I sent this letter to Rachel Maddow three times over a period of two months (slight edits in each iteration) and have received no response from Maddow or her team.
In your program on the Orlando terror attack, you made the incredibly important point that Muslims don’t have a lock on bigotry. You featured a couple of extremely discriminatory preachers on the Christian Right. Bravo.
Nevertheless, it is the next step that defines the impact of liberalism in the world, and perhaps even the future of liberalism and the left.
When we leftists see discrimination around the world, we criticize, march, demonstrate, and raise money. We take action. And we are aggressively critical of reactionary politics on the “Christian Right.” When we see discrimination on the “Muslim Right,” however, we often do NOT take action. In fact, we do the opposite. Leftists tend to block criticism and action. Instead of hitting the streets to fight discrimination on the Muslim Right (both in the Muslim world and in the West), leftists often direct attention away from the discrimination, as you did on your program.
The unfortunate result of this strategy is that the victims of Muslim bigotry have no champions — or certainly very few champions on the left. Sadly, leftists are doing a better job of protecting Muslim bigots from criticism than standing up against their bigotry. When it comes to reactionary politics on the Muslim Right, western leftists are more passionate about protecting the bigots than the victims of their bigotry and supremism.
Let me share a few avoidance and misdirection tactics that we see everyday form our fellow leftists. I’m sure you will recognize all of them.
“Don’t criticize that act of Muslim discrimination because…”
· “Not all Muslims are bigots.” BUT neither are all Christians — nevertheless we find a way to stand up against bigotry on the Christian Right.
· “Islam is diverse / not monolithic.” BUT so is Christianity — and yet here we are standing up against bigotry by Christians.
· “Criticizing Islamic extremism will offend Muslims.” BUT the vast majority of Muslims are moderate and peaceful and therefore won’t be (or shouldn’t be) offended by criticism of bigotry on the Muslim Right. Many Muslims in the West are escaping oppression by radical Islamists. Only the bigots themselves will be offended, and it would be absurd to withhold critique of bigotry because it might hurt the feelings of the bigots.
· “Criticizing Islam and/or Muslims incites Islamophobia; there could be a violent backlash.” BUT criticism of every group runs that same risk. We can’t stop all political critique out of fear of misinterpretation. We have to be responsible in our critique, of course, but we must continue fighting against all forms of oppression despite the risks. In any case, the fact that this caution is only applied to Muslims proves that it is disingenuous anyway—another tactic for defending Muslim bigots from criticism.
· “Who are you to criticize another culture / religion?” Sensitivity to other cultures is indeed important, BUT critique from within and without are both acceptable and valuable. It would be totally unrealistic to insist that only Christians on the right are allowed to criticize the Christian Right; that only Jews are allowed to criticize Israeli policy; that only Germans are allowed to criticize Nazism; etc. While reformation comes from within, external pressure can be honest, ethical, and valuable. Any human being can stand up for human rights and speak out against discrimination, racism, and injustice. What happens when there are no champions for women’s rights in Afghanistan (because the champions have been censored or killed)? Are Afghani women destined for eternal oppression because outsiders don’t want to judge Afghani culture? That would be a shameful and disingenuous position to take.
Criticizing racism is not racist. Further, tolerance of other cultures and religions should be extremely generous, BUT only to a point: we have no obligation to tolerate intolerance. Critique, of course, must be respectful, fair, honest, and rational, rather than being mean-spirited, slanderous, hate speech. But we have no moral obligation to protect bigots from critique. And we are negligent (as reporters, intellectuals, citizens of the world) if we suppress/censor news about discrimination and violence done in the name of any ideology, culture, or religion, including radical Islam and the “Muslim Right.”
Let me make my point one last time by reversing the tables. What would you say to this?
Question: “Those Christian preachers are saying the most morally repugnant things about the LGTBQ community. Don’t we have to stand up against them in some way?” Answer: “Ah, don’t worry about it. Christianity doesn’t have a lock on discrimination against gays. There is some pretty horrible discrimination against LGTBQ in the Muslim world as well. In some countries, Muslims are throwing gays off roofs. And besides, Christianity is highly diverse and the vast majority of Christians are moderate and peaceful. It’s not right to paint them all with a broad brush stroke. Just leave it alone.”
Question: “There is significant oppression of women in conservative Christian communities around the world. What should we do about it?” Answer: “Don’t worry, Christianity doesn’t have a lock on discrimination against women. In some Muslim communities we are still seeing clitoridectomies (FGM), honor killings, sex slavery, gender apartheid, blaming women for rape, stoning women for adultery, and so on. So just leave it alone. And besides, who are you to judge the Christians and their unique culture—you are not Christian, so that kind of critique is kind of bigoted (discriminatory), don’t you think? And we certainly wouldn’t want to create a backlash against innocent Christians, most of whom are moderate. Just leave it alone.”
As soon as you turn the tables, you can see how ridiculous those arguments are. But they are not only ridiculous. They are a complete abrogation of ethics. And they are aiding and abetting racism, discrimination, and terror.
If you do nothing against discrimination, you are tacitly accepting it. And if you block criticism of discrimination, then you are aiding and abetting that discrimination.
How can we (on the left) have the moral high ground if we stand against discrimination everywhere in the world with the exception of discrimination by Muslims? How can we have the moral high ground if we stand against Islamophobia but tolerate supremism and racism by extremist Muslims? We can’t. But at the end of the day this is not about maintaining the moral high ground. It is a question about the kind of world we want to live in. It is a question about the kind of world we create when we criticize (stand up against) some forms of discrimination but not others; when we protect certain bigots from criticism; and when we defend people who hate us and our values—including the values that defend their rights and that enable different peoples to live together peacefully in a multi-cultural society. (To put things into perspective: all Western societies, however flawed, are far more liberal and multi-cultural than fundamentalist Islamic states. Likewise, Israel is far more liberal and multi-cultural than Gaza and the West Bank. And Netanyahu is far, far, far to the left of Mashal and Abbas.)
No matter how many times we deconstruct the concept of universal human rights, the left should always work to protect women, LGTBQ, Jews, and other vulnerable minorities from discrimination, racism, oppression, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the like. Muslim supremism is every bit as repugnant and dangerous as white and Christian supremacism.
I think many people are fooled by the fact that Muslims are a tiny minority in Saskatchewan and Montana. All they see is how much that tiny, vulnerable minority needs protection. What they forget is that Muslims are a great civilization on this planet, a majority religion, with 50+ states, the largest voting block at the UN, oil wealth, and almost a quarter of the world’s population. Globally, Muslims are not the little guy. There are one of the big guys. And as one of the big guys they need to be subjected to constant and vigilant critique—not coddling, enabling, and appeasement. Every point at which Islam spills into politics — engages in political ideology — must be subjected to legitimate political critique, just like every other ideology on the planet. And for the very same reasons: promoting justice and defending human rights.
This is a Western value we can be proud of: holding the big powers accountable so they don’t oppress the little guys. This applies equally to the Christian Right and Muslim Right. Our critique of radical Islam has nothing to do with the moderate and peaceful majority of Muslims. In fact, we should expect moderate Muslims to join us in opposing Islamist supremacism and terror.