On a hot, humid July night in 2018, I flew into Beirut airport, grateful for the driver meeting me and his air-conditioned car. A young, pious Shiite from the Lebanese south, he wouldn’t shake my hand, but he was friendly, if earnest. As we drove down the airport road, we talked about his life in Lebanon, including his recent move to Beirut from his family’s village and his hopes for the future now he’d moved to the big city. But his next question surprised me.
“Have you heard of a Canadian psychologist called Jordan Peterson?”
I had indeed, mostly from the publicity — or notoriety — of his then-recent self-help manual, “The 12 Rules for Life.” The New York Times had just run a long profile based on extensive time spent with Peterson in his home and at work, titled “Jordan Peterson: Custodian of the Patriarchy.” But it wasn’t his positions on traditional gender roles that were causing me cognitive dissonance; I could see how that slotted right into conservative worldviews in many religions and countries. It was his championing of European culture with echoes of white supremacy that made my new friend’s enthusiasm hard to understand. Peterson hadn’t yet been pictured with someone wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I’m a proud ISLAMAPHOBE!” (sic), but the accusations were in the air.
The following morning I went to Antoine’s, just one of the tens of bookshops in Hamra, the area where I was staying. “It’s a long shot,” I began, “but do you have a book by Jordan Peterson called … ” There was no need for me to finish the sentence, as the bookseller jumped in: “‘12 Rules for Life’? No, we’re always sold out, but we can order it for you,” he said, and turning to his computer continued, “It will take two to three days.” Yet again, I’m wrong-footed. A name that to me was connected to racist and misogynistic movements was always sold out, in Lebanon? “How many do you sell?” I asked. The bookseller checked his computer records. “I’d say on average about 80 a month,” he replied, adding that there were currently two on order. This is one bookshop in a very bookshop-rich city. A few days later in Amman, a city less known for its bookshops, I found a copy in Virgin Megastore. Jordan Peterson was trending in the Middle East.
For me, Peterson represented the soft end of the toxic masculinity in the West that has led to a number of (sometimes deadly) manifestations, playing a role in spreading a culture of anti-feminism and anti-civil rights. But for this young Lebanese Shiite, Peterson gave him an explanation of his situation in life and, crucially, a way out of his frustrations based on “science” (evolutionary psychology, complete with pseudoscientific claims I wrote about in a previous New Lines article), combined with old-fashioned self-help language (stand up straight, tidy your room, take responsibility for your successes and failures).
Fast forward a few years: When I try to interview these same fans, I find them reticent. In the interim period, Jordan Peterson had become a polarizing figure, a key element of the culture wars dividing so many countries. Many declined to speak to me, worried that I would portray them as part of the problem in the world, knowing my views on Peterson — and feminism, civil rights, trans rights and so on — already. I resorted to contacting friends who in the past have sent me videos, promising them anonymity.
“He has helped a lot of people,” an Emirati friend in her 50s said to me. And the evidence for this is everywhere: people lining up to hear him speak, approaching him to get their copies of his book signed, discussing him with adulation in chatrooms, circulating his videos via WhatsApp. (I have received his videos from friends in India, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as the friend in the UAE.) A cursory look at the comments under his videos shows just how grateful people are.
“This incredible man has flicked on a light to help me find meaning in my existance [sic]”; “History will remember this man as an absolute beacon of light in an otherwise dark time”; “The lightbulb moment for me was listening to him on Rogan talking about responsibility, and how useless self pity was. I ran out and bought 12 Rules the same day. It changed my life.” There are literally millions of such comments, expressing gratitude for the empowerment he has granted to individuals around the world.
But not in response to his recent “Message to Muslims.” The actual “message” has some of the usual self-help content, telling his listeners that they “have the enemy located in the wrong place” and that the best place to find Satan is within themselves. His advice? “Your best bet on the spiritual warfare front is to make of yourself and your Muslim practice something so admirable that the light shining from your well-constituted psyches and productive, generous and wise actions is so intense that people convert to your faith from sheer admiration. There’s a goal!” This is all familiar Peterson territory. He then goes on to the “message” itself, which is about peace-building, exhorting Muslims to cross sectarian and religious divides. “Shiites, find a Sunni pen pal. Communicate with someone on the other side. Sunnis, do the same. And then, maybe, reach out, tentatively, to a Christian, or even, heaven forbid, a Jew!” (The last four words immediately were turned into a GIF, spread far and wide.)
At the time of writing, there are some 39,000 comments and over 2 million views, and while not universally negative, the difference with his other videos is striking. “If I had to choose three words to describe what I just saw, I would choose condescending, frustrating, and, more importantly, disappointing,” one previous fan wrote.
Others wrote: “Although the content of the ‘lecture’ is mostly agreeable, it somehow strikes me, as a Muslim, as insulting” and “I look up to Dr Peterson as the best thinker of our century, however, I feel disappointed now.”
And on and on. Muslim fans are offended and appalled by the tone of the lecture, which — perhaps unintentionally — paints all Muslims as antisemitic and sectarian.
