Can’t Stop The Prophet?

So I encountered this on the weekend: Is it Wrong to Blame Islam? (sorry for the spoilers but the answer is apparently NO)

It annoyed me a bit. It annoyed me in a multi-dimensional manner. It annoyed me in its assumptions about religious history and belief. It annoyed me in its practical implications. It annoyed me because I’ve read a lot of articles like it before. Although Case claims:

“In the long run, the common good is rarely served by refusing to address serious questions, however painful they may be.”

Which implies that issues around Islam not being addressed in Western societies. I see Australian politicians saying stuff like this and doing stuff like that. I see conservative Australian media personalities talking about this constantly.

Truly, the silence is deafening.

I was tempted not to write a response. But I just know that with a little application, I can make a bad situation worse. Through out the following, I will be referring to the noted article and the steady stream of comments that I read from the conservative press here in Australia. This response has been building up for some time.

So lets start with the authors three main points:

  1. Islam is a religion built on violence.
  2. Islam is totalitarian.
  3. Muslims support terrorism.

Too Many Rappers Identities


Before I start with the rational argument thingies, I want to ground this in my own experience*. I have not had an encounter with Islam as a thing (it is after all, not a thing but a set of ideas) – but I have had many encounters with Muslims.

I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. I grew up in an 80s provincial UK town and went to a Church of England comprehensive school. My social life revolved around the local church. I was aware that Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims existed but I didn’t know any. I first encountered Muslims at university. Or rather, I first encountered men and women for whom “Muslim” was part of their identity. Some were from overseas. Some were the children of immigrants. But my impression of them was that they were as much “Glaswegian”, “Punjabi”, or “medical student” as they were “Muslim”. They were trying to cope with many responsibilities and opportunities at one time. “Muslim” did not seem to be the supreme identity over all that. We didn’t talk a lot about religion as I recall.

One of my best friends while living in London was a Muslim. When I stayed with him, pork was not allowed in the house. Though he drank. And he cruised voraciously for other men. Yes, he was a Muslim. But he was also Malay. And an accountant. And gay. He kept these different identities separate (the biggest wall seemed to be between his business and sex lives).

Since then I have worked with many Muslims – male and female. Some wear the headscarf, some don’t. Some drink alcohol, some don’t. Some eat pork, some don’t. Some pray 5 times a day. Some don’t. Mostly we talk about work and family and friends and some of the crazy stuff that happens in the world. Some of them I love. Some of them really annoy me. We all have roles and responsibilities. And the foods of the Lebanese and the Malays and the Egyptians and the Bengalis and the Iranians are as a tasty as I am gluttonous**.

So perhaps I am already biased. I struggle with seeing “Islam” as one thing. And I am more interested in the voices of individual Muslims and what they tell me about their experience than anything else.

It Was Written

OK. Back to me argument thing. Lets establish some ground rules. I am an atheist. I do not believe in a god nor do I believe any claims by religions that their scriptures or precepts derive from a god. For me, religions are works of human creativity and therefore insightful, perverse, beautiful, inconsistent, and ridiculous. Religious beliefs and institutions both enable and constrain us. I am therefore more concerned with what religions allow people to do and what they prevent rather than whether they are “true” or not. What are their affordances?

Effective religions last over time. The thing about an effective religion is that it has to both cover a lot of bases and also have a lot of wiggle room. Religions must offer an explanation of the meaning of life and a connection with the divine but they can’t just do that. They also have to provide support, sanction and structure for love, family, social organisation, economic activity and political violence. Those that don’t offer these things do not last long except as curios and hiding places in larger cultures – e.g. the celibacy of the Shakers.

What about these violent origins? Well, I was raised with the Old Testament – which is an incredibly violent set of texts – including murder, rape, torture, incest, war, ethnic cleansing. The will of Jehovah is regularly used to justify horrific acts. The New Testament is far less explicitly violent (crucifixion excepted) but situation of the early Christians was very different to that of the Old Testament Jews. The Jews were a middle-eastern tribe warring for their survival with other local tribes. The Christians were a sect within a largely peaceful if oppressive empire that viewed them with varieties of disinterest, homicidal suspicion and eventually opportunistic acceptance. However the relative peace of the New Testament did not stop later Christian rulers from engaging in horrific wars against others or each other and using their religion as a justification. For all its pacifist origins, Christianity has been bloody. Even states based on an ostensibly pacifist religion like Buddhism have engaged in wars, conquests and enslavement.

But how is this possible? Don’t the original scriptures of a religion completely define the actions of its followers? Well, no. The ideas underpinning these different worldviews are less important than the contexts in which their adherents live. We tend to overvalue the role of ideas in the world. Ideas are a great scapegoat. Don’t blame me, the ideas made me do it. It is as though we look at a bush fire and focus endlessly on the spark that ignited it rather than the dry brush that fuels it and the strong winds that drive it. If only the spark had been a different shade of blue, the fire would have been completely different.

