Andrew Tate and the Ethics of Sincerity in Digital Engagement

Andrew Tate’s arrest has sparked quite a debate in certain segments of the Western Muslim community (and perhaps small pockets elsewhere). Opinions range from comparing him to Imam Ahmad to claims that the satanic character of Tate deserved far worse. 

There is an obvious question for consideration here: Why do some people come out in support of Tate while others come out against him? Why do some people seemingly materialize out of thin air to say we must have a good opinion of him, while other more progressive-leaning individuals come out to say Tate deserves the worst human punishment possible? This article seeks to outline the reasons people engage in this kind of discourse to begin with, namely the discourse of moral shame or support, and what the Islamic ethics of sincerity has to say on this matter. In regards to any legal verdict, this article is neither concerned with one nor able to offer one. Instead, this article is a consideration of the meta-politics functioning under the need to engage in discourse to begin with and how it relates to Islamic conceptions of sincerity in the public sphere. What are the motivations to engage in certain discourses or debates in the public sphere, and are such intentions and motivations qualify as Islamically sound?

While most people have some genuine ethical interest in adjudicating the facts of the matter in the Tate situation, there is also a socially mandatory character to adhere to. Characters such as Tate become moral cynosures for the performance of moral superiority in a way that we intuitively understand and are disgusted with, albeit our feelings are often communicated through satire. Certain characters in popular media function as symbolic versions of this phenomenon. If you side with Tate against Greta Thunberg you are seen as immature, dumb, and disgusting. Simultaneously, the support for Greta Thunberg seems equally artificial: the replies are filled with blue-check officials and celebrities, popular political streamers and internet personalities abound, giving their praise and support for Greta’s epic takedown. The entire performance is a ritual meant to denote a sense of social understanding. 

The analysis of Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek is helpful here. Drawing on thinkers like Marx, Žižek refers to the syntagm of “socially mandatory character.” It denotes the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors — in an Islamic sense the states of heart — that the individual is meant and designed to have, and is punished for not having. In the Marxist interpretation, the ruling ideology of class-society constructs a socially mandatory character of allegiance to the interests of capital; brutal exploitation coupled with a false consciousness preventing workers from discovering that all these social norms, customs and rituals that define everyday life and behavior are simply there to uphold the capitalist status-quo. As defined later by sociologist Erich Fromm, socially mandatory character is when you perform the way your class identity requires you to perform and when you behave the way you are required to perform for the proper reward. Žižek seconds this in his introduction to Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism,” writing that the dominant form of identity today is increasingly an “individual striving to attain recognition from the social group to which he belongs.” This could also be a social group to which he does not belong to yet but desires to be a part of. The substance is almost irrelevant; what is disgusting is the performance of it, namely the performance of socially mandatory character. Socially mandatory character in its most explicit form is something like a Stalinist ritual of applause for Stalin or other high-ranking members of the Politburo and in its most discreet form something as simple as refraining from using certain words out of the recognition that they are no longer part of the socially accepted lexicon to refer to certain phenomena. 

Much of the engagement in the Tate debate draws from this inauthentic ethics of ingratiation. Social media, especially, creates a schizophrenic character, requiring us to express moral condemnation of every possible evil in the world at every instance. The failure to do so is seen as a moral failure on behalf of that individual. There is a caveat to this, for example, if I tweet out in favor of person X accusing person Y of lying, and if it later publicly comes out that person Y was actually in the right, it would make sense to issue an apology depending on the circumstances and how much my comments affected person Y’s rights. But in general, the drive to constantly comment, issue “takes” and offer moral condemnations at every turn is not based on a genuine ethical concern for every issue, but on the socially mandatory obligation to be on the “right” side of every moral contention. This is a serious distinction, albeit subtle; there is a difference between a legitimate moral dislike of something in my heart and the performance of disgust and disdain that occurs in public. In the latter, my purpose is to ingratiate myself with a social group, to bolster my moral position in relation to others, or to build my brand as a “morally correct” person.

We can see this in some portions of the Western Muslim community, where there exists an “I-told-you-so-politics,” a moral grandstanding regarding correct predictions on the future evils of some person, group, idea, etc. Take for example the many Muslims parroting, “We told you Peterson and Tate were bad. You never listened, and now look. You are gullible and dumb and don’t care about Islam.” This retort reflects this aforementioned concern, that the criticism of Tate and other figures is becoming much more about the ritualistic narcissism it can collectively foster than about any sincere engagement with ethics or religiosity. 

