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:
- 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:
My position is a bit more nuanced than that. As you know, in The End of Biblical Studies, I actually argue that most of the Bible is IRRELEVANT precisely because Christians don’t follow most of it, but only a selected number of texts.
I argue that Christians pick and choose WHICH texts are going to be held relevant. Yet, the few texts they do follow and put into effect can have great consequences.
So, the fact that Christians still CLAIM to use a TEXT to authorize their behavior is as important as, or more important than, WHICH text they choose (e.g., Luke 14:26).
The appeal to supposedly revealed textual authority exists as a principle regardless of how little the text is used. And that appeal to textual authority is where a significant problem in generating religious violence still resides.
Here the religion was Christianity but the principle applies to the Muslim faith, too.
When I was still fresh out of my own old world of religious faith there was a time when I found myself sitting with a group of activists planning some sort of public awareness campaign in response to our local parliamentary representative attempting to persuade his constituents to support yet another looming war somewhere. Our group was meeting with local Roman Catholic representatives to see if we might coordinate our efforts. I was far from enthusiastic. I had not wanted to be personally involved in any cooperation but was pressured into attending the meeting anyway. All I could see in the RC representatives was that they had just come from a church service and were motivated by their faith and the desire to glorify their God by letting their lights shine as commanded by Jesus. They were using us to publicize their religion.
What I was doing (and I knew it, too) was seeing my own recent devoutly religious self in them.
Today I am not so confident that human nature and motivations can be so easily classified in such black and white categories. Sure there was a religious motive but how much of that was somehow mixed up with what we would have believed in doing even without religion? Split-brain experiments and other studies in genetics and neuroscience warn me to put on hold hopes of conclusively understanding questions of free will and human motivation.
It is easy for most of us in Western Christian countries to contrast the relatively benign nature of the Christianity we know with the violence that the media channels to us from selected Muslim countries and conclude that the latter is intrinsically barbaric.
If we remember Christianity’s own often barbaric past we can assure ourselves that “our” religion is more advanced ethically because it has worked through all of its demons and left them behind in darker ages.
So today Christians don’t seize upon the Biblical instructions to execute witches, homosexuals and sabbath breakers. They instead select the “love thy neighbour” and “suffer wrong” verses.
So, the fact that Christians still CLAIM to use a TEXT to authorize their behavior is as important as, or more important than, WHICH text they choose.
Our religion is therefore ethically superior to that of so many Orientals. That’s the subtext.
But why do we choose those “love texts” now and downplay the ones that justify righteous war upon our enemies? (Some tongue-in-cheek intended.)
Surely that’s where a little knowledge of history or comparative sociology is called for. We know that in other times and circumstances “we” do choose other biblical texts to enable us to function appropriately or according to our interests. Slavery has been both justified and condemned by appeals to Scripture. Ditto for questions of women’s and children’s rights, sexuality, capital punishment.
What it all comes down to, it seems to me, is that people rationalize through appeals to holy texts behaviours that are generally as much a response to personal or social (including economic and political) circumstances as anything else. If so, then the question is to ask why Saudi Arabia continues to forbid women to drive while other predominantly Muslim countries keep electing women to political office. The most difficult questions for many of us to explore would be those where fingers are sometimes pointed at our treatment of those nations that have hidden our oil under their sand. (We cannot avoid the fact that religious reasons are not always the only explicitly stated rationales for many terrorist attacks.)
What this means is that religious faith remains a powder-keg. It might continue dormant for generations but when new circumstances arise, new pressures are introduced, we can expect moves to persuade believers to turn to other appropriate revealed texts to meet those new challenges.
It is convenient, even self-interested, to follow revelations of peace and love when one is living in a relatively prosperous and stable society that offers personal opportunities for so many of us.
Religion permits people to act on unverifiable beliefs. That is its evil as Hector Avalos demonstrates so well in Fighting Words.
So what is going wrong in the Youtube interview?
Aslan is bypassing the religious factor that is involved in Muslim crimes because these do not define all Muslims; the interviewers are bypassing the conditional factor in Muslim crimes because they hear their perpetrators justifying them in the name of Islam. Jerry Coyne is missing a great opportunity to challenge the heart of religion.
Perhaps the evils we see committed in the name of Islam today should provoke us to examine the very nature of religious belief itself and motivate us to respond in ways that are more inclusive and conscious of our common humanity.
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54 thoughts on “Muslim Violence: Understanding Religion and Humanity”
Dear Mr. Godfrey,
I’ve been lurking for some time here, as I’m very interested in Christian origins and I prefer history to theology.
I am an atheist, raised nominally as an Episcopalian in the States, but with a mother who converted from Judaism. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and love my relatives, but I don’t identify myself as such beyond a vague ethnic affiliation.
I have struggled for a long time with the issue of Israel and the West in opposition to Palestine and radical Islam. I respect Jerry Coyne a great deal, but the knee jerk response that he and so many others employ has always smacked of basic in-group/out-group loathing. I recognize the tactics; they have a long and shameful history.
Yours is one of the very few takes I’ve seen to honestly step back and reassess the problem. I’m very grateful to see you practice the same skepticism of your own views that you preach so eloquently. I’m also grateful for the point of view you afford me, one that I feel I will spend time with and make my own.
I hope that Mr. Coyne will read this, and take it to heart. An emphasis on our common humanity and a focus on the problems with religion, not just Islam, seem a better place to begin than anything he has offered.
Unfortunately I think Jerry blocked comments from me a while back when a related question was being addressed on his blog. Or maybe there was some software glitch at the time. It’s a shame. He loves to attack religion. When he attacks Islam the way he does he plays into the hands of Christian and other Western supremacists. Perhaps he only sees religion’s faults insofar as it comes to conclusions at odds with science and perhaps he fails to grasp what Hector Avalos sees. Maybe it’s easier for those who have been through the worst of the religious experience to understand what the enemy is really like. Maybe it’s also much harder for anyone who has made himself a public voice for a cause to take a step back and reflect. Maybe it up to others to work harder to get another perspective out there.
