Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo has already inspired a backlash against France’s Muslim community, with several incidents targeting mosques, businesses, and even individuals:
Three grenades hit a mosque in Le Mans, in the early hours of Thursday while in Aude, southern France, two gunshots were fired at an empty prayer room. A Muslim family in their car in Vaucluse came briefly under fire but escaped unharmed, and a mosque in Poitiers was daubed with graffitti saying “Death to Arabs”. In Villefranche-sur-Saône, an explosion blew out the windows of a kebab shop next door to the town mosque. …
Nourredine, a taxi driver, said the cold-blooded attack on Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo had left him very saddened and angry. It had reminded him of his home country, Algeria, in the 60s and 70s, he said, where “journalists were often the first to be targeted” by extremists. “But you know, we will become victims of this atrocity,” he said. “There is real stigmatisation in France. I love this country, really I do, but this stigmatisation, this amalgamation, this tarring all Muslims with the same brush – all it does is feed the extremists. It helps the Front National, the people who hate and fear Islam.”
H.A. Hellyer is dismayed that French Muslims are being called upon to condemn an act that, in the long run, stands to hurt them as much as anyone else:
While the attackers may claim to have killed in the name of the Prophet’s honor, they killed someone with the Prophet’s name in the process: a French policeman called Ahmed Merabet.
As a Frenchman, he was targeted by extremists; as a Muslim, his community is targeted by extremists worldwide; and as a French Muslim, his local community stands at risk of an anti-Muslim backlash. Muslim terrorists kill far more Muslims than non-Muslims, and far more Muslims than non-Muslims are fighting these extremists. The day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, several dozen Muslims were killed by radical extremists in Yemen. Many others die every day in Iraq and Syria. …
The disgraceful attacks on Charlie Hebdo may have further consequences, such as entrenching the false notion that Muslims and non-Muslims simply cannot coexist, or that civil liberties need to be rethought, with yet more powers given to the state, diminishing the commitment to human rights. That is merely giving the attackers a further victory, rather than honoring the loss of life that took place.
Merabet is being held up as a hero on Twitter with the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed
“The story of Merabet’s confrontation with the Paris terrorists,” Jim Edwards writes, ” is turning out to be one of the most poignant in the whole affair”:
And it’s proof, if further proof were needed, that Muslims are much more frequently the victims of Islamic terrorism than Westerners are. According to the Global Terrorism Index, 80% of all the deaths from terrorism in 2013 were in Muslim-majority countries Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. Since 2000, only 5% of all deaths from terrorism have been in developed countries — although they have been among the deadliest. …
Merabet is the officer seen in the heartbreaking video of the shooters’ attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, as seen through a mobile phone from across the street. The worst part of the video — aside from the moment in which the gunmen finish him off with a shot to the head — is where Merabet, lying injured on the pavement, tries to raise his arms in surrender. He is clearly no threat to the gunmen. And they kill him anyway.
This is why, in John Cassidy’s opinion, the “clash of civilizations” narrative that some are trying to superimpose on this tragedy misses the point entirely:
But to interpret things in such black-and-white terms is to distort reality. Although Islam largely missed out on the Reformation and the Enlightenment, a point frequently made by its critics, it is far from a monolithic religion. And many ordinary Muslims, rather than being on the side of the jihadis, are taking up arms against them, and sometimes paying with their lives. In Iraq, the Iraqi, Kurdish, and Iranian soldiers battling ISIS are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the government forces fighting jihadis are also almost all Muslims.
On top of this, most of the victims of jihadi atrocities are Muslims. In Iraq last month, more than eleven hundred people were killed in acts of terrorism and violence, including nearly seven hundred civilians. It’s fair to assume that almost all of them belonged to the Islamic faith.
The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this morning coincided with the publication of controversial author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which today’s Charlie either lampoons or praises (or both) in the cover seen to the right. Today’s attack was so clearly planned and premeditated that it likely wasn’t a response to Houellebecq’s book or Charlie‘s cover thereof, but there are plenty of parallels between Submission, which critics have derided as an anti-Muslim screed, and the offensive material that made the satirical weekly a target for Islamic fundamentalists. Ishaan Tharoor explains what the book is about:
“Submission” tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible. …
Houellebecq says his book leaves “unresolved” the question of “what we are meant to be afraid of” — Islamists or nativists. Ironically, the rule of a Muslim president in his book leads to stability and an improved economic outlook for France. But the premise certainly feeds into an already overheated conversation in Europe and sketches the disturbing end point for a polarization already taking place, even if its predicted outcome is completely implausible.
Bershidsky discusses how Houellebecq’s paranoid vision of the future, which far-right leader Marine Le Pen called “a fiction that could one day become reality”, fits into France’s ongoing culture war:
The point “Submission” makes isn’t so much political as cultural. It turns the integration debate on its head. Many in Europe want Muslim immigrants to merge into the host society on its terms. This is especially pronounced in France: the country has a profound shortage of mosques, and it bans wearing of Muslim face-covering scarves in public. What, the novel asks, if the French were told to integrate with the Muslims on the latter’s terms? What if the traditional parties had to join a coalition with an Islamic element? And what if ordinary people had to accept some Muslim traditions as part of living in a Muslim-run society — adopt polygamy, for example, bar women from working or convert to Islam to be able to teach school or college? Houellebecq posits that the French would submit. Why not, if unemployment among men is eliminated in the process and men could have three wives instead of resorting to prostitutes? …
No wonder the European far right portrays integration as a zero-sum game, in which one side must submit to the other — after all, isn’t that what the Muslims are after?
