Dear Sam

Introduction

First of all, I’d like to apologize for the wall of text. 
I understand that your time is limited and that I’m asking for a lot by sending such a long message. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I’ve put in the effort to make my message coherent and clear. I edited this letter and rewrote it to reduce the chance of wasting your time. I went through it and indiscriminately ripped out all hedging and uncertainty. I made as sure as I know how that my arguments are factual and can be corroborated by data. I apologize if my attempt was not successful.

Please, allow me to replace everything I’ve removed from the letter with a simple statement: I deeply admire you and your work. And what I’ve written comes from a genuine desire to help and to communicate. I hope that you can see through my blunt phrasing without taking offense. And I believe that you can forgive an amateur some weakness and weigh the strongest of my arguments instead of disregarding them due to faulty ones.

I should (and I do) apologize for talking at you about a man whom you know and call a friend as though I know him any better. And deeper apologies still to both Maajid and Fareed if I’ve misrepresented them.

I have never done anything like this in my life.
But, I would regret not trying.

Finally, it would be a pleasure and an honor to answer any questions and argue the points presented. 
I am at your disposal.

July 18th, 2017,
Zagreb, Croatia

___

Dear Sam,

In the time that I’ve been your listener, I’ve started writing this letter several times. And several times I’ve been dissuaded by further research or deeper understanding. I’ve been through that process enough times to acquire resistance to the issues I have with your arguments and style.

At this point, I give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not a bigoted Islamophobe that you sometimes seem to be. But I must tell you that, reaching that conclusion is not a simple process for an uninformed bystander, especially a left leaning one such as myself.

You often express annoyance or bewilderment when people brand you as a bigot. You object that you’re being quote-mined by your critics. And it seems that you don’t realize how your arguments sound to a casual listener.

I’d wager that if you take a left-leaning person unaware of your body of work, and have them listen to a random podcast of yours on the topic of on Islam, you’d have an equal chance that they’d walk away from it confident that you are an outright bigot.

Any person with a bias towards criticizing you would easily find their bias confirmed.

And, I’m pretty confident that you don’t see how people come to that conclusion and that you’re under the impression that a lot of people are unjustly attacking you.

Here are some of the issues I’ve run into while listening to your podcasts.

You use words that have a particular meaning to you and other well-informed people but are deeply misleading for casual listeners. Listening to your podcasts I’ve eventually accepted your definitions of the terms Islamist and Jihadist. But in the beginning, they just sounded like slur words. To be clear: I’m not trying to say those are the wrong words. I’m saying that a majority of people would not know that they mean and would assume you’re just talking about Muslims in general.

The problem is that these terms lack delimitation when used casually and that their technical definition is not widely known. In other contexts, they have other meanings. And are eagerly adopted by people I’d say are outright bigots.

I believe you’re open-minded enough that I can present a provocative exaggeration to illustrate my point. Imagine someone stating: “I will henceforth use the word ‘nigger’ specifically to identify the subset of African-Americans that are members of gangs and consider violence as their primary source of income” and then proceeding to do so in subsequent publications.

Later occasionally saying something like: “Those niggers are a danger to society and should all be locked up!” and explaining that the term comes from Latin, might be logically consistent, but will not help such an author to communicate with a wider audience.

The example is a caricature. And, like all metaphors is far from perfect. But, I hope you can see what I mean.

Another problem with delimitations is the way you use hedging.

You often try to clarify that you’re speaking of a subset of Muslims. On occasion, I’ve heard you say emphatically that the greatest victims of Jihadism are other Muslims and emphasize the importance of liberal Muslims. I’ve run into it enough times to accept that you do believe that.

More often though, you say it with so little emphasis that it comes over as saying “Now, I’m not racist, but..”.

I understand that there is a rather narrow point, in a narrow topic, that you’re trying to get across. And I think you consider it so important that you have the need to emphasize the point further.

And with that emphasis, it becomes “Now, I’m not racist, but a HUGE percentage of black people are…”.

These things make you immensely susceptible to quote-mining by your critics. Your proponents, on the other hand, are often left with a personal understanding of you and your position, but hardly a quote they can use to substantiate it.

