Who Speaks for Muslims? Maajid Nawaz and the SPLC

Edit: subsequent to the writing of this, the SPLC has updated their profile of Maajid. It has been improved, but see for yourself if the new allegations hold any more water than those I mention here.


The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a list of fifteen supposedly anti-Muslim extremists. This list contains one Muslim man by the name of Maajid Nawaz.


You can go ahead and read for yourself the charges levelled against him. I wrote out a whole article dealing with these allegations but there’s no point publishing it. If you can’t see for yourself how much of a hatchet job it is, I’m not sure I can persuade you otherwise. Instead I want to talk about identity politics and why this sort of thing happens.

The pervasive rallying cry among many of the left is “Listen to the people who are affected by the issue”. So far, so good. It makes sense to talk to black people about racism, prostitutes and former prostitutes about prostitution, women about sexual equality, and so on.

However, upon further reflection, this reveals something deeply unsettling. The line is usually brought up in response to people expressing certain opinions which the former individual disagrees with. Without explicitly saying it, they equate their own views with the views of the people in question.

But people as individuals have all kinds of wildly differing opinions, regardless of their circumstances. Those who do claim to know what “people affected by the issue” think, therefore, must pick and choose who they are supposedly listening to. Even if the majority opinion does line up with their own (and how would they truly know?), who is to say that is actually the correct perspective?

Out of the seven billion people in the world, sadly only a small percentage support progressive causes. We cannot afford to follow blindly the will of the majority without giving up everything we believe in.

In order to claim, then, that they know what oppressed people think, they have to hold up some people as representative of those communities. Perhaps they choose one organisation in particular. But no organisation can ever truly represent the voices of anyone not a member of that same organisation.

What happens in practice is that those with the most power, as usual, rise to the top and become the appointed spokespeople. Attempting to listen to the voices of the people affected by an issue will often expose you to those who are only marginally affected but wield a lot of clout for other reasons.

Furthermore, listening to someone does not inherently lead to adopting their viewpoints. We should know by now that people are easily mislead into blaming their problems on the most convenient target. Many low income workers, when they complain about immigration, are actually talking about a whole host of real issues, but place the blame on the wrong targets.

Maajid Nawaz must be slandered and denounced because he is claiming to be a Muslim but is saying the wrong things. Not the wrong things to ordinary Muslim people, but the wrong things to people who position themselves as the voices of the Muslim community. When Maajid retweeted a drawing of Mohammed, saying it did not offend him, something the SPLC seems to denounce him for, who do we think decided that pictures of Mohammed were offensive in the first place?

Did Muslims of the world collectively decide not to tolerate blasphemous images made by other people? No, it was a cynical attempt to stir up conflict between the East and West, and it worked. Islamic preachers and politicians chose to interpret pictures of Mohammed as a slap in the face of Muslims everywhere, and they encouraged their followers to take it the same way. This divisiveness is aided and abetted by Western leftists who justify and excuse this reactionary hostility, as well as the Western rightists who leap at the opportunity to cause further conflict.

It’s our job as progressives to convince people they are being lied to and manipulated by their leaders, and bring people together by teaching tolerance and patience. This means, as much as being sensitive to the concerns of others, also turning the other cheek when others seek to insult us.

I do not hold the left primarily responsible for what I see as the work of the global far right, whether Christian or Islamic. But if we are ever going to change the world, we have to be able to challenge the narratives being painted by the other side, and right now most of the left seems content to stoke the flames of intolerance in the name of tolerance, and is in doing so reinforcing the power of the very people we should seek to oppose.

Edit: you can now read Maajid’s own response to the Southern Poverty Law Center here -http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/29/i-m-a-muslim-reformer-why-am-i-being-smeared-as-an-anti-muslim-extremist.html


Why Libertarianism Fails On Free Speech

The political left right now has a free speech problem. This should not come as too much of a surprise, but it’s true. Many of my former allies share Lenin’s distaste for what he called ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ – human rights. But I firmly believe in the universality of the human drive for freedom.

That means I should make common cause with the political right, right? Aren’t they the ones standing up for free speech against political correctness and ‘social justice warriors’? No, I don’t think so. The right wing, even the libertarian right, has a free speech problem too, they just don’t know it.

