The Trouble With Islam, Ctd

A few further thoughts. First off, another blast of contempt for the kind of warped mind (former Marxist David Horowitz’s) that can produce a piece of excrescence like this, and for the kind of degenerate magazine (National Review) that would actually publish it. The complete conflation of ISIS with American Muslims is so foul, and the use of such hatred for further religious warfare abroad so perilous, one has to hope it was a piece of high-trolling. But it isn’t. Horowitz and Geller are the most vicious of McCarthyite bigots, and need to be exposed and countered at every turn.

Second, a recommendation of this piece by M. A. Muqtedar Khan. This is a vital point:

Muslim scholars have tried to counteract the threat [of violent extremists] but their biggest error in doing so is that they limit their condemnation to political extremism without also condemning the theological extremism that underpins it. For example, when Islamic leaders condemn acts of violence against intellectuals or minorities after accusations of blasphemy, they do not condemn the scholars who give fatwas of blasphemy or takfir (excommunication). They also do not refute the theology that supports use of such vigilantism.

Many Islamic groups condemned both Boko Haram and ISIS as un-Islamic. This is a welcome development. But they did not also condemn the Salafi theology that underpins the literal and shallow understanding of Islamic principles that inform groups such as ISIS. It is like trying to treat the symptoms while allowing the cause to metastasize. So even if Boko Haram and ISIS are dealt with, new groups will take their place.

You have to deal with the theology or you are not really dealing with the problem at all. And yes, there is a problem today. Fareed notes:

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

I think the apostasy question is the core one. It’s an area where one version of Islam – far too popular in many Muslim-majority countries – is simply at odds with any basic understanding of human freedom.

Read all of our recent debate on Islam here.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Sydney Locals Create Bondi's Largest Fluro Wave

A reader writes:

I have had to correct this misstatement numerous times with friends, and now I’m disappointed to see you parroting Kristof, who is parroting Allah-knows who else. The data from the Pew Report [pdf] showing majorities in many Muslim countries in favor of the death penalty for apostasy come only from those Muslims who believe Sharia law should be the law of the land.

So not all Muslims, by any means. What percentage of Muslims across the diverse Muslim world favor Sharia law? The key graph from Pew on executing apostates is below. And when you do the math (and yes, fair warning that I usually do it wrong), you find that 63 percent of Egypt’s Muslims, 58 percent of Jordanian Muslims, 78 percent of Pakistani Muslims, and 53 percent of Malaysian Muslims believe that if you decide you don’t believe in Islam any more, you should be executed. Think about that for a minute.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 6.57.21 PMCentral Asian and South-Eastern European Muslims are very different, as are Indonesians. You’ll notice also that in one of the least devout of the Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia, only 16 percent favor the death penalty for non-belief. It does not shock me that Tunisia’s democratic revolution is the only one that has survived.

The more devout you are, the more you tend to favor the state enforcing religious doctrine, Pew also finds. Not how poor you are, how devout you are.

But variety and diversity exists as well. And nowhere has Islam come closer to a reconciliation with modernity than in America. American Muslims are far more like American non-Muslims than Muslims in any other country. On the core question of religious liberty, 56% of American Muslims “believe that many religions can lead to eternal life … Across the world, a median of just 18% of Muslims worldwide think religions other than Islam can lead to eternal life.” Here’s another big difference between Islam in America, and Islam elsewhere:

About half of U.S. Muslims say that all (7%) or most (41%) of their close friends are followers of Islam, and half say that some (36%) or hardly any (14%) of their close friends are Muslim. By contrast, Muslims in other countries nearly universally report that all or most of their close friends are Muslim (global median of 95%). Even Muslims who also are religious minorities in their countries are less likely than U.S. Muslims to have friendships with non-Muslims. For example, 78% of Russian Muslims and 96% of Thai Muslims say most or all of their close friends are Muslim.

I think it’s essential that this is better known in America, and that dumb conflations of Islam here and around the world – leading to foul prejudice and discrimination and fear – be challenged at every point. At the same time, I just don’t think the extreme and barbaric views of so many Muslims around the world can be denied. They are dangerous for their own societies and for ours. No one should not be intimidated into silence about it.

