Notes on the Ninth Meeting — ISLAMOPHOBIA

Well, the Old New Way meeting was a little different this month.

In the context of Donald Trump’s nauseating fear-mongering against Muslim people in recent months, I thought it would be useful to have a different kind of discussion. So I proposed the following topic:

Is it possible to criticize a religion while not denigrating the people who practice it?

In other words, can we criticize Islam (as a belief system) while avoiding bigotry?

At 8:00 we gathered as usual for wine and cheese and bread. At 8:30 we sat down in the living room to begin the discussion.

1. Tom’s Presentation on the Need for both Humility and Courage When Challenging Any Status Quo

I started by emphasizing how much I have tried to ground myself, in the days leading up to this meeting, in the need for modesty and humility in such a conversation.

I pointed to the obvious: that there is only one of me. At the same time there are millions… upon millions… upon millions… upon millions… of Muslims across the globe (over 1600 million! Imagine saying “a million” 1600 times — how long that would take — and each time you say it, it represents a million people).

At that very moment there are, no doubt, thousands upon thousands of Muslims doing any number of things: brushing their teeth, having babies, laughing with friends, driving too fast, changing a diaper, falling in love, falling out of love, pouring tea, spilling tea…

Like all people on this teeming planet (in so many ways that we cannot even imagine), they are living full, beautiful, complicated lives.

So on the one hand, who am I to discuss the pluses and minuses of religion generally, or Islam in particular, and whether or not, and how, it should be critiqued? What possible worth is my opinion, or yours, or ours collectively?

Humility is definitely in order. Acceptance of my own, of our, profound ignorance and lack of accurate information is definitely in order.

And yet, I continued, there is this other point to be made too.

As everybody knows on Monday it was MLK Jr.’s birthday. Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on the bus and thereby sparking the civil rights movement.

Who were they to have stood up to millions of white Southerners, and people around the world generally, who thought things were just fine as they were?

Who were they to disturb the mindset of so many oblivious American citizens going about their business, who also brushed their teeth, laughed, changed diapers, fell in love, poured tea?

Or let’s switch continents. Who is this young, headstrong Malala to speak out against the treatment of girls and in support of their rights to education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere?

You see where I am going with this.

In addition to being aware of my, and our, need to be modest and humble, I also feel stirred by the sense that one person can and should speak out against suffering, insofar as he or she sees it. We can affect one another.

We may be right, we may be wrong, but moral causes are only advanced when we speak our minds. “Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor…” observed MLK, Jr., and it is a good reminder. So just because each of us is only one person with imperfect knowledge, it is okay to speak out against the status quo…

But can we do it with the proper dose of humility?

With that challenge to myself and to the group in mind, I opened up the meeting.

2. Finding the Right Strategy

Ken said he wasn’t clear at all about the scope of the question or the purpose of the evening. He asked if I would therefore please clarify what I had meant when I said I wanted to talk about “religion” or “Islam”.

I started by saying that we could all agree that certain forms of radical Islamism, such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, are regrettable… But I wanted to address the larger question of how and when we could, or should, criticize the dependence of so many people on supernatural suppositions…

Yann jumped in to say that he thought that every religion has, at its core, in some respects, a “crappy ideology.” “Let’s just grant that,” he said.

Yet unlike the concentric circles that Harris and Nawaz draw in their book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, which placed ISIS and other hardened, radical jihadists at the center, Yann argued that this “crappy ideology” at the core of religion is a… soft doughy core, if you will.

He would place regular, everyday believers in this soft core at the center of Islam.

In Yann’s redrawing of the concentric circles of Islam, then, he would move the radical extremists like ISIS out to the periphery. Those peripheral guys are the ones who cause the problems, he insisted. The soft, admittedly slightly rotten center isn’t our problem.

So, Yann continued, strategically speaking, in terms of having a positive effect on the world or the Middle East, we should not antagonize the people at the center! They are people who just happen to have that ideological commitment to that particular religion, but they don’t act on it in an extreme way.

Instead, we should focus on the actions of the peripheral players (those operating at the outer “crust of the pizza,” in Yann’s words — though I will admit I had a hard time getting my head around the image of the Islamic religious community, the ummah it is called, in the shape of a large pizza pie).

Yann did acknowledge the useful function of provocateurs like Hirsi Ali and Harris (and he included me here, as the most outspoken atheist he knows). But he emphasized that we should be making our protest against the crappy ideologies of religions within a larger context of tolerance — with a focus on actions, not beliefs.

(Please read Yann’s clarification of his position on this in his comment to this post here. It is very valuable.)

I responded that he may well be right in terms of strategy, but that… I doubted it.

It seems to me that movements for social and moral change don’t usually happen tacitly or passively. They happen when people like MLK Jr. or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Malala, or for that matter Ayaan Hirsi Ali, stick their neck out and say, “NO! This is wrong!” (Reread MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his insistence that “wait…” so often means “never.”)

But really this dispute comes down to a practical question, I said.

I asked the group if anyone had any personal experiences in confronting values with which they disagree, and what they found to be the most effective strategy.

Don spoke up to tell of how he had to bring to an end certain friendships back where he grew up, in Kansas City, Missouri, when he heard those “friends” speak in ugly, racist terms. Their theories — which they claimed to be sourced from the Bible — about “mud people” (Africans, Jews, etc.) in contrast to people of Northern European descent — were so upsetting and offensive to him that he could not continue the relationships. Don also spoke of a time when he happened to speak to a Pakistani ship captain, leaning against the rail of the ship, who admitted that he had killed many people out of a religious conviction because, as he explained, they were “inconvenient.” He showed no remorse at all.

In both cases, Don said, he felt that there was possibly no argument or dialogue that would work. He came up against the limits of tolerance.  In his assessment, their beliefs in these cases actually were the problem, and their actions merely flowed out of these beliefs.

Yann responded that, rather than attribute these horrifying examples to religious ideology (Christian and Islamic, respectively), he would attribute them to a learned sense of despair and lack of value placed on life. In other words, a state of mind.

