Debate on Islam/Islamophobia. I hope to contribute to a constructive, but maybe difficult conversation. This is following on from several conversation with a friend Bennett Beanit. Also see link to debate on HuffPost below.
Thanks again for sharing the video – it’s prompted me to put down my thoughts on this issue at greater length.
I think primarily I see our differences on this debate as a difference of emphasis – not so much a difference over facts. I too am disturbed by threats made against Salman Rushdie; the fact that there are in practice restrictions on what we can print, perform, display re Islam in the West; the fact that Muslim terrorists have carried out serious attacks in many places – from 9/11 to Iraq – some of them deliberately fomenting civil war. I deplore religious intolerance in countries like Saudi Arabia and I am deeply disturbed by fairly widespread questioning of the holocaust, statements by extremist groups denouncing Jews and so on. I don’t dispute that these things happen and I am disturbed by them. I am troubled by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda carrying out attacks, holding hostages, and terrorizing populations in Africa.
But there are further questions that I think need to be addressed. One is – how serious are these threats to the Western way of life? Second, is this a particular problem with Islam? And third, how big a danger is the spread of anti-Islamic sentiment – and who is spreading it?
I’m not going to deal with the first one at length, except to say that, in the big picture, I don’t think radical Islam is a fundamental threat to Western democracy. I also think that Islamic terrorism, while serious and appalling in its impact on its victims, is not – statistically-speaking – a massive threat. In fact I think it’s a threat that has been exaggerated.
The second and third questions raise the question of contexts – and I think this is more complex. Firstly I do think that spreading anti-Islamic sentiment is a serious issue – partly given that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and because, since societies are gradually growing more multi-cultural, it’s important for cohesion within societies that large groups are not despised by other groups. On the international front, I believe that hostility towards religious and ethnic groups make aggressive, large-scale military action against those groups more possible. And this is relevant to the West with its enormous firepower.
It seems to me that some of the debate – parts of the debate in the Huff Post video – when argued by Westerners – is very Western-centric and complacent –and puts out points as if we are living in a vacuum in which only Western perspectives and interests are taken into account.
For example, is it true that, say, if you are putting on a play or a film relating to Islam it’s the only religion that might bring you serious threats and security issues (maybe barring a few Christian nuts, but this wouldn’t be nearly as serious.) Yes, that’s literally true – at this historical moment. (Of course through history these considerations and conditions absolutely applied to religions like Christianity.)
But take a step back for a minute and think of the real-world context. I’m going to generalize – but from conversations with Muslims I think this would represent the perspective of some of those I’ve heard from, including liberal, not super religious Muslims. From this perspective – the question “Isn’t Islam the only religion where this would happen?” could easily bring up these thoughts.
First of all, I (my notional Muslim) note that the Christian majority country of the USA has staged two major international military invasions over the past 12 years – Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq I’ve seen the reports of Abu Ghraib – where US soldiers tortured and humiliated Muslims. I’ve seen reports of US (and British) soldiers wantonly killing Muslim civilians. I’ve seen reports from Afghanistan in which Muslim prisoners have been beaten and tortured, and in which Muslim civilians have been killed – sometimes indiscriminately – by US soldiers. I see a massive number of drone strikes – killing large numbers of Muslims in Pakistan.
I see US weapons support for Israeli military action against Muslims – ie F16 strikes in Gaza, killing large numbers of Muslim civilians.
I may be aware that 70,000 Muslims were massacred by Orthodox Christians in Bosnia. I may also be aware of widespread attacks on Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar and attacks on them in Sri Lanka.
I am aware of a large amount of hate-speech directed at Muslims in the West – in both Europe and the US. And yes, I’ve probably noticed anti-Islamic Christian nuts in the US who provocatively burn Korans.
So then I am asked – do you think that Islam has a unique problem with violence? – for obvious reasons I might be inclined to question that. In fact, I might well be inclined to think how hypocritical and mendacious Western commentators are who focus entirely on violence perpetrated by Muslims.
Returning to another theme. Is there a danger of spreading anti-Islamic sentiment in the West – yes, definitely. In the real world, do people actually slide from criticizing Muslim fanatics into making general, negative statements about Islam? Yes, let’s be real – this happens a lot. (I’m not saying you do.) Do commentators like Sam Harris sometimes slide into this – yes, it seems that they do. And frankly anyone who can write that “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists” is playing with fire.
But what if, strictly-speaking, a commentator doesn’t make any general negative statements about Islam? Is there any danger there? Here’s a small thought experiment. Imagine I’m, say, a liberal Muslim and you are too in a majority-Muslim country. I post on my website the following things: the latest Ku Klux Klan activities, anti-abortion extremists and instances where they’ve killed people; the massacre of Muslims by Orthodox Christians in Bosnia; the corruption at the Vatican; abuse of children by Catholic priests; attacks by Americans on civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq;”
We then have the following conversation. Me: “Christianity has a problem with violence; why are Christians always invading, killing and torturing so many people? There’s a real danger from Christian fanatics.” You: “But is it really fair to single out Christianity like this – don’t other religions have problems?” Me: “No. I’m not being anti-Christian at all. I only focus on radical, fanatical Christians.”
I would suggest that if I was a Christian and I overheard that exchange, I would feel just a little skeptical.
I guess going back to the big picture this is my fear – that large parts of the world are in danger of being divided up into mutually distrustful, hostile factions: on one side, Westerners who focus on the threat of Islam and the violence it brings, and on the other Muslims who see the West as out get them, inflicting large numbers of casualties on Muslims at will and with impunity. Obviously I’d hope that there is more dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims and that there’s an attempt to try and appreciate and understand the different perspective across this dangerous divide.
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