Submission is currently number one on amazon.fr’s bestseller list, and today’s events aren’t likely to hurt sales. But Houellebecq also faces some harsh criticism for what his detractors are calling a contribution to the wave of right-wing nationalist xenophobia currently making European Muslims nervous:
One German newspaper critic warned the novel could be seized on by anti-Islam protesters in Dresden as proof they are right to voice concern. Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of left-leaning French newspaper Libération, argued that the novel “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.
“This is a book that ennobles the ideas of the Front National,” he added. Alain Jakubovitch, president of the anti-racism group LICRA, said: “This is the best Christmas present Marine Le Pen could wish for.” Houellebecq retorted that he could “see no novel that has changed the course of history” and that besides, “Marine Le Pen doesn’t need this. Things are working pretty well for her already.”
But Jonathon Sturgeon notes that Houellebecq, who once called Islam “the most stupid religion” and the Koran “badly written”, has softened his anti-Muslim edge of late:
More recently, Houellebecq appears to have shed his own atheism and disdain for religion, including Islam. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, the novelist admits that his atheism hasn’t “survived” in recent years, and, against a statement he made about the Koran thirteen years ago, he concedes:
…the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it—or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims.
Although the new novel won’t be released in the US for some time, it’s clear that Houellebecq doesn’t consider it an affront to Islam. On the contrary, he sees it as a thought experiment meant to reflect the absence of political representation for Muslims in France. … With no present English translation, it’s impossible to tell whether Houellebecq’s new novel is a skilled experiment in political modality, or a thinly veiled attack on religion disguised as a mea culpa. In either case, Houellebecq may have seriously misjudged the power of novels to affect history.
Over the holidays, Sweden’s Muslim community was shaken by a string of attacks on mosques in several cities:
Swedish police launched a manhunt Thursday after the third arson attack against a mosque in a week, amid growing tensions over the rise of a far right anti-immigration movement.”People saw a man throwing something burning at the building,” police in Uppsala said in a statement, adding that the mosque in eastern Sweden did not catch fire and that the suspect had left behind “a text on the door expressing contempt for religion.” …
Thursday’s attack in Sweden’s fourth-largest city came just three days after a late-night blaze at a mosque in Esloev in the south, which police suspect was also arson. On Christmas Day, five people were injured when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of a mosque in Eskilstuna, east of the capital Stockholm.
Local residents in Uppsala responded to the attack by “love-bombing” the damaged mosque with notes of support. Amanda Taub applauds:
The demonstration and “love bombing” were a powerful way for ordinary Swedes to reject racism and show support for Muslims. But the march also carried broader political significance, because it showed that Swedes felt a duty to publicly reaffirm the country’s identity as a place that is tolerant and welcoming towards immigrants.
In many countries, anti-immigrant populism dominates the public conversation about immigration not because it necessarily represents the majority view, but because people with more moderate and tolerant views don’t make it a priority to speak up publicly. These demonstrations suggest that Sweden may be different: thousands of people took to the streets to say that they are not willing to stay silent, and will not allow extremists to dominate the debate.
Still, many Muslims throughout Europe have reason to be wary of their neighbors; a new poll finds that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Muslim march if one were organized in their hometown:
The survey highlighted growing support in Germany, as in other European Union countries including Britain and Sweden, for parties and movements tapping into voter fears that mainstream politicians are too soft on immigration.
Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc worry that they risk losing support to the euro-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has shifted its focus to immigration and includes many who also back the PEGIDA protest movement — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. PEGIDA is holding weekly rallies in the eastern city of Dresden, and attracted more than 17,000 people to a Dec. 22 rally. A few small marches have taken place in other towns, and it plans to stage further rallies in other German cities.
Back in September, the Justice Department announced “a new series of pilot programs in cities across the country to bring together community representatives, public safety officials and religious leaders to counter violent extremism”. While the DOJ avoided using the words “Muslim” and “Islam” in its press release, the targets of these programs are obviously American Muslim communities. Naureen Shah, who grew up in such a community, decries the initiative as way too broad:
There is tremendous risk of abuse and mistake in any program that tries to predict future criminals, including terrorists. Empirical studies show that violent threats cannot be predicted by any religious, ideological, ethnic, or racial profiling.’
The evidence suggests that there is no direct link among religious observance, radical ideas, and violent acts. Some of the theories underlying the government’s approach caution just that, but they nevertheless advise law enforcement—and now, American Muslim community “partners”—to connect the dots linking an individuals’ noncriminal behavior, his ideas, and his attitudes. That kind of monitoring shrinks the space for free expression by creating an atmosphere where people fear they must watch what they say and how they act, lest it be reported.
It also denies what it is to grow up. As a teenager, I became angry and difficult. I disappeared on weekends. I chatted online for hours as my family ate dinner downstairs. I wasn’t a violent terrorist in the making. But under the government’s program, community members will be encouraged to monitor these behaviors and intervene with teens who engage in them.
Writing from the UK, where authorities have taken a similarly community-based approach to addressing radicalization, Arshad Isakjee objects to the assumption that there is such a thing as a “Muslim community” in the first place:
It is tempting to readily accept the warm notion that Muslims collectively behave like characters in Eastenders, buzzing around Asian Albert Squares across the country, their families constantly interacting at the local mosque – their version of the Queen Vic. We would never accept similar notions of Christian communities or white communities – but when applied to minorities, the idea sounds authentic and credible. …
Look closer though, and the Muslim community is far more elusive. Until the Salman Rushdie fatwa affair, Muslims in the UK were not conceptualised by religious identity. Ethnic groups such as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians were the more legitimate conceptions of migrant communities. Even today, in most British towns and cities with Muslim populations, different ethnic groups will have their own mosques and religious institutions, and in some instances membership of those establishments remains exclusive to those specific ethnic groups.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, also has one of the world’s highest abortion rates: 37 per 1,000 women compared to 16.9 in the US. While investigating what’s behind the high prevalence of the practice in Southeast Asia, Tom Hundley discovers that what Islam has to say about it is not as clear-cut as you might expect:
Islamic jurisprudence does not encourage abortion, but unlike the Catholic Church, it does not absolutely forbid it. Scholars of the Hanafi school of Islamic law, the most widely followed of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence in the Sunni world, generally accept that abortion is allowable within 120 days of conception. In Indonesia, where the Shafi’i school is predominant, the ulema (religious scholars) agree that abortion is allowed within forty days of conception—this reflecting the commonly held belief that Allah instills the fetus with a soul on the fortieth day.
Opinion varies widely on permissible grounds for abortion. Almost all religious scholars agree that abortion is allowed to save the life of the mother. A 2005 study in Indonesia found surprising tolerance among Muslim clerics for terminating a pregnancy in the event of contraceptive failure or when an unwanted pregnancy would result in severe economic or psychological stress.
Shadi Hamid offers his take on what attracts people to ISIS, and why that attraction is specific to Islam:
ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with ISIS’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of a caliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—is a powerful one, even among more secular-minded Muslims. The caliphate, something that hasn’t existed since 1924, is a reminder of how one of the world’s great civilizations endured one of the more precipitous declines in human history. The gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves is at the center of the anger and humiliation that drive political violence in the Middle East. But there is also a sense of loss and longing for an organic legal and political order that succeeded for centuries before its slow but decisive dismantling. Ever since, Muslims, and particularly Arab Muslims, have been struggling to define the contours of an appropriate post-caliphate political model.
In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.
Alabama’s Amendment 1, drafted by a lawyer who fears the non-existent problem of American courts applying Sharia law, passed on Tuesday with 72 percent of the vote. The amendment to the state constitution declares that Alabama courts “shall not apply or enforce a foreign law if doing so would violate any state law or a right guaranteed by the Constitution of this state or of the United States”. Many reports on the amendment (like the preceding link) claim that it bans the application of foreign law altogether, but Eugene Volokh disputes that:
What it would do is less clear, Paul Horwitz explains, because the prohibition on applying foreign laws that contradict Americans’ constitutional rights is, er, “already the law in every state, including Alabama”. The redundant amendment, Horwitz argues, is a waste of time and money that will likely have unintended consequences and serves only as a gesture of hostility toward Islam:
Our state and federal constitutions prohibit discrimination against religion. An explicitly anti-Muslim law would be unconstitutional. But hostility to Muslims, or to any minority, always buys a few votes in some corners. So we now have the worst of both worlds. The law, in its past and present versions, is driven by religious hostility. But in order to avoid being struck down, the current amendment bars courts from recognizing Jewish or Christian (or, yes, Islamic) prenuptial contracts, or enforcing judgments by Southern Baptist arbitrators. At least, it would, if those judgments violated state or federal law. But our courts already forbid that. Amendment One is literally not worth the paper the law would be printed on–and printing laws costs money.
Although anti-Shariah bills are often proposed and supported by conservative Christians, Amendment 1 was actually heavily criticized by many religious groups in the Cotton State — including several prominent evangelical Christians. Organizations such as Greater Birmingham Ministries publicly decried the measure, and Randy Brinson, the president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, blasted the law as “just silliness.” Brinson argued that the bill did not actually protect “Christian values,” and passing it could potentially jeopardize foreign adoptions, marriages to people outside of the U.S., and religious liberty. “This is a tremendous waste of effort. It’s a waste of time and it costs money,” Brinson said ahead of the vote.
Beyond the phantom menace of Sharia, Mark Joseph Stern characterizes Amendment 1 as an effort “to nullify Supreme Court decisions that lean on foreign law”, particularly regarding capital punishment:
According to the amendment, any decision that uses international law could not legally be applied in Alabama courts, since citing it would involve the “application” of foreign law. A state judge couldn’t overrule the execution of a minor based on Roper, since Roper relied in part on international law. Nor could she annul the conviction of a gay person for having gay sex, since Lawrence cited foreign courts. The execution of the mentally retarded, too, would be back on the table in Alabama; in fact, much of the Supreme Court’s modern death penalty jurisprudence would now seem to be inapplicable in the state. This is not some speculative overinterpretation of a poorly worded amendment; overturning established death penalty law was a stated goal of the amendment’s chief drafter. No doubt a team of lawyers is already poring over Supreme Court rulings, searching each decision for a reference to international law. Once they’ve found one, they can alert state judges: Use this ruling, and you’ll be breaking the law.