A man Yann talked to once, who had worked extensively with victims and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, shared with him that the main distinguishing characteristic that he encountered among those who kill was a complete lack of regard for life. Killing was simply not as big a deal to them as we would expect. So for Yann, ideology — including a system of belief based on religion —  is the wrong place to look for why people do wrong.

Yet, I asked, aren’t there some ideologies, which actively promote in-group/out-group “othering,” and which are therefore perhaps more harmful than others? Of course we will condemn barbaric actions whenever they occur, but can’t we also make distinctions on the level of the belief systems from which they spring?

After all, the same people lived in Nazi Germany during and after WWII, and yet the discrediting of Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority and right to conquest neighboring lands meant… that there was less killing! I turned and asked Yann directly, “Would you really only go after the actions of a terror group, say the Khmer Rouge, and not address its underlying ideological commitments at all? Based on my experience, belief systems have very real consequences. Therefore the belief systems need to be addressed too.”

Yann said, “Yes, both need to happen. But we need to emphasize the actions first, the beliefs second.” (He was in a very reasonable state all evening, Yann was. Who saw that coming?)

Heather spoke up to say that she thought the problems of religious extremism were more of a psychological nature than ideological — a question of early childhood trauma, psychosis, etc.

Coley told the story of her brush with the cult of “Breatharians” and how she witnessed first-hand the way beliefs alter behavior — even getting people to stop eating food altogether.

Andy pointed out that we are all potentially killers, given the right conditions. So we should not get all high and mighty about our own beliefs, even if we pat ourselves on the back that they are universal, humanistic, scientific, progressive ones. Nobody is above brutality.

I countered Andy’s point by saying that, though this is no doubt true, such an awareness does not give us a reason to ignore the ideological basis behind specific expressions of brutality and hostility and cruelty and hatred. Again, I believe that there are still distinctions to be made about the different ways we are made into killers — or not.

The recognition that (primates that we are) we are all fallible does not let us off the hook for working as hard as we can to arrange things so that we are slightly less fallible.

3. Okay Fine Tom, ISIS is Bad, and Its Beliefs Are Problematic… But Isn’t Moderate Religion Okay? 

Florence spoke up at this point to say that she has full respect for people who are religious in a moderate way. Many of them, in her experience, are kind and loving and generous. So she doesn’t think that religion is a problem in and of itself.

I agreed with Florence in one respect. There are certainly many religious people who are more ethical than I will ever be (just because they are that way as people). And knowing this, I said, try not to judge whether someone is good or bad based on whether they practice a particular religion, or not at all. That’s my attempt at a lack of bigotry.

Yet when push comes to shove, I said, I think that even moderate religious people — the soft, doughy center of which Yann spoke — are doing substantial harm to themselves and others.

The fact is, we live in a world in which, if we are honest, doubt and trade-offs and uncertainty are part of our experience at all times. Since religion provides false certainty and authority, it leads people away from the world as it really is. In this way it encourages people to live a lie.

A strange thought-experiment came to mind at this point so I gave it voice…

If for some reason, I said, I found myself in a dangerous war-zone, I would rather fall through the roof into the house of a… white-haired, skeptical, Polish professor of the humanities than a religious ideologue. Wouldn’t you?

The reason for this preference is that I fear the false certainties, the delusions of perfectibility and the accompanying obsession with “evil” that religion promotes. As the ground shifts underneath us, I’m sorry, but I would feel safer with a skeptic (though I know that many religious people would turn out to be generous and kind as well).

It is my sense (from history, from experience with relatives and acquaintances) that the mindset of religion can make people more prone to us/them thinking. So I would rather take my chances with this Polish professor “Stanislav”… or (let’s change the country, it doesn’t matter) dear old professor “Tawfiq” at the University of Cairo… Or professor Lao of the University of Beijing… Or professor “Aamina” at the University of Istanbul…

Setenay pointed out that, in fact, people in the Middle East are generally quite hospitable to guests, and this has nothing to do with religion or lack of it… So she kind of demolished this particular point.

Florence emphasized again that she does not think of the religious as more dangerous, except for extremists. Moderate religion, to her, is fine.

After all our talk, we seemed back at square 1.

4. Thinking About the Religious Indoctrination of Children

That’s when I got really provocative.

“What about the kids?” I asked. “To me, indoctrinating children into religion, is, I’m sorry to say it, a form of child abuse.”

Everybody looked up. “What?!”

“No, I am serious. Think of the lies that are told to them daily. Think of the sexual shaming. Think of the build-up of the idea of “evil” — and the strong implication that some people fit this word.

“Think of the lesson that is taught, over and over, of looking not to their own evidence and experience, but instead to ‘faith’.

“Think of the closing off to knowledge of our world, of possible careers and creative pursuits and passions, that might threaten that faith…

“Think of the emphasis on heaven and the after-life, instead of this life…

“It breaks your heart when you think about it. Doesn’t it, though? Just think of all those poor kids, who don’t even have a choice.”

Here Stephane, sitting next to me, pushed back. “But what do you tell your kids, then?” he asked indignantly. “Don’t you instruct them in your own ideology of atheism, telling them that there is no God and evolution is definitely true? But we don’t know that either!”

I answered that I tell my children that I am interested in all of their speculations about God. I tell them that I, for one, have no idea whether God exists (whatever that term “God” means — must he be in the image of humans? a cosmic force guiding us? good “energy”?), but that I haven’t seen evidence for it. I tell them that evolution is a theory, but a very compelling one — fossil records, the study of genetic mututations, all that.

“My point,” I added, “is that science and skepticism are ways of interacting with the world, and they don’t stand or fall based on any infallible beliefs. I want them interacting with the world, in all its doubt and confusion.”

Claudine told the story of how she was raised in a Christian home, went to church on Sundays, and so on, yet she long ago realized that she doesn’t believe in God. She suggested, therefore, that there is room for optimism for children raised religiously to leave their faith behind because of the powerful countervailing influences in our society.

