Letter: The Trouble With Staying Silent on Ideological Extremism

Omer Aziz responds to Graeme Wood’s earlier piece in The Atlantic (After Christchurch, Commentators Are Imitating Sebastian Gorka). Good debate and discussion between the two.

And yes, needs to be said, ideas, words and speech matter:

After the tragedy at Christchurch, New Zealand, Graeme Wood wrote recently, a funny thing happened: “Everyone discovered, all at once, that ideology matters.” But just as important as this recognition, Wood argued, is the ability to differentiate on an ideological spectrum. To fail to do so “leads to catastrophic blunders”: In The New York Times, for instance, “Omer Aziz accused the neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris, as well as the Canadian psychologist and lobster enthusiast Jordan Peterson, of complicity in mass murder for objecting to what they argued are overbroad applications of the word Islamophobia.”

“If we cannot distinguish Harris and Peterson from Richard Spencer, let alone Brenton Tarrant,” Wood wrote, “then our problems are bad indeed.”


There are several points I take contention with in Graeme Wood’s essay on the Christchurch massacre, which names me and two other writers for failing to make important ideological distinctions between the New Zealand killer and others who, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with him. Set aside the irony of taking writers to task for not making important ideological distinctions and then lumping in three diverse writers together, thereby failing to make those distinctions yourself. Wood’s major claim in the piece is that after Christchurch, “everyone discovered that ideology mattered”—white-nationalist and fascist ideology—and this was in contrast to the politically correct liberal response to jihadist violence, in which presumably these very same writers adequately distinguish Islamist terrorism from Muslims tout court.

Other writers can speak for themselves. In my case, I have written about the role that ideology and religion play in jihadist violence. Indeed, I have been influencedby Wood’s own work on this, and have discussed it with him, multiple times, in private and in public. I believe that there is always an ideological spectrum with respect to extremist violence, and the various shades of that spectrum ought to be interrogated, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable. That goes for Islamist violence, as it does for white-nationalist terror.

Wood takes especial issue with my mentioning of the neuroscientist Sam Harris in my piece for The New York Times. The exact words from that piece were:

People with millions of online followers have been incessantly preaching that Islamophobia is not the problem; Islam is. The Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson has said that Islamophobia is a “word created by fascists.” The neuroscientist Sam Harris has called it an “intellectual blood libel” that serves only to shield Islam from criticism.

Note that there is not the slightest intimation here that Peterson or Harris shares liability, responsibility, or guilt for the New Zealand massacre. It simply acknowledges the salient fact that prominent thinkers have been in Islamophobia-denial for a long time, even after Muslims were specifically targeted because of who they were and for no other reason.

Jordan Peterson is more complex, and his thinking about Islam and Muslims requires its own separate treatment. But Harris has been propounding vicious misinformation about Muslims for a decade. Does Wood not have an opinion on someone who warned about the “ominous” Muslim birth rates in Europe and published misleading statistics about them, the very same birth rates that the New Zealand killer was so tormented by in his manifesto? (And why would it be “ominous” if there are more brown people in Europe? For what it’s worth, at maximal levels of immigration, Muslims would account for 14 percent of Europe’s population in 2050, according to Pew. Those worried about the coming hordes of brown bodies can relax somewhat.)

It is not wrong to call out people who have been denying that a particular form of racism exists when this very racism becomes the central motivation of a live-streamed lynching of vulnerable people. By the logic of Graeme Wood’s own piece (that ideology matters) and by the logic of Sam Harris’s own ontology of Islam (that there are concentric circles of extremism, with jihadists in the middle and their enablers on the outer rings), the ideological spectrum of Islamophobia ought to have been probed more thoroughly. Instead, Wood is silent, dismissing all this as self-evidently not worth mentioning. A spectrum of ideology for thee, but not for me.

