In a recent six-and-a-half minute video message, Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, called upon his assumed Muslim audience to make certain changes. Specifically, he exhorted them to stop intra-faith Shia-Sunni animosity, stop hating Jews, to return to their religious roots and to embrace the recent Abraham Accord.
The tone was patronizing, and Peterson’s “call” ignores the larger political dynamics at play. Peterson expects, as he says, for “Muslims to reach across the sectarian divide – especially Shiites. Find a Sunni pen pal, communicate with someone on the other side.” He also urged that, “Sunnis, do the same and then, maybe, tentatively, reach out to a Christian, or heaven forbid, a Jew.”
In the message, Peterson welcomed his new Muslim followers. But his comments on sectarian differences, while perhaps well-meaning, were slammed as ill-informed, condescending, and crass by some. He invited a Muslim to build an “electronic system to bring people from the Sunni and Shiite community together,” and that he would promote it. On Facebook and Twitter, Muslims shared their views on Peterson’s ideas of Muslim relations. We have gathered few responses from some researchers, academics, and chaplains from social media on the issue:
Uthman Badar [PhD Researcher, Australia]
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Message to Dr Jordan B Peterson
Re: Message to Muslims
Your presumably sincere intent to find solutions to world problems is admirable, but you’re looking in the wrong place. Your lack of awareness about developments in the ‘Western civilisation’ that you habitually extol is concerning. Something called ‘secularism’ happened some two centuries ago. Religion was subordinated and relegated to the margins of all that is important and influential in politics and public life. The Pope was made to retire to the Vatican and become a footnote to world politics that does little more than issue now predictable but impotent calls for peace…. Muftis and rabbis of officialdom too have been employed by secular power the world over.
This ‘enlightened’ way of life was then forced at the barrel of a gun—as only enlightened folk can—in Asia and Africa. All the states there now are secular too.
Your implicit diagnosis, then, of prevailing conflicts and problems as a function of interfaith clashes comes in naïve (or convenient?) ignorance of all this. It is, nevertheless, along with the corresponding prescription, woefully inadequate. Faith does not play such a significant role in the world affairs of a Secular Age. Secular ideologies do—manipulating faith when expedient.
But you should know this. Consider the left-right, conservative-liberal, woke-asleep debates that you’re routinely engaged in (and in increasingly commercialised fashion)—when not lecturing Muslims and Christians to sort themselves out. Are these not decidedly secular ‘squabbles’? The ‘culture’ wars are so-called for a reason, right?
Consider as well major examples of recent world conflict: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russian aggression in Ukraine, Israeli aggression on Gaza, the ‘War on Terror’ that gave us Guantanamo Bay and ISIS. What have any of these to do with interfaith conflict? Is the United States a Christian theocracy? Or a secular liberal democracy (with a sprinkling of Christian rhetoric at times)? Is Russia an Orthodox theocracy? Or a secular socialist regime? And so on.
Likewise, you may presume that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iran are Islamic regimes, but they are not. They are modern secular states with a sprinkling of Islamic rhetoric or embellishment.
The ‘Abraham Accords’ were signed by ‘Israel’, the UAE, and the US. Which of these is constituted or driven by faith? The ‘Jewish state’ built on a brutal dispossession of millions? The despotic gulf statelet run like a family mafia? Or the most violent state in the world, constituted by a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state? Has that wall fallen down such that the US is now signing accords on behalf of the ‘People of the Book’?
You can’t celebrate secularism on the one hand, and then blame the problems on religion, on the other. What sort of conceptual gymnastics is that?
The fact of the matter is that secularism is the order of the day, mostly in it liberal iteration. Secular liberal states are the most influential actors on the world stage, and, in turn, are primarily responsible for the mess we see on that stage. It’s an old secular trope to construe problems as emanating from religious conflict/hatred and suggest more interfaith dialogue/harmony as the solution. This is a convenient depoliticization and dehistorisation of conflict done to essentialise it as religious (or ethnic/cultural). One must be shallow to fall for it, though.
If conversation is the way forward, then, I’m afraid you’ll need more ‘woke’ pen-pals to sort out your secular ideological squabbles. Stop hating’, start talking’ (ideally with less rhetoric, more substance). Better still, try focusing on the actual points of power in our world and we might all be better for it.
Yahya Birt [British-American writer and academic]
I feel like the circle is complete. JP addressed his considerable “Moslem” fanbase (how he drawls “Muslim”, rather fittingly sounding more like مظلم “oppressor” than مسلم “faithful submitter to God”) directly for the first time today, from his new platform at the Daily Wire. Some cannot contain their excitement: see the comment section underneath his video. One Muslim guy calls Peterson “my digital father”.
Peterson calls on his “Moslem” followers to put aside their (assumed, presumed) enmity towards Christians and Jews in particular in the wake of the Emirati-Israel-US-sponsored Abrahamic Accords of 2020. It is your inveterate anti-Semitism you “Moslems” must give up, Peterson avers (eliding opposition to violent settler colonialism and the dispossession of the Palestinian people). The real enemy is your ego, and the Luciferian woke neo-Marxist brigade, 20% of whom are irredeemable.
If I close my eyes I could have been listening to Sheikh Hamza albeit without his mellifluous fusha, which is indeed the point.
The circle is complete. The Venn diagram of the alt-right, the akh-right, the Zionists, the evangelicals, the neo-traditionalists and their Republican, Israeli and Emirati sponsors has now emerged into one.
Allahumma, save us from this heartless state-sponsored religious nationalism, whose true father is Firawn/Pharaoh rather than Musa/Moses who liberated his people from slavery and oppression. Amin.
Ahmed Deeb [Imam and Director of Religious Affairs at Islamic Center of Greater Toledo]
Notwithstanding his potential genuineness, this was embarrassingly condescending and out of pocket. It felt like listening to a sermon that Islamophobes and most media outlets love to give: “Hey Muslims, why aren’t you condemning violence more? Why aren’t you reaching across the aisle more? Don’t you know you have the capacity for peace just like us?”
All the while never truly giving Muslims the opportunity to speak, and never amplifying the authentic voices that do.
To reduce our problems to sectarian conflict and then tell us—in the most superficial way—how to resolve them is at best the most hilarious show of naïveté I’ve ever seen from a self-proclaimed sincere public intellectual.
One rational explanation I can think of: now that he’s joined a notoriously right wing media company (the wire), maybe he feels he has to start showing some alliance to their narratives by parroting the common tropes, foremost of which in the years of Trump’s reign was how divided, dangerous, internally corrupt, and antagonistic the “Muslim world” is. Muslims are, we are told, a bunch of hypocrites unable to practice the Prophetic teachings they love to talk about so much, teachings which of course are best understood by people like him or heretics they choose to platform.
It’s videos like this that highlight the inconsistencies of his messaging and cast doubt upon his claim to sincere truth seeking and fellowship building.
No amount of “there’s truth to what he’s saying here” can justify such a tone-deaf video. I say that as someone who would wish him and everyone else guidance and call to the same type of intellectual collaboration he claims to champion.
(I have) so many more thoughts on this, and don’t even know where to begin. If I have time, I’ll do a fuller breakdown of his points here and what they highlight. I’m still processing it.
Here’s my personal takeaway reflection so far: what emboldened him to confidently be this condescending towards what he himself admits is one of his most loyal fan bases?
Imagine any celebrity public intellectual being brazen enough to say to any of their loyal fan bases the equivalent of: “as someone who has admitted he knows little to nothing about your faith and your people’s realities, let me advise you guys, through your own faith that I don’t know much about, on how you should get your act together.” Anyone who would try would be at the very least publicly corrected. Instead, Jordan gets comments from Muslims saying, “you are 100% right about us, we love you!”
The simple answer is us. We embolden these people by putting our uncritical hopes for a faith-driven existence in the hands of individuals who are clearly still going through their own messy journeys of exploration. We embolden these people by our insecurity, and we maintain that insecurity amongst our own people through our continued half-baked efforts in truly educating them about our worldviews.
This video is an affirmation of two consistent realities: (1) People still consider us and our people utterly weak, and in need of saviours from outside our community (no surprise there). (2) We are clearly not succeeding in the public intellectual sphere when people like him are saviours for young Muslims and their faith.
We have yet to appreciate the task at hand and have little grip on proper priorities when we spend more time arguing with each other in our group think bubbles here than to work harder towards properly producing the infrastructure—institutionally and personally—that allows us to engage people like him at the highest level. At the very least giving our young people confidence to not have such blind trust in people like Peterson.
As Muslims, we are no strangers to defeat or embarrassment. Yet as people who believe we hold the Truth, is our Ummatic response—as arguably the most privileged Muslim community in the world in education and economics—representative of our legacy of triumph over any such defeat?
So yes, there’s certainly a grain of truth to what he said, and if we’re tired of hearing such bigotry-laced, condescending half-truths, we might do ourselves a favour to re-prioritize our energies.
“A believer does not humiliate himself.” -Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
Allahu A’lam. I’ll let my far more qualified colleagues and friends who are well-known to you all share their thoughts, which I know will be insightful and piercing.
Sharif Abu Laith [Researcher, Speaker and Commentator]
Dr Jordan B Peterson, I appreciate that you have invited Muslims onto your show and sincerely engaged them to understand Islam. However, your latest video titled “Message to Muslims” frankly comes across as patronising and ignorant about the contemporary status of the Muslim world. The problem isn’t conflict between or within religions. The conflict exists due to colonial and neo-colonial policies that have had a lasting impact on the Muslim world.
