Faisal Al Mutar is a secular and human rights activist who was awarded The President’s Volunteer Service Award, Gold, from the Obama Administration in 2016. He’s experienced life under Saddam Hussein and lived in Iraq during the American invasion and civil war which followed after. He escaped Iraq in 2009 after the loss of his brother, cousin, and friends to Al Qaeda. Faisal focuses on helping liberal, secular ideas and dissidents flourish in the Middle East and is currently writing his first book. He started the Global Secular Humanist Movement, and recently launched a podcast called the Grey Zone and joined the Secular Jihadists podcast.
Faisal was assisted in his refugee process by the UNHCR and came to the United States in 2013.
I spoke to him about what he’d say to ideological bubbles of American media consumers, Al Jazeera, and how ex-Muslims and moderate Muslims face criticisms from all sides.
The following is our conversation transcribed and edited for clarity.
Malhar Mali: Let me paint a loose demographic for you: I wake up and turn on MSNBC, I scroll through my Facebook feed and watch AJ+ videos, I read and comment on Huffington Post and Salon. Hypothetically, if you had some device that would change 30 million of these people’s minds on Islam and Muslims, what would you say to them?
Faisal Al Mutar: To them I’d say: What do you call a white Republican who is against same-sex marriage? If you call them a bigot, then you’re calling 90% of Muslims bigots. While you accuse others of racism, you are actually being racist here because you’re applying different standards to different people based on their race because Islam is viewed as a “brown man’s religion”. You are not being liberal by supporting illiberal ideas coming from people from different countries, religions, and cultures.
I would ask somebody who reads Salon, if you claim to be against homophobia, like I am and many people are, you should stand against it whether it comes from the Evangelicals, the black church, or the Muslim in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Iran. Otherwise you are the racist. If you think it’s acceptable for “other” people do it just because they’re a different race other than a “white male” then you’re not really a liberal — you don’t subscribe to the concept of equal rights and anti-racism. You’re propagating racism and you’re part of the problem. This might sound aggressive but I cannot find a polite way to call people delusional.
It should be easy for a supporter of same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and the first amendment to just apply those principles to everybody. I’m asking them to believe that gay Muslims or gays living in Muslim dominated countries are also human — and those who kill and persecute them are bigots and part of the problem.
All I want is for them to acknowledge that if they think a Republican who does not like gays is a homophobe, then a person in the Muslim Brotherhood who does not like gays is also a homophobe.
MM: Reflecting on this phenomenon is quite strange. If you look at homophobia coming from the Christian church, this demographic is more than happy to get angry, protest, and criticize, but when you swap in sexism, and homophobia from brown people, Muslims, and Islamists, it’s like a fuse goes off in their minds. Suddenly everything’s about being careful and not wanting to come off as too critical. What are your thoughts on that?
FAM: I think many people who study liberal arts and subjects like sociology are exposed to only one type of history — which is white history and white colonialism. They’re inculcated with the idea that the Holocaust, genocide against Native Americans, and Japanese internment camps represent white people. When people are only exposed to these ideas, of one oppressor — meaning white people — what they’ll do when they hear a person criticize a foreign culture is to get immediately defensive on behalf of that culture. And they’ll do it to protect a former victim of imperialism, racism, etc.
But the people who are most hurt by this — by preventing this discussion — are the minorities within the minorities. So when people don’t talk about Islamic homophobia, the people who are hurt by this are the gays living in Muslim families in Qatar, Iran, or America.
Though the intentions might be good, if it’s done unreasonably and it silences any form of discussion about the community or within the community, eventually the people who are harmed the most are the people liberals should be defending the most. Liberals try to stand with the underdogs. But the most important underdogs here are the minorities within the minorities.
MM: The gay man or woman living in Gaza or Saudi Arabia.
FAM: Yes. With all the oppression others are facing, they’re facing double oppression. So if somebody is trying to side with the oppressed, they should also side with those who are being doubly oppressed. Like being a feminist in Egypt, being gay in Gaza, etc. These are people facing multiple levels of oppression. And they’re the ones who are harmed by this irrational defensiveness in the name of multiculturalism and respecting cultural sensitivities.