We discussed the recent trend showing that the fastest-growing demographic group in terms of religious affiliation is among the young (ages 18-35) who are not affiliated with any religion.

“So why wouldn’t we want to accelerate this trend more by breaking the taboos protecting religion and speaking out?” I asked.

5. The Age-Old Debate of Science vs. Religion

Andy spoke up to say that he sees science as the best way to understand one another. We can convey information and facts through experimentation and documentation. Whereas, to him, religion is completely incomprehensible. And since the experience of communion with “God” or the “spiritual realm” is not conveyable in terms that everyone can understand, he feels left out by religion.

Stephanie responded that science is not so universal and open as Andy presents it. Limited grant money and corporate funding goes to certain people and institutions and countries, who are engaged in certain science (often with potential for profit). Also, the language of science is often jargon-filled and difficult. And let’s not forget that people who become scientists require massive resources in money and education to acquire their positions.

Yes, Andy countered. That all may be true. But there is still a way in which the door to science is open to any person, regardless of race, citizenship, anything else. It is a universal language in that sense. Anne mentioned that even though she is not a scientist she is able to grapple with it and write on it as a journalist. It is, in her experience, accessible.

Here we got into a brief discussion of the question of whether religion and science address different aspects of life. Religion, some people insist, deals with the deepest questions of meaning in our lives, and science is merely a method… I mentioned that this had come up in our meeting on the Scientific Revolution a year ago.

It seemed obvious to me, both then and now, I explained, that science does overlap with religion. Importantly, though, it upholds values that are largely contrary to those of religion. Think of what is required of a scientist: telling the truth, relying on evidence, using parsimony, and seeking confirmation from others (e.g. you don’t get to publish your findings unless others can verify them!). To me, science represents a whole approach to life.

Also science has direct consequences in terms of how we make meaning in our lives. New understandings in the field of neurobiology, for example, are changing how we see criminality, adolescence, parenting, even the experience of love. Darwin’s discovery of evolution continues to revolutionize our relationship to the natural world around us.  Thus, in my assessment, science and religion are in a kind of ongoing battle for the same area of interest. (Stephen J. Gould’s phrase of “two non-overlapping magisteria” is, to my mind, merely a religious person’s fancy way of saying, “Stay out! Please!” But it won’t work for long. Science, I am happy to say, will keep pushing in.)

Somehow during this discussion about science as a counterweight to religion, the intensity in the room seemed to go up several notches.

When I mentioned that this was the case, everybody laughed. For a moment we calmed down again. But, looking back, I think the energy in the room was becoming  more and more confrontational. And I’m sorry to say that it got even louder, and even more confrontational, during the next phase of the meeting…

6. The Question of “Regressive Liberalism” 

We had veered into a discussion of science, somehow. I wanted to get us back to this question of criticizing religion and how to do it, if at all.

Surprised by how few in the group seemed to share my concerns about moderate religiosity, I speculated, again somewhat provocatively, that some in the group may be afraid to criticize supernatural beliefs due to the long-held taboo about speaking out against them.

After all, I said, for millennia upon millennia we have been told by priests and enforcers of religious order not to dare impugn the supernatural claims of our tribe.

How else could we explain the near indifference to suffering under religious ideology? If any secular ideology, based, say, in Stockton, California, promoted the kind of violence and intolerance that religion does in the Middle East (stoning of “apostates” and blasphemers for example, executions of homosexuals, denying education to girls), I argued, people in Berkeley would be outraged. It would be all over Facebook, to say the least!

We are outraged at Trump’s speeches, and we call out their bigotry and racism. We are outraged at white, Christianist militias in Oregon because they are home-grown. But when it happens in an Islamic context (yes the radical extremists are a minority, but their justifications are linked to Islamic texts in the Koran), people want to say it has nothing to do with Islam.

To me, this is a clear case of enabling.

In my view, if we spoke openly about the dangers of submission to an unseen “God’s will” across all religions, we might get more moderate people to hesitate from unconsciously aligning themselves with these Bronze and Iron age ideologies. If we laughed at supernatural claims we might get more people starting to see them as ludicrous and laying down their swords.

I recognize that this criticism, directed at Islam, will be labeled by many as “Islamophobia.” But it is actually not about denigrating people at all. It is about questioning beliefs. Isn’t that what we should do when we see suffering caused by them? (Here, I think, we were coming to the nub of the night’s topic.)

Yann strongly disagreed that the group were being “regressive liberals.” He said that most, if not all, in the room agreed that religion is a problem. Fine. But according to Yann, the people in the room simply didn’t think, as I do, that it is important to speak out against those who are living their lives quietly and gracefully within a religious tradition. “You will only antagonize people, Tom,” he said. “And anyway, it just wouldn’t be effective,” he ended with a sigh, revisiting his argument at the top of the meeting.

Stephanie said that she thinks I am confusing the political, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of religion. She argued that I was blurring the policy and actions taken by the repressive Islamist regimes in the Middle East, for example, with the dialogue of ideas and inquiry embedded in the major religious traditions, or the “spiritual” experiences of the individual devotee.

I answered that I didn’t think it was as easy as she suggests to separate them. She seemed to me to want to cordon the political off from the rest, but the political is in many ways an outgrowth of the philosophy and the agreed-upon “sacred” elements — not only for Islam, but for Chrisitanity and Judaism and other religions too.

Just take a look at what the religious leaders and political leaders in the Middle East SAY about their justification for their actions. Look at any ISIS video (actually don’t — too terrible). Or look at what leaders at Liberty University SAY about their justification for condemning homosexuality or abortion. Or look at what settlers in the West Bank SAY about why they are right to be there. It is unequivocal to all these people that they are acting in the political realm, yes, but out of deep philosophical and spiritual convictions. The political, philosophical and so-called “spiritual” operate together.