Looking over the situations in which Alabama courts would typically come into contact with foreign law, Amanda Taub remarks on the legal uncertainties the amendment creates:
Start with disputes governed by foreign law, which are common. Consider, for instance, what might happen if a couple was married overseas, but then sought a divorce in Alabama. Or if they adopted a child overseas, but then a custody dispute came before Alabama courts. Such cases would, by necessity, require Alabama courts to consider foreign law in order to determine the validity of the marriage, adoption, or custody agreement. After Amendment One, it’s not clear whether, or how, they will be able to do so.
It’s also extremely common for contracts to be governed by foreign law, through what is called a “choice of laws” clause. Amendment One carves out an exception for “Alabama business persons and companies,” who may decide to use foreign law in Alabama Courts. But it’s not clear how that exception will be applied, because the very same clause says that “the public policy of Alabama is to prohibit anyone from requiring Alabama courts to apply and enforce foreign laws” — which appears to directly contradict the exception. That’s a potential nightmare for companies that do business in the state, who now don’t know if their choice of law clauses will be enforced, or if global contracts will now become subject to uncertain interpretation as soon as they cross Alabama state lines.
Furthermore, Faisal Kutty points out, “the consequences” of such restrictions on Sharia and foreign law “may be counterintuitive”:
In August 2012, for instance, just one month after Kansas passed Senate Bill 79, a state court found its hands tied when Elham Soleimani sought the enforcement of the mahr (dowry) provision in her Islamic marriage contract. Her husband, Faramarz Soleimani, had agreed to pay 1,354 gold coins—valued at $677,000 at the time—in the event of divorce. Faramarz agreed to this at the time of the marriage, given that it was his second marriage and Elham was 24 years his junior. The Johnson City District Court refused to enforce Elham’s claim for various reasons, the most significant being the religious nature of the contract. In its 28 August 2012 ruling, the court concluded that enforcing the agreement would “abdicate the judiciary’s role to protect such fundamental rights, a concern that was articulated in Senate Bill No. 79.” Essentially, the court took the position that enforcing the Islamic contract would violate the foreign law ban and the separation of church and state doctrine under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Elham lost her claim to her dowry thanks to the law, which Republican State Senator Susan Wagle introduced as “a vote to protect women.” Elham would surely beg to disagree.
A new YouGov survey sheds some light on Americans’ attitudes toward the religion:
Most Americans (59%) have an unfavorable opinion of Islam, while only 18% say that they have a favorable view of the religion. Republicans (74%) have the most unfavorable view of Islam, while under-30s (32%) have the highest favorable attitudes towards Islam.
Perceptions vary greatly as to how many Muslims sympathize with ISIS and Al Qaeda. 19% of Americans believe that most Muslims sympathize with the two extremist groups, while at the opposite end of the spectrum 31% believe that less than 10% of Muslims support ISIS and Al-Qaeda. 27% say that between 10% and 50% of Muslims around the world back the two groups. Democrats are much less likely to say that significant numbers of Muslims support the two groups, with 43% of Democrats estimating that the percentage of Muslims that support ISIS and Al-Qaeda is under 10%, something only 20% of Republicans agree with.
Looking back at how Americans’ views of Jews evolved over time from hostile to welcoming, Jon Fasman predicts that feelings toward Muslims will follow a similar path:
As with much social change, finding a single, directly attributable cause for the decline in American anti-Semitism is more or less impossible. Many nebulous things happened at once. Jews grew more “American” and less “foreign”, not least because, as the 20th century wore on, an ever-greater share of them were American-born.
… America will inevitably reach the same accommodation with Islam that it has reached with Judaism. It will take time, of course—most American Muslims are foreign-born, so are in roughly the same xenophobia-provoking demographic position as American Jews were three generations ago. But already there are encouraging signs: Muslims appear to be far better integrated in America than in Europe, as measured by their share of non-Muslim friends and by the intermarriage rate. Their worldviews more closely resemble those of non-Muslim Americans than they do Muslims outside the United States.
A reader sounds off at length:
I’m a 30-year-old atheist who deconverted from Islam on my 15th birthday. Some friends and I (all of us secular liberals from various religious backgrounds who grew up in the Persian Gulf region, then moved to the West) have been having a great online debate about the very matters you have been covering in your Islam thread. I have found a lot of the discussion online quite invigorating, notwithstanding what I have to say here.
I think there is a huge overlap in the beliefs and opinions of Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, Sam Harris, and yourself. The primary difference lies in the strategies employed and the goals of the discussion. Maher/Harris, ultimately, want to advance atheism, and that’s what sets them apart from the others. I also want to advance atheism, at least in theory, but I am also a realist and it is my realism that makes me part ways with them and, frankly, you, on this matter.
Yes, open dialogue and discussion is a principle that must be protected and advanced … except when doing so actually hinders the cause in the long-run. There are a lot of things we just. don’t. talk. about. For instance: I have met Muslims throughout my life who, in their effort to explain some of the injustices Palestinians face, are obsessed with talking about which companies have Jewish CEOs or the proportion of Jews on the board of directors of Whatever, Inc. To those people I say: I don’t know if you are right or wrong, and frankly I don’t care. It doesn’t advance the cause of Palestinian human rights to point these things out. All it does is elicit strong emotional reactions from Jewish people, and further alienates them from the fucking cause you are fighting for.
