Faisal Al Mutar is an advocate for human rights, secularism, and freedom of expression. Well known for his biting sense of humor, Faisal is a controversial figure who has reported receiving hate mail from Islamists as well as those on the alt-right who believe he is an extremist in disguise.
We spoke with Faisal about progression and regression in the Islamic World.
With Tunisia amending its marriage laws to allow Muslim women to marry whoever they want, regardless of religion, and Saudi Arabia allowing women to drive, there are those who believe that the Islamic world is progressing.
At the same time, however, Pakistan is cracking down on blasphemy harder than ever, Egypt is persecuting its LGBT community, Turkey is removing the Theory of Evolution from school textbooks.
We ask Faisal, is the Islamic world progressing or regressing?
My answer for that would be both. I think that for the first time in the Arab world—and in particular the Muslim world—people have the largest access to information as ever before [...].
To quote a friend of mine: The Internet is doing to the Middle East and Islamic World what the printing press did to Christianity in the Enlightenment.
So I think this is the good side. But at the same time, dictatorships evolve [...] so as a result you see things like what Erdogan is doing in Turkey, it’s reactionary at its core [...] and many of them are afraid of the rise of non-belief and the rise of “promiscuous women”, quote unquote [...].
So I think my answer for that would be both. In some places, like you see in Turkey, things are not doing well, and Pakistan the same. But just going through social media you will see that the numbers of followers of Arab liberal and secular pages are by the tens of millions. That never existed before.
More people are becoming outspoken, so I do follow more on the optimistic side. Not with an “inshallah”, but with a more rational optimist approach.
I think that the Arab world is heading in the right direction. It might be slowly, but I think that it's going there.
What does progression look like in the Islamic world?
The way I see progression is the adherence of the people to the values of the Enlightenment and appreciation of civil liberties. I think this is what I define progression to be.
I blame Mongolian foreign policy for destroying the enlightenment in the middle east.— Faisal Saeed AlMutar (@faisalalmutar) November 17, 2017
Dad jokes? Faisal mentioned the Mongol siege of Baghdad as having potentially stunted progress in the Middle East.
Oftentimes, people conflate “liberalization” with “Westernization”. Those in the Islamic world who are accepting of LGBT rights, women’s rights, or the rights of atheists are often labeled as—or accused of being—“Western”.
We ask Faisal if he sees a difference between Westernization and Liberalization?
Yes I do. We did a debate/discussion at Portland State University about this and the question was: “Are Western values worth defending?”.
And I mentioned at the beginning that I’m not comfortable with that term because it pigeon holes it into one specific region [...].
I think what makes the difference is that the enlightenment values kind of became institutionalised in the West, while in the Arab or Islamic world these movements have - to some extent - failed, at least in terms of institutionalisation of these values.
So yes I totally agree that these are liberal values more than Western values.
And also I think that the term ‘Western Values’ itself is very vague. Does Ted Cruz represent Western values? Does Donald Trump represent Western Values? Does Obama represent Western values?
I mean, what are Western values? Is it the Judeo-Christian, is it the secular? Is it a mix [...]?
I think that the West is not following the enlightenment values, with the censorship of free speech on one hand and bigotry on the other, and anti-Globalism and protectionism on the other side. So I think that liberalisation is the solution, and also what needs to be defended.
Now that women are allowed to drive in Saudi and we are all excited.— Faisal Saeed AlMutar (@faisalalmutar) September 26, 2017
And abolish the Guardianship system.
Progression in the Middle East: But much more needs to be done, says Faisal
Faisal continued by highlighting the existence of Enlightenment values throughout the history of the Islamic world.
There were many periods of time within the Islamic Golden Age, or the Arab Golden Age [...] that you’ll see that there is adherence to the value of evidence and the value of reason.
There was a movement called the Mutazilites, in which it said that God gave us reason so we should apply reason to live and not just following the scripture. So there have been many movements in the Muslim world [...].
The Muslim word history is so complicated that to put the problem at East vs West, or Islam vs West, I think it’s very simplistic.
Muslims themselves don’t agree what Muslim values are - that's why we have civil wars happening in Iraq and Syria [...] or the Ahmadiyya are being persecuted in Pakistan, the Shia being persecuted in Pakistan.
That means there is no coherent, no one concrete version of what Islam is. So I’m against this narrative of the “Clash of Civilizations” myself. The real war is with Enlightenment values and the lack of them, and civilization and lack of civilization.
And I don’t think ISIS and their gang represent any form of civilization whatsoever, they are the enemies of civilization. Including the enemies of civilizations that existed in Muslim societies.
Why is it easier to start a terrorist group in the Middle East than to start a liberal one? Back from my experience in Iraq, if you’re a Sunni militia you go to Qatar or Saudi Arabia you get millions of dollars of funding, if you’re a Shia militia you go to Iran and get millions of dollars of funding, if you’re a liberal group you get nothing.
So I think that the West can play a role [...].
If we look at it as a war of ideas [...] t’s a duty in my opinion of every person who adheres to the values of the enlightenment to defend them at home and help his comrades elsewhere is spreading them and defending them.
Do I believe that that should be part of a U.S. embassy or government solution? I’m not a big believer in government efficiency in the first place, so I think that gvts are the least efficient way of achieving goals especially when it comes to social change.
And if you look at how America became more accepting of gay rights, I think it's more the work of hollywood than the work of the domestic institution of the U.S. government. I’d rather that these things came from people to people.
My Arabic is like ISIS, I am losing territory and vocabulary every month.— Faisal Saeed AlMutar (@faisalalmutar) September 1, 2017
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