So what is free speech? Some picture it as something promised by the government. You are free to say what you wish (within certain bounds) without armed men knocking at your door. That’s all very well, but it doesn’t really get to the core of the matter: freedom itself.

Total freedom is impossible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is a foundation of the universe we live in. You have the freedom to hold your breath underwater, but only as long as your lungs allow.

So what does it mean to be free to speak? Many on the libertarian right, often without saying it, stretch this concept to the limit. They protest being fired for an unfortunate tweet. Losing business for refusing to print statements on cakes they disagree with.

But isn’t that the cost of living in a social world? Are we obliged to tolerate people we detest? It seems to me that freedom of association is an important principle, something we should not discard lightly. If I don’t like what someone has to say, I have the right to ask them to leave my property. I have the right not to purchase their products. Surely every libertarian would agree with me on this.

In fact, when we don’t like what a corporation or person is doing, isn’t the right wing approach to ‘vote with your wallet’? Why would I choose to buy a cake from a homophobe when I could get one from someone who shares my values? If a business is advocating positions I disagree with, funding them by purchasing their products would make me unprincipled.

When someone is fired for an unpopular opinion, isn’t it that corporation’s right, at least from a libertarian perspective, to protect their image?

This is similar in some regards to the complaints about ‘fair trade’. The argument is made that people should “let the market decide”. But what is the idea of fair trade products if not a practical application of libertarian philosophy? People who believe that third world farmers aren’t being paid enough can choose to pay them more through their purchasing decisions.

So what are libertarians objecting to in cases like this? There’s something deeper going on, something entirely unacknowledged. It’s all about fairness. Those right wingers who object to the cases of being fired or losing business, are doing so because they feel it’s unfair. It’s unfair to lose your job because of an unpopular opinion. It’s unfair to lose your business because you wouldn’t say something you didn’t believe.

Similarly, some right wingers feel that ‘fair trade’ is also unfair. Why? Not because it’s a distortion of the market (which it isn’t) but because, and here is where I get really controversial; they don’t actually believe third world farmers should be paid more for what they do. That is, they don’t believe people in the third world deserve to be lifted out of poverty. Inequality suits them just fine.

So is it fair that people should be fired for a tweet? Well, no, not exactly. And yet I am, as are libertarians in theory, a firm believer in free association. So how do we resolve this contradiction?

We have to understand why many of us react with discomfort to the news of someone getting fired for expressing their opinions. Why many of us, even the renowned gay rights activist Peter Tatchell sympathise with the homophobic bakers. Well, first of all, because it could happen to any of us. Can we trust our employers to stand by us when an incensed pressure group bombards them with negative publicity? It doesn’t just happen to right wingers – the Sun is trying to get Gary Lineker fired at this very moment. All because he spoke out in favour of refugees.

That gets us a little bit closer to the heart of the issue. Fundamentally, each of us believes we don’t deserve to lose our own jobs on such a basis. The political right is supposed to believe in the right to hire and fire whoever you like. But when they picture themselves being the victim of a hate campaign, the idea of being fired for little reason suddenly seems grossly unfair.

Each of us, whether we express it or not, believes in our own right to have a job. Why is this? The right wingers at are supposed to believe people rise and fall on their own efforts. This attachment to security seems to contradict their apparent love of freedom.

But perhaps it’s not a contradiction at all. Perhaps in order to have freedom, we must first have security. I can’t afford to make use of my government granted free speech, literally, if it risks my career. I don’t have the freedom to express myself if I have to choose between that and putting bread on the table.

Yes, all freedoms in our world have limits. But choosing between basic sustenance and making use of our freedoms is no choice at all. In a world without any social security, as the libertarians would have it, there is no free speech. It doesn’t exist. Only the privilege of speech for those who are wealthy and those who conform.

Now we get to the heart of what freedom truly means. Not a lack of consequences – but a lack of other people having power over you. This is the foundation upon which real freedom must stand, and that is why libertarianism fails.

Real freedom begins with not having to rely on the goodwill of others to survive. It begins with a universal, guaranteed, liveable income for all.

Identity, Insecurity and Gendered Marketing – Price Discrimination

Every child goes through a process of learning their identity within the social world. At some point early in their development, they will learn ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. The prejudices of the adult world will have affected them possibly even before birth, with female foetuses being aborted and female babies being abandoned.

