Category Archives: Islam


2015-11-15

Debating Islam, Islamism and Human Rights

by Neil Godfrey

It seems that I for a while I have been sheltered from some of the debates over Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia as they have taken shape in Great Britain in particular. I’m trying to catch up now.

In particular I have not up till now really understood why those on “the Left” have been accused of supporting terrorists or others who would deny human rights to Muslims.

I think it’s becoming clearer to me now. Here’s how I understand what’s what — and if you think I still haven’t got it right then feel free to help out.

Islam This is the term we use for the religion of Muslims. All Muslims of all sects. It’s a religion. That’s all. There’s no one “true” set of beliefs and practices for Islam anymore than we have the same for Christianity. I’m an atheist but I’m not an “anti-theist”. I don’t see anything inherently wrong or bad in any religion in the abstract. I don’t like religion personally, but then again I don’t like mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies either. That doesn’t mean I sign up to join a program to exterminate all mosquitoes, spiders, cockroaches, sandflies from the planet — the consequences would be unpredictable.

Islamic This is the adjectival form of Islam, as Christian is to Christianity.

Islamism This refers to the ideology or political goal that a society should be subject to Islamic laws. It’s counterpart in Christianity would be political movements attempting to ban things that are deemed immoral by the Church. Many Islamists seek to achieve Islamic rule through democratic means, or if not outright rule, at least a place in government from where they can influence legislation. Other Islamists believe in violent means. These are the jihadi extremists.

Islamophobia This generally refers to any blanket hostility towards all Muslims (Islam). Islamophobes find all visible Islamic symbols and practices offensive in a Western society and associate all Muslims in some way with the criminal acts of violent Islamist extremists. Islamophobes consider the religion of Islam itself as an evil or antisocial presence. Islamophobia is the conflation of Islam, Islamism and Islamic practices and Islamist violence as an evil or hostile force.

The Debate Some of us have stressed most the need for stamping out intolerance and protecting religious freedoms. This is a good thing. read more »


2015-10-26

The Conflict between Islamism and Islam

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 9.11.15 pmThe following passages in Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening by Maajid Nawaz caught my attention: I thought it made a few points worthy of wider attention. Maajid Nawaz was once a leader in a radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and is now the chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank.  Radical is his biographical account of how he become involved in an Islamist extremist movement and what led to his leaving extremism behind. Formatting and bolding are my own.

Islam and Islamism: the difference

Important to grasp is how Islamism differs from Islam. Islam is a religion, and its Shari’ah can be compared to Talmudic or Canon law. As a religion, Islam contains all the usual creedal, methodological, juristic and devotional schisms of any other faith. . . . 

Superseding all these religious disagreements, and influencing many of them politically, is the ideology of Islamism.

Simply defined, Islamism is the desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law. Understood this way, Islamism is not another religious schism, but an ideological thought that seeks to develop a coherent political system that can house all these schisms, without necessarily doing away with them.

Whereas disputes within Islam deal with a person’s approach to religion, Islamism seeks to deal with a person’s approach to society. (Kindle, loc 1034)

Is there a problem if Islamism remains non-violent?

If the dangers of racism are apparent, even in a non-violent form, then it was the same for Islamism.

But what was the problem with Islamism so long as it remained non-violent? Was it not the right of Muslims to adopt whatever ideology they chose? Of course, it was the right of Muslims to believe that one version of Islam must be imposed as law over their societies, just as it was the right of racists to believe that all non-white people should be deported from Europe. But the spread of either of these ideas would achieve nothing but the division and Balkanisation of societies. If the dangers of racism are apparent, even in a non-violent form, then it was the same for Islamism. Communalist identity politics, self-segregation and group-think are far more damaging to societies in the long run than the odd bomb going off here or there, because it is such a milieu that keeps breeding bomb-makers. . . . .

Maajid Nawaz spent four years in an Egyptian prison and began to piece past and recent experiences together anew: read more »


2015-09-24

Sam Harris modifies his views on Islam — Encouraging step forward

by Neil Godfrey

I have just finished watching both Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz discuss their book Islam and the Future of Tolerance and was pleasantly surprised.

I don’t recall reading anything by Maajid Nawaz but my introduction to Sam Harris was his 2005 book The End of Faith, a book that disturbed me for reasons I explained in my review back in 2006. Since then I have written a few times in response to anti-Muslim bigotry that has sometimes referred to Harris for its backing. But after viewing the above video I really do hope for something more positive to be coming through Sam Harris in this wider discussion. Harris continues to struggle with his painfully ill-informed views on the nature of religion and the relationship between beliefs and behaviour but — and this is a major step I think — he has moved in his understanding of the difference between Islam and Islamism.

Thanks to his dialogue with Maajid Nawaz. As I said, I don’t recall reading anything by Nawaz but I have from time to time heard negative things. If anything I suspected Nawaz may have been one of those ex-religionists/ex-cultists who turns on his erstwhile faith with as much venom and ignorance as any other bigot could possibly muster. But no, — without knowing any of the background or reasons for criticism, I have to say I agreed with almost everything Maajid Nawaz said in the discussion with Sam Harris. (I maintained my reservation on one detail that I am currently exploring through wider reading.) (Jerry Coyne, sadly, has not moved forward very much, it seems, and is still preoccupied with the negatives of his “apologists for Islam”…. Still, there is hope…. a little…?)

As I listened to the video I took a few notes. The minute markers are only a rough guide — Where I write, say, 12 mins, the relevant section could appear anywhere between 12 and 13 mins or even a little later.

Here are my notes for anyone who wants to see a reason to watch the video for themselves …  read more »


2015-08-15

Who are the true Muslims in these scenarios?

by Neil Godfrey
Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929 (Wikipedia)

Scene One:  

At least two thousand worshippers, proclaiming, “There is no God but God; the religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” attended the rally and then descended from the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount] to the wall, setting fire to Jewish prayer books and other devotional items. . . . .

Friday prayers [the following week] began inauspiciously. The khatib, or preacher, entered. He was attired, as usual, in the traditional green cloak worn by Muslim prelates in Jerusalem. As was also typical, he was preceded by a kavass (guard), who loudly struck the ground with his stave to announce the start of the service. What was atypical was the drawn sword that the khatib ostentatiously displayed. Sheikh Sa’ad el Din mounted the pulpit. After praising and thanking God, he called upon the faithful to defend Islam from the Jews and their plots to seize the Noble Sanctuary. “If we give way an inch to the Jews in regard to their demands at the Wailing Wall, he inveighed, 

they will ask for the Mosque of Aqsa; if we give them the Mosque of Aqsa they will demand the Dome of the Rock; if we give them the Dome of the Rock they will demand the whole of Palestine, and having gained the whole of Palestine they will proceed to turn us Arabs out of our country. I ask you now to take the oath of God the Great to swear by your right hand that you will not hesitate to act when called upon to do so, and that you will, if need be, fight for the Faith of the Holy Places to death. 

The packed congregants raised their hands in unison and swore this pledge. “Then go,” the sheikh instructed them, “pounce upon your enemies and kill that you in doing so may obtain Paradise.” . . . . 

Shouting, “The country is our country and the Jews are our dogs,” and, “The religion of Mohammed came with the sword,” the Arabs descended on the quarter with sticks, clubs, swords, and a handful of rifles. The Arab police again mutinied to join the onslaught, at the end of which twenty-nine Jews lay dead and forty-three injured. . . .

(Hoffman 2015, pp. 29-30)

read more »


2015-08-12

“On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne”

by Neil Godfrey
If every time we mentioned women to a friend he started talking about their breasts, we’d be entitled to think that this was all he was interested in when it comes to women. The same goes for Coyne (and Harris’s) almost exclusive focus on religious beliefs in the context of Islamist terrorism.

