairly easy to dismiss atheists, and among the Regressive Left, it appears even easier to dismiss ex-Muslim and reforming voices by labeling them native informants or house Muslim’s–a reprehensible and slanderous smear against the brave men and women that have taken up this challenge–in any case the more Muslim voices out there, like the members of the MRM; the less hysteria and frustration there will be from people whose only experience of Islam, are either shouts of Allahu Akbar moments before explosions and gunfire fill the air, or Islamist bully tactics, or the evasive apologism and denial of moderate Muslim’s, who are adamant there is no problem with Islam, while the former’s continue to dominate the news and the debate (if one could call it that).

So ubiquitous is the idea of an angry, aggrieved, apologist Muslim, that reading or watching a Muslim that doesn’t fit the image can be quite startling to some. I noticed this recently when Asra Q. Nomani–herself a member of the newly formed MRM–surprised her CNN host, by agreeing with mothers in Virginia, who were upset about the Shahada (the Muslim declaration naming Allah as the one true God and the prophet Mohammed as his messenger) being incorporated into a lesson on Arabic calligraphy at Riverheads High School. “When you hear a story like that, what do you think?” the host asked. “Well I am a mother in Virginia, and I wouldn’t have wanted this assignment in my son’s school”. The reaction is quite amusing, the hosts bemused “Hmmm”, and the shifting in her seat was priceless. She was clearly taken aback. If Asra had of said, “you know, as a Muslim I think it’s disgusting how these mothers can be so islamophobic, the Shahada is beautiful, this is a racist school and as a mother in Virginia I would have taken my son out of that school to keep him from such vicious bigotry”, dollars to donuts, the CNN host wouldn’t have batted an eye, and neither would most viewers. Instead, Asra, a Muslim, stood up for secularism, shocking! They’re out there folks and we need to support the reformers and give them the biggest platform possible. SOLIDARITY!

Support the Muslim Reform Movement I Implore Thee

A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Caveat: I know Maajid is not an apostate! I say it tongue and cheek.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance gives readers something which feels almost alien – a cordial, open, honest conversation about the challenges of reforming Islam. As I turned each page I found myself anticipating (perhaps wanting?) to see a cataclysmic locking of horns (Infidel vs. Apostate). This epic cage match never eventuated. In fact the only part in the book remotely resembling an impasse, pertained to the reading of Islamic history in the sections ‘Nature of Islam’ and ‘Finding the Way Forward’. The disagreement was of little consequence to the overall discussion. What was particularly gratifying was seeing Sam’s eagerness to learn from Maajid, demonstrating again – unlike some of his opponents – just how open he is to new ideas. Initially Sam took the backseat in the conversation, and adopted more of an interviewers’ style, seeking clarification around the concepts and definitions on offer. When one reads the book you come to understand Sam’s admission that he was the one most changed by their conversation, which makes the suggestion that Maajid is Sam’s lapdog, simply absurd.

The conversation becomes more even-handed as you read on. Still – although I didn’t do a word count – it seemed Maajid got the bigger slice of the dialogue. I was quite happy about that, I read Sam all the time, and I know his views fairly well. Maajid has one other book – Radical, a memoir which I highly recommend – and his public appearances and articles, provide a pretty clear picture of his own views. However, the depth and nuances of those views really come to the fore in this book and it was all the more gripping for that reason. There is a feeling throughout that Sam is being cautious, as if he’s half expecting a backlash of the sort he has become accustomed. He rather amusingly even “bends over backwards” to articulate a position held by his detractors to gauge Maajid’s reaction (surely, Maajid must, at the least, agree with his opponents here, this conversation is going too well, with a little too much agreement!). If that is indeed what Sam was doing, I certainly can’t fault him for it. Too often people appear liberal and interested in honest discussion and turn out to be just another religious apologist. I too found myself reading Maajid, waiting for something to object to on those grounds. Thankfully that moment never came to pass.

Maajid does a great job demonstrating the nuances in scriptural interpretation and how literalism doesn’t necessarily equate to bad (a view Sam understands as his Jainism example shows). As an example he used the stance of the Hanafi School – which were closest to the time of prophet – regarding the prohibition of khamr (alcohol). In essence the word khamr relates to alcohol derived from grapes, so the prohibition therefore, only relates to wine. Maajid points out this is a literalist argument, making the blanket ban on alcohol an interpretation that was successful in supplanting the traditional view. In regards to the murder of infidels he asks, does “smite their necks” translate to “smite their necks today?” Good point, however, I would ask, if God thought it permissible during the war against infidels of the period – and clearly many Muslims feel history is repeating itself – what are the chances an omniscient deity would have a different view in 2015? Do we really need another prophet to tell us whether that edict is applicable today? It’s when you start tying scripture to actual concepts of God – what He is and what powers He possesses – that you run into problems. A better way to allow reform to grow, would be to divorce the two, which sadly can’t be done.