This is not to say that ideas are not important. A good idea can express a common mood as yet unexpressed. Or provide a different perspective on a common problem. But ideas do nothing by themselves. Action is reserved for us.

Rappin’ Textural Literalism Is Fundamental

I suppose what we’re really talking about here is authorial intent versus reader reception. I suspect one reason why Christian conservatives are more comfortable focusing on literal readings of the Quran and their supporters in the Muslim world is their preference for literalist and orginalist readings of key documents in general (the Bible, the US Constitution). Originalist and literalist readings by their very nature tend to be conservative. But they are not the only kind of possible readings.

There is a risk with calling someone a “fundamentalist”. It implies that literalist and originalist reads are “correct” and other readings are “incorrect”. Case does this in his discussion of Nasr and Nawaz. The traditionalist is some how more authentic than the reformer. This is exactly what the traditionalist will tell you. But why should we believe him and not the other?

This intellectual focus on fundamentalists is reflected in the way that many in the West talk about Muslims. We often talk “real Muslims” as being the bearded guy dressed like a 7th century Arab. The beer-drinking, bacon-sarnie consuming ones aren’t “real Muslims”. They can’t be because they neither fit in with the rhetoric of Islamic conservatives nor the image of Muslims held by Western conservatives. They get erased from the conversation when they are a necessary part that stops it all spinning into oblivion. The world is full of heretics and apostates.

Stop. Get back to the point.

OK. Is Islam built on violence? Violence is embedded in the rise of Islam. It is also embedded in the rise of Judaism and Hinduism because they began as tightly bound to political entities (nations, tribes). Christianity and Buddhism avoid the connection with violence in their early years as they are independent of a political identity. However as soon as they become bound to political entities that need to deploy violence to achieve their aims, that largely ceases to matter. Everyone’s a badass all of a sudden.

The related question is: Can someone be a member of these religions without glorifying violence? And the answer to that is also yes. Obviously. They can just skim through the bits about hacking people up for believing the wrong things. People do that all the time.

How about the claim that Islam is totalitarian? Similar deal. Some adherents believe that Islam can control all elements of a society. Medieval Christian states attempted to control the sexual, economic, legal, even culinary aspects of believer life. Some Christians look back fondly at that period and want to bring it back. The current fight in Australian about marriage equality is bringing these people to the fore of social debate and the results are not pretty. N.B. All religions describe claim to offer the truth about the world which therefore means their adherents may be tempted by totalitarianism.

However, Islamic tradition and current practice in some countries indicates that this isn’t the only way to be a Muslim. Case knows this but he wants to stress that the totalitarian trend in Islam.

But Islam as it is now is not as he would like it to be, hence the need for reform. I do not deny that Islam can be reformed, but I insist upon not speaking as if the reform has already taken place. The fact that Islam has the potential to become tolerant and non-violent doesn’t entail that it is actually tolerant and non-violent any more than the fact that a guilty man could repent entails that he has repented.

The language here is a little odd. Islam is compared to a guilty man who must repent. I’d like to see more evidence of practices from Muslim-majority countries (where tolerance varies drastically) here rather than quotes from two books by Muslim theorists. It feels like something is being moved over very quickly here. The conjunction of “non-violent” and “tolerant”. Most Muslims do not kill people. I think they’d be right to ask: “Can we expect a fair decision of non-violent and tolerant from someone that has already made their mind up? And why should we care? Who died and left you in charge?”

Terrorwrist (Beneath the Under)

And now we get to talk about terrorism.

Public Service Announcement: Killing people is bad. – I feel like I need to put that in. Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea.

I want to split things out between Western Jihadis and non-Western groups. In terms of the radicalisation of Jihadis in the West, Olivier Roy’s work is useful here. Western Jihadis do not start out their journey driven by either specific religious or political goals. The children of immigrants or else converts, they are often adrift from their worlds. Their acts of terror do not aim to achieve a specific political goal but rather a spectacular death. Their US non-Muslim equivalents shoot people in movie theatres or children in schools – events which get labelled “terrible tragedies” and never trouble the terror statistics. Roy notes the large percentage of converts who make up Western Jihadis. Since the collapse of Communism, there are pretty much two “bad-ass” options for social rebellion in Western societies – fascism and Islamism. And their bad-ass reputation rests (in part) on the constant stream of articles that disapprovingly reinforce how bad ass they are.

