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.”)