If casual Islamophobia is not on the same ideological spectrum as violent Islamophobia, why not? Are overt warnings about Muslim birth rates and “deranged” Muslims so acceptable now that they fail to register as extreme? Yes, Islamophobia is an imperfect term; that does not alter the reality the term describes, which, like anti-Semitism, is a particular form of racism. The methodology of Wood’s piece—of transposing words to highlight hypocrisies—might help here. Swap Muslim with Jewish, and you get Harris warning about Jewish birth rates in Europe, calling the Jewish world “deranged,” and claiming that anti-Semitism is a made-up word. Anyone using such language would be rightly condemned as anti-Semitic. I wonder whether Wood would still be silent then.

There are many enablers of Islamophobia today, Harris among them, and their consistent propounding of anti-Muslim myths has put Muslim lives at risk. Of course, there is no causal link between the intellectual enablers of Islamophobia and the New Zealand killer. To my knowledge, no serious writer has sought to draw such a link. Again: We are not discussing culpability; we are discussing an ideological spectrum in which subtle bigotry toward Muslims has become mainstream. These ideological enablers create a permissive environment for more dangerous ideas to fester. Calling them out is not a controversial idea. It’s applied to Muslims all the time.

“To fail to differentiate leads to catastrophic blunders,” Wood writes. I heartily agree. And an even greater moral disaster is the willful blindness toward an ideological spectrum when a white man is the one pulling the trigger. When you are silent on the ideological extremism of your friends, you inevitably aid the violent extremism of your enemies. In this case, it is not your voice that gives them license, but your silence on matters that you have deliberately overlooked.

Source: Letter: The Trouble With Staying Silent on Ideological Extremism

Our Brother, Our Executioner

Good commentary by Aziz:

Whenever someone used to ask me if I was Muslim, I often gave an evasive answer, something like, “I was born Muslim” or “My parents are Muslim.”

It was a strange way to phrase it. I told myself that the purpose of this hairsplitting was intellectual clarity, despite the fact that I had attended a mosque my entire childhood, that I had read the Quran in both Arabic and English, and that I felt personally connected to the history of Islam. Perhaps this was the natural recourse for someone who came of age after 9/11 and was taught to retreat into invisibility because of the dangers of being Muslim. I knew, in my heart, that I was drawing the distinction only to appear safer to white people, to show that I was one of the good ones, worthy of belonging.

This was not just respectability politics: It was an act of self-erasure.

On Friday, nearly 50 of my fellow Muslims were massacred in cold blood in New Zealand. Not murdered but lynched, their deaths live-streamed to the sound of laughter. I long ago ceased to feel shocked at the violence directed against my community. But the heartbreak still comes.

The killer knew which day to pick. Friday is the Islamic Sabbath, when Muslims gather in the mosque to bow their heads in devotion to the divine. As they prayed, they might have been thinking about their children at school or what to make for dinner, unaware that soon their loved ones would be washing their bodies in accordance with Islamic tradition, preparing for the funeral prayer, the only one in Islam that has no Athan, or call to prayer, because the Athan was recited into their ears when they were born. When these Muslims saw the white stranger enter the mosque, they would have had the Islamic greeting on their tongues: “Assalamu alaikum.” Peace be upon you.

We know from the terrorist’s recording that one of his first victims welcomed him with the words “Hello, brother.” Muslims have long been depicted as an uncivilized, warlike people, but the opposite is true. We want to belong, to be good neighbors, to call the white man who enters our place of worship our brother. Instead he turned out to be our executioner.

The Muslims at the two New Zealand mosques were liquidated not just by a man filled with hatred, but by the ideas that he clung to, ideas about racial superiority and who his country belonged to. This was true in Quebec, when Muslims were gunned down in their mosque in 2017. It was true in Pittsburgh, when Jews who had been helping Muslim refugees were murdered in their synagogue in 2018. It was true in Norway, when 77 people were killed by a white bigot. It was true in Charleston, when black churchgoers were mowed down by another radicalized white man. A pathology of hatred has spread around the world, and it has put all our lives at risk.

Islamophobia is not a fringe problem: It is embedded in much of Western society. For over two decades now — the span of an entire generation — the whole Muslim community has been forced to accept collective guilt and punishment for every act of terror or violence committed by one of its members. Never would, or should, this standard be applied to white people, who seem to have kept the privilege of individual differentiation for themselves.

