Are we “getting” Islam?

May 2nd, 2013 | Posted by:

A little more than two years ago, I invited Sean Faircloth to speak to members of the Yale and New Haven nonreligious communities. At the time, he was the executive director for the Secular Coalition of America, and he struck me as one of the most compelling and persuasive political advocates for issues such as Church-State separation and countering the religious right. 1 He’s since published a book, Attack of the Theocrats!, and joined the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science as the Director for Strategy and Policy.

Faircloth published a lengthy essay this morning, asking “Are liberals finally going to get it this time about Islam?” The idea being the (at this point somewhat familiar) refrain that liberals ought to condemn Islam; that beliefs are not deserving of respect or protection, but rather believers; that open criticism is necessary for liberalism; and so on. Faircloth pleads, “My fellow liberals: please stop ignoring reality.”

It’s worth noting that I largely agree with Faircloth here, but the small bit where we disagree matters a lot and largely colors our respective attitudes towards Islam. There’s a subtle shift in Faircloth’s language throughout the piece, and I think this is rather emblematic of this difference. Faircloth says:

If liberals can – with great vitriol – condemn the Christian Right (as they do constantly), then liberals can treat Islam like any other ideology — because Islam is just another ideology – like the Tea Party, like the Christian Right. Islam must be subject to the same rough and tumble of ideas as is any other ideology.

And this I think is the main problem. Faircloth doesn’t discuss liberal condemnation of “conservatism” or “Christianity,” as if they were unified and broad ideologies. He references specific and narrow branches—the far right Christian radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, or the extreme mix of misguided libertarianism and Christian theology that is the Tea Party. Faircloth is right that liberals often, and ought to, condemn these ideologies. But notice how quickly his language broadens, and how easily specific language lapses into generic language. Faricloth references Islam, not as a diverse mix of ideologies that’s often as varied as its billion-and-a-half adherents, but as one, monolithic, unified thing. 

We can very easily and conveniently talk about how the Tea Party’s policies might be anti-women, but Faircloth goes too far by suggesting that, therefore, Islam, writ large, full stop, should be the proper target of our criticism, too. As if Islam, writ large, full stop, is a violent ideology that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-liberalism. Or that Islam, writ large, full stop, has been the cause of terrorist activities.

I’ve written before that one of the most blatant and troublesome aspects of Islamophobia 2 is that we generalize about Islam in a way we don’t with any other ideology or religion. It seems that any muslim can stand in for a radical (as we’ve seen with the FEMEN protests and Everybody Draw Muhammed Day); any behavior of a radical generalizes to the ideology of the moderates in a way that doesn’t hold in reverse (no one looks at peaceful or charitably acts by Muslims and goes on to say that they’re the result of Islam, even if they fit the same criterion Faircloth wants to apply in terms of “expressed religious motivations” following a “religious path that has become familiar”); and any behavior by radicals has to be swiftly and loudly denounced (whether or not you’re listening) by the moderates, or they’re somehow implicated in the action.

So I largely agree with Faircloth—we ought to, and very loudly, protest human rights violations by Islamic extremists. In fact, I don’t know many liberals who would disagree. 3 But a failure to go and criticize Islam, writ large, full stop, is not moral cowardice on the part of liberals. It is not PC gone mad. And that’s I think where Faircloth gets it wrong.

It’s telling that there are only two groups of people who blame 9/11 on Islam—far right Christians and a certain brand of atheist. Few political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, liberals, or anyone else studying religion, really, 4 says “Islam caused 9/11.” Yet Faircloth and many other atheists present it as established fact. So why the disparity between modern scholarly thought and the anti-theist position?

It could very well be that a conspiracy-like story is true—liberals know Islam is responsible for these atrocities but don’t have the brass to say it, and the liberal academe, poisoned by postmodern multiculturalism, is too afraid to point out what atheists and Christians see so obviously. Or it could be that liberals, like me, might have a better view on Islam than atheists like Faircloth and the religious right do. It’s us who “get it” — Islam is not a broad, unified ideology; politics and social factors seem to be much more relevant in explaining suicide and terror attacks than Islam; proper criticism should be specific and not whitewash an entire ideology; and so on.

Now someone like Faircloth might sensibly object that Islam as an ideology, writ large, full stop, is to blame for these things. That the commonalities in the ideology shared by all 1.5 billion Muslims on Earth is the problem. Now they might have trouble squaring that with contemporary scholarly thought on the topic, but it’s a fair point they could make. But note that this isn’t a conversation about moral courage anymore, or whether criticism of Islam is islamophobic, or whether liberals need to be consistent. This conversation isn’t about when liberals will finally come around to reality (or why they might be hesitant to), but instead about what reality is. Disagreements are about the nature of Islam—if there can even coherently be one—and what the proper attitude we should take towards that is.

And there, I think, Faircloth falls somewhat short. Faircloth mentions some statistics (and there are some good ones coming out of this recent Pew survey), and references a few cases of terrorism, but I’ve gone on long enough for this post. I’m not convinced and I’ll address them shortly in a follow-up.

