An Open Letter to Those Who Tell Non-Muslim White Males to “Be Quiet” on the Issue of Islam and Human Rights
Hi. My name is John. I am a straight white male, who happens to read and speak a good level of Arabic and who has read the Quran since my teen years. Who is heavily involved in Muslim issues, and women’s issues. And who has immersed around many of the languages and cultures of this planet, and speaks — to varying degrees — a good number of them, with a near-unrivaled passion and love of the adventure, friendship and human insight that comes with being a polyglot.
Many on the Left are telling white people — especially straight white men — to be silent on issues of race, gender and other issues in which minorities are at the forefront. Islam and human rights — and especially women’s rights within Islamic societies — are among the main arenas in which this supposed hierarchy of conversation must be enforced.
I want to explain my position on human rights and my refusal to ‘be silent’ in the presence of minorities who want to silence me for speaking my mind on issues of science, reason, logic, moral progress, and human oppression. I want to clarify, in unmistakable terms, my positon here.
As a straight white male and non-Muslim, I have every right to be a part of the conversation about human rights and women’s rights within Islamic societies. I do indeed recognize the need to take a back seat to the voices of minorities and anyone else at the heart of this issue — or any issue of human dignity and marginalization. That is a very clear matter of respect and recognition of those who experience these things firsthand, and the need to give them the prime voice.
I also know that I don’t have all the answers, and should spend more time listening and learning than speaking. In the spirit of economist Dr. William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts and White Man’s Burden so eloquently and powerfully attest to, we must avoid the top-down fallacy of paternalistic intervention into human affairs. But that doesn't preclude getting involved. Rather, we must strive to understand and humbly appreciate people’s realities from the bottom-up, with open minds and a desire to take a backseat to the aspirations, desires and self-determination of local peoples. Only then can we effectively support the rights and dignity f the least powerful among us. But we should support them — silence is not an option. This has long reflected my position, and my passion as an activist for ground-up social change, anywhere in the world.
I realize that most attempts by people, organizations and even entire countries to ‘do good’ for the less powerful are often infused with paternalism, patronizing condescension, and even a hint of arrogance, rather than the humility to listen and avoid assuming you know what is best. Not only do I realize this, but I am writing entire books on it.
When it comes to the issue of Islamic societies and human rights, I should certainly respect those who are closer to that fight than I am. In any issue like this — be it racial equality, gender rights, or religious freedom — I recognize the need to help give a platform to the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized. Not on the basis of tribal identity politics, but on the basis of human dignity. I have always sought to live and breath by the motto of the American Special Forces, De Oppresso Liber — ‘To Liberate from Oppression’. There is an underlying spirit behind this that transcends race, creed and geographical boundaries — the spirit of human dignity and the innate value and worth of the human person, on the basis that we all share this planet and seek to flourish, no matter the language we speak or the name by which we call God.
In short, people have rights, *far more so than cultures or identities do*. When respect for culture and identity is eminent, it is arguably because of the need to recognize and respect the innate dignity and worth of the people who comprise it. Human dignity matters. People matter. More than identity politics.
Of course, it isn’t really a “full stop”. There are caveats. There are questions people rightly ask, when being rightly skeptical of non-Muslim white males like myself diving head-first into the conversation and fight for human rights within Islamic societies.
Must I be cognizant of my limitations and boundaries, in terms of my inability to know or truly relate to the experiences of minorities and of the wider Muslim community (to simplify this way for brevity purposes, if I may)? Yes, of course. And I believe it is not my role to assume what is best for people. But it is my role as a living, breathing sentient human being who co-habits this lonely planet with other social primate species like myself, to care about the wellbeing and flourishing of fellow sentient beings. As such, it is a moral prerogative for me to support the voices of people around the world, no matter the culture or the language, no matter the sect, tribe or religion, and help empower their voices and their fight for human dignity.
You may then ask, How can someone like me know when to do this?
**By listening**. Not by telling other people and cultures what is best for them. But by actively and generously listening to the least powerful and most marginalized in their society, and letting them speak. And when they are afraid to speak, or suppressed by the brutal censorship of social coercion, superstition and barbarism, to help foster safe spaces for them to have a voice. This is the definition of true ‘social justice’. By ‘safe space’, I am not referring to an echo chamber at one of our Ivy League schools. I am referring to a platform where women, homosexuals, apostates, atheists, freethinkers, religious minorities, and liberal Muslims can go to speak freely, and strive to one day breath the same free air as their counterparts in the West. Or drink from the same fountains of human dignity as their Muslim neighbors.
This same principle of moral sanctuary for the marginalized is not confined to any one group — it applies to Muslims who are persecuted. Who live under crushing Western-backed dictatorships. Or intolerant theocrats, Or here in the West, under the fear of hate crimes, right wing fascism, mob violence, and deportation.
The underlying factor here — the common denominator of citizen-led activism that I am supporting, regardless of the boundaries of religion, sexuality or race — is human dignity.
For those out there in the world who would tell me that my lack of being a Muslim, my lack of being ‘in the community’, and my status as a straight white male, somehow **obligates me to be silent in the presence of Muslims, or any minority**, should check their privilege and reflect on the freedoms that most in the world don’t have.
And realize that — as much as I respect the human sensitivities of identity, and strive to humbly understand the complex moral contours of other cultures and experiences outside my own — I will not be silent. They must realize, unequivocally, that my defining pivot point for opening my mouth to speak is not race, culture, religion or identity — it is human dignity. We are all stardust, as Carl Sagan said. Failing to realize this is a nonstarter in the intellectual arms race for a better world
“Per Aspera, Ad Astra”,
“Through hardship, to the Stars!”
“!من خلال المصاعب إلي النجوم”
Через тернии к звёздам!
Por el sendero áspero, a las estrellas!
Here is my Bio and backstory if you want to know more, or want to come at me with grievances on my position. Cheers
“A Letter of Introduction — My Backstory, and Why I Fight for Human Rights and Women’s Equality”