In an article about Jordan Peterson's video addressed to Muslims, an illustration of him spewing red smoke over Muslims.
Illustration by Sarah Shin, George Washington University

Jordan Peterson’s ‘Message to Muslims’ Is Utterly Tone-Deaf

The condescending YouTube video falls short in its attempt to improve the relationship between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

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In an article about Jordan Peterson's video addressed to Muslims, an illustration of him spewing red smoke over Muslims.
Illustration by Sarah Shin, George Washington University

The condescending YouTube video falls short in its attempt to improve the relationship between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Author and public intellectual Jordan B. Peterson has recently been criticized for a YouTube video addressing his Muslim audience. Peterson has been popular among Muslims due to many of his traditional takes on cultural and social issues, and within this past year, his Muslim audience increased after he began interviewing Muslim scholars and writers on his podcast, namely Mustafa Akyol, Mohammed Hijab and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

These podcasts were particularly important to Peterson’s Muslim fanbase after his unsavory comments about Islam and its relationship to Western culture, especially his statement that Prophet Muhammad seemed like “a warlord” compared to Christ. To his credit, he simultaneously admitted his fundamental ignorance regarding Islam and expressed his desire to learn more about it. On July 13, Peterson published a nearly 7-minute video titled “Message to Muslims” on his YouTube channel, mainly instructing Muslims to make peace with each other, Christians and Jews.

In “Message to Muslims,” Peterson tells Muslims that perhaps it is time for them to stop fighting among themselves. He is, of course, referring to the almost 1400-year-long tension between Sunnis and Shias, the two main sects of Islam. After Prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D., there was a struggle among his companions regarding who would succeed him as the religious leader. In the simplest of words, Sunnis believe the position was rightfully awarded to Prophet Muhammad’s companion Abu Bakr, while alternatively, Shias believe the position belonged to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali Ibn Abi Taleb.

This is the main issue that has historically divided the two sects for so long, although there are also issues in the present day that stem from sectarian conflicts on the governmental level in various Muslim countries. These serious issues are definitely not to be taken lightly by Muslims; however, the solutions to these issues are complicated and cannot be fixed by regular people or citizens in Muslim countries.

To fix these sectarian problems, Peterson simplistically suggests that Muslims “reach across the sectarian divide” and become pen pals with someone of a different sect. However, regardless of any historical tension, Sunni and Shia commonfolk have little to no problem getting along on an individual level and often pay attention to what they have in common rather than that what sets them apart. Muslims of different sects are able to exist together peacefully and lovingly and don’t need a non-Muslim to tell them how to do it, especially one that has apparently only been dialoguing with Muslims for less than a year.

Peterson’s oversimplification of the interpersonal problems between Muslims shows that he has failed to truly understand his Muslim audience and thus has no authority to lecture them on how to behave and communicate with one another. The condescension comes across as a parent scolding children who don’t get along and offers no real or helpful solutions to the problem.

In his video, Peterson also places the responsibility on Muslims to bridge the gap between themselves and other “People of the Book.” Peterson’s use of the term “People of the Book” in a lecture about how Muslims should address Jews and Christians is ironic; the collective term for people of all Abrahamic faiths was coined by Islam. He also says that Muslims should stop regarding Christians and Jews as their enemies. However, Muslims do not have a problem with Christians or Jews. Since the term “People of the Book” was originally found in the Quran, it is incumbent on Muslims to love and appreciate Jews and Christians as fellow believers of God and followers of a prophetic tradition.

When it comes to tension between Muslims and Christians, it is fair to say that there is an anti-Muslim attitude among many Christian conservatives in America as a result of anti-Muslim sentiments in Western media. The United States has also invaded and waged unnecessary wars on Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, while simultaneously being considered a Christian country by many. If there is any kind of tension between Christians and Muslims, it is the result of ongoing war and Islamophobia that is associated with Christianity in America.

When telling Muslims to stop regarding Christians and Jews as their enemies, Peterson places a heavy emphasis on Jews, which is most likely a reference to the criticism of Israel by Muslims. However, Muslims who are critical of Israel do not have a problem with Jews, because they know that the actions of a single government are not the responsibility of Jews as a whole.

He suggests that we “quit squabbling over trinkets and details.” However, the Palestine-Israel conflict and the ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government is a contentious situation where shelter and lives are constantly at stake. It is foolish on Peterson’s part to trivialize such a treacherous and contentious situation — Peterson poses himself as a proponent of truth, and to act as if the Palestine-Israel conflict is simply about trinkets and details contradicts the ongoing affirmation by his followers that he is someone who speaks bravely and honestly. To equate Muslims’ criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews also perpetuates any existing tension between Muslims and Jews, which is counterproductive to what Peterson is seemingly trying to achieve on this front.

In “Message to Muslims,” Peterson also touts the Abraham Accords as a necessary step to establishing peace between “People of the Book.” While the Abraham Accords may, on the surface, sound like something positive for the Middle East, it is potentially harmful to any sort of peace for the people living on remaining Palestinian land. The Accords aim to establish relations between Arab countries and Israel, but this is unlikely to bring any peace for Palestinians by itself.

Proof of this is evident in the clash between Palestinians and Israeli police in May 2021 when Palestinians were kicked out of their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood on a religious Islamic holiday. This event occurred after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, which shows that if relations between the Arab world and Israel are normalized, it does not mean that peace will prevail in the Middle East.

The reality is that Palestinians are part of the Middle East and are still capable of being victimized even if friendly relations between Israel and the entire Arab world are normalized. In fact, the Arab world’s normalization of relations with Israel can be dangerous for Palestinians because there will be fewer nations that will hold the Israeli government accountable for its actions.

Additionally, Peterson recently joined the conservative news media outlet “The Daily Wire,” which was co-founded by Ben Shapiro. Shapiro has a history of expressing anti-Islam and anti-Arab sentiments in his writing and has consistently been in favor of the Israeli government building settlements on Palestinian land. While Peterson is not responsible for Shapiro’s views, it is curious and self-defeating that Peterson released “Message to Muslims” immediately after professionally partnering with Shapiro.

Peterson’s supposed intent to use “Message to Muslims” to create peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews falls short due to its oversimplification of complicated historical conflicts and crises. Trite cliches will rarely solve any situation in life, let alone situations where people’s safety and livelihood are regularly at risk. For Peterson to make any meaningful contribution to the dialogue with Muslims, it’s necessary that he consider and accept that he is still ignorant when it comes to Islam and Muslim affairs and to spend more time reading and conversing with knowledgeable and honest Muslims.

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Saba Bazzi

Wayne State University
English

Saba is a student and writer who is fueled by coffee and a desire for truth. She navigates the world with a sense of openness and values the power of conversation and written word.

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