Today, the debate about Islam continued – see the thread here. We have updates on the Senate races where the GOP is in some trouble – in South Dakota and Kansas. I pushed back against the Beltway bullshit that the Obama presidency is suddenly a failure – au contraire! The intervention in Syria is another almighty clusterfuck that the US should have avoided at all costs; and our experiment in new media is chugging along.

The most popular post of the day was my defense of Sam Harris and Bill Maher against Ben Affleck and Nick Kristof; followed by my defense of religious freedom in Gordon College.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 29 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. And drop us an email; we love hearing from new subscribers.

(Photo: Sydney locals line up along the waters edge dressed in fluro costumes in an attempt to create Bondi’s largest fluro wave stretching from South Bondi to North Bondi at Bondi Beach on October 10, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.  The event is to raise awareness on World Mental Day and show support for everyone who has ever suffered, or knows someone who has suffered with depression and other disorders including bi-polar and anxiety. By Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.)

The Trouble With Islam, Ctd

I cede the floor to Hitch, peace be upon him:

It’s well worth twelve minutes of your time. And I think Hitch’s arguments about what must follow from a religious text still regarded as perfect and pristine and utterly unquestionable, and a caliph or Shi’a theocrat regarded as a “supreme leader”, and a politics saturated in apocalypticism, and a culture marinated in absurd levels of sexual repression, and an endemic suppression of blasphemy and apostasy as unthinkable offenses, stand the test of time.

The totalism of Islam is as dangerous as any other totalism – and liberals better understand that about it.

Yes, it is vital to make distinctions between the various ways in which Islam is practised across the world – which reveals some potential for reform, in the way that Christianity and Judaism have reformed and examined themselves over the past century. But the resilient absence of a collective understanding that religious violence simply is not worth it – the realization that most Christians came to after the Thirty Years War or, as Hitch has it, definitively after the First World War – is a real problem. It is the West’s problem in so far as we have badly mishandled our relation with that part of the world; but in the end, it is Middle Eastern Islam’s problem. Until the Shi’a and Sunni love the future more than they hate each other, until the Koran can be discussed and debated there and around the world the way any other religious text is discussed, until apostasy is respected and not criminalized, we will have more trouble in store.

Does this explain everything? Of course not. Culture, history, politics matter just as powerfully and can lead to different manifestations in time and place. Certainly there was a time in which Islam was far more tolerant than Christianity; and in the Middle East too. But that is no more, and central elements in the doctrine of Islam are all too easily compatible with its modern intolerance, and now post-modern virulence. The defanging of fundamentalism is the duty, in my view, of every person who claims to have faith. I see no reason why that shouldn’t apply to Islam as to an other religion. And it sure hasn’t been defanged enough.

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.)

The Best Of The Dish Today

Some further thoughts on the problem with contemporary Islam. What troubles it – utter certainty, abhorrence of heresy, the use of violence to buttress orthodoxy, the disdain for infidels – is not unique to it by any means. In history, some of these deviations from the humility of true faith have been worse in other religions. Christianity bears far more responsibility for the Holocaust, for example, than anything in Islam.

But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced a reckoning between those coercive, reactionary forces in Christianity, and in the twentieth century, Catholicism finally, formally left behind its anti-Semitism, its contempt for other faiths, its discomfort with religious freedom, and its disdain for a distinction between church and state. Part of this was the work of reason, part the work of history, but altogether the work of faith beyond fundamentalism. Islam has achieved this too – in many parts of the world. But in the Middle East, history is propelling mankind to different paths – in part because of the unmediated nature of Islam, compared with the resources of other faiths, and also because that region is almost hermetically sealed from free ideas and open debate and civil society.

Let me put it this way: when the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.

Western democracy was only made possible by the taming of religion. But Islam, in a very modern world, with very modern technologies of destruction and communication, remains, in a central part of the world, untamed, dangerous, and violent. No one outside Islam can tame it. And so we wait … and hope that the worst won’t happen.