In “Friend and Foe” Maajid Nawaz described a concept of “replenishing force fields” to maintain a reputation within a community. While I believe that he needs it to an incomparably greater extent than you, I’d say that you dearly need to pay some attention to your “force-fields” as well. Otherwise, you risk making yourself irrelevant and easily dismissed outside an echo chamber that already inherently agrees with you.

For a controversial stand on a controversial topic, you are so bent on getting your point across that you’re perfectly capable of talking past people.

When talking about the controversy and outrage around you, a point often mentioned (by you as well as others) is your altercation with Ben Affleck. So I went to take a look at what was so important about it and to see why you seem to carry such a grudge against him. Here’s what I saw:

Two men got into an argument. One of them is a scholar who has devoted a significant amount of time to research and discussion of the issue with his peers; who has years of experience debating with all levels of interlocutors. The other man is an actor who has some strong feelings on the topic. You were talking narrowly about one extreme of Muslims, and he was talking narrowly about another part of the same community. He flew off the handle immediately, and you proceeded to rile him up for almost ten minutes before conceding that “there are hundreds of millions…” Other than that you’ve just talked past each other.

I’d say that, under those conditions, the responsibility of how that conversation goes is almost entirely on you. I would expect you to be so superior in debating that it should’ve played out like a grown man picking a fistfight with a petulant child. The fight should be entirely one-sided, no punches should land on either side, and the kid should learn a lesson from it. Hearing you talk later about the incident and giving it (or him) any significance on the topic is preposterous to me.

He is a layman.

Furthermore, if you so sincerely believe that your point is as important as it seems to be, I’d say that it should be very high on your list of priorities to figure out how to get it across to people like him. If you find a way to disarm that initial self-defense and state of being offended you’ll solve a large part of your problem.

There are other examples where it seems to me that you do not hear what your counterpart just said while you’re trying to get your point across. In “The Politics of Emergency” there is a point where you invite Fareed Zakaria to talk about the way in which you address the issue of Jihadism.

When I was first listening to the podcast, I was almost jumping with excitement. Fareed was raising one of the questions I wanted to write to you about, and he was posing the question so clearly and eloquently that I wanted to hug him.

And then came your reply, and it was the most disappointing thing I’ve ever heard in any of your podcasts. Fareed presents several important points and questions. Your response begins by stating that you’ll ignore a third of his argument. You address the second third by a statement that is patently wrong and is the very thing he was objecting to. And then you proceed to apparently forget what he said and talk of your usual talking points for several minutes. Ultimately, I don’t think you’ve addressed a single thing he asked.
(The exact exchange is in “The Politics of Emergency” at 0:46:40.)

And that is a good segue to go from accidental mistakes to just being wrong.

But first, a minimal Rapaport (and my own, inverse, version of “I’m not racist but…”). 
I agree that:

Jihadism is one of the greatest current threats to our world.

The culture of Islam is one of the most restrictive illiberal cultures in the modern world.

Even moderate Muslims are unbelievably radical in their moral views and would likely more readily agree with a terrorist on moral issues than with my (very liberal) views.

I’ve listened to you and your guests and often proceeded to follow up on their work beyond your podcast (Especially Ayaan and Maajid).

You’ve all made me go and explore way beyond my comfort zone. I’ve learned that Islam is not a monolith and the significance of particular sects. And I’ve become aware of some of the (terrifying) consequences of mass immigration and failure of integration of Muslims in the western societies.

But Fareed is right.

You keep stressing that these issues are almost endemic to Islam, that they stem directly from Islam and the Koran. And that from all religions Islam is uniquely well suited for radicalisation. That assertation is, in my opinion, both factually wrong and communicated in a patently bad way. I might give pause to that “factually wrong” given one caveat: Your statement is true if you constrain it to present time. And that has little to do with Islam itself. It comes from the current state of the world and Islam is just one of the many fertile soils for it.

Fareed’s first point is that your argument doesn’t hold historically. When you look at the peaks of Muslim cultures, you can see that they can be exuberantly scientific, multicultural and liberal for their temporal settings. Furthermore, when you look at lowest points of Christian and even secular cultures, you see that the idea of brutally and inhumanely torturing and killing people for ideas and beliefs is nothing strange to them, nor is martyrdom.

I’m no expert on Islam, but I see the same issues all around us. What you call Jihadism is for me something that can happen in many various cultures under the right conditions. I can make a case with the same structure of concentrical circles for Croatian nationalists equivalent to the one you propose for Muslims.

The only other real difference, the thing that Muslim radicalism can currently provide in abundance, is the structure — the institutionalized support.

Are their beliefs devout and profound? Absolutely. Do they believe they’ll end up in paradise after martyrdom? Yes. 
So, I guess I agree with you that they are true believers.
But I don’t think that is what is driving them.

Imagine if the ISIS leaders proclaimed that murder and suicide are still sins, and they’d have to go to hell for it, but that it’s a necessary sacrifice for the cause. I wouldn’t expect the number of suicide bombers to decrease drastically. Instead, I’d expect their reputation to get even bigger, cause they made an even greater sacrifice.

To radicalize a person you need to grant them a quality of having discovered the existence of a “deeper truth.” A mystical property that is not readily available from their environment, but still seems attainable. As initiates their status does not come from knowledge, or experience but from how loudly and extremely they profess their beliefs. And once they find some support they push each other further. It is pleasant and giving, and as they distance themselves from social norms, they get tighter and more secure in their beliefs.

But all that does not require an ounce of cultural belonging, or deeply internalized belief, or even an understanding of the creed you follow. It just requires zeal and a support structure. As you, yourself, have said: you could never become the Fareed-kind-of-Muslim, but you could become an ISIS-kind-of-Muslim in minutes.

I’ve seen it happen in Croatia with nationalism. A significant proportion of the population is now openly nationalist even though they have little or no background to justify that. The extremists among them have become proudly fascist. It requires absolutely no understanding of what fascism is or what it promotes. And there are always people willing to take that leash and lead them to whatever goal they see fit.

Indeed, these radicals will gladly resort to violence to prove their zeal and quench their outrage. And given enough structure and a paper-thin cause, they’ll happily self-destruct. When you talk to them, they consider that a virtue.

I believe the only thing that can get you out of that is an enemy showing you compassion where you don’t expect it (e.g. the experience Maajid had with Amnesty International) thus proving that your enemies are not the monsters you’ve imagined. Either that or a random moment of disillusionment.

I apologize for taking so much space to make an amateur hypothesis, but what you say does not align with my personal experience with extremists. And I’ve had personal interaction with three different flavors of them (Muslim extremists included) and can find no substantial difference except which “deeper truth” they use to justify their belonging.

I’d love to hear what Maajid would have to say about that.

Another bone to pick would be the scope of the picture you use. For example, when you criticize Angela Merkel you point out how her decisions destabilize Europe by accepting more immigrants than can be readily integrated. And on a narrow scope, I agree that it’s bad for Germany and bad for Europe. But almost five million people have fled Syria alone. It is not a matter of letting them in or keeping them out. Letting them in creates tension and causes incidents and discomfort and asks for problem-solving issues that were not there before. But Europe is unquestionably more stable than Turkey, and we’re asking Turkey to take in millions. However, not even that is the issue I think you’re overlooking.

Those are people.

I’ve been a refugee. Those are people that a few years ago had homes and jobs and went to schools. They’ve had plans and ambitions. They have children. A life.

While I would hardly agree with any of them on their political or religious views and beliefs, those are predominantly the non-radicals: the conservatives and the moderates and the citizen Muslims that you speak of so highly.

They were walking on foot with backpacks or bags with few belongings. And there were — there are millions of them.

If ever there was a chance to show that we are not monsters to those people, this was it.

I was so proud when the first big wave of refugees hit, and my countrymen brought out tables and filled them with food to welcome them. Some ultra-nationalists went on a racist rampage, but a lot of the people I know went and donated diapers and baby clothes. And some went and volunteered for months at the checkpoints. And others extracted money from the refugees for transport to the border. And some of them did horrible things in Germany and Austria. It was a festival of worst and best in us. And in them. And it still is.

