Islam, generalizations, barbarism, and structural conflicts

My friend Aziz Poonawalla left a somewhat irritated comment below as to my attitudes and generalizations about Muslims and Islam. I took notice, because I had a somewhat similar response from a Muslim friend on Facebook to another comment I made. This friend implied that I was engaging in “essentialism,” which is ridiculous when I take an explicitly post-modern view of what religion is (he knows this, and has spoken admiringly of my knowledge of religious history and philosophy in the past, so I assume it was a reflex). I do not believe there is a True Religion, but only what religionists term their religion. Additionally, unlike most Islamo-skeptics I’m not ignorant of Islam. As most of you know, I come from a Muslim family. Though it is of no importance to me, it is of some interest to some Muslims that I am the great-grandson of a pir, and, from a long line of imams (I have an uncle who is an imam, as well as another who has a senior position in the Tablighi Jamaat). I am a classic case, from a Muslim perspective, of regress, not reversion. An atheist from a line of men who introduced and preached Hanafi Sunni Islam among the peasants of Bengal (in addition to being tax farmers!). Additionally I have a great deal of supplementary “book learning” on the Islamic religion and the culture of Muslims. When Aziz recommend that I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras to get a sense of how a Muslim community could orient itself toward liberal modernity while retaining their own religious distinctiveness, I read it. I have also read manifestos such as Tariq Ramadan’s Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, ethnographies such as Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia (the central focus of which is the Nizari Ismaili Muslim sect), and works of history such as Hugh Kennedy’s. I lay this out to make it clear to all reading that I’m not your standard issue Islamophobe. My suspicion of Islam writ large doesn’t come from reading the Koran or the Hadiths, rather, it comes from my survey of the history and nature of current societies where Islam is the dominant religion (I’ve read the Koran, and have skimmed a collection of Hadiths which my uncle sent me, for what it’s worth).


Perspective matters in these sorts of things. I’ve stipulated I’m an atheist, but I’m not a New Atheist. I simply have no belief that religion can be abolished, or have any great inclination to have it abolished, and am not of the opinion that it is the Root of All Evil. Religion is a very important human cultural phenomenon, but I tend to think of it more as a handmaid to broader macrosocial forces, and my own concern is with its material and phenomenological implications. I have read religious philosophy, but since I do not believe religion is true it is not of no concrete relevance to me, and I am highly skeptical that philosophy is predictive of the material and phenomenological nature of religion. More honestly I have read religious philosophy mostly to placate and communicate with intelligent religious people, for whom philosophy is important. But seeing as most religious people, like most people overall, are not very intelligent or philosophical I don’t think it is relevant to the wider world in anything more than a superficial fashion.  Christians may have imposed the Athanasian Creed on the pagans of yore, but I doubt most understood the Platonic philosophy embedded within which they demanded others profess

Rather, I judge religions by the sum totality of opinions and actions of the believers, and, the material and phenomenological consequences upon myself and those who I care about. This latter point is important to highlight, because the experience of particular believers of their religion can be very different from the experience of outsiders to a religion, and, the experience of believers may vary quite a bit amongst themselves. Moving specifically to Muslim perspective the experiences of Muslims of their religion is rich, and reflects the full totality of their social life within a community and family. At the other extreme, imagine a white Protestant who lives in rural Kansas. Their experience of Islam would be mostly through television news reports, perhaps the random Muslim they encounter but are not acquainted with, and the literature and material they seek out on their own. The experience of the two individuals would radically differ, and implicitly color their perspective on what Islam is. As for me, I don’t have any strong positive associations with Islam, unlike some atheists from a Muslim background, mostly because I’m dispositionally averse to religion and always found it an oppressive imposition upon me. But, as I know Muslims, and occassionally am present at Islamic events because of my personal background, I can see how it is a source of Eudaimonia for many, and definitely not necessarily a sinister source of political agitation or organization.

But ultimately the bone I have to pick with Islam does has to do with politics and numbers. Muslims generally like to brag that there are 1.5 billion believers. This reflects some natural pride, but, it also highlights the importance of Islam in the wider world. When evaluating Islam as a whole one has to look over the full distribution of Muslims. So, I would accede without much controversy to the proposition that Dawoodi Bohra sect of Muslims is no threat to Western societies, and integrates the modern with the traditionalist with aplomb. But there are only 1 million of this Ismaili sect in the world. Judging Islam by the Dawoodi Bohra is like judging the achievements of people with Down syndrome by those of Chris Burke (though importantly, it may be valid to judge Islam’s potential by the Dawoodi Bohra). In fact, after reading Mullahs on the Mainframe my impression is that the Dawoodi Bohra community views Sunni Muslims as slothful, hypocritical, and backward. The Sunnis return the contempt and disdain with large doses of suspicion. On almost all message boards of a conservative Sunni bent on the internet accusations of an individual being Ismaili (the broader umbrella group under which the Dawood Bohra can be bracketed) is a way to discredit the arguments of one’s interlocutor, because the Ismaili are perceived to be heretics. Naturally they’ve traditionally have been the targets of persecution in Sunni majority societies. A religion should be judged by its mainstream, as well as its outliers. Unitarian Universalists tend to be very liberal, despite the fact that there are Republican Unitarian Universalists (William Cohen, Bob Packwood and Nancy Johnson are examples of Republican politicians who were also Unitarian Universalist). Similarly, the existence of gay Muslims and orthodox Jews does not negate the proper generalization that these two religious cultures are not friendly to a gay orientation (at least as of now). And, despite my own existence, Western atheists are overwhelmingly people of the Left.