The alcohol example actually indicates both a solution and a problem. The solution being there is wiggle room here. The problem being that it hinges on arguing for interpretations which, whether scripturally viable or not, have to, at least, be better argued than current interpretations enabling the problems we see, and will need to be argued for as long as Islam permeates the religious landscape. Whatever one takes away from the alcohol example, one point has to be that the interpretation which bans all alcohol won over many Muslim communities. Also, Sam rightly points out that some interpretations are more plausible than others, and even if reform was achieved; if someone or some group in the future reads the texts uncritically, and is anchored to the concept of God and the belief that the Quran is the inerrant, eternal word of God – in line with the Asha’ira school – then religious barbarism can be renewed again and again. So whilst I agree it’s certainly unrealistic to apostatize 1.6 billion Muslims; can even Maajid deny that it would be a hell of a lot easier? Again it comes back to what people believe is at stake. The interpretations that get you a more liberal Islam are not just difficult because the cases are not well argued, or there isn’t scriptural justifications for them. It also has something to do with the consequences of getting it wrong. If you believe in God and read the Quran and Hadith, it is understandable why you may conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t dovetail with modern society. Whereas if you misinterpret Shakespeare – unless you’re an academic and have written a patently ridiculous interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, that draws ridicule from your peers – then there is not much at stake.

With all that said this book was a thrilling read and – if you will allow me this cliché – a breath of fresh air. They cover a lot of ground from the role of foreign policy to the Regressive left and the differences between Islamism, Jihadism, and conservatism among the world’s Muslims. They touch on belief as drivers of behavior, the challenges of having this conversation in other contexts and locations, what it means for women to have this conversation and so on. You won’t read this book and come away with all the answers to your questions or a blueprint of how to reform Islam. Rather you will go away with a better understanding of the issues, a renewed hope in civil discourse, and the knowledge that you were a small part of what will be seen as the kick starter, for the reform of Islam. Not to take anything away from the many men and women – in some cases children – (Muslim and non-Muslim), who have been working on this front, but I would not be too begrudging if these two gentlemen were most remembered as the founding fathers of this effort.

Two asides:

  • Maajid says in the book that doctrines are the construct of human beings which is true. However, one of those human beings is thought to be a prophet. This legitimizes his interpretation of the word of God more than any ensuing theologian. And if God came down tomorrow and said “hey, ISIS has the right of it, stop bastardizing my words with your liberal interpretation”. What then? This may seem like an insincere question but I assure you I am wholly sincere. After all people readily buy into the idea that God has come down from the heavens on different occasions to deliver his word to the people, utilizing prophets like Moses and Mohammed. If it were to happen again, and that was his message, would we or would Maajid as a Muslim, tell him to go fuck himself. Or would, or rather should we be joining ISIS to defeat the infidels and re-establish the caliphate?
  • Maajid highlights what I consider to be a loophole that gets Muslims out of some the more undesirable edicts in Islam. He mentioned that in one tradition, the prophet Mohammed channeled the word of God and addressed believers stating “Oh, my people if you don’t sin and repent, I will bring a people more blessed than you who will sin and who do repent, because I want your repentance”. This he says led some schools within Islam to advocate for their right to sin. Well one could simply appease Him here. Sure I will drink and attend a strip club in the infidel’s homeland and for this I will repent. Then tomorrow, I and eighteen of my brothers will wage Jihad against the infidel, and if my interpretation of scripture is wrong in this regard, well then I may simply repent for that too. Of course, if God did indeed say that, well what is he playing at? This is another reason why I can’t bring myself to believe in Him. He seems such a contradictory, inconsistent, emotional, reactionary character!
A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance

The Delegitimization of Maajid Nawaz by Islamists, Regressive Left, and Atheists?

Caveats: Islamism = Islamist’s, Jihadists, conservatives. Atheists = anti-theists and atheists for brevity. I am aware of the nuances and Maajid’s definitions. I recognize the kinds of atheists herein are the minority. This is not about agreeing with liberal interpretations of Islamic scripture, it’s about delegitimizing those that do and taking focus away from reform.

The terror attacks in the US during 2001 has muddied the waters – of an age old problem – referred to herein as Islamism. From this slimy swamp the wretched dregs of liberalism emerged to form a maleficent subsection, newly and aptly labelled the Regressive Left. While others attempt honest dialogue, they aim to undermine and distort. Years on, the victors in the court of public opinion are the Regressives, who invariably view the world via the narrow lenses of colonialism and modern Western imperialism, and deny non-whites their human agency. Their patronizing logic boils down to this “Behavior of brown people is dependent on the behaviors of white people”, which is itself racist. When a member of the “hapless browns” challenge their uncritical support for the victim-hood narrative – and refuse to fit their brown angry profile – they short-circuit, and ironically fling bigoted pejoratives like “House Muslim”, to quash dissent.

