Islamophobic? Maybe

There is a significant overlap between those who criticise Islam and those who have a cultural fear of Middle Eastern Muslim migrants. The latter is surely what people mean when they speak of Islamophobia: a crude, xenophobic attitude towards people who wear Middle Eastern clothes, eat foods containing a lot of cumin, pray facing the same way and often the men have beards and the women wear headscarves! This kind of stupid fear of foreigners is all too familiar in my country, recent examples of which include our disgraceful attitude towards asylum seekers from the Middle East (including from countries we’d invaded), the 2005 race riot in Sydney and hysterical opposition towards the building of mosques. Similar reactions to migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are of course even more familiar to Europeans.

Unfortunately for the pure-hearted critic of fundamentalism (of any kind), it’s very hard to disentangle one’s invective against the obvious inhumanity of certain preachings contained in The Quran, from the ugly dislike that many white Westerners (secular, Christian, or other) have of recent Muslim migrants. This entanglement is not entirely wrongheaded. Although individual critics of Islam shouldn’t properly be labelled Islamophobes, a pattern emerges when they’re viewed en masse. ((An analogue is sexism in the workplace. In an individual case it’s hard to accuse a male boss of having a bias against women. When the Prime Minister of Australia appointed only one woman to the cabinet in 2013, people said it was sexist. Maybe so, but with only one case to work with it’s possible that this particular clutch of Coalition MPs and Senators had only one woman with the requisite experience and competence to be in the cabinet. Zooming out in time we can see that the representation of women in the Cabinet in Australian history is extremely inadequate, which tells us there is a systemic problem with equal representation for women in Parliament, especially in high level positions and leads us to theorise that there is sexist discrimination at the level of party leaders, voters, wider society, etc. But calling one particular leader sexist is not strictly fair, because, theoretically, the possibility remains that in a given Parliament there might be only one woman qualified to be in the 19 person cabinet; the fact that there has never been a cabinet with only one man and 18 women (or anything near that proportion) suggests that there is a bias and that individual cases are not wholly the result of random fluctuation or unseen factors.)) So if I criticise Islam, without mentioning any individual Muslims or groups of Muslims — and instead focus solely on the ideas and precepts — it’s understandable that I am nonetheless accused of Islamophobia, because my views may well be highly correlated with racist and xenophobic attitudes.

Indeed in 2013 I was almost expelled from the Australian National University for producing — along with two friends — a satirical infographic which mocked Islam’s treatment of women (as expressed in The Quran((Holy books are just books, so I italicise them.))). I was accused of racism, which was harsh partly because I’m not really racist((Everyone is, at least unconsciously, I assume I’m no different.)) and partly because the infographic was one in a series mocking various religions, not just Islam, but mainly because I had just spent a month on a close reading of The Quran in which I encountered not only innumerable instances of sexism, but also quite a few instances of racism. Just like the Old Testament, The Quran isn’t exactly full of stories of all the peoples of the Levant and the Gulf coming together in human solidarity; instead it has an aggressive stance towards people of other creeds and ethnicities, commensurate with the bellicose method of its propagation by Muhammad((Someone usually jumps in here to say you can’t judge a religion by its holy text, but as a set of practices. Oddly, this is usually the same person who says you can’t judge a religion by the actions of its believers when they do bad things, because the scripture doesn’t sanction it. Ever a diplomatic middle child, I condemn the text and the actions of zealots and the history of theocracies. In all cases it would be better if zealots adopted the liberal theology of their respective religion.)).