Crucially, I agree with most criticisms of Tate and some criticisms of Peterson. However, the pathological need to perform moral superiority is not negated by the presence of truth in any substance. For example, even if I do actually support women’s rights, if my purpose in making this view public is to garner attention from women or from other social groups that I am interested in or benefit from, then I am not operating under the Islamic ethics of sincerity. It is possible to dislike something for absolutely wrong reasons, which remains morally indefensible, even if there are other reasons which one could legitimately dislike it for. Imagine that I am jealous of Ahmad’s good looks, but couch my negative feelings towards him in my reflection of his “impermissible haircut.” In reality, whether his haircut was permissible or not, I still dislike him based on a kind of pathological insecurity and jealousy. This parallel construction cannot save me from being morally in the wrong, even though the criticism itself is legitimate.

Tate and Peterson function in a very similar fashion for their supporters and detractors. Criticism of them is often downstream from a larger meta-political conversation on gender relations in contemporary society. This occurs in Muslim communities in particular, with many supporters now utilizing the idea of “husn al dhan” (having a good opinion of others, or thinking the best of them and making excuses for them) and detractors bringing down the fiery sword of justice. Tate and Peterson become emblematic of not just red-pill culture but more broadly an infiltration of “right-wing thought” into Islamic discourses and communities, and are opposed for that reason as much as they are opposed for any substantive comments they make. 

As many have already pointed out, an ethics of consistency and sincerity is required. If you were arguing last week that imprisoning Muslims in the West is haram then do not argue the next week that Andrew Tate should be thrown out of a helicopter. If you were arguing about how there has been a complete death of modesty in our culture due to some women recording a podcast, then do not defend Andrew Tate the next week under the premise of “having a good opinion of others.” Everything we do must be with utmost sincerity, not for the performance of a socially mandatory character. 

Suffice to say, the Tate and Peterson example is a subset of a broader phenomenon: the parallel-identity construction of social rituals. Masks and vaccines, for example, were publicly supported from the perspective of “following the science.” For argument’s sake, let us say that this was in fact what science demanded. However, it remains true that masks and vaccines later assumed an entirely new political identity where refusing to mask was an act of resistance and wearing a mask was a symbol of legitimizing authority. Masks, vaccines, gas stoves, and now Tate, have all become proxy wars for meta-political conversations on authority, legitimacy, and gender relations.

This never-ending chain of semiotic and symbolic identity formation stands contrary to the Islamic ethics of sincerity. Perhaps someone only agrees with the meta-political premise based on sincere religious reflection and purpose — that is commendable. My argument here is not that you should or should not criticize Tate, only that we should perform every action with sincerity, following a threshold consideration from scholars and other such legitimate Islamic authorities to determine the proper legal or spiritual verdict in a situation.  

If you are legitimately disgusted with Andrew Tate’s actions, and the scholars have said to criticize him, then speak freely and sincerely. And if you legitimately think we must let the evidence come out first, and the scholars have said this, then speak freely and sincerely. But at every turn, we should examine the state of our hearts and ask, what purpose am I saying this for? Is there any part of me that seeks praise from others for speaking this truth? That wants to ingratiate myself into the hearts of others? Even in writing this article, I am running through my own inner turmoil. That is because this internal struggle is the believer’s constant reflection and internal accounting, or muḥāsabah.  

Another crucial aspect of this conversation is the direction of criticisms, toward another Muslim or even people in general, as a building block of one’s personal brand or superiority. Unfortunately, there is an Andrew Tate in all of us, as he becomes a universal referent for the sole purpose of displaying my own moral value. Every reference to how disgusting he is as a man is simultaneously a reference to my own moral virtue. This possibility of insincerity is an inherent tension in the subjectivity of Islamic ethics to begin with (as in how much of Islamic ethics cannot be determined by the objective consideration of actions and consequences but by the subjective and internal experiences of man), seen in areas such as advising others and enjoining good and forbidding evil. By upholding these responsibilities I am undertaking an oath to rid myself of any inclination to exalt myself by criticizing others. Andrew Tate is almost more necessary for those who vehemently hate him than his supporters; their entire personality becomes their right to moral status and praise by being his opponent. 

For the Muslim, the attachment of hate to a person is hating for the sake of Allah rather than the specific attachment of my own moral status, identity and branding. This is a very thin distinction, as sincerity generally is, and requires some level of reflection that digital medium often does not allow for. The dizzying pace at which I am obliged to issue condemnations for the sake of social gain and approval destroys the process of rumination characteristic of mature thinking. For thinkers like Byung Chul Han, building on earlier critical theory from Heidegger and Paul Virilio, it is specifically this characteristic of speed in the contemporary telepresence that prevents us from genuinely reflecting on issues. 

However, I do agree with many critics of sincerity discourse or “intention-policing,” it cannot be proven one way or another — we cannot open up someone’s heart and view their true intentions and opinions. Although certain actions point to insincerity more than others, most often it is impossible to know whether any particular person, action, or thought is being offered sincerely. My writing is a rumination on the possibility of insincerity, while affirming that the believer is responsible for the internal accounting that allows them to determine the sincerity and insincerity of their own opinions and actions. 