I’d just like to note 5 that I think Faircloth and I agree a lot, and I don’t mean to imply that I think he’s racist, or bigoted, or that his motives are insincere. Faircloth is largely right: liberals should condemn anti-liberal practices and policies, and this includes swaths of radical Islam. But whether Islam is an appropriate target for that condemnation is unclear to me, and I haven’t seen a good case for it yet.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Notes:

  1. I should note that my opinion hasn’t changed.
  2. Taken here in I guess the narrower sense—not as racism or general anti-muslim bigotry, but irrational prejudice against Islam and its adherents. I’m obviously not suggesting that all criticism of Islam is islamophobic or racist.
  3. I’m not interested in whether any liberal disagrees. I am sure that they exist. What I’m not convinced about is that they exist in large enough numbers to be seriously representative of what could meaningfully be called a liberal position.
  4. I literally know of none. I say “few” to simply have some buffer, but I don’t want to understate how really rare a position this is among any serious scholar who has looked at religion and politics.
  5. For like, the fifth time. I really don’t want to understate how great Sean is.
  • http://twitter.com/lysana Space Marine Lysana

    There are people within Islam who critique it. That which the West paints with the blanket term of sharia law varies wildly from country to country and region to region. How can anyone say it is a monolith of thought beyond their shared belief that “there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet?”

  • jflcroft

    I think you’re reading rather uncharitably here. It doesn’t seem that you actually disagree that Islam should be the focus of open criticism like every other set of ideas, which is what he said. He did not say, as you suggest he says, that “Islam is an appropriate target for condemnation”. Rather, he explicitly rejects the idea that Muslims should be treated as a singular bloc, saying “No one – ever – should say all Muslims think A or B.” And he repeatedly stresses the distinctions he is making between Muslims of different types throughout the piece:

    “It is a very small percentage who carry out the terrorist actions”

    “Islamic culture is a culture – even in the west — in which — NOT a majority – but a very significant minority — say that violence is justified in reaction to apostasy and insult to Mohammed.”

    “the strong majority of Muslims are good decent law abiding citizens”

    That your response is to find fault with Faircloth for not doing precisely what he did do – make intelligent distinctions between different types of Islamic ideology – is an example, I think, of precisely the over-sensitivity he is arguing against in the post. He is doing exactly as you ask: trying to make judgments regarding these difficult issues using the best evidence available, while scrupulously opposing the blanket condemnation of Muslims. Nowhere does he suggest Islam is a single ideology.

    So what would you prefer him to do?

    • VladChituc

      Hi James, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m not quite so sure it’s as cut and dry as you make it out to be. It’s tricky because Sean isn’t quite so precise about these things, but it seemed pretty clear to me throughout that he was discussing our inability of to hold the ideology accountable for criticism.

      “Islam must be subject to the same rough and tumble of ideas as is any other ideology.”

      And you point to good comments from Sean, but I don’t quite think they show what you need them to show. It’s worth noting that nearly all those comments are directed towards or about Muslims (which is great, and why I don’t think Faircloth is racist or prejudiced against Muslims in any meaningful sense, and is “islamophobic” only insofar as we’re discussing attitudes towards an ideology). They don’t really seem to reflect his position on Islam, though. He references moderate muslims a number of times, but never moderate Islam. In fact, of all the times he mentions Islam as an ideology, he only specifies once (referencing the radical Islam of the boston bombers).

      It might very well be the case that he doesn’t lump Islam as one unified ideology, but it’s not clear from his writing. And it’s worth noting that every other ideology he says we should criticize is a specific branch (i.e. christian right, tea party).

      So it’s great and commendable that he doesn’t want to treat all Muslims as if they’re the same, but that wasn’t really my point. And I think the language he uses throughout the piece, and a lot of atheists use in general (I think my commentary here stretches to a lot of atheist positions on Islam, ideology, and criticism) supports this troubling view of Islam as an ideology.

      So, like Sean, I do want us to treat Islam like we do every other ideology. I just don’t get the impression that this is what Sean is pointing forward.

      • jflcroft

        There is nothing in your reply which supports your reading. Saying that “Islam should be the subject of criticism like any other ideology” is simply not equivalent to saying “I condemn Islam”. It is you who are lacking quotations which make the case you need them to make, not I. You need to substantiate your criticism before any defense of Faircloth is even required, and so far, in my view, you have not done so.

        To say “It’s not clear he hasn’t done x, so I’m going to assume he’s done x and criticize him for it” is exactly what I said it is: uncharitable. Better to infer from his repeated stressing of the differences between Muslims’ VIEWS (because that’s what he’s taking about) that he understands that there are, well, differing views compatible with being a Muslim.

        • VladChituc

          Oh, I didn’t realize that was at issue because that seemed kind of obvious to me? Even if we aren’t considering strong, vocal criticism that Faircloth seems to be advocating throughout the piece to be “condemnation” (which might be a somewhat thorny semantic issue but whatever I don’t want to think about it too hard), Faircloth more or less sets up the piece and frames it in terms of condemnation:

          “Whether they are the Westboro Baptists or more violent anti-abortion Christian extremists – such fanatics violate a principle that I’d summarize as follows: any ideology, religious or not, that seeks to undermine the human rights of others must be condemned. This principle is particularly important when an ideology advocates or accepts calls to violence against non-violent people.

          Sound reasonable? Liberals eagerly apply this principle to Christian Right groups though violence is rarely seen from that quarter.

          And yet American liberals, so vehemently opposed to the Christian Right, will cry “Islamophobia!” if one dares to apply the exact same standard I suggest above to Islam.”

          With that in mind, it seemed pretty clear to me that the point of the entire piece was to convince liberals to condemn Islam as an ideology.

          • jflcroft

            Again, this does not make your case.

