The Gadfly Bytes -- February 20, 2016
ON BEHALF OF ISLAM
February 20, 2016
– if I didn’t know better, I might be led to believe that I was hearing some Bible-thumping fundie preacher assailing “that gutter religion.” We have come to expect such conduct from bloviators on the right, typified by FOX News panels. But not from such educated, intelligent and sophisticated individuals as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher who, in their assault against Islam, have allowed their indignation to overwhelm their judgment.
Let me be clear: I condemn unequivocally the barbarism and brutality of Islamic radicals such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Likewise the brutality of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and the brutality of the indiscriminate shelling of Gaza. But none of these atrocities suffice, by themselves, as adequate reason to condemn, respectively, all of Islam, Christianity or Judaism.
There is much more to Islam than beheadings, genital mutilation and holy wars.
Harris, Dawkins, Maher, Hitchens, et al., seem to believe that from some verses in the Qur’an, we can deduce the behavior of most of that fifth of the human population that identifies themselves as “Moslem.” This, of course, is plain nonsense.
Consider: I move into a new home. A realtor tells me, “this is a diverse neighborhood. The home on the left belongs to a Moslem. Across the street lives a Jew. To your right is a house formerly owned by a Christian, but he’s gone now.”
So from this, should I conclude that the guy on the left has four wives whom you will never see because they wear “bee-keeper suits?” That his daughters have been genetically mutilated, and that his son builds suicide vests in the basement? And that the fellow across the street once had a son, but because the kid was disobedient he was turned over to the elders and stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and when his debts piled up he sold his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7)– all according to Holy law of the Torah? And the Christian? Should I assume that, following the Biblical instruction of his Lord and Savior, he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor (Matthew 19:21)? Presumably he had no pension or savings because he was told in the Bible to “give no thought to the morrow.” (Matthew 6:34)
The Islamaphobes’ moral condemnation of a billion and a half of their fellow human beings, on the basis of some verses found in the Qur’an, is equally ridiculous.
In fact, if I am told that my neighbors are Moslem, Jewish or Christian, I will know virtually nothing more about them until I become personally acquainted with them. Is the Moslem a Sunni, a Shiite, or neither, or is he a non-believing “ethnic Moslem.” Is the Jew Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, or maybe even an atheist? Is the Christian a devout Catholic, an evangelical, or a Unitarian?
Recently a guest on Bill Maher’s show identified himself as a “secular Moslem.” I confess that at first I was puzzled. Isn’t “secular Moslem” an oxymoron– like a “married bachelor”? But then, as I reflected on it, it made perfectly good sense.
I am personally acquainted with many "secular Jews" and “secular Christians.” In fact, I suppose that I qualify as one of the latter. I totally reject traditional Christian theology preferring to accept the scientific view of the universe and the inviolability of physical laws. I firmly believe that “God” (whatever that word might mean) had nothing to do with the ancient anthology known as “The Holy Bible.” I am “Christian” in the sense that I accept, critically, most of the moral teachings attributed to Jesus (who may or may not have actually existed). I do so, not because “Jesus said so” or “the Bible tells me so,” but rather because, after decades of studying, teaching and writing works in moral philosophy, I have concluded that much of moral message attributed to Jesus makes sense– in a word, it is reasonable, on grounds independent of alleged Divine instruction.
But not all Christian morality makes moral sense to me. I have no use for what David Hume called “the monkish virtues” such as celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, solitude, and least of all, blind faith. I reject these because they are unreasonable and they violate my moral sense. And as I look at human history, I find that these “monkish virtues” are the source of untold human misery.
So am I “really” a Christian? Evangelical Christians would say “no” because I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and I do not accept without reservation and critical scrutiny, the moral teachings attributed to Jesus. And yet, when the Mormon Church claims that there are more than eleven million “Mormons,” they include me, regardless of the fact that I effectively left that religion in my teens, and since then have entered a Mormon church just twice– in each case for funeral services for my parents.
