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.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

popular
  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.

The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast