In July 2016, Tarek Fatah spoke to the Pakistani-Canadian blogger and podcaster Eiynah. They touched on many things ex-Muslim, where, to the bafflement of many, Tarek Fatah was quite dismissive. So much so, that it warranted unpacking some of his unsubstantiated claims and provocations from that interview.
Tarek Fatah is is a Toronto based columnist and former radio personality. He’s a commentator who advocates for gay rights, the separation of religion and state, and an opposition to sharia law.
In this piece, I will be critical of statements made by Tarek Fatah. As with most people, we might find agreement on one issue and disagreement on a host of other issues. Indeed, Tarek Fatah has been praised on some issues by people in the very community of activists that at times, he seems to deride. Perhaps his podcast appearance on Eiynah’s show was an off-day. You be the judge.
New to Tarek Fatah
I have never paid much attention to local personalities who cover religious and cultural angles to politics. This, despite my being a local resident of Canada for many years.
Certainly, I had heard of Tarek Fatah long ago. Until recently though, I wasn’t actually familiar with any of his material. In the Spring of 2016, I heard Tarek Fatah speak with Dave Rubin on the Rubin Report and with Gad Saad on The Saad Truth.
Tarek Fatah’s recent conversation with Eiynah however, was actually frustrating to listen to. I can only imagine how frustrated Eiynah must have been in conducting it.
The Retired Professor Type
Tarek Fatah is in his mid-sixties and is no doubt, well read. He holds an uncommon mix of views and positions. Ex-Muslims and those who are critical of Islamism will find common ground with Tarek Fatah on some issues.
Of course, it is often the case that people with whom we may find some agreement, we also find important areas of disagreement. For my taste, Tarek Fatah was no exception.
I believe that progress is achieved in the pursuit of better ideas when people are willing to participate in productive conversations. What makes such conversations productive? Well, we must hold two key, complimentary objectives in mind; we seek to understand and we seek to be understood. To achieve these aims, both parties must engage with patience, empathy and the pursuit of clarity.
In Tarek Fatah’s conversation with Eiynah, he struck me as the retired professor who hadn’t a care in the world. I’m sure most of us have met such almost-retired professor types in our day. You know the caricature. The professor with disheveled hair who knew so much that he couldn’t be bothered to break it down for his students or to humor society’s widely held notions of conversational etiquette. I mean, why should such a professor even bother to bring his deeply layered intellect down to his students’ level?
Such is how Tarek Fatah came across in his conversation with Eiynah. And I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt regarding his intellectual bona fides.
Intelligence has many forms of course. Academic smarts are but one manifestation of the many domains of our intelligence. An empathetic intuition for what your interviewer is asking of you, is an example of another. I find it hard to believe that someone who is in the public eye wouldn’t already possess such skills.
Tarek Fatah did not demonstrate a conversational calibration that I would characterize as coherent. In this article, recounting Tarek Fatah’s conversation with Eiynah, we’ll explore specific examples of such conversational confusion.
Not the Skype Lag
Sometimes podcast conversations don’t go as smoothly as we listeners imagine they could have, because we’re not privy to the Skype lag that hinders such conversations.
In our minds, we benchmark such conversations against the potential fluidity that they might have embodied had the two parties actually been sitting across from one another.
I do not believe however, that Skype was an aggravating factor for why this particular podcast episode went off the rails.
Ego and Pet Causes
Tarek Fatah admitted early in the conversation that his characteristic switching of topics was perhaps a bit unnerving for Eiynah. In limited doses, such bursting at the seams with knowledge to follow interesting tangents can be an endearing quality of the retired professor type. But repeatedly?
That’s just frustrating for any listener who’s waiting for the conversation to converge towards the systematic exploration of any single assertion or concept.
I don’t know how Eiynah could have done a better job in balancing between:
- Letting Tarek Fatah riff on a point, versus
- Attempting to get Tarek Fatah to provide clear responses to her follow-on queries
Despite Eiynah’s admirable balancing act, the podcast was at times a scattered spectacle of Tarek Fatah’s emotional assertions. It was a meandering monologue punctuated by Eiynah’s occasional and polite attempts to drill down into some structured line of thought.
Frankly, Tarek Fatah’s ego was a huge turn off. If you didn’t see his pet causes as the most important causes to pursue and through the specific lens he wanted you to see them through, then you knew nothing. Your causes didn’t matter.
At several points, Eiynah politely called out how ridiculous such assertions were. When Eiynah was poised to drill down and box Tarek Fatah into a logical cage of his own making, Tarek Fatah would suggest almost as if agitated, that Eiynah move on to the next question.
This tap dancing around Eiynah’s valiant attempts at depth and clarity made it quite evident to the listener that Tarek Fatah — although probably a very smart man in his day — no longer knows how to communicate his ideas or to have them challenged.
In this episode, Tarek Fatah demonstrated that he cannot in any meaningfully coherent way, convey his ideas without resorting to an aggrieved dismissiveness that derails other lines of inquiry.
What follows is my assessment of some of the topics and interactions that took place in Tarek Fatah’s conversation with Eiynah. If you’ve listened to the entire podcast episode, you’ll be able to spot several additional face-palm worthy exchanges.
Let’s consider the topic of the ex-Muslim label and the people who identify with it. This came up about thirty minutes into the first episode.
Tarek Fatah swiftly dismissed ex-Muslims as devotees of “air-conditioned atheism”.1 At time index [28:58], Tarek Fatah compares the terms ex-Muslim and ex-Christian, pointing out how the latter is almost never used.2 Tarek Fatah dismisses ex-Muslims categorically as people whose goal in life is to be retweeted by Sam Harris or to take a selfie with Richard Dawkins.
Tarek Fatah demonstrates his lack of nuance when Eiynah herself challenged him on the fact that she is not seeking fame; she believes in the ex-Muslim cause and is still anonymous, having personally turned down many high profile opportunities to promote herself and her message because such opportunities required that she out herself.3
The Need for the ex-Muslim Label .
A primary objective for many self-identified ex-Muslims is that of normalizing dissent. The label raises awareness that leaving Islam is a phenomenon. It seeds the idea among questioning Muslims that they needn’t feel trapped in an ideology that does not resonate with them. Ex-Muslims aspire for this label to eventually be as unnecessary as Tarek Fatah sees it today. But we’re not there yet. Ex-Muslims recognize how valuable the label currently is precisely because it is so provocative.
Yet Tarek Fatah, who makes it his business to be provocative, has the audacity to dismiss and generalize a movement as selfie-seeking attention whores.
Darth Vader once said that the Force is strong with this one.4 He was not referring to Tarek Fatah, however. What we can say about Tarek Fatah though, is that the double standards run strong with this one.
At time index [33:30], Tarek Fatah digs into ex-Muslims again, suggesting that we only want to appear enlightened in front of the white man; and that ex-Muslims are not willing to get mud on their feet. Did this ex-Muslim decide to post a video entitled “Why I Left Islam” in order to garner favor with the white man?
Let’s take a deeper look at this particular conversational thread, which begins at time index [33:15]. Eiynah has an exchange with Tarek Fatah that demonstrates his incoherence. I’m at a loss to describe Tarek Fatah’s statements in any other terms. They reflect an arrogance and an indifference for perspectives that are not his own.
It may be because Tarek Fatah resembles the lovably cute retired professor that I somehow want to believe that he is a man with good intentions. In fact, I do believe that about him. I also believe that he is a man who likely does not even realize how scatterbrained he comes across.
Here’s the conversation that starts with ex-Muslims and jumps to Tarek Fatah questioning Eiynah’s ancestry.
Conversation Excerpt 1.
Note: I have left in the (at times) awkward grammar from my verbatim transcription of the conversation.
Tarek: That is the why these ex-Muslim combination is such a fraud. You absolutely nothing, nothing whatsoever rather than sit and aspire to be, to appear as enlightened. You don’t want to get mud on your feet. You don’t want to get...
Eiynah: How do you know how much mud each of us gets on our feet? With me, you don’t know who I am so I could be out marching all day doing god knows what...
Tarek: No you don’t!
Eiynah: How do you know I don't?
Tarek: Of course I know.
Eiynah: How do you know!?
Tarek: I know people you know.
Eiynah: And, they’ve told you all my moves, everything I do every day?
