Debating Islamophobes Is a Waste of Time

Debating Islamophobes Is a Waste of Time

by Sheila Musaji

Some time ago I wrote an article encouraging Muslims not to get involved in debating Robert Spencer and other Islamophobes.  Here are a few of my points from that article:

...  Engaging with such known Islamophobes only gives them credibility.  Engaging with them on their “turf” and under their rules, cannot do anything other than provide them more fuel for their prejudiced attacks on Islam and Muslims.  Examples of useful debates might be those on the Young Turks site hosted by Cenk Uygur Here is one of these TYT debates.   Another example of the possibility of an honest debate would be a case like that of Reza Aslan debating Robert Spencer on the relatively neutral CNN with Christiane Amanpour as the moderator.   It is a very different situation when the Islamophobes are not allowed to control the debate.  When both the host of the program and the individual being debated are both Islamophobes, there is not much chance that a Muslim participant will be given an honest hearing.  They are not “fair and balanced” and the outcome is pretty much rigged.

...  Like Terry Jones, Spencer has come up against the difficulty of finding any legitimate Muslim scholars to involve themselves with his publicity stunts, as the scholars and leadership in the American Muslim community are now only too aware of his modus operandi.   And so he needs to attempt to get some mileage from pointless “debates” with uninformed Muslims who seem to also be only interested in publicity. Spencer has actually published a list of Muslims (and a few non-Muslim scholars) who have rejected his demand that they debate him, and published articles claiming that Muslims are afraid to debate him.

...  Ahmed Rehab’s experience with Robert Spencer is a good case to study.  Devon Moore reports on an incident between Ahmed Rehab and Robert Spencer.

Fast forward to the past few days when Spencer took it a step further. Ahmed Rehab of CAIR-Chicago was on Michael Medved’s radio program and stated that he, unlike, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar would not have left the stage over O’Reilly’s comments because he never leaves a debate. Spencer rushed to his soap box and claimed that Rehab “ducked a debate” with him, and therefore was lying.

Spencer is missing a key ingredient here: truth. Rehab never “ducked a debate” with Spencer, he never agreed to one in the first place.

Ahmed Rehab writes:

Apparently this guy (Spencer) heard me on the Michael Medved show earlier today where I disagreed with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar for storming off the stage during a debate with Bill O’Reilly. It is something I would not do. Spencer who had invited me to a debate before, ran to his blog and put up a piece complaining that if that is the case then how come I “ran away” from debating him.

Surfing through, it doesn’t take much to figure out that Spencer is an odd fellow. His rhetoric ranges between the sensational, the simplistic, the superficial, and in many cases the delusional (such as in this case). yet still, until today, I thought he was smarter than that.

Apparently Spencer does not know the difference between storming off from a debate, and never gracing the debate with your presence in the first place.

Spencer, I never agreed to debate you in the first place, and it is highly unlikely that I ever will. If I did for some odd reason, I assure you I would stomach your delusional diatribes throughout the length of the debate and not storm off.

I have debated people in the right wing. So Spencer is probably wondering why I am ignoring him? Well, it’s pretty simple really.

There needs to be three criteria present for me to actively want to set up a formal debate with you:

That I disagree with you. (Why would I want to debate someone I agree with?) Spencer Check.
That you are a reasonable individual who is a truth-seeker. Spencer Fail.
That I respect you. Spencer Fail.

In this epic slam of Spencer, Ahmed Rehab essentially points out something that Spencer, basking in his inflated ego never considered: people don’t want to debate bigots such as him because it would be like someone from the NAACP debating David Duke. It just wouldn’t fly. The two aren’t equal.

After this article was published, I added two updates.

UPDATE 5/21/2011

Robert Spencer just posted a “response” to this article which conveniently ignores the key arguments that I made.  The title of his rant is “Cowards: The American Muslim begs Muslim leaders to stop debating Robert Spencer”.  Actually, I was requesting individuals who are not either leaders or experts on the particular topic being discussed to refrain from engaging with professional bigots.

His posting follows all of his usual patterns and includes this statement “Cowards. Obviously, if I were really the egregious liar Musaji and others claim that I am, it ought to be easy for a Muslim spokesman to show me up in a public forum and end my baneful influence forever. Instead, they circle the wagons and claim that it is “non-productive” to discuss matters with me.      Notice to Sheila Musaji and the Islamic establishment in the U.S.: if any of you poor dears, nervous nellies and shrinking violets ever grow some spine and become willing to defend your positions, I am ready to debate you. I am willing to stand and defend my views—why aren’t you?”

Actually, individuals who are qualified, and actually represent a well-known Muslim organization have debated him on particular topics, and not only defended their positions, but also disproved all of his arguments.