I am one of those liberals who complains within my circle of Arab/Muslim friends and family that our community needs to confront the extremism that is spreading like a cancer in our region’s politics and culture. Yet I also recognize, because I have my legs glued to the ground, that the millions of Muslims who could be fighting extremism will defend their identities and their religion first, if it is under attack. This is basic human nature, like it or not. When Bill Maher (whom I adore, BTW) condemns Islam as a religion, whatever the nuances of his argument, he is perceived as attacking the identities of literally millions of potential allies in the liberal project. These millions, instead of focusing on the scourge of extremism, expend valuable airtime and resources in defending their faith, which as Azlan rightly noted, is an integral part of their identity.
The vast majority of Muslims are like the vast majority of all human beings: they just want to eat, fuck, sleep, and work. Non-Muslim people need to STFU about Islamso that normal, everyday Muslims can begin the fight against extremism in earnest. It’s the only strategy that makes any sense and the only one that has any chance of working. Muslim extremists don’t have to answer to white liberals, but they do need to answer to people who identify as Muslim.
The reforms that took place within Christianity were not easy, but the ones that are necessary within Islam have at least one greater hurdle to overcome. The transformation of Christianity did not have to contend with accusations that reformists were trying to “Islamize” or “Easternize” Christianity; reformist Christians, to my knowledge, weren’t accused of following the “corrupt example” of a powerful, foreign, dominant culture (and one that has meddled in the affairs of the region, to its detriment). In contrast, today, any effort to reform Islam will naturally be viewed as bowing down to a dominant, powerful western culture. Considering the fact that humans will do anything to distinguish themselves from external cultural forces, you can’t possibly think of a more powerful obstacle to reform than living in the shadow of a powerful liberal-Christian culture that has already embraced those reforms.
The good news is that enough Muslims live in liberal societies. Muslims who do not live in those societies, for the most part, do view their liberal counterparts as their brethren. If we give the Muslims in our part of the world the fucking space to speak for liberal values, for reforming Islamic institutions, for advancing the good parts of the religion while downplaying or reinterpreting the ugly parts, these views will be transmitted to their counterparts in the Middle East. In order for that to happen on a bigger scale, those liberal Muslims must be given the psychological space to do so, and it is my view that when westerners from Christian or Jewish backgrounds attack even small aspects of Islam on national TV, they are lessening that psychological space. I know it sounds somewhat irrational, but issues of identity and religion rarely are.
In my non-expert opinion, Islam is probably more violent than all the other major faiths. But insofar as you want to live in a more peaceful, stable world, who the fuck cares? Non-Muslims: STFU; Muslims: SPEAK.
Below are a bunch of remaining emails from the huge wave we received last week on the subject of Islam:
As a frequent reader, I take issue with your recent post: “And the lack of such a [civil] space is a key tenet of the religion itself.” That is completely incorrect. I’m sure many Muslims feel that way, but you cannot categorically claim that’s a tenet of the religion. Go read Tariq Ramadan‘s extensive discourse on the topic, or Hamza Yusuf in America. Come visit my mosque in downtown Manhattan at NYU. I’m hard pressed to find Muslims that fit your stereotype that Islam is so dogmatic. Islam is based on Fiqh, or Reasoning and Logic.
Above is a video of British imans speaking out against violent sectarianism. Another reader, born and raised in Pakistan, points to more resources:
I get that Western-style liberal democratic cultures don’t exist in many parts of the Islamic world. However, a world of 1.5B people spread across a hundred countries cannot be binary – either like us or not. In each country, liberalism exists along a spectrum; it is a work in progress, and it is also a product of history, politics, economics, extra-Islamic social mores, and not just Islam itself. And this is true even in liberal democratic societies. Israel has all the markers associated with a liberal society and yet some really deranged illiberal attitudes are embraced by a large segment of that society. Is Judaism to blame for that?
Correlation is often never causation, and you make that mistake here, Andrew. Just because ISIS and Al-Qaeda are Muslims doesn’t mean they have anything to do with Islam.
Another also invokes “correlation isn’t causation”:
There are too many examples of extremist Islam in today’s world to ignore the issue. However, people who take this issue seriously should consider what alternative hypotheses might explain the correlation, and what evidence might contradict the hypothesis that present Islam causes violence. Two major points here:
1. Majority-Muslim countries and other countries with Islamic governments are concentrated in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Is it possible that awful politics and dysfunctional economies in these regions explains the chaos and poverty that can often lead to violent religious movements?
2. Outside these regions, Islam does not look so bad after all. Indonesia is home to 200 million Muslims, or just over 12% of the global Muslim population. India and Pakistan are tied for 2nd place with 177-178 million Muslims each (Pew 2010 via Wikipedia). Which one has the overwhelming majority of the Islamist violence?
Don’t look at India, which has a oddly robust democratic tradition (warts and all) and a growing economy. I will admit that India’s Muslims are probably kept in check by the Hindu majority to the extent that Indian Muslims need a check, but I still don’t see how 2 out of the 3 largest Muslim populations can be ignored in your assessment of global Islam. Neither are India’s Muslims undermining the safety or security of their government or fellow citizens. Indeed, most of them could serve as models for Muslims in Europe and Britain.