Tarek: I don’t; I can bet you you’ve never marched for Balochistan or Kurdistan.
Eiynah: How do you know that?
Tarek: I..oh..forget it. Forget it!
Eiynah: And how do you know what Ali does? I think Ali has changed a lot of people’s lives. Ali has inspired a lot of people to...
Tarek: …To be atheist.
Eiynah: What’s wrong with that?
Tarek: Yeah, so become Atheist.
Eiynah: And what’s wrong with that?
Tarek: And do what?
Eiynah: As someone opposed to Islamism, and the problems that it causes...
Tarek: Islamism has nothing to do; Lenin warned people about such crap ideas. Because this is not the solution to the number one problem in the world which is abject poverty and illiteracy around the globe and individual liberty. This thing, that people living under occupation fighting ISIS by the Kurdish women...
Eiynah: It seems that you have your pet causes which are very important, absolutely and you know what, I’m part Baloch, my grandmother is part Baloch…<interrupted by Tarek saying “no”>…Yes I am!
Eiynah: What do you mean “No" I’m not! Of course, you cannot deny my ancestry!
Tarek: You cannot do this punjabi thing where everybody who’s macho is Imran Khan the Pathan or a Baloch.
Eiynah: No, no no, I’m not...
Tarek: Your grandmother…Your…nobody in your family has ever spoken Balochi.
Eiynah: No, they have! Oh my goodness, how can you just, how can you just say “no”? I’m part Sindhi, I’m part Baloch, and I'm part Urdu-speaking.
Tarek: Oh please.
Eiynah: What do you mean “Oh please”?
Tarek: Oh please, please, please spare me this, for goodness sake. This is the, the answer that falls into that category “many of my friends are black”.
Eiynah: No, no. I’m saying I am part this. Not my friends — I.
One can only assume that at the start of this conversational excerpt, Tarek Fatah was discounting the struggle of those in the West who have left islam to identify as non-theists of some variety. A dismissive generalization that takes the original challenge against ex-Muslims way off course.
Why not employ some social intelligence to properly deal with one topic at a time? Tarek Fatah could have easily articulated instead:
Yes, ex-Muslims leaving Islam in the West deserve the right to do so without grief from their families and community. Some have it harder than others. But it is an order of magnitude harder for those ex-Muslims coming out as atheists from deep inside the Muslim world. They have more serious challenges and have demonstrated an even greater level of bravery. I’m not dismissive of their struggle, but I do feel there are more pressing issues we face globally.
- The hypothetical, straightforward statement Tarek Fatah was incapable of articulating
But this isn’t what Tarek Fatah said. An opportunity lost to build some basic conversational ground with one’s interviewer. It’s as if Tarek Fatah’s modus operandi is to find something to be stubbornly contrarian about and to do so at almost every turn. Convergence on, or understanding of any single idea before moving on to the next seemed too unsavory for him.
Perhaps Tarek Fatah’s position is more nuanced than he conveyed. In most instances, whenever Eiynah tried to pin him down to a position — to give him the opportunity to provide clarity for the listeners — Tarek Fatah would respond with inflammatory tangents or insist that Eiynah move on to the next question.
If Eiynah was any more forceful, I don’t imagine Tarek Fatah would have agreed to continue the interview. It was Eiynah’s restraint and ability to maintain a jovial tone despite Tarek Fatah’s whataboutery5 that kept Tarek Fatah in the conversation as long as he was.
From this tweet in January 2016, you can see Tarek Fatah playing the I-need-to-throw-a-tantrum contrarian card. At first, he’s complaining that Eiynah hasn’t covered a specific issue that he, Tarek Fatah, is passionate about.
Later in the conversation, at time index [36:20], Tarek dismisses Eiynah’s coverage of Balochistan. Before Baloch activist Sabeen Mahmud was murdered, she spoke to Eiynah, who wrote an article covering the struggle. Tarek Fatah takes exception to Eiynah’s speaking to one of the more privileged among the oppressed, citing that there are “18,000 Sabeen Mahmuds” whom Eiynah did not speak to.
Seriously? Can any one person cover all of the world’s most pressing causes? And when they do cover a cause, are we now going to blame them for not speaking to a specific subset of the disadvantaged amongst those oppressed? Is it not admirable that at least among those people to whom one has access, affected persons were actually spoken to? That at least the issues and grievances of the region received some coverage?