Thanks for your encouraging comment.
Are Turkey and Indonesia and Malaysia Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Somalia?
Does this mean that Efes beer is a Muslim beer? Or that Bintang beer is a Muslim beer? Surely it does, as they are brewed in Muslim countries.
Why do some Muslim countries have breweries ,while other Muslim countries , like Saudi Arabia and Somalia have no breweries?
Just like violence does not define all Muslims, not drinking alcohol does not define all Muslims.
The lesson from this post (if there is one) is that people like Coyne should not stereotype Muslims.
It is just as ‘Islamic’ to drink alcohol as it is to behead people – in other words, only a minority of Muslims support such things. It is as wrong to stereotype Muslims as violent, as it is to stereotype Muslims as drinking alcohol. Sure, some Muslims do (in countries like Turkey and Indonesia), but that does not make drinking alcohol part of the definition of Islam. And if some Muslims are violent, that does not make violence part of the definition of Islam either.
No Steven, the lesson is not the moral equivalence of brewing beer and murder. The post is a condemnation, not a defence, of the Muslim religion. You seem stuck on autopilot and appear incapable of seeing anything to do with this topic from a fresh perspective.
I never said it was the moral equivalence of brewing beer and murder.
I was pointing out that Muslim countries differ drastically from each other, so you can’t stereotype them the way Coyne did.
I see Jerry has just huffed another bit of ignorance with his presentation of the Pew stats on Muslim responses to surveys. All the public controversy has forced me to collect a range of scholarly works on Islam and Muslim populations and I’ve posted quite a bit about my readings in the past. It seems Jerry is quite content to ignore such literature and rely upon shallow media bytes.
For example, he writes this of the findings on Muslim attitudes towards sharia law:
Of course, everybody knows sharia means cutting of hands and heads and committing terrorist acts.
Did Jerry even bother to read what the Pew publication had to say about these figures?
We’ve a long way to go. Where to begin?
The poll is scary, nevertheless. Because specific questinos about parts of Sharia Law were asked. In Egypt for example, 64% of Muslims (that’s 74% of the 86% that believes that Sharia Law should be implemented) support the death penalty for apostasy!
To the degree that I understand what you say, I agree with you (and Avalos) that the root of the problem is the obedience to sacred texts. Even if Christians today (mostly) ignore the most gruesome parts of their holly text, as long as they view Bible as a sacred text the danger is still there.
I think though that *today*, Islam is much more dangerous than Christianity, since the Enlightment never really caught up in most Islamic countries. We could discuss the historical and socio-political reasons for that but it still is a fact.
And the dismaying thing about today is the growing number of voices in the West condemning the Enlightenment. These are coming from our Christian leaders especially (e.g. Bauckham et al).
Does not this bring us back to the political-economic-other factors that have created the conditions for the reactions we are witnessing in various places right now?
These are the final paragraphs in Hector Avalos’s book:
How to do that [the educational program] without returning to another form of colonialism? A return to “taking up the white man’s burden”?
What would happen if our foreign policy withdrew support from all dictatorships and supported secular democratic movements, and historic rights of all refugees of all races to return and live free? Maybe we could start by exhuming the memories of the secular democrats we helped bury all those years ago thus allowing the rise of the imams to take their place? But I’m dreaming pointless fantasies. But it’s a point worth keeping in mind when we attempt to rebuild from what remains after the damage done from climate changes. Now I’m being overly pessimistic, yes?
“What would happen if our foreign policy withdrew support from all dictatorships and supported secular democratic movements, and historic rights of all refugees of all races to return and live free?”
Well, for one thing, the powers that be would face the greatly reduced probability of maintaining global petroleum price stability and would increase the fear that other powers will swoop in and grab control. With that in mind, there’s no way your proposal would stand a chance. But you already know this. It just shows how these things are complicated and reinforce your central point that there is no one Big-Bad-Thing-We-Must-Wipe-Out.
Secularists are very often talking past each other on the global terrorist threat. Those who hold the nuanced position you have presented can do a better job at agreeing where truth intersects both positions. This should be attempted where possible because the primary base motivators in reactionary political alignments are emotive. Just to be clear, in no way do I wish this to substitute for a relentless, rational approach to world politics or for an abdication of long term political solutions.
“Well, for one thing, the powers that be would face the greatly reduced probability of maintaining global petroleum price stability and would increase the fear that other powers will swoop in and grab control.”
Petroleum price stability is a symptom, not the disease. The West demands perpetual, infinite growth in a finite world with finite resources. Why? Because Western economic theory serves moneyed interests who demand compounding interest on their capital. As a result, petroleum price stability is subsidiary to finding new ways to compound interest on capital. Remember the gaming of oil prices higher through the manipulation of futures contracts back in 2007/2008? The powers that be only care about the price of oil to the extent that it can be manipulated to generate outsized profits compared to actual supply and demand.
Islam is in the crosshairs because new, emerging markets for usury are today’s equivalent of conquering your neighbor. The preferred weapon of the modern West is Finance, but that doesn’t work in a society that does not allow Finance, so we revert to type and go back to Military Conquest. Conquer Islam, force them to accept Western Finance, and voila, we create “growth” that could not exist otherwise.
To be optimistic, it might happen. But I won’t be holding my breath.
I think you’re right. You should read ‘Misquoting Muhammad’ – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Misquoting-Muhammad-Jonathan-C-Brown-ebook/product-reviews/B00M80KZ64/
Of course Avalos’s point is that as long as we look to revelation or sacred texts to rationalize or instigate our actions — whether good or bad — we are on dangerous ground and supporting a way of thought that can be turned either way according to the circumstances or the make-up of the individual who comes into the fray. Professionals trained in conflict resolution need to be in the front lines for a start. But it takes a political decision to go that way.