I am cherry-picking of course, but so are you when you speak about the current state of Islam. You lend too much credence to ISIS/ISIL and its prominence in the news cycle when you make broad conclusions about Islam.
Of course, cherry-picking aside, there is a strange correlation between Islam and extremist governance. Is there a connection between the 98% Muslim population in the Aceh region of Indonesia (which is only 87% Muslim overall), its violent rebellion against Jakarta, and its current implementation of sharia law? Why are American Muslims more integrated in the national culture when compared with British and European Muslims? These and other questions would be great topics for your blog.
I realize that you were egged on to make some statement of your views, and that this blog format is not conducive to an analysis of Islam‘s total state at the global level. I also don’t feel that you should censor your blog to be sure and avoid offending people or their sensibilities. Nonetheless, you and a lot of other commentators are relying heavily on an observed correlation between Islam and extremism, without considering how many destabilizing factors have affected impoverished regions that perchance are home to Muslim-majority populations.
Sure, other non-Muslim majority regions like Central America might be poorly governed and undercapitalized, but no external power fucks with Honduras or Guatemala as has been done with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, which have each in turn been the most prominent jihad exporters over the last 25 years. Some of the meddlers include other Muslim countries like our ally and jihad exporter Saudi Arabia and also our arch-enemy Iran, but other top meddlers include Russia and the United States. Oops!
Setting social policy aside (as many countries have retrograde social policies unrelated to Islam), only a small handful of Muslim countries actually pose a risk to global peace and security. We would do better to focus more on that short list of terrorism exporters first before expanding the scope of discussion up to an entire religion with 1.6 billion believers. It could make them feel better, but it’s also a much more efficient way to identify the root causes of terrorism.
Another turns to the Koran:
The ongoing discussion brought to mind an article that Nicholas Kristof wrote for the NYT back in 2004 titled Martyrs, Virgins and Grapes. He talks about the origins of terms in the Koran and explains how they may be re-interpreted.
The Koran is beautifully written, but often obscure. One reason is that the Arabic language was born as a written language with the Koran, and there’s growing evidence that many of the words were Syriac or Aramaic. For example, the Koran says martyrs going to heaven will get “hur,” and the word was taken by early commentators to mean “virgins,” hence those 72 consorts. But in Aramaic, hur meant “white” and was commonly used to mean “white grapes.” Some martyrs arriving in paradise may regard a bunch of grapes as a letdown.
Another points to some interesting scholarship:
While I have seen a number of readers cite the influence of colonialism on the development of Islamic radicalism, most seem to be focusing more on colonialism’s sociopolitical aspect rather than its effect on the faith itself. While at McGill University I had the pleasure of studying under Wael Hallaq (now of Columbia’s much vaunted Middle East Institute), who put forth the argument that the “sharia” law that Islamist movements are supposedly based upon is to some degree a Western creation.
Hallaq’s case rests upon the institution of ijtihad, or “independent reasoning”, a central part of historical Islamic jurisprudence. Traditionally, ijtihad was used to interpret laws based on the Quran and the hadiths to fit within the society the laws governed (this last point is key). Essentially, legal doctrine was not strongly codified but instead malleable as society grew and matured through the ages, to be interpreted and adjusted with changing times. Point being, a far cry from the imagining of sharia law that has it rising out of the desert and marching on unaltered for 1,400 years.
While there is debate as to whether the “doors of ijtihad” were closed prior to European intervention, Hallaq argues that they remained cracked open, at the very least, and that it was only Westerners, with their insistence on codifying laws, that froze existing laws in place. Who did these Westerners ask for guidance when codifying those existing laws? Elites who were already in power, who had every reason to solidify existing power structures. Essentially, the argument goes that without so much Western interference in the Middle East, there would be significantly more room to maneuver within Islamic law, but due to codification by Western powers we’re now stuck with these laws as written ones, concrete ones rather than something that might be more malleable.
This is obviously quite controversial both inside and outside Islam, and perhaps an overly rosy view of ijtihad. but it is interesting food for thought in determining what exactly Islam is, and in reassessing our own views and biases towards the faith. For what it’s worth, Hallaq has no dog in this fight, being an atheist born into a Christian family, which perhaps puts him in a unique position to analyze the issue both from within, given his Arabic linguistic and cultural background, and without, given his faith.
One more knowledgeable reader:
Joshua Mitchell’s idea that the people of the Middle East are unable to cope with the freedoms offered by modern democracy, and therefore seek refuge in a re-enchanted world which they attempt to establish through religious fundamentalism is historically wrong on almost every count.
For one, Islamic fundamentalism is not in any meaningful way a turn back to an enchanted world. The world of Islamism is thoroughly disenchanted: there is a strict and rational (although by no means scientific) cosmology, and rigid external control and social order – there is no place for mystery in this world.
