Rula Jebreal and the redefining of liberalism.


It seems clear to me that any discussion of Islamism and its root causes is incomplete if it relies solely on the geopolitical context, disconnecting it from the problem of religious dogma (and vice versa). As if religious dogma is entirely insignificant, or can be dismissed as a small band of crazy Wahhabi’s. To me, the idea that morality can be anchored to a single time & place (in this case, 7th century Arabia) without any problems, or any negative affects centuries later – when the World vastly outgrows the morality of the dogma – is so incredibly flawed, and more often than not represents nothing more than liberals with their hearts in the right place, trying hard to argue that Islam is not problematic, requires protecting, is a victim, and that everything surrounding it is the problem.

Liberalism is the promotion of the equal civil rights of all, the privilege of none, and the challenging of illiberal ideologies and dogma. We liberals must support those progressive Muslims who are arguing for reform within Islam; Maajid Nawaz, Irshad Manji, and the wonderful ‘Muslims for Progressive Values’, to name a couple. But recently, foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal decided she was going to narrowly redefine the parameters of liberalism, to suit her narrative:

“A liberal person is somebody that challenges policies and sees the connection between policies and radicalization.”

– If policies were solely responsible for radicalisation, it would seem obvious that the Middle East should be overrun with radical gay, atheist, and apostate groups. Nevertheless, here, Jabreal – ripping up anything ever written by Mill – has decided that the term ‘liberal’ must only apply to those who focus entirely on the geopolitical context of any discussion, and consciously ignore the religious element. One wonders if Muslims arguing for liberal reforms within Islam – without focusing entirely on the foreign policy of the United States – are to be considered illiberal for not narrowly focusing on what Jebreal demands of a good, wholesome liberal. If this is to include Muslims as well, then Jabreal’s argument – whilst wrong, and very narrow – is complete. But if Jabreal believes Muslims can be liberal and critical of interpretations of Islam without focusing on the US, then there’s no reason to categorise non-Muslims who do the same, as not liberal.

The agenda is simple; in order to silence criticism of Islam – without outright calling for blasphemy laws, though the goal is the same; to protect one religion from ‘offense’ – one must first cast the idea of criticism of Islam, as something inherently undesirable, illiberal, bigoted (Glenn Greenwald did this in his illiberal rant in support of Jabreal, demanding we all be very nationalist in our approach to who we choose to criticise, whilst bizarrely simultaneously being angry at nationalism). Jabreal closes down the idea of a liberal critique of Islam, as oxymoronic. Indeed, according to Jebreal’s narrow redefinition, to challenge illiberal dogma that informs the extreme narrative itself, is to be, by definition, illiberal. She is of course, wrong. To be liberal is indeed to challenge policies, it is also to challenge illiberal narratives, and illiberal ideals. To challenge ideologies that promote homophobia, that limit free expression, that dehumanise ex-believers, that in any way contain directions on how to control the lives of others, to challenge ideologies that include state control for that particular ideology, Or to criticise & satirise ideas that include people like me burning in hell for eternity for non-belief and taught to children, to defend and promote individual civil liberties against those who would cage us all in a second.

An ideology cannot be disconnected from the time and context in which it exists. Indeed, the social context itself, cannot be disconnected from the plethora of ideologies and ideals that inform it. And so both must be included in any discussion on extremism, because the two inform each other. It is a fallacy to suggest that focusing on the invasion of Iraq is the height of liberalism, whilst focusing on religious dogma is illiberalism. To pretend Islam is entirely dependent on the surrounding context of the time and ‘outside’ forces, rather than inherent issues with the religion itself to the point where we cannot and should not focus at all on its dogma, is to imply that Islam really isn’t anything on its own, and has no significant anchor transcending the time period. If Islam is to be considered anything at all, it must be open to criticism, and we must accept that it is problematic, like every other man-made ideological structure. At the moment, Jabreal plays to the illiberal idea that anyone criticising the content of the ideology – rather than just the geopolitics that surrounds it – is to be labelled a bigot (which we’ll see Jabreal – in predictable fashion – moves on to do). Islam as an ideological structure, is not to be ignored, for the sake of blaming the US for absolutely every problem that Islam plays a role in. To be liberal is not to focus solely on the social conditions of the time and place only, but also the illiberal content of the ideology itself. It worries me that Jabreal begins from the premise that Islam is perfect. Once that position is adopted, everyone else is wrong, bigoted, racist, illiberal (pick whichever) for disagreeing.

A few weeks back, Tim Wise misrepresented the poisonous ideology of Hamas, to aid his narrative. Here, Jabreal does the same, and breaks her own definition of ‘liberal’ by failing to challenge actual policy, instead choosing to misrepresent it. Earlier, in a discussion with Bill Maher on apostasy in the Muslim World, Jabreal acted as if it wasn’t an issue, and misrepresented the problem, by misrepresenting Jordan’s apostasy issue. When Maher asked what would happen if you left your religion, Jabreal replied:

“….you can do it in Jordan, you can do it in Lebanon.”