There are still questions I’m working through. Is it possible for people to continue to find comfort in a religion that they don’t look to as a revealed guide to behaviour?
The most liberal of liberal theological Christianity seems to be doing just that. I don’t know how effective this will be long term as it is non-rational as far as I can understand. It seems to be a way for those with a religious need to justify thoroughgoing secular attitudes while basing such in the modern Christian conception of agape and the nebulous ground of being ideas.
But the problem of revelation still seems to be down at the murky base.
I think that is a major part of the problem. We have thousands of years of religion embedded in our societies and as Niko said, obedience to sacred texts appears to be the root of the problem, even if they pick and choose which verses to follow or ignore. But as Neil said, “is it possible for people to find comfort in a religion that they don’t look to as a revealed guide to behavior”? I don’t know. They feel they can’t admit that their scriptures aren’t a revelation from a divine source or it won’t hold the weight they want it to hold, but many don’t want to believe that it’s ok to follow certain verses that sanction violence. The pressure and fear to leave is too much for them, so they just pick and choose which verses to follow. People prone to violence and power tend to use certain verses to their advantage and others that don’t agree with them ignore them. But both want to claim that their scriptures are from “God”. There’s a lot going on here for sure.
“Is it possible for people to continue to find comfort in a religion that they don’t look to as a revealed guide to behaviour?”
Given that we’ve only had “revealed” religions for around 2200 years, the answer is yes. Prior to that time, which accounts for a much greater portion of human societies than what followed, people managed to find comfort in their religions without the false certainty demanded by the “Abrahamic” religions, for example.
What seems to elude most is the difference between religious texts of religions. In Islam you have the Quran and the Hadith. If the traditions and practices from the past is regarded as part of divine revelation, any further interpretation or discussion related to the initial religious text does not exist.
“It is easy for most of us in Western Christian countries to contrast the relatively benign nature of the Christianity we know with the violence that the media channels to us from selected Muslim countries and conclude that the latter is intrinsically barbaric.
If we remember Christianity’s own often barbaric past we can assure ourselves that “our” religion is more advanced ethically because it has worked through all of its demons and left them behind in darker ages.”
It has perhaps not worked through all of its demons and left them behind in darker ages, because there have never been any “demons” or “darker ages” to work through.
There have been attempts to do so, like the fading reforms implemented by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. And I agree on there being more complexity to the discussion than is often portrayed when different positions search for support. Take your own arguments like:
-Saudi Arabia continues to forbid women to drive while other predominantly Muslim countries keep electing women to political office.
Which I assume you relate to what you correctly state as empirical facts.
-Muslim majority countries have elected seven women heads of states.
From where we can draw what conclusion? Does it give insight regarding women’s rights? Let us examine how theory correspond with reality. Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan are examples related to women in political office and head of state. The position of women in Pakistan as favorable or not depends on the eyes of the beholder, does it not?
Now, keep in mind I am not judging or condemning. I am simply expressing my personal preferences, not as better or worse, but as different and incompatible. And that Christianity seems to have a capacity of adapting to culture and society, while Islam seems to have a capacity of adapting culture and society.
I think you have missed the point. Firstly, your opening paragraph is an opinion and not a fact. There is indeed discussion and interpretation.
I think if you read a bit more of Christianity’s history you would see it has had some incredible demons. Unfortunately, subsequent generations who wish to justify their heritage exorcise these demons and send them into other factors leaving “Christianity” clean.
-I see Turkey and Indonesia as fake democracies like Russia or Argentina (but nowhere near as secular as the latter two). They, I think, are roughly equidistant from real democracies like the Netherlands and Switzerland and from Somalia and Saudi Arabia. I also see both Judaism and Islam as fundamentally religions of war and Christianity as fundamentally a religion of peace (at least, judging from the relevant holy texts), but I understand and agree with your main point in this post, that
Many Australians have been watching the recent election in Indonesia with close interest. I don’t know what could be considered fake about their democratic system. Sure there were a few irregularities but no more than those that afflict the system in the U.S. — and they are written about and brought before courts. But the significant thing is that one of the candidates, Prabowo, reportedly fully expected to win the presidency with his money and campaign strategy and advice from Bush adviser Rob Allyn. He didn’t. The people voted for the civilian candidate without the taint of criminal/human-rights denier record despite all of Prabowo’s nationalist rhetoric.
If democracy in Indonesia is fake then it’s fake in Australia, too. (Okay, it really is fake in Australia but that’s another question about the difference between genuine democracy and what goes under the name in big states.)
But back to the main point: If you judge a religion by the texts then aren’t you falling into the very trap Avalos is saying is the core problem?
Yes, Indonesia’s electoral system is more competitive than that of Turkey. But atheists are still imprisoned there for blasphemy:
A genuine democracy must not only have majority rule, but also minority rights. If minority rights are not protected, then how can a country be democratic?
As for your final question, my answer is “I don’t think so”.
Avalos does, after all, say “The appeal to supposedly revealed textual authority exists as a principle regardless of how little the text is used.”. So the texts still carry some importance. Also, the texts still have correct and incorrect interpretations:
But, of course, as Daniel Pipes points out, a religion cannot be defined merely by its sacred texts, just as one cannot define a country’s political system merely by its constitution.
You have misread the article you cite. He was not jailed for being an atheist or for blasphemy at all. The NY Times article explicitly says that the court of Padang threw out the atheism and blasphemy charges. (I have been to Indonesia quite a few times now and find it difficult to imagine a court jailing anyone there for simply being an atheist. Indonesia is not an “Islamic state” like Saudi Arabia despite it being overwhelmingly Muslim.)
