How to criticize Islam: Russell Blackford and David Silverman

Given recent discussions at Freethought Blogs about civility (latest contribution by Ophelia) I think this quote from Russell Blackford’s Freedom of Religion and the Secular State is worth discussing:

There is also a lesson for critics of Islam, and associated practices, who do not identify with the extreme right. For a start, they need to understand the situation, including the extreme right’s co-option of mainstream issues and arguments. This may lead to greater patience with opponents who make the charge of Islamophobia, though it hardly makes the charge more palatable. At a more practical level, opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme right’s sympathizers or dupes would be well advised to take care of the impression that they convey. Where practical, they should explain their positions with as much nuance as possible, distance themselves from extreme-right figures making similar arguments, and avoid sharing platforms with them.

Note, however, that these are voluntary choices and that there may be limits. The words “where practical” are important, because what is practical in, say, a philosophical essay may not be practical in a satirical cartoon. In any event, beyond a certain point there is a disadvantage to walking on eggshells. It can make a message seem bland and exclude the talents of many people whose training or temperament does not suit hedged, half-apologetic communication.

Blackford, Russell (2011-11-28). Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Blackwell Public Philosophy Series) (p. 190). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

Like so much in Russell’s book, this is hard to argue with, though it doesn’t offer much in the way of specific advice for particular situations. So let me toss out an example for discussion: is it ever okay to call Islam a “shitty religion” and Muhammad a “pedophile,” as David Silverman and JT Eberhard have?

The more nuanced version would be something like: the Quran is full of nasty statements about unbelievers, and the hadith are worse, frequently replicating the worst laws of the Jewish scriptures (for example, by saying apostates should be put to death).

Technically, a good, Quran-believing Muslim can get away with saying the hadith in question are not legitimate, but historically, too few have (Russell’s book is also excellent on why we shouldn’t idealize the history of Islam). Even today, many Muslim countries still have the death penalty for apostasy. And in general, Muslims living in the 21st century have (on average) done a much worse job than Christians and Jews at shedding the awful parts of their religion.

As for Muhammad’s alleged pedophilia, it’s worth emphasizing that yes, this is part of Islamic lore about his life, and not from what I gather a minor part. According to Wikipedia:

Aisha stayed in her parents’ home for several years until she joined Muhammad and the marriage was consummated when she was nine. However, al-Tabari records that she was ten. The sources do not offer much more information about Aisha’s childhood years, but mention that after the wedding, she continued to play with her toys, and that Muhammad entered into the spirit of these games.

The issue of Aisha’s age at the time she was married to Muhammad has been of interest since the earliest days of Islam, and references to her age by early historians are frequent. Early Muslims regarded Aisha’s youth as demonstrating her virginity and therefore her suitability as a bride of Muhammad. According to Spellberg, historians who supported Aisha’s position in the debate of the succession to Muhammad against Shi’a claims considered her youth, and therefore her purity, to be of paramount importance. They thus specifically emphasized it, implying that as Muhammad’s only virgin wife, Aisha was divinely intended for him, and therefore the most credible in the debate.

Child marriages such as this were relatively common in Bedouin societies at the time, and remain common in some societies even today. British scholar Colin Turner suggests that such marriages were not seen as improper in historical context, and that individuals in such societies matured at an earlier age than in the modern West.

The fact that this was “relatively common in Bedouin society as the time” suggests Muhammad may not have had a particular attraction to pre-pubescent children, but it’s still rather strong evidence against his claims to have been inspired by God. After all, if God had really been sending him messages, don’t you think at some point He would’ve remembered to tell him, “Hey! Don’t fuck nine year old girls!”?

When I started writing this post, I was a bit ambivalent about the comments from Silverman I quoted above, but typing it all out, I have to say it would be a mistake to only criticize Islam on times when we have time for the nuanced version. Islam is too awful to let that happen. Too shitty, if you will.

(Not that nuance isn’t nice and all. It’s just that in some cases, your choices are “give the short version” and “stay silent.”)

  • James Croft

    I think one element you have to keep in mind when speaking about “Islam” is the fact that Muslims are an oppressed minority in the USA. Just as with dealing with other minorities which suffer oppression, this places certain responsibilities on a critic which are not there when, for example, discussing most forms of Christianity. The challenge is to be robust and honest in your critique while avoiding adding to the marginalization of Muslim individuals from society and the discrimination they routinely face.

    Second, I doubt there’s ever much use in saying simply “Islam is a shitty religion” because it is highly imprecise. Any commentator is going to want to know what aspects of “Islam” you are discussing, and in what ways they are “shitty”. By providing no data on what one is criticizing you risk simply reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as “shitty”. It would be rather like saying “gay culture is shitty” and then wondering why people accuse you of prejudice.