This is what those who are suspicious of Muslims cannot grasp: that the definition of racism is an inability to discriminate between the old man with the skullcap and beard before you and the suicide-bomber you saw on TV.

And yet people with millions of online followers have been incessantly preaching that Islamophobia is not the problem; Islam is. The Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson has said that Islamophobia is a “word created by fascists.” The neuroscientist Sam Harris called it an “intellectual blood libel” that serves only to shield Islam from criticism. After I wrote a series of articles critical of Mr. Harris, a young white man from California emailed me to tell me he carried a gun — what kind did I carry? he asked.

If Islam is the problem, perhaps we should keep an eye on these Muslims. Send patrols into their neighborhoods. Make them prove that they are not terrorists. Ban them, as President Trump wanted. Ideas are not harmless: They are taken seriously by thousands of people. If only one person applies these deranged ideas about the other to the real world, we get a mass-murder like the one we just witnessed.

I greet a neighbor; he smiles and wishes me a good day. How do I know that once he turns on his computer, he isn’t pumping himself full of hatred of me and my people, raging in the dark cesspools of the web, venting his frustration that we even exist, and how dare we try and belong? Racism begins with ideas. It ends with violence.

When I saw the news from New Zealand, and thought of the number of times I have erased my Muslim identity, I shook with anger. When I thought of the number of times I have let casual racism toward Muslims slide, so not to come off as threatening, I shuddered in anguish. There was a time when I was ashamed of my religion, ashamed of my heritage. Now I am ashamed only of having once felt this way.

“If one is attacked as a Jew,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “one must defend oneself as a Jew.” When you are attacked as a Muslim, you must respond as a Muslim. And today, we are all Muslims — all of us who are committed to the light of our civilization, to peace, to saving our society from the primitive barbarism of such poisoned, inadequate minds.

Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming “Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance.”

Trudeau with his Indian culture overkill came across as patronizing | Shree Paradkar

It seems like everyone is piling on the gaffe-strewn trip of PM Trudeau to India. Paradkar’s is one of the best:

If apparel oft proclaims the man, then Polonius who uttered those words in Hamlet would have quite literally given our prime minister a dressing down this week. From the viewpoint of the Shakespearean character, Justin Trudeau would have broken the basic rules: his clothes were as costly as money could buy, but gaudy, too, proclaiming him unserious.

A charitable supposition would be that maybe — just maybe — since Canada is barely a blip on Indian consciousness, Trudeau decided to lean on his celebrity status to make an impression.

That much he did. So groan-inducing has Trudeau’s visit to India appeared thus far that it merits being rated as a cliched Bollywood drama.Over-the-top sherwanis and kurta pyjamas, Bhangra sequences, overly choreographed family time overdoing the namastes.

Then a touch of villainous melodrama in the form of a mistaken invitation to Jaspal Atwal, a man convicted of attempting to kill an Indian cabinet minister on Vancouver Island in 1986. Atwal was also charged, but not convicted, in connection with a 1985 attack on Ujjal Dosanjh, a former Liberal health minister and former premier of British Columbia.

That faux pas for which the Liberals apologized would be a terrible development during any official visit. On this one, it gave lie to Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s appeasement of the Punjab chief minister’s concerns of official Canadian support for the Sikh separatist movement.

The demand for a separate nation of Khalistan is an issue that has little support among Sikhs in India. It does not enjoy unanimous support here, either.

The concerns were fair: Trudeau’s appearance at a Sikh parade in Toronto last year with yellow and blue Khalistan flags in the background and posters of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale — the leader of the Khalistani movement — was not looked upon kindly in India.

Nor would Canada be sympathetic to a visiting foreign leader who posed with Quebec separatists.

Many of the poor first impressions would have been avoided had planners simply switched Day 6 to Day 1. Trudeau, finally wearing a business suit, met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, got that equally cringe-inducing, but in this case gratefully received, trademark bear hug from Modi, and was received with state honours.

