October 15, 2014

On Criticism of Islam

So, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher said this:

That stirred up a bit of shit, but the real deal came the next week, when Maher brought up the topic again, this time with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck in the free fire zone:

I like Bill, but I think he's on the wrong side of thing here.  Or, if he isn't, he's not being sufficiently specific in his criticism to convince me.

For one thing, he never actually names the "liberals" he's calling out or provides examples of the kinds of things to which he objects.  Without that, it's hard to tell whether he's right or wrong.  Reading between the lines, he might be talking about people who argue either that (1) it's important to distinguish radical Muslims from those more moderate and liberal ones and who stress the need to not paint an entire religion with a broad brush or (2) religion isn't really the root cause, or is one of many contributing causes, to the violence in Iraq and elsewhere.

I'm leaning toward the first, because Bill is fond of making broad sweeping comments, in this and all other areas.  Also, it's bolstered by something Harris said during the second segment:
There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don't take the faith seriously, who don't want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.
This is an argument I see pop up with some regularity in the atheist blogosphere that really makes no sense.  I've hinted before that, as an atheist, I really don't have a say in who gets to claim the label of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever.  It's enough to note that radically different people with apparently irreconcilable positions both claim the title and leave them to sort it out.  Thus, it comes off as awfully arrogant to claim that the non-lethal members of a religion are so in name only and really don't take their "faith seriously."

It's also stupefyingly bad politics.  Although there are some atheists who are intent on turning other people into atheists, most of us (I hope) are more interested in ensuring that the government stays a secular institution and that no religions dictates get enshrined into law.  In that quest we can count on a large number of Christians, Jews, and other religious folks who value church/state separation, for whatever reason.  It's beyond counterproductive to tell them they aren't "really" religious because they've signed on to a moderate form of a particular faith that lets them live in peace with their neighbors.  After all, that should be the goal.

Leading the push back against Bill and Sam (or coming to Affleck's rescue, if you like) is author Reza Aslan.  In a New York Times piece he makes an interesting point:
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase 'I am a Muslim,' 'I am a Christian,' 'I am a Jew' and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
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. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
Azlan also argues that "scripture is meaningless without interpretation," which I think is his way of saying that no text, regardless of how explicit it appears, stands on its own.  Everything has to be interpreted, which says as much about the person doing the interpreting as it does the text itself.  Don't believe me?  Read courts taking opposite positions on the same statutory or Constitutional language - it happens all the time.

Which is not to say that Islam itself is off limits from criticism, nor are those who act in its name when they do horrific things.  Fareed Zakaria sums up the situation pretty well:
Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.
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.
And that was before ISIS wrote proudly in its Enlglish language magazine (there is such a thing!) of its enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq.  Yet Zakaria still concludes that Bill and Sam are guilty of being too broad when talking about Islam.

If Bill's problem with liberals and Islam is the second one I laid out above - that they might tend to look deeper than just a "religion=bad" analysis, he's on even shakier ground.  It's easy to point to religious conflicts through history, ones where one faith battled another.  But it's hard to find ones that are really, deep down, about religion itself.

To use a non-Islam example, think of The Troubles that racked Ireland for so many decades.  On the surface, it was a sectarian struggle, between Catholics and Protestants.  Dig deeper, however, and it turns out that those were convenient labels for groups that were actually split between Irish republicans and British royalists.  They weren't fighting over the finer points of the Reformation or Transubstantiation, they were fighting about political control of Ireland.  As Azlan wrote, being "Catholic" or "Protestant" in the context of that struggle was more about a form of identity, not theological rigor.

Hell, even Richard Dawkins is softening a little bit as to whether ISIS and the like are really about religion or not.  If the Grand Poo-Bah Supreme Potentate of Atheism (tm) has come to that conclusion, surely Bill can't complain!

There's nothing wrong with criticism, either of a person or an idea.  However, broad criticism of entire groups of people does very little good in the end.  It doesn't help you understand the nuances of a situation or the deeper currents that may be driving it.  It doesn't help draw those to your cause who may think you're an arrogant dipwad for telling them what they believe.  It might feel good to blow off a little steam and feel superior for a while, but that doesn't get you very far.

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