Are we now going to deride the achievable good as the enemy of the aspirational great?
Most of us are not full time writers, speakers or activists. That we full time professionals in other fields can eek out some time to occasionally publish our thoughts on even one or two issues is admirable, in my humble opinion.
When is the last time someone from Balochistan raised a voice about the persecution of atheists in Egypt or the plight of refugees fleeing Syria? Of course, sensible people would not make such childish comparisons, but Tarek Fatah effectively did when he challenged Eiynah, as an ex-Muslim, for not speaking about the plight of the Baloch — even though she actually did.
These retorts from Tarek Fatah remind me of the schoolyard antics that children use when cornered; when they refuse to admit that they are in the wrong. Such children stubbornly double down, sounding like this:
Yeah, well if you were really smart you would have gotten 100% on all of your test results, and not just 97%. You’re such a dumbass!
I know that I’m not alone in shaking my head in disbelief when Tarek Fatah demonstrated such incredulity.
I couldn’t help but feel that at times, Eiynah was interviewing a child with an attention deficit disorder. To Tarek Fatah’s credit, and that of his and Eiynah’s mutual Twitter following, there was some acknowledgement that the conversation wasn’t Tarek Fatah’s best performance.
I don't blame you @DerekActual. I wanted to shoot myself hearing me yap and yap. Sorry. Blame it on @NiceMangos— Tarek Fatah (@TarekFatah) July 6, 2016
Ali A. Rizvi and the “Multiple Factors”
What is salient at this point in the conversation is that Tarek Fatah, ever the provocateur, assails nuance itself. He derides Ali A. Rizvi for suggesting multiple factors were at play in the Orlando shooting being as deadly a massacre as it was.
At time index [54:50], Tarek Fatah accuses Ali A. Rizvi of not being pro-reason. It’s important to note that Ali is an outspoken atheist of Muslim origin who has made a name for himself challenging Islam and Islamism. It is quite preposterous for Tarek Fatah to claim that Ali somehow used the Orlando massacre to deflect away from citing Islamism as the cause of the shooting in favor of instead, blaming US gun laws exclusively.
Conversation Excerpt 2.
Eiynah: No, but what you’re saying is…sometimes you’re provoking people without them hitting at you. Like with Ali Rizvi, all he said is that he’s pro-reason and Hinduism...
Tarek: No, no. He’s not pro-reason. Come on. That’s not the issue. Any person who used Orlando...
Eiynah: He didn’t use Orlando. He just...
Tarek: He used it to deflect attention away from Islamism.
Eiynah: No! He also highlighted Islamism. He’s an opponent of Islam and Islamism. <Tarek can be heard interjecting “no, no, no”> He criticizes Islam and Islamism all the time.
Tarek: No, not on this occasion.
Eiynah: He did though!
Tarek: No, he talked about gun control.
Eiynah: He talked about multiple factors.
Tarek: Ohhhh, multiple factors. Ah give me a break. Multiple factors! The guy came and kicked your ass and, and you say, “Oh, let’s analyze the multiple factors behind which we were hit...”
Eiynah: You don’t think analysis is important? I mean you’ve eh…were upset at me for drawing diagrams and analyzing situations. You called it like a "paralysis of analysis".
Tarek: Yes it is. You cannot come to a conclusion...
Eiynah: You don’t like analysis?
Tarek: No, I dislike the paralysis of analysis, because you get fond of it.
This transcript doesn’t convey how ridiculous the audio of this exchange actually sounded. For that, I really do encourage you to listen to this portion of the episode.
Tarek Fatah Meet Tarek Fatah
At time index [39:32], Eiynah raises the topic of Bangladeshi atheists. Eiynah relays how she had heard Tarek Fatah speak at a panel hosted by the Center For Enquiry (CFI). During this panel discussion, Tarek Fatah had indicated that Bangladeshi atheists, such as Avijit Roy, were being killed not because of their atheism, but because of their identification as Americans. Tarek Fatah further explained in this excerpt, that Bangladeshi atheists were killed because of their promotion of American attitudes towards rationalism.
