Faisal Saeed Al Mutar: Facebook and Social Media Silencing

August 08, 2016

Iraqi-born writer Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is a blogger for the Huffington Post and a columnist for the Center for Inquiry’s own Free Inquiry magazine. Having grown up in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, he’s now a human rights activist and secularism advocate as well as founder of the Global Secular Humanist Movement and Secular Post.

For Faisal and progressive Muslims and secularists across the globe, social media is the primary means of not only seeking community and acceptance, but to opening dialogues about fraught issues such as dissent from Islam. But recently Facebook seems to be singling out many of these conversations and communities, and shutting them down. In a conversation with Josh Zepps, Faisal gives several examples of Muslims and Arabs having their posts and pages removed. Arab secularist groups, condemnations of the Taliban, and other challenges to Islam are being banned from the site, which is often justified by claims of racism, hate speech, and other alleged violations of “community standards.” Faisal argues that censoring Muslims and Arabs from being able to criticize extremism and terrorism within their own religion and culture, adds to the very stereotypes and fears surrounding Muslims that Facebook should want to prevent.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August eight, 2016. 

I’m Josh Zepps, and this is the podcast at the Center for Inquiry, a wonderful organization which we do hope you support in its mission of promoting reason and science and secularism throughout these United States and around the world. 

You can, of course, follow my other podcast. We the People live on Twitter at WCP, underscore live in which we gather together fascinating people and have interesting conversations about all kinds of things that are going on in the world. In a witty way. In an insightful way. We do hope this week’s guest, Feisal Sayed Matar, was on the show in November of 2014. And back then, we spoke about his life growing up under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, his life coming to the United States as an Iraqi refugee, and his commitment to secularism and to the reformation of Islam. Well, lately, I had been noticing on Twitter that some of Feisal’s tweets were about his being blocked on Facebook, going about him having posts removed on Facebook. And it wasn’t just him. It was other people like Ali Rizvi, other friends of the show. I thought this was somewhat troubling. So I decided to dedicate this episode to a conversation with Feisal about social media’s crackdown on dissenting Muslims in the guise of avoiding Islamophobia. 

Feisal, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thank you for having me. 

So let’s just look at this Facebook post. You wrote this on Facebook. I’ll just quote it. You wrote, I don’t think I’ve ever seen better liars than the Muslim Brotherhood. In English, they say they love freedom and democracy. They go to Qatar and tell them they hate Iran. They go to Iran and tell them they hate Kutter. They say we support minority groups in English and they advocate for killing gays in Arabic. I’d prefer an honest fundamentalist than allying fundamentalist. The Muslim Brotherhood are not moderate. They believe in Islamic theocracy as well. They just follow different means to achieve them. I don’t blame them as much as the fools in the regressive left who fall for them. That post, which seems well within the bounds of ordinary political and theological discourse, was removed by Facebook. All it said was we removed the post below because it doesn’t follow the commute. The Facebook community standards. 

Well, why? 

Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s very interesting and this this has came in within some sort of of a campaign that’s happened not only against me, but three of my dear friends. So although this we shouldn’t throw, it was Don Forclose, I think the Taliban. And his wife, Alicia, was banned for criticizing Pakistani culture. And my dear friend and partner at work, Melissa Chen, was also banned for criticizing the concept of true Islam and who decided to Islam. So within kind of a week, two weeks, four of us have been banned from Facebook, 30 days for me. And I was therefore eligible. And Melissa got banned for three days. And I think I’ll get banned for 24 hours. 

I like that their metering out different colored, different calibrations of sin that each of you must have must have perpetrated in order to. It’s like it’s almost like being at a at school and you get a certain level of detention based on how bad the your skin was. You know, you mentioned Ali, Ali, risibly, Ali. Ali was on the show. If listeners are interested and they haven’t heard the episode, I interviewed Ali on July 18th, episode of Point of Inquiry. He’s very interesting. He he I saw him commenting on Twitter after Nick Cohen, who I don’t know, actually said that Facebook discontinued his account because he told someone who had I mean, basically, I think it was something to do with the controversy between someone who he was supporting and he told someone to eff off and he used a swear word. So that’s perhaps unsurprising. But then Ali chimed in on Twitter and said, yes. He said what you were just saying, which is that not only has he been blocked by by Facebook, but that his wife as well, when she slammed men for defending the Candeal honor, killing Facebook blotto. 

What do you think, given given that there has traditionally been a reticence on the part of social media companies like Facebook to try to block people in the interests in the in the spirit that they are sort of committed to the widest possible expression of belief in the public square. And the most diverse expression of of opinions as long as they fall short of direct abuse. What do you think is going on in this latest spate of. 

Yeah, I mean, I think there is something I mean, it goes back to the debate of what is considered as Islamophobia. So to some to some of companies with some of people, they consider Islamophobia to be a form of racism, which is, in my opinion, quite absurd. Consider Islam the race, but I don’t want to go through this discussion. So I call it the definition of Islamophobia. Criticism of Islam or Islamic culture is the same as criticizing people. So the definition of Islamophobia is hatred or dislike of the ideology of Islam as well as Muslims. So what is happening? In my opinion, that’s what you just mentioned about what I said about the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a political party in Egypt, by the way, is not it’s not I’m not talking about a one point five billion Muslims, but they show that in my opinion. I think that they show that as a form of racism. And due to incompetency of some of the people that they have hired who are dealing with these issues, and that’s what I understand, because I know some people actually work at Facebook and I try to inquire to figure out what’s going on. And seems like they have data centers in India that kind of take care of these millions and probably billions of reports they get every day. And so these people are just incompetence who actually deal with this kind of stuff. So they saw terms like Muslim Brotherhood, they saw a Muslim. They immediately thought of that as a form of hate speech. And they blocked me as a result. And with Ali, because as the Taliban and they thought of it as a Muslim group. So they banned him. And was Melissa, they saw Islam criticism of Islam. They bandeau. And for for L’Arche, I think is the same result. So I think it all goes back to what they have defined as a form of racism. So when they say, like in their community centers and I have read that many times, is that, yes, we don’t tolerate racist talk or something like that. So there is they lumped in the discussion about Islam as a form of racism. 

In a way, what’s what’s so sort of crazy about that, Feisal, is that there really this this sort of. 

They’re making the same mistake that ISIS makes in in conflating Islamism will violent jihadism and extremist interpretations of Islamism as being Islam. 

I mean, ISIS wants us to believe that every good, good Muslim is a reactionary, revolutionary, violent jihadist and that you can’t be a good Muslim and be peaceful. 

And by banning any criticism of Islamism, it feels like Facebook is equating Islamism with all of Islam. 

In other words, it’s it’s portraying a criticism of the extremes in the civil war that’s going on for the heart and soul of Islam as being representative of all Muslims in some way that’s bigoted rather than just critical of the extreme. 

Yeah, I mean, this is I mean, I have got talk to Facebook like that that reports people directly so I can speak on behalf of them. But there is an article that I help publishing about like atheist and secular pages were also shut down by Facebook. So there were other pages that were just done, then deleted from Facebook. I think some somewhat restored that. And I don’t like all of them to start. But I think someone’s living forever who are just out of secularists, who are just expressing their opinion or dislike of the other guy’s theology or Islamism or everything. And that seems to be kind of a trend that’s happening that goes, in my opinion, beyond just Facebook. I think that I mean, with Twitter, there is also some issues of censorship that happens against people who have views that with some extent considered objectionable by others. And with Facebook, I mean I mean, this is not the first time that I got plans. I mean, this probably the tenth time this year. It’s almost like every month or so, like somebody figured out a post in which amateur’s is critical of Islam or Islamism or jihadism and so on. 

And then I got myself a block and it’s yeah, it seems that there is a conflation that is happening in that regard of what is a criticism of the ideology or a political group versus criticism of Muslims hating on Muslims are advocating for violence against Muslims. It seems that there is a very big obscurantism happening about what’s actually going on. And that’s also extends to the media debates of criticism of Islam or Islamism. And those like whenever somebody becomes critical of Islam, eventually the other guy is going to respond to that. Why do you hate Muslims or why added digitalizing on Muslims? Or why do you think all Muslims are terrorists, even like, as we have seen with Ben Affleck somehow does debate case, you remember, in which somehow this was very clear about what he’s talking about in terms of that he’s talking about circles of Islam as jihadists and conservative Muslims and so on. 

