Extreme Prejudice…Extreme Tolerance

 | Tue 7 May 2013 13:15 ICT

Glenn Greenwald penned an article recently that highlighted the bigotry that some New Atheists have towards Islam. While Professor Harris has done a decent enough job of defending himself from Mr. Greenwald’s criticisms, the one thing I would single out is the way that Mr. Greenwald follows familiar apologists lines when talking about the crimes of Islam. This is indeed troubling.

Praying at Chiang Mai mosque

In January of this year David Shariatmadari posed another argument that attempts to paint those who are skeptical of Islam and its encroachment with the same brush that colours xenophobes and racists. The irony here is that defenders of Islam, and many other faiths, are quick to point out that critics of believers only focus on the very extreme. I would say that Mr Shariatmadari is doing the very same thing in regards to his criticism of those who are skeptical of Islam. In regards to this line of thinking Mr. Greenwald writes:

The vast majority of Muslims are non-white; as a result, when a white westerner becomes fixated on attacking their religion and advocating violence and aggression against them, as Harris has done, I understand why some people (such as Hussain) see racism at play: that, for reasons I recently articulated, is a rational view to me.

As an atheist of a non-white colour and one who is skeptical of all religions, Islam included, I take offense to this. My country of Thailand is ethnically diverse but as you may well guess, we’re pretty much all none-white. It is currently embroiled in a none-white on none-white insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the name of Islam. Do I then view the majority of Muslims in my country as extremists and terrorists? No. But that doesn’t mean that I am not skeptical of the religion. The truth of the matter when it comes to Islam is that there are normal, everyday people who have their views tested when apologists calls Islam a religion of peace. It doesn’t make us a racist to do so either. [1]

These same people, including myself agree with Mr. Shariatmadari and Mr. Greenwald when they say that the number of moderate, tolerant Muslims outnumber the extremists vastly. We have no problems with the hijab and do not think, as Mr. Shariatmadari puts it, that Muslims are “shoving their way of life down our throats.” In fact just the opposite is true. We celebrate multiculturalism in a vibrant and amazing way in my former adoptive home of the United Kingdom and the West – just look at Chicken Tikka Masala, St Patrick’s Day and the British Royal Family itself, which has been foreign since 1066!

But by the same token there are a growing number of us who have become all too aware that vast numbers of violent acts are being done today in the name of Islam. The recent events in Boston and the regular occurrences in the Middle East – and indeed all over the world, from India to the Philippines, from Sudan to Thailand – do nothing to change that. Just a few days ago in Bangladesh, over 500,000 people marched to demand the adoptance of Sharia Law and the death of ‘atheist bloggers.’

We are told, however, that these acts of extreme prejudice are limited to a small band of a much wider Islamic spectrum. To a large extent, this is absolutely true. Professor Tariq Ramadan has suggested that these events are much more a result of geopolitical realities than the teachings of Islam. But even taking those arguments into account, what men like Mr. Shariatmadari and Mr. Greenwald do not realize is that apologists like them do much more to harm the situation than to bring about good. Instead of reaching some sort of concentric understanding their words become hollow excuses and talking points while ignoring a greater evil. In short, by justifying, and I use that term loosely, the crimes of radical Islam to other crimes in the west they diminish their own critiques of a very real problem.

For example Mr. Shariatmadari brings up the relationship between Islam and the homosexual community. He states:

Muslims don’t share our liberal attitudes towards gay people. But since when has the British way of life made things easy for sexual minorities? Let’s pick a date. How about 2003, when section 28 was finally repealed? Not much of a tradition. And the oppression of women? Islam comes in many different forms, and there are Muslim feminists who can argue this point better than I can. Suffice it to say that there is wide scope for interpretation and, even among conservatives, there is the possibility that things will change – just as they might do, one day, in the Church of England.

This line of rhetoric is extremely regrettable. Instead of just stopping and saying that the stance that Islam takes towards homosexuality is WRONG, he instead employs the playground rhetoric of ‘yeah we’re bad but so are you.’

Mr Greenwald is guilty of a similar crime.

Of course one can legitimately criticize Islam without being bigoted or racist. That’s self-evident, and nobody is contesting it. And of course there are some Muslim individuals who do heinous things in the name of their religion – just like there are extremists in all religions who do awful and violent things in the name of that religion, yet receive far less attention than the bad acts of Muslims (here are some very recent examples). Yes, “honor killings” and the suppression of women by some Muslims are heinous, just as the collaboration of US and Ugandan Christians to enact laws to execute homosexuals is heinous, and just as the religious-driven, violent occupation of Palestine, attacks on gays, and suppression of women by some Israeli Jews in the name of Judaism is heinous. That some Muslims commit atrocities in the name of their religion (like some people of every religion do) is also too self-evident to merit debate, but it has nothing to do with the criticisms of Harris.

The crimes and punishment of being a homosexual or an atheist, of committing adultery, of driving if one is female, or even of being raped in an Islamic country are well publicized. Yet instead of criticizing the select few who carry out such heinous acts, apologists would liken these acts to other crimes carried out in the west for the sake of context when none is necessary. In doing so any sting of criticism is lost. Furthermore they would argue that those crimes are committed in places where the ideologues rule and have no bearings on the Islamic dialogue in the West. I beg any of the people that would make such arguments to ask Salman Rushdie and Flemming Rose if their arguments hold any water. Alas, it is already too late to pose the same question to Theo Van Gogh.

If pressed further another familiar piece of rhetoric crops up. Ardent defenders will state that Islam is not any different and perhaps even better than Christianity was during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. Again they would absolutely be correct and again it would make absolutely no difference to spout such elementary and apologetic arguments. The reason that Christianity is so benign today is because of the reaction to the widespread Christian on Christian atrocities of the Thirty Years War, the Inquisition and numerous smaller conflicts. The works of men such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Benedict de Spinoza, Voltaire and more were directly critical of Christian fundamentalism and we are better today because of it. Christianity, in other words, went through a painful and protracted reformation precisely for these reasons. Even then elements within the west linger that harkens back to a medieval place, the Westboro Baptist Church being one obvious point of target. Thus the argument could be made that Islam is following the natural course of religion. We could postulate that the extremisms of today will lead to the understandings of tomorrow. But why let the lessons of history go unheeded, why let the killings and inquisitions become necessary? If we are to foster an understanding with Islam now, then the apologists and defenders of the religion must also become its strongest and most outspoken critics.

[1] As an aside, our neighboring country of Myanmar is also currently embroiled in sectarian and religious violence. Only the situation in this case is the persecution of Muslims by Buddhists, which goes to show the dangers of identification when something as sensitive as religion crops up.