Liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz is currently touring Australia on a number of speaking engagements. As such he appeared yesterday on an Australian Talk Show called The Drum to discuss his approach to Islamic reform and counter radicalism. He appeared on the panel with a Muslim human rights activist and ‘refugee advocate’ named Sara Saleh who proceeded to trot out a spectacularly shambolic and confused diatribe against him that, in any sane world, should instantly undermine her as somebody having any competence to speak on the subject of Human Rights.
This is a performance every bit as ill-informed and cringe-worthy as Ben Affleck’s flustered, regressive ambush of Sam Harris in 2014 and one which echoes his barely concealed animosity. Harris believes that Affleck was probably unfamiliar with his work, was fed misinformation about his views by one of his ideological foes, and decided to attack him on those grounds rather than actually confronting the points Harris raised. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the same set of circumstances are in play here.
In Nawaz urging that a distinction be made between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism and in his explanation of the complex radicalisation process, Saleh apparently finds a simplistic, binary point of view. In Nawaz challenging theocracy and promoting secularism, Saleh apparently finds an extremist position. In Nawaz saying that he doesn’t speak for Muslims, Saleh apparently finds a “gatekeeper of what it is to be a Muslim.” Saleh made a concerted effort to completely misunderstand virtually every single thing that Nawaz said. If this is not the response of somebody going out of their way to deliberately ignore the content of the argument in order to reel off a pre-rehearsed, generalised rebuttal I’d be very surprised.
Bizarrely, she goes on to essentially take issue with Nawaz’s belief that … his own views are correct. In all the years that I’ve been watching debates of this kind, this has to be the single most baffling and perfunctory objection I’ve ever heard. I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ acerbic response to a debate opponent who thoughtlessly complained “well that’s your opinion Christopher”. He replied “well would you prefer it if I were to utter your opinion? What a fatuous remark.”
When Nawaz understandably asks for specific examples of extremism implicit in his opening remarks, Saleh offers Nawaz’s implication that secularism is morally superior to theocracy.
Read that again.
This human rights campaigner objects to the idea that the separation of church and state, the equality of all people, and the guarantee of religious freedom is in some way more conducive to human wellbeing than the precepts of a single religion being enforced upon society.
It’s no surprise to hear this kind of sinister buffoonery from notorious Islamists such as Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a self-proclaimed human rights activist make such a thinly-veiled defence of theocratic dictatorship. Even the closet jihad sympathisers at CAGE UK would struggle to make such an announcement publicly with a straight face.
Saleh’s apparent disapproval of secularism stems from her distaste for “sexism, homophobia, capitalism and exploitative practices” which she somehow blames on the practice of separating state power from religious power. Nawaz asks her outright whether or not she supports secularism and then notes that her unwillingness to answer is somewhat telling.
It’s genuinely hard to tell if Saleh is herself an Islamist or whether she just bats for them. Regressive leftists and Islamic supremacists are increasingly difficult to tell apart nowadays. Either way, as if Saleh felt a need to reinforce the idea that she is completely out of her depth in discussing these issues sensibly, she follows up with another arse-brained attempt to illustrate Nawaz’s extremism by explaining that violent extremism is a background hum in all walks of life and to concentrate on confronting the Islamic strain currently rampaging across the globe is a racialized point of view.
And there we have it. For a British Pakistani and former Islamic extremist to promote secular democratic values and to challenge Islamic extremism, is to prosecute an agenda of racial bigotry. Saleh has played the trump card of the regressive left a mere 29 seconds after bemoaning the application of the ‘regressive left’ label. If nothing else, her timing is impressive.
A few minutes go by before Saleh feels the compulsion to open her mouth again but when she does finally interject she doesn’t disappoint. Intent not to deviate from the theme of utterly vacuous, irony laden tosh that characterised her previous remarks, she complains about Nawaz’s usage of the word Islamist. Specifically, she opposes describing people who wish to impose their version of Islam over society as “people who wish to impose their version of Islam over society.” I shit you not.
Despite all these nods to her support for political Islam, Saleh obviously still doesn’t feel she’s tipped her hand sufficiently and decides to put her cards on the table with an outright assertion that there doesn’t need to be a limitation that rules out theocracy and Islamism as viable alternatives to secularism. A bewildered Nawaz replies with a semi-rhetorical question posed to Saleh directly: “Surely you believe theocracy is wrong?!” Her reply is at least honest: “Do I need to?”
She then attempts to begin relieving herself of another bowel full of moral relativism and gets as far as questioning whose standards decide that secularism is morally superior to theocracy before a fellow guest taps her on the arm and essentially tells her to shut up and let Nawaz talk.
I’ve never heard of Sara Saleh before and I can find virtually nothing about her online – apparently she locked her Twitter account subsequent to the broadcast of this show. I’ve got no idea if she flaunts her Islamist sympathies openly or hides them under the veil of supposed moderation. I struggle to believe that this is the first time she’s been so incompetent at disguising her beliefs and her support for the concept of a theocratic Islamic state. As such, I do wonder why the hosts of these shows don’t just introduce these people as theocrats and be upfront about it. At least the conversation could be had honestly and openly without the misapprehension that people introduced as Human Rights Activists actually oppose theocracy. Either way, it’s little wonder that Sara Saleh stands so resolutely in opposition to the work of counter-extremists like Nawaz when they threaten the extremist narrative that she so clearly supports.