In fact, Eiynah plays (in post production) the relevant Center For Enquiry clip in her own podcast at time index [39:59]. After which, you can hear Tarek Fatah responding to Eiynah, denying that he had said that Avijit Roy was killed because he was American. Tarek Fatah denies making such statements, as can be heard at time index [42:17] and again at [43:10].
If you listen to this five minute exchange, having the benefit of the recorded Center For Enquiry clip, you can hear Tarek Fatah entangled in his own conflicting assertions. Tarek Fatah may ridicule some ex-Muslims for their adoration of Sam Harris, but Tarek Fatah could really use an infusion of the calm and measured conversational style that helps Sam Harris communicate nuanced ideas.
Eiynah then explains the interplay between atheism, Islamism and anti-West sentiment:
The distinction Tarek Fatah was trying to bring up in that panel is one worth discussing, of course.
Anti-West atheists are more likely to be welcomed into the fold and even celebrated by some, while other atheists who challenge Islam directly, will not.
But, would openly anti-Islam atheists all of a sudden be welcomed if they were to also say that they dislike the West. Hmmm. I don’t think so.
The key to acceptance and safety in that part of the world so to speak, is to hate on the West and not challenge Islam. Avijit was killed because he was an atheist who challenged Islam, plain and simple. Not because he was seen as a Western influence. You simply cannot remove Islam from that equation.
Eiynah at time index [41:12] of the episode
Interestingly, Tarek Fatah explains at [49:48] how he avoids talking to people who ask him rhetorical questions or challenge his integrity. Understandably, he doesn’t want to engage in conversations where the goal is entrapment. None of us would.
Once somebody targets me, the dialog is over. It’s over! Once your…eh, the object of a question is a rhetorical question meant to instigate, the dialog is over! I don’t care what you have on record or not. I am not a pussy cat who says, “Oh my God if I say this… well how will it appear?" No! I’m straight speaking, I don’t need a certificate from any fool from anywhere to challenge my credentials or my integrity. You challenge my integrity and I will not honor or respect you with proper answers.
Tarek Fatah at time index [49:48] of the episode
The reference to not being a “pussy cat”, not needing a “certificate” for “any fool” or even having a regard for how his words will appear, is telling. So is the damning admission, “I don’t care what you have on record”.
All of these statements of bravado and indifference reveal an underlying insecurity, from which we can draw the following conclusions:
- Tarek Fatah is not concerned enough with his own views to convey them thoughtfully.
- Tarek Fatah will deflect from critiques of his own statements by shifting attention to the “any fool” who wants to call him out on it.
- Should someone call out Tarek Fatah regarding an obvious contradiction in his positions, Tarek Fatah will ignore calls to clarify his position by claiming his integrity was challenged and he will therefore, not provide “proper answers”.
- Ridicule and deflection will be deployed in lieu of facts and honest attempts at clarifying apparent contradictions, changed positions or acknowledging that errors in thought and speech were made.
Contrast this with Sam Harris, who Tarek Fatah enjoys maligning, if even indirectly. Sam Harris will pose provocative thought experiments at times, but then take great pains to clarify and explain when his statements have been misunderstood. Sam Harris can be heard providing such clarifications in many interviews, such as the one he did for the Rubin Report. Sam Harris is often giving nuance to his past statements and current positions in his own podcast.
Further, Sam Harris is mature enough to correct himself — as he did after the kerfuffle with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show. Sam Harris later relayed that he should not have stated that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas”. Rather, he should have said, “Islam is a motherlode of bad ideas”.
Whether you agree with Sam Harris or not, you have to commend him for the painstaking effort he expends in order to have his own views correctly understood. This is the kind of commitment to clarity and nuance for example, that I did not glean from Tarek Fatah’s conversation with Eiynah.
I do feel that we should be open to explaining ourselves in friendly conversation when it is pointed out to us that our previous words appear at odds with our current position. I do not believe such honest inquiry is entrapment. As relayed above, just ten minutes prior, Eiynah had politely pointed out that Tarek Fatah’s current statements on her podcast appeared directly at odds with the ideas implied by Tarek Fatah during the Center for Inquiry panel discussion.
