Tweeting with the Enemy: Forging an Unlikely Alliance

July 12, 2010

twitterOne of the things I enjoy most about my work is how often the fruits of my labor still surprise me.

In seeking to build bridges between secular and religious communities, it is sometimes easy to get distracted by the numerous vocal detractors I encounter; particularly because the majority of critiques I get come from members of my own secular community. Because the work I do is so often met with criticism — negative comments on my blog, youtube videos calling me a coward, and even threatening robocalls — I am sustained when my efforts result in the realization of coalitions between communities that, prior to dialogue, seemingly stood in opposition. These unexpected connections, like a robust dialogue event I put together between Secular Humanists and Muslims, have become a trademark of what I do. And yet I continue to find myself surprised by the unlikely people this work draws in.

Last week my opinion piece for the Secular Student Alliance on “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” caught the attention of a conservative Christian who maintains the Twitter handle “SillyLiberals.” This account lists its name as “Anti Liberal” and has the following written out under the Bio field: “Liberalism: a false religion based on false hope, concocted by a Godless people. Btw, how is that whole hopey changey thing workin’ out for ya? Nobama 2012.” It seems unlikely that we could be any more different in our political positioning. It is safe to say that I’m pretty left of center in my thinking; meanwhile, this individual recently tweeted, “My favorite oxyMORONs: ‘Prochoice Christian’, ‘Gay Pride’, ‘Prochoice Post-op Tranny’ & let’s not forget ‘Liberal Pride.’ Silly liberals.”

And yet, to my surprise, I received a tweet from SillyLiberals shortly after my piece went up saying: “Good article! You may be the most sensible secularist I know of. Aside from that whole ‘Godless’ thing, you’re alright.” After clarifying that the latter part of the tweet was semi-sarcastic, SillyLiberals added: “I really did appreciate your sensibility. That’s what’s missing in the leadership of the ‘seculars’.” I tweeted back a note of gratitude for the compliment, stating that I think the secular community has a long way to go in how it engages with difference. SillyLiberals responded: “I agree with that 100% & I appreciate your diplomatic approach. It may only prove to be futile, but don’t give up!”

I believe that SillyLiberals is wrong about the futility of what I do, and I think our exchange proves it. This work is anything but futile; it is often dizzyingly fruitful. I cannot imagine another context in which such starkly diametrical individuals would’ve established a common ground. I do think, however, that SillyLiberals’ concerns are legitimate: in its frequently antagonistic posturing toward the religious, the secular community hasn’t exactly reassured the larger American populace of its best intentions. The alienating aim of many members of the secular community creates a self-fulfilling prophecy (ironic here, I know). I constantly hear secular folks bemoaning the reality that we are a disliked minority; yet moments later, we turn around and mock those who differ from us theologically. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.

We are still a young movement that has a lot of growing up to do. With age comes humility and, hopefully, a desire to be open to the experiences of others so that we may learn from those who are radically different from us. Diplomacy is the only way to solve the systemic problems of our time, including anti-Atheist sentiments, and we cannot “fight the good fight” alone. As I said in the aforementioned SSA piece, “we have only ourselves to blame when [those we mock] decline to advocate for us in the future.” And we have only ourselves to blame for missing out on the opportunity to forge the unlikely alliances that will facilitate the social progress we claim to seek.

I am thrilled and honored that my work is building bridges across cavernous ideological differences. I believe it is an amazing testament to the power of dialogue and the goodness of being respectfully open to the experiences of others that a queer Secular Humanist can win over a staunch conservative by defending Muslims. Now this individual, despite our profound disagreement on pretty much everything, has opened his or her mind to the legitimacy of secular morality and the possibility of respectful interfaith and secular engagement. Such incredible moments are why I do this work.

We’re living in a globalized future in which we must diplomatically engage with people who maintain distinctly different identity markers. If a hardline, anti-gay conservative gets it, why do so many of my progressive, secular peers miss the mark? It’s time to refocus; to turn our arrows away from barbed religious critiques and aim for dialogue. This is how the secular community will change hearts and minds — even when limited to 140 character tweets.