Second, the kind of social order Islamism is imagining, the type of totalitarianism ISIS is seeking, is thoroughly modern. The sectarianism on which it is built is not the continuation of primordial divides in Islamic history, but the mirroring of modern identity politics onto the sphere of religious communities where the national divides which came to be the framework of Western democracy did not exist. We should keep in mind that nationalism is the countermovement of democracy, that the universal equality proposed by global democracy de facto is reigned in by the division into “imagined communities”, providing the ideological coherence that the democratic enterprise needs. In Europe those came into being as nations, and we should not overlook the quasi-religious character nationalism can take. In the Arab Middle East the sense of national difference is minimal, so it was much easier to harness sectarian difference to create the same “imagined communities”. In fact, the notion of the religious frequently prevents us from seeing that the divides we are dealing with are thoroughly political, and that they mean very little at the level of theology.
Finally, I cringe when I read the term “ready for democracy”. I have met plenty of people from Middle Eastern countries who seek nothing more than the opportunity to live in a truly democratic society. Have we forgotten that the Arab Spring, that the Syrian uprising began as a revolt against dictatorship, demanding freedom and democracy? Have we forgotten the liberal spirit of Turkey’s Gezi Park protests? Who and what is missing in the Middle East?
Part of the answer is the paradox formulated by German constitutional judge Wolfgang Böckenförde in the 1970s: “The liberal secular state depends on conditions which it cannot guarantee by itself.” More specifically, the establishment and the defense of democratic order depends on a buy-in by its constituents that the state cannot create or enforce. Therefore, the fostering of a democracy is easy to prevent, and its continuation always precarious.
Finally, let us keep in mind that there are also plenty of people in the West, who are not “ready for democracy”, but would not hesitate a second to dismantle it if they saw an advantage in it. The various little steps the GOP is taking to undermine and manipulate democratic processes, in my view, point to exactly this lack of commitment to democracy in the sense of Tocqueville.
I find it disappointing that you have not once, in your series of posts on Islam, significantly reflected on 100+ years of American murder, destruction, destabilization, support for dictatorship, and stealing of resources as radicalizing factor in the Muslim world. The constant arguments of the type “well, Christianity doesn’t have a radicalism problem” completely ignores that the Christian world has not been subject to a century-long campaign of aggression and mistreatment by America. There can be no hope for moderation among a people who have been subjected to constant injustice since before either of us was born. Since World War I, there has never been a time when the United States has not been directly and destructively influencing the greater Muslim world. That has radicalized many Muslims. And it is a failure of basic moral principle to be a citizen of a country that is participating in a destabilizing, radicalizing, moderation-undermining campaign against the members of a religion and to turn around and ask why they are not more moderate.
If there is a cancer in the Muslim world, then America’s behavior is the carcinogen. I wrote about this history here.
Sam Harris will never, ever genuinely and meaningfully interrogate the history of American injustice against Muslims. It’s simply too contrary to his enormous prejudice. But you can. And according to the most basic moral principles – that’s Western principles, by the way, Christian principles and secular alike – your responsibility is your own country. In democracy, your job is your own country. So clean your own house before you tell a billion other people how to clean theirs.
Another reader is on the same page as Freddie:
While I found your comments regarding Islam’s relationship to modernity far more reasonable than Maher’s, I was nevertheless troubled by the lack of historical context that informs them.
Reading your post, it’s as if Western colonialism and imperialism never happened. Both you and Maher speak as if modernity is some unmitigated good. But modernity is both liberalism and imperialism. It is the gradual empowerment of women and gays and also the subjugation of foreign cultures in the name of “progress”. It’s true that certain elements of Christianity (and all religions) have had difficulty adjusting to modernism. But it simply will not do to say that Christianity and Islam have the same relationship to modernism. Negri understood this in Empire:
The new anti-modern thrust that defines fundamentalisms might be better understood, then, not as a premodern but as a postmodern project. The post-modernity of fundamentalism has to be recognized primarily in its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony–and in this regard Islamic fundamentalism is indeed the paradigmatic case. In the context of Islamic traditions, fundamentalism is postmodern insofar as it rejects the tradition of Islamic modernism for which modernity was always overcoded as assimilation or submission to Euro-American hegemony.
This should not stop us from calling out the brutality toward women and other types of barbarism that we see being justified in the name of Islam (or any ideology). But if you’re going to talk about how large segments of Islam are, on some level “behind” the modernization of other religions let’s acknowledge how our oh-so-modern Western society is in many ways responsible for the distrust that so many Muslims have of “modernism”.
How another puts it:
It cannot be ignored that the Middle East is a broiling mess in large degree because the West made it so, not because of Islam. The West found and exploited oil in the region. The West carved up the territory in ways that made sense only to the colonizers. Outright colonization ended only with installation of Western-friendly, oil-pumping despots who enriched themselves while feeding their people religion as a substitute for agency. Western Jews emigrated to escape Western brutality and the West granted their desire for an ancient homeland there. It is indeed rich to hear Westerners decry Islam as the proximate cause of dysfunction in the area while absolving ourselves of any role.
I believe Andrew’s central hypothesis is flawed, or at least mis-stated. If there is a causal relationship between Islam and a propensity for violence, then we should be able to observe that Muslim populations are more likely to be committing acts of violence. Just imagine the opposite case – what if we could assess the actions of all Muslims for all of history, and compare that to the behavior of all Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and people of other faiths, and the net result was that people who were Muslim were no more likely to commit acts of violence than anyone else. Would there be a “trouble with Islam” if there is no difference in actions?