7. A Heated Debate on… a Person’s Right to Use a Certain Unpleasant Analogy

In what I think was the night’s most spirited exchange, Ken and I got into a discussion about the appropriateness of using an analogy to Nazism in regards to Islam. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but I believe that I was, in some other context, once again expressing how baffled I am by the urge to protect ideology of a supernatural kind from criticism. (“We have no problem condemning Nazism” I  may have said, “so why are people so reluctant…”)

Ken lept in to say that he felt it was wrong to analogize between Islam and Nazism, since, on the one hand, I was talking about a religion of 1.6 billion people, and, on the other, a single, murderous regime in the mid-20th century.

I answered right away. “Ken, I am not saying that Islam is the same as Nazism, but surely there are analogies to be drawn between them as systems of social control and intolerance for dissent—”

“Not at all,” said Ken, expressing disgust at what he perceived as a seriously flawed analogy.

This is where, for some reason, I felt myself surging up against an immovable rock of disagreement (I think I could tell that Ken would never budge). Somehow it set me off.

“Oh, I see!” I shouted, “Do I have your permission, then, Ken, to draw an analogy between Donald Trump and fascism, or even Nazism? Lots of people do. Would that be okay with you? Or how about Communism… You have seen the circular chart which shows Communism on the left and Nazism on the right converging at the bottom? Is it okay to draw that analogy, then? So let me get this straight: it’s just ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, anything related to Islam, that’s off-limits. Right?”

“ISIS is not Islam,” said Ken.

“Yes but it is a form of Islam, one interpretation of Islam, is it not?” I answered.

I could just make out Ken behind the rock of our disagreement, sending his own surging waves my way.

“So just because there is a white-supremicist militia in the state of Utah you would link the ideology of America as a whole to… Nazism?” Ken asked.

“Yes, I would link the militia’s Christianist, white-supremacist ideology to a strain of American ideology. And I would be happy to point out how the belief system of white supremacy, dating back to the Old South, an undeniable part of the American fabric, resembles Nazism in some ways. Just as I might link the social control and murderous intent expressed by ISIS to a strain of Islam, and hence draw an analogy from Islam… to Nazism. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be able to secure your permission because Islam happens to be a religion.”

“It’s not that it happens to be a religion,” said Ken. “It’s because it isn’t accurate.”

“So do you refuse to make any analogies between ideologies that are based on ‘sacred’ claims?” I asked. “Or are they all unique and resistant to comparison in your view?”

The group calmed us down, thank goodness. Ken and I agreed to disagree on this question of the appropriateness of the analogy in this case.

And the meeting went on.

Renee observed that my intensity on this reminds her of when she was a teenager. She said she has become somewhat blasé as she has grown older, relying on her stock phrase, “I live as if there is no God,” and that’s it. When, in fact, she has come to realize that her husband (who was trying to gather himself next to her) takes this to be a civil rights issue, a moral cause. Just as she would have felt when she was younger, he actually wants to do something about it. She said that this has inspired her, and she wants to get back to that sense of herself again.

8. Weighing Different Sources of  Suffering: Islam vs. American Foreign Policy

Towards the end of the night we got into yet another spirited disagreement.

Steve was describing his perception that when he looks at a religious person, he sees a person hampered by his or her beliefs, not unlike seeing someone with the shoelaces of his two separate shoes tied together. He finds, therefore, that he has the urge to help that person untie the laces and walk freely. But then again, he wonders if it is the right thing to meddle in this stranger’s life.

I said that, for me, it is not concern about the religious person and his or her limited experience of the world. It is a question of the harm done by that person to others, even unwittingly. When I think of the ideology of Islam I think of how many millions, millions of girls and woman are denied education (as well as other hardships imposed on them, including isolation and even beatings) partly as a result of textual support in the Koran and religious tradition.

This seems harsh, but it is true. I imagine their beautiful lives and contributions and joys if unbound to this outdated tradition. The feeling is one of anguish and sadness. (I know that many Muslim women would reject this scenario, choosing to stay in Islam if given the option, but I don’t think that means all would. Or if you don’t like this example, think of homosexuals… or non-believers… instead, who live under constant fear in many parts of the Islamic world. This is real suffering, justified by religious ideology, make no mistake about it.)

Yann, Ken and Setenay made the case that if I am so incensed about the suffering caused by Islam, and religion generally (see my website, which is focused on the creeping religiosity in U.S. politics and has nary a word about Islam), then why am I not equally incensed about the suffering caused by American foreign policy in the Middle East, and around the world?

I answered, “I am! Why do you think I follow politics so closely and worked so hard to get President Obama elected?”

That’s not enough, they said. You have this intensity about religion and Islam, but I don’t see you as intense about the exploitation of resources, the errant drone strikes, the support for Israel even as it expands settlements, the propping up of dictators — all the terrible things that the U.S. does to advance its interests.

I asked Setenay, “Will you grant that there is some real attempt to actually help people in the Middle East by the people making policy in Washington D.C.? Or do you think it is… all bad?”

She said she thought it is mostly bad, and that I should talk to more people from that area of the world if I think otherwise.

Yann piled on by accusing me of being an “American Exceptionalist” (he often makes this accusation, even though he was the one who wept repeatedly at his U.S. citizenship swearing-in ceremony… But shhhh, keep it quiet).

Ken pointed out that the U.S. has for many, many years supported one of the most extreme Islamist totalitarian regimes of all in the case of Saudi Arabia.

“So let me get this right. Do you imagine American government officials, behind closed doors, rubbing their hands together and saying, ‘Let’s mess with the Arabs and take their oil?’ Do you really think that’s how they talk?” I asked. “Don’t you think it’s a little more complicated than that?”

Yann said that when he worked at the UN and saw the officials working at USAID up close, he was shocked to see how, despite the many well-intentioned people working there, so many of their programs linked up with the interests of Lockheed Martin and Boeing and other U.S. corporations. “Money,” he said, “is far more damaging than religion.”