Today, I noted one amazing feature of what the taming of Catholicism in the Second Vatican Council can lead to – a synod where taboos are being broken, and new voices heard, as Francis’ glasnost has its effect. We paid homage – once again! – to the octopus, exposed the disgusting fear tactics of the GOP in the current election, and noted the brain-dead book-whoring of Leon Panetta.

About which: However down I am about Obama’s new war in Iraq and Syria, the knowledge that Panetta and Clinton and Petraeus all opposed him in core respects in foreign policy makes me feel better. All three of them are vested in the way things always were, in the twentieth century, and in the smug, conventional Washington consensus that led this country down the cul de sac of the Iraq War and all it represented. If you want to know how much Obama has really represented change these past six years, just check out his critics. They tell you a lot about what he has tried to do – and the immense forces arrayed against him. For a great take-down, see Michael Cohen.

Plus: lab-grown wing-wangs! The gays are excited. And: new Carl Sagan documents on the power and beauty and miracle of cannabis.

The most popular post of the day was my critique of Islam last night and my defense of religious liberty today.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 24 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. A long-time holdout finally gets on board:

For years I have been following you on the Dish – I can’t even remember when this madness started, probably just before I left the States in 2006. Anyway, I finally subscribed. Even though I don’t always agree with you, your contribution to the in-depth conversation of matters from around the world is extremely important and I would like to thank you and your team for that.  And thanks for keeping it real!

See you in the morning.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Readers keep asking me:

I would love your perspective on the debate Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris attempted to have on Friday’s Real Time. I’m sure many other Dishheads would too. Can you please weigh in? It really is a fascinating topic that is drawing a lot of attention.

There’s been so much going on I let this one pass. But since you ask, I think it’s pretty indisputable that any religion that can manifest itself in the form of something like ISIS in any period in history is in a very bad way. I know they’re outliers – even with respect to al Qaeda. But, leaving these mass murderers and sadists to one side, any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry, any religion that denies in so many parts of the world any true opportunities for women, and any religion whose followers believe apostasy should be punished with death is in a terrible, terrible way. There is so much more to Islam than this – but this tendency is so widespread, and its fundamentalism so hard to budge, and the destruction wrought by its violent extremists so appalling that I find Affleck’s and Aslan’s defenses to be missing the forest for the trees.

Yes, there are Jewish extremists on the West Bank, pursuing unforgivable religious war. There are murderous Buddhist extremists in Burma. There are violent Christian extremists in Nigeria, and in Russia. All religions have a propensity to banish doubt, to suppress humility and to victimize outsiders. But today, in too many parts of the world, no other religion comes close to the menace and violence of Islam.

Christianity has a bloody past and a deeply flawed present. Islam has a glorious past in many respects, and manifests itself in many countries today, including the US, humbly, peacefully, beautifully. But far too much of contemporary Islam – from Pakistan through Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia – is more than usually fucked up. Some Muslims are threatening non-believers with mass murder, subjecting free societies to shameless terrorism, engaging in foul anti-Semitism, and beheading the sinful in Saudi Arabia just as much as in the Islamic State. And if liberals – in the broadest sense – cannot stand up for freedom of speech and assembly and religion, and for toleration as a core value, then what are liberals for?

Does this make me a bigot? Of course it doesn’t. Criticizing a current manifestation of a religion is a duty – not a sin. And it’s not as if I have spared my own church from brutal criticism. And it’s not as if I do not respect – because I do – those countless Muslims and Muslim-Americans whose faith is real and deep and admirable. But it’s precisely because of those true representatives of the best of their faith that we should not hesitate to point out the evil and intolerance and violence of too many others. Some things really are right in front of our nose – and contemporary Islam’s all-too-frequent extremism and fanaticism is one of them.

As for Sam Harris, we are never fully in agreement, but on this issue – the unique threat that Jihadism represents in our world and the disgrace it represents for Islam as a whole – we are as one. I do not believe that all religion is poisonous delusion – au contraire – but I do believe that this particular religion at this particular moment in time is specifically dangerous and violent, and to argue that this has nothing to do with the religion that these fanatics profess is simply denial. We’ll also very shortly be starting our discussion of Sam’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. So we can perhaps address this in that bigger discussion. Stay tuned.

