Can we have an intelligent conversation about Islam?

By Lorenzo

My recent post about “green on blue” killings in Afghanistan provoked the sort of comments that indicate we have, in the modern West, a real problem having an intelligent conversation about Islam. Not the to-and-fro about the geo-strategic issues regarding Afghanistan, but comments about beliefs within Islam and their possible consequences.

The sort of comments which indicate this are the “yes, but in the history of Christianity …” comments and the “don’t be so nasty about Muslims” comments which are pretty standard responses when Islam and Islamic belief is discussed.

Conspicuous about both types of responses is that the reverse is almost never applied. Critiques of Christianity or varieties thereof (such as the role of Christian conservatism in US politics and culture) are almost never confronted with the “but in Islam …” response. It is as if Christians are Real People, so are expected to take any criticism on the chin, but Muslims are Morally Protected Personages, so one has to bend over backwards to make it clear that one is not singling out Islam and Muslims.

Similarly, criticisms of Christianity, or political manifestations of Christianity (such as the role of Christian conservatism in US politics and culture) are almost never confronted with “but don’t be so nasty about Christians” responses. Once again, it is as if Christians are Real People, and so have to wear any negative implications of their belief systems, but Muslims are a Morally Protected Personages, so criticism which might in any way imply anything bad about Muslims is not permissible.

Ideas and consequences
Folks, ideas have consequences. It does not matter if the believers of particular ideas are white, black, brown or brindle; ideas have consequences. It is perfectly legitimate to explore those ideas and their possible (or demonstrable) consequences.

There are, of course, many complexities in this. One of which is not every believer buys into every set of ideas associated with their religion. Even if they do accept particular ideas or doctrines, the extent that they do in practice can vary wildly. Perhaps part of the problem is we are more culturally familiar with Christianity and so are much more aware of the reality of that among Christians.

So, the issue about the doctrine of taqiyya or permitted deception is not whether Muslims are trustworthy as some personal characteristic. The issue is about religiously-sanctioned opting out of some basic norms of social life.

Just as the issue about high-trust and low-trust societies is not about whether individual members of such societies are good or bad people, it is whether social dynamics are such that trust is such a precious commodity that it is applied extremely narrowly. One of the basic reasons for Western success is that Western societies evolved to be high-trust societies (and the more high trust, the generally more successful). One of the issues with large-scale migration is that it does seem to lower the trust level; likely largely because of lower levels of mutual knowledge and fewer common preferences or shared signals.

Discouraging history
As for the “yes, but in the history of Christianity …”  response, I completely fail to see how it is reassuring. In the history of Christianity, thousands of people were burnt or hanged as witches, millions of people were killed or starved to death in religious strife precisely because people took the reigning doctrines of their religion very seriously. The obvious spectacle of Muslims willing to kill in large numbers in the name of their religion may well invoke aspects of Christian (or, for that matter, Jewish) history, but they are not reassuring aspects. Particularly given the technological possibilities of mass destruction in our era.

Muhammad presiding over Ali beheading Nadir Ibn harith, a member of the Meccan Council who criticised and insulted the Prophet.

If one is pointing to the fact that Jews and Christians eventually (mostly) got over doing that; well, they did, but not without huge amounts of human misery along the way.

And examining how they got over it is not particularly reassuring either. Consider the difficulties the Jews gave the Romans. It was precisely because so many Jews thought their God’s authority overrode that of Roman law or Roman authority (sound familiar?) that the relationship was so fraught. How was Judaism “tamed”?  By a process of appalling brutality. The Romans brutally smashed Jewish revolts, and then brutally dispersed the Jewish population, so that Jews became a permanent minority without any real possibility of secular power. Deprived of any possible claims to territorial authority, Yahwehism completed its evolution into Rabbinical Judaism, which accepted that God’s full legal strictures only applied to the Chosen People and only in a form that submission to gentile authority would permit (so no death penalties, for example), a process that had begun with the Babylonian Captivity.