I think another problem is that people see Muslims as a minority, but they’re not a minority globally. They’re the second biggest religion in the world. The true minorities are those living within them who do not subscribe to conservative Muslim values.
MM: Now let’s flip the demographic: I wake up and turn on Fox News, I check my phone and see Brietbart’s headlines, I read the Daily Caller and I skim through The Drudge Report. What would you say to this demographic about Islam and Muslims?
FAM: I would say you are not helping. I have seen there are lots of generalizations on these outlets that harm the minorities within the minorities as well.
If you subscribe to the concept that Arabs as an ethnicity are a bunch of savages, and that they’re just the bad guys, you’re leaving no room for reform. You’re thinking there’s something wrong with them internally — something genetically wrong and they’re incapable of being civilized. That is racist, first of all, secondly, it’s unscientific.
I’m all for acknowledging the problem of Islamic extremism and how we should fight it. But that means you have to look for the people with good values within these communities, the individuals who subscribe to ideas of universal human rights, liberal values, and you have to stand with them. Because when you generalize, you are literally equating the fighters of the terrorists with the terrorists themselves. You’re equating the Maajid Nawazs’ of the world with Al Qaeda. That is so far from the truth. If you say that Maajid, Ali Rizvi, Sarah Haider and all of these people are as bad as ISIS, you’re literally advocating for killing us as well. If you’re saying the solution to ISIS is bombings and drone attacks and all of us are ISIS, you’re asking for us to be killed as well just because we share the same skin color and same language.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and I come from the same country. We probably enjoy the same foods and speak the same language. But this doesn’t mean values wise I’m the same to him just because he looks like my cousin.
Mark Twain famously said: “All generalizations are false including this one.” So I would say to this demographic to avoid generalizations, be more specific and not use terms like “Muslims are” “Arabs are.” These terms remove all the specifics of the conversation and all the nuance. Judge people on a case by case scenario. You listen to their arguments and then you categorize them — as in whether someone is an Islamist, Jihadist, conservative but secularist and so on. Generalizations only further polarization and harm to everybody. The West will be harmed without a solution in the Middle East and so will the Middle East.
By being xenophobic and generalizing you’re not helping. You’re part of the problem.
MM: I’ll get you to talk about AJ+ (Al Jazeera) in the US versus AJ+ in Middle Eastern countries.
FAM: One of the things many people don’t know about Al Jazeera is that is mostly owned by the royal family of Qatar which is financed by oil and gas. It’s a company that doesn’t rely much on advertising because they have other sources of revenue.
The version I grew up with of Al Jazeera is a channel that is literally the spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood and a light version of Al Qaeda. You can see them entertaining the idea of supporting groups like Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria — which is literally Al Qaeda’s affiliate. Let’s not talk about what they think about homosexuality and Jews and their anti-semitism, because it’s bad.
I think I saw an article on there saying something like “The theory of evolution is a myth.” So, if you’re a liberal and whatever you think of Fox News, Fox News would look like a progressive or liberal channel if you compared it to Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera Arabic is a hub for xenophobia, hardcore conservatism, social conservatism, anti-women’s rights, anti-gay rights.
But then you have Al Jazeera English speaking about Black Lives Matter, pandas, climate change, because what they’re trying to do is make Islam look as good as possible. They want to make Muslims appear victimized. And they want to make the West look as bad as possible. They show the worst that exists in the West. Flint, Michigan — they were reporting on that constantly. Standing Rock as well, you get the idea.
But you never see them criticizing Islam, Islamists, or the Muslim Brotherhood. They only show you the side of Aleppo that is controlled by Islamist and Jihadist groups. They never criticize Qatar but they criticize Saudi Arabia because they’re rivals.
Anybody that has an understanding of Qatar foreign policy would see that Al Jazeera is just a PR company for them. You can hardly see them ever criticizing slavery in Qatar of Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis and other human rights abuses happening there.
