How can we discuss Islam in better ways? A response to Alex Gabriel on Dawkins and Islam

This is in response to a post up at The Heresy Club discussing how and whether Richard Dawkins’ commentary on Islam is racist. The piece makes several powerful points–notably that while Islam is not a race it certainly can be discussed in racist ways that are both important and damaging to real people, and that Dawkins sometimes utilizes enables and endorses racist positions by others and sometimes makes statements himself that utilize racializing language. There are better ways, blogger Alex Gabriel says in closing, through which you can discuss and critique Islam. Language is important. Its connotations are powerful.

As a sort of jumping-off point to Gabriel’s closing statement, in this post I would like to tackle the following question: How can we discuss and critique Islam in better ways?

To do this, I think I need to ask some questions that are direct off-shoots of Gabriel’s discussion but that he only slightly touched upon, and they are:

  1. Is Islam fundamentally different from other world religions? How?
  2. Are there contexts in which critique of Islam is more important, relevant, or even imperative?
  3. Given the answers to 1. and 2., how can we discuss Islam in better ways? How do Dawkins and some of the New Atheists get it wrong, how do they get it right, and what do we do differently?

Let’s start.

I should stress that I want to thank Alex Gabriel for writing this piece, and for highlighting how blanket condemnations of Islam, especially those using language of exclusion, othering, and alienation, can help enable racism towards people from the MENA region and South Asia. Especially when those people are immigrants from these countries to the West, potentially threatening their safety, security, and livelihood in their new homes. I salute Gabriel for recognizing that it is counterproductive try to counter the oppression of already marginalized groups by speaking of them as a monolith. After all, he points out, Christian scripture can be as misogynistic and violent as the Qur’an, and Christian leaders and groups sometimes preach and legislate violence, misogyny, and homophobia, yet there is not a similar rush to blanket condemnations of ‘Christianity’ as such.

And while I believe that Gabriel has made an admirable and honest attempt to tackle this issue with carefulness, clarity, and nuance, I wish I could say it is as simple as recognizing the above, and being prepared as secular thinkers to deal with Islam in the same way we deal with Christianity, which too is not a monolith and is not actualized by the violence of its scriptural doctrine.

I would like to argue, however, that it is important to recognize that Islam differs from other large world religions in 2 key ways (if I happen to be wrong and there are other religions characterized by the following, this will not change my claim that the key characteristics of a doctrine are relevant to the manner in which they are discussed. It will only mean that Islam AND X other doctrines need to be dealt with in this way).

I’ll list these 2 ways here and come back to them shortly:

  1. Islam is not just a doctrine of personal belief but also a political doctrine. The concept of a secular state internally contradicts it. It strongly advocates for eventual political unity in a pan-Islamic Ummah and the enforcing of religious doctrine through governance. Its religious rulings also extend to even the most mundane aspects of everyday living, including matters of personal bodily autonomy.
  2. Islam shows a strong resistance to progressive interpretation due to the the central belief that its holy book is always-and-ever infallible, unchanged and unchangeaable, written by God himself. While it can be argued that this need not be inherent to the faith (after all, the Bible has historically been held away from scrutiny in similar ways and we see how THAT has changed), it doesn’t need to be more than a strong present circumstance to warrant influencing current discourse.

Why is this important? Why is it important to keep in mind what elements most mainstream interpretations of Islam share when trying to figure out how to productively discuss it? Why do these particular elements make Islam worthy of being treated differently than Christianity is?

Well, let me try to highlight why it is that many secularists believe that the better way to discuss Christianity  is not through blanket condemnations and othering language, despite the gravity of some of its offenses:

While I am open to being corrected, I would claim that in the West, most Christians no longer take the violently misogynistic and homophobic parts of the Bible literally, and those who do (eg: the Westboro Baptist Church) do not have the political power or legal recourse to actualize their beliefs, so if they happen to do so it is not of much consequence materially. As such, I’d argue that if it is at all coherent to claim that a religion can be characterized by certain beliefs, we cannot claim that Christianity, in the manner in which it is currently practiced and applied, is characterized by many violent Biblical edicts that have become, in practice and modern thought, no longer relevant.  In addition to this, there is a strong Christian presence, normalized in mainstream media, that avidly condemns violence based on misogyny and homophobia as specifically unChristian. In light of this, it would be a gross and unfair misrepresentation to claim that Christianity is characterized by ultra misogyny and violence or that this is a common element of the thought of Christians  simply because those elements are present in  its core scripture. In addition to being a misrepresentation, it would not be a productive method of discourse because pointing that out has very little to do with reform when governance among Christian-majority countries happens to be secular and thus can combat the attempted legislature of Christian-based laws on secular grounds.