Dan Jones on his blog The Philosopher In The Mirror has responded to Jerry Coyne’s little diatribe against an unpublished communication of mine in which I expressed some dismay that a highly educated academic such as himself (along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) reject scholarly research into today’s problems with terrorism and Islamic violence. What concerns me is the way Coyne and Dawkins have exploited their very public status (well deserved for their fields of expertise) to fan public ignorance and bigotry with their ill-informed commentary. Coyne has routinely denied me space on his blog to express this criticism so I wrote him the following:

Jerry, what concerns me about the various statements made by yourself along with Dawkins and Harris is that they are not informed by specialist scholarship — sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists et al — in Islamic and terrorist studies. Rather, they seem to be fueled by visceral reactions without the benefit of broader understanding and knowledge that comes from scholarly investigations into these phenomena. It almost appears to some of us that your criticisms are willfully ignorant of the scholarship. I find these visceral responses coming from trained scientists difficult to understand.

Jerry in response chose not to reply personally or to post my concerns among his comments section but made them the topic of a blog post with his reply as follows:

What “scholarship” that people like Godfrey and Robert Pape have mentioned or produced has completely ignored what the terrorists say about their own motivations in favor of blaming colonialism—something that self-flagellating liberals in the West love to do. (Not, of course, that the U.S. is completely blameless in oppressing and attacking the Middle East, but neither are we the sole cause of extreme Islamic terrorism.) As I once asked one of these blame-the-West apologists, “What would it take to convince you that some Muslim terrorists are actually motivated by religion?” Clearly the terrorists’ own words don’t count: the “scholars” claim to know better. This unfounded psychologizing clearly shows their motivations.

Jerry flatly declined my subsequent request to post a reply on his blog so I was pleased when a reader alerted me to a more prominent and accomplished writer taking up the cause with On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne. He begins:

So now it’s my time to get into the water – and hopefully clean it up a bit.

The full response of Dan Jones is well worth taking time to read. I post here just a few excerpts. (Bolding is my own.) read more »


2015-03-26

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »


2014-10-14

Jerry Coyne, meet Hector Avalos

by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know if Jerry will permit the following words appear on his blog. He has trashed my comments in the past. I submitted the comment in response to Heather Hastie on female genital mutilation: Is it Islamic?  I avoided specific reference to FGM and spoke instead more generally of barbaric practices. (We all know the real instigation of all that has contributed to the current outrage is 9/11 and that FGM is just one more opportunity to kick Islam to the exclusion of other religions.)

Am I permitted to post an alternative view here?

Associate professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and author of The End of Biblical Studies and Fighting Words, Hector Avalos, shows us how ALL religions that are grounded in unverifiable beliefs are at various times and places susceptible to being used to justify a host of barbaric behaviours.

Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, ancestor worship — all have been used to justify horrific practices.

By focussing on just the one religion that is being used by certain peoples in certain times and places and with certain experiences to justify evils we are focusing on the symptoms and missing the real reason for the problems.

No-one blames Christianity or ancestor worship for the barbarisms that drenched pre-Communist China in blood even though these beliefs were used to justify all sorts of hideous tortures and cruelties. We did not always have terrorist Muslims crazed to kill Westerners.

There are reasons that prompt people to flick switches and use religion to justify horrors. The common factor in all of these contingencies is the way we give social respectability to belief systems that are unverifiable.

If we don’t recognize the causes (the real causes) of religious violence and barbarism we are not going to help progress civilized values but could in fact be contributing to the ignorance and chaos.

See, Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity.


2014-10-05

Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity

by Neil Godfrey

Jerry Coyne has posted Resa Aslan’s response to claims that the Muslim religion is inherently bad. He labales Aslan as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.

Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand why they appear not to be truly communicating with each other. I have in the past argued the same points as Aslan makes. So watching Aslan is somewhat like watching myself.

It forces me to ask what’s gong wrong here.