          • VladChituc

            You need to give me a little bit more to work with, James. You said I didn’t show that Sean said Islam should be condemned, and I quote him as basically framing the entire piece around that point. You said he isn’t treating Islam as a monolithic entity to be criticized by citing his (admittedly good) position towards Muslims. But I point out he doesn’t extend that towards Islam as an ideology at all, and that the language he uses throughout the piece that I quote pretty clearly demonstrates that he’s doing just what I’m referencing—indicting Islam itself as a whole, directing Islam itself as the target of our critcism, and so on—which isn’t how we (Sean included) treat other ideologies.

            If none of that was persuasive, by all means go into detail how. But simply saying “this does not make your case” while not addressing anything I’ve written isn’t helping me to understand what the issue is.

          • jflcroft

            The quote you give is not evidence in support of your position, and I’ve already said how, and you’ve already noticed why but for some reason “don’t want to think to hard” about it. To criticize is not to condemn: they are different words with different meanings. He says we should condemn (rather than criticize) certain inhumane ideologies, but he never does what you would need him to so to satisfy your case: say that something called Islam is such an ideology.

            Throughout the piece he does NOT indict “Islam” as a single monolithic ideology. On the contrary: he provides lots of evidence that Muslims think different things on different topics, and he does not make any case that these Muslims are any less Muslim because of their difference in view. This, to me, makes your case untenable: he does not do what you say he does.

          • VladChituc

            Yes, I have no interest in dissecting whether and to what extent particularly vigorous criticism of a dehumanizing and violent ideology can appropriately be called condemnation. That’s a thorny and not particularly relevant issue of semantics, and yeah, since that’s never what I was really basing the idea that Sean wants us to condemn Islam, I’m not particularly interested in discussing it.

            If you think that’s relevant, by all mean dissect the issue, but it has nothing at all to do with my point. I gave a quote that, really to any reading I could imagine, suggests that there is a principle (“condemn bad ideologies”) that he’s arguing we apply to Islam, I’m confused what isn’t clear. That’s the basic premise of the piece, and it seems obvious to me. And it’s strange for you to say he never call Islam such an ideology, when at the start of the piece he says

            And yet American liberals, so vehemently opposed to the Christian Right, will cry “Islamophobia!” if one dares to apply the exact same standard [" any ideology, religious or not, that seeks to undermine the human rights of others must be condemned"] I suggest above to Islam.

            How can you seriously say he is not advocating that (1) Islam undermines human rights and thus (2) liberals ought to condemn Islam.

            And again, I applaud how he discusses Muslims but that has nothing at all to do with the ideology of Islam. He doesn’t need to treat all the muslims the same to do what I say he does, because I’m making a claim about ideology, and not about people. And I think any fair reading of his piece and mine justifies what I’m saying

          • jflcroft

            Because he doesn’t say any of those things, and because nothing he says implies any of those things. Yes, the same standard – inhumane ideologies should be condemned – should be applied to Islam as to any other set of views or positions. It simply does not follow from that statement either that Islam is one ideology or that is being condemned.

            What he is clearly arguing for is not blanket condemnation of Islam as an inhumane ideology, but the willingness to scrutinize whether some adherents of Islam hold to such an ideology and to call them out when they do so. Thus he is arguing, cogently and with good reason, against the obfuscatory over-protection of Islamic thought your post represents.

            Why am I pushing back at this? Because the phenomenon Sean describes does exist, and it does hamper our ability to improve conditions for human beings on this planet. For very good reasons, informed by values I doubtless support, you’ve found a tortured interpretation of this text that does a disservice to its author which serves to draw attention away from the critical issues he raises. I think that’s a problem.

          • VladChituc

            James,

            It’s pretty clear that the point of his post is that he wants to extend condemnation to Islam, that liberals shouldn’t react as they often do (by crying Islamophobia), and that liberals should “get it” that Islam is worth condemning. It seems to me to be strange contortions to read it otherwise.

            The fact that he doesn’t specify within Islam–he doesn’t say we should extend this same principle to “radical Islam,” or “militant Islam” but Islam full stop. That’s not a courtesy he extends to Christianity or conservatism. That lends itself fairly to the points in my post, and even if by whatever means necessary to interpret Sean as saying and implying anything other than what it’s clear he’s saying, there’s an abundance of atheists doing exactly what I’m criticizing. It’s hardly a fringe attitude, and hardly a “tortured” interpretation of a point Sean was making very clearly. If he thinks we should treat Islam like other ideologies, I think he should probably start by talking about it like he talks about ideologies.

            I also think it’s pretty absurd and ridiculous to describe my post as “obfuscatory over-protection of Islamic thought,” since that’s not at all what I’m doing. I’m literally advocating we treat Islam like every other ideology, and loudly and appropriately condemn the violent and inhumane aspect. But because I say “this isn’t a condemnation of Islam as a whole, because it isn’t a unified ideology and it differs vastly across its 1.5 billion adherents” I’m obfuscating and being overprotective of Islam? That makes absolutely no sense at all. And this strikes me as indicative of another tendency I’ve noticed—god forbid you ask for a nuanced view on Islam, otherwise you’re an overprotective liberal who sees any criticism of Islam as off-limits and inherently racist. Don’t be ridiculous.

            As for why you think this is important, I’m doing nothing at all to hamper that, or hamper any of what you think needs to be done. All I’m saying is “Yeah, do those things. Just don’t be an idiot about Islam.” Seriously, how was anything I wrote at all over protecting, or getting in the way of making the criticisms you or Sean might think is necessary?

          • jflcroft

            Did you perhaps miss the parts where he refers to extremist (once) and radical (twice) Muslims as the target of his criticism? Because that’s the only way I can reconcile what he wrote with what you’ve written.

