If you have ten minutes to spare, I recommend watching the above video, because it encapsulates better than most how difficult it is to even discuss the threat of political Islam.
My opponent was Dean Obeidallah. As incredible as it may seem, the man has since claimed that he mopped the floor with me in this exchange. I would not have thought such a degree of self-deception possible, but then I recalled Obeidallah’s response to my and Bill Maher’s encounter with Ben Affleck last year…
...and realized that Obeidallah knows his audience. As I’ve said before, the most depressing thing about the episode with Affleck was seeing how many Muslims thought he had “exposed” my and Maher’s bigotry—as though shouting “gross” and “racist” and similar epithets were an act of investigative journalism. Having witnessed this mindless display of tribalism, I have no doubt that most of Obeidallah’s fans will think he performed admirably in our debate and will imagine, once again, that my bigotry against the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims has been “exposed.”
It would be tempting to despair for humanity at this point, were it not for the fact that many more people who watched this video thought Obeidallah came off as a mendacious buffoon. Unfortunately, a number of those who have taken my side have also written off Obeidallah as a know-nothing comedian who is of no consequence in the larger public conversation about Islam. But this disparagement of him is unfair. He is a former attorney and prominent enough in the American Muslim community to have gotten a meeting with President Obama. Along with Reza Aslan, Obeidallah is now on the short list of media personalities who can play the consoling role of “moderate Muslim” on demand. He is also a very public supporter (and beneficiary) of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—a group that has worked tirelessly to blur the line between legitimate political interests and theocratic bullying. Consequently, what Obeidallah says about his religion and its critics on national television (and on social media) actually matters.
For a former attorney, Obeidallah is quite sloppy. For instance, when Bill Maher claimed on his show that “like 90 percent” of Egyptian Muslims favor the death penalty for apostasy, Obeidallah branded him a bigot who couldn’t keep his facts straight. According to Obeidallah, only 64 percent of Egyptian Muslims favor death for apostates. While even he conceded that this number is depressing, many people came away feeling that Maher can’t be trusted. Did Obeidallah even bother to read the Pew poll that he claimed Maher had misrepresented? The real figure was 88 percent. Is 88 percent rather “like 90 percent”? I’ll let readers decide. (Judging from what I’ve seen online, I fear that most of Obeidallah’s fans would say no.)
Unfortunately, like Reza Aslan, Obeidallah seems almost compulsively dishonest. For instance, pay attention to the point in our exchange, beginning at 3:15, when I mention specific punishments under sharia—amputations for thieves and death for homosexuals. Obeidallah reflexively attempts to cloud the issue by denying that the Qur’an contains any mention of “throwing gays off of rooftops.” In response to this interruption, I can only insist that “it’s in the hadith, and you know it.” Is it possible that a Muslim who has been shilling for an organization like CAIR doesn’t actually understand the status of homosexuality under Islamic law? I don’t think so.
For readers who want a little more context, here is part of an email that Ali A. Rizvi sent me after this exchange:
Although the Quran doesn’t explicitly say it except in the case of the story of Lot, as you know there’s a hadith-based consensus pretty much across the board (Sunni and Shia) that homosexuality is punishable by death. On the method of killing, however — burning to death, stoning to death, dropping from a height, etc. — it depends on who you ask.
Throwing gays from a high place is something that the caliph Abu Bakr is said to have supported (cliff), as well as the caliphs Umar and Ali (minaret). Most often quoted is Abdullah Ibn Abbas, Muhammad’s cousin (their fathers were brothers), who is respected by both Sunnis and Shias, and is the source of many ahadith from Muhammad. He advocated throwing gays from a height and then stoning them. Some will say this is part of the ahadith, and others will say it’s his tafsir (exegesis of the Quran) and doesn’t qualify.
In a Shia hadith from Jafar As-Sadiq (the sixth imam and a descendant of Muhammad), the fourth caliph and first imam Ali says to a man who confesses to a homosexual act, “The Holy Prophet has prescribed three methods of dealing with the situation, you may choose any one of the three deaths — by having the arms and feet tied and thrown from the cliff, being beheaded, or being burnt alive.”
It is by no means an accident that members of the Islamic State are taking men suspected of being gay to rooftops and hurling them to their deaths. Nor is this specific punishment a grotesque innovation on the part of some sadist in their organization. This is a religious practice. Please watch my exchange with Obeidallah with the understanding that he knows this, and yet he feels that his moral energy is best spent charging me with bigotry for worrying about the way specific doctrines within the Islamic tradition are breeding intolerance and violence. One of my readers wrote after watching this exchange, “I find this behavior far more disconcerting than the rantings of jihadists.” I agree. To stifle conversation in this way is to merely wave away the concerns of all those living under Islamic theocracy (or its creeping threat), while very likely prolonging their misery.