But they learn, through observation and instruction, the existence of this divide and their role within it. What is the difference between boys and girls? For some parents, this will be explained along the lines of “girls have an innie and boys have an outie” but there are very few children in the world for whom the education stops there, even with the most progressive parents. 

Simple observation will lead children to associate certain things with each sex. Boys have short hair. Girls have long hair. Boys like blue. Girls like pink. Even if they are aware of exceptions to these rules, it doesn’t prevent them from forming these mental categories.

Coded marketing, therefore, begins very early on in a person’s life. The protestation of “I am a girl. This is for boys.” will be familiar to many parents, and though this is easily overcome in the moment with “if you own it, then it’s for you isn’t it?”, this cannot last against the onslaught of experience.

In fact this conditioning carries on into adulthood. Many have remarked about the proliferation of unnecessarily gendered products but few have delved too deeply into the mechanisms involved.

Although simple sexism certainly plays a role in the marketing decisions, the reality is more complicated than that. Corporations find themselves torn between two apparently contradictory incentives in the name of profit.

First of all, the incentive to reduce manufacturing costs. Producing multiple products may require complex alterations in the process of production. The more in common a product has with its shelf siblings, the cheaper it is to produce and package. Existing machinery can be re-used, replacement parts are easier to source, and everyone from manufacturer to the consumer can be familiarised with the product range.

However, what’s the use in having multiple minor variations of the same product? You have to sell them in such a way as to appeal to the widest variety of people you can. If you can target multiple demographics, and persuade them to buy a specific product, you can charge a specific price tailored to each demographic. Do motorcycle owners spend more on the appearance of their vehicle than car owners? Sell them special “motorcycle shine” at a markup, and maximise your profits by charging two different prices for the same product.

So how do they get away with this? How do they persuade motorcycle owners to buy the motorcycle shine? Won’t a savvy consumer recognise the trick and go for the cheapest option? In some cases, yes, and those product lines fail. But as a consumer it is impossible to know the difference within a product range for every single product you buy. How sure are you that kitchen surface wipes are different enough from bathroom surface wipes to matter?

If you’ve just bought your first motorcycle and head into the store to pick up supplies, how likely are you to pass by the motorcycle shine and grab that slightly cheaper car shine? How can you know at a glance if the difference is worth it? Are you willing to risk the unknown consequences of applying car shine to your precious motorcycle? Better to err on the side of caution and grab the product which is specifically marketed towards your interests.

We make that decision every day with more trivial differences than gender. A part of our identity often deeply rooted in our psyche since childhood. You are a girl. The pink one is for you. Even if you hate pink, even if you are aware of the trick, even if you absolutely revile our sexist society, how sure are you, truthfully, that the male razors are just as appropriate for you as the female razors? Can you say for sure that male skin and male hair doesn’t need a different style of razor? Most of us don’t know, and will never know, and will carry on buying the products they want us to buy, paying a premium for our trust in corporations.

And let’s think about that for a minute. It might seem trivial, barely worth complaining about. Even if the sums add up, so what? Surely there are worse problems in the world? But that’s not the end of it.

Because this form of marketing takes its toll on the consumers. Every time we buy the product marketed towards us, we reinforce the necessity of that distinction, both to the marketers and to our own internal sense of self.

And on the other hand, the feeling of possessing products ‘intended’ for the opposite sex is an intrusion into our sense of identity. If you prefer the female razors, does that make you somehow less manly? Do you have perhaps more womanly body hair? This is a source of insecurity, and encourages you to reaffirm your sense of identity by acting out more appropriate gender stereotypes. Have you ever watched a man asked to hold his female partner’s handbag? Those who are firm in their sense of identity, in that they either firmly reject or firmly conform to gender stereotypes, may have no problem handling it. But those who are insecure will carry it at arm’s length, as if it contains an infectious poison. Even if the internal sense is secure, they may fear backlash from observers and feel obliged to act out the pantomime.

Either way, whether you buy the products or reject them, you may feel a psychological push towards gender conformity. That conformity will contribute to the observations of children and lead them to be insecure about their own gender. And the cycle will perpetuate, not just through malice but ignorance, greed and fear as well.