Politics

The New Center: Between the Right’s Bigotry and the Left’s Apologism

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the International Criminal Justice: State of Play conference at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (Simon Fraser University) in Vancouver. My talk was on dissidents in Muslim-majority countries and their often overlooked role in the mainstream narrative on Islamism and potential reform. My audience included speakers Richard Falk, William Schabas, International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor James Stewart, and former Canadian Supreme Court Justice and ICC Prosecutor Louise Arbour, most famous for her indictment of then-sitting Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević. The complete conference report can be read here.

In light of the devastating Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and the ugly anti-Muslim demagoguery of Donald Trump, what I spoke about then feels even more relevant now.

My speech, entitled From Root Causes to Reform: The Challenges of Ushering Islam into the 21st Century, is transcribed below (comments providing context are in brackets).

***
I was raised in a Muslim family, in the Muslim cultures of three different countries — Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. I grew up mostly in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a US ally with almost unconditional Western support, living there for close to twelve years. This land is the birthplace of Islam, its Prophet Muhammad, and its holy book, the Quran, elements that are revered universally by all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, regardless of sect or denomination. The monarch holds the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” referring to the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. It is the land that Muslims all over the world face when praying five times a day.

As I grew up there, I felt that something wasn’t right. To this day, Saudi Arabia carries out public beheadings. In Riyadh, this is done at a public square that we expatriates referred to as “Chop-Chop Square.” For perspective, in the same month that the world was reeling with shock at the beheading of James Foley at the hands of ISIS — August 2014 — Saudi Arabia beheaded 19 people, including some for the crimes of sorcery and smuggling cannabis.

The Saudi government, claiming the Quran and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) as its constitution, also amputates the limbs of those charged with theft. Religious minorities are not allowed to practice their religion. The women in the country suffer some of the most egregious human rights abuses of any in the world. They are banned from driving. They require the permission of a male guardian simply to work or travel. Victims of rape are often charged with fornication or adultery and sentenced to flogging if unable to produce four male witnesses to “prove” the crime.

In time, to my disappointment, I found endorsement for almost all of the Saudis’ actions in the Quran — the beheading of disbelievers in Verses 8:12-13; the amputation of hands for theft in 5:38; the practice of fighting Christians and Jews until they either convert or pay the jizyah tax — as ISIS does in Mosul, Iraq — in 9:29-30; domestic violence in 4:34; and so on. I was dismayed. When I asked my elders to explain this, they seemed just as taken aback as I did. As it turns out, very few of the moderate Muslims I knew had even read the holy book. That did not, however, stop them from trying their best to defend it. They would tell me not to read it “literally.” They questioned the authenticity of the translations, despite being shown several of them. They would explain that the fundamentalists were misinterpreting it, or taking it “out of context,” yet were at a loss to explain what the correct interpretation or context was. They would insist that any inaccuracy or flaw was somehow a metaphor for something more palatable.

So, like many people living in the countries I grew up in, I lost my faith. I became an apostate. As many of you may know, this declaration — simply that I’d changed my mind — is not one I could make in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as easily as I just made it here. I saw the scripture of my parents’ religion being used to justify everything from child marriages to the lashing of rape victims who could not produce four male witnesses to prove their innocence. And the biggest victims of all this were Muslims themselves. It wasn’t just me. There were many like me who wanted to speak up about these issues, but couldn’t. I promised myself that when I was in a country where I had the freedom to speak, I would.

I arrived in North America permanently in my twenties. Two years after I settled in Toronto with my family, the September 11 attacks happened. Suddenly, the conversation I had been having with myself for years was out in the open. The Internet was now here, and soon enough, everyone had a voice. This is where I found myself caught between two narratives, neither of which I could relate to.

The first was driven by anti-Muslim bigotry — what I call the “Fox News narrative”: all Muslims were closet terrorist sympathizers, we must implement stricter immigration policies to keep them out, and we must profile people with brown skin. These brown-skinned people, of course, included myself and much of my family and friends — never mind that the underwear bomber was black, Jose Padilla was Hispanic, and the Boston bombers came from the Caucasus mountains, which is literally where the word “Caucasian” is derived from. Most of those spewing out this prejudice happened to be very religious, right-wing Christians and Jews themselves [Pastor Terry Jones, Pamela Geller, and more], which didn’t give them much credibility in my eyes. I had read their holy books as well, and they didn’t seem much different from mine.