Indonesian minorities are protected by law. The state can hardly hold together otherwise given its cultural and geographic diversity. Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, even lady-boys in the streets — they are all free to express their identities. (I am simply trying to point out the facts in relation to Indonesia being a democracy by normal standards: I am not defending Indonesia as an ideal society by any means. Its “issues” are very many and deep — especially with rich-poor divide and the all too common corruption. During elections there people feel as included and as powerless as Australians do with respect to their elections. Certainly much more empowered and free than in Singapore.)
Every country has bad laws and injustices and social evils (I have spoken with both Muslims and Christians there about the gangs in some areas who have attacked and killed Christians) and racist undercurrents, but the point of a democratic system is to empower the people themselves to address these. And that is happening about as efficiently and inefficiently as we would expect in such a country where corruption still has too many strangleholds.
I don’t see how the Freethoughtblog article addresses the issue raised by Avalos, nor the Daniel Pipes saying. Both are missing the critical point.
Even if he was imprisoned there temporarily (before the court threw out the blasphemy charge), he was still imprisoned partly based on the charge before it was thrown out by the court. And Indonesia does have blasphemy laws still on the books:
Neil, do you know of any other majority-Muslim, secular [e.g., without blasphemy laws or proselytizing bans], democratic countries besides Sierra Leone, and, perhaps, Tunisia and North Cyprus? Turkey has blasphemy laws:
And my home state had laws against witchcraft and fortune tellers till not very long ago. Sunday trading and sports playing on Sunday was also banned through most of my growing years. We also have anti-blasphemy laws here in Australia and sometimes people have attempted to enforce these such as when a blasphemous film or play makes its debut. The devout come out in rowdy demonstrations and make threats against the producers etc.
What is the question that concerns you, actually? It sounds like you are trying to ignore the evidence that contradicts your prejudice and are determined to find evidence that confirms it. I am the first to admit that Indonesia has many problems as do most countries in the real world. I am also the first to acknowledge cultural-specific laws, as well as their historical background.
But I am currently reading a book that discusses the situation of Jews in fourth century Antioch in great detail. Here is a passage I came across this morning:
The simple fact is that Indonesia’s Muslim extremists are opposed by Indonesians generally and by government direct action specifically. Indonesia has one of the most effective methods for combatting extremism and terrorism in the world — okay, apart from shooting them they also achieve an enviable record of turning minds around among those they don’t kill. The article some people are pointing to as “from ex-Muslims who must be in the know” in fact demonstrates its own ignorance (and outright falsehood) by listing Aceh as a so-called example of rising Indonesian Muslim extremism. Aceh, if anything, is evidence of the very opposite.
Twice as many Australians, with a small Muslim minority, are estimated to have joined Islamic State to fight than have Indonesians (400:200) even though majority Muslim Indonesia’s population is nearly ten times that of Australia.
Indonesians and Turks — I have spent time in both places living with locals — really are just like you and me and anybody else who loves to get along with people and has the same interests in the welfare of their children etc etc. They are not extremists; they deplore extremism and violence of any kind.
-I don’t see anything wrong with that; it’s a form of protection of the public against fraud. It’s not remotely equivalent to blasphemy laws or selective proselytizing restrictions.
-Such laws are burdensome and pointless, but do not force anyone to even implicitly acknowledge the precepts of any religion, unlike blasphemy laws.
-How effectively enforced are they? As you’ve been to Indonesia, do you have an impression that these laws are enforced more stringently in your home country or Indonesia?
-I always find “extremists” to be a highly slippery term, which, without context, is close to useless. What do you mean by this phrase?
-I’ve never questioned this. Most people are either too self-occupied, lazy, or reasonable to die for a religious cause. However, the people’s wishes are, at least partly, reflected in election returns. So we should (at least, in democracies) look at government policy on religion as at least partly representative of the views of the people.
-Alright, Neil. Explain how the extension of Sharia to non-Muslims constitutes “the very opposite” of “rising Indonesian Muslim” “extremism”.
-I think this is because Australian Muslims have (on average) fewer close family members and can pay for more plane tickets.
Simple enough. “Can Muslim countries like Turkey and Indonesia be compared with Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Somalia?”
-[Raise eyebrow.] I went out of my way to find examples of secular majority-Muslim democracies. It was pretty enlightening reading learning of the religious restrictions in the Maldives and Malaysia.
I’m not sure what the point of this conversation is. What research have you done to understand the peoples you seem to be concerned about?
We are talking past each other. You have missed my point entirely about what we find on statute books.
If you don’t understand the Aceh situation and how it relates to Indonesian Muslim attitudes and the import of what I’ve already said about it then why not do some research? (I have been following the problems in Aceh for years now and took it for granted most people knew the basics, so it was a bit of a shock to be reminded just now how ignorant of the outside world some Americans are.)
I can’t see how anything I say is going to make any difference to your outlook and I have no wish to be drawn into a conversation about how good or bad Indonesian and Turkish Muslims in the eyes of Westerners on the basis of media reports and polls that few people bother to read with any care or judgement in any case.
Again, what research have you done to understand this aspect of the world more deeply than the average person in the street?
Also, what do you think “the critical point” is?
That was the message of the post. It can be a difficult concept to get one’s head around at first because of its many unexpected ramifications.
So what is “the message of the post” and how are both “the Freethoughtblog article” and “the Daniel Pipes saying” missing it?
If you don’t get it from reading the post there’s nothing more I can say.
And as you’ve answered none of my questions, there’s nothing more I can understand about your positions.
re accuracy of Aslan’s statements:
I am always wary of claims by Ex’s. Not that I believe their words should be rejected simply because they are Ex’s but because the potential for motivation to present a distorted picture is something to always take into account. Nor do I believe that Aslan’s words, or anyone’s words for that matter, should be taken at face value simply because, well, simply because.
