Islam or anti-Islam?

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.

My thoughts:

Dear Bennett

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.

Huffpost debate on Islamophobia.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Islam or anti-Islam?

  1. I’m not more against Islam than any other religion. Teaching religion to kids as if it were truth is a form of (un-preventable) child abuse. From my perspective, Christendom has much to answer for, in both past and present violence and intolerance. In Uganda, it’s US Christian nuts who have taken local cultural prejudices against homosexuality into draconian legislation that both directly and indirectly threatens lives. The late Pope’s pronouncements about condoms both as birth control and disease prophylaxis will cost lives in the developing world, as will evangelical Christians’ political clout in hamstringing the US in population control and disease prevention programs in the developing worlds.

    Both Christianity and Islam contain virulent currents of Jew-hate. Christendom has been wildly more successful in actualizing these, while the lastest Islamic versions have more to do with political issues than mere hatred. It could be with some justice said that Christendom’s Jew-hating has had consequences that have given occasion for Islamic versions.

    My “Islamophobia” is thus a sub-species of Godophobia. That latter will unite all faiths in condemning me. I note that (it has been said on the internet) that 20,000 people showed up in Dakka to protest the building collapse, but 200,000 demonstrated for the death penalty for atheism.

  2. Bennett

    Francis, Brian:
    Good to see you here!

    My reactions:
    To Francis:
    “How serious are these threats to the Western way of life/Western democracy?” I would say pretty serious. But my opinion is swayed by something that I think is less important to some than it is to me – freedom of speech. I am very distraught by the extent to which mainstream artists and thinkers are afraid to criticize or mock jihadism (aka radical Islam aka Islamic Fundamentalism) or Islam itself. Some of this is political correctness and Islamaphobiaphobia. Some is real fear. “If I do mock Islam I might get threatened and maybe killed.”

    On the more practical level, I think beyond periodic attacks by Jihadis either “self-radicalized” and independent or organized, we are less threatened here in the US than in other Western societies. We have relatively more affluent Muslim communities . But I do think in countries such as France and England (and even Australia) there may be greater potential for violent havoc deriving from radical Islam.

    I’ll add something that is rarely given enough coverage – The effect of jihadism/Islamism on non-Western societies. That is where things are and will be getting much bloodier. Syria of course is the current harsh example of that. Shiite vs Sunni is getting worse in Iraq. And then there is the increasing persecution of the Copts in Egypt. And I see the average citizen of Iran being quite victimized by that theocracy.

    I think those sorts of travesties are being under exaggerated at most.

    “Second, is this a particular problem with Islam?” No and yes. I have only cursory knowledge of the Bibles and the Koran. I have no reason to think that theoretically and textually Islam is any worse. Of course Christianity had the crusades and the Inquisitions and Buddhists do kill.

    But yes, and this is my main point whenever I have these discussions, because radical Islam happens to be on the rise throughout the world at this time. And to me that is a very bad thing.

    “how big a danger is the spread of anti-Islamic sentiment – and who is spreading it?”
    I do know that here and in some countries in Europe there are those who are clearly anti-Islam. I don’t mean anti-Jihadi. I mean anti Islam as a religion per se. And I know that here there are bigots who are don’t like Muslims generally. But that is part of human nature. Who is spreading it? The usual suspects. Not many Americans know who Sam Harris is.

    But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of anti-Muslim bias crimes post the Boston bombings.

    You didn’t ask but I will say that the danger of the spread of anti-Islamic sentiment is dwarfed by orders of magnitude by the dangers of the current spread of Jihadism in the world. Dangers, again, mostly to fellow Muslims.

    “On the international front, I believe that hostility towards religious and ethnic groups make aggressive, large-scale military action against those groups more possible.” That may be true true in theory but I can’t envision the US going to war against Egypt or Pakistan or Indonesia or Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

    I am running out of steam but I will address your thoughtful thought experiment by saying that if I were a truly liberal Muslim in a Muslim country today I would be much more concerned by the increasing influence of bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, intolerant, co-religionists in my own country to be thinking much about the KKK… while hoping not to get blown up by a car bomb. (ala yesterday’s car bombing spree in Baghdad. )

    Brian:

    “20,000 people showed up in Dakka to protest the building collapse, but 200,000 demonstrated for the death penalty for atheism.”

