Maher, Harris, Aslan, Affleck, Kristof: An Atheist Reformist Iranian’s View

Kaveh Mousavi is an Iranian ex-Muslim blogger. Any day now his blog On the Margin of Error will move to the Atheist Channel on Patheos. In the meantime he has been guest posting here on Camels With Hammers while setting up his new digs. For this next post, I asked Kaveh to address the firestorm around viral videos of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, Nicholas Kristof, and Reza Aslan discussing Islam and liberal ideals this past week. My own thoughts on all these public figures’ comments is that I wish they would read and internalize the points I made in those three articles and have their discussions in light of these realities. Below is Kaveh’s view from Iran:

Recently Bill Maher was at the center of two controversies regarding Islam, as Bill Maher is prone to be. The first one was answered by Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American scholar, and the second one involved an argument between him, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck on his show. I prefer to focus more on Aslan because he made his points much more eloquently and effectively than Affleck, who seemed to be too angry to be able to argue coherently. However Aslan and Affleck bring different reasons for their arguments regarding Islam, and I want to address both of them here.

In this article, I do not plan to defend Harris and Maher. I do largely agree with them, and I praise both men for trying to shift focus to Islam as religion and ideology, something that is sorely missing from the argument, and both men have used their influence to give voice to ex-Muslims. Though both men lack nuance from time to time, and sometimes make minor factual errors regarding Muslim countries, ultimately I am grateful for their work. However, this article is only meant to express my own views, not theirs.

Let’s first take a look at Aslan’s arguments in defense of Islam. In this video he makes three arguments: (1) Some Muslim countries, like Indonesia and Turkey, are in a better state than Saudi Arabia, so the cause of the horrific situation under Islamic theocracies cannot be Islam as a religion but other geopolitical factors. (2) Female genital mutilation is a regional practice and not Islamic and is not caused by Islam. (3) Anyone can interpret scripture any way they want and therefore the scripture is not at fault for the crimes inspired by it.

Here’s the video:

Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider, who are my friends and the co-founders of Ex-Muslims of North-America, do an excellent job of pointing out the factual errors within Aslan’s claims in an excellent post written for Hemant Mehta’s blog. Overall, Aslan makes Indonesia and Turkey sound much better than they are, (seriously, would you believe there is any country in the world where men and women are 100% equal?) and he ignores the fact that many Sunni scholars require or recommend FGM. I did not know this myself before reading Muhammad’s and Sarah’s article; although I’m sure most (if not all) Shiite clerics do not support this practice.

They also point out that Turkey and Indonesia have been secular, not theocratic, and this secularism is the cause of their relative better situation. I imagine Aslan would respond to this by saying “Well of course theocracies are bad and secularism is good, I meant to say that Muslim countries can be secular.” And I think this is the main flaw of Aslan’s arguments: he’s basically strawmanning the critics of Islam.

Does any sensible critic of Islam say that Muslim countries cannot be secular? Does any sensible critic of Islam say that there are no moderate movements inside Islam? (I remind you that based on my evaluation; the vast majority of Iranian atheists have dedicated their political lives to support moderate Muslims within the Iranian regime). Does any sensible critic of Islam say that there are no other factors involved in the situations of the Middle Eastern countries but religion? And also, does any sensible critic of Islam say that the problems of Islam are completely unique and no other ideology or religion shares the problems?

Ultimately Aslan is replying to fictional critics. The journalists interviewing him ask him if Islam plays no role in violence and discrimination against women, and he thinks bringing up sexist countries with a merely more benign sexism can serve as a vindication of Islam. Ultimately he is not answering the journalists’ questions at all; he is only refuting a strawman.

Like all religions, Islam has many radical and moderate proponents, seculars and theocrats, and I believe ultimately the reformists and the moderates will have a louder voice and Muslim countries will move towards greater secularism, as is the flow of history. And of course the fate of Muslim countries is influenced by many factors, including geopolitical and economic ones. However, Aslan is not trying to include those factors in the debate; he is trying to exclude religion. And that argument is as absurd as the fictional arguments he is trying to disprove, because when the population of a region overwhelmingly believe in a text, and in a range of traditions and customs, and we call those put together a religion (Islam), and there is overt glorification of violence and sexism and other horrifying things present in the scripture and the traditions, then the scripture and the tradition definitely play a role in the presence of violence and sexism and other horrific things in those societies.