The second narrative — somewhat more disappointing to me personally — was from the liberal left, which I consider myself in alignment with. This was the narrative of apologism, where any criticism of Islam was conflated with bigotry. Criticizing Islamic beliefs or the contents of the Quran would promptly earn one the label of “racist,” “Islamophobe,” and in my case, “sellout” or “Uncle Tom.” Many liberals also seemed to excuse every atrocity committed in the name of Islam as some kind of reaction to Western imperialism or US foreign policy. Of course, they weren’t completely wrong — the causes of unrest in the Muslim world are complicated and varied — but I also knew first-hand that claiming these deeply held religious beliefs had nothing to do with the behavior they clearly engendered was disingenuous at best, and at worst, dangerous: it gave cover to the fundamentalists, even if inadvertently. [Fundamentalist governments and militant groups would use this far-left narrative of victimization as endorsement to further oppress their own people and strip away their rights.] Fundamentalists in Muslim-majority countries thrive on this narrative. Often, it’s the only good thing they have going for them.

This was my conflict — I wanted to be able to criticize Islam as one should be able to criticize any set of ideas, but I didn’t want to be seen to demonize an entire people — the people I was raised by and grew up with. Neither narrative made this distinction between ideas and people. It is crucial to emphasize the difference between the criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry: the first targets an ideology, and the second targets human beings. This is obviously a very significant difference, yet both are frequently lumped under the unfortunate umbrella term, “Islamophobia.”

Here’s the thing: human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. Ideas, beliefs, and books don’t and aren’t. The right to believe what one wants to believe is sacred; the beliefs themselves aren’t. If anything, it was precisely because of the horrific abuses I had witnessed ordinary Muslims suffer under theocratic policies and Sharia law that I wanted to start a dialogue to help shatter the taboo of criticizing religion.

Now, we’re not going to be able to resolve the problem of bringing about a reformation in the Muslim world in this 15-minute time slot. But my message to you is this: There are many, many out there with stories similar to mine. There is an alternative narrative reverberating within these Muslim-majority countries that is quite different from the one we get here after it’s been filtered through their state-endorsed blasphemy laws and speech restrictions. Unfortunately, we don’t hear them — because most are silenced before they get to us.

A lot of them identify as liberals, yet feel betrayed by their Western liberal counterparts, who, sometimes for fear of being seen as Islamophobic (what I call “Islamophobia-phobia”) will overlook great illiberal injustices like the subjugation of women, or discrimination against gays, the moment they are endorsed in a holy book. Then, it’s hands off — because it is part of “their” religion, or “their” culture, which simply must be respected at all costs. “They” are held to a different standard — what is known as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

My good friend, Raif Badawi, is currently in a prison in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and 1,000 lashes, the first 50 of which he received in January, just three days before the Saudi ambassador to France attended the free speech rally in Paris, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. His crime, as many of you know, is blogging — the official charges were “adopting liberal thought,” “starting a liberal website,” and “insulting Islam.” Now, he is possibly even facing death by beheading for apostasy.

President Obama did not bring up Raif Badawi’s case in his last visit to Saudi Arabia. [Former Canadian] Prime Minister Harper — who has constantly been railing against the niqab and Islamist extremism — has been silent about Raif’s case despite the fact that his wife and children are living right here in Canada and campaigning tirelessly for his release. [This is the cost our fellow liberal dissidents across the Muslim world pay for speaking out. As their liberal allies, we must support them.]

This isn’t an issue that will be solved militarily. Each time one militant group is defeated, another emerges that is even more brutal, exploiting a new set of grievances to expand its recruiting power. And this is not a regional problem anymore, as evidenced by the Western passports held by thousands of ISIS members. This is also an ideological battle. We can keep trimming the branches, but there is an underlying ideology that has always been at the root of it. We saw it two centuries ago in Thomas Jefferson’s conflict with the Barbary States [before US foreign policy even existed]. And we still see it today with ISIS.

Thank you.

***
Originally published on The Huffington Post.

Guns, Terrorism, and Honesty

Which of the following statements would you say you agree with?

Pick as many as you like. My answer is at the bottom.

1. Better gun control is essential to curb gun violence.

2. Islamic jihadism is a dangerous ideology that must be fought.

3. Guns should not be banned or confiscated.

4. Muslims should not be harassed or discriminated against just because they’re Muslim.

5. We should aggressively criticize and even satirize the problematic aspects of Islam (the religion), as we would with any other religion or political ideology.

6. Day-to-day gun violence is more deadly than Islamic terrorism right now because it has killed many more people.

7. Islamic terrorism is more deadly than day-to-day gun violence, because if it actually succeeds in its stated goals (such as obtaining weapons of mass destruction as ISIS wants to do), it will kill millions more.

8. Anyone who kills innocents to advance a religious/political agenda is a terrorist — this could include Muslims, far-right Christian abortion clinic bombers, radical leftists from the 1960s, Jews, Hindus, and atheists.