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19 Responses to “Tweeting with the Enemy: Forging an Unlikely Alliance”

  1. Anti said

    Great blog Christopher, and thank you for including our dialogue as a part of it! I would like to point a few things out just to clarify my standing if that’s okay…

    First off, I wasn’t referring to your actual work being futile and wasn’t taking a stab at you personally. Your comments about your own constituents criticizing you back up the point that I was trying to make. Too many people (secular & Christian alike) are just way too stubborn and self-serving to co-exist. I would love it if we could all co-exist peacefully, but I have little confidence in that sort of wishful thinking anymore. Which leads me to my next thought..

    Secondly, I am in no way ‘anti-gay’ (btw, I didn’t know you were gay). I would love for all gay people to enjoy the same rights as straight people. However, what I am against is the redefining of words such as ‘marriage’ or ‘fetus’, and those who proudly boast about their sexual immorality or ANY other form of immorality. It is a direct attack on me, my beliefs and my fellow Christians to try to ‘hijack’ a word like marriage (which in our eyes is holy) for a self-serving cause (speaking of hijacking, ‘The good fight’ is also biblical). God gave us marriage, and when he did, he also defined what it means. End of story. When gays get ‘married’, call it a civil union or call it anti-marriage for all I care. Just don’t expect for Christians to honor something that doesn’t honor God. This sounds very much familiar to the issue with Muslims which we met over…

    Third and final, I’m still not completely sure what I think about the Muslim world. They talk a lot about peace, but you don’t hear, see or read about anything peaceful coming from Muslims. I mean seriously, blowing yourself up to kill others doesn’t make you a martyr or even courageous, it makes you a dead coward. But they don’t see it that way because they are subjected to censorship, fear-mongering, etc. Personally, I don’t care what Muhammed looks like. I do care about the dumbs**t SSA painting a TARGET on American soil by drawing his face on the sidewalks of Colleges though. You’d think people had enough of that after 9/11, but apparently liberal thought blocks out the fact that conservatives and liberals alike wanted G-dub to go over there and kick someone’s @$$.

    Sorry for being long-winded! Just had to point some things out that needed to be pointed out, ha. Thank you again..

    Sincerely,
    Anti

    • Anti,

      Thanks! As for the criticism piece, that was poor phrasing on my part. I definitely didn’t think you were taking a stab at me. Sorry for the confusion.

      Regarding the marriage conversation — I believe the government should get out of the marriage business altogether and leave it where it belongs, in the realm of religious ceremony. The government should provide civil unions and let churches decide who they want to marry and who they don’t. And I apologize if it was inappropriate to label you “anti-gay,” though to be totally honest I’m not convinced I should take it back as you seem to be claiming that it is an “immorality.” Here we’re in profound disagreement, though I respect your right to feel that way — especially since you have expressed that you believe I should enjoy the same rights that heterosexuals have. Ultimately, that’s what matters most in that respect.

      Sorry if it seems I “hijacked” from your tradition at all… as a former Evangelical Christian and a citizen of a culture heavily informed by Judeo-Christian traditions, I’ve been influenced by Christian thought. As for Islam — we don’t hear about peace because violence sells. Someone murders in the name of Islam, it makes headlines. Meanwhile, every Muslim I know is busy living their faith by volunteering in their communities and practicing goodwill toward others, but you don’t see that at the top of Google News. Christians kill in the name of their God, as do Jews, etc, and secularists kill for themselves. We can’t hold all of Islam accountable for its extremists, you know?

      Anyway, I’m sure I could go on but I’ll stop there (I’m at work). Thanks for taking the time to respond — it was informative and appreciated! Glad we could extend our dialogue.
      Chris

      • Hitch said

        By the way, here is your new friend’s latest tweet:

        RT @iiotd: Video: David Horowitz smokes out – A True Supporter Of Genocide: The Face Of Radical Islam http://bit.ly/cM1ObY #tcot #teapar …

        Are you sure you have identified correctly who you agree with and whose support you seek?

        Or is this really another case to highlight how “bad” seculars really are and this seemed like a good example?

        However the SSA and other secular student groups who did the chalk drawing engages very amicably and invitingly with the respective MSA trying to find common ground, discussion and joint events.

        Yet which do you pick as the good case, and which as bad? I think it may be worthwhile to consider what is interfaith and what is demagoguery, what is trying to depict an enemy, and which tries to live differences while embrace common humanity.

  2. Hitch said

    I think I have been a constructive critic here throughout. I have never mocked anybody in fact I don’t recall mocking comments here since I took an interest in the blog.