Was there really no adviser in our PMO or the Foreign Office who said before the trip, “Meet Modi first. Go easy on the clothes. Wrap up the visit in 3 days. Be prepared to deal with the separatist issue”?

Earlier in the month, an expert told Global News, “There’s no question that the whole Khalistan question will overshadow this trip.”

Then an unnamed government official told the news outlet it was not expected to be a big issue.

If he had a chance to counsel Trudeau, Omer Aziz, a former adviser at the Department of Global Affairs in the Liberal government, says he would have said, “It’s going to come up and you need to make sure you know what you’re going to say.”

Before going to India, Aziz would have suggested Trudeau make a speech in support of united India and draw comparisons to separatist movements here.

Trudeau’s trip was billed as one to bolster economic and cultural connections. Because Canada’s minorities of colour are consigned to hyphenated labels, and never viewed as simply Canadian, Canadian leaders end up viewing foreign policy through the lens of diasporic politics.

And so, Indo-Canadians and Sikh-Canadians have come to expect images of a leader’s visit to New Delhi, the requisite visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, perhaps a Hindu temple or two.

But carry it too far and the symbolism of “we care” can become tiresomely reductive.

Religious and cultural observances such as a cloth on the head may be seen as a sign of respect. Wearing clothing from the host nation could be seen as a bit of charming politicking on the sidelines of trade deals and policy development.

As a main dish, overshadowing a $1 billion trade deal, it’s unpalatable. Neither Indians nor Indo-Canadians are quite so unsophisticated as to not detect being patronized.

Aziz sees this trip as evidence that governments should hire and empower more staffers of colour who understand the complexities of the world. “Literally all this was avoidable,” he said.

For all the talk of Trudeau’s diverse cabinet, behind the scenes decision makers, staffers and bureaucrats remain monochromatic.

“I think that frankly minorities, brown folks, people of colour should say this is enough,” says Aziz. “It’s time that millennials (like me) said either you’re going to share power with us or we’re going to mobilize and you’re going to suffer at the ballot box.

“We’re not going to be treated as any one’s vote bank.

“We don’t need you talking down to us. We don’t need you to begin every single speech saying diversity is our strength. What we need is at that beginning point of our conversation we need to be treated as equals, with respect. Then we can have a conversation about policy.”

via Trudeau with his Indian culture overkill came across as patronizing | Toronto Star

My secret debate with Sam Harris: A revealing 4-hour dialogue on Islam, racism & free-speech hypocrisy – Salon.com

A very good long-read and effective take down of Sam Harris, a major figure in the anti-Muslim cottage industry, by Omer Aziz:

On that same podcast, Harris reflected with astonishment that I “didn’t even seem to be religious!” When I heard him say this, I burst out laughing. Unlike the charlatan Maajid Nawaz, I forthrightly admit that I am a skeptic and make no claims to being a “reformer”—such titles are for self-anointed prophets, not writers. Harris referred to me as a “young Muslim writer,” echoing his remarks during our debate where he referred to the same Middle Easterners he considers backward subhumans as “your fellow Muslims.” Imagine the grotesque stench of anti-Semitism if I called Sam Harris a “Jewish neuroscientist” or referred to Jewish terrorists in the West Bank as Harris’s “fellow Jews.” This is what white supremacy does: It reduces another person’s complex humanity to a two-dimensional stick-figure and allows the objectifier to remain so ignorant of how other people actually live that this ignorance becomes a privileged badge of honor rather than a mark of impoverishment. One should pity individuals like Harris, so blinded by arrogance that they live in a world removed from the struggles of every day people who they assume to be knaves and fools.

Harris ought to retire from the Islam industry altogether, or at least take a long vacation from spouting bile for a living. If this is too much to ask, he should at least have the integrity to admit that his attempted ambush on the “young Muslim writer” who “didn’t even seem to be religious” backfired and so he deprived his customers out of the truth.

For all of its shortcomings, this unpublished debate was not a waste of time. It illuminated one thing for certain: that Harris and his brigade of  reactionary pseudo-liberals are not at all interested in the questions they raise. It is about power for them, and maintaining a belief in their own superiority. No debate will rob Harris and his ilk of such a satisfying elixir, that they are civilized, while those people over there, in their ghettos and their mosques, they are barbaric, they are criminals, they are animals. Why escape Plato’s cave if you are the one holding the chains?