Listening to the two sides of this discussion I’m pushed to try to understand what is going wrong. I have in the past argued the same sorts of clearly empirical facts as Aslan presents:

fightingwords

  • 1.5 billion Muslims cannot be all painted with the same brush — terrorism and violence, female genital mutilation, denying women’s rights such as not allowing them to drive — since Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia cannot be compared with Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
  • Muslim majority countries have elected seven women heads of states.
  • In Christian countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia we find nearly 90% and 75% prevalence of female genital mutilation.
  • Women participate fully in political and educational opportunities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and others.
  • Buddhists massacre Muslims in Myanmar (Burma).

But as we see in the video arguing such facts obviously does not easily persuade. The problems are still seen as Muslim problems.

Others like Jerry only see Resa as “the Great Muslim Apologist”.

After reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos I have been trying to think through the question afresh. A response by Hector Avalos to one of my posts is pertinent. In response to a crude interpretation of my own Avalos replied as follows. The caps are Avalos’s and the bolding and is mine: read more »


2013-08-19

The Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt

by Neil Godfrey

rahimExactly one week before the Egyptian military’s removal of the Morsi government I received a copy of Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within, edited by Lily Zubaidah Rahim. One of my particular interests at the time was in Turkey and I posted some interesting observations in the book about the Muslim government there: Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory? (That chapter raises the question of how valid are the fears of Muslim victories in democratic elections. The way the Muslim party has ruled in Turkey provides an instructive contrast with what happened recently in Egypt.) Other posts discussing Rahim’s book are archived here.

This post has been sitting half or less done in my drafts for some weeks now, and since the Egyptian military removed Morsi this post feels very academic and pointless ancient history. Patrick Cockburn’s view that Egypt has begun to enter a new dark age with the forces that had backed Mubarak’s bloody dictatorship more entrenched than ever.

povey

Tara Povey

Anyone following Egypt’s events in any detail will not find anything new here. The author is Tara Povey. Her chapter is titled Voices of Dissent: Social Movements and Political Change in Egypt. There is an earlier version of this chapter (published before Tara Povey moved to the University of London, and so not with the same details I cover in this post) here. Tara’s chapter in Muslim Secular Democracy is a much revised and augmented version of that online post. But let me post one section from it that overlaps with the new print chapter:

Islamic movements are generally portrayed in the West as undemocratic and are equated with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

In reality they are far from being homogenous and uniformly conservative.

Islamic reformism, modernism and dynamic jurisprudence have a long history in the region, beginning in the 19th century when reformers sought to strengthen and reform Islam and oppose colonialism. Today, diverse Islamist frameworks exist which are not based on opposition to the ‘West’ as a whole but rather oppose the West’s support of undemocratic regimes, the prosecution of wars in the region and highlight the importance of a society founded on the principles of social justice and equality.

In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic groups have participated in t he democratic process and are playing the role of a genuine political opposition.

Since the 1990s a number of Islamist movements such as the al-Nahda movement in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah and HAMAS have entered electoral politics and have actively campaigned for democratic reform. This has prompted one author to note that in some countries Islamist movements “have been more strident in pressing for democratic change than have non-religious political parties.” Women’s activism has played a vitally important role in these movements and diverse strands of Muslim and Islamic feminisms have been formulated through which women have fought for gender equality as well as democracy, social justice and freedom from foreign domination. (my bolded emphasis.)

After the fall of Mubarak Western and other pundits were expressing fears that the events would lead to the takeover of Egypt by the MB.

The forces involved in the uprisings, however, says Tara Povey, “have been broader than any one organization or political party.”

Povey explains that the events surrounding the removal of Mubarak have forced out into the open generational and ideological splits within the MB. read more »


2013-07-12

Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory?

by Neil Godfrey
Christopher Houston

Christopher Houston

Christopher Houston, head of the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney, raises some interesting questions in his contribution to Muslim Secular Democracy, “Militant Laicists, Muslim Democrats, and Liberal Secularists: Contending Visions of Secularism in Turkey”.