So, moving on to generalities I would have to say that Muslims are barbaric. But not all Muslims are barbaric, and most of the Muslims who I know personally are not barbaric. Today the term “barbaric” has some really negative connotations, but I use the term to simply point to societies which even if they are civilized have values which are difficult to comprehend across the cultural chasm. Muslims, and South Asian non-Muslims as a whole, have an emotionally charged relationship to their religion which is simply not easy to understand in the Western world today. To be fair, a German from 1640 could absolutely understand the attitudes toward religion of a Muslim or South Asian, but then Europeans in the 17th century were pre-Enlightenment barbarians. Barbarous societies are not necessarily evil, rather, they are just alien, and their values are such that you would not want to live in those societies. Many non-Westerners feel the same way about the “decadent” West. Barbarism is subjective. In contrast, there are I think acts which are savage, insofar as reasonable humans across all societies agree to their unacceptability. Murder and incest for example. The actions of American foreign policy are I think not arguably barbaric, because they’re comprehensible cross-culturally. Rather, they are arguably savage, not defensible on culturally relativist grounds. In other words, you can have a debate as to whether armed intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan is and was worth the cost in light of universal values. Not that you’ll agree on the conclusion, but the logic is transparent from both sides. In contrast, arguments about the role of religion in public life are embedded in “thicker” networks of values and implicit assumptions, and people regularly talk past each other. Many Muslims and South Asians for example just have a hard time understanding how blasphemy of religion could be protected by rights in so many Western societies when it is plainly evil.  Many Hindus view Muslim and Christian drives to convert as unalloyed disrespectful aggression. These sorts of misunderstandings reflect deep chasms of values, and argumentation will ultimately get one nowhere because it is the first principles which diverge.

As to values, I would assert that the majority of native born Muslims in the United States share more in values with their fellow Americans than they do with Muslims across the world, or even with immigrants who retain many of the sensibilities of their homelands. But there are still issues with American Muslims by the nature of them being Muslim, and the issue has to do with politics and Jews. Religion produces broad tribal loyalties. Even religions which in the American context are very free form, such as Buddhism, produce such affinities. American Buddhists seem disproportionately active in events which highlight the oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese government. This is not atypical. American evangelicals focus on Christians in China and Sudan. Sometimes the bonds are not of affinity, but break out as a family squabble. American Episcopalians have been in conflict with African Anglicans as to their social liberalism for nearly a decade. But the ties of religious identity do impact one in a tangible way and affect one’s perspective and the attention one gives to various issues. So, American Jews have a particular interest in the state of Israel, because Israelis are fellow Jews by and large and Israel is a Jewish state. And American Muslims have an interest in the plight of the Palestinians because the majority of Palestinians are Muslims. Christians have an interest in the topic because of Jerusalem, which has importance to all three Abrahamic religions. There are plenty of humanitarian and geopolitical hotspots in the world, but the Israel-Palestine conflict gets disproportionate attention because the Jewish Diaspora and philo-Semitic Christians, as well as the Islamic international, are powerful interests who shape our focus.

In the United States there are major structural impediments toward neutralizing our nation’s pro-Israel stance. American Jews are well organized, still more numerous than Muslims by reasonable estimates, and, have deep roots in this nation. Perhaps most importantly, a large bloc of philo-Semitic Christians has emerged to serve as extenders of Jewish American influence when it comes to the Israel Question. My own personal perspective is that it would benefit the United States to detach itself from such a close relationship to Israel, and take a more neutral stance. But I see no realistic possibility of this occurring with the structural conditions of American society as they are in the near future. The attempts by Muslim and Arab Americans to push for more balance in the American stance is then going to only be effective on the margins, and won’t shift the needle to genuine neutrality. But of course they have to continue trying, because their emotional investment in the issue is no less powerful than that of American Jews. Even less influential groups than Jews can influence foreign policy if the issue is of minor importance. Cubans Americans for example are influential in American attitudes toward Cuba. Cuba is not important to anyone today, except for Cubans and Midwestern farmers. In contrast, Pakistani, Indian and Chinese Americans will never be able to control the nature of American policy with those nations because our relations with those Asian powers is too critical to be left to the hands of an ethnic lobby. In this way I think our relationship to Israel is more like that with Cuba, Israel is a small nation-state no bigger than New Jersey. Yes, it is in a sensitive geopolitical locus, but the costs we may incur from the distortions imposed by a motivated ethnic lobby are manageable.