Setenay clarified that she understands the situation in the Middle East is complicated. What bothered her was not that I might be willing to see nuance in American foreign policy and talk about how “complicated” it is. That’s all well and good. What bothered her was that, when it comes to religion, in her view, I don’t approach it with the same insistence on nuance. Instead, I make it seem “all bad,” she said.

I answered that I hoped I did not do that. And I agree with Setenay that we should try to see everything we can with nuance. Certainly the damages wrought by religion are complicated and mixed up with the good it does. But I think our difference of opinion comes from the fact that, she’s right, I don’t see American foreign policy as equivalent to religion, in terms of the harm done in its name and, perhaps even more importantly, why it is done.

Yann, for one, has a very bleak view of American policy as being nearly entirely driven by greed and Realpolitik — inflicting untold suffering on its victims worldwide… in a never-ending nightmare from which we cannot wake. I agree that real death and suffering have resulted from U.S. policy (the war in Iraq being an obvious case, or more recently, the military operation to end Gaddafi’s rule in Libya — to name only two recent examples).

But I also see that these policies are open to revision, part of a political process of feedback and adjustment, and that people in government (some of them anyway) learn from mistakes. It is my impression that the U.S., in carrying out these policies, actually does respond to human suffering on many occasions. (Recall that in Libya there was a mass slaughter of civilians happening at the time, and that the Arab states and Europe joined in that effort.) Despite the diatribes of Noam Chomsky, in my view the U.S. is often trying to do good, while working to advance its self-interest.

I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that the Imams in many mosques in London and Belgium and Syria and Saudi Arabia (or the Reverends in many churches Texas and Georgia and Kansas…) are equally well-intentioned towards those outside their religious communities. ISIS is an extreme example, yes, but these extreme interpretations of Islam and the vilification of “infidels” and unbelievers — or “sinners” in the Christian setting — are qualitatively different in my mind than the confused and admittedly mixed motivations that guide (most of) the policymakers in Washington. (As I write this I can hear Yann and Ken and Setenay collectively sighing and shaking their heads at my naiveté. I’m afraid that we must once again fall back on that anodyne phrase: well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree).

9. Last Thoughts

The meeting finished with these and other difficult disagreements unresolved.

All I can say is that we should keep talking! My sense is that this meeting, although contentious and overheated, did loosen our ideas a little. At least it did for me, and that is worth it! If some of us discovered things that we continue to disagree about, all the better. Those disagreements too, I believe, advance our understanding of our friends, and of ourselves.

I do recommend to everybody that you read the book Setenay sent by pdf yesterday. I linked to it at the bottom of the Reading for the Ninth Meeting post, but I’ll put it here too. It is an absolutely  brilliant book (based on what I can tell so far, having read a few chapters already). There is much in it about maintaining a difficult, but worthwhile, duality of mind in these questions. The author’s name is Amin Maalouf, and the title (click on it for the link to the pdf) is: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (2003)

I will let you know soon what promising, constructive, super-harmonious topic we will meet to discuss and ponder next month.

Thank you everybody for taking part in this discussion.




Some Notes on Our Reading in Advance of the “Islamophobia” Meeting

On such a potentially heated topic, I want to begin by emphasizing what we all have in common in this group.

I believe that everyone in the Old New Way will agree that:

  1. Human beings should not suffer unnecessarily

–no “honor” killings by family members

–no stoning of adulterers or “apostates” or blasphemers

–no executions of homosexuals

–girls and women should have equal access to education

–no spousal abuse through physical violence or confinement

–no bigotry or discrimination

  1. There should be freedom of inquiry and speech (with minimal exceptions for safety)

–human lives are more important than any sacred books or words

–the most useful ideas are developed and honed through dialogue and even, in many cases, opposition and contradiction

–no one has a monopoly on the truth

  1. Violence is only acceptable as a LAST resort, even in political struggles

— violent “jihad” against people for their beliefs or identities or mere citizenship is not okay

–“martyrdom” operations are not okay

— killing of innocents is not okay (whether by drone or suicide!)

  1. Cultural differences are, in almost every case, enriching and wonderful

–different music, foods, clothing make our world better

–different priorities and social understandings make it more interesting (and we learn from one another)

  1. Western colonialism and resource exploitation did (and continue to do) undeniable harm to people in the Mideast

–artificially drawn national boundaries create tensions politically

–racism was – and continues to be – prevalent in relationship between West and East

— capitalist exploitation (taking oil profits, etc.) goes on

— the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 drove many Palestinians from their homes; the settlements are a forcible taking of Palestinian land

— the U.S.-led Iraq War killed thousands upon thousands of civilians

I list these first because once we establish that we all agree on these emotionally-charged issues, I hope we can have a more harmonious and directed discussion.

The problem, as you all know, is that when people disagree about religion and politics and the like, even small disagreements about how to get there can trigger limbic brain in-group mentalities and ingrained threat responses very fast.

So let’s try our best to avoid that adrenaline-fueled reaction entirely by agreeing, at the outset, that we largely share the same positions (as mentioned above, i.e. against unnecessary suffering, for freedom of inquiry and expression, concern about Western power and hegemony, etc.).

Anyway, our disagreements probably come down to a disagreement about tactics or approaches more than substance.


Having said that, let’s look at this phenomenon of “Islamophobia” a little more closely.

What are its different forms and definitions? (Spoiler: I think the term “Islamophobia” is very unhelpful, since it conflates a number of vastly different concerns.)


Six Different Forms of “Islamophobia”

1. Bigotry, i.e. visceral hatred towards people from the Mideast

This is the most basic of all – it has no ideology.

(A better term for it than “Islamophobia” might be “anti-Muslimism”?)

It is an expression of the limbic brain in full throttle.

For any given bigot (or anti-Muslimist), it might be based on…

— fear/unfamiliarity/disgust with sounds of different language (Arabic, Farsi, Turkish)

— fear/unfamiliarity/disgust with different habits (daily prayers, clothes, food…)

— racism towards people with different color of skin

— rejection of/disgust with Islamic architecture (and/or art)

–feelings of superiority (due to white skin, European history of power, different education, etc.)