So just who is, or is not, a “Moslem”? Is a “secular Moslem” really a Moslem if he does not pray five times a day, does not believe that “there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet,” enjoys without a qualm a good ham sandwich with a beer, and selectively endorses some moral teachings of the Islamic tradition, while rejecting others? He presumably calls himself a “Moslem” because he was born of Moslem parents, raised in a Moslem community, and identifies himself with the culture and traditions of Islam, all the while rejecting the theological world-view of the religion of Islam. And when some educated bigots on the opposite side of the Earth, disparage his traditions, he will defend those traditions.
Recently I searched Google to find out what portion of the Russian population was Moslem. The answer? About twenty million (13%). Of these twenty million, I learned, about thirty percent were “orthodox” and the remainder “ethnic.” Presumably, very few of those “ethnic Moslems” are inclined to join ISIS or Al Qaeda, strap on suicide vests, or slice off the heads of “infidel” Christians and Jews.
Yet that “orthodox/ethnic” distinction seems to be lost on the islamaphobes. “Call yourself a ‘Muslim,’ and we will conclude that you are a fanatic. After all, it’s all in the Qur’an.”
Sophisticated students and scholars of world religions understand, as the islamaphobes apparently do not, that “Holy Scriptures” (i.e. the Bible and Qur’an) do not convey unified and lucid moral messages. Instead, each book is a “cafeteria” of vague and often conflicting moral teachings. As one wit put it, “the Bible" (likewise the Qur’an) "is like a prisoner of war: torture it enough and you can get it to say anything.”
Accordingly, the Bible and Qur’an do not instruct behavior as much as they justify it. Are you a Moslem who is enraged by the slaughter of over a million of your co-religionists in “the global war on terror”? If so you will want to strike back. Will the Qur’an condone this? “Seek and ye shall find.” So in the Qur’an (5:34) , there is this: “Slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in the world hereafter.”
But also in the Qur’an, there is this: "Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you," and "if anyone murders an innocent person, it will be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity."
Orthodox Jews claim that the land of Israel (including Palestine), was given by God to “the seed of Abraham”– namely, the Jews. But the Arabs are traditionally believed also to be “the seed of Abraham,” through Ishmael, the son of Hagar. But never mind that., say the Zionists. “This land is our land.”
In sum: we take from the holy books what we need to confirm our pre-existing inclinations, and we ignore “inconvenient” verses. I know of no orthodox Jews who have killed their neighbors for working on the Sabbath, as instructed in Exodus (35:3). Nor am I aware of any Christians, outside of Trappist monasteries, who have sold all their possessions and given to the poor.*
Most significantly, perhaps, the Qur’an teaches tolerance to Christians and Jews– “the people of the book.”
Fanatics in each of the Abrahamic religions have been unspeakably vicious and cruel to “infidels” under their control. I offer no excuses whatever for the savage executioners of ISIS and Al Qaeda, nor for the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition, nor for Israeli massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
In contrast. all three religions have provided examples of righteous compassion and toleration toward members of other faiths. Both doctrine and history testify that in this regard, Islam takes the moral prize.
First of all, toleration of Christians and Jews (“people of the book”), is a central tenet of Islam. The Qur’an expressly forbids “compulsion in religion.” (2:256) Abraham, Moses and Jesus are all regarded by devout Moslems as authentic prophets of Allah, with Jesus second only to Mohammad. On the other hand, neither Judaism nor Christianity recognize Mohammad as a prophet.
As for history, when the Moslem armies overran Egypt, they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect of Christianity older than Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished in Egypt to this day under Moslem rule.
When Pope Urban II launched the crusades in 1095, a prominent objective was to drive the “infidel” Moslems from the Holy places in Jerusalem. When the Moslem warrior Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1185, he allowed Christian pilgrims access to the Holy sites, a guarantee that endured throughout the Islamic occupation of Palestine. And when the Jews were driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century, they found safe refuge in Moslem countries.
