Islam and racism

This is another post written for the book, written to be an immediate follow-up to this post. Feedback on these posts is always appreciated, but this one especially show.

I’m tempted to agree with Sam Harris that responding to criticism of religious ideas with accusations of racism is “ almost too silly to merit a response.” Religions are systems of beliefs and practices, not races. “Muslim,” for example, does not mean “Arab;” there are Muslims of all races and ethnic groups. Even with Judaism, which is an ethnic religion, there is still a distinction: there are people who identify as ethnically and culturally Jewish but not religiously Jewish.

Granted, it is possible to be bigoted against Muslims (say, if you think someone must support terrorism simply because they identify as Muslim). But saying that certain beliefs widely held among Muslims are false and extremely harmful isn’t even bigotry, any more than it’s bigoted to say the same about, say, communism.

That’s all I’d have to say about the issue, if not for the way anti-Islam rhetoric has been used by right-wing political groups in the United States and Europe. In the US, this has often come in the form of scaremongering about the supposed threat of sharia law. Former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, for example, once claimed that sharia “is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States,” and more than two dozen US states have considered so-called “sharia bans.”

Rhetoric such as Gingrich’s is ridiculous because Muslims are a tiny minority in the US, and therefore unlikely to take over anytime soon. As for “sharia bans,” while their wording varies, it is often quite sweeping, leading some Jewish groups to worry it could interfere with their ability to use Jewish law to resolve disputes within their own communities.

In some cases, they are written to prohibit judges from consulting “foreign” law in making decisions, which the ACLU argues could undermine the ability of judges to make decisions involving international business, or involving international human rights and family law issues. Even more worrisome is the fact that in Europe, anti-Islam rhetoric has been picked up by such groups as the notoriously racist British National Party (BNP).

None of that means that there aren’t real problems with sharia law as found in medieval Islam and, unfortunately, many Muslim countries even to this day (something I’ll cover in greater detail at the end of the book). There are also legitimate concerns about protecting women in Muslim immigrant communities in western countries from being coerced or tricked into giving up their rights in sharia courts.

This second problem may be worth addressing through legislation, if the legislation is carefully written. Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the details of the proposal, the UK’s proposed Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, co-sponsored by the UK’s National Secular Society, contains many plausible measures, such as applying laws against sex discrimination to arbitration proceedings.

Secularists should avoid associations with the likes of Gingrich or the BNP, but no one can be evil 24 hours a day, so the mere fact that the political right does something doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. After all, the right has also co-opted the language of women’s rights, but this doesn’t make women’s rights a bad thing. By all means, American secularists should mock the fundamentalists with paranoid fantasies of an Islamic takeover, and European secularists should take a stand against the likes of the BNP–as both groups have in fact done. But that shouldn’t stop us from being frank in our criticism of Islam.

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