BIRCH RUN, MI - AUGUST 11: Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump speaks with the media on his way to his car after delivering the keynote address at the Genesee and Saginaw Republican Party Lincoln Day Event August 11, 2015 in Birch Run, Michigan. This is Trump's first campaign event since his Republican debate last week. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

How Donald Trump May Just Rescue the Republican Party

Let’s get two things out of the way. First, I disagree with Donald Trump on most issues. Second, I don’t think he’ll be elected president, even if he does win the Republican nomination.

But I’m having trouble buying the idea that Trump is the “crazy one” in this year’s gaggle of GOP candidates. It’s amusing to watch men like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, both of whom oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, or Jeb Bush, who has proposed shaming women who have children out of wedlock, slam Trump for what they think was a sexist jibe at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. It’s no less entertaining to witness Republicans descending on Trump for hitting McCain’s stature as a war hero, when they did the same thing to John Kerry in 2004. The list goes on.

If anything, Trump is possibly the most liberal conservative the GOP has seen in decades. Josh Barro has referred to him as a “moderate Republican,” and others have highlighted his progressive past. This is a man who was pro-choice until recently. He supportedsingle-payer healthcare, even acknowledging in the first GOP debate how well it works in Scotland and Canada. As recently as 2012 — 2012! — he praised Hillary Clinton effusively as a “terrific woman” doing “a good job” and is a good friend of her husband, whose foundation he has donated to generously. On foreign policy, he has strongly opposed the Iraq war since a year after it began.

Now, he is anti-choice, anti-single-payer, and says Hillary Clinton is a criminal. Why is he flip-flopping on so many of his positions in such an obvious way? I, for one, think it’s deliberate.

Donald Trump is an immensely successful businessman and reality television star who knows how to read his audience, play to the camera, and get huge ratings. He seems to have recognized the audience he has to win over, and has fully embraced a painful truth that most other Republican leaders are still in denial about: the Republican party has been taken over by racists, bigots, and angry, semi-educated people who are blindly anti-establishment without even knowing what the establishment is all about. (Remember “Keep the government out of my Medicare”?)

Knowing this, he plays to their sentiment to secure his chances of clinching the nomination. As for his TV audiences, he senses what they want, and delivers in droves. That’s not to say that his birther-ism or his hard-right views on immigration aren’t sincere. But the truth is, you have to say the kinds of things Trump is saying to win the Republican primary. The proof? Everything he’s doing is working. Look at the polls — he still leads by a wide margin in nearly every one of them. The debate, the “blood” comment, the John McCain slur — none of these things have been able to derail that. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: conservative voters love it.

Let’s say he wins the Republican nomination. What happens in the general election? Will he keep up the blowhard persona or tone it down?

Consider what his Apprentice protégé Omarosa said about Trump’s ability to adapt to his environment:

“One of the most interesting things about Donald Trump is how incredibly smart he is and how he kind of learns as he goes. You can see he’s making modifications to his style as he goes through this thing.”

We’ve certainly seen that with all the flip-flopping. And as she points out, he is adept at adapting right there in the moment. Note how he deflected a perfectly legitimate (and potentially damaging) question from Kelly on his derogatory comments about women by making it all about Rosie O’Donnell, with whom he’s had a well-publicized feud. He knows better than anyone that celebrity feuds sell, evidenced by the deafening applause he received for his comment. Later, this became a feud with Kelly herself, and then with Fox News in general. The media coverage? Off the charts. The original question? Irrevocably lost in the din.

Keeping all this in mind, there’s no reason to believe he won’t “adapt” again in the general election. If he gets the nomination, likely going up against Hillary Clinton, I’m going to predict he dials down the bluster a bit, and even though he may not completely flip-flop back to his original socially liberal positions (which he’s shamelessly done several times in full public view), he’ll become more equivocal about them, or altogether underplay them. Instead of staying mired in the tiresome debate about the social issues that so many Republicans are obsessed with (abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on), he’ll make it about the economy, infrastructure, trade, and his neocon-ish view of foreign policy. Of course, as the Republican nominee, his party will have no choice but to support him.