An example of such a debate with Spencer by a well-qualified Muslim individual (Christina Abraham) is illustrative of the modus operandi of Spencer and his cohorts. 

Christina Abraham debated both Frank Gaffney and Robert Spencer on the topic of Rep. King’s Muslim radicalization hearing, the civil rights of American Muslims, and claims about CAIR on Eric Bolling’s program on Fox News.

Here is Abraham’s bio from her personal blog:

Christina Abraham is the Civil Rights Director at CAIR-Chicago. Christina has spoken and written on issues related to Arab and Muslim civil rights, and actively works to pursue successful resolutions to incidents of discrimination through legal and non-legal channels. Christina is also a member of the Advisory Board for the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights and a member of the Advisory Board of the BRussels International Tribunal. Christina holds a Masters in the Arts of Social Sciences (M.A.) at the University of Chicago where her focus was on Politics in the Middle East, and a Juris Doctorate at DePaul University where she received membership in the Order of the Barristers. She is admitted to practice in the State of Illinois.

She is knowledgeable and eminently qualified to speak on the particular topic being discussed, and is a representative of the organization being discussed.   She expressed herself clearly, was not intimidated by aggressive tactics, stuck to the facts, did not allow herself to be sidetracked, and did an excellent job of discussing legal issues, and of responding to particular claims and innuendos with facts. 

Nevertheless, after the debate, Bolling had a panel of “experts” including Spencer’s partner Pamela Geller who attempted to keep the audience clearly focused on the agenda of maligning American Muslims. 

On her Atlas Shrugs site, Geller posted a video of the debate, and her comments which included this:

  “Today’s CAIR spokersperson [sic] was a doozy. Going by the name “Christina Abraham” (got that? looks like she’s got the Christians and the Jews covered with that name), an uncovered Western-looking woman unleashed her fury on Robert. Apparently she is a devout Muslim, because in undercover footage of her urging Muslims not to co-coperate [sic] with law enforcement, she is in full Muslim garb. Muhammad said, “war is deceit.” Indeed.”

When faced with facts, they respond, not with a consideration of those facts, but with a tabloid-style personal attack on the name, appearance, and character of the Muslim participant in the debate.   Spencer and Geller are both fond of claiming that people are making “ad hominem” attacks on them.  This response by Geller to Christina Abraham’s statements is a textbook example of an ad hominem attack.

If even a well-qualified individual like Christina Abraham is treated in this despicable manner, what does that tell us about engaging with these Islamophobes?

These are not individuals who hold respectable, if controversial opinions.  These are bigots, and engaging them in such a forum only provides them with some veneer of respectability.

Hosts like Hannity, or Bolling can claim that they have been “fair and balanced” because they included a Muslim.  And, full time, paid mercenaries in a “holy war” against Islam like Spencer, will claim “victory” no matter what the outcome.  If they have no “facts” that will stand up to scrutiny, they will stoop to ridiculous slurs, as they did with Christina Abraham.  And, when all else fails, if any Muslim says anything reasonable, they will say that it is taqiyya.

This sort of devious, unethical, and downright childish behavior, is not surprising from individuals who consistently “get it wrong” when it comes to Islam and Muslims, and who see no ethical problem with simply removing articles from a site when they are proven to be inaccurate.  Not too surprising for individuals who are co-founders (Spencer & Geller) of a group, Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  The group is also described by the ADL in the following terms: “Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), created in 2009, promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam. The group seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy “American” values. The organization warns of the encroachment of shari’a, or Islamic law, and encourages Muslims to leave what it describes as the “falsity of Islam.”

I believe that it is not “cowardly” to leave these folks alone, just sensible.   It is not that their claims cannot be, and have not been answered, but rather that they have proven themselves time and time again to be untrustworthy and dishonorable in both their tactics and their responses to reasoned argument.

UPDATE 11/27/2011

Loonwatch has just published an interview with Reza Aslan who has had experience with attempting civil discourse with Robert Spencer.  It is an excellent interview and the following passage relates directly to this issue of whether or not to engage with these Islamophobes

This idea that these are people who deserve engagement (laughs)…Spencer’s fans email me all the time and say “you’re afraid to debate Robert Spencer.” No, I don’t debate Robert Spencer for the same reason I don’t debate a four year old child because this is not about a conversation. You cannot have a rational conversation with a clown and the fact of the matter is that the reason Robert Spencer is constantly begging people like myself to debate him is because he knows that appearing on the same platform legitimizes his view.

You are not going to have a debate about the African American experience in the United States with the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (laughs), that person does not belong in that debate. To have him there by definition legitimates his position.