On the merits I probably agree more with the Muslim and Arab American perspective on the direction which our policy needs to move. But as I said, I see very little short-to-medium term possibility of change, and, honestly the issue isn’t that important to me. Why not? I don’t have a deep attachment to Israel, Palestine, and the “Holy Land” is not holy to me. My opinions on this issue have to be understood from in light of both my values and experiences. In sum, in light of who I am by identity as well as as an individual. Similarly, the Jewish attitude toward Israel, or the Muslim and Arab American attitude toward Palestine, have to be understood in light of their identity. They care inordinately, and that is normal, and I see nothing wrong with that. We are a tribal species, with a variegated set of overlapping group identities.

And that is why I do not put stock in my friend Aziz Poonawalla’s recommendation to read the erudite musings Haroon Mughal as if they will change my views too much. Mughal is of intellectual interest, but he does not perturb the broad structural outlines I see in terms of identity and loyalty which religious minorities who live in the United States, and in particular Muslims, have to face. The issues are structural, and not philosophical. I have noted that the thesis that “Islam has bloody borders” has to be normalized for the fact that Islam, or Islamic states, have many borders. This redounded to Islam’s benefit during its Golden Age, as the Arab Caliphates were enriched by the learning of the Classical West and the culture of Persia, as well as being in touch with India and China. But today it has provided many more opportunities for Islam vs. the Rest narratives to take hold. The Chinese have problems with their Uyghur minority, the Indians are facing off against Pakistan, Thailand has problems with its Malay minority, there is a confrontation between Islam and Christianity in Africa, Turkic Islam interacts with Russian Orthodoxy in the North, while the Mediterranean is another zone of interaction. In contrast, the American geographical interface with Latin America occurs only through Mexico. There are no Latin American issues, rather, Latin American issues are viewed through a Mexican prism. There is nothing about Latin American issues which make them fundamentally Mexican, rather, there are structural reasons why Americans would view Latin American issues through a Mexican lens.

As long as the state of Israel exists, and the “Peace Process” has not resulted in the denouement of the Israeli-Palestian issue, and Muslims in America have fellow feeling with their Muslim brethren overseas, there will be a tension between their American identity and the concerns which their religious identity necessitates. To some extent this not that different from Jews or Cuban Americans, who have foreign concerns which are of great focus by the nature of who they are as a people. But in the details there are great differences. Jews are in some ways sui generis in the United States because of their organized might and cultural influence. Contrary to the conventional wisdom in some quarters I do believe that the American special relationship with Israel is a cost we can incur, if there is a cost (I believe there is, though you may disagree). Israel is a small nation-state, even if in a sensitive geopolitical region. But the special relationship does not prevent America having alliances with nearby Arab nations, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

More broadly, one major difference between the American Jewish relationship with Israel and that of American Muslims with the Muslim world is that in the former case there is much more parity of numbers than in the latter case. Numbers do not always tell the tale, so far Western Christians continue to dominate organizations which now have numerical predominance in non-Western nations, such as the Anglican Communion. So long as Western Anglicans are more well educated and wealthier than African Anglicans the latter’s enthusiasm and numbers can be muted. Unfortunately, the 1.5 billion Muslims is too large a number for American Muslims to shift the balance of opinions. American Muslims are arguably the most assimilated and successful of Western Islams, but at ~4 million, generously, it’ll be a long haul to shift the balance of opinion in world Islam. In 1900 American Catholics were ~15 million out of ~250 million world Catholics, and were the wealthiest segment of the religion’s believers, but it took them nearly three generations of effort to finally secure the changes in their faith with Vatican II which fully and totally aligned their religious values with their values as Americans.

The reality is that there are many Islams. As someone who doesn’t accept the truth claims of any religion I think they’re all man-made fictions. And yet despite the many realities of Islam, there is also a broader Muslim awareness and identity which expresses itself in local contexts. If there wasn’t, Muslims wouldn’t brag about the number 1.5 billion believers. How American Muslims synthesize their identity is their business. But, because of the geopolitical structural realities of the world it does have some relevance for us non-Muslims, as it impinges on our lives, just as Jewish affinity for Israel, or Cuban American hostility to Cuba, does.

In today’s world there’s a lot of polarization when it comes to Islam. People like Pamela Gellar are really hard to characterize as anything but unhinged. Unfortunately for those of us skeptical of Islam, and religion more generally, an inverted tribal awareness on the American Left has produced a sentiment which views with great suspicion any anti-Muslim sentiment. So you liberals like Josh Marshall talking about the confluence between radical secularists and religious fundamentalists. This tactical convergence has long existed, the problem comes about when critics conflate the underlying rationale of the two groups. Ergo, the accusations that Richard Dawkins is an Islamophobe, when really he is just a religionphobe. The trend in the current climate seems to be a polarization into two camps, “with us, or against us,” and that really just collapses a lot of complexity into black and white cut outs.

At this point, I think I’ve gone on enough, though I could say more. I would like to add that talking about science is much easier, even if the terms are abstruse and the concepts counter-intuitive. It would be easier to talk about this stuff if more of you knew religious history in any depth, but I’m not holding my breath….

Addendum: Since I spent 1.5 hours on this post, I’m probably going to delete just plain dumb comments.