And Biddulph, like his first response, was your Crosson racist? And this kind of obscurantism that is happening and as a mother is it’s why I really care about this issue is the fact that Facebook is to some extent is the best place for the conversation to happen in the Muslim world. Because many people because I come from the articles, I’m from Morocco originally and many of us, I’m not allowed to have these conversations. And in the media, because many of us are afraid of getting killed or beheaded. But Facebook and social media became like the gateway that those of us who are second of us and liberals and and freethinkers to to discuss our ideas utterly. And so we will not going to get censored by the media companies that exist in our countries. That’s one of the reasons I kind of made a big fuss about it, because if I’ve got to get fined, I mean, I’m very lucky because I have many convictions on Facebook and I live in the United States is not really a big deal. 

But for some people who live inside this Muslim countries in which Facebook is the only place for them to have a conversation about how to move things forward. 

What should the boundaries be, Do you think, on conduct, on social media? I feel like there’s a big debate going on about this at the moment. We recently saw Leslie Jones, the the female comedian of SNL fame and star of Ghostbusters, remove herself from Twitter after just a really horrendous series of attacks by ultraright trolls egged on by Malawian police. The bright spot, reportedly the flamboyant provocateur who then became, I believe, only the second person in history to actually be banned on Twitter. Considerably more conflicted about that, having been a target of of hate campaigns on Twitter myself. I do think that that platform has to do something about ensuring that the that the content that exists on Twitter is has at least some components of intellectual coherence and doesn’t devolve simply into into personal lynchings of of innocent individuals. But I wonder how one draws that line between objectionable between material that you might write that is objectionable to hardcore Islamists because they find it offensive and material that someone who’s a racist, sexist, misogynistic homophobe might writes targeting and an individual for merely existing. Do you have thoughts about how one finds that? 

Well, yeah. I mean, I think I think it’s, um. Look, you know, what you mentioned is there’s definitely very important. I mean, the fact that some people who exist on social media and attack other individuals are make them pretend or make it campaigns that get them off hatred and so on. Yes. 

I mean, these are very important things that they’re perceived as a way to do stuff. I mean, that’s the problem. That has to be a in which I mean, I’ve seen some of this minor list thing. And I saw some of the responses that the people that he brought to the to the actress. I mean, was pretty disgusting. And in my opinion, I think I mean, I’m not a big fan of my myself. So I like I find this very ridiculous. But at the same time that the line I think that I mean, there has to be a distinction to be made. I mean, at least on the sorts of things that I’ve been banned from, there has to be a line to be, to be to be drawn between advocating for violence against Muslims and criticizing bad ideas. I think that is there is a line to be made of. I think that, to be honest, the line is pretty clear, at least in my eyes, is that there is a big difference between what I have said about the Muslim Brotherhood, which I so agree with. I think the Muslim Brotherhood, the Scouser and the the actions that they have made, it does have hypocrisy in terms of of sticking something in English, something in Arabic. I completely. But what I have not done is that I have said that anybody who is a Muslim should be killed or anybody was almost one should be. Thus, I never advocated for any violence against any people, including the Muslim Brotherhood. I was just criticizing how hypocritical and their actions are very hypocritical and cancerous and bad on the long run in terms of political views. So there is there is a line to be made over there between saying that I don’t like your movie thing to attacking somebody is race or gender or started to campaign against them of hatred and misogyny and homophobia and so on. But at the same time, I mean, speaking on Facebook and Twitter, at the same time, the Ayatollah Khamenei has an account on Twitter. And who advocates for killing Jews and as in the country that gays are publicly killed? Which is Iran. And he still have his account on Twitter untouched. At the same time, he advocates anti-Semitism and anti ISIS rhetoric and all of that. And then you see some of the most famous homosex, most Sunni Muslim imams in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and so many places in which they have their Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts untouched. But at the same time, when it comes to people like us, like me, Ali, on our list. But, Melissa, we are the ones who get banned. So I think that what I’ve got a policy that these two companies have, it seems to be a very inconsistent and a bad policy, because if they really cared about making Facebook and Twitter to be a safer place out of advocating for killing gays or Christians or atheists or Jews or Muslims, then then maybe should they should it starts with the biggest advocates of these kinds of factions. And the real advocates of these kinds of actions. And there is lots of extremism material that exist in the social media. And that whenever you report them and I do report some of them regularly, which explicitly calls for killing people. And I report them and it says it doesn’t violate their community standards. But I know something about the Muslim Brotherhood. And it does highlight the community center. So there is I mean, I think that if there is a new policy to be made, it sort of paid by what I said is like it needs to be very clear between hatred, between when discussing first housing ideas and hating on people. And also, it needs to talk about the people who are really advocating for hating and all of these things. 