After our encounter on CNN, where he did nothing but misrepresent the doctrine of Islam and call me a bigot for speaking honestly about it, Obeidallah produced this gem on Twitter:
Consider the total lack of moral and intellectual seriousness on display here, and then recall that this is someone who actually got a meeting with the president of the United States to discuss American-Islamic relations.
Since Aslan appears to have been working behind the scenes to ensure that a productive conversation would prove impossible, it seems only decent to remind the world of his own shamefully dishonest performance on that very show:
Here you see Aslan misrepresent almost every fact he deigns to touch—from the connection between religious doctrine and violence to the status of women in Muslim-majority countries (“In Indonesia, women are 100 percent equal to men”!) Well, yes, in that they have the same rate of circumcision. In particular, his claim that female genital mutilation is exclusively an “African problem,” with no connection to Islam, is false. It’s true that FGM predates Islam, and it’s true that certain Christians and animists in Africa also practice it. But no other group inflicts this needless barbarism on girls (which generally has nothing in common with the “circumcision” of boys) at the rate that Muslims do. And that’s not an accident, because all four schools of Sunni jurisprudence support it. Consequently, there’s no mystery about why hundreds of millions of Muslims believe the practice to be obligatory, or at least permissible. It is spelled out in the hadith with the same care that male circumcision is. What you see in this video is a “moderate” Muslim wildly distorting the facts and hectoring a journalist with charges of bigotry. The horror, of course, is that it works.
There appears to be no limit to how low the people who hurl these charges of bigotry will sink. For instance, months after Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three Muslim students in North Carolina, Obeidallah sent the following tweet:
“Many view…”? That’s rich. Obeidallah was one of the few people to make this ludicrous allegation when he wrote, without a shred of evidence, that my “hateful comments about Islam” may have inspired Craig Stephen Hicks to commit those murders.
Once again, I find myself caught between the Scylla of responding to defamatory lies (and boring many of you) and the Charybdis of letting them spread unchecked. I keep trying to find a middle path and to respond judiciously. As the recent Tim Hunt debacle reveals, even a genial Nobel laureate can have his reputation swiftly destroyed by the malicious use of social media. If you don’t think the effort against me is sustained and concerted, just look at the sorts of things that Glenn Greenwald, Aslan, and Obeidallah spread about me on Twitter. There is simply no question that my reputation would have suffered far more damage at their hands without all the support I’ve received from readers online.
Into this morass comes my book with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue. When I said on CNN that I had no doubt there were many Muslims who would make fine presidents, Maajid was precisely the sort of person I was thinking of. (Unfortunately, as a British citizen, he’s not eligible.) The Muslim community needs far fewer smirking liars who claim to be “moderates” and many more courageous people like Maajid who are willing to oppose bigotry where it truly exists.
If I’m going to accuse my opponents of shameless misrepresentation, I should be swift in correcting mistakes of my own. Here are few things I now believe I got wrong in the above interview:
1. The interview took place before Ben Carson modulated/clarified his remarks on the prospect of electing a Muslim president. This was also before some of his crazier unscientific beliefs came to light. Consequently, I now think I acquiesced too readily to the charge of “bigotry” against him and was not critical enough of his betrayal of science.
2. Don Lemon made the point that 38 percent of Americans say they would not vote for a Muslim candidate for the presidency, and I said that the rate of rejection for an atheist candidate would be about 20 percent higher. It had been a long time since I looked at the polling on this question, and it turns out that I had a 2006 Newsweek poll in my head (which I’ve referenced at least once before). Recent Gallup polling shows that atheists have closed the gap and are now running just two percentage points behind Muslims in popularity. Nothing of substance turns on this error—and my larger point still holds—but a difference of 20 percent misrepresents (current) political reality.
3. I’d also like to point out (and celebrate) the high standard of honesty to which my readers hold me. Consider this thread on Twitter, where one supporter argues that I was slightly dishonest when Obeidallah raised the topic of “profiling.” As you’ll see from this partial exchange (there was more to it, but the thread appears to be broken), I stand by what I said. I certainly do not support what Obeidallah meant (and, more important, what he intended our audience to understand) by the phrase “racial profiling.” So, contrary to what some people thought, I wasn’t denying any of my published views. The best I could do in the heat of the moment was to say, “We can talk about profiling, but you haven’t summarized my views accurately.” However, I absolutely love that even in circumstances that were perfectly hostile to my explaining myself, when any effort to parse so loaded a term as “profiling” in the time allotted would have damned me before 99 percent of the audience—my supporters still expect me to be absolutely honest and forthcoming. That is a level of trust that I have worked hard to earn. Please know that I will work just as hard to keep it.