    Yet why is one believer amplified as the good guy and “seculars” depicted as knee-jerk reactionaries?

    In terms of DMD I have made many Muslim friends myself, not for operating in a mode of blanket defense, but for offering a differentiated explanation of the situation and why I drew Mohammad and will continue to do so. People can like each other through mutual criticism, we can find mutual humanity through our differences. And of course not the only sensible secular position is that which defends religious sensitivities, but also those who speak about them with consideration and fair-mindedness.

    “I am thrilled and honored that my work is building bridges across cavernous ideological differences.”

    Again I have to express that I feel you do that by demonizing another group. One can build bridges in all directions and one can do so without making a case of an abstract group and how supposedly “bad” they are. Stereotyping swings in all directions. Certainly you would not accept if I went to youtube commentary having hostile reactions of believers of a faith in the comments and make that the poster example of what believers are like.

    And yes it is easy to find unpleasant comments on youtube by virtually any group. And your style of arguing about seculars certainly does not exactly invite them in for discussion and make them feel welcome. No, they are a persistent target for blame. Are you surprised that you do not get good responses? I think you should get friendly but honest responses. That what I try to give you here. As I said earlier, I hope that one day this blog, that claims to be secular actually has something good to say about seculars. Even those that happen to disagree with you.

    Otherwise you basically feed a negative stereotype and animosity. Isn’t countering that exactly what interfaith is supposed to be about to begin with, or are diverging secular perspectives not just as much permitted as diverging religious views in the interfaith family?

  3. I did not and cannot endorse what SillyLiberals always says, so please don’t imply I do. However, the point I made stands in that SillyLiberals recognized the importance of dialogue in that moment. And I do celebrate the SSA and other secular organizations — go back and look at my extremely positive reports on their leadership summit, or that I’ve written for them and am speaking at their national conference. But, again, I am reporting on the dominant secular narrative on religion, so even though I can and do report on positive engagements of religion from the secular community, they are fewer in number and thus less represented on this blog.

  4. Hitch said

    Well I’m looking forward to you discussing how the respective chalking groups reached out to Muslim student groups and what we can learn with respect to interfaith from those efforts.

    So far yourself, Greg Epstein, and Eboo Patel have all neglected to actually faithfully represent the student’s effort around the chalking event and have gone out of your way to make the case how bad it was. I do not have an issue with people having opinions. I have an issue if people cannot present the facts as they were to side with only one position (given the omissions, quite unfairly).

    I do not think you endorse SillyLiberal. However I does look bad. So chalk drawing that happened under attempts of mutual dialogue are bad, and a person who happens to praise you while actually being much more negative about stereotyping the MSA is fine.

    I do not want to pin you on the issue, but I’m sure you understand why I do not appreciate how this looks.

    • I can’t dedicate any more time to this dialogue unfortunately — at work — but I will say that I don’t think reaching out to the MSA, learning that they’re offended, and then doing EDMD anyway is respectful. So I have discussed it, and why I think it’s inherently problematic.

      I get why you think it looks bad, but the whole point is that two people who have profoundly different ideologies can still agree on the merit of respectful dialogue. Now, whether SillyLiberals actually practices that isn’t something I can be responsible for (unfortunately)…

      • Hitch said

        Chris, no worries really. I think you mean well and happened to find a bad example. Clearly just from the post here (“dumbs**t”) and the handle “sillyliberals” it’s quite clear that he is actually not endorsing respectful dialogue.

        As for the SSA and other student groups, I strongly urge you to revisit their web pages and reconsider if they indeed sought respectful dialogue and also consider if others engages in respectful dialogue.

        And respectful dialogue does not mean giving up ones own identity. What you call respectful essentially means not expressing ones disbelief when it in any way displeases a believer. And as just the existence of disbelief is offensive to some believers you really do not give much deferrance to the secular position. But you are entitled. I hope that you at least consider their efforts and their actual attitudes before rendering judgment. That is all.

        Dialogue is good, so keep it up. I want real dialogue, one that does not require mutual silence, but rather mutual empathy and perspective taking. One that actually tolerates and explains difference.

        I know we disagree but to work with and through disagreement is what dialogue ultimately is about, agreement is easy.

  5. Anti said

    @ Chris: man, you’ve got your hands full!!!