Basically what Aslan is saying is that the beliefs of the vast majority of people in an ideology play no causal role in the conflicts of that region, and that makes entirely no sense.

Ultimately, the fact that Taliban and the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia and other theocracies enforce certain laws that are in the scriptures can prove to a great extent that the scripture does have some influence and causal relationship with the situation in the region. For example, although Muslims don’t have to believe that a man must inherit two times more than a woman, and there are certainly Muslims who disagree with that, the fact that Qur’an includes this law can be reasonably considered one of the factors that leads to Iran enforcing this law. If Qur’an had said sisters should inherit more than brothers, one can reasonably assume that Iran would be practicing (or at least inclined towards) a different law. So it makes no sense to say Qur’an and other traditions under the umbrella term of Islam play no role in the station in Iran. Iran is a theocracy based on Islamic thought; it makes no sense to argue the religious ideology of a theocratic regime plays no role in the lives of the people living under it.

Of course Aslan could not argue thus without this peculiar form of post-structuralism that some people hold that applies only to scriptures and no other texts. I’m sure if I interpreted Aslan by claiming that he was arguing for eradication of Islam he would object to this interpretation of mine, and I’m sure if I said “I’m free to interpret your words any way I want” that this wouldn’t convince him. It is true that believers sometimes (mis)interpret scripture to their own benefit, ultimately it makes no sense to claim that the contents of scripture is irrelevant and that you could replace the Qur’an with a Dr. Seuss book and nothing would change in Muslim societies.

I’m sure many of my readers will now accuse me of strawmanning Aslan, but I do not do so. This is the logical conclusion of his words and, also, of what he is trying to sneak in to his seemingly nuanced argument. Ultimately, Aslan and people like him don’t want religion to be criticized in the first place, and they especially don’t want Islam to be criticized.

Ex-Muslims do not want to exclude all other factors from the debate, but they want to end this culture of excluding religion in general and Islam in particular. That is why in spite of all the valid arguments one can level at Maher and Harris; ultimately they are on the right track, because they want to talk about the elephant in the room.

A more dramatic version of the same debate played out when Affleck and Harris were guests on Bill Maher’s show. Here Affleck interrupted Maher and Harris and accused them of racism, and in addition to that, he said that Islam is one and a half billion people just trying to get a sandwich. Just watch the video:

Now, on this topic, there are two arguments that I disagree with. First argument – the arguments some atheists use – is that since Islam is not a race, criticizing it is never racist. That is not true. Many people are bigoted against Muslims, and they argue in a way that Islam becomes racialized. Racism does not rely on factual accuracy to function. I’m an ex-Muslim, more critical towards Islam than many people, but I have received Islamophobic treatment on the internet a lot (and I live in Iran–I’m certain my ex-Muslim friends in western countries are a better authority on this issue than me). Furthermore, I have been followed on Twitter and my articles have been shared approvingly by extremely unpleasant personalities who are certainly racist. Dan himself – who’s kindly hosting this article – has argued very beautifully and convincingly on this issue

Of course, this is something that Harris acknowledges there on the panel – however, I believe Harris is ultimately wrong to try and downplay the reality of Islamophobia. Harris is wrong to frequently argue against the phenomenon. I am certain that both Maher and Harris are miles away from any such prejudice but ultimately I think they should acknowledge the phenomenon more.

Affleck, however, is completely wrong. Affleck makes the second mistake. Again, many atheists have argued that Affleck is arguing that one cannot criticize Islam and that is racist, but I don’t infer that from Affleck. I think what made Affleck angry was the fact that Maher and Harris were singling out Islam. I think ultimately Affleck’s motives were quite noble, and although I found his behavior and arguments very poor I think at the end what moved him was a very respectable thing. Affleck, basically, thought that Maher and Harris are singling out the religion of a marginalized minority in the West, and are calling their religion worse than other religions, and he felt agitated, and he took it upon himself to defend that minority.