So Spencer, Geller, Emerson, these guys belong in the gutter where they are. That’s where they are, that’s where they belong. They get a lot of attention because Fox News keeps inviting them and good for them. Fox News has become the go to Islamophobic network for these kinds of guys, and that’s great, and they are going to keep preaching to the same choir that watches Fox. Good for them but the notion that these guys somehow belong in the mainstream, that they belong on a dais debating socio-religious matters with an actual scholar is absurd.

Danios at Loonwatch did attempt to agree to a debate with Robert Spencer.  My article Danios vs Spencer:  18 months and Spencer still avoiding a debate lays out the history of what has become a saga. The short version is that Danios accepted Spencer’s invitation, and then Spencer continually changed the ground rules for what would be the requirements for such a debate to take place. 

Danios also published an article shedding more light on the quality of a debate that Spencer did agree to hold - the Spencer/Wood versus Choudary/Bakri debate and its’ participants.   He includes the great visual at the bottom of this page.  Robert Spencer to Debate Achmed the Dead Terrorist and The Dictator which includes the following

...  Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri are absolutely despised by the vast majority of the Muslim community, even by the ultra-conservative and radical Muslims they pretend to represent.  They are caricatures, just one step away from being Achmed the Dead Terrorist or a character thought up by Sacha Baron Cohen (like Ali G or Admiral General Aladeen, A.K.A. The Dictator).  Choudary and Bakri play the part of terrorists and radical Islamists, which is why hateful Islamophobes love giving them ample air time: look at how crazy those Moozlums are!

It’s absolutely no surprise then that Robert Spencer and David Wood, two loons in their own right, would debate two even loonier loons.  Spencer wastes his time engaging such unserious clowns, because–just as Sheila Musaji noted a long time ago–he has a pattern of seeking out complete fools to debate with so that he can then crow in victory afterward.  Meanwhile, Spencer will doggedly avoid debating anyone (1) with a serious grasp of knowledge of the topic at hand and (2) the debating skill to back it up.  And of course, (3) anyone named Danios.  What’s interesting is that even Robert Spencer’s debating partner, David Wood, seemed to imply on his website that Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri are weak debaters.  Wood agrees with Choudary and Bakri’s view that Muhammad existed, but he doesn’t think that they will be able to make a convincing argument.  Why not just debate Achmed the Dead Terrorist or The Dictator?  It would certainly be just as enlightening and perhaps a bit more entertaining.

Robert Spencer’s homepage boldly declares that he is “the acclaimed scholar of Islam”, and yet he has no educational qualifications to validate that lofty claim.  In fact, all he has is an M.A. in Christian studies…If I get an M.A. in Buddhist studies, does that mean I get to be “the acclaimed scholar of Judaism”?  Spencer has never had his work submitted for peer review in the academic world, and so his arguments–while they certainly might pass off in the non-scholarly world–have never been tested by the real experts in the field.  Spencer’s version of peer-review is debating the equivalent of Achmed the Dead Terrorist and The Dictator.  ...

Here are some of the people that Robert Spencer has “invited” to debate, and who have refused his invitation:  Khaled Abou El Fadl, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Ahmed Afzaal, Akbar Ahmed, Karen Armstrong, Reza Aslan, Jamal Badawi, M. Cherif Bassiouni,  Juan Cole, Robert Crane, Dinesh D’Souza, Carl Ernst, John Esposito, Suhail Khan, Mark LeVine, Khaleel Mohammed, Haroon Moghul, Grover Norquist, Tariq Ramadan, Ahmed Rehab, Louay Safi, Omid Safi.  Note:  Some of these are highlighted because there are links to their comments about Spencer.. These are the individuals that we know Spencer “invited” to debate according to Spencer himself -  here, and here.

It is very telling that Spencer himself refers to these individuals in the following terms

“It has long been established that Islamic supremacists and their Leftist allies will not debate me—here, for example, is a long list that still comprises only some of those who have rejected my invitation to do so.”

  In Spencer’s mind these are not individuals holding a view different from his own — they are rather “Islamic supremacists and their Leftist allies”.  In this article discussing his view of why these Muslims don’t want to debate him, he goes further, saying

“They know that what I say about Islam and jihad is true, and don’t want that fact to be illustrated to a wider audience.

Why can’t Muslims debate? Because the truth is something they don’t generally wish the Infidels to know. So they do all they can to shut down those Infidels by other means.

There is an ancillary reason also: Islam doesn’t encourage critical thinking. It has no natural theology, only a series of laws declared by fiat. In some contemporary forms of Islam, hardly any premium is put on reasoning—after all, the Qur’an itself warns Muslims not to question (5:101). Consequently, even superficially intelligent Islamic supremacists such as Reza Aslan and Ibrahim Hooper are abjectly incapable of building a cogent intellectual argument and defending it. All they and so many others like them can do, as is clear from their track record, is heap abuse upon those who oppose them.”

Got that?  Not only are those Spencer has invited to debate all “Islamic supremacists and their Leftist allies” but they also know that Spencer’s Islamophobic distortions are really “true” and so are afraid to face him.  In addition, their religion has discouraged critical thinking, and left them uprepared to reason with a scholar such as himself even when they are “superficially intelligent”.  They are all “abjectly incapable of building a cogent intellectual argument and defending it.” 

And, he wonders why these individuals are not interested in debating him.  There is no difficulty in understanding why any Muslim who was not a masochist would refuse to debate such an individual.  What is difficult to understand is the motivation for a self-proclaimed “acclaimed scholar” of Islam to want to debate individuals for whom he has so little respect.
Ali Sina who sits on the Board of Spencer and Geller’s hate group Stop the Islamization of America (SION) is also in the business of demanding that Muslims debate him (in print or in person), and then insulting them when they refuse.  My own too lengthy experience is chronicled in the article Ali Sina Launches Sharpened Olive Branch of Hate

Based on the documented evidence of statements out of the Islamophobes own mouths, this is what Muslims hear when these Islamophobes make their ridiculous demands to debate.

Dear [insert name of debate invitee]:

I challenge you to a debate.  The topic, location, and moderator will be of my choosing.  My opinion of you, your pedophile prophet, and your evil religion is as follows:

I believe your religion to be “an incomplete, misleading, and often downright false revelation which, in many ways, directly contradicts what God has revealed through the prophets of the Old Testament and through his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh”  Spencer

I believe that “Islam constitutes a threat to the world at large.”  Spencer

I believe that there are “many elements of traditional and mainstream Islam that are at variance with our system of government, our Constitution, and our entire way of life.”  Spencer

I believe that “that there is no reliable way to distinguish a “moderate” Muslim who rejects the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism from a “radical” Muslim who holds such ideas, even if he isn’t acting upon them at the moment.”  Spencer

I believe that “The misbegotten term “Islamo-fascism” is wholly redundant: Islam itself is a kind of fascism that achieves its full and proper form only when it assumes the powers of the state.” Spencer 

I believe “that there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists.” Spencer

I believe that ”Devout Muslims should be prohibited from military service. Would Patton have recruited Nazis into his army?”  Geller

I believe that “Al-Qaeda is a manifestation of devout Islam ... It is Islam.”  Geller

I believe that “Hitler WAS inspired by Islam”  Geller

“I would like to feel all warm and fuzzy and embrace the moderate Muslim/ meme but they show no evidence of their existence - not in any real number anyway. The only voices of reason in the Muslim world are lapsed Muslims or apostates.  Geller

I believe that “Islam is a mental illness”.  Geller

I believe that Islam is “the most insidious doctrine of hate. Islam can’t be reformed, but it can be eradicated. It can’t be molded, but it can be smashed.”  Ali Sina

“We do not want to reform Islam. We want to eradicate it. Just as cancer cannot be reformed and the only way to cure the patient is to eradicate it, Islam cant be reformed either and it must be eradicated for the world to be saved.”  Ali Sina

I believe that “Islam, like fascism, appeals to people with low self esteem and low intelligence.  Ali Sina

I believe that “Every “moderate” Muslim is a potential terrorist.” Ali Sina

I believe that “On the so-called Global War on Terrorism, GWOT, we have been quite clear along with a few other resolute souls. This should be a WAR AGAINST ISLAM and all Muslim faithful…At a practical level, this means that Shari’a and Islamic law are immediately outlawed. Any Moslem in America who adopts historical and traditional Shari’a will be subject to deportation. Mosques which adhere to Islamic law will be shut down permanently. No self-described or practicing Muslim, irrespective of his or her declarations to the contrary, will be allowed to immigrate to this country…” David Yerushalmi

I believe that “Muslim civilization is at war with Judeo-Christian civilization…The Muslim peoples, those committed to Islam as we know it today, are our enemies.”  David Yerushalmi

“We love you Muslims because you are humans like us. We are all related to each other. We are all limbs of the body of mankind. But you are diseased. You are infected by a deadly cult that threatens our lives. Your humanity is destroyed. Like a limb infected by flesh eating disease, now you are a threat to the rest of mankind. We will do everything to save you, to make you see your folly, and to make you understand that you are victims of a gigantic lie, so you leave this lie, stop hating mankind and plotting for its destruction and it domination. But if all efforts fail and if you become a threat to our lives and the lives of our children, we must amputate you.”  Ali Sina

If you don’t accept my challenge it can only be because you have no answers to my arguments and are afraid to face me.  In fact,  Any reason that you might give for not debating me is a lie.

