The Secular Defenders of Islam
With recent events like the Charlie Hebdo bombing, the appearance of IS, and the sudden explosion of ‘global jihad’, Islam as a religion has found itself in the spotlight. Far from the actual warzones, battle lines have quickly been drawn up between the liberal critics of Islamic belief systems and the conservative and liberal defenders of the faith. In this article, I want to investigate this divide a little. To do this, I will focus on two sources; 1) the clash between Sam Harris and Bill Maher on the one side and Ben Affleck, Nicholas Kristof, and Michael Steele on the other,
The Bill Maher Clash
Let me start by outlining what I think the main points are on each side.
Harris and Maher made three main points. First, they argued that liberals have let the side down by not just failing to condemn the faith that has spawned IS, but even defending it against and attacking those who would. Second, they claimed that the Islamic faith contains (and in general those who subscribe to it, hold) a number of repressive and violent beliefs. Third, they asserted that, although the radical jihadis are the minority, the number of Muslims who actually subscribe to unacceptable beliefs associated with Islam (subjugation of women, death penalty for apostasy, etc.) are far from a fringe minority. It is these second and third claims that mainly came under fire on the show.
Nicholas Kristof made essentially two points. First, he made a list of about four people he is aware of, or knows, who are standing up for liberal principles against extremist Muslims. Second, he pointed out that the great divide is not between Islam and everyone else, but between the fundamentalists and moderates… as it is in all religions.
Michael Steele took a slightly different tack, arguing that the strongest voices coming out of Islam are the jihadis and the extremists and it is they who get all of the media coverage effectively making it look like they are more of a majority than they truly are. In support of this he pointed to the “braver souls” making a stand and risking their lives, like the Muslim clerics around the world who have publicly declared their opposition to IS.
Ben Affleck’s two main points were that the comments from people like Harris and Maher are racist and amount to nothing more than stereotyping, and that the individual Muslims who hold these pernicious beliefs (like IS) are the minority.
Let’s knock down the straw man first. Affleck’s argument that Harris and Maher were being racist and casting stereotypes is pure fiction. Islam is not a race; it is a religion. No one can possibly be racist for criticising a religion. Neither can a religion be stereotyped. The argument is not about individual people who happen to be Muslims; it’s about Islam. This is an important point and we will come back to it later.
Affleck’s second point, that individual Muslims who hold pernicious beliefs are the minority, is also suspect. In answer to this, Maher quotes a pew poll result
This flows on into Kristof’s point about the divide being between fundamentalists and moderates, which is not a problem endemic to Islam. Of course, in a way this is true. The problem however, is that it doesn’t tell us anything about these ‘moderates’. Are these people with truly liberal opinions? Probably not. As we have already seen, many of these so-called ‘moderates’ still hold very illiberal views, e.g. 65% of those surveyed in Turkey, a country often held up as an example of a liberal Islamic nation, feel that a woman should mostly or completely obey her husband. (Anybody else feeling a wave of nostalgia for old-school Christianity a la good ol’ St. Paul?)
We can all agree that the fundamentalists in Islam (i.e. those who wake up wanting to kill infidels) are the minority, but talk like this tends to obscure some of the more relevant details. Although 18% of Muslims in Malaysia is a minority, it is hardly an insignificant one and it becomes much more central to the issue when we realise that it is an 18% minority who believe suicide bombing is sometimes or often justified.
Next, we come to Kristoff and Steele’s point about the “braver souls” who are risking their lives and speaking out against these extremist Muslims. I only have two things to say about this. First, rattling off the names of a few Muslims who are arguing for liberal principles can hardly be used to convince us that Islam (or Muslims, moderate or otherwise) is benign. Forget the fundamentalists; it is these individuals who are real minority in Islam. Second, just the fact that they are ‘risking their lives’ should tell us something. Why are they risking their lives? Because other Muslims want to murder them for their views. That’s a problem. And if it’s not an Islamic problem and one that we ought to criticise, then what is it?
Reza Aslan on CNN
Aslan’s defence is that it is illegitimate to make broad, sweeping generalisations about “Muslim countries” because we just can’t meaningfully bundle countries like Iran (a Muslim country) with countries like Malaysia (another Muslim country). He takes issue with Maher criticising women’s rights in the Islamic world through highlighting a repressive country like Saudi Arabia, when women are 100% equal to men in Indonesia.
This is a fair point, I think. Inasmuch as conditions in various Muslim majority countries are different, Aslan is right to say we can’t avail ourselves of gross generalisations like “Muslim countries”. Something important does get lost when we claim “Muslim countries” are repressive and point to Egypt where 88% think death is a suitable punishment for leaving Islam, when in Turkey that number is only 8%.
