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.

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