    That pretty much says it all for me….

    • Bennett

      “…I think beyond periodic attacks by Jihadis either “self-radicalized” and independent or organized, we are less threatened here in the US than in other Western societies. We have relatively more affluent Muslim communities . But I do think in countries such as France and England (and even Australia) there may be greater potential for violent havoc deriving from radical Islam…”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/world/europe/london-attacks.html?_r=0

    • Bennett – thanks for your response – I guess we have differences of perspective as well as overlaps – and I agree with pretty much all that Brian said. I still think it would be great for all concerned if we had an actual debate with a couple of Muslims in the not-too-distant future – in person – I think that’s probably the only way we’ll get any further with this. I can’t resist responding to a few individual points: I think many Muslims would feel that anti-Islamic feeling has already led to massive hostile military actions: Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan – they don’t need any more examples, though there could be more. You mention the UK and the level of threat there and as I Brit I think I want to respond to that (I also lived in France, but whatever). Yes, there is the prospect of further violence – as has just happened – I’m sure there will be – but how serious a threat is this to the British way of life? I think the impact is minimal, aside from headlines. Remember we had decades of IRA terror attacks – people got completely used to it and virtually ignored it after a while (apart from a couple of days’ headlines). I know – I grew up in this period – it was seen (for good or ill) as an inconvenience – the occasional delay on the underground. So I think the threat is vastly, vastly exaggerated – deaths and accidents on the road and unhealthy diets are infinitely more serious threats to British society. But overall, I think my main point is that I see a divided, mutually suspicious world – in which the majority of Muslims see the West as violently aggressive towards them, and many in the West only focus on violent agression by Muslims. Neither worldview is holds the whole truth or is constructive in my opinion – I want to get beyond that.

  3. Bennett

    Francis – In closing (?) I want to emphasize that although the acts of terror connected to radical Islam are horrible my concern is less with that and more with what radical Islam is doing otherwise – the sharia, the bigotry, the censorship, the misogyny, the homophobia, and the institutionalized intolerance.

    “I see a divided, mutually suspicious world – in which the majority of Muslims see the West as violently aggressive towards them, and many in the West only focus on violent aggression by Muslims.”

    My question in response to that is why aren’t Muslims seeing that alot of violent aggression towards them is coming from their co-religionists? How many Afghanis have the Taliban killed and blinded? How may Shia have been killed in Iraq by the Sunni? And vice versa? How many Sunni have been killed by the Alawites in Syria? Mosques are blown up by Muslims on a fairly regular basis. Korans are inside those mosques. But when one jerk burns a Koran there are violent protests. Suffi shrines are destroyed in Mali by Islamists. And so on.

    • Well we can go on and on – I think that discussion with Muslims really would be good. But to your last point – I’m not suggesting – and it would be completely false – to suggest that Muslims don’t see – and condemn – violent aggression from other Muslims – of course they do – but what I’m suggesting is that I think people will understand the viewpoint of Muslims better IF they take into account that a huge amount of violence has been, and is, perpetrated against them by Western powers and by others. But it’s fairly obvious I’m making no impression on you with this argument.

      • “the sharia, the bigotry, the censorship, the misogyny, the homophobia, and the institutionalized intolerance.” These things bother me too, but if we’re talking about the UK which I obviously know – yes, I think anti-Islamic prejudice is every bit as serious as the above – hatred, intolerance, bigotry, violence – these are all equally, probably more serious problems than those things as existing among extreme Islamic groups in the UK. The idea that sharia law is a serious threat to British society or has made significant inroads is totally false.

      • This site is like a clorassom, except I don’t hate it. lol

  4. Bennett

    No – I was only referring to sharia within Muslim countries. I don’t worry about sharia being a threat within the West.

    Yes – In reading about about the protests against the Woolwich killing I learned about the “EDL.” Fascinating and shocking. The even have an LGBT and Jewish branch. Although we have our KKK and Nazis here they are much less visible and are less urban based it seems.

    • Bennett – I appreciate that – we do have considerable common ground after all 🙂
      They really have an LGBT branch (and a Jewish one)??? – I know it’s serious but I can’t help being a bit amused at the same time. LOL – I’m trying to imagine an LGBT branch meeting of the EDL. Best regards.

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