If we are taking such history seriously, what it suggests is that (1) Muslim migration should be limited and (2) it should be made very clear that we are secular societies and so Sharia is not going to become any part of the laws of the land or have any superceding claim over or against them. Which is a much less fraught approach than the Romans actually took. But if one suggests limits to Muslim migration, that is somehow beyond the pale, while clear statements about Sharia not having any claim to be part of the law of the land or authority against the law of the land get criticised and sneered at by the usual suspects. (Who, naturally, are typically very keen to have the last bits of Christian doctrine purged from the law.)  Yet, if the hope of a Muslim majority (either nationally or locally) is held out, especially along with hope that Sharia will be able to carve out a place against or over the laws of the land, why would any evolution within Islam be expected to take place into forms more amenable to peaceful co-existence?

We know such evolution is eminently possible within Islam, because the Ismailis, for example, have gone there. But they went there for exactly the same reason Judaism did — they are a permanent minority with no possibility of territorial power. So, if we are taking history seriously, then Muslim migration should be limited and that Western societies are, and are going to remain, secular should be made very clear (with the former being a necessary corollary of the latter).

But, of course, the “yes, but in the history of Christianity …”  response is generally not about taking history seriously.

As for how Christianity (mostly) got over killing in the name of religion (it has not entirely got over oppressing in the name of religion), that was a reaction and revulsion over slaughter and massive social disruption. Preserving social order came to be deemed to be more important than the niceties of religious doctrine. Both in intellectual life — Thomas Hobbes shifting the central political question from God and Man to Man in the World — and in political life.

But this was in a civilisation in the grip of the Commercial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution where law had always been regarded as a human institution. Knowledge was dramatically expanding, as were economic possibilities, in societies where law had independent existence and a rich variety of political forms had long existed. Modern Islam may live in the world created by those revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution which grew out of them, but none of those things are of Islam, where autocracy was effectively the universal political form. (While the period of Islam being a scientific leader is a long time ago now.) They are all outside forces impeding on Islam where the notion that law is rightfully a human thing is still deeply contested with autocracy still being very much the dominant political form.

Divergent patterns
Assuming that Christian patterns apply in Islam can be problematic, especially in matters such as the nature and role of law and of religious authority. For example, Christ and Muhammad may both be religious figures who preached monotheism, with lives taken as exemplary in their respective faiths, but they led very different lives and acted in quite different ways.

There is a lot of evidence that democracy has genuine appeal to most Muslims. But pandering to Islamic obscurantism in the name of cultural sensitivity is, to put it mildly, not helpful. (Ask oneself whether Christian doctrine and clerical authority was always helpful to the process of democratisation; remembering that the legal-social-political role of Islam is much more embedded in its theology than the equivalent is in Christianity.) Particularly when there is evidence that second-generation male Muslims are likely to identify more strongly with Islam as a way of differentiating from their host country than their parents (who know why they migrated to the West in the first place).

Even granting Sharia status as “community mediation” is deeply problematic. Not only because Sharia is wildly misogynist but because it originated as an imperial legal system. There is no “natural” resting point for it as mere community mediation. Any social authority granted to it is likely to be merely taken as a basis for its further extension of its ambit — either openly or surreptitiously.

So, I am all for taking history seriously. Things reveal their nature in their history. But that history does not have quite the implications that the “yes, but” folk typically want it to have.

And if creating a common society means anything, it means abandoning any explicit or implicit special treatment as Morally Protected Personages. The same critical apparatus that we might apply to Christianity and Christian belief applies equally to Islam and Islamic belief. We are not going to adopt the nonsense term of “Christianophobia” so the equally nonsense term of “Islamophobia”, and the mindset that goes with it, needs to be abandoned as well.

One Comment

  1. Ken Miles
    Posted September 21, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Mel @ 45

    “What about self censorship? Try making a film called The Life of Mahmoud along the lines of Python’s The Life of Brian and see what happens. We aren’t the US but remember how South Park had to replace Mahmoud with a bear for safety reasons.”

    Australian shows have taken the piss out of Mohammed in the past without incident.

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