– Not true. In Jordan, any member of the community can take you to an Islamic court for suspected apostasy. The court has the power to void the marriage of anyone they convict of apostasy, and to deny the right of the apostate to inherit from Muslim relatives. Let’s also not forget that both Lebanon and Jordan punish blasphemy, meaning if you are an apostate, you better keep quiet. The two states that Jabreal specifically mentions, are not Saudi Arabia. Let us be clear; Jabreal is consciously glossing over religious supremacism that controls and oppresses in the states she mentions. In no other context – racial supremacy for example – would that be considered the mark of a great liberal. That aside, to deny Islam has an apostasy problem when Hirsi Ali is threatened with death any time she talks, and there are ex-Muslim councils across the World dedicated to protecting and helping those victims of apostasy ideas, is shockingly illiberal, and an abandonment of human beings for the sake of protecting a religion.

She then didn’t tell the whole story on Tunisia, neglecting to note that the President is required to be Muslim, or that marriage between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man is strictly forbidden, or that same-sex relationships are entirely banned:

“I look at the reality on the ground. Tunisia, for example, voted for Islamists – and then they voted them out. And you had the [Islamist] Ennahda party calling the opposition, congratulating them. But we don’t want to see that. We want to see that every Muslim is an enemy.”

– I was in Tunisia recently. Whilst a religious supremacist country, it is also a beautiful country, and incredibly lovely people. On account of me having a beard, one gentleman – after jokingly calling me ‘Bin Laden’ and later ‘Fidel Castro’ – asked me if I pray. I said no. He then asked me if I have read the Qur’an. I said yes. He then asked me why I didn’t believe in it, and at that point, I was strongly aware that ‘proselytising’ – that is, if I were to explain my logic behind my atheism in a way that might suggest attempting to convert the guy – is illegal. So no, Jabreal doesn’t look “at the reality on the ground” unless it suits her simplistic victim-hood narrative to do so, hypocritically ignoring the real victims, of her religion.

Later, when speaking of Bill Maher, Jebreal said:

“He’s a tyrant when it comes to this… don’t agree with me, you’re shunned aside and you’re the enemy. I find that horrifying,”

– A perhaps hypocritical statement, given her quickness to cast anyone who challenges the content of her religion as necessarily illiberal. Even more hypocritical, given that she then uses this awful straw man to shut down anyone who disagrees with her:

“I find it racist…. As if the Middle East doesn’t deserve an opportunity and a chance, as if people in the Middle East are inferior.”

– Misleading. The Middle East is not to be conflated with Islam. Much like anti-Muslim hate is not to be conflated with criticism of Islam. Islam is an idea. It is not to be protected from criticism, satire, or contempt. It is an imperialist mentality, to conflate an entire region with the religion that controls much of it. By contrast, I would argue that the Middle East comprises all who live there; including all those that states that enshrine Islam try hard to persecute (Not just Wahhabi-ridden states, as Jabreal uses as a go to excuse). That any state that enshrines Islam, is by definition, oppressive.

Contrary to her misrepresentation of liberals, We liberals actually believe the Middle East deserves secular, civil liberties that protect all – regardless of belief, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, eye colour, and any other arbitrary human distinction. We do not conflate Islam with an entire region. We believe that religion – no single sect, or interpretation – has caused far too much suffering throughout history, that Islam isn’t the “pluralistic” ideology that Jabreal later claims, that it isn’t respecting of human rights or civil liberties where ever it is given an ounce of power, and that it must not be granted state privileges (both Islam and Christianity violate basic human rights the moment they have any power, this is not the fault of the US, and neither is it confined to Wahhabi sects). We believe ex-Muslims have a right to be heard. We believe homosexuality is love, the rights of whom must be protected. We believe blasphemy is simply the protection of religious privilege and power. We call out the illiberal dogma that oppresses so many, regardless of the ideology that informs it. Islam informs oppression, because Islam is anchored to the moral musings of human beings centuries ago.

Jabreal – whilst abandoning victims of her religion, because she can’t bring herself to accept it might not be perfect – is doing exactly what she accuses her critics of doing. She is focusing entirely on one piece of a very complex puzzle, and then shutting down all those who focus on other pieces of the same puzzle, as illiberal, bigoted, racists. She simply doesn’t like her faith to be criticised. This is incredibly dangerous, and is not to be confused with liberalism. The illiberal liberals are at it again.

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2 Responses to Rula Jebreal and the redefining of liberalism.

  1. Steven Olwyn says:

    The Middle East, largely speaking, is inferior but it is not alone. Anyone sufficiently ignorant to believe in the fictions propagated by the various religions is expressing their inferiority, their personal insecurity and lack of self esteem.

    Without doubt, they are intellectually inferior to people who recognise religion to be the most dangerous disease to infect man. The irony is that man invented the gods and religions and then inflicted the disease upon himself. Humans kill more humans than any other creature and a vast number have been killed in the name of religion.

    Only when religion and the belief in a non-existent supreme being is totally crushed will man be entirely free and liberal thinking can prevail. The whole essence of religion is a contradiction to liberalism. Religion is about control and libralism about freedom. The two cannot co-exist. Sometimes the disease has to be rooted out for the greater good of the whole body.

  2. ptholome says:

    Good article. I agree with you, also I like Steven’s comment

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