    @ Hitch: Do me a favor; go ask your Muslim friends if they will condemn Hamas and see what kind of answer you get. You boast about being respectful and reaching out to people, yet you demonize Christianity and glad-hand Muslims. I haven’t read the Koran (besides a few verses) and I don’t know if you have, but no matter how friendly your Muslim friends are, their precious Koran tells them to smile at you but to hate you in their hearts. Now, I don’t condemn them because of this, but I most certainly approach them with caution. You can be sure that, given the chance to dominate the world, they will kill you and every living Christian in it. The secular is no different than the Christian in the eyes of Islam. Also, reaching out to them as a friend and then advocating EDMD is a double standard. It is disrespectful because it is forbidden by their laws. If you’d like to stencil Muhammad on the roof your house, by all means, have at it. But don’t risk the lives of innocent Americans because of your ignorant beliefs.

    And about my Silly Liberals page. I started it because I am fed up with people like you who want to have their cake and eat it too. For me, it is both a place to vent about the decadence that plagues our society, as well as a place to call out and expose the agenda-like, so-called ‘truth’ of organizations, blogs AND the personal profiles of those with a liberal agenda. I am not into accommodation, or the rationalizing of the U.S. Constitution or the Bible to fit everyone’s new personal beliefs and/or lifestyles. If you are, then find a country without either, make up your own and spend the next few thousand years trying to promote, protect and prove it. I can promise you this: it will only end in vain.

    And I’d like to think that my page is self-evident that I don’t care to engage in ANY dialogue with the ‘liberally insane’. Frankly, it’s a waste of time and it’s mentally exhausting trying to understand why they believe in the nonsense they boast of. Kind of like you pretending to be a friend to Muslims and chastising Chris for calling you out for disrespecting them via EDMD. It’s a classic case of the “Naked Emperor.”

    Also, I’d like to think of my Twitter profile as a satirical approach of exposing the nonsense that liberals believe to be true. In case you missed it, here’s the definition of SATIRE (noun): The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. For example, judging by your vast display of big words in previous replies, I’m sure you consider yourself to be intellectually well-spoken. However, the following post by you proves otherwise: “I do not think you endorse SillyLiberal. However I does look bad.” 7/13/10 8:24 am

    Now, breathe deeply and exhale slowly. I’m sure your blood pressure is about to burst an artery, but that my friend was satire. I expect to see a few more long, drawn out “Waaaaaaahhh, waaaaaahhhh, waaaaahhhh” responses from you, but I do hope you see the fallacy of your own use of words and think twice before you blather away.

    • Anti said

      Oddly enough, as soon as I posted that last comment I went to my Twitter home page and this was the last tweet in my timeline from Fox News: Marked for death? ‘Everybody Draw Muhammad Day’ creator rattled by terrorist threats http://fxn.ws/9Qg2qQ

      Now, how’s that for being respectful to Muslims?!

    • I agree with this:

      “Also, reaching out to them as a friend and then advocating EDMD is a double standard…. Kind of like you pretending to be a friend to Muslims and chastising Chris for calling you out for disrespecting them via EDMD.”

      I disagree with this:

      “I haven’t read the Koran (besides a few verses) and I don’t know if you have, but no matter how friendly your Muslim friends are, their precious Koran tells them to smile at you but to hate you in their hearts. Now, I don’t condemn them because of this, but I most certainly approach them with caution. You can be sure that, given the chance to dominate the world, they will kill you and every living Christian in it. The secular is no different than the Christian in the eyes of Islam.”

      I have read a lot of the Koran and, more importantly, I know living breathing Muslims. This is not an accurate characterization of Islam.

      I’m not going to go into responding to all of this (again, I’m at work), but we fundamentally disagree about… well, most everything. Yet we still engage, and that’s what matters here. However, I will say that this runs contrary to my work: “…a place to call out and expose the agenda-like, so-called ‘truth’ of organizations, blogs AND the personal profiles of those with a liberal agenda. I am not into accommodation, or the rationalizing of the U.S. Constitution or the Bible to fit everyone’s new personal beliefs and/or lifestyles.” But I digress, I guess.

      The main point of this piece was that, while you and I disagree in our political approach, we agree that it is a double-standard for secular folks to claim to want dialogue and then engage in disrespectful antagonism. That is what this post is about, and I stand by that point. Anything else is a distraction.

