Jordan Peterson has been an invaluable addition to debates on modern controversies. Unfortunately, his views and claims about Islam and Islamic history have been far from nuanced and plays into the hands of anti-Muslim sentiments.
Questioner: You put the Judaeo-Christian tradition on the one side and Islam on the other. Specifically, “the complex problem of Islam” as a “totalizing system” … at the level of psychological significance of these stories at the level of mythology and archetype, how is Islam so different from the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Because, Adam – Ādam, Eve – Ḥawwā, Satan – Shayṭān, and so on and so forth. Everything from the Fall to the Flood. A lot of what you discuss in this lecture series is necessarily a part of Islam as well … Tonight you’ve said that the moral presuppositions of a culture are substantiated in its stories. I see a lot of the same stories. So, current global affairs aside, I’m asking at the deepest level: how different are these stories and the moral presuppositions?
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson: Okay, well that’s a killer question. Well, okay, so the first thing I would say is that fundamentally, I don’t know … there are a couple things that I cannot wrap my head around easily with Islam. One is what I see as the failure to separate church from state, and that’s a problem … Problem number two for me – and again, this may be a consequence of my ignorance, which I am trying to rectify: Muhammad was a warlord, and I don’t know what to do about that fact … The expansion that he initiated was unbelievably successful. Within six hundred years, it was the biggest empire that the world had ever seen, and it demolished Byzantine Christianity … The Buddhists were wiped out of Afghanistan, and we saw that echoed in the Taliban’s destruction of those great Buddhist monuments. And so, what I’m hoping is that there is a bridge – there better be a bridge.
Like many Muslims who grew up in the West, the disastrous War on Iraq and War on Terror – both of which only bred more terror and instability – drove us right into the hands of the political left. Their pro-multicultural and immigrant-friendly attitude helped secure our support. Muslims rallied around left-leaning parties in droves, knowing that they needed to compromise politically on a few ethical issues; but they justified their support for what they saw as the greater good. According to Pew, 70% of Muslim Americans favored the Democratic Party in 2011, and in 2016, 78% of Muslim voters backed Hillary Clinton.
In recent years, however, the ironic intolerance of some “liberal” circles began to materialize. A cadre of activists, allied with a Foucaultian intelligentsia that periodically slinks in from the periphery of relevance, emerged as a populist wing of these parties. The faction that prided itself on inclusivity gradually became a censoring force. As Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Adichie put it in The Atlantic, “there’s a language you’re supposed to use. There’s an orthodoxy you’re supposed to conform to, and if you don’t, you become a bad, evil person, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or what you stand for.”
In particular, the adoption of identity politics as an adversarial take-no-prisoners approach to politics, education, media, and work relations became pervasive. The lens by which identitarians view the world is simple and methodical: (1) Divide the world between dominant (“oppressor”) and marginalized (“oppressed”). Assume that the dominant groups are all-powerful, and that the marginalized groups have no power. (2) Place all cis-gendered heterosexual men, whites, patriarchal cultures, and Abrahamic faiths into the dominant category. (3) Place all women, queers, and people of colour into the marginalized category. (4) Assume that the dominant groups are evil, and the marginalized groups are benign victims. (5) Assume that all tribulation in the world is evil, and that the origin of all suffering is the “oppressor” and his systems of domination.
With theses steps in mind, one can analyze any given political, social, religious, cultural, or economic issue, identify culprits and victims, and devise a solution – often, tearing down the existing hierarchies altogether. This constructivist approach is addictive, and appears intelligent even to a discerning listener, but it bites off more than it can chew. It brings about a neo-tribalism: the world is an arena of power relationships between competing group identities. Masculinity became inherently toxic, gender became unlimitedly fluid, whites were demonized, and minorities were tokenized. Patriarchal civilizations, despite any achievements and human progress, became a massive ploy to collectively subjugate and control women. Unsubstantiated allegations of sexual harassment were to be believed, so that the victim narrative could be bolstered. The proposed solution to even the mildest of political grievances was revolution, without much consideration for its cost.
While this framework worked with some Muslims, as immigrants and people of colour with legitimate qualms with Western powers, some of its rhetoric takes aim at Islam itself. Rights and obligations that pertained to a particular sex were deemed sexist, including the ḥijāb. Marriage, as an exalted institution in Islam, was poopooed for heterosexuals but promoted for others. Abortion was to be respected under all circumstances. Street drugs and sex work were to be legalized. “Muslim” became an immigrant cultural identity rather than an ethical paradigm and distinct worldview.
In an effort to score political alliances, many Muslim leaders accepted these double standards nonetheless. They failed to realize that the political left, despite their claim to tolerance, is only willing to accept an Islam that aligns with its views.
Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, rose to fame in 2016 as a critic of identity politics. He refused to abide by Bill C-16, which compels Canadians to use non-binary gender pronouns (like “they”, “ze”, “hir”) by law. This attracted the popular condemnation of activist circles that considered Peterson’s move to be bigoted; but it also piqued the interest of a massive number of supporters. After he denounced the controversial Bill, Peterson’s job was in jeopardy, and so he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from his supporters. He was resilient, and he largely maintained his decorum in debates, interviews, and public events, despite the aggressive tactics of his detractors.