2. A Religious Agenda

This one is based on a kind of in-group/out-group, supernatural assessment that Muslims are wrong in God’s eyes

It is expressed by Israeli settlers, Hindu separatists, European-Christian nationalists and many Evangelical Christian communities in the U.S. It does not always overlap with bigotry of the racial kind.

It can take the form of

— arguments that Muslims are aligned with Satan or the anti-Christ

–concerns that God promised Jerusalem as the Jew’s “eternal city”

–apocalyptic rumblings about the return of Jesus and the Rapture (and the Jewish people’s prophesized return to their homeland)

–sometimes it is even accompanied by a sincere urge to convert and win over

3. Threat Assessment

This is (presented as) a fear-based response to geopolitical events

It is strongest in right-wing parties in Europe and Russia and the U.S. (but it is also present in the Mideast itself, in terms of justifying “strong men” governements and leaders)

It claims to argue not against Arabs et al. as a ethnic/social/cultural group, nor in religious terms, but rather in terms of “objective” security concerns… (this one, by the way, is Donald Trump’s stated position – as he says, “…until we figure out what is going on…”)

Often it includes

–arguments that ‘radical Islamists’ are infiltrating society through refugee status, immigration, etc.

–arguments about military strategy (e.g. “red lines,” the need for a show of force in the Mideast, checkpoints, etc.)

–even arguments for gun rights (see Marco Rubio’s Christmas eve purchase of a gun to protect his family “against ISIS”!)

4. Concerns about Religion Generally

The focus here is on the supposedly deleterious effects of supernatural thinking and organized religion, Islam being a case in point.

These may include:

–concern about perfectionism (as opposed to incrementalism, appreciation of hard choices, trade-offs, the need for compromise and understanding…)

–concern about the enshrinement of outdated cultural norms in a ‘sacred’ book

–concern about the fostering of in-group/out-group mentality

–concern about the culture of lies encouraged by supernaturalism (not looking to evidence, not developing critical thinking, habits of verification and falsification)

–concern about the ingrained habit of certainty (instead of the celebration of doubt)

–concern about abusive child rearing/indoctrination/control

–concern about sexual shaming/control

–concern about emphasis on afterlife at cost of this life

Note that when you view religion as merely a form of ideology, and not worthy of protection by taboo, then there are distinctions to be made between religions (just as their between ideologies). In terms of advocacy for peaceful coexistence and tolerance, for example, Islam does not come out on top. (Probably Jainism does? Or forms of native American shamanism?)

Then again, Islam is better on social equality between men-who-are-unequivocally-part-of-its-faith-tradition. So there’s that.

5. Concerns about Assimilation

This is sometimes merely a weak-tea version of bigotry and terrorism/security threat assessment… but it does have another, more substantive aspect as well, I believe.

This is the “high-minded” argument rolled out by the National Front in France or conservative commentators in the U.S…. when they want to sound as reasonable as they can.

It comes into play when their concerns are based on the sense that there is (or should be) a unified cultural community among citizens.

With this in mind, they express

–concern that Muslims “cocoon” themselves off in homogenous communities

–concern that values of free speech and pluralism may be anathema to the religion of Islam (or Mideastern culture?).

–concern that Muslim populations therefore, unintentionally or not, degrade the healthy civic life in the host country.

In theory, though not in practice, this concern would apply with equal force to any minority community that did not assimilate, such as Afrikaners in South Africa?

6. Concerns about Immigration Generally

This is similar to Concerns about Assimilation, above, but with a slight difference of emphasis: the argument is often more about jobs and crime.

This form of “Islamophobia” expresses

–concern that foreigners are taking native-born peoples’ jobs (Muslims from the Mideast being one such potential immigrant group)

–concern that new immigrants will undermine wages by agreeing to less pay, or organize themselves into collective groups that keep out native-born workers

–concern about welfare dependency of new, poor immigrants (and higher taxes to support such dependency)

–concern about increases in crime, drug use, sexual assault, etc. (see recent events in Cologne, Germany, and the strong reaction of the average German)


So these are some of the different concerns grouped under the label “Islamophobia.”

Considering that this is a non-supernatural group, I think perhaps we should now turn to looking in more detail at #4 (Concerns about Religion Generally), in the context of Islam.

That, I am guessing, is where most of us find ourselves (though some of us may also be drawn, perhaps against our better judgment, particularly after a terrorist event, to #3 and #5?).

The question I posed for this meeting was: Is it possible to criticize the religion of Islam without being a bigot, i.e. without denigrating the social/cultural aspects of Muslim life?

Or is it a fool’s errand to try to separate these different strands of Muslim identity, and you will always slide into hurtful bigotry if you try?


Criticisms of Islam

 We read three books. Here is a brief summary of the relevant arguments of each.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic

Hirsi Ali divides the Muslim community into three “sets”:

  1. Mecca Muslims

This is the name that she gives to those Muslims – the majority world-wide – who are inspired by the more inclusive and spiritual-minded Koranic verses from Muhammed’s early years in Mecca. Many of these verses in the Koran emphasize equality and fairness and self-discipline and moral rectitude (along with submission to Allah).

  1. Medina Muslims

After Muhammed was driven from Mecca to Medina, his faith became more of a persecuted faith and a war-hardened faith. There are therefore many verses in the Koran that emphasize persecution, group solidarity, enforce rules and punish offenders.

  1. Modifying Muslims

This is the name Hirsi Ali gives to those Muslims and former Muslims, like herself, who are actively attempting to reform Islam. (She includes an Appendix in which she names many others whom she admires.)

Hirsi Ali addresses the question of why there has been no Islamic reformation – i.e. why the Modifying Muslims have made so little headway.

First, she says, Islam is not hierarchical, so change is dispersed and slow to catch on.

Second, there are fierce strictures against any and all critiques of Islamic religious doctrine.

Yet she still believes it can happen.

Hirsi Ali suggests five specific amendments to Islam that would initiate the reform she seeks.