But at the same time I do not believe that the words of Ex’s should be rejected on principle any more than I believe Aslan’s words should be rejected on principle.
How about doing a bit of homework? How about getting it clear exactly what it is we are wanting to understand and what our real questions and concerns are?
I have read a lot about Muslims and the culture and political setups in Muslim countries in recent years by authors who are professional scholars doing research into these societies. I have also read quite a few serious scholarly studies on terrorism and terrorists. By and large they all tend to come to the same sorts of conclusions about the natures of the various Muslim societies.
I don’t rely upon a grab-bag of webpages or videos that fan my preconceptions.
I don’t reduce the question to a simple matter of black versus white. I don’t believe any country is without its social problems and I don’t believe in simplistic judgments.
The objections to Aslan’s claims in the article you link to are nothing more than the No True Scotsman fallacy.
Some are as mischievous as the authors accuse Aslan of being. They hold up Aceh as representative of Indonesian practice — somehow failing to mention that the Indonesian government has been engaged in a long struggle with the extremists of Aceh in attempts to bring them into line with the rest of Indonesia and thwart the separatists efforts to become independent of Indonesia.
I don’t know how anyone can look at the claims on that website and seriously believe they contradict the simple facts Aslan cites (he didn’t make them up — they are in the same sorts of surveys such as Pew polls that Jerry Coyne loves to cite when it suits him).
But to get back to the post’s point: to attack Aslan’s data is is to simply extend the problem that the post is attempting to address. Aslan is overlooking something fundamental. Let’s look at that and understand how that fits in the larger equation.
There was another article at patheos on Aslan.
I posted some comments debunking the misinformation in that article, but my posts were not accepted. I am not going to accuse the site host of deliberately not posting my posts because they called him an outright liar, it might well be that there was a technical issue and he never got to read them and approve them, but I wish they had gone through so that others reading that article could have known the incorrect statements it contained.
It is good to see Neil exposes the lies and hypocrisy of some of these militant atheists. At the end of the day, atheists are like religious people, you have some good ones, some bad ones, some that are tolerant of other beliefs, some that aren’t and have you what.
Perhaps the problem is viewing Islam as a “religion,” in the modern sense of the term. From my perspective, all Abrahamic “religions” were established as states, i.e., church and state were intended to be inseparable, but the political/statist functions of Judaism and Christianity were either forcibly removed (e.g., by Rome) or lost gradually over time (e.g., the Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment). Islam is “old school.” It’s political/statist functions have not been lost; indeed, in many Islamic countries, such functions remain strong and Islamic laws administered by Islamic clerics are an important part of maintaining the polity.
Fundamentalists of all stripes inherently seem to understand that Abrahamic religions are/were states (witness the Protestant concern of having JFK, a Catholic (beholden to the Pope!), in the White House, as well as modern concerns of Sharia law being enacted by municipalities across the USA), perhaps because it is often their goal to make their religious law the law of the land.
I’d argue further that most people subconsciously view Muslims essentially as citizens of a single state, regardless of where they live or what nationality they are. People don’t think that way of Christianity or Judaism because church has been separated from state (even in Israel, I believe) in all Western societies.
Once you think of Muslims (wrongly) as homogeneous and (again, wrongly) as members of a single, territory-less state, it is very easy to take the next step and vilify them as you would any other “enemy” (e.g., the former Soviet Union). This is no accident. While it is easy to understand why some fear Islamic extremism, the current level of fear is well beyond where it ought to be, most likely because of Western propaganda to stoke fears. Why would the West engage in such propaganda? Islam’s “intrusion” into secular laws (e.g., usury laws) creates a major barrier to the expansion of Western power into Islamic countries and over their populations. The West is actively engaged in a war against Islam as part of what Samuel P. Huntington described as “The Clash of Civilizations.” The goal of that war is to transform Islam into a modern religion sheared of any claims of control over what ought to be secular matters.
So, what does this have to do with Coyne and Aslan’s conversation, or why they are talking past each other? Coyne and Aslan are each talking about their own “Islam,” and neither is talking about Islam as it actually is. Coyne is discussing Islam-the-State (and enemy). Aslan is discussing the Islam-the-modern-religion (when it is not modern at all). Islam in reality has elements of both church and state, and discussing it as either just a “state” or as a “religion” misses the point.
To be fair, Turkey is kind of a special case. Ataturk went about purposefully secularizing and modernizing the country. Fundamentalsits are now trying to regain some of their lost power.
You may be interested in my earlier post about the Muslim success in democratic elections in Turkey from the perspective of the anthropologist Christopher Houston: Can Democracy Survive a Muslim Election Victory? Houston argues that as in the West (though Turkey straddles East and West) the fears are disproportionate to the reality.
From Lily Zubaidah Rahim, editor of Muslim Secular Democracy:
There is a tendency in Western discourse to take Christianity and its development as the “Default norm” and apply that standard to measure all other religions. The “text” (Quran) is very important—this is true—the Quran is a Guide and its application is the interpretation. (Similar to Judaism where the Torah is the “Guide” and application is dependent on Talmud, Mishneh, Rabbinical works, Halacha…etc). These interpretative philosophical works have their agendas and the ones that have had influence today are the various post-colonial works.