An excellent point was made by Scott R. Paeth

Sarah Posner has an article in today's Religion Dispatches about the debate taking place at The National Review between David Yerushalmi, an advocate of "anti-Shariah" laws, and conservatives who believe that this is bad policy for any number of reasons. The article is worth reading for a sense of the nature of this particular, very strange debate.

But I was struck by this passage in particular:

As Matt Duss notes, Yerushalmi has lamented the absence of "'a discussion of Islam as an evil religion, or of blacks as the most murderous of peoples (at least in New York City), or of illegal immigrants as deserving of no rights.' He also wrote that the American founders were on to something when they limited the vote to white men. 'There is a reason the founding fathers did not give women or black slaves the right to vote.'" (emphasis added) Yet Yerushalmi brought his fear-mongering about shari'ah to Capitol Hill staffers in 2010,claiming it threatened the Constitution. 

Once upon a time, I thought that there was intellectual integrity to being willing to debate all comers, to take on in rational discourse anyone who was interested in the discussion. The amount of time wasted in my mid-20s to the kind of internet flame wars that used to set AOL ablaze once upon a time causes me to blush to this day (and truth be told, I am still horribly susceptible to being drawn into those kinds of fights).

But over time, I've begun to realize that not everyone or every idea is worthy of such engagement. Trying to "debate" the Westborough Baptist Church on homosexuality is pointless. Trying to debate the Ku Klux Klan on race is fruitless. At the end of the day, some opponents just aren't worthy of debate.

Which raises the question to me: Why does someone who subscribes to views as vile as Yerushalmi's deserve a forum in a widely respected conservative journal to peddle garbage? It's not that I have any particular brief on behalf of The National Review, but the fact that a bigot of Yerushalmi's stature isn't driven from the realm of rational discourse and given a soap box to occupy in Central Park is evidence of the moral bankruptcy of much of what passes for conservative discourse today.

There were many things to dislike intensely about William F. Buckley, but one thing he did right was to drive the John Birch conspiracists out of the conservative movement in the 1950s. They weren't worthy of engagement. In similar vein, bigotry of the kind endorsed by Yerushalmi, and often celebrated today on the right, even by elected officials and prominant commentators, should be driven from the discourse, so that some kind of real engagement about the issues confronting the world can take place, both within conservative circles, and between conservatives and liberals.

There is a reason to ignore these individuals, and that is because they have proven their own bigotry.  How would it be possible to have a respectful and civilized debate or discussion with someone who holds such views.

There is a reason that many outside of the Muslim community see such demonization of Muslims as Islamophobic.  There is a reason that the ADL (A Jewish anti-defamation group) has said that Pamela Geller & Robert Spencer’s Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) is a “group that promotes an extreme anti-Muslim agenda”.   There is a reason that The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated SIOA as a hate group, and that they are featured in the SPLC reports Jihad Against Islam and The Anti-Muslim Inner Circle.  There is a reason that Geller and Spencer are featured prominently in the Center for American Progress “Fear Inc.” report on the Islamophobia network in America.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the People for the American Way Right Wing Playbook on Anti-Muslim Extremism.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the NYCLU report Religious Freedom Under Attack:  The Rise of Anti-Mosque Activities in New York State.  There is a reason that Geller is featured in the Political Research Associates report Manufacturing the Muslim menace: Private firms, public servants, and the threat to rights and security.  There is a reason that the SIOA’s trademark patent was denied by the U.S. government due to its anti-Muslim nature.  There is a reason that they are featured in our TAM Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry.  There is a reason that they are featured in just about every legitimate report on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred. 

Their bigotry, their bias, their lack of integrity, their lack of academic qualifications in the particular field they wish to debate, are all reasons that Spencer, Ali Sina, and the other Islamophobes are now left with no one to debate except for a random naive Muslim or useful idiota fellow Islamophobe like David Wood (who only disagrees on the particulars), or actual Muslim extremists of the lunatic fringe like Omar Bakri and Anjem Choudary.  The Muslim lunatic fringe is a mirror image of the Islamophobic lunatic fringe.  They are each others peers.  Let the bigots debate among themselves, and the rest of us can attempt to do something productive with our time. 

I believe that my first article suggesting that it might be better to leave such individuals alone did not go far enough.  Professor Juan Cole has given the most appropriate response to these constant demands for “debates” - a simple and emphatic “NO!”.