In this way, Trump could redefine the Republican Party to again become what it once used to be — that is, something beyond the idiocy of the trans-vaginal ultrasounds and Bible-thumping homophobia we see today. In the end, whether he wins or loses, the result could be a return to how things were pre-Karl Rove, when the differences between the parties were ideological, not intellectual; when Ronald Reagan won 49 states out of 50 back in 1984; when you could avidly disagree with people like Reagan, George Bush, Sr., Henry Kissinger, and Paul Wolfowitz, but you knew you couldn’t question their intelligence — a far cry from the intellectually compromised Palins, Santorums, Perrys, and Cruzes that have risen to become the face of the party today.

Now, you could argue that Trump also belongs in the latter group. I would disagree. Trump is not a stupid man. He has a stellar academic record, is an astute and wildly successful businessman, knows how to create hit TV shows, and most importantly, really knows how to play to the public, get everyone interested, and win support even as he blatantly flip-flops or says outrageous things that would definitively end the campaign of any other political candidate.

So it’s not surprising that some think he has been “planted” to help Dems win. This is highly unlikely. But it’s not inconceivable that he is an old-school conservative who wants to take the party back to what it once used to be. To use a little Trumpspeak, the Republican Party has recently become infested with a lot of really dumb people, and again, the proof of that is in Trump’s success. He has recognized this, and is unabashedly playing to it. That’s the adaptability factor. And if he actually wins the nomination, it would be surprising if he didn’t change course somewhat in the general election as well.

Deep down, the Fox News folks know this. They were brutal to him in the debate, and they are not happy with the success of his candidacy. Megyn Kelly was on to something when she asked him, “When did you actually become a Republican?”

Fox News has helped create the extremist elements of the Republican Party we’ve seen over the last decade or more — and now that a former Democrat (or so he claims) has tapped into it and is actually using it to his advantage, it has come back to haunt them. How do you earn the admiration of the angry, xenophobic, paranoid monster that Fox News created over the years? Do exactly what Donald Trump is doing today.

Of course, you may think this entire article is insane. How could this man — who still hasn’t backed off his birther beliefs and who recently unveiled a repugnant position paper on immigration — possibly be moving the party forward? The answer: it’s all relative. Taken on their own, these positions may seem extreme, but compared to what mainstream Congressional Republicans have been up to already, they’re really not that much different.

In the current climate, even a small step forward from the status quo is progress for the GOP. That, and an all-but-guaranteed Democratic win in the general election, are great reasons for progressives to support Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

On Belief vs. Identity: Letter to a Young North American Muslim

Do you find yourself feeling personally insulted or targeted when someone criticizes or satirizes your religion?

If yes, it’s likely that your faith isn’t about the ideas in your religion as much as how you’ve incorporated them into your identity — individual, family, cultural, and more. This is why it feels so personal. If it was just about ideas, it wouldn’t feel as offensive, and disagreement from others wouldn’t feel like prejudice or bigotry.

But when you conflate your religion’s ideas with your sense of identity, defending your people becomes the same thing as defending your faith.

Consider that for a moment. Then, take a step back, and try to imagine divorcing the ideas in your religion from the person that you are, or the community you belong to. Are you able to see a distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity?

Suppose someone told you you could keep your family and community traditions, enjoy the feasts of Ramadan, and celebrate the Eid holidays with family and friends like always — but without the burden of defending every line in your scripture. Would you consider it?

I did. And today, I enjoy the Muslim experience much more without the burden of having to believe in Islam.

Unfortunately for most Muslims, the two are tied together. If you give up on the faith part, you may have to say goodbye to your upbringing, your childhood memories, the holidays, the gifts, the family dinners — forever. That’s scary. Increasing numbers of young people from Muslim families have been rejected and disowned simply for changing their mind. Does it really have to be that way?