One such “type” or group has the theme of laying all the blame for problems such as injustice, dictatorships, poverty…etc on the idea that Muslims have strayed away from “Pure” Islam and if they got back to it, the problems would be solved. This “Pure Islam” happens to be whatever that particular group arbitrarily decides it is, and all others who do not agree are excluded. Unfortunately, the history of the development of Islam can be used somewhat to play into this theme—unlike the history of Western Christianity with its Dark Ages—Islam had its “Golden Age” soon after its advent. (The argument may be similar to the one that some secularists use—that religion(or Christianity in the West) is the root of all problems and going back to reason (like the ancient Greeks) would solve the problems)
Though such “Purists” type groups have always existed in Islamic history, they have not lasted long. Today’s “Purists” groups have come about as a response to the post-colonial situation. Grappling with Nationalism and Identity in an increasingly globalized world has made today’s situation more complex. The use of these “Purists” for proxy wars by various Muslim and Non-Muslim powers ends up making these bad ideas dangerous. To counter bad ideas with Good ones can be done—but when these bad ideas are backed by guns…it is a different situation altogether……Today, for geopolitical purposes, one particular “bad idea” is being backed by Saudi petrodollars and U.S. armaments………..(However, it is by no means the only “bad idea”—for example, there are also similar ideas in Burmese Buddhism and Indian Hinduism that are also backed up by those in power for political purposes….the reason they are not yet global is because the “West” isn’t involved in them for the moment…so they remain regional problems…..)
In Islam, the “Law” (Sharia) was separate from the “State”. The Law/Sharia balanced the power of the State. Today Laws are enacted by the government in most countries so this separation no longer exists. In the U.S. many “laws” have been enacted for political purposes that are detrimental to the people—such as Zero-Tolerance laws, Torture, Patriot Act…etc. So there is a problem when the Government begins to abuse its power to enact laws—creating injustice.
Unlike Halacha (Judaism) which is a single system of “Law”, Sharia is multiple systems of law. Not only are there many (5 major) schools of law within Sharia itself—but it cannot apply to non-Muslims and therefore, non-Muslims would have had a right to their own laws in a Sharia country/nation….Today, to have plurality of laws in one nation may not be workable…..which may be one reason many Muslim-majority nations confine Sharia to personal//family law situations.
If the application of law is to be Just—it must be separated from the agendas of the powerful. “Law” can become unjust when it is used for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. In many countries today “Law”, such as tax laws, laws of commerce or finance, or other that impact the powerful and the wealthy are worded to favor the few who are wealthy and powerful. (the “too big to fail” idea). So, “secularism” has its own problems.
In the West–“to drive” may be an important issue….but may not be for other countries. To drive—may not be the most important burning issue for the majority of women in the searing heat of Saudi Arabia—perhaps affordable public transport may be more important? —–Particularly, temperature controlled underground transportation might even be a blessing! So, simply because an issue is considered “important” from a western perspective—its importance is perhaps subjective….?…. likewise, each Muslim-Majority country may have its own priorities and national interests and geo-political concerns whose importance is subjective to that country/Nation.
Pakistan’s disparity in treatment of women—-The nation of Pakistan has disparities in its society—for example some women are university graduates and others are prevented from going to school (Malala Yousefzai) but then the U.S. also has disparities for example, 1 in 4 women in the U.S. suffers from domestic violence, and People of Color (Ethnic minorities) make up 30% of the U.S. population but the jails are 60% POC—not because “whites” commit less crimes—but because the U.S. justice system is biased. (the biased implementation of Zero-Tolerance policy).
Sometimes, some of the complaints about Muslims/Sharia are more a reflection of the concerns and “projections” of the culture/society of the complainer than they are of “Islam”. In that context, it can be interesting to dismantle these complaints to see what concerns they symbolize of the “West”/”Westerner” (for ex–the Australian Hijab campaign to show solidarity with Muslim women—and the response/reaction)
While importance is subjective, I would dispute the implication that full-blown cultural relativism is the only objective approach left to us. For example, the issue of women driving is clearly not just of Western importance – that its proscription would be etched into policy belies this very notion. People generally don’t ban things of little significance, let alone enforce it through checkpoints and fines. Indeed, the very act of banning women from driving makes it into an issue long before we even consider Western reactions. That its significance would be downplayed by deflecting onto the West strongly suggests that the true underlying reasoning may be unacceptable even within their own borders lending credence to the idea that the differences lie not so much in the values as the conditions and the way they interact.
I do not understand Saudi policies…but I did have a brief conversation with a Western Muslim woman who had been to Saudi Arabia. Apparently Saudi women who can afford cars have chauffeurs (or male relatives) who drive them around wherever and whenever they want. Considering the climate of Saudi Arabia—I can see why “to drive” is not a burning issue for Saudi women. There is a difference between the concept of freedom of mobility and specific methods of securing that mobility. From what I understand, to not drive may not be an inconvenience—rather what may be inconvenient is that apparently Saudi women need a male guardian or approval from a male guardian for certain cases of travel. I do not know details of Saudi policies nor do I understand the nuances and intricacies of Saudi culture…..but it is for the citizens of Saudi Arabia to decide and choose what freedoms are a priority and how they negotiate the implementations of such freedoms within THEIR cultural norms.
“True underlying reasoning”—-interesting phrase….implying that the “western” (or “your”) understanding is the “true” reasoning….?….
But it is also possible that within their cultural norms—the protection of women is of more importance than convenience—which may explain why Saudi men put up with the inconvenience of having to escort their womenfolk…?…….But then—in the U.S. also—“Protection” is why people put up with ridiculous Air Travel restrictions….!!…..
““True underlying reasoning”—-interesting phrase….implying that the “western” (or “your”) understanding is the “true” reasoning….?….”
No. I’m talking about motivations. If I put forth a justification for something that demonstrably contrasts with my actions and words, it stands to reason that there is a deeper motivation beneath the surface. Certainly one could argue the ban was enacted to protect women, but that’s rather inconsistent with the idea that the issue is only of importance to the West. Indeed, they demonstrably consider the issue of “to drive” important enough to police.