9. Islamic terrorism is the most deadly form of terrorism in the world today.

10. Anyone who is mentally disturbed or disgruntled and shoots up his school or workplace is a criminal, but is not a terrorist — even if he’s Muslim.

11. All Islamic terrorists are Muslim.

12. The vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and should not have to apologize for the few that are.

13. The few Muslims that do commit terrorist acts do so in complete accordance with a plausible, legitimate interpretation of the Islamic religion.

14. Islamic jihadists are motivated by many legitimate grievances like US foreign policy and the nagging remnants of Western imperialism.

15. Islamic jihadists are motivated by Islamic doctrine, the words of the Quran and hadith, and the promise of an afterlife, eternally, in Paradise.

16. Islamic imperialism (whether the 7th century Arab kind or the Ottoman kind) has done just as much harm (if not more) to the world than Western imperialism.

My answer:

All of them.

None of these points contradict each other. Go ahead and read through them again.

Gun violence, Islamic terrorism, and anti-Muslim bigotry are all real, serious problems that need to be faced head-on. It’s disingenuous to be in denial about one or the other just because you have a certain political affiliation. These don’t have to be conservative or liberal issues. Don’t make them be.

#Solidarity with the victims and their families in San Bernardino.

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 file photo, members of the Austrian Greens protest against the punishment for Saudi blogger Raif Badawi in front of the KAICIID in Vienna, Austria. Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court upheld a verdict against a liberal blogger who was flogged in January after being found guilty of insulting Islam and breaking technology laws, state-linked news websites reported Sunday, June 7. (AP Photo/Hans Punz, File)

Here’s Why Blogger Raif Badawi Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

“If anyone hurts one’s feelings, he will be punished by the law,” said Inspector General of Police Shahidul Haque last month, addressing free speech advocates at a press conference in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “None should cross the limit.”

Haque’s colleagues came under fierce criticism from protesters for their inaction after blogger Niloy Neel, 40, was brutally hacked to death by men armed with machetes. Neel was found beheaded in his home, with his hands cut off. Shortly before his death, he had filed a report with the police saying he was being followed and threatened. The police did nothing.

It should have, argue the protesters. Niloy Neel was the fourth blogger to be hacked to death in Bangladesh in just six months. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in broad daylight while walking to work. In March, it was blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu. In February, it was American writer Avijit Roy, murdered as he and his wife walked back from a speaking engagement at Dhaka University.

***
It has been an extraordinarily successful year for opponents of free speech. The year 2014 ended with movie theaters caving to North Korean threats, forcing Sony to pull the movie The Interview. On January 7, Islamists massacred 11 people in the Charlie Hebdoattack. Two days after that, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly lashed 50 times outside a mosque in Jeddah, as a crowd yelled “Allahu Akbar.” The next six months saw the killing of the four Bangladeshi bloggers. And three Al Jazeera English journalists, including a Canadian and an Australian, remain jailed in Egypt.

The Dhaka police chief’s response to the bloggers’ killings — that they should watch what they write — was unsurprisingly repugnant.

But before being shocked, recall how everyone from Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to 145 members of PEN — who protested the group’s honoring of Charlie Hebdowith its freedom of expression courage award — submitted their own “I condemn the murders, but…” statements. Remember how, even here in the West, much of the discussion around The Interview revolved around the content of the movie, how appropriate it is to show a sitting head of state being assassinated on film, and other concerns that are completely and utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Now, Bangladesh is officially a secular country that has finally started rounding up some of the Islamist murderers who claimed responsibility for the attacks. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, are a different matter. In these countries, it is the government itself that kills you for thinking differently.

Last year, Iran executed Mohsen Amir-Aslani for insulting Jonah and “making innovations in religion.” Soheil Arabi is still imprisoned for his Facebook posts. And Jason Rezaian, an American correspondent for The Washington Post, remains in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison on charges of espionage and “propaganda against the establishment.”

Rezaian’s brother, Ali, hopes that the new Iran deal will help the U.S.-Iran relationship and improve the chances of Jason being released and returning to his family. I hope he’s right.

But the release of Rezaian and three other American political prisoners in Iran wasn’t even on the negotiating table in Geneva. President Obama, known to be a realist on international relations, has explained why bringing up the issue could have weakened the United States’ negotiating position and compromised the deal.

And so, as four Americans remain imprisoned in Iran with their government unable to do much to get them out — what hope is there for everyone else?