Do those of us who believe in a secular democratic system need to broaden our vision of what a secular democracy can look like? Is our democratic way of life potentially threatened more by new social groups (Muslims) emerging in our midst of by our unfounded fear of those new groups? Is a Muslim-led government ever compatible with a secular society?

Does Turkey (and Egypt?) have anything to teach us about the future of democratic institutions in a world (Western and beyond) that is destined to find Muslims playing an increasingly influential role?

 

Adalet_ve_Kalkınma_Partisi-logoThe reason Turkey’s conservative Muslim party (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) and its supporters favour the Western democratic system is simple. They represent the majority. It is the democratic system that has brought them to power, firstly in 2002, and again in 2007 and 2011.

There are many “middle ground” Turks, too, who are apparently content enough with the current system even though they may not all vote for the AKP. These middle-of-the-roaders are not Islamists. But they seem to be content enough to accept the re-election of the AKP Muslim party. The AKP does, after all, “claim to be inspired by secularism and democracy” (Houston, p. 255).

There are other “secularists”, however, who fear the democratically elected Muslim party is attempting to “Islamize” the nation by stealth, and these people are increasingly expressing disenchantment with Western-style democracy on the one hand, and a preference for a military coup on the other. Though a minority, they do have close ties with key military figures who are sympathetic to their views.

We saw what happened in Egypt, and before that, in Algeria, when democratically elected Muslims found themselves removed by the military. Both coups appear to have had significant popular support.

What leads them to believe that the democratically elected Muslims are secretly turning Turkey into an Islamic state? read more »


2013-06-07

End of Faith and Other Pulp Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

harris-atranSam Harris in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation has written a lot of uninformed nonsense about religion in general and Islam in particular. Don’t misunderstand. His logical arguments against religious belief systems are entirely valid. For a time when I was in the process of recovering from my own religious experiences I would have endorsed almost everything he wrote. Even mainstream Anglican pabulum was a threat to humanity because it lent social respectability to religious faith and the Bible, and that made it possible for extremist cults — who also claimed faith and the Bible as the foundations of their seriously harmful systems — to germinate. (I was focusing on the intellectual constructs as the easy and obvious target, failing to realize that there was something far more significant at the root of religion.)

At the same time I was going through that phase I could not help but notice a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, my argument was entirely rational, and borne of experience. But was it the whole story? If there had been no notion of faith or the Bible in any religion, would that really mean we would be living in a Utopia? Was it really only social respectability for faith and the Bible that cults fanned into something monstrous? Was there not also a shared dream of a better world? Should such idealism also be condemned? Was there not also a shared belief in the rightness of doing good? Even the dreams and the morality of the cult could be turned into destructive weapons. But they could also be used for much good, too.

Cults may sprout out from mainstream religions but it does not follow that they are the cause or to blame for them. A host to a parasite is hardly to be blamed for the parasite.

Religion is not going to disappear, or if we believe otherwise, it certainly won’t be demolished by rational answers to its teachings of faith and belief systems. I guess that thought was beginning to dawn on me when I started this blog and that’s why I’ve never been interested in any sort of “anti-Christian” or “anti-religion” crusade of any sort. People will respond to precision arguments and new questions when they are ready. Crusading against irrational beliefs — or against even rational ones based on false data — will rarely accomplish much more among the believers than to send them scrambling for better reasons for holding fast to those beliefs.

That is, polemics like those of Sam Harris are based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of religion and may in fact be backfiring and strengthening religion’s power in the world. It’s only in recent times that I’ve begun to truly grasp this.

So it was with some relief that I read a fact by fact rebuttal of Sam Harris’s diatribes against all religions and Islam in particular. The following (as well as the title of this blog post) is based on a section of Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human by Scott Atran.

Fact One: read more »


2013-05-28

Honour Killing (from Inside Muslim Minds)

by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsI was recently challenged over what some see as my defence of Islam and failure to condemn the many evils is apparently spawns — terrorism, honour killing, sexism, Sharia law, persecution of apostates, denial of free speech — and told I could easily do so without any fear of over-generalizing. I was surprised to find my recent posts being portrayed as a “defence of Islam”, as an apparent attempt to whitewash the religion and to overlook its monstrosities.