In any case, to drive or not to drive is not the issue, but rather equality under the law. Justified or not, the term for policy to limit one’s freedom for their own good is paternalism, which is a matter of subordination no matter how you slice it. Now one could argue that the level of control imposed is justified by the uniquely high cultural importance of women trumping the aesthetic of equality, but is it true? It’s one thing to appreciate the unique values of a differing society, it’s quite another to take a tendentious narrative at face value. People have been known to subconsciously internalize the reasoning and the rationalizations which maintain power structures by conflating them with cultural identity. For example, if one were to merely take the word of US citizens they may quickly become convinced that gender discrimination really is a thing of the past here.
If an issue is important enough to police—how does that indicate “true underlying reasoning”—which you assume is (female) inequality?
“Justified or not, the term for policy to limit one’s freedom for their own good is paternalism, which is a matter of subordination no matter how you slice it. ” —-I agree though “oppression” might fit better than “paternalism”.
The right to our freedoms and the right to safety/security do sometimes conflict—in order to have safety/security, a freedom may have to be compromised—for example, One woman commented to me that she wants to see a society where a woman can walk naked at night and not be harmed!. Amusing as her comment might be—if all men were banned from the streets or public places at night—perhaps this may be accomplished—but in order to secure safety for one group—another’s freedom is compromised. Likewise, in many places in the West, A Muslim citizen’s freedoms are compromised when the Non-Muslim citizens demand the right to security/safety. (New York–for ex). Does this speak of inequality? does it subordinate the rights of one group to privilege another?—Yes.
So, how do we negotiate a good balance between safety and freedom?—There is no “right” answer because each generation must grapple with this tension in their own way and find a balance that works for them—in other words—-this ideal will always be a work-in-progress that each generation must strive for. To do this, a country needs critical and intelligent dialogue with ALL of its citizens as equal partners and members of the nation.
So, Saudi citizens, both men and women—must decide about the issues to drive or not to drive/the balance between freedom and security…on their own terms. What the west can do—is provide the space and the freedom for various Saudi voices to be heard. What the West should not do is assume that Saudi women are without intelligence, autonomy, or courage and need the “big white westerner” to “save” them. Whatever answers/solutions the Saudi’s come up with for the issues in their country, the next generation of Saudi’s should renegotiate to suit the circumstances they find themselves in……as must we all……
I’m speaking from the standpoint that it’s said to be unimportant. If it is important, there generally is a reason why one might downplay its importance.
I opted for the less moralizing term because it better ties into the spectrum of security and freedom you point out. By definition, any limitation of rights that falls under oppression is unjust. But yes, what we see at work is the interaction of values that every civilization experiences.
One could point out that there are those that will end up on different parts of the spectrum due to unique societal conditions such as differing factions and internal strife, but it would be silly to suggest the values themselves differ wildly as though there existed societies where people would eschew personal rights and pursue subjugation. I disagree that even game theory couldn’t be applied here because we play Yatzee while they play Chinese Checkers, requiring us to impose the value of dice. Not only are there certain universals, but we aren’t strangers to one another as our connections go even farther back than the days when the Ottoman Empire adopted Western institutions to maintain itself, as well as the purist movement which developed in response and went on to become the very foundation of Saudi Arabia. With how connected the world is today, it’s rather tendentious to simply treat politics as though they exist in a vacuum and insist that we let the chips fall where they may.
I also disagree that freedom is something intrinsically limited in supply. More often than not, this is mere myth peddled by a dominant power to cast its system in a benign or neutral light. For example, there is no innate need for a man to rape a woman because they are naked in front of you. But when the voices of education dictate that this is not only natural, but a trial of one’s culturally necessary manhood the conventional wisdom becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Socialization is just another aspect of power dynamics and a self-perpetuating device. That gender equality can’t be anything other than a zero sum game is just a myth that is made into reality.
We don’t. What we observe is that they are without a voice and without power. It is the height of naivety to assume that everyone will be afforded input in a nation’s institutions by virtue of citizenship. That women’s rights have always decided on a fair and level playing field is yet another self-serving myth as women are demonstrably restricted in power and without influence in government. Only recently have they even been bestowed with the right to vote and run for public office.
When we free a slave of their shackles it’s not because we deem them lesser beings that are too weak and incompetent to secure their own freedom, but because we consider them as equals that we feel they should be free and recognize that people can utilize their power to render others powerless regardless of their intelligence or character.
Oops. I thought I’d put the quotes I was responding to in tags to make them easier to see, but instead they were eaten.
You make some interesting points with which I agree. Yes, “Principles” are generally universal, their implementation is relative. So, the desires for freedom and security are universal—how they are negotiated within particular societies is relative.
“What we observe is that they are without a voice and without power.”—Yes, but is it possible these observations are prejudiced? During the so called “Arab Spring” women protesters participated—obviously some agendas such as corruption and systemic change may be higher priorities to the women of the region than what the “West” prefer their agenda be? Your last paragraph seems to equate the condition of the slaves to that of Saudi women—I hope I have misread/misunderstood. The savior complex is a binary perspective in which there is a victim that needs “saving” (or in this case “freeing”) and a savior (the West) that does it for them.
Equality—is a complex principle. It can be equivalent to “same” as in–for all citizens to have the same treatment under the law—or for both genders to be paid the same for the same work. However “sameness” does not always lead to equality or justice. For example, reserved parking spaces for the handicapped privileges the handicapped over the non-handicapped. So, sometimes in order to equalize, privilege has to be given to one group of people that is not given to another. So, for women in Japan sameness of workplace position or pay is not a priority—The privilege they want is quality, affordable childcare facilities and flexibility in their work days and leave days for childcare responsibilities….and when they don’t have what they need—they don’t get married (and remain single working women) which means they don’t have babies and this creates a headache for the Japanese government. Redistribution of privilege is one way to equalize but redistribution of responsibility is another—so, in some countries, the responsibilities of childcare and home maintenance–which may have been primarily women’s responsibilities— have been redistributed to both genders as have the responsibility for the families financial maintenance which may have been the men’s responsibilities. So there are many paths to actualize the principle of Equality and all are valid if they are negotiated by all concerned in that society/culture.