Of course, Affleck was missing a nuanced difference between acknowledging the difference between criticizing an ideology for the effects that ideology has and singling out entire groups of people. And I don’t blame him. Harris and Maher are not what Affleck thinks they are, but they weren’t expressing themselves quite clearly, and I know that because I have followed both men closely for years.

But Affleck is wrong, because singling out the Islamic religion and Muslim countries is not wrong. It’s a fact that Muslim countries are backwards. I’m purposefully using derogatory words here. Yes, even Aslan’s Indonesia and Turkey, and no, the fact that Western countries are not utopias doesn’t change this fact as well. I have argued why it is so. We are in a worse situation than you. 

I have also argued that the situation is not a simple case of “Islam is just not reformed yet”, I believe there are intrinsic factors within Islamic thought and tradition that make such a reform more difficult. I have even argued that the fundamentalists present a far more convincing argument in defense of their reading of religion, something that causes even some of the most hardened atheists to disagree with me. 

So why do I say such things, while I also acknowledge the existence of Islamophopbia? Why do I make arguments that horrible people with horrible goals can use at their convenience? Because I believe those arguments are true, and valid, and they can be dispelled only with intellectually worthless exclamations such as “A scripture can mean anything”, a spontaneous and limited post-structuralism that only applies to a handful of books, for some strange reason, and usually the reasoning is “Well there are people who have interpreted the scripture that way”, as if that proves anything.

I am an ally of moderate Muslims. No, I’m actually not their ally, I’m their pawn, I’m their meat fodder. My atheism, so far, has never brought me in direct danger of death, but my support for reformists has. If anyone reads my blog they will see I devote more energy to defending reformists than I do to defending atheism.

Ultimately, the reformism will win out, as it has won a lot of battlefields already and will ultimately win the war. Both Christianity and Islam will go out not with a bang but a whimper, and will lose every battlefield one by one to the secular forces of history. But that path is more difficult for Islam for many factors. The geopolitical factors, the economy, all play a role in this, and yes, they do make this more difficult. But also elements in Qur’an and Islamic traditions and institutions. These ideological factors influence the contextual factors, and the contextual factors influence ideological factors, it’s not an either or question. You can acknowledge both set of factors.

The problem is that people, even well-meaning who aim to defend the rights of minorities, are trying to exclude the ideology factor from the debate, and by doing so they not only distort the truth – which supposedly is something a skeptic community should fight against – but also silences the voice of ex-Muslims, and also marginalizes people in the Middle East (people who are a minority in your country are a majority in mine, and they are very adept at marginalizing minorities). Unabashed secularism needs to be a part of the debate as much as moderate voices within the religion, and the west did not move towards secularism only with moderate religious people. Although people like Affleck have valid and respectable reasons for their arguments, but ultimately in a global humanist secular movement the interests of all people should be considered, both Muslims in the West and the oppressed populations of the Middle East.

Only with careful and nuanced reasoning and reexamination of the truth can we achieve this delicate balance where we condemn Islamophobia and criticize Islam unashamedly at the same time. Of course, no matter how nuanced and balanced we are, there will be racist who will appropriate our arguments for racist purposes. That is because even true and well-meaning arguments have negative and undesirable effects from time to time. The world is not a perfect place, and we can never guarantee that our search for truth and a humanist society will never have negative side effects.

And that is also another thing a skeptic society should accept and live with.

This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi. For more of his views regularly follow his On the Margin of Error blog. Below are links to his guest posts here at Camels With Hammers, each responding to a question I had for him:

7 Ways Westerners Can Help Ex-Muslims

What Kind of Minority is an Ex-Muslim in Iran

Iran: The Uncertain Nation

Maher, Harris, Affleck, Aslan, Kristof: An Atheist Reformist Iranian’s View

Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com

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