Since the appalling attack in Christchurch, New Zealand by a White Supremacist Anti-Muslim terrorist, public focus has refreshingly fallen upon the ideology of the attacker. There has been next to nothing of the usual dismissal of stated motive, concerns over potential backlash, or calls to consider the political grievances of this terrorist. Much scrutiny has also fallen upon the kind of remarks made by critics of Islam, and speculation has begun to take place as to whether such criticism played a part in prompting this devastating massacre.
Reluctant to miss an opportunity to disparage “movement atheism”, this has rather predictably become the topic of a new Life After God podcast hosted by atheist ex-Pastor Ryan Bell (@RyanJBell), and guested by ex-Muslim illustrator and podcast host in her own right, Eiynah Mohammed-Smith (@NiceMangos).
Many familiar with Mohammed-Smith will doubtless recognise her as somebody with an uncanny ability to systematically alienate friends, colleagues, supporters, and allies, with such robotic efficiency I’d be surprised if her Christmas card list wasn’t a post-it note with her own name on it. I was therefore amused to see her enlisted by Ryan Bell as an apparent authority on delicately treading the tightrope between reasonable, diplomatic critique, and carpet bombs of ridicule, contempt, and intolerance.
However, being that Mr Bell has likewise made a habit of attacking the very people who offered him generosity and publicity over the years, it’s perhaps only natural that he should misconstrue the carping and energetically divisive Eiynah as an expert in constructive and considerate dialogue. A Seventh-day Adventist pastor of 19 years, when Bell ended his association with the church and eventually abandoned religion all together, he was financially and emotionally supported by the atheist community during his period of unemployment, and a long-awaited yet still undelivered documentary about his conversion to atheism was crowdfunded by these people. Bell, in return, has set about taking shots at prominent members of this community in recent years, and the movement in general, with plodding regularity.
Indeed the sniping intolerance of Bell and Eiynah was on full display even in the simple act of promoting this podcast on Twitter. Ryan billed it as a conversation on whether one can be a critic of Islam Without Being An Anti-Muslim Bigot and, unsurprisingly, a handful of Twitter users took the opportunity to offer an answer to this prosaic and rather obvious question.
“Islam, just like any other religion, is a set of ideas, any idea can be subject to scrutiny” suggested one person. The tactful and welcoming response from Ms Mangos was a sarcastic brain explosion meme and a small volley of contemptuous humiliation which she quote-tweeted for the amusement of her 15 thousand followers.
“Yes RationalGeniusBrain…Why you parroting shit everyone in this convo already knows…2015 called and it wants its basic ass Sam Harris line back” she delicately explained before blocking this person. When he complained about this unwarranted outburst, Bell replied that he probably deserved it and also issued a block.
“I can’t stand echo chambers. Or the people who choose to live in them” said the unfortunate Tweeter afterwards. “I had never heard of this chick before but for a brief second I actually considered giving the podcast a listen just to hear a possible dissenting opinion. Now I don’t give a fuck what she has to say.”
This is by no means a one off lapse of congeniality. The mere mention of Eiynah’s name on Twitter brings forth an unending swarm of people keen to testify that they too have been subjected to her snarky and condescending castigation in response to polite and trivial disagreements. Amusing then, that Bell ends up choosing as the opening gambit of his podcast, a reiteration of his admiration for Eiynah’s apparent ability to maintain “balance and sensitivity in her dialogue with people.” In a charitable mood, I might put this down to him being unaware of Eiynah’s needless hostility towards minor dissent. Yet Ryan has also found himself on the receiving end of this petty behaviour.
Somewhat inevitably, Bell ended up in breach of Eiynah’s unfeasibly exacting standards last year by having the effrontery to agree with a comment that…she also agreed with. When Tommy Robinson was grilled by Sky News, Eiynah disapprovingly posted a quote from the interview in which Robinson declared that he considers his own moral compass to supersede that of certain UK laws. Bell pointed out that he agreed with Robinson’s remark while maintaining that he disapproved of everything else Robinson had to say in the interview (and possibly ever) and indeed of Robinson himself.
These caveats were insufficient in preventing Eiynah from indulging in a bout of passive-aggressive cry-bullying towards the hapless Bell who quickly attempted to retreat with his tail between his legs. Eiynah then went on to explain that she in fact also agreed with Robinson’s statement but objected to anyone else voicing their agreement on the basis that they don’t possess the necessary verbal sophistication to avoid being misconstrued as endorsing Robinson. Or something. Having been scolded for uttering an identical opinion to the one Eiynah holds, Bell then bravely fell in line and announced that he agreed with every word of Eiynah’s bizarre policing of him.
Thankfully, with Bell’s capitulation, the relationship remained intact and allowed them to team up for this podcast, which consists primarily of jaded expressions of sanctimonious disapproval towards prominent ex-Muslims and liberal critics of Islam for having their voices “hijacked by the far-right”, and for their apparent hypocrisy in response to the New Zealand atrocity.