Now, we might point to the existence of countries like Uganda, where anti-gay legislature is primarily fueled by Christian scripture-inspired homophobia. But, as Gabriel points out, the larger context of discussion needs to be apparent if you are ever going to get away with speaking in general terms. If problems such as homophobia in Uganda are to be discussed in a specifically Christian context, they need to be addressed in light of whether it is accurate, just, and fruitful as opposed to detrimental to characterize the entire faith, in all its multivariate interpretations and applications, according to this. Especially when the prevalence of counter-examples discounts an accurate assessment of homophobic legislation being representative of Christian practice today.

Okay, so what about forms of religious suppression and control that are more subtle or less recent than outright violence against LGBTQ individuals, but still ubiquitous? In his post, Gabriel cites Christian-inspired sodomy laws in the secular United States, which were only shot down ten years ago, as an example of how all sorts of countries and societies can have suppressive laws and practices. He mentions this to assert both that a singling out of Islamic nations for criticism of such legislature needs to at least be justified if it is to happen, and that the larger historical and global context in which oppressive and repressive legislature occurs cannot be ignored. We can go even further than that to talk about the fight against marriage equality and female reproductive rights occurring in the United States even today, and how by-and-large justifications for this kind of legislature take root in Christian belief. Why, then, is it viewed as less justifiable to condemn Christianity as a religion for having suppressive attitudes about sexuality while sexual repression in the Middle East is largely characterized as Islamic?

Because of how much more malleable Christianity has historically proven to be than Islam. It is not only capable of change, but arguably conducive to it. Because both Christian legislative influence in secular countries and  positions internal to Christian thought have changed and continue to change.

Because when we talk about Christianity or Islam, we do not talk about them in vacuum or independent of their historical manifestations and applications. They are not free-floating idea-systems and scriptural entities. They are their supporters, their interpreters, their members, their applications. They are also the cultures and races they emerge from and are practiced in.

There are many good reasons for Christians to support the claim  that the Bible has been subject to human corruption, and that parts of it are mistaken, no longer relevant, and/or can conscientiously be discounted. Further to this, many of them want to have good reason to refuse to endorse bigoted beliefs and practices. Discourse in the West has come to normalize the ideas of equality, liberty, and democracy as common goods. This has become normal as part of the common *culture* and by-and-large Christianity in the West has adapted to the discourse of its context. And where it has not, it continues to tend increasingly towards this. There are active political battles being fought and slowly being won.  One state at a time, ending around 30 years ago, marital rape was criminalized in every state in the US. One at a time, states are legalizing same-sex marriage. Much of the misogyny of 1960’s America is inconceivable today. While once interracial marriage was considered an unthinkable sin, it is now nearly unobjectionable in many mainstream Christian churches. Christianity and secular government have historically been seen to coexist and coevolve much more fruitfully than Islam and secular government ever have. This can, I will argue, be shown to be a reliable indicator that there is something about Islam and the political contexts it finds itself in that makes it uniquely resistant to positive change.

What are the reasons for this? Well, my answers to the question of how Islam differs from other world religions is a starting point, and here’s why:

Islam IS different. The misogynistic and homophobic elements of scripture are very much alive, are very much still actively discussed and implemented among scholars and everyday Muslims alike. Within Muslim thought, they pervasively (though surely not exclusively) go unchallenged as wrong, harmful, or offensive in any way, and on the contrary, are often upheld as just, correct, and infallible.  Their status as such both historically (in terms of how Islamic doctrine HAS changed given the problems posed to it by modernity and colonialism alike) and currently is I think due to the following:

  1. The perceived unapproachable divinity of the core scripture itself (leading to apologist memes such as ‘Islam is perfect, Muslims are not, do not blame Islam for what Muslims do’)
  2. The perceived unobjectionable and self-evident moral rightness of the faith as a whole (which leads to the strange paradox where apostates are guilty of a supreme act of betrayal against good conscious for leaving the perfect faith, yet an assertion that true apostates cannot exist because it is not possible for one to both understand Islam and reject it, and all rejections and criticisms are due to misinterpretations)
  3. The overtly political nature of the faith, which makes it both religiously justifiable and and an actual matter of fact in our current world that actual political regimes are Islamic, and some that are not entirely so contain prominent religious-based power structures that form laws applicable to their Muslim demographics.

Once Islam is viewed as resistant to change, above accurate informed critique, and as a political doctrine that ideally requires religious governance at the level of the state (especially as it extends to everyday private practices of its constituents), it becomes apparent that it deserves to be dealt with in a fundamentally different manner, when critiqued, than Christianity does. This might mean that it is not only fair, but nearly incumbent that Islam be discussed insofar as it is characterized by its suppression, violence, and misogyny–in scripture, in application, in practice, and in thought resistant to progressive interpretation.