Mm hmm. Ali made an interesting point in the distinction between criticizing ideas versus criticizing people in that he said, you know, if I see someone who’s smoking, then I can criticize the smoking without saying that that person ought to be punished or that that person is bad. And in the same way, if I see someone who who deeply believes in Islamism, then I can criticize their conduct in the practice of Islamism without saying that they should be punished or that they don’t have a right to do it. You know, it’s more like perceiving the the software that they are running in their head as being a bad habit rather than criticizing them for who they are or advocating any that any action should be taken against them. I wonder if let’s all accept that and let’s accept that it’s silly that Facebook is is doing this, but I wonder whether or not you think there is a problem among the. I suppose that the anti regressive left spokespeople, the you know, the I don’t know, Dave Ruban and Sam Harris to to to a certain extent and Bill Marr is there. 

Is there an issue where they veer into criticisms that can too easily be construed as being generalizations or bigotry? And I want to quote here from from the. 

The evil, nefarious Glenn Greenwald, as he is portrayed so often by Sam Harris, Sam Harris is no friend of Glenn’s. But Glenn has done some great journalistic work. And in his open letter to Sam Harris. This was three years ago. 

Now he tries to identify what he means by Islamophobia, which is not a form of racism, he says, but an irrational fixation on Muslims and irrational anti-Muslim animus. Specifically, he says, the meaning of Islamophobia is every bit as clear as anti-Semitism or racism or sexism and all sorts of familiar related concepts. It signifies, one, irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group to a disproportionate fixation on that group. For sins committed, at least to an equal extent, by many other groups, especially one’s own and or three sweeping claims about the members of that group, unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs. 

Are you worried that there’s a possibility of sort of treading into that territory in such a way that it undermines the credibility of our intellectual case against Islam? 

Or do you think that accusations like that are just overblown hyperbole? 

Yeah, well, I mean, right. 

Glenn Greenwald identified as Islamophobia. I mean, I think I agree with many of you. He said it said that I don’t use the term Islamophobia because it has been used very time to silence criticism of Islam as a religion versus hating Muslims as people of generalizing on all Muslims, as terrorists, as in terms of their attire. Aggressive. I mean, then, as I said, aggressive Wolds Jim, to come. But he recently said it’s a big it’s a bigger spectrum, in my opinion. 

And you have people, I think that for Zambo people who are like Samhadana saline. I personally tried his best to use statistics and statistics herself out of the enemy of generalizations. So if I say that 50 percent of Republicans believe in creationism, I am by definition saying that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe in creationism. So if I’m using stress, especially ones that are valid and tense of few, Paul and Gallup, then all of these important ones, then I’m not engaging by saying that just because ISIS come as this action, therefore, all Muslims, that ISIS I mean, obviously, obviously not all Muslims are ISIS themselves. Muslims are Shias who are fighting ISIS right now. And some Sudanese are also fighting ISIS and Kurds as well. But also there is I mean, I acknowledge that there is an element you mentioned within the tribes folks who step in to all these generalizations on on Muslims in terms of like in terms of banning all Muslim immigration. So, for example, we have heard this rhetoric, especially coming from Trump for people who think like him, in which it looks at looks at Muslims and as one monolithic group, that all of them are a present danger to U.S. national security or the national security of the globe. And that’s obviously false. I mean, there are Muslims who have served with the US military. They are Muslims who live in America, work as engineers and doctors and all of this kind of stuff, and couldn’t be so much to the national growth in the diversity of this nation. So they many of them represent non no threats to the security. That being said, some of them are so. So the guy who did San Bernardino or or Omar Mateen in Orlando, there are some Muslims out of present national security threat, not only to the United States but around the globe. 

And I think that that is I think that there is an element of the Tarasoff to the rest of us as the entire aggressive progressive’s are the ones who are so untied aggressives that they are aggressive themselves. And that includes people in the ultraright and irrational people who would generalize on Muslims as one group or think of them as one simply either ISIS or something like ISIS. 

Anti regressive. Regressive is an interesting term. I haven’t heard that that. But let me just like I kind of Congress. I think so. 

So what you’re saying is if a regressive leftist is somebody who throws individual human rights and old fashioned liberal ideals under the bus, like feminism and and respect for same sex rights, and then whatever else throws them under the bus in the interests of appeasing the minority, that. I think of as being Muslims than a regressive, regressive, regressive, anti regressive leftist is someone who is so opposed to that obfuscation that they they actually express bigotry towards Muslims as a whole. Is that what you’re saying? 

Yes. And also, I mean, after all, things like feminism and gay rights under the bus as well. I mean, many of them hold out. 

They just old fashioned bigots. I mean, isn’t that what we’re talking. 

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. But but they claim they want to earn that of being anti progressive while in fact they are just bigots. I mean, yes, I said that they want to be viewed as intellectuals. Are they have any forum on Selex or viewpoints. But in fact, what they are saying is yes. And today, immigrants, let’s make America light again rhetoric. 

How did how have you experienced this whole debate? And Fasel? 

I mean, when when you see Donald Trump say that he wants to ban all Muslims and when he says things like we need to get the Muslim community to tell us where the bad guys are because they know. He says they know. Come on. They know. 

I mean, you you came from Iraq. You are someone who has been persecuted by these guys. 

No one has suffered more at the hands of these Islamist extremists than Muslims themselves, like yourself, when when the implication is put forward that you are somehow covering up the same people who you spend your life fighting against. How do you take that? 

Well, I mean that I mean, I come from a Muslim background, but I’m not a Muslim at the moment. 

Yeah, but you’re a Muslim and Donald Trump size. You know me enough and I am Muslim, according to the law Trump. 

That’s that’s for sure. And I mean, my my my parents are my tenants and my family are Muslims in general. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s like with people like me and others are pretty much getting hate from everybody, which is kind of sad. I mean, with their aggressive left, they deny that we even exist. And with ultralights, they think of us as either complicit in these acts of terrorism or to some extent hiding something, or we should do more, except the fact that they don’t offer any solutions. But I also see it I mean, in the with with until with the Trump rhetoric, I mean, I don’t really know if the guy actually believes what he says. So that’s that’s something I’m always questioning myself of us. But if you look at it as a policy that that that the one that he’s proposing, I mean, I think it’s it’s a it’s a very bad idea. And also, I mean, I think that the United States should accept refugees who do not represent a national security threat. I mean, I I don’t feel like I draw a line that there are actually Muslims who represent national scope, the threat, but not all Muslims. And and that’s why we have we need to have a strong vetting system. I think you have states already have that system, maybe do some improvements here and there. And consider the United States itself is surrounded by two oceans. So the fact that you can have the boats coming in from Turkey to to California or to North Carolina is very unlikely. So that’s a very big distance. So, Simon, I’m a refugee myself, and I had to fly to L.A. X to come to United States. And it’s not easy to come to United States as a refugee anyway. Yes, I think that that rhetoric is also a result of the failure, in my opinion, of the of the progressive left in dealing with these kinds of problems, because that is I’ve been living here for about three years in America. And there’s a discussion about Islam. And Muslims are extremely, very polarized, in my opinion, between the trump of the wall to, let’s say, ban Muslim immigration and then the progressive of the wall to say there is no problem with Islam. And there is no problem with some groups within the Muslim world that represent a threat. And then they try to equate. They always bring the equation’s of us. Well, how about the Crusades and. Well, how about the expense inquisition? Well, how about. Well, the Crusades happened 200 years ago, so someone did. So this this questions that that aggressive keep asking to some extent. 

