The Trouble With Religion, Ctd

A reader writes:

As a professor of religion, I cannot resist responding to Reza Aslan‘s latest effort to put foolishness in the mouth of “every scholar of religion.” According to him, the “principle fallacy” of “New Atheists” and many other “critics of religion” is that “they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.” It takes only one scholar of religion to refute that claim, and I am happy to be that scholar.

The first problem with Aslan’s view is that it treats “morals” and “religion” as if they exist in two separate boxes. The second problem is that it assumes that “morals” can impact “religion” but “religion” cannot impact “morals.”

It is of course the case, as Aslan argues, that people “bring their values to their religion.” That fact helps to explain why they can read the same texts (the Bible, the Quran) and find in them such divergent plans of action. But it is not the case (as Aslan also argues) that “people don’t derive their values from their religion.”

Aslan is quite good at telling interviewers on CNN or FOX that they are oversimplifying things. But here his own oversimplifying is epic.

Religion, culture, values, and morality all grow up together, intertwined, and there is no simple way to disentangle them, either in an individual life or in the history of a civilization. The reason we try to disentangle them is to defend one while throwing the other under the bus. Like the New Atheists, we want to indict “religion” for clitoridectomies or suicide bombings or homophobia, so we pretend that “religion” is separate and at fault. Or, like Aslan, we want to protect “religion” from Hitchens’ claim that it “poisons everything,” so we pretend that it is “culture” or “morality” that does the dirty work.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Is religion really as inert as Aslan implies? Religious beliefs, institutions, practices, and leaders shape us, both culturally and morally. A nun tells you to take care of the “least of these,” and you listen. A pastor tells you to “hate fags,” and you do. Yes, we hear these sermons in bodies and minds shaped by moral norms and cultural forms, but those are shaped in turn by religion, which is shaped itself by morality and culture. And round and round it goes, as just about every scholar of religion in the world will tell you.

Another notes a “striking juxtaposition” of two Dish posts:

In “The Trouble With Religion“, Reza Aslan tells us, “People don’t derive their values from their religion – they bring their values to their religion.” But in “Hasidic No More” (the immediately preceding post – was that deliberate?), we are told about the Satmar Hasidim, ultra-orthodox Jews who live lives that are strictly regimented: isolated from the secular world, segregated by sex, told what to wear and how not to cut their hair, commanded to say a particular prayer after their morning shits.

Another piles on:

Aslan is generally a pretty thoughtful guy, but this is just silly. First off, he talks as if all adherents of a religion come to it voluntarily as adults, already possessing set ideas about how life works. Children who are raised in a religion most definitely do not. Depending on their parents’ devoutness and how immersive the religion is, they derive their values from that religion.

He also elides the existence of religious authority. While adult adherents do come to a religion with their own values, no religion simply accepts and adopts those values. Religions have doctrines. Insofar as they are text-based, they have canonical lists of religious texts. They have authoritative interpretations of those texts.

Of course, there’s tremendous variation in how strict religions, sects, denominations, etc., are. Some tolerate a good deal more heterodoxy than others. And some build authority from the bottom up, rather than deriving it from the top. But none are completely without authority. To one degree or another, all religious communities are disciplined communities.

Aslan has more of a point in Western societies where ethnic identity has largely been divorced from religion and states no longer dictate religion, so a person can shop for the religion they want, and change at will. That’s very much the American experience nowadays, but it’s hardly universal.

Lastly, he ignores the fact that often what adult converts want – what they come to a religion for – is transformation. Their whole purpose is to lose their values and adopt the religion’s.

The Trouble With Religion

In a follow-up interview to his comments featured in our “Trouble with Islam” thread, Reza Aslan elaborates on what the New Atheists get wrong about religion:

I think the principle [sic] fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

Below is how he responds when especially problematic verses in sacred texts – such as those permitting the faithful to kill nonbelievers – are noted in debates about religion:

This is the thing — it’s not that you can interpret away problematic parts of a scripture. It’s that the scriptures are inundated with conflicting sentiments about almost every subject. In other words, the same Torah that tells Jews to love their neighbor also tells them to kill every single man, woman, and child who doesn’t worship Yahweh. The same Jesus who told his disciples to give away their cloaks to the needy also told them to sell their cloaks and buy swords. The same Quran that tells believers if you kill a single individual, it’s as though you’ve killed all of humanity, also tells them to slay every idolater wherever you find them.

So, how do you, as an individual, confront that text? It’s so basic, a child can understand: The way that you would give credence or emphasis to one verse as opposed to the other has everything to do with who you are. That’s why they have to sort of constantly go back to this notion of an almost comical lack of sophistication in the conversations that we are having about religion. And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

How We Feel About Islam


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 Islam so 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.

Dissents Of The Day


Freddie deBoer emails the Dish:

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.

There is also a bunch of great dissent over at our Facebook page. One reader there:

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.

More unfiltered feedback from readers on this Facebook post as well. A sample:

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.

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.