It is of course necessary to stress that not all Muslim groups or thinkers will endorse this. There are progressives who seek to normalize a liberal version of Islam, especially LGBTQ Muslims. But, and this is a stickler, because of the cited unique qualities of Islam, they are often demonized above and beyond Western criticizers of the faith. Can you imagine how horrifying and exhausting it is for progressive Muslims–Muslims who willingly take upon themselves the arduous and personally valuable task of reconciling their faith with their liberalism–to be continually discounted as invalid innovators, as no true Muslims, as agents of the West and false corruptors?

I will make a further claim. It is not only fair that Islam be dealt on par with the elements that characterize it, but arguably incumbent because of the gravity and extent through which Islam and its intermingling with culture and politics wields great harm. Because honor violence has become nearly pandemic in many Muslim-majority countries, because child marriage and marital rape are not only legal but also viewed as unobjectionable, because women and LGBTQ individuals have few if any rights, and because much of this boils down to Islam as political doctrine being implemented in societies whose common discourse is consistent with it and pose no internal challenge to it, and thousands of people are suffering.

So what now? Let’s say we acknowledge this, both the important elements of Islam to keep in mind and the dire need for critique. What is the better way to discuss Islam without taking several pedals backwards by falling into racism and enabling harmful stereotypes against people who are from Muslim-majority countries or follow the faith?

And this is where, I think, an even stronger criticism of some of the positions Dawkins endorses is needed than the one Gabriel gave in his article. Gabriel’s main accusation was that you enable anti-Muslim racism by using othering and alienating language to both describe Islamic practices and to characterize the practices of some countries and some people as Islamic. This sort of language is irresponsible, weighty, and racializes the discussion by default.

I want to move away from these keen points on what sort of language is used to critique Islam to what sort of contexts Islam needs to be critiqued in, and to ask the question: What is the PURPOSE of critique of Islam? If the point of the discourse is to prove that Islam is bad, wrong, or stupid just to point out that is bad, wrong, or stupid, then I seriously will wonder why this is even being called discourse at all. Who does it help? What is its point? What purpose does it fulfill? We can make more or less complex and well-argued claims like the following:

Islam is bad for teaching creationism to impressionable kids, Muslims are scientific and unintelligent because they don’t win Nobel prizes in science, Islam is one of the great evils of the world, etc.

Well, say that was true. What is your point in asserting it?

I will make the assumption here that Dawkins and other New Atheists seek to highlight the troubles with Islam in order to help solve real problems in the real world and actualize change.

If so, I’m totally on board with Gabriel’s assessment that using racializing language is counterproductive in many ways. If so, I’d go even further to say that in addition to enabling racism against Muslims and brown people in the West, it is a ridiculously shortsighted view of actual problem areas in Islam. No, not even short-sighted, but rather ethnocentric and arrogant.

It is ethnocentric because it is discourse that centralizes the ‘problem’ of Islamist terrorism as a threat to the West, when Western countries have been victim to more acts of terror from white people and white groups than from Muslims or Islamic groups, when, in fact, Islamist damage in the West has been statistically minimal both in comparison to Islamist damage to Muslims and damage by other groups to the West, when  anti-West violent rhetoric is not commonly accepted or overt in mainstream Islam, and when this calls away and detracts from the most common and weighty victims of Islamic suppression and violence: children, women, and LGBTQ citizens of the Muslim world.

My main criticism of Dawkins’ attempts at Islamic critique have always been that it is utterly white-centric.

The problems of Islam are only minimally the problems of the West. They are rather the problems of marginalized brown groups in the West, they are problems of women who have few rights and few avenues of help in Muslim-majority countries, they are the problems of how Islam is utilized to control and suppress in the Muslim world.

They are political problems. And although the plights of citizens of the Muslim world are often cited by those liberals, secularists, and atheists who choose to discuss Islam, they are often done so not as a focus in and of themselves, but as fuel to justify white-centric positions involving how immigrants ought to be dealt with and wars waged.

I also said the discourse is arrogant. I say this because it places undue weight on the value of truth, on the freedom to use whatever language is appropriate to the highly objectionable and deserving of criticism, because it places itself on a superior epistemological pedestal of reason that is valued above any productivity this discourse will bring about. While truth, reason, and accuracy are clearly necessary conditions for valuable discourse, they are not sufficient or self-justifying independent of their rhetoric or material effects.

This is not an epistemological. It is not a theoretical problem. It is not even a problem of meta-ethics or normative ethics. It is, if anything, a problem of applied ethics, it is a problem of consequentialism. It is not merely about stating or proving a truth using inflammatory language because you can support the claims you make through reason-giving processes. It is a political problem, one that deals with real things that real people do and believe and the political power structures that enable them to do and believe these things.

And here is the consequentialist truth, grounded in the real world: blanket condemnations and accusations are going to do little to delegitimatize political Islam. Insults and blanket rejections of the entire faith as such from the outside (ie rejecting the initial premises of the faith and operating on premises that Muslims will likely reject) will not convince anybody who has the power over suppressed populations in Muslim-majority countries of anything except that their faith is being attacked, their livelihood threatened, and the need to batten down the hatches and tighten the drawstrings more incumbent.

