Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What The Hell Is Going On With CJ Werleman?

Apparently, a rift has opened up and deepened among liberals over the way we view Islam. On the one side, some liberals think that Islam is a religion of peace and that criticizing it offends millions of Muslims and amounts to racism, or anti-Muslim bigotry. On the other side, another group of liberals stands opposed to any ideology or religion that flagrantly violates basic liberal values, and they recognize Islam as doing so. This rift became shockingly apparent on Real Time with Bill Maher last year in a debate over Islam between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck. (I commented on it here.) I've made my views clear that I'm on team Harris. He recognizes, like all informed and rational people, that the Islamic religion contains many immoral prescriptions and that this makes some Muslims agree with and hold those views. And some of them are inspired to commit violence because of these views. Beliefs have consequences. Shocking isn't it. It's quite a modest claim, but many liberals disagree, and one of them is an Aussie-born writer and journalist who's been getting some publicity in the past few years named CJ Werleman.

I first came to know CJ Werleman about a year ago. I first found out about him via YouTube in a speech he gave called What The Corporate Totalitarian State Means for Humanism. At first I liked him. He was a liberal atheist and he espoused the same kind of populist economic views that I hold. I agreed with him that corporate influence in government is too strong and that democracy in the US is fading away into corporatocracy. He seemed like he'd be a great atheist ally for those of us with left-leaning politics.

That is until I found out about his views on Islam. Given his criticism of those on the religious right, I thought he would naturally see Islam for what it really is: an ancient religion that contains many barbaric morals that results in disturbingly large numbers of its followers holding these barbaric morals. But to my surprise, he takes what seems like the standard liberal approach to Islam: that violent Islamists and Jihadists are entirely the result of bad Western foreign policy, and socio-economic factors. According to liberals like Werleman, Islam is never the reason why Jihadists commit acts of terror, or why 90% of Muslims think homosexuality is wrong, or why 23% think stoning to death adulterers should be the law of the land. Although he seems to recognize that Islam contains some barbarism, he doesn't seem to connect the dots that beliefs have consequences.

Werleman is an atheist but not an anti-theist. He just wrote a whole book disparaging anti-theism, which I won't link to here. His views on Islam make him a member of what Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris call the regressive left. Regressive lefties are basically liberals who blame the regressive beliefs of extremist groups like those of radical Islamists entirely on Western imperialism and socio-economic factors. Here's a recent tweet by Werleman espousing this view:

I think I understand why regressive lefties like Werleman and Glenn Greenwald think like they do. As liberals they are deeply critical of the US government over its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, its unwavering support of Israel which they see has violating the human rights of Palestinians, and its general treatment of Muslims in various countries in ways that could be construed as imperialism. They think that the terrorism committed by Muslims, the Sunni-Shia sectarian violence, and the barbaric acts of violence committed by ISIS, are entirely reactions to, or products of the West's imperialistic mingling into their affairs. Without a Western presence in the Muslim majority world, they reason, there'd be no Islamic terrorism or intra-Islamic sectarian violence. And Islam, is never a motivator in any violence or acts of terror. In fact, they think it's absurd to believe a religion like Islam could motivate someone to commit violence.

So when critics of Islam like Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Maajid Nawaz speak out and say that Islamic extremists are motivated by Islam, the regressive liberals recoil. To them, Muslims are always the victim of the white imperialists, and to acknowledge that Islam is the source of at least some of the violence among Muslims ruins the simple black and white world that they want to see this issue as. They want to see it as evil Western imperialists vs repressed innocent Muslims. But by doing this, they turn a blind eye and give cover to the real life extremists in the Islamic world and their regressive morality that in many ways is antithetical to everything liberalism stands for. They are blinded by their intense hatred of Western foreign policy and the neocons that any criticism of Islam in their mind becomes racism and tacit support for Western imperialism.

Here's another gem:

What Werleman doesn't get is the nuance involved in such a complex subject. Yes, Western foreign policy has done some terrible things. The US overthrew a democratically elected prime minister in Iran, the US gives Israel weapons for them to occupy and kill Palestinians in a way many argue amounts to war crimes, the US has military bases all over the Middle East, and has supported numerous dictators who have brutally repressed their citizens. No rational, educated, thinking person denies that the US has done horrible things around the world. But, one can be critical of things like the US invasion of Iraq, as Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz are, and still acknowledge that Islam is sometimes the motivator for violence committed by Muslims. ISIS is not killing Yazidis and selling the women into sexual slavery over the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They are doing it because a literal reading of the Koran allows women to be taken into sexual slavery during wartime. You can be against the neocons who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, and the Christian fundamentalists who support Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine, and acknowledge that Islam can motivate Muslims to kill in its name. It is not one or the other.

The regressive left is made up mostly of white liberals like Werleman who know little to nothing about Islam. They often confuse Islam with a race and think that any criticism of it is therefore racist. Unfortunately, there is anti-Muslim bigotry in the world, mainly among the far-right in Europe and the US. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson saw his poll numbers go up when he said he didn't believe the US should have a Muslim president. The right-wing media outlets criticize Islam in many of the same ways that Harris, Maher, and Nawaz do (although sometimes they go too far), and this leads many on the left to think that they're neocons. None of these men are neocons. They are progressive liberals who are fighting for liberal values and they see a hostile element to liberalism in the regressive ideas that many conservative Islamists hold.

CJ Werleman cannot wrap his head around this. To him and his ilk, it will always be the big bad Western imperialists who are responsible for all of the violence in the Islamic world. They can never admit that Islam has violent verses that inspire some Muslims to commit violence in the name of Islam. This all makes me sad because I am a liberal. I'm against any ideology – religious or secular, that is against the basic principles of liberal, democratic, social values, like equality, and freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. The same is true of Harris, Maher, and Nawaz. They're liberals. They're not neocons. Werleman must see the world in black or white in order to maintain his narrative. And it seems as if he's now locked into this narrative. I can't tell if he really believes it, or if he once did but now feels he can't admit he's wrong. I'd really like to see a good debate with him and Sam Harris, Bill Maher, or Maajid Nawaz, but Harris doesn't want to give him any attention. Werleman is generally not taken serious by many prominent atheist liberals on team Harris. His plagiarism doesn't help either.

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