  1. Reject Muhammed’s infallible status and literal readings of the Koran (this rejection of literalism has largely been achieved in the other Abrahamic monotheistic religions but has been resisted in Islam).
  2. Emphasize human lives as lived, over dreams of the after-life.
  3. Reject the authority of sharia law.
  4. Call into question the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law themselves.
  5. Abandon the concept of “jihad,” or holy war, entirely.

There are, of course, many challenges to reform:

All Muslims form a single community of believers (“ummah”), which makes them have a strong in-group/out-group mentality across the globe.

Traditional Arab culture is driven by a shame dynamic (instead of a guilt dynamic) – so one individual’s criticism, even if valid, is easily seen as an attack on the collective as a whole.

The Koran is sacrosanct. Unlike the Torah or the Bible, it is not a narrative but a series of commands, embedded socially through their recitation.

The Koran emphasizes divine omnipotence over human free will.

In many places, the text justifies violence. (Muhammed himself led his followers to victory numerous times on the battlefield.)

The concepts of martyrdom and the after-life are deeply embedded in it.

Sharia is understood by Muslims as a moral order (not merely a legal one).

The Koran empowers each Muslim to “command right and forbid wrong” himself or herself – i.e. it elevates all Muslims to the position of religious enforcers.

There has been an erosion of the idea of a zone of privacy in Muslim culture.

Jihad is in the Koran as a “spiritual struggle,” but also an outward one. One cannot deny the second imperative.

Global jihad is attractive to many disaffected youth as an easy “one size fits all” solution.

But Hirsi Ali cites these hopeful developments:

New information technology is exposing many to ideas outside their close communities.

The Arab spring, though brief, indicated growing unrest among many.


Reza Aslan, no god but God

Like Hirsi Ali, Aslan believes that there is a Muslim reformation underway. But unlike Hirsi Ali, Aslan does not see the Koran or the Islamic faith as presenting a unique challenge to reform.

On the contrary, he sees Islam as ripe with the possibility for reform and revision.

He insists that a religion is not a faith; it is the “story of a faith.” (This seems to suggest to him that it need not be factually true, so much as inspiring.)

So, with this in mind, Aslan sets out to tell us the story of Islam.

It begins with the story of a charismatic, handsome 25 year old, Muhammed, who impresses and marries a wealthy widow 15 years older than him. He then has a revelation in a cave and hears the voice of God giving him verses that speak of a new monotheism. Muhammed begins to proselytize, as a “prophet.”

Eventually, he marries others too (one wife, Aisha, is only six when she comes into his home, but we are assured that he did not consummate the marriage until she was nine – well, that’s a relief!). His followers soon have to escape the authorities in Mecca, the powerful Quraysh. In the dead of night, one by one, they flee to Medina, a small agrarian village many miles away.

Aslan describes the many threats faced by Muhammed and his followers when they in Medina. He explains that the outward-looking and aggressive forms of “jihad” are in the Koran because they were crucial for Muhammed in establishing his community. He acknowledges that this term of jihad has “been manipulated” for use by radicals and militants, but insists that most Muslims do not understand it this way (p. 81). Aslan also argues that the verses that seem to suggest Muslims “slay the polytheists,” etc. must be understood in a very narrow context of Muhammed’s conflicts with the Quraysh and others (p. 84).

He also minimizes the relevance of Muhammed’s mass execution of hundreds of Jewish Arabs in Medina – explaining it away as a matter of treason, not genocide (p. 94). He points out that Christians and Jews were not routinely killed when conquered by Muslims, nor were they even forced to convert (as polytheists and pagans were). Instead, they were merely compelled to pay a special tax (jizyah) under an Islamic state. Oh, and they were not allowed to openly worship or proselytize their faiths in public.

Aslan (to my ear, chillingly) summarizes Muhammed’s actions in this episode in the following way: “Worried that the rejection of the Jews would somehow discredit his prophetic claims, Muhammed had no choice but to turn violently against them, separate his community from theirs” (p. 95; emphasis added).

The question of the succession of leaders after Muhammed’s death takes up another chapter. After a few Caliphs come and go, Aslan is happy to report that one, “Abu Bakr’s was a short but highly successful reign… His principle achievement as Caliph was his military campaigns against ‘false prophets’ and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” In other words, “successful,” to Aslan, is apparently defined in terms of a wider conquest and the expansion of the Muslim caliphate…

I was surprised at how war-like and troubling the story of this faith turned out to be, even in Reza Aslan’s favorable telling. He admits to the severity and misogyny of the interpreters of the Koran, but he emphasizes how much it has been manipulated and distorted in the process. I am sure he is right. But that doesn’t give me much confidence that it will be reversed and corrected, despite Aslan’s assurance that this will happen in due course. For, as far as I could glean, he does not seem to give much evidence for this course correction.

Sure, Aslan names a few reformers through the centuries. And he writes at length about Sufism. But that is not a dominant form of Islam (in fact Sufism is not even considered Islamic!). Aslan also describes the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism across the Mideast, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular, as being largely a result of Western colonialism and exploitation. Here too I am inclined to agree. But neither does that explain how such extremism will be eradicated or reduced with time. Nor does that fully account for its emergence (there are many parts of the globe that have been subjected to colonialism and exploitation of resources but have not seen the emergence of an ideology of violent “martyrdom” and totalitarianism).

In the final passages of his book, Aslan concludes that the West is “merely a bystander” to an internal struggle in Islam, which has “finally begun its Fifteenth Century” (p. 248). He announces this with a kind of awe and optimism.

Aslan’s hopes seem to be pinned to the idea that Islamic tradition has long had an appreciation for pluralism: see, for example, the jizyah tax on Christians and Jews instead of forced conversion. He believes that within a clear “Islamic moral framework” a pluralistic state, even a democratic one, is possible. He concedes cheerfully, however, that “there may be some circumstances in which Islamic morality may force the rights of the community to prevail over the rights of the individual” (p. 264).