    It’s both intellectually and morally preferable, therefore, to be specific and targeted in your criticism – and it’s more likely to be effective.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Sure it’s imprecise. But trying to be perfectly precise isn’t always an optimal communication strategy. I think that should be obvious, especially to someone who’s made a serious study of communication.

      As far as Muslim’s being a minority, rather than toning down our criticism, I’d much rather make a point of pointing out when anti-Islamic sentiment is used in ridiculous ways. We should make fun of right-wing Christians who scaremonger about “the threat of sharia law,” both on the grounds that Muslims are too small a minority to take over any time soon, and by pointing out that sharia law has much in common with the Torah laws that Christian fundamentalists believe to be divinely inspired.

      Though I wonder how much point there is arguing about this. I suspect we largely agree on all the sort of banal general principles like Russell lays out.

      • James Croft

        Well, you raised the specific question of whether it’s OK ever to say, simply and without clarification, “Islam is a shitty religion”, and you answer in the affirmative. I answer in the negative, for the reasons I’ve outlined, and which you seem to agree with – before going on to misrepresent my case in a way that is characteristic of these discussions about criticism.

        No one said anything about “toning down” criticism of aspects of Islam which we object to. Nor did I advocate some sort of “optimal accuracy”. Rather, what I suggested was “toning up” the criticism, in the sense of being specific, targeted and clear. That will be more effective, and it will be less likely to be unethical. That’s a clear win-win.

      • aleph squared

        Sure it’s imprecise. But trying to be perfectly precise isn’t always an optimal communication strategy.

        Just because being perfectly precise isn’t always optimal does not mean that any old imprecise statement is.

        Can you give an example of when saying “Islam is a shitty religion” with absolutely no other clarification is an optimal communication strategy?

  • Iamcuriousblue

    It’s a bit like being careful to separate criticism of Judaism as a religion from bashing of Jews as an ethnic group. The former is part of a legitimate critique of religion, while the latter is racism in the form of anti-Semitism. Now it is questionable as to whether “Muslims” are an ethnic group in the same way, considering that Muslims are a multi-ethnic group just like Christians. On the other hand, the way that they get lumped together in the West, especially in the US, regardless of actual ethnic affiliation or degree of religiosity does make Muslims kind of a de fact ethnic group, in a Western context, anyway.

  • lorn

    I always figured that Mohammed screwing a nine year old was perhaps less of an issue because he was hung like a sparrow and very ‘quick’ but, as pointed out here, there may have been normalizing cultural aspects. But I agree that the theological aspects remain problematic. Does Allah, should such a fantastical being exist, really condone screwing children, or was there some error or gap in communication? God, should he/she/it exist, may move in mysterious ways but humans, particularly human males, tend to be entirely predictable. No big mystery in my mind how a guy given unlimited power and authority might manifest his darkest and most twisted desires.

  • Brian

    Here’s the problem with Mohammad having sex with a 9 year old. It may have been OK back in the day in that tribal environment. It may be OK now (for differing values of OK and moral relativity) for a middle aged man to have sex with a 9 year old girl. But this guy is supposed to be the apex of manhood. The infallible messenger of god, to whom all decent muslims should aspire to follow. Sorry, he’s a shitty examplar of a decent person. And it’s not only the sex with 9 years olds.
    He murdered when it suited him. Took women as sex slaves. Threatened his existing wives with starvation because they didn’t like him banging slaves, and so on. That’s not a person to emulate.

  • Pen

    I agree with Blackford and feel that extreme-right wing are at least as real and present a threat to our society as Islam. It’s doesn’t seem acceptable to pass up no opportunity to disapprove of Islam while ignoring misbehaving people who are members of the same social group as many of us. There’s a real moral imperative to avoid appearing to support them or their aims in any way. Besides it’s surely obvious that using value-laden and judgmental language that plays into their oppression and social exclusion carries no weight of persuasion with Muslims. Functionally, and whatever the speaker’s intentions, it acts as no more than a dog whistle to xenophobes.

    Since when could it be morally OK for someone bully people because they ‘don’t have time’ to make a proper argument? If someone feels they must register their disapproval of Islam quickly, why not say ‘I disapprove of Islam/Mohammad’? Sure, it carries no weight at all, but ‘Islam is shitty’ carries only the false weight of emotionally charged language.

  • lilandra

    I don’t agree with the implications of Turner’s argument that it was culturally normal for Bedouin societies of the time and some societies today.

    Whether they are seen as immoral or not, polygamous societies create too many children for one family to adequately care for. Especially where resources are scarce like desert environments. Girls are married off younger to lessen the strain completing the cycle. Girls are victims of a patriarchal system.

  • WVsteelersfan

    a) Hallquist, you’re a shitty debater, I must say (and this is an appropriate use of the term). I’m ashamed to have you representing “secular America” against religious extremism. Because of uncivilized people like you, we’re losing, and making it worse for all of us.
    b) in what universe is it “shorter version” to say “Islam is a shitty religion” than to say “many Islamic verses are proven lies”? If the reason Islam got this way, is overattachment to medieval traditions, then please just say it! You’re obviously well-read enough to choose ONE fact, for christsakes… Use your intellect to make an actual point, man, and invent a soundbyte that does insult them – that’s what THEY want, anyway.

    • WVsteelersfan

      *…soundbyte that DOESN”T insult them – for, in fact – that is what THEY want, anyway.

  • Pingback: Does this cartoon offend you?

  • Haley

    Alright, I posted this on your other article, but I’m putting it here as well. Considering you cited freaking Wikipedia as your source for the whole “child raping” thing, there is very little credibility to your argument. I’m not saying there are things about Islam that are not messed up, because there are, but as a person who opposes religion you should at least accurately represent it. Practicers of any religion tend to take the statements made in religious texts and warp them. Here is the story coming from an actual Musim:

    I’m learning Arabic right now and my teacher is Muslim and he is very open when talking about his faith. When somone in our class asked about the whole child marriage thing he told us that Mohammad does marry a nine year old in the Koran, but not to have sex with her or anything weird like that. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father and grandfather died in the same battle fighting with Mohammad, so she was basically going to be a street child and probably would have died. Adoption is not allowed in Islamic tradition, so the only way he could take her in was to marry her. They didn’t have sex until she was a woman, which in Islam is when a girl first gets her period (that’s still really young in my opinion, but I think many cultures back then were like that.) It’s actually expressly forbidden to have sex with a girl before she becomes a woman. Some people just took the fact that he married a nine year old and ran with it though, because there are perverts in every religion.

    • Chris Hallquist

      If you look at the article in “freaking Wikipedia,” you’ll find it cites a half-dozen scholarly sources all saying the same thing. What’s your professor’s source for his claims?

  • Michael

    The problem is that there are too many armchair experts on Islam who have a shallow understanding of the Islamic tradition. When it comes to criticising Islam, there is a lot of cultural ignorance and lazy stereotyping.

    Islam is as good/bad as Judaism. For Quran, there’s the Torah. For ahadith, there’s the Talmud. And for Sharia, there’s halacha. But due to cultural bias, Islam is viewed as something much worse and extra-special evil. Even though there isn’t much difference between the two religions.

    Aqeedah/Aqida, Mu’tazila, Averroes and Avicenna? Nah. Quote mining, out of context Qu’ran ayahs and obscure ahadth, please.

    • Michael

      *obscure ahadith*

  • Collin237

    If a Muslim says something typical of the bad things about Islam, e.g., “Allah requires women to wear burqas”, the typical reaction is to pattern-match that utterance to Islam — finding, of course, a positive match — and then to denounce Islam. Those who criticize this reaction as unfair typically target the conclusion. Since the conclusion is arguably valid (albeit extreme), this gives the appearance that no unfairness has been committed. But, contrary to popular opinion, there is an unfairness, at the beginning.

    Who would you typically assume talks in patterns? Only the very young and the severely mentally challenged. So by starting with a pattern-match, you’ve already decided the Muslim said something either infantile or idiotic before you even realize what he said!

    Once this layer of bigotry is removed, it becomes obvious that there is only one moral and rational response: “No, He doesn’t.” Understandably, a Muslim would be reluctant to contradict his tradition, and a theist of some other faith would be reluctant to speak of a false god. But the only problem an atheist could have saying this is being too snobbish to stoop to the level of anyone outside his enclave.

    For centuries, the dominant classes have bent over backwards to make such translations for each other and even for much of the rest of the world, but not for Muslims. Muslims tend to see others as infidels because that’s how others tend to present themselves in dialogue with Muslims. The only people willing to challenge Islam on its own terms, in its own discourse, have been specially trained multi-cultural ambassadors — and that’s almost nobody.

    Islamic oppression cannot be stopped by war, diplomacy, enlightenment, or polemics. It can only be stopped in one way: by contradicting it in its own language. By speaking of the Quran the same way we would of a Torah hidden behind the doors of a synagogue’s ark, or of a Gideons’ Bible hidden inside the desk drawer of a hotel room — a broken metaphor full of ironic contradictions bequeathed from a foolish heritage, reminding us that we’re all still “Jenny from the block”.

  • Pingback: yellow october