Sunday, April 19, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 3: Why Islamophobia is Wrong

In the prior entry of this five-part post, I criticized The New Criterion for its racism and Islamophobia. However, I’m not going to stop there. After calling-out Roger Kimball’s bigoted rag for what it is, I also want to go on and write a broader post about why Islamophobia is wrong. This can be done by addressing a key complaint of Kimball’s: “the systematic reluctance of Western leaders to describe Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism.”

How important is it that we use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ rather than ‘terrorism’? Well, in typical hysterical form, Kimball and The New Criterion view this semantic molehill as a mountain that does nothing less than threaten the fabric of American democracy. It is a symptom of “an epidemic allergy to candor” and an “embrace of euphemism [that] will alter not only our language but also the reality our language names”. Invoking images of Orwellian dystopias, Kimball concludes with fire and brimstone frothing that this "atmosphere of supine anesthesia is an invitation to tyranny."

I don’t claim that the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ will lead to an apocalypse, nor does my reluctance to use it arise from political correctness or a shadowy Orwellian plot to destroy America. People avoid a term like this because, simply enough, it is entirely inaccurate as a way to refer to terrorism, even terrorism committed by Muslims. The reason it is inaccurate it because it is bigotry; it can only be an accurate label if we assume a group of people (Muslims) all possess an inherent trait (the tendency to be terrorists).

In an attempt to clarify this point for the Kimball’s of the world, let’s start broadly. The primary charge of Islamophobes – and the logic behind Kimball wanting to use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is that these people view Islam as a ‘religion of violence’. Kimball admits as much when he comments: “Islamic peace can be vouchsafed only when the entire world has been converted to Islam. At the end of the day, the options for non-Muslims are three: conversion, slavery, or death.” I’m not sure what Muslims Kimball hangs out with, but no Muslim I ever met offered me such options. But then I never met a crazy person who happened to be Muslim (though there are clearly people who fit the bill in the world, just as there are ‘Holy Rollers’ and cults who end up worshipping unemployed wack-a-doodles).

Putting personal experience – and common sense arguments – aside for the moment, Kimball’s statement and the ‘religion of violence’ riff in general is immediately ridiculous to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Islam. To start, let’s consider the five pillars of Islam. They include:
1. Declaring there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet
2. Ritual prayer five times a day
3. Tithing a percentage of income to the poor
4. Fasting during Ramadan
5. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca if one is able
None of these could conceivably be interpreted by anyone as an exhortation to violence.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali
Deeper investigation, such as perusing the Qur’an itself [my version is the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali p.1938] reveals that Allah does not support violence. For example, in the very first Sura you will find this passage: “Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray” (Sura I:6-7, italics mine). The Qur’an goes on to suggest proselytizing is pointless: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Sura II:256). The reasoning for this is as follows: “As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe” (Sura II:6). Note that these are not isolated quotes drawn from a text otherwise filled with bile; they reflect the general thought in the Qur’an.

At this point, an Islamophobe will counter that they can find passages in the Qur’an that do encourage violence. I personally don’t know what these passages are, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they exist. The problem with citing them as evidence of anything is that all religions have such passages in their holy texts. Given that most Islamophobes in the US are Christian, the phrase “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind.

In fact, the Bible is replete with hideous statements that no Christian (or at least none I ever met) would accept as part of the fabric of their faith. Doubt it? Then try these on for size (text pulled from The New Oxford Annotated Bible):

  • “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.” and “He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.” (Nahum 1:2 and 1:8)
  • “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (Zephaniah 1:17)
  • “You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity.” (Deuteronomy 7:16)

There are websites calling out dozens of further examples, but the point is that even if we were to accept that Islam’s revered texts are filled with violence and murder, the texts from Christianity and Judaism are just as bad or worse.

To extend the argument, even a religion as overtly pacifist as Zen Buddhism has some passages that will make you cringe. For example, in the Bloodstream Sermon Bodhidharma preaches: “By doing the opposite of what he [Buddha] intended, such people blaspheme the Buddha. Killing them would not be wrong. The sutras say, ‘Since [unrepentant sensualists] are incapable of belief, killing them would be blameless, whereas people who believe reach the state of Buddhahood’.”  That’s pretty harsh stuff. What’s especially shocking about this passage to a Zen Buddhist is its implication that some people are incapable of ‘buddhahood’, meaning they do not have the Buddha nature in them at all. This runs completely counter to every Zen Buddhist text I’ve ever read as well as, I believe, the words of the Buddha himself.