The fact is – despite stubborn denial – beliefs matter, and Islamic scripture (historically and presently) enables beliefs that wreak havoc across the globe. Commentators who point out what should be an uncontroversial connection, are often shouted down, defamed and denounced as bigots. This month the former Islamist turned liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz and reason advocate and atheist Sam Harris, released their collaborative effort titled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance”. The easily predicted attacks on Maajid’s character were personal and vitriolic from both Islamist’s and Regressives seeking to delegitimize him. Sadly, another group is now delegitimizing Maajid’s voice – albeit not in that fashion – my fellow atheists! We’ve long bemoaned the fact that not enough Muslims acknowledge the link between scripture and harmful behaviors. Well Maajid is one of our most important allies in this respect. I’m dismayed by the tone of atheists who argue Maajid isn’t sufficiently Muslim because his liberalism doesn’t conform to their perception of Islamic scripture. This should be music to our ears. Instead, in recent times it’s been met with harsh criticisms of his intellectual integrity.

However, as an atheist I understand the impulse. Surely, if one truly believes the creator of the universe revealed the one true faith to the prophet Muhammad, then all of the edicts in the quran and hadith are valid – to the letter. The prospect of gods’ wrath and awaiting hell-fire makes scriptural literalism a reasonable strategy to avoid damnation. Unfortunately for us, Islamic scripture has much to say about infidels, which is set out in alarming detail – ad nauseam. Additionally, an omniscient and omnipotent deity could have provided clarification in ensuing centuries when it became clear his followers had misunderstood jihad, or at the very least, inform them that murdering infidels only applied to a specific period – alas, clarification hasn’t been offered us. Moreover, an omniscient deity should have anticipated these issues! Therefore, atheists, including Sam Harris (and myself), view ISIS, not as perverters of Islamic doctrine, but rather – given what is prescribed in the text(s) – a very logical and inevitable manifestation among those that truly believe Muhammed was privy to, and tasked with the dissemination of, the perfect word of god. And because Maajid’s interpretation is light years away from scriptural literalism, well he might as well not be Muslim at all, right?

Amusingly this is what Islamist’s believe, “he is non-Muslim, a kafir”. It appears Maajid is not just a “native Informant” as Regressives would have us believe, he’s an undercover agent as well. Of course he isn’t the only believer to be accused of this. Bill Maher – far from an Islamist – uses similar tones when he claims the seemingly liberal positions held by Pope Francis indicate covert atheism (a clandestine atheist Pope is unlikely given the failures of the Vatican’s PR campaign to date). Regardless, such claims fuel the idea that believers who unshackle themselves from scriptural literalism – and are best placed to reform the faith – cease being legitimate. This method is often applied by Islamist’s to silence calls for reform, and on the other hand, pernicious Regressives deny the agency of reformers by branding them the puppets of privileged white men (talking monkey anyone?). We needn’t compound this kind of delegitimization just because we find moderate interpretations of Islamic scripture (or any other) logically incoherent.

Some atheists do applaud reform efforts, but would much rather debate Maajid on the existence of god. Whilst an interesting conversation to have. In the current climate, our priority should be reform. After all, belief in god when detached from harmful doctrines, is significantly less detrimental than the current state of affairs. Further, I’ll preemptively parry likely counters about creationists bastardising science, by noting that creationism, also stems from scriptural literalism, and I’d include this in my definition of harmful doctrines. Therefore, on this score I can only appeal to the infinite wisdom of our savior. The late Christopher Hitchens (drinks be upon him). During the rewarding conversation between the famed Four Horsemen, Hitchens stunned Richard Dawkins when he remarked “would I want this argument [god/religion] to end? …no I want the argument to go on”. In other words, given the chance to eradicate belief, he wouldn’t do it. In keeping with this sentiment, if there is one person’s faith I’d be happy to leave intact, it would be Maajid’s.

Lastly, the term “new atheism” is a misnomer. Modern atheists belong to a long tradition of critical and secular thinkers. It’s our patience and willingness to keep silent that is at record lows, and – thanks to freedom of speech (don’t get me started), and social media – outspoken atheists are at record highs. We’re also more attuned to the plight of atheists abroad who are risking their lives just to be heard, this is an inspiring time. But what can we do to help those living under the yoke of Islamism? Is it even possible to reason religion from the world? Probably not, and even if possible, many would have perished in the interim. It’s more practical, at this time, to form alliances with religious moderates that are honest about the problems with their faith, and it is important not to continuously undermine them to the glee of our basest opposition. In order for atheists worldwide to challenge Islam in a safe environment, let alone debate the existence of god, reformation needs to occur. We won’t get there by delegitimizing our most valuable allies. ~ Blogidarity!

The Delegitimization of Maajid Nawaz by Islamists, Regressive Left, and Atheists?