“Don’t blame the critics of Islam” Eiynah paraphrases as the complaint of people objecting to those exploiting the horrific carnage in Christchurch to settle political scores. “And it’s like it’s such a double standard from when there’s an Islamist attack. It’s like, you know, there’s a kind of blame thrown at the whole Muslim world, at like, you know, at this ideology. So that hypocrisy is something to witness.”
Maajid Nawaz is named as a prime culprit for this supposed inconsistency. It is suggested that he objects to naming the ideology of the Christchurch terrorist, a reluctance which is in direct contradiction to his championing of the term “Islamist terrorism”. Sam Harris, predictably, is also offered up as someone who hypocritically insists that we take Jihadists at their word with respect to their motives, but fails to carry this reasoning through to white supremacists.
All of which is utter nonsense of course.
Sam Harris, in the days following this attack, described it as “a horrific act of terrorism…directed at Muslims by an avowed fascist and white supremacist.” He went on to express concern over the increased prevalence of the killer’s ideology and to reiterate his total opposition to it:
“It certainly suggests that the problem of white nationalism is in fact a global one and this massacre is certainly one ominous sign that it’s getting worse. And of course white nationalism is an ideology that I utterly oppose. One would certainly hope that that last part could go without saying.”
Harris then states in unambiguous terms, the issue he has with much of the subsequent rhetoric:
“Pornographers of grief and grievance (have) come out of the woodwork to smear anyone who’s ever said a critical word about Islam. And they’re intent upon silencing people…and in some cases I’m convinced that these people are actually hoping to get us all killed. That’s how sinister some of these efforts are. To be clear: they’re doing this knowing what my politics actually are. They know that I oppose white nationalism, and Christian identitarianism, and Trumpism, and fascism as much as anyone.”
Maajid, for his part, published an article in the Daily Beast four days after the Christchurch attack, referring to the motive as “far-right extremism” and “white nationalist ideology” whilst unequivocally spelling out his complaints about the responses to it:
“They hounded a pregnant Chelsea Clinton; they have taken to compiling blacklists of individuals they do not like; and they are calling for the deplatforming of ‘right-wing’ pundits and protests against ‘right-wing’ media…Only the extremist seeks to erase all opposition.”
He went on to correct the misguided attribution of blame:
“It is crucial to distinguish between those who peddle anti-Muslim hatred, and those like my friend Sam Harris who simply wish to scrutinise one of the world’s great religions, my religion: Islam. To confuse hating all Muslims with critiquing the doctrines of Islam, is akin to confusing anti-smoking campaigns with hating all smokers… So just as it would be wrong to blame critics of western foreign policy generally for jihadist terror in the West, it should be unacceptable to use this latest attack to blame critics of Islam or immigration, or to seek to silence the political right generally.”
Maajid’s complaint is clearly with people engaging in the irresponsible and cynical tactic of singling out high profile critics of Islam and/or immigration and holding them responsible for the actions of a racist mass-murderer. Publicly naming prominent moderate Muslims and accusing them complicity in the wake of an Islamic atrocity would be rightfully met with widespread scorn. Laying culpability for 9/11 at the feet of Noam Chomsky, for example, on the basis that Bin Laden was a fan of his foreign policy diatribes, would be greeted with similar revulsion. Insisting that this approach should be met with the same rejection across the board is not hypocrisy. It’s consistency.
But then it tends to be the case that when Eiynah decides that someone she’s been supporting for years is in fact awful, she inexplicably loses the ability to understand their clearly expressed words. Having spent years pushing back against blatant misrepresentations of the views and statements of such people, she now mocks others for calling out these same misrepresentations, and ridicules the notion that these distortions actually occur, all the while contributing to the spread of them.
Bell intervenes at one point to voice his scepticism over the likelihood that one can truly dislike Islam without hating Muslims, and he compares those who claim to do so, to Christians claiming to “love the sinner but hate the sin.”
His argument here appears to be that disliking an illiberal and authoritarian man-made philosophy which is the source of immeasurable human suffering – including among its own adherents – is in some way equivalent to an irrational hatred of the natural sexual orientation of LGBT people. It’s not only a bad analogy but an offensive one.
It’s perfectly possible, and I’d argue essential, to realise that Muslims are people who have either chosen, or been indoctrinated into, a system of beliefs that they subscribe to, to wildly varying degrees. There are liberal Muslims, moderate Muslims, nominal Muslims, and Muslims for whom their faith is a deeply personal and spiritual matter which fails to impact the lives of others.
As such, it’s entirely within the bounds of possibility to fervently oppose the more questionable teachings of such a philosophy without assuming that all of its followers hold these views, and whilst recognising that those who do are likely victims of indoctrination. Even a dislike of certain individuals who do hold, and stridently promote, hateful theological attitudes is easily distinguishable from a blanket hatred of people based on their religious identity.
This is a point that appears lost on Bell. “If you think all Muslims are jihadists, get out of the house more and meet some of them” he proclaims with a strawman of such obviousness, it’s odd that the enthusiastically pedantic Eiynah lets it slide.
Nobody with an ounce of sense believes all Muslims to be jihadists, much less the people Ryan and Eiynah are criticising. On the contrary, their concern with this religion is invariably a concern for the well-being of its community. The oppression of Muslim women, the persecution of LGBT Muslims and ex-Muslims, and the stultification and abuse of Muslim children, all feature prominently on their list of complaints. It should go without saying that this not a concern shared by someone who marches into a mosque and guns down Muslims at random.