However, Aslan does over-extend himself by trying to use the less oppressive Muslim countries to deflect criticism from Islam. First, as we have seen, even the Muslim countries that Aslan holds up as safe-havens of liberal thought and tolerance still contain significant minorities (and sometimes majorities) with highly illiberal views:
- 93% and 86% of Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, respectively, mostly or completely agree that a wife should obey her husband
- 86% of Malaysian Muslims think Sharia should be the official law of the land and 36% think it should apply to non-Muslims as well as Muslims
- 50% of Muslims in Bangladesh favour punishments like whipping and cutting off hands for crimes like theft and robbery
- Virtually all Muslim countries come in very poorly when it comes to issues like homosexuality and abortion
Second, and more importantly, what is effectively happening when Aslan appeals to ‘moderate’ Muslim countries is that he is trying to buy for Islam, as a religion, a credibility beyond that of a stone age, barbaric, violent, primitive, and tribal belief system. The central argument of people like Harris and Maher is that Islam, as a religion, is seriously flawed in fundamental ways and these flaws have manifested and are manifesting in oppression, violence, and subjugation.
Even a cursory read of the Qur’an presents Allah in no uncertain terms as a God whose principle tenet is a demand that people believe and follow his rules. Every chapter of the Qur’an is replete with promises that Allah will grant believers an afterlife consisting of “Gardens underneath which rivers flow” while non-believers have an “awful doom” awaiting them as “fuel for the fire”. If one had to sum up the Qur’an in a word, that word would have to be, ‘divisive’.
However, I don’t want to dissect the Qur’an here. Obviously, some Muslims cherry pick the good while others cherry pick the bad (and there are plenty of both to choose from), just like Christians do with the Bible. But the claim that the religion of Islam (through their holy book, the Qur’an) is providing a legitimate foundation (in the eyes of someone who takes the Qur’an as the sacred word of Allah) for oppression, violence, and subjugation is staring us right in the face every time we turn on the TV or read the news. It’s almost comical in a way; while we are arguing amongst ourselves about whether Islam is good or bad, millions of individuals in various Muslim countries around the world, believing in Islam and Allah and strictly following passages in the Qur’an are living without basic freedoms, such as being able to choose (or leave) their own religion, draw certain pictures, or write certain books, and under primitive, barbaric implementations of Sharia law in which thieves have their hands cut off, punishments are carried out by whipping, and throwing battery acid in a woman’s face is seen by some as an appropriate reaction to some imagined wrong.
Of course, Aslan could agree that these are terrible things… (and then scurry back to his bastion defence) in certain countries… but life in other Muslim countries isn’t like this… therefore, the conditions in those former countries can’t be because of Islam. Now, this is an invalid argument, i.e. the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. The correct conclusion to draw from the fact that some Muslim countries have adopted reasonably liberal principles is that Islam doesn’t necessarily lead to oppression and violence.
It is here that the debate reaches an impasse because the two sides are no longer arguing about the same thing.
Remember, the contentious claims under discussion here are; 1) that Islam is full of divisive, repressive beliefs, and 2) that some non-insignificant number of Muslims subscribe to those beliefs. These claims can easily be verified by reading the Qur’an and looking at how many Muslims believe the things it contains. Any non-biased investigation will, I believe, find both of these statements are true.
Looking at Muslim countries which have developed societies based on more egalitarian, open, and democratic values is completely irrelevant to this discussion and is therefore nothing more than a red herring. As I have said, all it shows is that if Muslims are able to transcend their holy text through the modern art form known as ‘cherry picking’ (exactly the same way most Christians do these days) they don’t necessarily have to create a society where a schoolgirl has to fear for her life after allegedly/accidentally throwing a certain book in the trash.
And yet, many have.
And it is precisely the fact that many liberals are refusing to criticise the insane beliefs which underwrite these barbaric practices that is exactly the problem we are talking about here.
The only response that is relevant to the Harris/Maher thesis is the one that claims the Muslims who actually believe the things their religion teaches (as per the Qur’an and codified by various countries around the world) are a minority, although an admittedly loud one. This quite frankly, according to the statistics available on the subject and the living conditions in several (although not all) Muslim countries, seems to be clearly false.
When Harris was explaining their position, he made it clear with his “concentric circles” that while everybody acknowledges that the fanatics are a minority, there is a larger circle around that one, containing people (he called these “Islamists”) who, while not queuing up to get their suicide jackets, nevertheless subscribe to many of the backwards values that have been at the core of Islam since its inception. This second circle is absolutely not a minority and I invite anyone who truly believes it is to draw a cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammed and post in on their facebook site.
There is a related point that appeared in the form of an almost ‘throwaway’ comment made by Ben Affleck right at the end of the first clip. As such it didn’t get discussed further. Maher said that if Filipinos were kidnapping teenagers and sending them into white slavery we ought to be able to criticise this. Affleck replied that we would criticise the people doing the kidnapping, not the Philippines itself.
