Je Suis Muslim: How Universal Secular Rights Protect Muslim Communities the Most

The author and activist explores the well-intentioned, yet harmful way members of the left prioritize tolerance over reform within Islam.

Maajid Nawaz: There’s a section within the left. I refer to them as the regressive left and I want to clarify I don’t mean all of those on the left. I mean a section that have come to the view for the sake of political correctness, for the sake of tolerating what they believe is other cultures and respecting different lifestyles. They have an inherent hesitation to challenge some of the bigotry that can occur within minority communities. I mean at the end of the day if we truly subscribe to liberal human rights values in their universality and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they apply not just in favor of minority communities, but in some instances upon minority communities too.

And it’s what I call the racism of low expectations: to lower those standards when looking at a brown person if a brown person happens to express a level of misogyny, chauvinism, bigotry, or anti-Semitism and yet hold other white people to universal liberal standards. The real victim of that double standard are the minority communities themselves because by doing so we limit their horizons; we limit their own ceiling and expectations as to what they aspire to be; we're judging them is somehow that their culture is inherently less civilized; and, of course, that we are tolerating bigotry within communities and the first victims of that bigotry happen to be those who are weakest from among those communities.

And that’s who I refer to as the minorities within the minority. The minorities within the minority are every feminist Muslim, every gay Muslim, lesbian Muslim, every liberal Muslim, every dissenting voice, ex-Muslims. And these are people who mainstream society will judge because they have Muslim names and brown skin invariably. So they have to suffer a lot of the discrimination that anyone else may suffer from mainstream society, but even within their own community and then further discriminated against because, of course, it goes without saying that levels of tolerance towards to gays, and perhaps levels of anti-Semitism and liberal values — there are still many, many challenges when it comes to those values within Muslim community. So they suffer from both ends and that’s why I say that if we truly as liberals care for the weakest among us, as any liberalist society should be judged by, then those who are the weakest among us I believe are the minorities within the minority communities.

It’s the emphasis on group rights and on the identity of group rights rather than seeking out the individual within the groups and thereby what happens is invariably those individuals within the groups, the minorities within the minorities have a progressive struggle ahead of them. The group, you know, the Muslim community, for want of a better term, doesn’t have a progressive struggle. It’s identifying itself as a Muslim and for whatever reason, good or bad, currently the Muslim debate isn’t as liberal, isn’t as committed to universal human rights values as I would like it to be at least. So in protecting the group identity we end up reinforcing in liberal values because we prioritize cultural tolerance over the progress and the advancement of liberalism within minority communities. And that’s how they end up losing out on being allies. Now I think that a true liberal would always prioritize individuals over the group; would always prioritize heresy over orthodoxy; would always prioritize the dissenting voice over the status quo. That’s what a true liberal should be looking for. Within the Muslim minority context, that means finding those voices while critical of their own culture and I find liberals a very good when it comes to criticizing mainstream society being introspective about our own foreign policy mistakes and rightly so. Yet there isn’t that expectation that a Muslim can in turn be introspective about their own Muslim community into which they were born.

And the other thing I think is very important here — we talk about credible voices, authentic voices. There’s an assumption, an Orientalist assumption again because of the racism of low expectations that the real Muslim, the credible Muslim, the authentic Muslim is the conservative Muslim. And if you have a liberal Muslim, there’s almost this sniggering assumption that they’re not really a Muslim. They’re just, you know, too Westernized. So they’re not a real Muslim voice. And I think I want to draw an analogy here for liberals — they’ll understand this.

When it comes to self-identification, we are the at the cusp of a watershed moment with transgender rights both in America and across the Western world. And we know, we know it’s wrong to insist that somebody born in a man’s body who identifies as a woman, it’s wrong to insist in their face that no, you’re a man whether you like it or not. No matter how you want to identify yourself, I’m going to call you a man against your own will and wishes because that’s what I want to do. Likewise, a Muslim who is a liberal and who happens to be gay, happens to be lesbian, happens to be a feminist — it’s not up to us to somehow invalidate their Muslim experience. Their Muslim experience is as valid, as authentic, and as credible as that conservative Muslim who’s, you know, a strict literalist Muslim. And so we have this — unfortunately we have this tendency that a real, credible Muslim voice is every regressive, conservative, literalist Muslim voice out there. And we prop them up as the spokesman for the communities and they are invariably men. And I think that that’s actually part of the mistake and it comes — it's born of Orientalism; it's born of an essentialization, a desire to reduce Muslim culture to this caricature that it is this kind of, you know, medieval culture and then fantasize it in that way. And I think that’s incredibly sad and illiberal.

Author and anti-Islamist activist Maajid Nawaz explains how certain members of the "regressive left" threaten progress within minority communities, in particular liberal Muslims. Members of the left too often champion a brand of racism of low expectations, through which they lower their standards when looking at other cultures if those cultures happen to express a level of misogyny, chauvinism, bigotry, or anti-Semitism, and yet hold other white people to universal liberal standards. This misguided prioritization of cultural tolerance over the progress and the advancement of liberal values handicaps the evolution of minority communities and harms the weakest members of those groups. Nawaz' argument is simple: If we claim to support human rights and classical liberalism, why do we pull punches when it comes to criticizing minority communities and cultures that don't live up to those standards?


Nawaz and fellow Big Think expert Sam Harris are co-authors of the new book Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

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