MM: You’re saying they just try to denigrate the Western countries with AJ+ all the while continuing with their uber conservatism with Al Jazeera Arabic?
FAM: They show the best things of Islam and the worst things of the West because they want the West to not interfere in the Muslim world. And that means the Muslim Brotherhood wins. They show the atrocities in Egypt by Sisi and then they show that there’s a solution — it’s the Muslim Brotherhood. The “democratically-elected” Muslim Brotherhood. This way they’re able to pander to liberals and progressives.
The more they show the terrible things in America, the less likely people are to be critical of Islam. They want to tell people in the West: “Oh, you have the same thing over there. You want to talk about racism? Oh, black people are being shot without regard in the streets.”
MM: They try to divert the attention back to the West?
FAM: Yes. That way the West is less able to criticize other countries. They’ll say: “You talk about oil being bad? Look at what America is doing!”
MM: Sure. Take gay and women’s rights in the Middle East. AJ+ will show that there were three attacks last year in America along with some ominous music playing in the background all the while millions of homosexuals and women are living in oppressive countries.
FAM: They want to make the West so critical of itself, to an extent, that they’ll not want to say anything else to any other culture and more importantly: they’ll forget about challenging Islamism.
I don’t think this is a conspiracy. I’ve maybe watched 70 or more videos of AJ+ and compared them with Al Jazeera Arabic and I can really see their agenda. It fits. If I’m an Islamist what do I want to do? For Arabs, I tell them this is what Islamism is and what Shariah law truly is.
But how can I make progressives in the West support me? I know, I’ll make them so critical of their country that they don’t intervene in Muslim countries so that Islamists can take over. This way I’ll win. So it seems like a very orchestrated PR campaign.
MM: Let’s talk about all the directions which moderate, liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims are attacked from. There’s the “House-Muslim” slur from the far-Left who cannot comprehend that brown people actually like liberal values, and the “taqiya” or “secret jihadist” accusation from the Right because they are unable to see past your skin color. Can you talk about that?
FAM: This is one of the reasons why many ex-Muslims and Muslims who support ideas about liberalism and separation of Mosque and State are afraid to speak out. They know they’ll receive a huge backlash from many out there.
The biggest backlash people like me face is actually from Islamists. They think my ideas are antithetical to Islam and an enemy according to their ideology.
The far-Left, or the regressive-Left as Maajid Nawaz refers to them, believe in the narrative that to criticize Islam and even Islamism is a form of imposing your own values on them. Regressives consider values like liberalism to be Western values so they think that you are imposing the white Western values on the brown Muslim — and to them that’s terrible. They think that Islam is a brown man’s religion. Even though there are many adherents to Islam who are white, black, Bosnian, Sudanese, Chinese. So any criticism of it from a white person is a form of racism. Any criticism coming from a brown person who was adhering to that religion is the equivalent of a black person supporting white slave-owners. That’s where terms like “Uncle-Tom” and “House Muslim” come from. They think you are trying to assist the white imperialist “agenda” against the brown victims.
On the far-Right there are strong elements of xenophobia. There are many people who adhere to the concept of white superiority — which is a bad idea — and they subscribe to this idea that there is a clash of civilizations. That there is a war between the East and the West. That’s wrong. There are many people from the East who are liberals and who adhere to universal liberal values. Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, Ali Rizvi from Pakistan, I’m from Iraq. So there’s many people in the East who support universal human rights — sometimes more than the people in the West!
If I had to choose between Maajid Nawaz and Ted Cruz to run the country, I would choose Maajid. Even though he is of Pakistani origin and Ted Cruz is from the West. Because Nawaz is closer to the values of universal liberalism and human rights — much closer than Cruz.
It’s not a war between the East and the West. It’s a war between true liberalism and barbarism, or barbarism “lite” which encapsulates things like Islamism or the Christian-Right. The far-Right subscribes to a binary ideology that goes something like: white from Arkansas equals civilized, brown from Iraq equals uncivilized.
All these people make it extremely difficult for us to speak out because we have a trinity attacking us: the far-Right, regressive-Left, and Islamists.