None of this is to say that we should not criticize others, but that certain considerations exist which must be kept at the forefront. We are obligated to enjoin good and forbid evil, but we must do so sincerely, without seeking praise for ourselves or demeaning others. Criticizing others may have good in it, or harm, based on intention and a variety of other factors. There is truth in the idea that the nafs always seeks to use every opportunity for external good as an opportunity for internal evil. When I externally do good deeds, my nafs tries to internally sabotage it by directing my desire for praise to other than Allah.

At its most extreme spiritual level, Islam is essentially unconcerned with the dunya: it is simply a necessary evil we are traveling through before we reach our actual fulfillment in the akhirah. We can also look at it another way — Islam essentially requires one to face the Dunya, overcome it in some sense, and ultimately reject it in favor of the akhirah. What this tangent reveals for the purposes of our discussion is that we have no choice but to build sincerity of heart, we cannot excuse ourselves from the obligation of enjoining good and condemning evil when lacking sincerity of heart. 

Interestingly, we are also Islamically encouraged to view those who are lower than us in worldly provisions as a means to have gratitude. But, we are not encouraged to look at sinners as a way to solely establish ourselves as superior to them. I can look at a poor person and be grateful that my own problems are not as severe. I can look at someone in immense disobedience and be grateful that God has, through His grace, prevented me from this. At no point is my “self” an agent that is part of the equation. Even my moral distinction from others is a grace from God that I am not relevant in forming. At the legal level, we criticize sinful acts to fulfill a socio-legal obligation to help that person, and/or maintain a certain norm of virtue within society. Yes, one can and should criticize sinful acts, but from a perspective of sincerity, either wanting that person to improve or leave the sin, or as a sincere warning to others. I am not sure which of these we are engaging in when we criticize Andrew Tate. 

From the perspective of socially mandatory character, it appears that there is almost some evil part of the human soul, some aspect of the nafs, that prefers evil to occur — solely to be seen as good in relation to it. To relate this to Tate and Peterson, it is undeniable that a large segment of the Muslim community, especially online, wanted Tate and Peterson to commit as much evil as possible, so that their presumptions about them would be affirmed. Once news spread that Tate had supposedly converted to Islam, this group wanted it to be false, they wanted him to apostate, to commit some grand evil. For them, the ongoing investigation of his possible sex-trafficking crimes was the best thing that could have happened — now they can turn back to all of his supporters with a glib and smug “I told you so.”  This chase for moral confirmation is spiritually unhealthy — our political identities’ need to be right overrides our genuine concern for others, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. It is absurd, yet commonplace, for an individual who is against Tate to feel internally happy that he sex-trafficked women because this does more for their specific political identity than the opposite. Yes, it is possible that they are arguing from a more sincere perspective, in hopes of wanting to establish the truth of his crimes more than needing his crimes to be true, and a rational person should distinguish between the two.

Furthermore, we should build our sincerity to be optimistic, in a genuinely expansive and non-discriminatory sense. I am not sure who the female equivalent of Tate would be, but if she were to become Muslim, we should be consistent in our sincerity and have for her the same good opinion or criticism we had of him. We should not base our opinions on our political allegiances, or social positionality in relation to the ability to gain clout, nor should any praise or criticism be for the purposes of somehow exalting oneself. All this is necessary to keep in mind whenever we engage publicly on a topic of this nature.

When we criticize Andrew Tate, or anyone else, we should be sure to check our heart’s intentions. We should ask ourselves: Am I truly doing this action solely out of the pure intention of seeking Allah’s pleasure (or avoiding His displeasure)? Am I truly warning the community against someone’s potential towards evil out of concern for their well-being? Or is it to display my own moral virtue, to tell people “I told you so,” and lord over them with my predictive intelligence and how I am one of the good ones, unlike Andrew Tate? In the face of increasing digitalization and branding of all discourse, where every tweet becomes tied to a floating avatar of who I am, it is difficult to separate the sincere from the insincere. Islam is not simply a moral language through which I articulate piety in front of others, and am rewarded socially. An ethic of sincerity cannot be approached until our personal branding and to an extent, the self, is entirely removed from our actions. The opposite consideration, of course, is the obligation to forbid this kind of evil and enjoin the good; we are required to seek restitution for everyone he has hurt and condemn his behavior. However, if our intention has anything to do with the previously listed considerations, which it often does, it is imperative that we work towards rectifying it.

About the Author: Faizan Malik is a student studying political science in Toronto. His interests include Islam, critical theory, and liberalism. 

Picture from Orkun Azap on Unsplash

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