In a square in central Damascus stands enduring evidence of Moslem toleration, for there, side by side, one will find Christian church, a Jewish synagogue and a Moslem mosque. For centuries, Christian and Jewish structures and communities have flourished peacefully throughout the Moslem regions of the world.
From the ninth century through the eleventh, Baghdad was the pinnacle of civilization. There the sciences flourished, and ancient historical, literary and philosophical texts were translated and preserved. The western number system, originally from India, was refined, and algebra (an Arabic word) was advanced. To this day, most of the prominent stars above bear Arabic names.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, a much better astrophysicist than historian, places the blame for the decline of Islamic science and scholarship on one man: the theologian, Al Ghazzali, who persuaded the Caliph to ban the teaching of mathematics and science.** Though I am no historian, this strikes me as much too simplistic. If Al Ghazzali had a hand in the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism over science and scholarship, then surely he must have been as much a symptom as a cause of this cultural defeat. And might not the fall of Baghdad to the Mongol Hordes in 1258 have had something to do with the end of the Golden Age of Islamic science?
Whatever the cause, the decline of Islamic civilization at the hands of religious fundamentalists bears an urgent warning today, as fundamentalists in Congress and state legislatures deny science, seek to slash the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, and defund the teaching of science in the public schools and universities. And in Texas, which is leading the headlong rush back to the tenth century, the state Republican platform advocates the banning of instruction in critical thinking in the public schools.
Even so, the fall of Baghdad did not mark the end of Islamic civilization. Afterwards, masterpieces of literature and art were created, as well as architecture, from the Alhambra palace in Granada (13th century) to the Taj Mahal in India (17th century).
In the 1982 movie, “Laurence of Arabia,” Prince Faisal (brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guiness) reminds Laurence (Peter O’Toole):
No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There’s nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing...
Or is it that you think we are a something that you can play with. Because we are a little people. A silly people. Greedy, barbarous and cruel.
In the Arab city of Cordoba there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village... Nine centuries ago... I long for the vanished gardens of Cordoba.
Islamic culture has left an enduring legacy throughout the world. We would do well to acknowledge and admire it.
Very well, but we still have an ongoing struggle with “radical Islam”– ISIS and Al Qaeda. How might we best deal with these savage fanatics? Above all, we do so by separating the fanatics from the vast majority of Moslems who denounce the radicals who are besmirching their religion and culture. This should not be difficult if we recognize, as the islamaphobes apparently have not, that most of the victims of radical Islam have been Moslems.
The primary objective of ISIS and Al Qaeda is to unite all Moslems in a “clash of civilizations” against the infidel West, and the United States in particular. The 9/11 attacks and the current atrocities are all directed toward this end. Implicit in this “clash” is an insistence that “Islamic civilization” is an undifferentiated monolithic whole.
Tragically, the islamaphobes have bought it. The aforementioned atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Maher, etc.), along with evangelical Christians, and opportunistic demagogues such as Donald Trump, have, by treating Islam as a unified and malignant dogma, become unwitting allies of the radical Islamists. Consider, for example, Trump’s proposal to exclude “all Moslems” from entering the United States.
This undifferentiated attack on all Moslems threatens to exclude from the battle against ISIS and Al Qaeda, the most steadfast allies, namely moderate, “ethnic” and even “secular” Moslems. A “war” against a fifth of humanity is a “war” that the West cannot win.
Finally, the islamaphobes relentless attack on the Islamic religion ignores a compelling lesson of history: religion thrives on persecution and martyrdom. Caligula and Nero couldn’t defeat Christianity. Seventy years of “official state atheism” in the Soviet Union did not eliminate Russian Orthodoxy. When, in 1844, the mobs in Illinois murdered the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and drove the Mormons from their homes and across the Mississippi River into the wilderness, the Mormons, including my ancestors, walked across the great plains and over the Rocky Mountains and established their “Zion,” which continues to thrive to this day.