Kenan Malik attempts to make a similar point in attempting to defend against the unfair accusations made against Islam critics in a recent article:
“To see a direct line between (Douglas) Murray’s writing and the Christchurch killings is no more plausible than the claim that the Quran explains Jihadism.”
This, I suspect is well-meant, but dramatically understates and confuses the case.
Murray and his fellow travellers are fallible human beings who do not advocate nor endorse violence, and would be horrified to have ever inadvertently inspired it. They object not only to the actions, but to the ideology of the Christchurch terrorist. When Maajid Nawaz was beaten up by a racist thug outside a Soho Theatre, Murray described the situation as one in which “One of our worst citizens has assaulted one of our best.” Hardly the language of someone sympathetic to violent white nationalism.
The Quran, conversely, is held to be the inerrant word of God, and it mandates violence as a matter of life and death importance. The foundational texts of Islam can be plausibly interpreted as injunctions for explicit bigotry towards non-Muslims, and others, and divine incitement to violence against them– a demand rejected or ignored at the risk of eternal torture. This is a night and day difference in both intent, and in influential ability. It’s laughable therefore, to frame objections to those attempting to dishonestly equate the two, as an exercise in double standards.
Said foundational texts, and the behaviour they inspire, is the focus for Harris, Nawaz, and Murray. Conversely, rather than criticising pernicious ideologies or their tenets, Eiynah instead spends what must be her every waking moment bitterly vilifying people. Named individuals. And it’s invariably individuals who already have rather considerable security concerns. Prominent ex-Muslims risking their safety by operating without anonymity. Critics of Islam who are forced to spend much of their existence flanked by half a dozen bodyguards. Speakers whose public events necessitate metal detectors to screen audience members for weapons upon admittance. One would think that somebody so concerned about others having their criticisms co-opted by genuinely dangerous bigots, might exercise a modicum of restraint in their own rhetoric when disparaging such individuals.
But then personal grudges seem to take precedence here. Eiynah claims to have been temporarily hoodwinked by virtually every single secularist activist and freethinking sceptic she’s ever encountered, including entire “communities” and “movements”, into believing that they’re people worth supporting. Rather than considering the possibility that the issue may actually lie with her impossibly rigorous purity-testing, she instead seems content to paint herself as the worst judge of character since Mrs Fritzl.
It’s not much of an overstatement to say that the list of people she classes herself as a former fan of, and who she now vociferously opposes, could fill the 32 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica. If there was any doubt about this, it is vanquished when Bell asks Eiynah for recommendations of other ex-Muslim voices in this space and she concedes to being unable to name a single one she approves of. Brilliantly, the clueless Bell then attempts to help by offering up none other than Reza Aslan as an example of a prominent ex-Muslim who gets it right – and then immediately walks it back when Eiynah correctly points out that he’s not an ex-Muslim and that he’s dreadful.
Her inability to find a single voice she’s happy to promote is unsurprising. Eiynah demands unwavering compliance with her every subjective preference and the slightest deviation in views, tactics, or rhetoric, no matter how extensive the overall agreement, will often result in bitter dissatisfaction, instant excommunication, and a lifetime of gratuitous mockery. Amusing then that she falsely accuses Sam Harris fans of viewing him as some kind of messiah – an infallible borderline deity of superhuman perfection, incapable of error and immune to the flaws of mere mortals – yet is apparently the person on earth most crushingly disappointed to discover that he’s not.
However the characters Eiynah is more than happy to let sail through her purity tests with flying colours, include some of the most flagrantly dishonest smear merchants and bad-faith actors on Twitter, presumably on the basis that they share the same “enemies”.
This is a perfect distillation of how not to create an environment in which people feel welcomed into the conversation. A major theme of the Harris/Nawaz documentary Islam and the Future of Tolerance, deals with opening up discussion to a wider audience, inviting more contributors to the debate, and giving more people the confidence to have these conversations. After a tumultuous initial encounter, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz put aside their animosity and worked to overcome their differences with a spirit of openness. This resulted in an incredibly productive dialogue which serves as a perfect starting point for others to attempt the same.
Conversely, the intensely bitter and hostile behaviour of people like Eiynah and Bell ends up achieving the precise opposite, and is far more likely to create an atmosphere where newcomers with potentially interesting and effective approaches to this topic, are reluctant to dip a toe in the water.
And this is the crux of my problem with the likes of Eiynah and their conduct. This elitism and inexorable sneering has the potential to dissuade decent, well-meaning people from continuing to broach this massively important subject or from joining the conversation in the first place
There’s no room for middle ground. No room for civil disagreement or for good-faith debate on the most productive way to engage. It’s my way or the highway. And so there is an attitude of inclusivity and a genuine attempt to progress the conversation at one end of the spectrum, and an environment of condescension, enthusiastic dishonesty, and spiteful cliquery at the Eiynah and Bell end.
I know which end of the spectrum I prefer.