It turned out that Peterson was not just a one-trick-pony. He capitalized on his new-found stardom by fashioning himself as a patron for self-improvement. He complimented his discussions on individual liberty and neo-Marxism with talks on responsibility, self-help, depression, and religion. He gave a unique set of lectures that examined Biblical stories from a psychological perspective, frequently citing the works of Jung and the challenges of Nietzsche. He spoke on the struggles of young men by commissioning them to set order in their lives. He even gained popularity in online meme-sharing circles with a catchphrase: “Sort yourself out, bucko!”
While Jordan Peterson did nothing to intentionally gain a Muslim audience, many Muslims began to tune in. He was even briefly invited to speak at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto, the largest Muslim convention in the Western world, before his invitation was rescinded. The attraction to Peterson is manifold: he offers a unique and socially-relevant perspective on prophetic stories, he emphasizes the importance of personal accountability (a theme that is repeated in the Quran), he argues intelligently for conventional family values (promoting the involvement of fathers, the virtues of motherhood, the value of having children, and the dangers of divorce), he criticizes hook-up culture, he addresses the double standards of some LGBTQ activists and feminists, and he gives a redemptive view of human suffering that resembles that of the Abrahamic faiths.
Unfortunately, soon thereafter, Jordan Peterson associated with several known anti-Muslim pundits, such as Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ezra Levant, and Dave Rubin. When asked about Islam, Peterson humbly clarified that he had not done much research on the topic and would be open to dialoguing with “moderate Muslims”. However, after almost two years in the public eye, he has yet to appear with a Muslim authority. On the contrary, Peterson has made rash statements on the religion: Muhammad was a warlord who spread his religion by the sword. The irony of course is that Peterson views his own Christian tradition flexibly and symbolically, yet he has not been willing to look at Islam with that same level of nuance. His preliminary view of the religion is reminiscent of that of nineteenth century Western orientalists, which has been largely abandoned by the secular Islamicist academics of today.
It is true that Prophet Muhammad engaged in politics, but the skirmishes that he partook in in the latter part of his ministry were relatively small and mostly defensive.  The “spread by the sword” thesis has been routinely discredited: it ignores Prophet Muhammad’s pacts with other religious groups, the support of some Jews and Christians for the conquests of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia,  the spread of Islam through trade, and the existence of sizable minority communities and monuments in the Muslim world. The conversion of the Near East to Islam occurred very gradually: it took centuries for Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and the Levant to even attain a Muslim majority. On the other hand, Christendom had a relatively poor record with minorities, with the expulsion and forced conversion of Muslims and Jews in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Eastern Europe. Peterson cites the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan whilst forgetting that these monuments remained intact under Islamic rule for over a millennium. The same can be said about the pyramids, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and countless other sites.
Jordan Peterson is an admirer of Eranos thinkers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Yet, the successor of Carl Jung in archetypical psychology is Henry Corbin. Corbin was an Islamicist professor who wrote extensively on the Islamic framework of the visionary experiences that Peterson is so fond of. Yet, Peterson never gives the Islamic tradition a fair look, despite its shared roots with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The political right mainly uses Islam as a punching bag to moralize and deflect attention from themselves. When the left accuses the right of misogyny or homophobia, those accusations are deflected unto the Muslim world as their convenient extreme example. In fact, right wing critiques of the Muslim world sound just like left wing critiques of the right.
But there are more serious problems than Peterson’s generalizations about Islam. Muslims must come to understand that both the political left and the right sprung up from the same secular liberal culture. Attitudes that are prevalent on the left are often prevalent on the right as well, because the two are rooted in the same ethos of individualism and naturalism. The principal priority of this system is to expand freedom and individual agency – the political parties only disagree on how – while Quranic ethics is focused on duty. As Daniel Haqiqatjou wrote, “the notion of freedom as developed by 17th-21st century Western liberal secular thinkers cannot be found in the normative ontology of pre-colonial Muslims.” Furthermore, they offer no definitive answers on metaphysics, morality, and the purpose of life, which should play a key role in politics. Both ends of the spectrum ultimately put their faith in the state and the market; they only differ on how the two are to be calibrated.
For all of Peterson’s useful critiques of postmodernism, classical liberals cannot undo the globalization, tribalism, and rampant nihilism that has arisen in the last sixty years; nor can they provide the mythos that undergirds the social fabric of a nation. It is still important that Muslims have a dialogue with Peterson and his supporters, and there are plenty of leaders that are right for the job, including Hamza Yusuf, Timothy Winter, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. However, dialogue is a two-way street, and Peterson has yet to show much willingness to engage with Muslims in a serious and intelligent manner. At the same time, it is important for Muslims to support initiatives that promote an Islamic worldview, rather than constantly rallying behind the lesser-of-two-evils. The vacuum of postmodernity can potentially swallow the Muslim community whole, and so calculated responses are in order.
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