Clearly, the islamaphobes will not destroy Islam by condemning an entire religion and tradition due to the behavior of a few fanatics. It is far more likely that they will motivate the “indifferent” (ethnic and secular) Moslems to defend their traditions. If so, the we will lose the support of invaluable allies in the fight against the radicals.
And what about that religion, Islam? We should treat it with tolerance and respect, acknowledging its contributions to world civilization. As a wise man once observed, the best way to kill a religion is to feed it to death. If, as I believe, all dogmatic religions reside on foundations of myths and ignorance, the best antidote is critical thinking and confirmed knowledge. No modern industrialized nation can flourish without a practical acceptance of science. Technology, as applied science, requires that acceptance. And the methodology and attitude of science– what Jacob Bronowski called “the habit of truth” – promotes secularism and erodes religious dogma.
Promote scientific education and critical thinking, and time, along with tolerance and patience, will accomplish what the bluster of the islamaphobes cannot. The Abrahamic religions– Christianity, Judaism and Islam – will persist, but as “traditions” more than dogmas. In fact, we have seen this erosion at work ever since modern science arose during the Renaissance. It is noteworthy that the most secular countries in Europe, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, all have “official state churches” which, like their monarchies, are empty traditions. Perhaps, with the long passage of time, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad will be regarded as “real” and as relevant as King Arthur, Zeus and Wotan.
Of course this eventual transition from dogma to myth and folklore is not guaranteed. The fall of Rome was succeeded by the Dark Ages, and Islamic science never recovered the excellence that it achieved in tenth century Baghdad. There is no assurance that Christian fundamentalism, which has apparently captured the Republican Party in the United States, will not replace evolution with creationism, historical geology with Genesis, and Constitutional Law with Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. If science and secularism are to prevail, they must be steadfastly defended. In this struggle, education is the most effective weapon.
Summing up: Islamaphobia is wrong, because:
The ongoing attack of the US government and media against ISIS, Al Qaeda and other radicals is profoundly misguided. It seems that we are more concerned about not offending the Saudis (who significantly supply the radicals), and the Turks (who are profiting from sales of oil stolen by ISIS), than we are about directly engaging the radicals. We alienate potential allies in Moslem countries which detest the radicals. We steadfastly refuse to coordinate our attacks against ISIS with the Russians, who are more threatened by ISIS than we are. Since the 9/11 attacks, Russia has suffered more losses from terrorist attacks than has the United States. These include the school massacre at Beslan, the Dobrovka theater bombing in Moscow, the airliner destroyed over Sinai. Twenty million Moslems reside in Russia, and in addition along the southern border of Russia are Moslem states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Most of these Moslems are not immediate threats to Russia. But among them are a few dangerous fanatics, two of whom planted bombs at the Boston Marathon..
The United States and Russia are united by a common enemy– radical Islam. A recognition of a common enemy was reason enough for the United States and England to forge an alliance with Josef Stalin. Vladimir Putin is no Stalin, and he is the democratically elected leader of his country. If, as some charge, Putin is a thug and a despot, that is the Russians’ problem, not ours.
So what prevents us from joining Russia in the fight against this common threat? First of all, we fail to correctly prioritize the threats we face. Second, the American government and media totally refuse to view the struggle against radical Islam through Russian eyes, preferring instead to restart the Cold War, to the great satisfaction of the Military/Industrial (add “Media/Congressional”) Complex. But isn’t Russia a serious threat once again to our national security? I don’t think so. (But that’s the topic for another essay– soon, I hope. In the meantime, see my "Letter to My Friends in Russia").
And so, absent a radical re-assessment of the threats before us (a re-assessment that is nowhere in prospect), we will continue to muddle along with talk of a “clash of civilizations” by intelligent individuals who should know better. Meanwhile, an effective strategic response to radical Islam is set aside.
As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wisely observed: “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”
* Here is “President Jed Bartlet’s” brilliant takedown of Biblical literalism from “The West Wing.”
** Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the downfall of Islamic science here: (Re: Hamid al Gazzali, go to time 3.25. For context, go to 1.20).
Copyright 2016 by Ernest Partridge