            I do not read him as saying “we should extend condemnation to Islam” at all. He literally never says anything like that (or perhaps you can say where he doe so?). He says we should extend the OPTION of condemning ASPECTS of Islam, which is very different.

            Why do I think you are obfuscating? Because someone has written precisely the sort of limited, thoughtful, well-evidenced post on this issue we should be supportive of, and you spend a few hundred words criticizing it for a flaw it transparently does not display, thus obscuring the real problem.

            As I say, I’m writing some detailed thoughts on this broad topic now, so one thing I can say for this post is that it has encouraged me to think more deeply on the matter. Thanks for that!

          • VladChituc

            James, I feel like I’m repeating itself. I didn’t title the post “are we getting muslims,” I’ve said a few times by now that I think he treats Muslims laudably, and that I’m focusing on “islamophobia” here not as treatment of muslims, but as the view on Islam as an ideology. I didn’t write about how Sean treats Muslims as monolothic entities that all believe the same thing, so it’s beside the point. I feel like I’ve made it clear now that it’s not that relevant how he discusses Muslims, because I’m focusing on how he’s viewing and discussing the ideology specifically.

            As for how you’re reading it, I’m not sure I can convince you at this point, so I’m inclined to agree to disagree. But I think it’s a significantly more tortured reading to take away from his piece that he isn’t more or less saying “liberals, Islam is an inhumane ideology like all the other ones you have no problem condemning, you should get it already and be okay with condemning it, too.” Even if that’s not what he’s saying, I’d hardly call such a reading “tortured.”

            As for his well written etc etc post we should be supportive of—I was supportive of it in terms of how he treated and discussed Muslims. But not Islam. Which was the point of my post.

            Anyway, glad to spur some thought and I look forward to reading some more.

          • jflcroft

            Fair enough – I feel the same. As so often in our discussions we both feel our position is reasonably clear and that the other is simply not addressing our points. Perhaps when I lay out my full thoughts on this matter you will see where I’m coming from.

          • Sean Faircloth

            i haven’t had time to read all this. (been racing around the US for things I suspect we all agree upon! very fun!) but, oddly enough, I think I might generally agree with Vlad in this respect: I should have been more express about the many subsets within Islam. Islam is not monolithic at all. I hoped I’d made the point by strongly stating that the majority of Muslims are not going to engage in terrorism and oppose violence. My worry is more that there is less vocal opposition (even within “moderate” Muslims) of the quiet or implicit acceptance of violence by others. I do think many do sit silently by — while others advocate violence. I think this is a subtle but important point that I should have made more clearly. I want millions of Muslims to publicly and vociferously condemn even the acceptance of violence by others. That said, I recognize that saying “Muslim” is like saying “christian” in that multiplicity of various “muslim” groups makes the generality of the word “Muslim” a bit too broad brush. and I should have faced that more directly.

          • http://www.facebook.com/terence.craddock Terence Craddock

            “or more violent anti-abortion Christian extremists – such fanatics
            violate a principle that I’d summarize as follows: . . . or accepts calls to violence against non-violent
            people.” An interesting point being missed here is the bigoted use of violent being used against anti-abortion Christians. The abortion issue will remain volatile but protecting the potential lives of unborn children by anti-abortion Christians, from assumed innocent doctors and medical staff killing babies, especially at 6 to 9 months is interesting. In the 9 month killing of partial birth babies, this is a human being but a single breath away from being born. Please read half a dozen articles like “What is a Partial-Birth Abortion?” and then tell me who is using violence, the protester killing no one, or medical staff killing a pregnancy in the 6 to 9 month full term category?

          • Conner

            I think, unless you want to nitpick at syntax here, Sean was using the more specific Christian/Tea Party as examples of things that liberals feel very strongly about and very often complain about. I don’t think there was a need for him to then go ahead and call out everything liberals could potentially feel strongly about in regards to Islam. He does, in other parts of the article clarify what he means and who it’s directed towards.

            Certainly in the excerpt you took, the general term Islam is used and had the entirety of the essay been that excerpt, you’d certainly have a case. But the rest of the essay is pretty clear. I don’t think there’s a need for him to go through and make sure every possible meaning is expressed in every sentence/section of a particular essay. He’s simplifying at that particular point, and then clarifies in the rest of the essay.

    • http://twitter.com/jfigdor Jonathan Figdor

      James is absolutely right here. Vlad is going out of his way to deliberately misinterpret Sean Faircloth’s intelligently delineated comments. Sean isn’t attacking all Muslims. Sean isn’t stoking irrational fear and hatred of Muslims. He’s just pointing out the serious problems posed by the facts that a significant portion of Muslims think the death penalty is a reasonable punishment for apostasy. And the death penalty for abandoning Islam is just dumb.

      At this point, it is clear that Vlad isn’t really interested in serious engagement with these issues, but is interested in derailing legitimate criticism of Islam.

      • geodesicks

        “And the death penalty for abandoning Islam is just dumb.”

        Would you consider murder for leaving a criminal organization, like the mafia, a dumb move on part of the criminal organization?

      • VladChituc

        Jon, you could at least pretend you’ve even done a cursory reading of my piece, or that you’re interested in anything resembling rational discussion. You justify literally nothing you say, and do little more than attack my character and motives without grounding or engaging with anything I’ve written.