This comment makes complete sense in light of the response we just discussed. The actual offenders in Islam are a minority (“IS couldn’t fill a double A ballpark in Charleston, West Virginia”) and therefore shouldn’t serve to taint the whole religion. Of course, my comments above about this alleged ‘minority’ are valid here as well but there is an additional point worth making; this discussion is not about a handful of thugs operating outside of accepted moral codes (like Maher’s Philippines example). IS may be a handful of thugs, albeit dangerous and well-organised ones, but rather than breaching established moral codes they are just making explicit a system that is in place, and has been for a long time, in many Muslim countries and many Muslim minds around the world today. IS is a religious organisation, acting within an established religious framework, for which they have a venerated holy text to refer to that condones, supports, and encourages their uprising. Jihad, violence, repression of women and homosexuals, and barbaric punishments; none of these are aspects of Islam (or most religions for that matter) that are unexpected, sudden, or without precedent. Our criticism therefore lies not with the individuals (who are just swept up in a tribal belief system that has been above criticism for too long); it must lie with the religion, the source of the insane beliefs these individuals adhere to. Without honestly and openly criticising the religion itself (where these primitive notions get their validity and respectability), we just can’t solve this problem. But when Harris (admittedly, perhaps a little inflammatorily) calls Islam the “motherlode of bad ideas”, the kneejerk reaction from the infinitely-tolerant and politically correct liberals, who can’t stomach honest criticism of any belief, institution, or tradition, is to cringe and immediately leap on the bandwagon of equality whose slogan seems to be ‘all institutions deserve respect even if the ideas at their core are repressive and violent’.
We have also seen two other responses that, in my opinion, only serve to confuse the current debate. The first is the claim that people like Harris and Maher are racist or stereotyping all Muslims as suicide bombers bent on establishing Sharia law across the globe. This is just plain false. Harris and Maher are speaking out against Islam, as a religion, and pointing out the madness that can follow when misguided people come to believe in it, not that we have to look very hard these days to see that. This has very little to do with individual Muslims and more to do with the body of ideas that make up Islam and therefore by extension, with the Qur’an.
One might argue that violence and division are consequences of human nature, and therefore not something we can blame religion for (we can and do go to war over pretty much anything; land, oil, money, just as easily as we can over religion). This is true, but only gives us more reason to closely inspect and jettison the more ludicrous things some of us might want to fight over, such as the fact that a god wants us to live in societies where women must ask permission to leave the house and cover up their entire body, save for their eyes, when they do so.
The second response is just as much a deflection from the core of the debate as the first one, although a little more subtle, and turns the discussion instead to the ‘liberal’ Muslim countries. As I have already shown, all this gets you is the conclusion that Islam is not necessarily violent or oppressive. What it is employed to do in the arguments we have seen though, is give Islam a veneer of respectability without actually saying anything about the religion itself, which is odd considering that is what the whole debate is supposed to be about.
Aslan is the main spokesperson for this argument and what he is basically doing is pointing to ‘liberally-minded’ Muslims (in Indonesia, for example) and then crying foul by accusing Harris and Maher of making unjustified generalisations by pointing to certain Muslims (in Saudi Arabia, for example). This is a smokescreen because you can find ‘good’ Christians, Hindus, witches, and crystal-gazing new agers, as well as ‘bad’ Christians, Hindus, witches, and crystal-gazing new agers… and none of this says anything at all about Christianity, Hinduism, wicca, or ‘new-agery’. To investigate these things, of course we do need to look at what believers themselves are doing, but we also need to look at the sources of those beliefs, the ‘theory’ behind the practice.
Aslan is right that we can’t make gross generalisations about “Muslim countries” because not all Muslim countries are equivalent, but just the fact that we have entire countries where women are actually forbidden from driving and you can expect to be beaten to death for burning a book, and the justification for these insane actions is religious in nature, clearly indicates that something is amiss in the underlying religion.
If, upon reading the Qur’an, one could accuse these less ‘liberally-minded’ countries of grossly misinterpreting and misusing the tenets of Islam contained therein, then Harris and Maher’s arguments would be rendered completely impotent. But this isn’t the case. If you read the Qur’an honestly, what you will find rather is that it is Aslan’s (relatively) more liberal Muslim countries that have misinterpreted various, and blatantly ignored other, passages of the holy book. Modern readings that place women on an equal footing with men and somehow convert injunctions like “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them” into love and tolerance for all, can only be achieved by twisting certain words and definitions, ignoring the more inflammatory sections, and resisting the clear divisive undertone of the Qur’an.
The Islamic issue is a deeply polarising one, causing individuals from both sides of the fence to dig their heels in before even engaging with the other side. It is a good thing this discussion is finally being had, but we need to make sure we keep on track and not allow ourselves to be side-tracked by knee-jerk accusations of racism or “Islamophobia”