Source: My secret debate with Sam Harris: A revealing 4-hour dialogue on Islam, racism & free-speech hypocrisy – Salon.com

Banning the niqab harms an open society. So does wearing it: Omer Aziz

Omer Azis on the niqab debate:

Assuming it is genuine modesty and not an ostentatious display of conservative religiosity that motivates a woman to wear a black veil sequestering her from the rest of society, a cultural practice that demands of one sex to cover up is inherently misogynistic. If anyone should be required to cover their faces, it is the men who torture and kill their daughters and sisters for marrying of their own free will. Let us not mince words here: Women are certainly ‘free’ to wear the niqab, in the same sense as they are ‘free’ to enter the mosque from the side and ‘free’ to stand behind the men while praying. This is a blinkered idea of freedom, but liberalism requires tolerating and legally protecting illiberal attitudes.

The main problem with the niqab, though, is that it diminishes liberal democracy. What separates liberal societies from dictatorships is that the former are open, allow for face-to-face consultation, encourage dissent, and recognize individuals as equals. Liberal societies must allow one citizen to see another citizen’s face when in conversation or contact. When only one party’s face is visible, the informalities of open conversation disappear, body language is eliminated, the natural empathy we humans feel when looking at our fellow human’s face is extinguished. A veil over the face of one citizen permanently alters the terms of the discussion, which is why niqabs have no place in classrooms and other institutions where free discourse is designed to flourish. Imagine a society where all women covered their faces, as some of the more totalitarian Islamists would impose. Call this society what you like, but it would be the farthest thing from liberal democracy.

The enemy of the open society, the late Czech playwright-president Vaclav Havel once wrote, ‘is a person with a fiercely serious countenance and burning eyes.’ Both the politician who seeks to ban what a woman may wear, and the patriarch who seeks to dictate what a woman must wear, are not friends of the open society.

Neither, however, is the niqab.

One of the most articulate commentary yet.

Banning the niqab harms an open society. So does wearing it – The Globe and Mail.

Why Stephen Harper owes Canadian Muslims an apology – The Globe and Mail

Following the accusation by the Prime Minister’s Office that the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), and its predecessor organization CAIR-Can, were associated with banned terrorist group (Hamas), the NCCM launched a lawsuit. Will be interesting to see how the lawsuit turns out.

Given the Conservative government’s strong support for Israel and its closer relationship with the Canadian Jewish community than with the Canadian Muslim community, no surprise with the following comment:

Prime Minister, the Canadian Muslim community is tired of being a political punching bag. And in case you have any doubt, we will neither be intimidated nor will we be silenced.

Canadian NGO: Why we are suing the Prime Minister’s Office | Toronto Star.

More nuanced commentary, but with the same fundamental message, is by Omer Aziz:

There is a broader issue here, and that is the sheer ease with which one can tarnish Muslims – not just foreign ones, but fellow citizens – and get away with it. Canadian society rightly isolates and condemns racists, homophobes and anti-Semites. The excommunication of racial supremacists has been so effective that even a false charge of racism or anti-Semitism can ruin a career or, if assiduously repudiated, discredit the mudslinger. Being called a terrorist-sympathizer, a Hamas supporter, an al-Qaeda apologist, or whatever potentially libelous charge someone throws at you to exploit your Islamic faith can also ruin your career, but comes at little cost for the alleged libeler if it is false.

During a brief stint as a Parliamentary intern I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Harper on a few occasions, and I do not think for a moment that he harbors an ill thought toward Muslims. He is doing what he thinks best for the country that elected his party three times to government. Whether he realizes it or not, however, his office has smeared a national organization established to represent Muslims, making mere punching bags out of citizens, dehumanizing them, and debasing the venerable Prime Minister’s Office. He owes the NCCM and all Muslims an apology.

Why Stephen Harper owes Canadian Muslims an apology – The Globe and Mail.