  6. Anti said

    Agreed! Hitch is distracting, and yes, I do need to and fully intend to read the Koran in the near future. HOWEVER, here are some friendly, peaceful Koran verses:

    ANNOUNCE PAINFUL PUNISHMENT TO THOSE WHO DISBELIEVE (9:3)

    O Prophet! urge the believers to war; if there are twenty patient ones of you they shall overcome two hundred… (8:65)

    Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve (8:55)

    And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah (8:39)

    O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil). (9:123)

    A fire has been prepared for the disbelievers, whose fuel is men and stones. 2:24

    There are plenty more on-line, but I think these back up my previous statements. I’M JUST SAYIN’…

  7. Hitch said

    Oddly enough I agree with Chris on just about everything, from gay marriage (make it civil unions for everybody) to the importance of welcoming dialogue. I also agree with Chris on his experience with living and breathing Muslims and have my troubles with quoting the Qur’an without the context of the believer. After all we can find slaughtering and stoning in the bible too.

    As it stands my disagreement with Chris is a minor aspect of DMD. My sympathies go out to Molly Norris, who certainly never deserved this to happen to her.

    Chris, if I were you I’d delete this blog post and all comments and restart. There is no shame in that. The point that you want to make can surely be made again without giving a platform to Islamophobia and intolerance, and instead encourage an actually constructive discourse culture.

    • Anti said

      I’m having a hard time discerning whether or not you’re talking to me or at me Hitch, but I find it amusing since you’re so great at reaching out to people with differing beliefs than your own. Being as hypocritical as you are, I’d expect nothing less from you. And to set the record straight, being afraid of Islam is the last thing I would ever be. Now, afraid of the ideology of idiots who enable Islamic extremists, absolutely. I’m sure your living and breathing Muslim friends extend their sympathies to Molly Norris too; maybe you can ask them that when you ask them if they condemn Hamas. Not likely.

      Also, I’m not the least bit surprised that you don’t think censorship is shameful. You sir, are a fool. If you want constructive discourse that is culturally diverse, you’re going to have to look both LEFT and RIGHT of your own narrow-mindedness to achieve that goal. Your intolerance is the worst kind, but unless you stop talking so much, you will never see that. Good luck.

    • Hitch said

      It certainly is one crazy world. People who seek dialogue and do things that are meant to be very benign like drawing smiling stick figure for a very clearl reason are explicitly made into the “other”, whereas folks who use harsh rhetoric, demonize the other and are careless about how they depict groups who are stigmatized are embraced and shown as role model how interfaith dialogue should work.

      But yes, I guess it does work – albeit in a rather unbecoming way. We can indeed radicalize small differences and call people other because of it, while ignore big problems and harsh stereotypical thinking and have a friendly dialogue on top of that backdrop.

      I happen to think that this is not what interfaith actually is but alas. That’s my view. Yes, I am baffled.

      Chris, clearly you still think this was a good idea. Well, I’d suggest you talk to some other folks beside myself and see how they feel about all this. Specifically check with Eboo. I cannot believe that he would think this is right. I pretty much said my piece on it. I’m very uncomfortable how this has developed and I cannot approve of what is going on.

      • Hitch,

        Perhaps I should make this clearer (though I thought I had already): I am not saying that SillyLiberals is an exemplar of interfaith dialogue. Not at all. In fact, I’d say that SillyLiberals is working against what I’m doing in many ways. However, the original intent of this post — that we can identify commonalities across lines of stark ideological difference and utilize those to open a space for dialogue that will transform hearts and minds — remains unchanged.

        Now — please stop trying to make me guilty by association for what SillyLiberals does and stands for. I disagree with it, and I’m not sure I could make that any clearer. I only wanted to highlight a small moment of finding a common ground, of opening up a radically different other to the possibility of dialogue and secular morality. That is all. Any other conclusions your draw are unmerited.

        I’m sorry that you have become uncomfortable with this. My suggestion: let’s all move on.

        Best,
        Chris

      • Hitch said

        Chris, I’m not drawing any such conclusions at all. I’m just saying that you have invited in something worse than what you described as troubling.

        We can talk across radically different world views. I think that is important. That is exactly why I defend how the SSA and other student groups handled DMD. They tried hard to do so while not giving up their own identity.

        But as said, I know you mean well, and I’ll be happy to move on having made clear that I do not think that this particular blog entry helped at all, despite your good intentions.

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