        In fact, this strikes me as fairly typical inability to handle internal criticism that often plagues New Atheists. It’s not that just we disagree, no. I am deliberately misinterpreting so I can derail criticism. As if only you are of putting forward a good-faith effort at disagreement, and everyone else has secret malicious and nefarious motivations. Please.

        Anyone who even skimmed what I wrote can realize how incredibly asinine and pompous this comment is. I don’t know how you can say I’m trying to derail “legitimate criticism of Islam” (which seems really just to mean “disagree with me about Islam”) when I say in my piece “we ought to, and very loudly, protest human rights violations by Islamic extremists.” I also made it clear twice in my piece that I’m talking about attitudes towards Islam, not muslims, and in fact I commend Sean multiple times, both in the piece and in my exchange with James, for responsibly discussing Muslims. My entire piece focuses on how we discuss ideologies, so your comments about Muslims are entirely beside the point.

        I make it clear:

        [Islamophobia taken here] not as racism or general anti-muslim bigotry, but irrational prejudice against Islam and its adherents. I’m obviously not suggesting that all criticism of Islam is islamophobic or racist.

        And our comment policy is pretty simple and clear, Jon.

        Please strive to make every attempt to assume that the author has the best of intentions and go about raising your disagreements in a way that is civil and demonstrates a genuine desire to get at the heart of the truth.

        If all you’re going to do is refuse to engage with anything I’ve written to simply imply, based on literally nothing at all, that positions you haven’t even demonstrated cursory understanding of are motivated out of malice to protect Islam from criticism, then feel free to do that somewhere else. If you feel the need to make disparaging claims about me or my motivation, either back it up or don’t comment.

  • jflcroft

    You have provoked me to write at length about these issues – post incoming :)

    • VladChituc

      ha, look forward to reading it. Maybe we can move this extended back and forth there ;)

  • Pingback: Responsible Religious Criticism – Part One

  • mvasseur

    It is all well and good to say that Islam is diverse, that you have moderate Muslims and all. What we need is to understand the exegetic process which enables you to say: “you can be a Muslim and a feminist” or “you can be a Muslim and recognize the right to apostasy” etc. when you do have verses in the Kuran which seem to imply otherwise. Not just airily dismiss them (“oh, it’s the context” or “you have other verses which say the opposite”) but really explain what these verses mean, why they are there and if they should be dismissed, on which ground (they are God’s word after all). I.e. a proper exegesis, which fully engages with the text, which is not the same as just brushing away the inconvenient bits. I think that this is what is most missing from the current debate about Islam, where you have both on the “anti-Islam” and on the “Islamist” fronts a literal reading of the texts, and in the middle, “liberals” who would rather avoid properly dealing with these issues.

    • VladChituc

      Hi mvasseur, I think that’s a thoughtful insight, but I’d caution to not take such a hard-line essentialist view on religion. Religions are so much more than what’s simply in their holy books, and I think it’s a mistake to boil them down to such a basic level. Exegesis is certainly important and I agree with you that it’s often neglected, but I don’t think it’s ultimately that helpful in explaining many religious beliefs.

      A pure adherence to any holy book of any religion won’t produce much of anything resembling any religion as it’s currently practiced, so I think we need to look a bit further and not hold any religion as if it’s essentially just the dictates of its text.

      • mvasseur

        Well, maybe so, but you can’t ignore the texts altogether either. Jesus and Mahomet were very different characters and their teachings were very different. As an atheist from a Christian background, I find it fairly easy to reconcile the teachings of the New Testament with modern liberal values. I found it much more difficult to do the same with the Kuran (but I fully admit that I know very little about it, so I am genuinely open to being corrected). “Half believing” is a bit like being half pregnant: I am not sure that this is possible. A Muslim HAS to believe that the Kuran is the Word of God, and that everything that is in it is there for a reason. His job is then to figure out what this reason is, not to toss it casually aside when it is inconvenient.

        • http://twitter.com/jfigdor Jonathan Figdor

          Right, texts matter. This is why there haven’t been any Jain mass-murderers.

  • Some Guy

    The thing about extremists in religion is that they are following their religion to an extreme. This, in all cases, be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, seems to logically point to a core fault in the scripture, in the teaching. Just because moderates choose not to practise the obviously harmful practises of their respective faiths, certainly doesn’t mean that those practises should be protected from the criticism which they deserve. Furthermore, to refuse to condemn that which is harmful in one’s own faith is essentially tacit approval, if we wish to avoid the sort of harm fundamentalism can cause, reforms need to be actively pushed for. If the fundamentals were genuinely loving and peace-promoting, then surely those who practised most extremely would be least likely to murder there fellows?

    Much as your average Christian fundamentalist doesn’t have access to some especially hateful edition of the bible, I doubt that the copies of the Qur’an read by the Mujahideen are substantially different to those read by moderate Muslims. Whereas you may equate the various sub-branches of an ideology as separate ideologies, the antitheist would hold all to account under the same umbrella, as in most cases, the actual, practical difference between a Christian who turns the other cheek and one who burns down an abortion clinic does not come from the scripture they read, but how much of it they choose to reject. Much as the difference between a Muslim who lets their fellows live in peace and one who will murder an apostate is likely linked with the degree to which they follow scripture.

    TL;DR – Just because moderates of a particular faith don’t practise the horrific doctrines, does not mean these horrific doctrines are not part of the faith.