I think with the continuous terrorist attacks that’s happening in Orlando and so many other places around Europe, I think that to some extent empowers that, that the worst elements of the far right that adulterate that Donald Trump is trying to make use of, he’s trying to make use of the anchors and the fears that people have, the feel of lack of safety, not feeling normal, having normal lives, then all of that. 

And when they see somebody who’s who refuses to to use the term Islamist extremism or create a policy based upon the concept that we are actually at war with jihadists and the ideology that is influencing jihadists when they see that loophole being created, then to the far right is going to capitalize on this subject. I do think it’s all across Europe, not only in our states. I mean that all across Europe, you’ll see. But is it like Mahila upon France or in Austria, they have the far right party that is probably going to win elections. And now in Germany, you never know what’s going to happen. So, yes, it’s it’s it’s a very polarized discussion, unfortunately. 

Yeah, I do. I share your concern, Feisal. And I do think that we we broadly on the on the liberal progressive left have to find ways. 

I mean, and by we I mean not so much you, but people like me who are who are not Muslims and have no connection to the community who are white. We have to find ways of not succumbing to the instinct to always shut up in the face of an angry, brown skinned person waving their finger at me and telling me that I’m being an Islamophobic, that we have to find a way as progressive’s to articulate the crisis that’s going on at the fringe of Islam that civil war and pick out sides there so as to deprive the far right of oxygen. 

My greatest fear is. We are in part responsible for Trump and we are in part responsible for the rise of the far right in Europe by not having sufficiently eloquently and convincingly grappled with and articulated the problem of Muslim extremism. And so the only people in the room who are doing so cause I fascists. 

Yes, exactly. Yeah, I am very thankful. There are parts of the solution. 

So let’s just let’s just end by looping back to social media, because it strikes me that companies like Facebook and Twitter are obviously going to be most receptive to the loudest voices in the room. If people I assume that the reason why people like you and Ali was Vee and other secular Muslims who are who are vocal and critical of Islamism. That’s the reason why you guys are the ones being blocked whilst Islamists are not. Is because the people who are shouting against you are the loudest and that presumably Facebook is getting complaints from somebody who is accusing you of being an Islamophobic and Facebook is responding as any pragmatic corporation would. Does this then put the burden on people like us to make sure that we are better at engaging with social media companies about what is acceptable and what isn’t? What would you like to see happen? What would you like to see our listeners do, if anything, to provide the kind of support for secular values that you’re fighting for? 

Yeah. That’s fantastic question. Mean not. I don’t think it’s only the loudest. But I would also say that they’re also the most organized. So I am just making an assumption here. But like, if if you are a media journalist and social media are another company who would like to know the content of what the Muslim opinion and you make a search on Google and you say like, let’s look for organizations that represent some Muslims and that the majority of these organizations, if not all, are either Islamist apologists or Islamists themselves. So if I am to, say, Facebook or social media company is trying to take advice of how to deal with issues regarding Islamophobia and social media, you are less likely to be contacted by somebody like Reza Aslan. Daniel would be asked for advice from somebody like Roseby. And then and then the problem is that many of the Islamist apologists are Islamists themselves are very organized and they have received so much funding and are able to create this image that they represent Muslims. So that not only is like in terms of many companies, whenever they try to do social corporate responsibility and so on, they eventually all of the money goes to these people. So I think that there is a need for organization on our side that we need to be the loudest. We need to speak loudly as much as we can and try to create a movement of people so we can represent some. And in terms of how can people help? I think that they can help by suppressing our show at the start of the war that we exist. So I think it’s very important because I don’t think many peoples, whether it’s in America or in Europe or elsewhere, they know that there is. I would say a very large amount of secular secularists come from Muslim backgrounds. And this actually is going as a result of the rise of Islamic extremism because many young people are being disillusioned with the values of Islamism. So this is the biggest assets that that’s going to change extremism in the West and as well as, most importantly, extremism in the countries that they come from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 

Feisal, people can probably do worse also than following you on Twitter at Feisal al Mutare. They can follow me on Twitter at Josh Zepps and they can, of course, find out all sorts of interesting things about the Center for Inquiry, the institution of which this show is a podcast at Center for Inquiry dot net, Feisal Almatov. Thanks so much for being so. 

I can hardly. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.