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On October 9, the first day of the Jewish holy festival of Sukkot, Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (the third holiest site of Islam), were cleared out by Israeli police. In their place, a group of Jewish worshippers entered and began to pray, in violation of a decades-long agreement that the site was to be reserved for Muslim worship. Two days later, videos started circulating on social media showing this happening again but with a twist: the Israelis were accompanied by Canadian psychologist, self-help guru and divisive culture warrior Jordan Peterson – in a further blow to his supporters in the Middle East, coming as it does on the heels of a disastrous direct message to his Muslim fans.
Only there is in fact no contradiction between Peterson’s history and this controversial appearance at the long-contested space.
I first noticed the popularity of Jordan Peterson in the region on a trip to Beirut in 2018, soon after the publication of his book “The 12 Rules for Life.” Much of this is time-tested self-help advice: stand up straight, tidy your room, take responsibility for yourself. But there is more to the book, as indicated by the subtitle “An Antidote to Chaos.” If you read further, you are told the theory that “chaos” is feminine, “order” masculine. The implication is unavoidable – feminine strains in society are to be resisted, and this book – the antidote – can help.
The lessons go down well in any patriarchal, authoritarian culture, and a few months ago Peterson himself noticed his appeal in conservative parts of the Muslim world. He released a video beginning: “I have been informed by many sources, and also observed online, not least with my discussions with a variety of Muslim thinkers, supporters and critics, that I have developed an audience with the Muslim world,” continuing by saying he “could not be more pleased and honoured that this is the case.”
If this sentiment was real, then the reaction to this “Message to Muslims” was no doubt disappointing to Peterson, as I wrote about in a previous New Lines article. His bungling advice to pursue peace, in particular as laid out in the Abraham Accords, was expressed without any understanding of the perception of the public opinion of these normalization deals between Israel and various Arab countries, which are not as popular as he seemed to assume.
Comments posted underneath the video were critical and disappointed. Some speculated on the reason for his championing of the Abraham Accords, alighting on the timing of the message, not long after his move to the Daily Wire, founded by the right wing political commentator Ben Shapiro. These speculations were seemingly vindicated by this recent trip to Israel – accompanying Ben Shapiro.
Both have given sell-out talks in their visit, talking emotionally about Israel’s role in the world, often in hyperbolic language. Peterson spoke, apparently choked up, of this “little, tiny people” who bear “tremendous moral responsibility,” for, no less, “the fate of the world depends on the decision of the people of Israel.” It’s unclear from reports exactly why this might be the case, but making peace also came up – he exhorted them to start in their homes, then communities and “then you can make some headway in bringing peace to the world.”
For Peterson, much of the state of the world is down to individual responsibility. He told his audience in Israel: “Just as the fate of the world depends on the decision of every individual, so you make yourself a shining light on the hill.” In his message to Muslims, he advised them to “make of yourself and your Muslim practice something so admirable…that people convert to your faith from sheer admiration.” So why would he walk past those expelled from worshiping, instead implacably supporting the other side in the tensions on this city on a hill?
Governments all over the world have been courting the more extremist elements in their society, bringing them into the mainstream, legitimizing their demands and grievances, and Israel is no exception. Peterson’s popularity with far-right audiences, and his appearance with pundits such as Tucker Carlson, shows that he understands the power of the extremes, but more, his writings and broadcasts show how aligned he is with their thinking, of the danger, for example, of social justice movements from feminism to Black Lives Matter. Peterson is emotional about Israel partly because he feels some elements of society are upholding traditions that Western liberal democracies are abandoning, of home and homemakers; hearth, family and religion.
It would therefore not be surprising should Peterson appear in other signatories to the Abraham Accords, such as the UAE, another security state with patriarchal, conservative values. Elements of society in both Israel and the UAE align politically with Peterson’s core beliefs; in his terms, functioning as antidotes to the feminine chaos in the world. And this affinity works in reverse: popular figures like Peterson are useful to the regimes who are already courting the extreme elements in their societies.
With his recent actions, he may have alienated some of his Muslim base, but he has no doubt endeared himself to their rulers. By visiting Israel and speaking so positively, not to mention emotionally, about the society being created, Peterson is lending legitimacy to these peace processes so unpopular on the streets of the Middle East. Condemned by some, he is surely all the more popular for it with the regimes across the region.
Why Peterson himself would be used in such a way is interesting to contemplate. Is he courting the rulers, seeing advantages to himself in such patronage, perhaps in reputation or book sales, or is he simply stumbling into regions he neither knows nor understands in a spirit of blind adventure? Perhaps he sees the antidotes to the chaos he deplores in the world in the structure of a security state, and going with Jewish worshippers to Al Aqsa mosque is his way of showing his support and demonstrating his beliefs and values. This should have come as no surprise to any close observer of Jordan Peterson.