    • Some Guy

      *their fellows [sorry]

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735589809 Dan Perlman

    Although I understand your point, I’m not sure I’d agree that we’ve singled out Islam for broad strokes. Our society, in general anyway, tends to make references to “The Jews”, “The Catholics”, “The Baptists”, “The Hindus”, “The Buddhists”, etc., as if they were monolithic entities. I don’t find that condemnation or generalizations are limited to fringe groups at all. Perhaps Christianity doesn’t get lumped into one because of its familiarity within our country, but certainly broad swaths tend to be painted with the same brush.

  • geodesicks

    Your article does suggest to me that you’ve never lived in a Muslim-majority or Islamic state. Yes, a part of the disagreement is on a proposition of fact — what Islam is. And if the coherent conflagrations across the Islamized world, from N Africa to S E Asia, over some cartoons, some YouTube clip and a book, are anything to go by, Islam *is* a fairly monolithic ideology, at least more monolithic than other religious ideologies. That 62% of populations as geographically separated as Egypt and Pakistan would agree that murder is the ethical response to apostasy is another case in point. Having lived in Islamic states for a significant period of my life, I am surprised that 62% even responded to such polls honestly. This isn’t some “radical” faction at all, it is the traditional modus operandi of Islam. You’re goddamned WRONG about Islam and how it enslaves the human mind, condemning entire populations living on some of the most fertile regions of the world (Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Iran) into cycles of economic regression, supremacist and sectarian violence and grotesque educational failure by the standards of any post-Enlightenment century.

    Besides being a disagreement over what Islam is, you can’t deny that there do exist a very large population of liberals who refrain from criticizing Islam because

    a) it is seen as criticizing an “oppressed minority”, thus conflating ideology with subscribers to the ideology. These are the same people who will cry “racist” and thus betray their ignorance of the difference between race and religion.

    b) the enemy of their enemy is their friend. Although theirs would be the first throats to be slit if Islamists get into power. Iran 1979. These are the guys who hold in great affection and equal cognitive dissonance groups like “Gays for Palestine”.

    Liberals who apologize for Islam need to go live in an Islamic state for 3-4 months.

  • Brent

    Good point that distinctions between various branches should be made. However, while the minority can never speak for the majority, if the ideas of the majority are what cause the atrocious actions of the minority then it becomes time for us to examine the ideas of the majority to discover how they are inspiring the minority to commit acts of terror. Even if the average follower of Islam would object and say that the actions of a fundamentalist terrorist do not fit into their religion, the terrorists, for the most part, believe that they do (and not without support from the Koran in the same way that Westboro is not without support from the Old Testament) Therefore it is indisputable that the ideology of Islam as a whole should be closely examined, at least in some small way, for it’s culpability in these acts of terror.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thosem Thomas Earle Moore

    As another example, it may be worth thinking about whether The Troubles in Ireland reflected mainly sectarian violence or political resentments. Was the eventual peace based on sectarian reconciliation, or the implementation of political justice? I think the latter so I still cling to the hope that Islam is redeemable. But I admit that the evidence presented by Harris and Faircloth is pretty damning, and no free pass should be granted to any religion. Intolerance of intolerance is indeed not bigotry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SpikerofGdansk Jason Pike

    I would also like to add that the word “radical” is most often monstrously abused with reference to Islam. It also ignores differences bboth within and between such categories Conservative Islam, Islamism (“Islamic Fundamentalism”) and so-called “Islamic Socialism”. Owing to a false analogy with “Christain Fundamentalism,” there is a tendency for “Islamic Fundamentalism” and Consevative Islam to be completely confused. But while there’s a clear distinction between right wing Christain Fundamentalism and Liberation Theology, Islamism includes many shades between or contradictory combinations of what would be the Muslim equivalents of Christan Fundamentalism and Liberation Theology. Talk of being “moderate” or “radical” is just confusing unless you are clear what people are supposed to be moderate or radical about. But in any case, it seems disingenious to describe extreme conservatism as “radical”. You might as well say black is white.

    Even a liberal interpetation of Islam could seem radical if you live under an authoritarian regime.It would seem that many former members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were really liberals, for example.

    I protest the assumptions that either radicalism is neccessarily wrong of that even if it’s OK for anyone else to be radical, it’s not OK for a Muslim. I welcome Vlad’s challenge to Islamophobia and I hope it will be seen as constructive criticism that I challenge his oversimplistic reference to “radical” Islam.

  • Toma Badescu

    Many muslims aren’t native to the west, so it’s sometimes easy to regard them as outsiders. The statistics in Faircloth’s article about islam and violence are a cause for concernt though.

    • VladChituc

      I agree the statistics are troubling, but in context less so. I’ll write more about this, but it would have been nice for Sean to compare those statistics to other groups. For example, Gallup did a poll that actually showed American Muslims are more likely than any other group to say violence against civilians is never justified.

      In fact, 23 percent of atheists say it is sometimes justified. Compared to 8 percent of American muslims saying suicide bombing is sometimes justified, it’s not that outrageous. So it’s not that Muslims seem particularly prone to thinking violence can be justified, since most groups seem to be.

      Anyway, it’s troubling, but I don’t think Muslims are particularly special in that regard.

      • Toma Badescu

        American muslims are different, i guess there are lots of muslims in america who are not immigrants but converted (Nation of Islam etc.) long before 9/11 for different reasons. That might sqew the statistics. Also, what are the customs and traditions in the countries where most muslims today originate? Maybe those matter too, sometimes as much as religion. How well does ‘radicalization’ correlate with religious beliefs and how well does it correlate with geographical origin?