What I have been seeking to do in most posts is to provide factual information from reliable sources in order to do my little bit to try to correct what I see as general public misconceptions about Muslims. Of course there is much that is reprehensible in the Muslim religion (as I have said) but my intent is to try to point out that the present wave of Islamophobia (see The Word’s Origin and Meaning) is grounded in misinformed views about Islam, Muslims and Sharia law, as well as about terrorism and cultural heritage.

As an atheist I have no time, personally for any religious belief. Yet not too many years ago I found myself with the State leader of an Australian Muslim community inviting him to participate in a public information session so that anyone willing could hear and question first hand what Muslims believe about themselves and the world. My interest was then, as it is now, in public education and community harmony. (Around the same time I also found myself planning civil rights activism with leaders of the local Roman Catholic Church.)

The reference to honour killings in the challenge pulled me up with a start. I have always understood honour killings to be a horrific practice found among certain cultures (not religions) around the world: northern India (Hindu and Sikh), southern Europe and Latin America (Christian), Australian aboriginal desert tribes and probably a few other similar tribes around the world, and a cluster of Islamic countries (Pakistan in particular). So when I have from time to time heard of critics of Islam citing honour killings as one of the many sins of that religion per se I dismissed the criticism as ignorant or at best only partially informed. No-one that I know criticizes Christianity or Hinduism as being religions that inculcate the practice of honour killings because of the crimes found among their cultural subsets.

The following is based on what Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor Riaz Hassan has to say about honour killings and Muslims in his book Inside Muslim Minds (pp. 200-208).

Honour killing is another ugly label that has come to be associated with Muslim countries. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, prominent feminist organizations have taken up the cause to stop its occurrence.

Here Hassan singles out Shirkat Gah and Women Living Under Muslim Laws as the most vocal campaigners against the practice and responsible for well researched publications.

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Shirkat Gah (SG) (“place of participation”) has a strong web presence:

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Women Living Under Muslim Laws similarly:

Hassan refers to UNICEF statements and the following are from my own search across UN publications: read more »


2013-05-27

Is Sympathy for Terrorist Acts a Muslim Monopoly?

by Neil Godfrey

Reality check here

Question: If Muslim sympathy for terrorism is not driven by religious fanaticism, then why does support for terror seemingly exist more among Muslims?

Answer: Muslims hold no monopoly on extremist views and are, in fact, on average more likely than the American public to unequivocally condemn attacks on civilians.

A [2007] study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.41.59 PMContrast those figures with data taken from the same year from some of the largest Muslim countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

Agree that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified“: read more »


2013-05-08

Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?

by Neil Godfrey
Untitled 2

Associate Professor Rahim

This morning there was a radio interview with Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the University of Sydney about her new book, Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within. You can listen to the interview or download it (it’s only a few minutes) from this RN page here. Where I depart from the interview itself I use grey font.

In sum, Lily Rahim argues the significance of the five most populous Muslim nations — India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh — thriving in either full or hybrid democratic state.

Most Muslim majority states today were originally conceived as secular or quasi secular democracies. But since the mid twentieth century many of these states have moved closer to the Islamic state paradigm — that is, with the onset of Islamization and political Islam that swept through the Muslim world in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

A return to the Caliphate?

The interviewer asks if it is not a fact that the Caliphate, the union of religion and the state, that is at the heart of Islam.

Rahim argues (along with other scholars, including Muslim scholars) that the “Islamic State” is really a modern-day twentieth century construct and that the seventh century Caliphate was a phenomenon unique to that period. The Caliphate thus cannot be repeated. The Islamic states that have arisen in more recent times are not replications of the Caliphate. Rather, they are modern attempts to legitimize ruling elites.

Failure of theocratic and secular autocracies read more »