The Trouble With Islam

Refugees Flee Iraq After Recent Insugent Attacks

Well, this debate really does have legs, so allow me to address some of the latest arguments. There seems to be a consensus that Islam in the contemporary Middle East is in a bad way. When you have hundreds of thousands killed in sectarian warfare, ISIS on the rampage, Saudi Arabia fomenting the more virulent flames of Salafism, Iran’s theocrats brutally suppressing peaceful protests, and Hamas cynically relying upon the deaths of innocents for strategic purposes, you can surely see the point. No other region is as violent or as inflamed right now – and since the battles are all on explicitly religious terms, it seems crazy not to see unreconstructed forms of Islam as part of the problem. Last night, I specifically mentioned the absence of any civil space for scholarly or historical examination of the sacred texts of the religion. Without such a space, it is impossible for this current Middle Eastern tragedy to resolve itself. And the lack of such a space is a key tenet of the religion itself. It’s a little amazing to me to watch some liberals who get extremely upset at religious people refusing to bake a cake for someone else’s wedding on religious grounds, suddenly seeing nuance when a religion believes that anyone who leaves it should be executed. If you’re against fundamentalism of the mildest variety here, why are you so forgiving of it elsewhere?

It’s also good to see Nick Kristof note the following today:

Of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

For me, that last statistic is a key one. Here you do not have a fringe, but a big majority in one of the most important Arab Muslim states, Egypt, believing in absolutely no religious freedom whatsoever. Democracy doesn’t cure this – it may even make it worse. To argue that this majority belief has nothing to do with Islam is also bizarre. The Koran is as complex as the Old Testament, and there are injunctions to respect religious freedom, but also deep currents in favor of suppressing it, for the sake of people’s souls. These latter currents are not unique to Islam, but they are now clearly dominant in one region, and they are a terrible threat to all of us when combined with modern technologies of destruction. It is legitimate to ask why core human rights, such as the right to follow one’s own conscience, are non-existent in much of the Middle East. It is legitimate to point out that Saudi Arabia forbids the free exercise of any religion except its own. It is legitimate to note the sectarian murderousness of the Sunni-Shi’a battle lines and the brutal assault on religious minorities in the region. These excrescences are all defended by the tenets of that religion and in the terms of that religion. Of course religion has something to do with it.

Does it actually help anyone to keep saying this? Here, I think, there is a pragmatic case for non-Muslims like yours truly to shut the fuck up for a change. Ed Kilgore notes regarding the Real Time exchange:

You don’t have to watch the segment in question to understand, a priori, that five non-Muslims, none of whom are in any way experts on Islam, aren’t going to do much of anything other than damage in dissecting a big, complicated, multifaceted World Religion in a single segment of a single television show.

It’s also true, as Reza Aslan argues, that religious identity is not all about the faith itself but embedded in culture and history:

As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia.

But is the huge Egyptian majority for the death penalty for apostates merely some kind of cultural identity? Of course not. These people believe that Islam is the only way to achieve happiness, the sole guide for a good life and death, and that nothing should stand in the way of this ultimate goal. Paradise matters. Just because that seems utterly odd to many secular American liberals doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Why should we not take the views of the Muslims of the Middle East at face value? Why are we actually condescending to their sincere beliefs?

Yes, we need to make careful distinctions with respect to Islam in different places at different stages of development. Conflating the Islam of America and the Islam of Malaysia and the Islam of Saudi Arabia is, well, dumb, especially as it relates to foreign policy. But to deny the core religious element of the violence in the Middle East, to ignore the fact that Islam, to a much greater degree than other faiths, is still resistant to some core freedoms of modernity, to ignore the fact that fundamentalism of this kind can do extreme damage to other Muslims and infidels … well this strikes me as another form of denial.

But what I find deeply dismaying is the lazy assumption that understanding these religious teachings and being troubled by them is a form of irrational Islamophobia or racism. I usually admire Max Fisher’s work, but the reflexive notion that any criticism of contemporary Islam in the Middle East is ipso facto bigotry is extremely reductive and toxic to open debate. This is facile:

After cutting to a video, Lemon asked, with a straight face, “Does Islam promote violence?” Imagine if Lemon had demanded a prominent American Rabbi answer “Does Judaism promote greed” or asked a member of the Congressional Black Caucus to acknowledge the merits of the KKK’s arguments. Then you can start to understand how Lemon’s question looks to the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans who have to listen to this every day.

I take the point about the crudeness of the question and the way it can sound to Muslim-Americans. But when incredible violence is being committed throughout the Middle East in the name of Islam, and when Islam’s own texts are purloined to defend such violence and empower it, of course the question is not a function of prima facie bigotry.

(Photo: Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq. Thousands of people have fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)