        • Toma Badescu

          Questions like violence against civilians might be misleading. I can’t say myself that violence against civilians is never justified: the police can and should stop a dangerous criminal for example. That is violence against a civilian.

      • TheBubrub

        “In fact, 23 percent of atheists say it is sometimes justified. Compared to 8 percent of American muslims saying suicide bombing is sometimes justified, it’s not that outrageous.”

        First, I am curious where you are getting your 8% from? I read the link, and no chart specifically deals with suicide bombing. However, the second chart (which deals with individuals killing civilians) shows 11% of American Muslims think this is sometimes justified. I think you are grabbing the 8% from the last chart, which discusses sympathy with Al Qaeda. While both are similar to the idea of suicide bombing, the 11% is clearly the more accurate number to use.

        Regardless, we have not seen many atheists blow themselves up in the name of atheism. In fact, we don’t see many atheists blowing themselves up, period.

        Additionally, criticism of Islam is not equal to criticism of American Muslims. To equate the two is to distort the argument.

        • VladChituc

          I’m taking the 8 percent number from Sean’s article (I’m willing to take his stat at face value, even though he didn’t site it. I’d be curious to see where it comes from, though).

          And so? You’re a lot more likely to see an atheist shoot up a school. Violence is violence. It’s also not true to say that atheists don’t blow themselves up (I don’t get where this “in the name of atheism thing” is coming from or why it’s relevant) but that Tamil tigers are a secular and nationalist group that pioneered the modern suicide attack. Some of them were atheists. Same with Japanese kamikaze pilots. Most people suicide bomb for specific social, rather than religious reasons.

          You don’t see muslims in minnesotta blowing themselves up, and you see nonmuslims in the middle east blowing themselves up. There are very specific social and cultural and political circumstances that make suicide bombing advantageous, and it’s harmful to ignore those by pretending that islam explains it when it doesnt.

          Also I’m not sure when I equated criticizing Islam with criticizing American Muslims. I simply brought it up because Sean brought up troubling statistics of American Muslim’s supposed support for violence. My point was only that all groups more or less say that violence is sometimes justifiable, so to make a big deal of it by singling out Muslims is a mistake.

          • TheBubrub

            The “in the name of atheism thing” is very important. The point is motivation. We want to eliminate the motivations for terrible violence, such as shooting up a school or suicide bombing, right?

            IF we found that atheism was a direct motivation for shooting up a school, then of course it would be responsible to investigate this. But it hasn’t been nor would it make sense that it ever would be. If Adam Lanza was an atheist (not sure if he was, but let’s assume so for this discussion), then his atheism was as irrelevant as his hair color or shoe size. There was zero evidence to show that his lack of belief in God motivated him to kill children. However, we know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that religion (including Islam) can and does provide motivation for terrible, terrible violence.

            Some people do blow themselves up for religious reasons (perhaps in addition to social/political). We should investigate ALL reasons for such a thing. Of course it goes without saying that most Muslims (or most PEOPLE for that matter) don’t blow themselves up. It is harmful to ignore a motivation just because some people are not taken in by the motivation. What is important is that some people ARE, and evidence has shown that this isn’t coincidence.

  • http://twitter.com/EugenioCarrillo Eugenio Carrillo

    For starters I am with those who believe “Islamophobia” does not exist. Phobias are irrational in nature, and fear of islam (as a single, “monolithic, unified thing”) is very rational.

    When criticizing Faircloth for an apparent generalization, you are doing the opposite. You seem to reduce the issues of Islam to “radicals” and “terrorists”. But take the UK for example. Hopefully the Muslim authorities in the UK are not radicals or terrorists. They are still VERY openly anti-gay, anti-jewish and anti-women.

    While it is true that not every Muslim thinks and acts the same, they all follow their respective Sharia law codes int heir countries. So even if we forget about terror attacks and radical threats against infidels, jews and a long etc., Islam as an institution and as a law code violates human rights.

    If there is something that UNIFIES Islam is the Qu’ran and the Sharia codes that derive from it. If we find (and it won’t take you much to do so) provisions in the Qu’ran and in the Sharia codes from each Muslim nation which attack universally recognized human rights, we will have a case against Islam AS A WHOLE.

    So yes, as I see it, Islam, “writ large, full stop”, is an issue, is wrong, and it needs to be publicly debated and criticized.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.price.wa Jim Price

    Muslims are far more devout, on average than Christians. This means that there are far more Muslims in the long tail of fundamentalist belief. Think of it this way, if Islam had an equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church, it would be a megachurch with several locations. A religion is dangerous in proportion to how literally its sacred writings are interpreted.

    The Bible has just as many violent passages as the Koran, but Christians are slightly more likely to ignore these passages than Muslims. This slight difference becomes magnified due to the large numbers involved. Even if a tiny portion of the 1.5 Billion Muslims is a potential terrorists, that still means tens of thousands of willing Jihadists are out there.

    Liberals love to blame violence or repression of women by Muslims on political factors or “cultural differences”. There is no doubt that Muslims would become less devout at a faster rate in the absence of these very real stressors. However, you can find similarly oppressed populations all around the world and none have embraced terrorism at anywhere near the level that Muslims have. This is because the Koran, like the Bible, provides very clear guidance as to how “unbelievers” should be treated. Technically, Jews and Christians should be subjugated, but not mistreated. Atheists must be killed. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of Muslims choose not to “get” these passages, but there are plenty who do.

  • Farhad Farjad

    I agree that death and destruction is committed by some Muslims and not caused by ‘Islam’. But the narrative and ideology is ‘Islam’
    true and through.