Let me give you a few examples. Zionism was a political movement that started in the U.K., calling for a homeland for the Jews. Thirty one years after Britain occupied Palestine in 1917, they helped established a Zionist entity that resulted in the forced expulsion of about 1 million Palestinians. Israel then continued to expand its occupation of Palestine territory, causing resentment, anger and destruction of the way of life of the original inhabitants.
At the same time, we know that it wasn’t only a matter of Israel being founded (by the West) after the British occupied the region, but Western countries, in particular America, committed to supplying billions of dollars to the Israeli state (in the form of military aid) while turning a blind eye to the killings and oppression of Palestinians by Israel.
So why is there anger? Not because of some problem within, but a broader problem with colonialism and the continued Western support for regimes like Israel while turning a blind eye to their oppressive actions and killings of innocents.
Similarly, we see that Western states helped create the current political regimes that reside in the Muslim world. An easy example is the Egyptian regime, which receives military aid for maintaining a military-business dictatorship, thus not allowing the people to choose the type of governance they want. The Egyptian military not only controls politics, but also the economy, media and even education. As such, anyone caught criticising the military and its leadership faces imprisonment, torture and even death. To reiterate, this is a military regime that has close ties with Western states as seen through military aid and economic ties.
And these same regimes would stoke sectarian and religious conflict, like the false flag attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt in 2011 to secure their authority by distracting the people away from their egregious crimes of the regime and attempts to paint any Islamic opposition as potential threats to minority populations.
There are so many other examples, but one last one is the current sectarianism that plagues Iraq. It primarily resulted from the West’s invasion of Iraq in 2002 and the resultant fallout that saw sectarian militias, some of whom were directly supported by Western occupying forces, to police other sects and areas.
The point is that one cannot whitewash Western states and their political agendas within the Muslim world, considering their interventions have directly contributed to the current turmoil within the Muslim world. And as we know, this agenda is driven by largely capitalist interests.
If then you want to see stability in the world and foster real engagement of Muslims, my request to you is to introspectively look at Western states’ policies toward the Muslim world, not only over the last 130 years or so but also the current political interference we see today. It’s only by engaging in this honest introspection and holding powerful states like America to account for their actions in the Muslim world can we foster better understanding on both sides.
Samir Hussain [Researcher and teacher trained in Islamic Sciences]
Dr. Jordan Peterson just posted a ‘Message for Muslims’ on YouTube. I first spoke about how problematic it is for Muslims to blindly follow JP in religious discourse many years ago, and I’m sounding the alarm again, just harder this time.
1) We said that. On his message on unity and working together and letting Islam show in our actions, some of our top scholars have been saying the same thing he said for years. I teach the same ethos in my classes. But I wonder how many people will listen now only because their Sheikh JP said it. Unless you’ve been under a rock, scholars like Sh. Amin Kholwadia & Sh. Abdul Hakim Murad and all those scholars involved in anti-sectarian or interfaith dialogue have been saying the same thing.
2) Reductive. JP’s message is deliberately (or ignorantly) reductive and condescending. He omits the fact that much of our sectarianism has political roots. You can try to promote Muslim unity all you want, but you’re fighting an uphill battle against Saudi, Emirati (whose propaganda JP seems to be falling for) and Iranian petrodollars.
The same goes for having positive interactions with Christians and Jews. We’d love to do so, but that exhortation is Orientalist and racist (as research into our history keeps demonstrating). It’s very hard for Muslims to think positively of these faiths when their members are drone bombing Muslim countries, oppressing Palestinians, or when the far-right and conservative Christians are preaching ‘Muslim bans’ and Islamophobia. JP quotes the Abraham Accords, because apparently to be good to Jews (which we have repeatedly done throughout our history) we have to acquiesce to the crimes of Israel.
As I highlighted many years ago, not only is theology a weak point, but his grasp of geopolitics is also dreadfully poor. If you consider him an authority, you’re going to be misled. He’s a clinical psychologist, not a theologian, exegete or even a philosopher.
3)Misrepresentaton coming. It seems that all those who wanted JP to be more pro-Muslim got their wish. But now I’m anticipating more commentary by JP on Islamic theology and tafsir. Christians have already been critical of JP for his misrepresentations of Christian theology and biblical exegesis. We should expect similar misrepresentation.
4) We have our own thinkers. Lastly, JP deserves credit for ‘opening up’ and normalizing conservative, religious discourse in light of all the madness we are seeing from hard liberals. He also deserves credit for being sympathetic to Islam and Muslims in light of the radical Islamophobia of many popular online atheists and pseudo-intellectuals. It would be nice to see qualified Muslim scholars continuing to engage him.
Young Muslims, I once again warn you again from taking this person as an authority and considering him some sort of standout, towering intellectual figure. He’s not. He’s quite average for an intellectual, and the problem is that many of his followers (and at times it seems he himself) consider him to be above average or of an extremely elite level.
Become more familiar with your own high-level scholars and more fluent in your own intellectual tradition. There is a lot (to value and learn) there.
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