We can test his hypothesis in several ways, and by doing so we can better understand what specific trouble there may be with Islam. First, looking at the intrinsic nature of Islam from the time of the Koran – as often noted, for much of history practitioners of Islam were no more prone to violence than other groups. Even in the past 100 years, if you look at which nations have killed the most people, it is clear that Muslim nations are not high on the list. In fact, if you even look since 9/11, the greatest number of people who have been killed were Christians at the hands of other Christians in Congo. I recognize that US national interests and media coverage have been much more focused on the significantly smaller number of killings in the Muslim world, but if the premise is that Islam causes a greater level of violence than other religions, why doesn’t that show up in the numbers?
I would agree that in the past 10 years, the greatest worldwide killing has been committed by Muslims – first Iraq and then Syria. But if the hypothesis about the problem with Islam is limited to the past 10 years, then it is less about Islam per se and more about current extremist movements within Islam. And if he could make that clarification, his hypothesis is more accurate and thus would eliminate perceptions of bigotry from liberals such as myself.
Furthermore, with a more accurate hypothesis, we could also look more clearly at what the true root cause of the problems are and thus generate a better list of potential corrective actions. I have three alternative hypotheses that I find plausible, although I do not yet have adequate data to confirm them, but each of the three would suggest different possibilities for resolution. (1) Resource deprivation – Jared Diamond’s asserted in Collapse was that this was a major contributing factor to instigating the Rwanda genocide; the violence in Syria was preceded by an unprecedented drought that drove over 70% of the agrarian population into the cities in the 18 months before the violence began; (2) Youth – many of the areas with the greatest level of violence also have the youngest populations – I was surprised to discover for example, less than half the current population in Gaza was even alive when Hamas won the election back in 2006; (3) Wealth inequality – Since 1972, the Middle East has had an exceptional level of wealth imbalance between the Saudis and similar small, oil-rich Gulf states as compared to the Arab street in Egypt, Damascus, etc. At the same time, since the early 1970’s, those wealthy Arab states have increased their funding for Islamic extremists. It is at least a plausible hypothesis that directing public animosity at the US and Israel through Islamic extremism is a way to distract people living on $2/day from from neighbors buying Lamborghinis on a whim. If this seems like a prosaic rational for extremism, remember that Slobodan Milosevic started inciting ethnic hatred in the former Yugoslavia because he was a second rate politician facing poor polling data and a weak economy, and he needed a distraction.
I am not sure yet that any of these three alternative hypotheses are true – but if they are, they each suggest approaches to address. If the problem is intrinsically with Islam as a simplistic reading of Andrew’s hypothesis suggests, then it starts sounding like the only solution would be conversion (or in some other formulations, something like the 30 Years War and a major subsequent maturation of Islam to become an adult religion). It is in all of our interests to diagnose the problem accurately, and thereby be able to see with more clarity the potential solutions.
I know you don’t view “those countless Muslims and Muslim Americans whose faith is real and deep and admirable” as outliers in their own faith, but the logical conclusion of yours and Harris’ argument leads to exactly just that conclusion. Extremism and fanaticism simply don’t occur in a vacuum, nor are they inbred characteristics. You use the example of Saddam, a murderous crypto-fascist who presided over a state you have now argued countless times *should never have existed to begin with* as an example of the unique and innate violence of Islam as though there were a different scenario whereby such a state could ever exist without massive coercion.
Sure, you’re free to criticize a current manifestation of any religion, but the manifestation you cite is still so marginal, and sits so far outside the lived experience of the vast majority of the worlds Muslims (90% of whom aren’t even Arab). A religiously observant Muslim in Michigan is as confused and as troubled by the rise of ISIS as you are yet you would find that person morally culpable for that very thing. The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed greater sanction among mainstream Protestants, not just in the South, at the height of their powers, and yet we (perhaps you, not Harris) look upon these movements as self-serving aberrations of Christian doctrine and not manifestations of them.
Maybe a lot of those “countless” Muslims you described are tired having to apologize to the Sam Harrises and Bill Mahers of the world (the latter of whom seemed either unwilling or unable to engage with Muslims living in the US in his film, Religulous). They are tired of having to shoulder collective responsibilities for monsters that were not of their own making. Islam doesn’t explain the Assads, nor does it explain why Saudi Arabia was given carte Blanche to arm the rebels in the first place, nor does it explain Erdogan’s vaguely neo-ottoman revanchism, nor does it explain most of the West’s encounter with the Arab World since WWII. And that is really what we’re talking about here (the prototypical Muslim we have in mind is rarely ever African-American, Malaysian, or even Iranian).
I don’t think you’re assessment is bigoted, just incredibly blinkered. And you’re free to believe the Ayaans and Irshads of the world hold the key to unlocking a new pluralistic era in Islam, but good luck finding any (even Progressive) Muslims who agree with you on that.
The above map is “the Sykes-Picot treaty that carved up the Middle East”. Its voxplanation:
You hear a lot today about this treaty, in which the UK and French (and Russian) Empires secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s last MidEastern regions among themselves. Crucially, the borders between the French and British “zones” later became the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Because those later-independent states had largely arbitrary borders that forced disparate ethnic and religious groups together, and because those groups are still in terrible conflict with one another, Sykes-Picot is often cited as a cause of warfare and violence and extremism in the Middle East. But scholars are still debating this theory, which may be too simple to be true.