The next topic is conflict involving Muslims around the world. It is dangerous to wrap these conflicts into one. The story among some radical Muslims is that there is a global Islamphobia. In this view of the world, Europe, Russia, China, the US and everyone else get into a room and plot how they are going to do in the Muslims. How else to explain the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Thailand and Israel and Afghanistan and India and China and Russia and everywhere else? Now this is nonsense. There are struggles involving Muslim actors – often as the result of unfinished imperial business or local sectarian strife. There are many local struggles. Forces like ISIS want to paint all these struggles as the same for their own purposes. Then they can clam to speak for oppressed Muslims all over the world and justify their own tawdry existence. We must not fall into that trap and do their work for them. A conflict involving Muslims is not necessarily an Islamic conflict although both sides might try to portray it as such for their own purposes.

Finally, I want to talk about the attitudes to terrorism in Muslim-majority countries. Two Pew surveys are referred to in this article. In general, inhabitants of those countries nearer to ISIS being more solidly unfavourable than those further away. It’s important to remember that many of these countries have complicated relationships with the Western that ISIS explicitly sets itself up against. Nevermind “blowback” or the Quran as totalitarian manual, there are people in Pakistan and Malaysia and Nigeria and Indonesia that can remember their country being run by Westerners or have lived under dictators backed by the West or Russia. We are not necessarily the Good Guys. Our enemies are therefore not automatically the Bad Guys. And saying you support ISIS is different to sending it money or actively joining it in battle. How nice it would be if it weren’t so complicated.

Express Yourself

I want to move onto the practical implications of the “Islam is inherently violent, totalitarian and pro-terrorism” argument. This particular author ends with no explicit policy recommendations – which is frustrating. What does the author want?

Others who make these arguments often imply:

  • Primarily, Western states must prevent Muslim immigration. Muslims are a fifth-column within our societies that undermine democratic norms and present an unacceptable security threat. Any targeting of this group is valid.
  • Secondarily, Western states must view Muslim-majority nations as implacably hostile unless they renounce their views. The Muslim world is the new Evil Empire, a latter day Soviet Union.

I want to briefly talk about my disappointment with conservative responses to public Muslims in Australia. Theoretically, if you want to reform Islam then you should be supporting Muslims who engage with Western public society constructively. Such people are gold – role models to those who identify with them and potential bridge builders with their co-religionists. Two recent examples in Australia are Waleed Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Both are accomplished and articulate. And both have been mercilessly slated by the conservative media in Australia – unaustralian, terrorist sympathising, the works. The message to other Muslims in Australia is clear: You will never belong here. However hard you work or however much you achieve, the only chance that we might accept you is if you give up everything that makes us feel uncomfortable. And then we might not change our minds.

Who could refuse such a tempting offer?

In general, Western societies need to up their game in terms of how they engage with their Muslim communities. This is theoretically easier for countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where citizenship is not based on ethnic identity – but it is not necessarily the case in practice.

For some local background on this, Sami Shah’s Islamic Republic of Australia is well worth a listen and a read. Shah is an atheist emigrant from Pakistan who now lives in Australia. He is not spruiking for Islam but he’s interested in the story of Australian Muslims.

Contract On The World Love Jam

What if the pessimists are right? What if Islam is inevitably violent, totalitarian and terrorist? Well, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and everyone is completely screwed. That’s it. Nevermind “addressing serious questions”, start buying bundles of barbed wire, drums of water and semi-automatic weapons.

I don’t want to whitewash the situation. Many Muslim-majority countries have a stack of problems – corruption, dictatorial regimes, a lack of civil institutions outside the state or religion, sectarian strife within their own borders, and conflict with their neighbours. Women are often treated badly. And religion is used as to tool to reinforce these negative patterns.

However. We need to stop talking about Islam. Or rather we need to stop talking about Islam likes it’s one monolithic block that we can decode and frame purely from a few carefully-selected verses from the Quran. We need to recognise the plurality of Muslim majority nations. We need to support Muslims whose ideas and actions resonate with our own – rather than those who simply have the most oil as we do currently (something I do agree with Mark Steyn about). We need to stop acting like the most conservative and regressive Muslims are the real ones and the rest are just “fakes”.

The blame game is a lot of fun to play but we need to find new games if we want to move forward. The really hard conversation might not be the one that you were angling for.

*Yes. Every single thing I write is about me. Always. That’s not going to stop.

**This unholy tastiness is doubtless a secret Islamist plot to give me Type 2 diabetes. Each samosa a suicide snack down my rapacious gullet. Truly it will be greeted with 72 raisins in paradise.

ADDENDUM – 22.08.2017

One thing that is not clear in the above rant is that I think there is a valid point of that states that there are obviously illiberal strains of thought and practice among Muslims. To say that “Islam is a religion of peace” is more a statement of intent than a statement about all possible interpretations. Graeme Wood’s noted piece on ISIS in The Atlantic is relevant here.

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