What is not right is to assume that a particular implementation that has worked for our society/culture is “universally right” and must therefore work on other societies/culture. What is right is that while we must all push for universal principles—we must also respect the right of others to arrive at their own solutions and answers as to how they will implement these principles into their socio-economic-cultural situation.
I’m not sure how you could determine the priorities of every woman in the nation from one shared cause, even accepting that that the united struggle against “corruption and systematic change” were somehow separate; humans are multifaceted and tend to weigh in on more than just one factor that affects their lives.
The purpose of the slave analogy was merely to illustrate the flaw in ascribing characteristics based on power dynamics, not to encapsulate the experience of women in Saudi Arabia. In any case, I’m not suggesting that we march a liberation force in and rescue anyone, but rather that we offer our support to those who seek it. That women will soon be able to vote stands as proof that solid change can be accomplished from within without foreign imposition. One must ponder where this internal push comes from in such a conservative country if Saudi women are nearly so dispassionate on the subject.
I don’t feel that you fairly characterize the concept of equality. It’s not about dictating personal preference nor giving groups advantages at the expense of other groups, it’s about removing group-specific barriers – equal opportunity, not “sameness”. Your disability example applies perfectly here. No, this is not a case of privileges being reserved for one group, it’s a response to collective human needs under universally-recognized circumstances. Disability is an umbrella of conditions that can affect any human at any time, not a competing power seeking to press its boot on your neck. You can benefit from this privilege just as much as anyone, even if you will never have the opportunity to invoke it.
Your argument of personal preference in the face of outright exclusion and bans is bizarre. Aside from the silliness of doing your damnedest to shove someone out the door while insisting they simply don’t care, why even have this ink blot of superfluity on the books? Why ban that which was never an issue to begin with because no one cared?
“I would dispute the implication that full-blown cultural relativism is the only objective approach left to us.”—by the way—I do agree with this statement—I think that an either/or approach for human intentions and behavior simply does not do justice to human complexity.
While the Boxers held a millenarian ideology, they were reacting to the experience of disruption Christianity had wrought on China. Not only had foreign missionaries asked for extraterritoriality for themselves, but they had obtained it for their flock as well. This split the villages straight down the middle, as people tried to use the dual system for their own benefit.
Rapid and disruptive social change and millenarian ideologies are closely related – the US has proven this time and again. Discussing the ins and outs of ideologies (religious or secular) is a waste of time; worse, it heightens tensions through polarization, as each side holds up his “text.” It is hectoring all the way, endlessly, like the pile of turtles upholding the earth in many myths. What we should do is to see the “hidden” reasons for the ideology, and understand the people’s experience, and try to work with them to resolve their problem.
In commenting to a post on Aslan and FGM I mentioned the success of the Positive Deviance Initiative (Monique Sternin) in lowering rates in a few Egyptian communities. Amid the din of blaming, judging, and casting aspersions, it got lost. It did not come as a surprise to me.
Ever since Eve tried an experience, and got promptly rapped over the knuckles for doing so, the West believes that words move people. They don’t (unless it is gossip – see Dunbar). Between the theology of “truth” and the anomie of “relativism” experience provides closure, and a way forward. Which the Sinic civilizations call “silent transformations.”
What you have said here is also most apt to go with my comment on a related post here: http://vridar.org/2014/10/14/jerry-coyne-meet-hector-avalos/#comment-68555
Yes, with other religiously-justified crimes we know darn well that other factors are involved as you point out with respect to the Boxer rebellion. Many of the Boxers claimed they were acting at the behest of their ancestor’s spirits. (Of course we know that was a rationalization for other motivations. That goes without saying.)
We’d be thought looney today if we blamed ancestor worship for the cruelties perpetrated by many of the Boxers. But that’s the level of reasoning many of us apply today in relation to Islam.
but you missed my main point (which I made later in the post) – experience, not discourse, changes people. And in order to share for a common experiences, one has to stop talking. Chinese “indirection” prepares the way by avoiding partisan positioning and division. We have a lot to learn.
Much of what is being said about Islam is no better than “hurrah – hurrah; boo, boo” – to use terms made popular by philosopher A. J. Ayer (a boo by any other, even clever name, is still a boo). We have to live with diverse people, so we better think of how to achieve this (i.e. closure), rather than trying to convert them, blame them, or telling them that they are “inferior, barbarous” whatever. Whether they are or not – it is irrelevant to the task at hand.
I agree that human beings are multifaceted—But the Western Media are not—that was my point. The west sometimes makes accusations based on an assumption that their own cultural perspectives are the default values by which everyone else must be measured by. I only hoped to point this out—but seems I am not successful……..so perhaps we give this argument a rest…?….
Equality and power dynamics—My understanding of equality was in context of justice not power dynamics. Power dynamics are not about equality—rather about inequality. Equality and power dynamics are in tension with each other but justice and equality are on the same side. Where there is justice, there is more equality (and where there is equality there is more justice) and were there is excessive Power dynamics there tends to be oppression. Is it necessary to reduce the complexity of the concept of equality to only the aspect of equal opportunity?……
(Equality=equivalent degree of human worth)
I think “Affirmative Action” (?) in the U.S. was about giving privileges to Black people in order to correct prejudice and systemic discrimination?…..
Not sure what you mean in yr last paragraph so unable to comment on it………
@ Aldo Matteucci
I have long been impressed by community problem-solving initiatives. But, what solution works in one community cannot always be carried over to another—Yet sometimes governments try “pilot programs” for a community which they then try to take nation-wide….(and then fail….)
IMO, the focus should not just be on “solutions” rather on the “process” of empowering the communities to come up with their own solutions to problems……?……