But this concession, made in passing, gives away the game, doesn’t it? Notice the abstraction behind the words: “Islamic morality may force the rights of the community…” But of course, a “morality” would not be able to “force” anybody to do anything; rather, it would be certain individuals who would maintain control over that “morality” and its terms, and enjoy the monopoly of authority in order to enforce them. And anyway, a “community” does not have rights; individuals do. That’s the point of rights: that the aggregate doesn’t get to assert special high-powered rights that trump one person’s!

Aslan ends by saying that the “cleansing” of Islam is inevitable (p. 266). This strikes me as an unfortunate term, “cleansing,” loaded with the kind of perfectionist thinking that I deplore (and I believe religion promotes). The term “inevitable” here also sticks uncomfortably in my ears in this context of violent upheaval. It suggests a strangely passive approach to present-day suffering.


Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Nawaz runs an organization in London, Quilliam, dedicated to the cause of reforming Islam. Harris is a well-known atheist and writer. The book mostly reads as an interview by Harris of Nawaz, with occasional commentary thrown in by Harris when he feel compelled to push back. This structure was fine with me, because I was impressed throughout with Nawaz’ clarity of expression and thought.

Nawaz makes it clear that his organization, Quilliam, is focused on encouraging Muslims to embrace the universality of human, democratic and secular values (he uses the term “secular” here in the limited sense of keeping religion and politics separate – not at all to suggest a renunciation of religion). He believes that this one change – Muslims coming to accept the universality of these values – could and would run parallel to religion without necessarily disrupting it. In his view, this development would provide a protected zone of critical thinking and privacy – and so, in turn, hasten the reform of Islam. Nawaz does not look for a sudden transformation of Islam anytime soon; rather, it will be a gradual, grinding process.

When they first met, Harris urged Nawaz to be more “honest” and call out the radicalism inherent in the Koran. But Nawaz strongly rejects this formulation of the situation he faces. He explains that he doesn’t believe that any written text “says” any one thing – so to call out some radicalism, as Harris wants him to do, would be incorrect. What Nawaz wants, instead, is to join others in encouraging an interpretation of the Koran which allows for a separation of Islamic faith and a person’s political identity.

Unfortunately, both Harris and Nawaz begin by describing the Islamic faith community as a series of concentric circles… (I found this description to be problematic, as I will explain below.)

In the center circle, they both put ISIS and Al Qaeda and all the other radicals dedicated to violent jihad, spreading the faith by way of the sword.

The next circle out is the Islamists, who seek to spread Islam through political action.

The next circle out from that is the conservative Muslims, who may or may not support the Islamists or even the jihadis actions, but are more focused on issues of private faith and morality (e.g. the traditional role of women, etc.).

Finally, in the outer ring, there are the moderate Muslims who want to live their lives by modern values: the sales reps, lawyers, street-cleaners, engineers, mothers and fathers, etc. who are Muslims mainly by cultural tradition.

Within the Islamists, Nawaz goes on to distinguish three subcategories: political, revolutionary, and militant. The political ones want to achieve their goal through the ballot box, the revolutionary ones in one fell swoop, and the militants through global violent jihad (in their radicalism, these last ones drop into the inner concencentric circle).

As I said, I think this whole visual lay-out is a distortion. I do not think it is fair to place ISIS and Al Quaeda at the CENTER of this description of Islam. Can’t we place the conservatives at the center, with the moderates near them, and the jihadis and the political Islamists as bubbles at the edges? Wouldn’t that be more accurate? Why must the most radical take center stage?

In the next section, Nawaz and Harris talk about indoctrination. Nawaz says that there are four stages in recruitment: grievance, identity crisis, a charismatic recruiter, and ideological dogma.

Nawaz point out that religious dogma is a motivator, but not the only motivator. So we have to look at all of these factors. Harris pushes back and argues that the unique dogma of Islam is sometimes sufficient to motivate a person to become radicalized to do violence in its name.

Their next subject is the rise of a Western “regressive liberalism,” in which any criticism of Islamic radicalism is labeled “Islamophobia” and bigotry. They both agree that this does huge harm to efforts to reform Islam from within. Nawaz acknowledges that bigotry is a problem, but he insists that “our challenge is to expose and undermine the ‘fellow-travelers’ [regressive liberals] while at the same time opposing the bigots” (p. 54). This is the needle they are trying to thread. Harris laments that the “liberals don’t see that they have abandoned women, gays, freethinkers, public intellectuals and other powerless people in the Middle East to a cauldron of violence and indifference” (p. 55). Both Nawaz and Harris agree that there needs to be careful distinction made between real grievances (employment discrimination, violence against Muslims) and perceived grievances (offensive cartoons in Charlie Hebdo).

On the text of the Koran, Harris is more adamant than Nawaz that it contains prescriptions for violence and intolerance that can’t easily be avoided. Nawaz maintains that it is a matter of interpretation – just as in the Torah or the Bible there are severe passages which have been interpreted more favorably. Harris says yes, to a degree — but some text cannot be softened or ignored. There is no way, for example, to interpret the Koran as encouraging the eating of bacon, no matter how hard you try.

Nawaz suggests two ways of loosening the literal (“vacuous”) readings of the Koran that are currently prevalent. One would be to understand it as open to interpretation (this recalls the first of Hirsi Ali’s “five amendments”). The other is to shift from understanding the text as a legal injunction to more of a spiritual guide. Nawaz looks at the command to kill “apostates” (which appears in the hadith, or classical commentary on the Koran) and discusses how this might be reinterpreted to eliminate the threat of violence, by way of these methods.

Harris articulates the two central themes in Islam that he finds the most problematic. One is the frequent demonization of infidels,  and the other is the emphasis on paradise. Nawaz acknowledges that these are challenging aspects to Islam. But he insists that with enough pressure these themes too can be reworked.

They conclude in agreement that the reform of Islam is daunting, but it must be achieved through a clear-eyed commitment to secularism both in the West and in the Middle East.