Remember, your religious beliefs are not you. They are simply part of the medium you were cultured in when you were raised.

You know, deep down, that if you were born in a Hindu family, you’d be Hindu. You know, deep down, that your faith is really just an accident of birth. How can it possibly be about ideas then? Ideas don’t come with birth. But much of what makes up your sense of identity does.

Many religious communities have now evolved beyond their religious beliefs. In effect, they’ve secularized their religions. Judeo-Christian scripture isn’t vastly different from Islamic scripture. Yet many Jews are able to hold on to their cultural identities and customs without the burden of believing in Judaism. Many Catholics are able to celebrate Christmas and Easter without the burden of believing they’ll go to hell for using birth control or being pro-choice.

Similarly, just because you identify with the Muslim experience doesn’t mean you have to justify and defend every line in your book. Especially when you know, deep down, you don’t really agree with all of it. No rational, thinking person can agree with every single idea in any book.

You know, deep down, that reading some parts of it for the first time made you jump — sending you scrambling to Google to find some kind of explanation or “interpretation” that would make it all fit better with your personal sense of what’s right and wrong.

You know, deep down, that in that moment, you weren’t getting your moral guidance fromyour holy book — but you were using your already-present morality to interpret it.

Think about that for a second. Do you really think you need your religion in order to be good? Or look at it another way: if the only thing keeping you from being bad or immoral is your religion, what does that say about you as a person?

You know, deep down, how it looks to others when you twist and turn just to make an ancient verse about wife-beating or killing non-Muslims sound somewhat palatable so you can defend your faith, and therefore, in your mind, your heritage. You know that some things in Abrahamic holy books that are dismissed as being quoted “out of context” wouldn’t be acceptable in any context.

You know, deep down, that you try to convince yourself as much as others that the elaborate explanations from cherry-picked “scholars” justifying these verses must be right — because these modern human explanations feel more morally sound than the supposedly divine verses themselves. You know that you’d never go to such an extent to justify the same ideas if they came from any other author. You know how frustrated you feel when yet another heinous jihadist attack happens, with the terrorist quoting verses from your book, and you have to find a way to explain those verses, despite feeling that you shouldn’t have to.

You know, deep down, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult and exhausting to keep convincing yourself, and others, that your progressive, reasoned values are somehow completely compatible with those words written 1400 years ago.

I’m here to let you know that you don’t have to put yourself through this. There’s a middle ground that is both more honest and more comfortable: divorcing your Islamic belief from your Muslim identity.

Why must young Muslims have to subscribe to an infallible, unquestionable belief system in order to stay part of their families and communities? Why must they be excommunicated from their own lives for thinking differently? How can we expect these young men and women to move forward if simply disagreeing with the rest of the club carries the risk of lifelong isolation, ostracization, and even harsh punishment?

There needs to be a way for Muslim youth to be able to think freely, question ideas, and come to different conclusions without having to lose their sense of identity or their connection to the life and people that they love. We need to let reformist Muslims, secular Muslims, questioning Muslims, agnostic/atheist Muslims, and ex-Muslims into the dialogue on Islam, to make it as diverse, varied, and complex as the Muslim world itself.

I understand if this sounds strange, contradictory, or impossible to you. At one point, it did to me too. But do take the time to think about it — and be truly honest with yourself.

Yes, loyalty to your loved ones and your people is a noble virtue. But being unwaveringly loyal to an ideology or a belief system shackles the mind, fetters the intellect, and taints the conscience. When the two come packaged together, you’re being asked to give up your intellectual independence and your freedom to think and make your own choices for admission to the club. And because you’ve been in the club since you were a child, choosing that freedom too often means getting kicked out of it. Does that sound fair to you?

It may take some time to wrap your head around this. Un-learning years of religious upbringing isn’t an easy thing to do. As you read this, you may have countless counter-arguments and disagreements developing in your mind. That’s okay. It’s healthy, and it’s actually the only way to go through this process. I’ve been there too.