  • Mitch

    Every time some person cries about how Muslims are being persecuted and that they’re not all bad – that only a majority of them are murderous zealots who would rather kill all the rest of us than anything else – I just wait for the next news clipping about another murder or series of murders committed in the name of Islam (which, unfortunately, won’t be to far away at any given point) to shut up their profane ignorance.

    • VladChituc

      I’m going to assume you mean “profound,” rather than “profane,” since profane as an adjective means “relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical; secular.” I’m also going to assume you mean to say the minority of them are murderous zealots, otherwise you wildly misunderstand statistics.

      And how does pulling out more anecdotes at all go to show that its still not a very small minority committing violence? and that the majority of muslims oppose violence? or that according to a recent gallup poll more than 93 percent of Muslims aren’t radical (in the sense that they don’t endorse violence against the west) and the ones who are radical give political, rather than religious justifications for violence?

      So yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re the only demonstrating any kind of profound ignorance here.

      • Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

        “And how does pulling out more anecdotes at all go to show that its still not a very small minority committing violence?”

        Yeah that’s true. But I wonder whether a minority hate gays, for example. *snicker*

  • Mitch

    That didn’t take long… http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/07/world/asia/two-days-of-riots-in-bangladesh-turn-deadly.html?_r=0

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m right and the guy who wrote this article is short-sighted and stupid.

  • SimonNorwich

    Vlad, there is an element of truth in what you say – of course not all Muslims interpret their religion in the same way, but I think there must be something peculiar to the religion of Islam that makes it particularly harmful.

    You only have to look at the social and political progress across the Christian world in comparison to the Islamic world over the past few centuries or even decades. There is no reason why Islamic countries could not have ushered in the same rights for women and homosexuals, for example, if their religion were as gracious. There would be no reason why they couldn’t have adopted democracy to the same extent as exists across the Christian world. And there would be no reason why as many apostates would not have emerged in the Islamic world as the Christian world.

    There is so much more general oppression across the Islamic world. Remember, the Western victims of extremist Islamic terrorism make up only a small fraction of the victims of Islam. Think of ALL the women of Saudi Arabia, ALL the women of Afghanistan, ALL the women of Somalia. Think about the women of Pakistan, one of the few Islamic countries that might be called a democracy. These people are not victims of a few individuals within their societies, they are victims of their WHOLE societies.

    • TheBubrub

      well said

  • Shblara

    I think the reason I find it hard to understand your position is that Sean Faircloth is part of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. As far as I’m aware, their position is that they don’t like religion in general. They dislike Islam as a whole as much as they dislike Christianity as a whole. They see these doctrines as equal in the way they see them as equally untrue. If you want to know which religion an atheist would favour over another then you are just asking a crocodile which type of grass it prefers eat. It doesn’t.

  • Santi

    The problem I see is that in most Muslim countries the authorities and the population do not understand “Human Rights” as you do, and many have opposed the International Human Rights Declaration fiercely. They even made up their own version of it, applying Sharia, called “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights”, which I bet you wouldn’t like to be imposed on you.
    Simply because article 24 reads “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia”, so it just a cover up name with no meaning.

    Do you know what happens according to Sharia if you decide to change religion from Islam to any other? There go your basic human rights.
    It’s not just extremists, it’s Basic 101 Islam.
    I am concerned about Islam because it’s a totalitarian ideology. I bet there were very nice Nazis too with different ideas and points of view on stuff. That doesn’t make a totalitarian ideology more appealing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aarron.dixon Aarron Dixon

    I’m sure he has issues with every last branch and twig of Christianity, not just certain extremes, and same with Islam, but it’s easy for him to go into a bit of detail with Christianity because he’s so much more familiar with it. It seems of no great consequence to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.jzag David Jz

    When the different branches of Islam name themselves clearly, for example, Reformed Sunni Islam, Orthodox Sunni Islam, etc, this article will have more validity. Luckily the Sufis have done this. Unfortunately, although there are many works of Tafsir (interpretation), most of the classical and official interpretations of Islam are, in fact, ideologically and morally offensive. Moderate applications of Islam involve watering it down, diluting it rather than following it precisely. This means that radicals are not radical, but are in fact the most orthodox examples of Islam. When Al-Qaeda or Jamaat-i-Islami or Wahhabi Islam describes itself, it calls itself “the only one and true Islam.” And so does every other branch! Ha ha! So, forget it. Reform is forbidden, and the ideology requires its followers to lie to infidels to defend it. Therefore all versions are dishonest. So these distinctions between radical and moderate aren’t worth much. They are merely different limbs of the same body that doesn’t understand itself or speak the truth about itself. It just means some branches of the ideology try to avoid the immoral and inhumane parts of Islam, while “covering up” for the dedicated branches who are busily trying to conquer infidel governments all over the earth and destroy secularism. Just call it Islam!

  • Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

    A majority of the world’s Muslims are easily at least as (socially) conservative as mainstream conservative Christians that liberals revile here in America. No need to have a double standard. As you can tell from my username, I’m not entirely ignorant of Islam, nor do I find absolutely everything about that religion and the culture it fostered odious—for one thing, my misanthropy steers me towards a love of non-representational artwork that does not include depictions of human beings, such as Islam made popular—but what I just mentioned is the uncontroversial fact.

    Islam is mostly a load of crap. That’s not just what some mean old out-of-touch New Atheists in the West think. This is what atheists and many other secularists in ISLAMIC countries will almost surely tell you.