I’ve been a refugee. And I have children. And I can imagine losing it all in a blink of an eye and heading on foot to get them to safety. And I hope you’d help me. And that’s why I want to help them. And I want to help them even if it means discomfort for me. And all the issues you talk about in Germany and Europe are merely that: discomfort.

Let me also address the point that some of them might be terrorists and that we cannot hope to vet them properly.

Let me throw some numbers at you, even though I think you know them already (sources Eurostat, ETSC, Wikipedia):

The European Union has a population of a little over half a billion.

There have been four million asylum seekers in the EU in the period 2014–2016.

In the period 2014-june 2017, there were 14 terrorist attacks with casualties. Of the 27 perpetrators, ten were immigrants, 17 were born in the EU. Of the immigrant terrorists, three were from Morocco, two were from Iraq, two were from Tunisia, and the remaining three were from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Algeer.

The attacks caused 351 deaths (including 24 of the terrorists). I know that relativism is wrong and that every life matters. But there is something disproportionate in such outrage, and the reaction, and the willingness to punish by the millions those who had nothing to do with it simply by association.

For scale: There were approximately 20,000 murders and 100,000 road deaths in the same period in the EU.

Why am I resorting to relativism? And why are people screaming at you that you’re overreacting? And why are liberals defending the culture with which they have nothing but ideological disagreement?

It is because the public discourse is blowing this problem out of proportion by orders of magnitude. The effect of such disproportionate focus is that there is an excessive public perception. According to the IPSOS “Perils of Perception 2016” survey, the Europeans estimate that there are around five times more Muslims in their country than there are. France has the highest proportion of Muslims at 7.5%, but the public thinks there are 24%. The UK has the most accurate public perception being wrong by only a factor of three (4.8% vs. the perception of 15%). The extreme cases are Hungary and Poland which are wrong by a factor of 60 and 70, respectively. (US Americans are wrong by a factor of 17 on the same scale.)

If that is their perception and you emphatically insist that 20% of Muslims are Jihadists, it creates the expectation that there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Muslims just waiting for an opportunity to kill. And a lot of Europeans are bewildered that there is not an aggressive institutional reaction to that. And they feel that they should take action against that threat as natural self-preservation. Ask Maajid what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that and how it affected his path to radicalization.

When Fareed says that you’re “unhelpful on the ground” I believe that he’s talking about that.

You’re telling moderate Muslims that they’re “the other” because of the circumstances of their heritage. You’re telling the non-Muslims that every Muslim is potentially irrationally and irredeemably dangerous. And in that way, you’re increasing the potential for radicalization.

And almost ironically you’re giving the terrorist a much larger megaphone than they would have otherwise had. In some ways, you’re legitimizing their actions.

I agree with many of your points and facts. But I do not agree that, as long as they’re true, it is irrelevant which facts you emphasize or how you present them. Otherwise cherry-picking and quoting out-of-context would be just fine.

I am afraid of terrorism and Jihadism. But, no: terrorism is not going to be the end of Europe or the world; even if those conclusions are consistent with the facts you present.

Take another look at Maajid. The man was an Islamist radical. Now he’s a reformist, due to some act of kindness. If it is possible to reach people like him, then what is your justification to step over all the other Islamists and conservative Muslims to reach your conclusions.

And speaking of Maajid: can you not see that despite your friendship and mutual understanding you’re depleting his reputation by becoming more extreme and focusing on an ever-narrower part of the discussion. Given the arguments I’ve presented, can you not see that you’re making his task so much more challenging.

If you’re trying to make a point, don’t you think you’ve made it by now? Don’t you think that it would be productive to put that point into a broader context and validate it against a wider audience?

If I may suggest something: If you can, get a Muslim representative of the majority of Muslims on your podcast, and find out what it’s like to be a Muslim. Get a Syrian refugee and see what it’s is like to live through that and what their lives were like before it all crumbled. Bring the context closer to your audience. Show that you do have the care and respect for them that you often mention. It’s important! It’s important for all flavors of your listeners, as well as for yourself. And ultimately, it’s important for the message that you’re trying to spread.

With kindest regards and deepest respects,
Vedran Aberle Tokić