***
When Fareed Zakaria asked the president in January if he would bring up the case of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi with Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, Obama’s response was measured:

“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done. And oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”

Last week, for King Salman’s first visit to Obama’s White House, his entourage bought outthe entire Four Seasons hotel for the weekend, brought in crates of gold furniture — gold mirrors, lamps, hat racks — and laid out red carpets everywhere, even in the parking garage.

A lot has happened since their last meeting. The Saudi government, which hasn’t taken in any Syrian refugees, has banned the adoption of Syrian children. Over 100 people have been executed by beheading or firing squad for crimes that include apostasy, heresy, and even sorcery. And Raif Badawi’s prison sentence of 10 years and 1000 lashes has been upheld by the country’s highest court.

But none of these issues came up for discussion last week. The purpose of the meeting was to allay the Saudis’ fears about the Iran deal, and this was a success. The United States again let the Saudis know it has their back.

Last year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head for standing up to the Taliban. 2010 recipient Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for standing up to the Chinese government. 2003 recipient Shirin Ebadi was repeatedly threatened for standing up to Iran’s ruling mullahs.

This year, it is Raif Badawi — jailed, publicly lashed, and fined for standing up to the Saudi monarchy — who is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his also-imprisoned lawyer and brother-in-law Waleed Abulkhair. In January, 18 Nobel laureates wrote to the president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Makkah Province, urging Saudi academics to stand up for the blogger.

***
Standing up for your values is most difficult when those closest to you are violating them. It’s easy for Western leaders to condemn the Taliban, the Islamist Charlie Hebdo shooters, Iran for its free speech restrictions, China for jailing Liu Xiaobo, or the murderers in Bangladesh.

But going up against Saudi Arabia — chief exporter of both oil and Islamism — is the real test. Who will do it?

The United States won’t. The superpower whose most recent Republican president famously held hands with the late King Abdullah as they strolled through his ranch, and most recent Democratic president apparently bowed to him, is terrified of offending the Saudis.

Other Western countries won’t do it either. David Cameron, recently praised for his insightful speech on combating Islamism, flew the union flag at half-mast to mourn the death of King Abdullah in January. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also seemingly “courageous” in his denouncement of Islamism, simultaneously conducted a $15 billion arms deal with the kingdom that’s contingent on secrecy.

Refreshingly, for a little while this year, Sweden was the exception to all this. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who had denounced the Saudis’ outrageous treatment of Raif Badawi, triggered a diplomatic firestorm when she wrote a speech for Arab leaders, calling them out on human rights abuses and their treatment of women. A day later, Sweden also revoked a decade-long weapons export agreement with Saudi Arabia, infuriating the Saudis.

Accusing Wallström of “flagrant interference,” they blocked her speech and recalled their ambassador to Stockholm, severing diplomatic ties. They stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen, and refused to renew the visas of Swedes who had them. They even refused to accept four Amazonian monkeys from Sweden for a Riyadh zoo. Ultimately, Wallström was compelled to backtrack and assuage Saudi authorities, telling them her speech wasn’t meant to insult Islam, and the Swedish government wants to restore good relations with Saudi Arabia (Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia totaled $1.3 billion last year). Wallström drew a significant amount of criticism from the Swedish business community and its lawmakers for her stance. This is the cost of trying to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, even for one of the most progressive social democratic countries in the world.

And that brings us to the United Nations. Will it stand up to the Saudis?

Probably not. Saudi Arabia has been given a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This year, the Saudis — who ban churches, temples, or the practice of any religion except Sunni Islam in their country — even hosted a human rights summit on freedom of religion, happily attended by the president of the Human Rights Council himself. And one of the main reasons Sweden scrambled to normalize relations with the Saudis during the Wallström affair was to prevent damaging its chances of re-election to the U.N. security council. The U.N.’s priorities on this seem pretty clear.

***
That leaves the Nobel committee. At times, the Peace Prize has been given not just to recognize people’s achievements, but also to pressure them to do better. Giving Raif the prize would do both. It would recognize the efforts of all those around the world who have been jailed or killed this year for intrepidly speaking out in places where it’s needed the most. And it would also send a strong message to Saudi Arabia from the rest of the civilized world — a message that neither the U.S., the U.N., or any other Western country has yet had the courage to properly convey.

It really has been a notorious year for writers, cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists. They haven’t just been censored, but imprisoned, publicly whipped, massacred in cold blood, and hacked to death with machetes. They need to know how much the rest of us value their contributions, sacrifices, and courage.

By going up against the Saudis’ human rights abuses and free speech restrictions, Raif Badawi has done what even Barack Obama won’t do. Yet, of the two, it is Obama who has a Nobel Peace Prize.

This year, the Nobel committee needs to change that.


Originally published on The Huffington Post.

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.

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.

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