But please do think about it. When the realization finally comes, it is exhilarating and liberating. Enlightenment is the best rush there is. And once you get to the other side, you’ll see a lot of us here to welcome you — including those closeted within your own families and communities whom you may never even have known existed. You will be appreciated not only for your honesty and consistency, but for your loyalty to yourself.

Happy Ramadan, and happy Eid. I’ll be celebrating with you.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Why Atheists Like Me Grieve for the Chapel Hill Shooting Victims

The execution-style shooting of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill is tragic, disgusting, and should be denounced by every human being of conscience.

The killer, who was reportedly motivated by a parking dispute, also happened to be a vocal atheist.

Being an anti-theist who grew up in three Muslim-majority countries — as part of a Muslim family I love, respect, yet frequently disagree with — I want to tell you why I’m grieving today for Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and their families.

I rejected religion precisely because I wouldn’t accept “holy” books like the Quran or Bible that prescribe killing, fighting, and eternally torturing those who think or believe differently.

Atheists who adopt the same approach to others are no different from the violent religious groups they claim to be opposed to. And if there were a “holy” book of atheism that prescribed killing others (which there isn’t), I would unequivocally condemn and reject it too.

This is why I repeatedly stress how crucial it is to distinguish between anti-Muslim bigotry (which targets real human beings) and legitimate criticism of Islam (which targets ideas in a book).

Again: human beings have rights, and are entitled to respect. Ideas, books, and beliefs aren’t.

Many of my friends and family are religious, wear the hijab, or fast during Ramadan. We disagree on ideas, often vehemently, but we don’t hate each other. We engage in dialogue, we argue, we learn from one another — and then we go out to dinner. Most human beings are much more than what they believe. We all have much more in common as human beings than not. That basic principle, by definition, is what lies at the heart of humanism.

The right to believe freely is universal. I don’t want to engage with people who think the right of anyone to live, think, or say as they want — whether believer or atheist — is negotiable. I want to call out bad ideas, not blanketly demonize an entire people. That’s why I rejected religion in the first place.

Does this incident mean we should stop criticizing irrational beliefs? No. The idea that we shouldn’t criticize religion because it may encourage hate crimes against the religious is as absurd as saying we should never criticize U.S. foreign policy because it could lead to attacks on innocent Americans overseas. We should call out bad ideas everywhere — whether they come from holy books that instruct us to kill, or from the mind of an atheist murderer who, in this case, thought it was okay to kill those who believe in them.

Atheism is not a belief system or a doctrine. It is simply a rejection of irrational beliefs. Those who treat it as anything more, as Craig Stephen Hicks may have, should be condemned by all — no excuses.

My thoughts are with the three young victims of this horrific crime.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

How Terrorism Won

Here’s part of an internal CNN memo sent out by senior editorial director Richard Griffiths last Wednesday:

Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.

And this was from the BBC’s editorial guidelines before its recent revisions:

Due care and consideration must be made regarding the use of religious symbols in images which may cause offence. The Prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.

The NY Daily News even made the bizarre decision to blur one of the cartoons:


Add to this the rest of the major news networks in the United States: ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all said they will not show the cartoons for which 12 innocent people were murdered in cold blood this week.

There you have it. The United States is now living under Islamist blasphemy laws.

These are the Sharia-driven blasphemy laws that terrorists violently and effectively implemented in Paris on January 7. And most Western mainstream media outlets are obediently complying with them.

In his statement, President Obama hailed America’s commitment to free speech, and referred to the terrorists as “cowardly.”

Unfortunately, he had it the other way around. News outlets covering this story without showing the cartoons aren’t curbing terrorism — they’re victims of it.

Disappointingly, some on the left are discussing the merits of the content that provoked this murderous attack — which is a lot like talking about what a rape victim was wearing to “provoke” her rapist.

Let’s be clear: our opinions about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (which satirized all religions, not just Islam), like our opinions of the movie The Interview, are completely and utterly irrelevant in this context. If your condemnation of these attacks on free expression is followed by a comma and a “but…”, you may be part of the problem.