Today, I tried to think through what “containment” can mean in terms of confronting Jihadist terror (I think it counsels minimalism and a defensive posture, rather than our current military gestures in Iraq and Syria). I screwed up in a post comparing Obama’s and Reagan’s record in private sector job growth – although it remains indisputable that the Obama recovery would be far stronger if it had not been strangled by willful GOP austerity in the public sector. We noticed that chickens have grown in size over the last few decades almost as much as football players; and we pondered the meaning of a sudden explosion at an Iranian nuclear research facility.

The most popular posts of the day were those on Obama’s and Reagan’s economic records, followed by my reflection on the amazing progress of marriage equality this weekend – just today saw Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Alaska, and Montana joining the bandwagon!

The entries for today’s window contest were particularly impressive. But one reader is left pulling out her hair:

It finally happened to me today, as it has happened to so many others.  I looked at the View From Your Window pic on Saturday and said “It looks like Lake Chelan” – I grew up on the lake so I should know. Then I asked myself, “Yeah, but what are the odds?” and closed the window without sending in a guess.

I love you guys, but I kind of hate myself right now.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 19 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Gift subscriptions are available here. Dish t-shirts here.

See you in the morning.

Is The “Islamic State” Islamic?

Last night, Obama made a point of stressing that ISIS is not Islamic. The usual suspects had a field day with that line, but Ramesh Ponnuru finds it sort of pointless:

I’m not sure what presidents think they are achieving when they make this assertion. (Bush did it too, all the time.) The alternative would be to say, “They claim to act in the name of Islam, something peace-loving Muslims say is a perversion of their faith,” or just to say nothing about the point. I can’t imagine that a non-Muslim-American president convinces anyone when he tells the world what true Islam is.

So why bother talking about it at all? Maybe it’s because, as Kelly Vlahos describes, America’s post-9/11 Islamophobia never went away and a new war with an “Islamic State” is only bound to make it worse:

According to [James] Zogby’s Arab American Institute, which has been polling Americans on their views of religious and ethnic groups since the 1990’s, Americans’ dislike of Arabs and Muslims skyrocketed after 9/11 and has hardly budged since. Unfavorable ratings for Muslims have declined from a peak of 55 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in July, but at the same time, favorable ratings have plunged, from 41 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2014.

Republican attitudes are clearly skewing the results. When narrowed, 63 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of Muslims, while only 21 percent had favorable views in 2014. It’s not surprising, considering how Islamophobia has attached itself to Republican politics since 9/11. … Meanwhile, well-funded fringe groups like Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, have attempted to purge Muslim-Americans who have dared to “infiltrate” the White House and other high profile positions throughout federal government. They might have gone too far in 2012, however, when they suggested long-time Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another recent poll illustrates how the link between Islam and violence endures in Americans’ minds:

A Pew Research Center poll released just hours before Obama’s speech showed that 50 percent of Americans see Islam as a religion that “is more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers.” The figure’s up sharply from earlier this year and is the highest since Pew started asking that question in 2002. By contrast, 39 percent of Americans say Islam doesn’t encourage violence any more than other religions — down from 50 percent in February. … Not surprisingly, conservatives and Republicans are more apt to see Islam as a more violent religion. Two-thirds of Republicans believe this, while independents and Democrats are below 50 percent.

Igor Volsky and Jack Jenkins lay out some evidence in favor the president’s contention:

President Obama’s condemnation of ISIS is backed up by a global chorus of Muslim voices that are working to rebuke’s the group’s claim on Islam. Virtually every single American Muslim organization has publicly disavowed both the ideology and the practices of ISIS, and just hours before Obama’s address, dozens of Muslim American clerics and community leaders distanced their religion from the beliefs of the terrorist extremists. “ISIS and al Qaeda represent a warped religious ideology,” Faizal Khan, imam of the Islamic Society of America mosque in Silver Spring, said during a press conference with Muslim-American leaders from Indonesia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Trinidad. “Either we reject this violence in the clearest possible terms, or we allow them to become the face of Islam and the world’s perception of us for years to come.”