There are also political issues with the video. In delivering this “message” to his Muslim fans, Peterson unwittingly stumbled on a controversial topic: the normalization deals between Israel and authoritarian Arab regimes brokered by then-U.S. President Donald Trump. He has high praise for the “extraordinary Abraham Accords, which have laid out the possibility for peace between all the people of the book in an unprecedented manner.” The Abraham Accords are not popular — to say the least — on the streets of many Muslim-majority countries, and in choosing to build his message on this “achievement,” without knowing what it means to the typical Muslim, Peterson snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Inspired by his popularity among Muslims, the “message” he recorded has actually reduced his Muslim following.
This is at the heart of the response from “The Muslim Skeptic,” a YouTube channel run by hardliner Daniel Haqiqatjou, who believes that Islamic values align with those of the far right — a natural fit for Jordan Peterson. Indeed, Peterson’s appeal for “People of the Book” to unite is based on a similar belief, that all the Abrahamic faiths are facing common threats and enemies: “So, how about we all quit squabbling over trinkets and details, and face the real problem?” he asks, the real problem being “vengeful, Luciferian ideas, that currently confront all that is transcendent, traditional and valuable.” That is: “the woke, politically correct, degenerate neo-Marxist ideas.” This should have all been grist to Haqiqatjou’s mill, given he shares Peterson’s view of this common (liberal) enemy, but instead, he reacted furiously, in a video that has had more than 200,000 views.
It starts with: “I want to apologize, because in the past I said that Muslims can benefit from Peterson’s critiques of feminism and transgender ideology. But I take it all back. Don’t take anything from this guy. He’s pure poison.” And the reasons? “Because as soon as Peterson finds out he has some Muslim following, what’s the first thing he does? He puts out a message to Muslims that’s pushing the Abrahamic Accords.”
I watched Peterson’s message myself. The patronizing tone described by many in the comments and responses is hard to miss. He also shows ignorance of Islam and the politics of the region. I started sending the link to people who had recommended Peterson to me in the past. But, yet again, I was surprised by people I know. The Emirati woman wondered who would respond to his call: “Let’s see the conscious and the courageous ones stepping forward.” A British Muslim friend found it “powerful” but wondered just how much impact it would have. Neither took it badly.
For many, Peterson is not only the stern father figure encouraging them to take responsibility and do their best but also a thinker who, previously critical of Islam, has since engaged with a wide variety of Muslim thinkers. “What We Can All Learn from the Quran and Islam” is a 1.5-hour discussion with “neo-traditionalist” convert Hamza Yusuf (released in May 2022 and currently with 1.8 million views). “Islam and the Possibility of Peace,” also 1.5 hours, features Mohammad Hijab, who is in trouble for a range of fundamentalist views (released in December 2021 and with 3.1 million views). “Islam, Christ, and Liberty,” just short of 1.5 hours, features the liberal author Mustafa Akyol (released in October 2021, with more than 600,000 views). Peterson’s YouTube channel shows extensive engagement with Muslim ideas, often stressing the similarities with the other Abrahamic faiths and questioning the values of “modernity.” Questions over his attitudes to “Western civilization” and the need to reinvigorate traditional liberalism are circumvented; the values at the heart of his call are shared, while the implications — Western cultural supremacy — are ignored.
Ignored, too, are Peterson’s personal issues. First experiencing depression as a teenager, Peterson became markedly worse in 2018, ending up on a cocktail of drugs before flying to Russia — against doctors’ advice — to be put into a medically induced coma. After trying other rehab centers, Peterson eventually turned to the diet that his daughter Mikhaila had been championing, consisting of only red meat (in practice, almost exclusively beef), salt and water. He is off antidepressants entirely, and many other problems have also apparently disappeared, from digestive issues to psoriasis, bad breath and snoring — he even claims that the diet rid him of the floaters in his eyes. This solution is not, however, to be found in “12 Rules for Life” or in the sequel, “12 More Rules for Life,” and he has not explained why his many rules and theories for others did not help him at the lowest points of his life — only extreme rehab regimes and diets made his life bearable.
Perhaps the difficulties of the past few years explain why he is turning against the medical establishment, saying in a conversation with Bret Weinstein in March 2021: “I suspect that if you did the statistics properly, that medicine, independent of public health, kills more people than it saves.” This statement suggests he has moved far from his origins, when he argued for rationality and a return to the liberal values of the European Enlightenment. (Modern medicine has, with antibiotics alone, saved many more people than it has killed.)
None of this seemed to matter to his fans. “He has his own addictions, his own demons, but this just proves he is human, like us,” one supporter said to me. “Why do we need to put people we admire on a pedestal, expect them to be superhuman?” His books continue to sell; his many videos rack up huge numbers of views, often over the million mark. He has given to many a sense of agency over their own lives, along with justifications for their “traditional” values (often shading into bigotry, as seen in an off-hand comment by the YouTube “Muslim Skeptic” quoted above that approved Peterson’s “anti feminist and anti trans ideology”).
And as he came to notice, many of his loyal followers were in the Muslim world. Gaining these fans without really trying, he came to embrace Muslim thinkers and activists on his podcast. Buoyed by his clear adulation from Muslims around the world and the success of many of these recordings, he addressed his Muslim fans directly. With his patronizing tone, ignorance of Islam, and disregard for political realities and sensitivities, he has eroded the fanbase he never set out to capture but nevertheless appreciated. Attracted to him for his values, which have much in common with conservative thought, Muslims are now abandoning him, not because they see through his self-help fixes but because he waded into a region he does not understand. Muslims have a message for Peterson, but whether he will listen is doubtful.