The CNN memo references “the tension between free expression and respect for religion.”

The next time you’re in a hotel room, pick up the Bible and read through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or pick up the Quran and read Surah Tawbah or Surah Anfal. Then, think carefully about your definition of “respect.”

Religion isn’t a person. It is a set of ideas in a book. It doesn’t have rights. It doesn’t have emotions. It doesn’t have a family or children. Those cartoonists were living, breathing human beings. They had rights, emotions, and families. Which of these deserves your respect?

In verses 8:12-13, the Quran endorses killing disbelievers. In Leviticus 24:16, the Bible calls for the killing of blasphemers. Both of these books are revered and respected by billions of people around the world. As for those who criticize and satirize them — their weapons are pencils and laptops. Who should really be offended here?

Why is the content of the cartoonists’ work even remotely relevant? If we truly want to make this a conversation about the content of the cartoons, let’s be fair and also bring the content of these religions’ canonical texts into the debate.

I was on a HuffPost Live segment this week discussing the aftermath of the Paris shootings. One of the guests said there is a “fine line” between free speech and offending people’s sensitivities. My response was simple: the whole point of freedom of speech is the freedom to offend. This is the reason free speech is so ardently protected. Most of the revolutionary changes in history — from the civil rights movement to the advent of major religions — started with a lot of offended people. This is why Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It’s why Jesus was crucified, and Muhammad was expelled from Mecca by the Quraysh. Without the freedom to offend, there is no freedom of speech.

I recently received news that my friend Raif Badawi, currently in a Saudi jail, is going to start being publicly lashed 50 times every Friday after prayers at a Jeddah mosque. (Update: The first set of lashings happened Friday, January 9). This will continue every week until his sentence of 1,000 lashes is completed. His crime? Blogging. He is officially charged with “adopting liberal thought” and “insulting Islam.”

Simply condemning these actions isn’t enough. If we don’t actively support and promote the right of writers and artists to express themselves freely, we are doing people like Raif and the slain Charlie Hebdo staff a great disservice. As Jonathan Chait put it:

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

If my fellow liberals don’t stand up to Islamism now, the void is bound to be filled by truly xenophobic fascists who don’t distinguish between rabid anti-Muslim bigotry and legitimate criticism of Islamic ideology. The rising influence of far-right parties like Marie Le Pen’s National Front will only further alienate the more moderate Muslim majority that the left claims to support, potentially priming more of them for recruitment by Islamists. Shying away from honestly criticizing Islamism does them no favor.

Terrorism is terrorism, whether it kills people or kills our values. We’re losing on both fronts.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Moving Past the “Bradley Effect”

The ‘Bradley Effect’ is named after Tom Bradley, an African-American candidate in California’s 1982 gubernatorial race who, despite consistently polling well, lost the election. Ever since, the term has been used to describe the phenomenon of people who say to pollsters that they will vote for a non-white candidate, but don’t follow through in the privacy of the voting booth.

Since Barack Obama established a more decisive lead over John McCain in the polls over the last two weeks, the possibility of the Bradley Effect playing a role in this year’s presidential election has been raised again.

However, this time it’s unlikely to have a significant impact.

Repeatedly, surveys have shown that a vast majority of voters who consider race a factor in their decisions tend to vote Republican anyway.

Of the Democrats, an AP-Yahoo study from September shows that about 2.5% may not vote for Obama because of his race.

Even if the Bradley Effect doubles this number to 5% on November 4, it will still significantly be overpowered by the over 90% of black voters who are solid Obama supporters.

If that isn’t enough (it will be), there has been a record surge in new African-American voters registered this year, resulting in states like North Carolina becoming competitive for Democrats for the first time in decades.

And if that isn’t enough? Throw in the Economic Meltdown Effect, the Sarah Palin Effect, and the Tina Fey Effect — and the Bradley Effect becomes a virtual non-factor.


Originally published on the Huffington Post

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