In fact, it seems the only way that rhetoric of this sort will actually have any effect on the people and countries who utilize Islam to oppress is by convincing other white people, Westerners, and non-Muslims of the evil of Islam and causing them to initiate forceful action against Islamic and Islamist regimes and Muslim-majority countries. Many good criticisms of how ineffective and destructive this method is have been made, so I do not need to make them here. However, I would like to strongly emphasize that violence against those who violence disadvantaged populations under their power more often than not leads to further suffering among those already disadvantaged.

That is not the way to talk about Islam. While we’re on the subject, nor are these:

Right-wing criticism of Islamic practices are also (yes, we know, obviously) bad ways to discuss Islam. They are almost unequivocally based on misconceptions, misinformation, bigotry, and imperialist tendencies. They are not actual credible critiques and are sloppy and full of holes and tend to look for solutions that will condemn the real victims of Islamic oppression to further war and poverty. While mere accuracy is not enough to engage in productive discourse, it is a necessary condition for doing so. That part is what Dawkins and the New Atheists do have quite right.
On the other hand, much of the left is super antsy and trepidatious about approaching Islam in even close to the amount of criticism it has for harmful Christian-inspired legislation here in America, out of a fear of being racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and imperialist, and also out of a fear of furthering more war and destruction on our people and nations. While the point is clearly not to fall into the latter, refusing to even approach a subject of such importance only ends up enabling the condemnation of ex-Muslims, progressive Muslims, and secular thinkers who dare to speak conscientiously about Islam and its problems outside the parameters of accepting the faith.  Islam cannot be pussy-footed around and poses important enough problems to require discourse and attention. Acknowledging and asserting this is another way in which Dawkins and the New Atheists have it right.
So, finally, the positive question: given the above, how DO you talk about Islam in better ways? Here are some suggestions:
  1.  Recognize that people are not going to abandon Islam, that they work from within a framework of the faith, and completely throwing their initial premises outside the window as fairytales, delusional, evil, or wrong will not convince them of anything.
  2.  Recognize that it is not one thing or the other,that racism and anti-Muslim bigotry occur and damage real people just as Islam-inspired violence and misogyny do, and fair discourse will pay attention to both of these things.
  3. Recognize that rhetoric is important consequentially, that language is burdened with connotation and connotation feeds stereotype and stereotype leads to discrimination that actively harms people.
  4. And this is the most important one: Encourage, enable, and normalize the voices of progressive Muslim activists, LGBTQ Muslims, and ex-Muslims looking for peaceful reform of laws against women and children. ESPECIALLY the voices of women (because women of color have had enough white men speaking for them to last several lifetimes). Normalize those voices in mainstream media. Listen to them. because their voices are too often hidden and discounted.

And this is how: Ex-Muslims are working and gathering. They are writing and speaking, and quite often they represent a middle path that is acceptable as neither bigoted nor turning a blind eye to real injustices. Our presence is still tenuous but it is strengthening. This is a promise. There is good work being done.

We want to engage in good, accurate critique. We want to explain and make known how it is, and we want our voices to become accepted in mainstream media. We don’t run the same risk of coming across as xenophobic  because we ARE brown, we ARE from Muslim cultures, and we are the direct victims and those concerned with this issue, and, most importantly, we can often provide unique understanding and appreciation of being on the receiving end of both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist violence and oppression. We also are more likely to understand and not misinterpret our own cultures and the faiths we were socialized into.

So ask us, listen to us, and enable our voices. The problem is that it is hard for many of us to come out as ex-Muslim or atheist, because we face threats of violence and rape, and many of us are exiled to the West because we had to escape from or are shunned by our families and communities. So when we do speak, we almost always do it anonymously or under pseudonyms, and it is hard for us to feel safe or deal with the pressure and stigma surrounding us. It is also hard for us to build reliable and trusted platforms from which to speak when we rely so heavily on anonymity.

What we hope is for our allies in the West to do is to ask us how you can help, what campaign you can contribute to, what petition you can endorse, ask us questions so you can learn more about us and this complex issue. And in addition to this, help us be heard. Help normalize and make welcome the ex-Muslim voice. Help our communities become stronger so our activism can have a real place in the world. When we write or post about events that take place back home, share, speak, distribute. Do it when a Westerner is victimized in our countries too, of course, but also do it for us. Don’t only speak out when a white person is involved. Don’t fail to speak out if a brown person is the victim of discrimination in the West due to anti-Muslim bigotry. If you care about the issue, you care about it for all of us everywhere. Help strengthen our voices and help us be safe in the West and we will thrive and change things with your cooperation.

I hope.


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