Zafar Aafaq | Caravan Daily
NEW DELHI — CJ Werleman, in his own words, was a vicious racist and Islamophobe before embarking on a journey to learn about Islam. Today, he’s a prominent face on social media, highlighting and countering the menace of Islamophobia. Over the years, Werleman developed interest in India where Muslims faced some difficulties under the pro-Hindu BJP and the rule of its Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Werleman touches on his activism, his interest in India, his dealings with social media trolls, and the role of social media, in an email interview with Zafar Aafaq for Caravan Daily. Here are the excerpts:
What made you turn your attention to Islam and eventually become an activist against Islamophobia?
It’s somewhat of a long story, so I’ll do my best to make it short. In 2005, while living in Indonesia, I witnessed a twin suicide bombing carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, an Al Qaeda affiliate. It was a gruesome scene made even more tragic when a woman passed away while I and my friends were carrying her away from the scene. It happened literally in our arms.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the attack was all I could think about. I made an attempt to understand what could possibly motivate a set of two young men to detonate themselves among innocent holidaymakers, including women and children. I blamed Islam, and then spent the next few years devouring any text that attacked or smeared the religious belief. I became a viciously racist Islamophobe.
Thankfully, I have essentially cured myself of this bigotry by 2009, after gaining a better understanding of Islamic scriptures from actual Islamic scholars. Also, I attained academic qualifications in counter-terrorism and Middle East studies, and then conducted interviews with dozens of Islamic foreign fighters, including senior members of al Qaeda. All these helped me gain a deeper knowledge of the world’s fastest growing religion, and what makes violent extremists tick.
Ultimately, my journalism is dedicated to warning others against taking the misinformed path I once took. I hope that in shining a light on global injustices against Muslim communities, I’m able to expose the discriminatory logic that underpins the “War on Terror” propaganda and discourse, the very kind that seduced me into fearing Muslims.
How big is the problem of Islamophobia, and why is it important to counter it?
Islamophobia is a huge problem for a number of reasons, particularly because it’s a form of racism that restricts or denies Muslims, or anyone perceived to be Muslim, access to employment, education, socio-economic mobility, freedom of movement, and free speech. At the same time, this is subjecting them to the harshness of counter-terrorism laws and strategies that unfairly discriminate against them based on appearance or identity.
Islamophobia not only results in hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims, but also undermines social cohesion and fuels far-right political parties, Both these also help subvert the base of our secular democracies. When you look at the sudden rise of far-right political parties and organisations, you find anti-Muslim animus to be a central mobilising factor.
India remains a topic of your tweets frequently, what draws your attention to India?
My journalism is devoted to exposing injustices against Muslim communities throughout the world, and there are very few places where discrimination against a Muslim minority is more acute and alarming than in India. One only has to look at the dramatic spike in hate crimes against Muslims in the past five years to understand this, as also the manner in which Hindu nationalist political figures are being rewarded at the ballot box by majoritarian voters for describing Muslims as “pests,” “rats,” “terrorists,” or worse. In fact, anti-Muslim animus is the central pillar for the success of India’s ruling party and explains PM Modi’s continued political survival at a time when the country’s economy is failing.
The condition of religious minorities in Muslims isn’t good either, but you mainly remain focused on Islamophobia in west or countries where Muslims are a minority?
No doubt, there are any number of nations that persecute religious minorities. But, the fact of the matter is that wherever you find Muslims, you find them bombed, occupied, detained, caged, tortured and murdered by armed agents of the state or its proxies. Also, no other religion is the referent object in “War on Terror” discourse and security policies the same way Islam is. It’s thus impossible to argue that the “war on terror” hasn’t metamorphosed into a war on Islam or Muslims, a reality emphasized in the way China has detained upwards of three million Muslims in its network of concentration camps in the name of fighting “terrorism.”
Social media is one of the important tools in the hands of racists, hatemongers. But it can also help in amplifying saner voices. Do you think social media can play a role to bring a change?
I believe social media can play a positive role in bringing people together, growing solidarity movements, and keeping human rights violators in check. For example, Myanmar ceased its mass murder of Rohingya Muslims once videos of its atrocities became shared far and wide across social media platforms. Having said that, Facebook was blamed by UN investigators for helping incite the genocide that began in Myanmar in 2016. So it’s not hard to see how social media has become a double-edged sword with it posing an existential threat to minorities who can be easily vilified with conspiracy theories and hate speech in areas where information or media literacy remains low.
Have you shared any news item that later turned out to be fake? What is your process of confirming whether the information you receive is fake or authentic?
I never shared anything on social media that I knew to be fake or inauthentic. Of the tens of thousands of posts I’ve made on Twitter and Facebook, there have been a couple of occasions in which I have unwittingly re-tweeted or re-posted an article or video that has contained incorrect information. When I discover later that something I’ve shared is incorrect, I make sure to delete the post.
Twitter, in particular, is fast moving — and I cover a lot of constantly evolving issues, from Kashmir to Palestine to China to Syria to pretty much wherever US foreign policy is put into action, so it can be quite hard to resist the temptation to click re-tweet to an article or video that instantly pops up in your timeline that you haven’t had time to independently verify.
Many activists on social media deal with trolls by simply ignoring them. Can you share your experience of dealing with abusive trolls with reference to India? How do you deal with them?
I choose to ignore online trolls that deliberately act in bad faith, and I’m someone who’s targeted by an array of online troll armies, including Israeli Zionists, Assadists, Hindu nationalists, Chinese nationalists, Trump supporters, and others. But, by far, India’s Hindutva trolls are the most vitriolic and vicious.
Recently, I wrote a piece for TRT World on how Hindutva online trolls are obsessed with issuing threats, like threatening to rape my wife and daughter, which I receive daily in my inbox. This is an experience shared by a number of journalists who are critical of Modi, the BJP or India’s repressive rule in Kashmir.
What also makes Hindutva trolls difficult to cope with is their sheer weight of numbers, and the way in which they swarm your replies in what can only be described as a coordinated and sustained attack. We also know from numerous public testimonies that the BJP deploys an army of paid employees and volunteers to attack, smear, and intimidate anyone who speaks out against the party or its Hindu nationalist agenda.
What will be your advice to young social media activists who want to play their part in this fight against Islamophobia?
Be relentless and focused. Challenge negative and inaccurate stereotypes, tropes and conspiracy theories. The more who pushes back against the rising tide of Islamophobia, the more likely negative disinformation, which poses an existential threat to Muslims everywhere, will be defanged.