But what would it mean to not fear the worst parts of Islam? What kind of person (apart from a conservative Christian) would not fear the excesses of Christianity? Fear is another imprecise word, perhaps too strongly associated with images of cold sweats and paranoia. Concern is no better with its redolence of weasel words and Lovejovian emphasis on  thinking of the children. Worry perhaps? Well, whatever it is, we don’t stay up at night thinking of Christians, except when we hear of nonsense attacks on abortion clinics, attempts to derail public education, or the weird fact that the Catholic church somehow still exists in spite of its stalwart efforts at raping children and its PR-defying collaboration with the Nazis. In the same way, I’m really only “worried” about Islam when considering reports of treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, genital mutilation in Somalia((Incidentally, the eurocentrism of Islamophobia is another point to consider. The bulk of those people who identify as Muslim are found in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. The conflation of anti-Islamist rhetoric and racism towards people who look like “arabs” is sadly, one assumes, a product of the vile reactions in Europe towards migrants from Turkey, Morocco, Iran, Egypt, etc. Unfortunately the set of people with Middle Eastern appearance who have settled in Europe and the set of migrants to Europe who profess Islam overlap quite a bit. Therefore it’s hard to separate a worry that Islam (especially but not only its extreme variety) is an outdated ideology all too reminiscent of Christianity, from a small-minded fear of brown skinned migrants who speak Arabic or closely related languages.)), honour killings in Pakistan, murders of cartoonists in Paris and bombings in Bali (leaving aside the general sense that a billion people at least vaguely believe there is an eternal fire-world in store for anyone who masturbates or was born in China; and even then I don’t really stay up at night ((Ditto for Christianity. Note here that I will repeatedly refer to Christianity alongside Islam. Without such additions people may assume that I am fixated on Islam. Indeed, religious people, weirdly, seem to require that if you are to make trenchant criticisms of their religion, it should go for the others as well. This is an interesting, one would almost say, atheistic, level of egalitarianism when it comes to blanket confutations of all religions. I’m happy to play along. I should also add as a further caveat for people waiting to call me a fundamentalist, that my tastes are omnivorous when it comes to totalising ideologies, including all the major religions, communism, other utopianisms, market fundamentalism, etc. I wish that criticisms of Islam would get tangled up not with xenophobic attitudes but with the more general, sceptical, debunking of all sorts of nonsense like conspiracy theories, conservatism, doctrinaire political views, folk beliefs, unjustified faith in human rationality — anything that suffers the narrative fallacy or pretends to absolute knowledge.))). Arguably this is Islamophobia — I am “afraid” of Islam, not Muslims. Muslims, like Christians, Hindus, Scientologists, Tea Partiers and UKIP voters are humans: the people whose lives are informed and simplified by often abhorrent ideologies. ((People who are worried about hardline conservative ideologies aren’t described as “conservaphobes”.)) The people who turn out for al-Qaeda or ISIS on the weekend aren’t Muslims (according to popular usage — see below), they’re an incarnation of the worst bits of Islam((And hence claims that what they do have nothing to do with religion are themselves based on a strange almost religious conviction that the world’s major faiths must be “religions of peace”. I think it would be truly Christian charity to read the history of Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism as projects in pacifism. Maybe mainline belief is pacific now — if so, great! Liberal Christianity, liberal Islam and liberal Hinduism are all great things.)).

One of the better things about religion is that people generally don’t believe in it. Typically, they don’t believe in over 99% of religions and even for the one left over they don’t believe((In that it doesn’t inform their actions.)) most of its putative official content. Thank gods. Which means it really is possible to denounce the crazies, the hardcores, the zealots, as being not of their faith. It’s rotten luck for them, because they’re the ones who took the trouble to actually try and live according to the more unfashionable parts of their demanding holy text. But because of the weight of numbers, and the imprecision of names for groups, it makes slightly more sense to refer to as “Muslims” the rest of the faithful who more or less stick to the cultural, familial, personal aspects of their religion. So with a nod to Chris Rock I feel one can say, “I love Muslims, but I hate Islam.”

Unfortunately not everyone shares the same language. The meaning of words is a communal, consensus-based thing and so how those meanings are interpreted by the majority cannot be ignored. Therefore critics of fundamentalism perhaps can’t refer to the IS crowd as “Muslims” because they don’t represent the majority of people who identify as “Muslims”. More pertinently, in the English speaking world, liberal Muslim((Are they “Muslims” or does that label only apply to the less liberal rank and file?)) and secular commentators have defined “Muslim” to mean precisely not someone who adopts any extreme positions informed by Islam, but who nonetheless practises a more modern form of the faith. For the cheerful anti-theist like me, it’s surely fair play to deploy the word “Muslim” in accordance with modern usage, lest I confuse people and fail to convey my point. Hence, my critiques is solely aimed at Islam and even seriously devout followers of that faith are better referred to as extremists or loons.

Still, the accusation of Islamophobia (another highly imprecise word) will follow. Hence, there’s a certain social disadvantage to speaking what one feels is the truth about Islam. The truth being that were it believed by less than, say, a million people, it would be considered a bizarre and sinister cult((Ditto Christianity, Scientology, Hinduism, et al.)). The fact that a religion is respected solely because of some function of its longevity and amount of nominal believers, rather than the quality of its teachings, is a truism that barely needs mentioning — except that it never gets mentioned these days.

So why not be tactical and refrain from lambasting a religion whose extreme adherents might kill you and whose defenders in the commentariat will label you as racist? That’s a good idea not least of all because none of my diatribes will be read in five months, let alone five years — except maybe by al-Qaeda and I guess any readership is better than none. The only reason to publicly mock Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or their less popular cousins — the small-time cults — is because it’s pointing out something that seems true to the person saying it. Is that a good enough reason to say something? Sure; it certainly worked for Muhammad.

There is another reason. The only difference between a major religion and a cult really is its popularity — but that’s not insignificant. It does make a difference if one billion people believe something rather than twelve glazed-eyed faithful who renounce worldly possessions and devote themselves to a charismatic guru whose chief occupations are peculation and pederasty. Islam is a major part of the world and a way of life for a giant swath of human beings. It is much bigger than any grouping of people I’ve ever belonged to and its collective voice is underrepresented in countries like my own. Criticising its tenets is therefore a quantitatively different sport to criticising the tenets of, say, the Little Pebble cult who thrived for a time in the area where I grew up. In fact, it’s much, much more important to criticise Islam.

The Quran is the basis of a religion that tells a sixth of the world how to live and it does so terribly.  Like The Bible, The Quran is full of stories and precepts that now, unfairly ripped from the social milieu in which they were written, strike a modern reader as out of date, inhumane, sexist, homophobic, inaccurate, racist, violent and threatening. Even believers in a religion regard the preachments of any other given religion as being dreadful. Only those who have been demographically, geographically, or sociologically predestined to believe in a certain religion fail to recognise how inadequate its holy book is in terms of offering ethical advice, personal solace, a sense of meaning, or a description of how the world works.

Of course any secular reading of a holy text will immediately be accused of coming from a position of religious or cultural ignorance. The idea is that only scholars of Islam or Muslim clerics should interpret The Quran. The implications of this charge are staggeringly silly, including the notion that ordinary Muslims shouldn’t interpret their own text. The other standard attack on criticisms of holy texts is that the readings are literal — “Even more literal than the fundamentalists!” There is no sweeter taste than that of hypocrisy and so the canard that this or that well known atheist is, “Just as fundamentalist as the religious people they criticise” gets thrown around as if it were anything other than a useful go-to example for grade 10 English teachers needing to demonstrate lazy hyperbole. As for literalism, it’s a fascinating topic which I treat with all seriousness and still have no answers about meaning and interpretation, despite my bumbling academic studies in English literature and hermeneutics. I do like the idea that only atheists and zealots read the The Bible or The Quran literally, implying that the bulk of believers treat it instead as a series of stories and simply discard the bits that are clearly incompatible to modern mores. Well, what more needs to be said?

Literal readings aside, the metaphorical, ideological and rhetorical content of The Quran and The Bible is just as dubious and were these texts studied as literary texts (as indeed they are) we would not shrink from recognising that they bear the mark of their authors’ vital statistics: male; Middle Ages or earlier; fighting for recognition; unaware that the Earth revolves around the sun, that we evolved from simple organisms, that the universe is 13 billion years old, or that we see only a certain section of the spectrum of light and so the apparently solid world around us is really just a wonderful fuzz of electrons.

Yes, even the literary study of the holy books will need to come to terms with the fact that the The Quran qua a set of stories is vastly inferior to modern science and history qua a set of stories —  that’s on aesthetic grounds alone, to say nothing of correspondence to reality.

So because of the holy texts’ paucity they can be criticised on literary merits; because of their inhumane content and advice they can be criticised on moral grounds; because of their extraordinary popularity and influence they should be openly criticised, mocked, translated, adapted, deformed, misrepresented, defended, made available for free to all and thoroughly read and dissected.

Alas, the political realities of xenophobia in Western countries mean that this project will be accompanied by calls of racism and in some cases these accusations will be justified. But anyone with any serious sense of proportion((Although, what proportion of people have a good sense of proportion?)) will realise that a handful of the thousands of cults from history (through a process of selection not entirely unlike the natural selection they typically abjure) have prospered and been scaled up to absurd dimensions and that they therefore deserve similarly outsize scrutiny as they promulgate their inhumane doctrines. Is this “just as fundamentalist as the people they criticise”? Only if there is an equivalency between denouncing cruel and backward ideas via cartoons, books, lectures and debates on the one hand and the killing of infidels, the treatment of women as sub-human, or the scaring of young children into believing via threats of Hell, on the other hand. These things are nowhere near equivalent and neither is the stigma of that relatively wearable epithet of “Islamophobe”((After all, I want to say much worse things about religions and institutions; and people much more vulnerable than me get slandered every day with racist and sexist epithets — who cares if I get called an Islamophobe?)) compared to the alternative: abnegating the responsibility to oppose — somehow — the thoroughly worn-out trope of violent religion.

If we prescind from our specific historical and political circumstances it is obvious that in the long run the criticism of religious dogma is vital for the continued emancipation of Homo sapiens from the yoke of superstition, patriarchy, priesthoods and violent ideology — not least of which because religion greatly contributes to the very racism and out-group fear that our accusers are weary of when they cry “Islamophobia!”

Image courtesy of Reason Stick.