Tarek Fatah is a public figure with a large following. Perhaps that is why he announced his approach to conversations in this very episode: Tarik Fatah will preemptively disengage with anyone who’s aim is to challenge his integrity.
One must have their integrity challenged often if it has become a rehearsed talking point. Is it because Tarek Fatah has many enemies who wish to thwart his agenda, or is it simply because Tarek Fatah is prone to contradicting himself?
Certainly, this article of mine appears like a challenge. However, it is actually an appeal. It is an appeal for people to speak more coherently and with thoughtfulness. The contradictions then, for the most part, naturally take care of themselves.
Tarek is the most incoherent person I have come across. I cant even disagree with him becuz i cant figure out what hes saying— Skeptical Desi (@SkepticalDesi) July 9, 2016
I suspect Tarek Fatah has been ridiculed over his incoherence so frequently that he doesn’t even bother trying to clarify his positions anymore.
If one is to ascertain a thesis for Tarek Fatah’s views as expressed in this podcast, it appears to be that he is deriding Western based activists for being vocal about causes that do not put themselves in harm’s way. Tarek Fatah is dismissing such activists and social media personalities for, as he sees it, not talking to the most disadvantaged of those fighting the good fight in other parts of the world.
Certainly, exploring these claims would make for interesting discourse. Unfortunately, Tarek Fatah’s conversational style gets in the way of having that very discussion. Tarek Fatah’s style can alienate an audience who might otherwise be among his natural allies.
In a nutshell, Tarek Fatah gets in his own way.
Ultimately, if you gain traction by acting the provocateur instead of taking reasoned, consistent, and nuanced positions, you will be called out.
This realization got me thinking: does Tarek Fatah have notoriety because he shouts the loudest using his emotional ‘facts’ in lieu of actual facts?
Seen it before where his emotional 'facts' trump actual facts. If his 'fact' proved wrong he calls it an impasse.— Smiles, FreeRaifBadawi (@BJPrice1) July 8, 2016
This podcast episode demonstrated to me that Tarek Fatah’s ego does get in the way of his comprehending that there can be other noble causes in the world beyond his own short list of favorites.
What are we to conclude from all of this? Simply that Tarek Fatah is now the disheveled professor overdue for retirement who no longer has much to say that can be construed as coherent. I’m sure that he must have provided some value in the past to reach the following that he has built. Perhaps his remaining contribution in public discourse is simply to stir the pot; to be the argumentative contrarian.
It should be noted that for some time, Tarek Fatah has conducted himself in this way. He has repeatedly resorted to whataboutery whenever his own pet causes were not the focus of discussion.
When Tarek Fatah complained to Eiynah about her not covering the problems in Balochistan, Maryam Namazie called him out on it.
If one’s host in conversation is talking about a subject, is it not reasonable for that host and for the audience to expect that you’ll address the topic at hand? If one is going to constantly pivot to their pet causes, what is the point in even having a dialog? Why not just produce a monologue on YouTube about your favorite causes and tweet it out?
In fact, this is precisely what I believe Tarek Fatah is now best suited for; monologues which don’t suffer the burden of considering “multiple factors”. Monologues which dispense with analysis — unless of course — an a priori commitment can be made to ensure that such analysis will be kept shallow and absent of any diagrams. We wouldn’t want anyone to risk paralysis. Far better to jump to emotionally driven conclusions quickly ascertained so as to boost support and alignment with our own pet causes.
- Interestingly, many ex-Muslims who have dropped theism adopt deist and agnostic positions towards some higher intelligence. So even generalizing all ex-Muslims as simply being atheists, is an over simplification.
- The term is never used according to Tarek Fatah, that is. Certainly, ex-Muslims can face different types of challenges and to a different degree than ex-Christians. However, people do identify as ex-Christian! For many examples, see: https://www.reddit.com/r/exchristian.
- i.e. that she no longer be anonymous.
- This statement was made by Darth Vader as he pursued Luke Skywalker’s x-wing fighter in Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope.
- The term whataboutery describes a transparent argumentative technique, designed to derail debate of one issue by raising another.
- I’m not going to delve into the merits or lack thereof of any American political candidates for president. That’s a red herring given the focus of this article being Tarek Fatah’s seeming aversion to conversational clarity.