File photo of CJ Werleman | Facebook
File photo of CJ Werleman | Facebook
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New Delhi: C.J. Werleman wears a lot of hats — activist, journalist, author and academician. But beyond everything else, he is a crusader against Islamophobia.

With a social media following of over two lakh, he uses his popularity to highlight atrocities against Muslims from every corner of the world — Yemen, China, Myanmar, India, France etc. In recent times, India has been a particular target for Werleman — he has tweeted a number of times about the Indian state’s “atrocities” on Kashmiri Muslims.

But it wasn’t always so. In fact, for a large part of the previous decade, Werleman was openly Islamophobic, and in his own words, a “bigot” and “maybe even an unconscious racist”.

And yet, his new persona is also not without its critics. Werleman’s sharpest critics are atheist Muslims, who argue that in his attempt to fight Islamophobia, he ends up overlooking some of the oppressive, misogynist, and bigoted practices within Islam. Among these critics are those who aim to fight both radical practices within Islam and the rampant Islamophobia across the world. They posit that though Werleman would criticise, say, Donald Trump for his Islamophobic statements, he would completely overlook radical Islamic leaders and their bigotry.

He also faces multiple charges of plagiarism, as well as caricaturing ‘New Atheists’, a grouping he himself was once part of.

ThePrint interviewed Werleman to try and understand his perspective, his transformation away from Islamophobia, to his views on the social reforms needed within Islam.

Also read: Criticising Vogue Arabia cover or New Zealanders donning hijabs reveal our liberal hypocrisy

Espousing Islamophobia to fighting it

The 2005 suicide and car bomb attacks in Bali, Indonesia, carried out by Al-Qaeda, were the reason why Werleman turned into a self-radicalised Islamophobe. He said before that incident he had hardly paid any attention to Islam.

In trying to understand the motivations of that suicide bomber, Werleman concluded: “It had to be something in Islam that could lead someone to carry out such an act of self-destroying, unspeakable violence.

“For the next 4 to 5 years, I ranted and raved about what I perceived to be the dangers of Islam, based only on a Google-level understanding of what was contained within the Qur’an.”

During this period, he wrote his first book, God Hates You, Hate Him Back (2009), a takedown of religious dogma, and more specifically of the Bible.

Encouraged by the success of this book, Werleman starting preparing to write another similar book, critiquing Islam. It was during his research for this book that Werleman went through a metamorphosis of sorts.

“Once I began a deep dive into the life of the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic scripture, I soon came to realise just how faulty my preconceived ideas about it were,” he said.

He spent time reading various academic papers on Islam. Travelling through the Middle East and Central Asia acted as a transformative event in his life. By the end of the process, Werleman not only decided to dedicate himself to fight against Islamophobia, but also went on to pursue academic studies in counterterrorism and security.

Is guilt driving his actions?

Asked if the guilt of his bigoted past was driving his activism today, Werleman said: “My past is certainly a major driving force behind my effort to counter Islamophobia and expose injustices against it. I’ve seen anti-Muslim animus up close and personal at dozens of New Atheist conferences I was invited to speak at during my Islam-hating days.”

Werleman thinks the atrocities against Muslims are not sufficiently highlighted by the Western media. “So I feel compelled to lend my platform to those who would ordinarily be unable to share stories about pertaining to their suffering to global audiences,” he said.

Also read: Why Pakistan champions Islamic causes globally but ignores Uighur persecution by BFF China

Unquestioned support for all its practices

There is an argument that the response to Islamophobia can’t be unquestioned support for everything that the practice of Islam entails.

Werleman, when asked whether Islam needs any social reforms, responded: “Every country on this planet needs social or political reforms of some sort, but fixating on problems in the Muslim-majority world is a convenient way for non-Muslim majority countries to ignore the many problems in their own.”

He went on to talk about Islamophobes in the US, who talk about the lack of women’s rights in the Muslim world, while the US still practices gender-based income discrimination.

While his point about ‘social reforms within Islam’ being used to obfuscate Islamophobia may be true, many believe the reverse is also true — there also seems to be an effort to use Islamophobia to obfuscate questions about social reforms within Islam.

Plagiarism allegations

Werleman has been accused of plagiarism on a number of occasions. The Godless Spellchecker Blog, which flags instances of plagiarism, has flagged about 14 instances of Werleman “plagiarising”.

Responding to these criticisms, he told Friendly Atheist: “If after all I’ve written, people want to defame me for really what amounts to one account of sloppiness, well, not much I can do about that.”

Check out My543, our comprehensive report card of all Lok Sabha MPs.

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