Sheila Musaji, the founder of the organization “The American Muslim,” decided to critique Shadid Lewis for debating known islamophobe Robert Spencer; in the process, Musaji resorted to using disgraceful tactics such as backbiting. Sheila Musaji believes that debates with islamophobes are useless and that Shadid Lewis was not qualified to debate Robert Spencer.
Debates with islamophobes are absolutely necessary. Robert Spencer has published a wide variety of books and articles that all condemn Muslims as violent, hostile people. Although Sheila Musaji thinks Muslims should simply ignore him, doing so will only allow him to continue spreading a message of hatred. It would be irresponsible and cowardly to avoid facing an islamophobe, particularly one who reaches a large audience. As Muslims, we are obligated to refute unfounded allegations promoted by the likes of Robert Spencer, especially because he is gaining influence. If left unchallenged, those false statements about Islam encourage a mentality of hatred and bigotry, which in turn leads to discrimination, oppression, and hate crimes against Muslims.
Bigotry of any kind can be successfully battled with intellectual debates, and we are morally obligated to fight islamophobia, racism, and any other form of hatred. By providing insightful, logical arguments against the anti-Muslim beliefs that people such as Robert Spencer propagate, we can reduce or even entirely eliminate the cycle of hatred that stems from people hearing and believing such vicious lies.
Another reason we should be invested in refuting these false claims is that ignoring them sends the message that we have no way of challenging these claims because they are true. Whether we choose to debate with islamophobes or allow them to spread their anti-Muslim propaganda unchecked, our action or non-action contributes to others’ perception of us. If we choose to remain silent, it signals a lack of faith in our morals and religion; people will assume that we do not speak up because we don’t have anything with which to defend ourselves—this encourages people to accept the lies that islamophobes spread.
Anti-Muslim hysteria and hate crimes are at a peak, and the last thing we need is more false information about Islam to give anti-Muslims justification for their violent actions. We must stamp out these hateful ideas that islamophobes use to influence the masses before people come to accept these false statements as the truth.
Sheila Musaji writes, “Shadid Lewis… is a young convert, who is not an academic, and certainly not a ‘Muslim scholar.’ He will certainly be over his head, and this ‘featured debate’ will simply be used as an opportunity to humiliate the American Muslim community. Shadid Lewis may mean well, but participating in this very public event without the tools to deal with someone like Robert Spencer is at the very least unwise.”
If Sheila Musaji had genuine concern about Shadid Lewis’ ability to debate Robert Spencer, then she should have contacted him privately rather than attempting to humiliate him on a public website by labeling him a “useful idiot.” Her actions were very discourteous and un-Islamic. Indeed, her statements were used by Robert Spencer on his websites to fuel “pre-round” debate hype and prove that Muslims did not want to stand up against him.
Regarding her point, yes, one does need credentials and a level of scholarship in order to perform certain tasks in Islam; however, debating is not one of these requirements. Shadid Lewis possesses the passion and zeal to defend his faith, which are necessary qualities to attempt such a task. Previously, Robert Spencer has debated Muslim scholars who spoke English as a second language. Robert Spencer used these scholars’ difficulty in expressing themselves in English to create an illusion of winning debates against them, whereby he promoted his ridiculous arguments against Islam. In contrast, Shadid Lewis, an American Muslim, brought zeal, passion, and eloquence into his debate against Robert Spencer, who had been accustomed to debating ESL scholars. As an organic intellectual, Shadid Lewis was able to address and refute Robert Spencer’s claims in a captivating style that would be beyond the skill of an Islamic scholar who was not a native English-speaker.
Another fact to consider is that while Robert Spencer does have a B.A. in religious studies, he does not speak Arabic and he is certainly not an Islamic scholar. Therefore, does Robert Spencer even have the credentials to justify debating a scholar? Why is Sheila Musaji portraying Robert Spencer as a serious intellectual? One does not have to be a scholar to see and expose his debate tactics. He takes quotes from the Qu’ran out of context to “prove” his point, and he tracks every social upheaval in the Muslim world and blames Islam for it without investigating the issue thoroughly.
But in this debate, Shadid Lewis proved to be Robert Spencer’s equal, if not his superior. The articles that Sheila Musaji has written underestimated Shadid Lewis before he even debated Robert Spencer, who she assigned a level of undeserved credibility that gives too much validity to his poorly researched books and articles. Not only is Robert Spencer a poor academic, but his right-hand woman, Pamela Geller, is also clearly on the wrong path; she once posted on her site the belief that President Obama is a bastard child of Malcolm X, and that Obama is seeking to implement Islamic law in America. In Oklahoma, a completely unnecessary “anti-sharia” bill was recently passed, showing that Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer have achieved some level of success in creating hysteria. This exemplifies the need for debate, which would provide a logical counter to such ideas. One does not need to be a scholar to refute the ideas spread by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who are engaging in fear mongering in their efforts to decry Islam; any people dedicated to defending their religion can successfully battle these false allegations.
Sheila Musaji writes: “Shadid Lewis himself (using the name MrIslamAnswersback) engages in calling those who disagree with him ‘devils’, ‘idiots’, ‘white bigots’. Those engaging in this us versus them street fight are not representative of Christianity or Islam. All they are accomplishing is to increase the divisions between human beings.”
Many of the YouTube comments directed towards Shadid Lewis that were posted by Robert Spencer’s followers included racist overtones, not mere “disagreements.” The truth is that islamophobia is often propped up by racist, white supremacist elements. When I debated Robert Spencer via Twitter, this was made apparent when his followers posted racially charged comments such as, “Why are you on welfare?” and “What have black people invented?” Fortunately, Shadid Lewis had the courage to call out the comments for what they were, taking a stand against racism in that manner.
Overall, it is not Shadid Lewis who increased divisiveness among human beings, but Sheila Musaji’s backbiting, which only served to boost Robert Spencer’s ego and encourage intra-Muslim conflict, which in turn perpetuated islamophobia. Even if everything that Sheila Musaji were true, publicly labeling someone with good intentions and a sound moral background as a “useful idiot” is certainly not appropriate, nor is it helpful in any way. Discounting Shadid Lewis’ ability to successfully debate Robert Spencer was both disgraceful and immoral.