So are all these ‘religions of violence’? Of course not, because people follow religions based on their content and ideas, not by mindlessly swallowing a literal interpretation of every single line of their texts. If people did this, then Christians would be in a world of trouble. Consider the following:

  • Most upper middle class and rich people would be going to hell (Matthew 19:24)
  • Women would have to sacrifice two turtledoves after every period (Leviticus 15:29-30)
  • Think an impure thought about someone? Pluck out your eye. (Mark 9:47)

Christians don’t comply with these ideas any more than reading “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” transforms them into psychopaths who kill wiccans. Similarly, when I ran into the above referenced quote from the Bloodstream Sermon, I didn’t think: “Oh goodie, I can kill anyone who’s not a Zen Buddhist and not care! Where’s the nearest gun shop?” It’s the same with Muslims. We discard such passages because we know these otherwise revered texts were written over a thousand years ago by people living in cultures that had a very different view of individual rights than we do in 21st Century democracies.

As such, the rationale behind the Islamophobes’ charge is invalid as a way of judging a group of people who belong to a faith.  Ultimately, it’s the individual – not their religious affiliation – that determines whether they choose to practice good or evil, love or hate, compassion or violence. To blame our behavior – or anyone else’s – on their religion is dodging personal responsibility. Being religious doesn’t give people a blank check on behavior so long as they can dig up a sentence or two in a book written a thousand years ago that supports their actions.

Is this enough to persuade Islamophobes to abandon their anti-Muslim bigotry? Sadly no. They will readily accept that we should judge individuals and go on to suggest that Muslims – unlike Christians – engage in terrorism, the suppression of minorities, and holy wars of violence. Of course, sweeping generalizations like this once again simply evidence the bigotry of Islamophobes. But more to the point, it simply isn’t true.

You want Christian terrorism? There are Christians who bomb clinics and murder doctors who provide specific types of medical care.

You want suppression of minorities? Christian racists and bigots have repeatedly used (and still use) the Bible to justify oppression: slavery, the subjugation of women, and homophobia. It was Christians who committed cross burnings and lynching of African-Americans from the end of the Civil War clear up until the 1960s. Heck, we all learn in second grade that it was people fleeing persecution from Christians who first colonized the United States.

When it comes to holy wars of violence, Christianity has had a harder time in the last few centuries because Western democracies generally enforce a separation of church and state. However, if you go back to when Christianity heavily influenced government, you will find violent wars that make today’s jihadists look like rank amateurs: the Crusades, the burnings during the rise of Protestantism, and the Inquisition. Along these lines, it’s worth asking why our Founding Fathers made separation of Church and state a fundamental basis for their new government?  It certainly wasn’t because they were concerned about the ill effects of burkas and Sharia law.

From this reasoning, it seems fair to settle on several points:

  • All religions are based on revered texts with violent content
  • Most believers ignore this content, and those who do not ignore it create warped versions of the religion
  • All religions produce zealots who engage in violence which they claim is justified by their religion

Despite this, millions of adherents to the major religions are neither violent nor engaged in terrorism.

While it is true that Muslims commit most terrorist acts in today’s world, it is something else entirely to say that Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts because they are Muslim. The former point is a statement of fact; the latter is Islamophobic bigotry. If people like Steve Kimball refuse to acknowledge this difference, then that is why they have trouble in "polite society" as he phrases it, especially in the United States. In the US, our ideal is that people are viewed as individuals, not clones churned out in identical millions by the Muslim Factory or the African-American Factory or the Homosexual Factory. One cannot assume a person's character based on the activity of other people who share one facet of that person's make-up.

If we ignore this and accept Kimball’s logic, then the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ would still be inaccurate because it doesn’t go far enough. It would be better to use the term ‘male heterosexual terrorism’ since this label would include all such acts (assuming most female practitioners are part of outfits run by men). And, if Kimball and his cohorts are so passionate about “candor”, why not go even further?

  • Let’s label sex crimes against children as ‘straight male pedophilia’.
  • Add a sub-category of ‘Christian pedophilia’ to cover the epidemic of child abuse within churches.
  • Let’s re-label gay bashing as ‘heterosexual hate crimes’.
  • Bombed abortion clinic? That’s ‘Christian terrorism’.

The reason we don't use any of these terms is the same reason we avoid referring to terrorism by Muslims as ‘Islamic terrorism’. They are bigoted labels that identify a group with a crime, thus implying an inherent trait about that group. We would not want to do this in any of these cases because the majority of straight males, Christians, and Muslims do not commit any of these crimes. As a result, these are unnecessary – as well as inaccurate – modifiers.

I would finish by arguing that bigoted terminology should also be avoided because it does have a negative effect. These terms take the focus off the crime and make the discussion about denigrating a group of people. As noted in my prior post, demonizing a group of people has never solved any problem the world has ever faced. All it accomplishes is justify ranting speeches – like the essays in The New Criterion – that spit venom without offering any practical solutions. In this way, such labels actually erode candor, as the ranting becomes the focus of discussion. Meanwhile, the causes of the problem – in this case the causes of terrorism – are ignored and left to fester.

Part 4 of this Five-Part Post (“The Cause of Terrorism in the Middle East”) will be added soon

No comments: