Are we "getting" Islam?

A little more than two years ago, I invited Sean Faircloth to speak to members of the Yale and New Haven nonreligious communities. At the time, he was the executive director for the Secular Coalition of America, and he struck me as one of the most compelling and persuasive political advocates for issues such as Church-State separation and countering the religious right.[ref]I should note that my opinion hasn’t changed.[/ref] He’s since published a book, Attack of the Theocrats!, and joined the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science as the Director for Strategy and Policy.

Faircloth published a lengthy essay this morning, asking “Are liberals finally going to get it this time about Islam?” The idea being the (at this point somewhat familiar) refrain that liberals ought to condemn Islam; that beliefs are not deserving of respect or protection, but rather believers; that open criticism is necessary for liberalism; and so on. Faircloth pleads, “My fellow liberals: please stop ignoring reality.”

It’s worth noting that I largely agree with Faircloth here, but the small bit where we disagree matters a lot and largely colors our respective attitudes towards Islam. There’s a subtle shift in Faircloth’s language throughout the piece, and I think this is rather emblematic of this difference. Faircloth says:

If liberals can – with great vitriol – condemn the Christian Right (as they do constantly), then liberals can treat Islam like any other ideology — because Islam is just another ideology – like the Tea Party, like the Christian Right. Islam must be subject to the same rough and tumble of ideas as is any other ideology.

And this I think is the main problem. Faircloth doesn’t discuss liberal condemnation of “conservatism” or “Christianity,” as if they were unified and broad ideologies. He references specific and narrow branches—the far right Christian radicals like the Westboro Baptist Church, or the extreme mix of misguided libertarianism and Christian theology that is the Tea Party. Faircloth is right that liberals often, and ought to, condemn these ideologies. But notice how quickly his language broadens, and how easily specific language lapses into generic language. Faricloth references Islam, not as a diverse mix of ideologies that’s often as varied as its billion-and-a-half adherents, but as one, monolithic, unified thing. 

We can very easily and conveniently talk about how the Tea Party’s policies might be anti-women, but Faircloth goes too far by suggesting that, therefore, Islam, writ large, full stop, should be the proper target of our criticism, too. As if Islam, writ large, full stop, is a violent ideology that is anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-liberalism. Or that Islam, writ large, full stop, has been the cause of terrorist activities.

I’ve written before that one of the most blatant and troublesome aspects of Islamophobia (taken here in I guess the narrower sense—not as racism or general anti-muslim bigotry, but irrational prejudice against Islam and its adherents. I’m obviously not suggesting that all criticism of Islam is islamophobic or racist.) is that we generalize about Islam in a way we don’t with any other ideology or religion. It seems that any muslim can stand in for a radical (as we’ve seen with the FEMEN protests and Everybody Draw Muhammed Day); any behavior of a radical generalizes to the ideology of the moderates in a way that doesn’t hold in reverse (no one looks at peaceful or charitably acts by Muslims and goes on to say that they’re the result of Islam, even if they fit the same criterion Faircloth wants to apply in terms of “expressed religious motivations” following a “religious path that has become familiar”); and any behavior by radicals has to be swiftly and loudly denounced (whether or not you’re listening) by the moderates, or they’re somehow implicated in the action.

So I largely agree with Faircloth—we ought to, and very loudly, protest human rights violations by Islamic extremists. In fact, I don’t know many liberals who would disagree.[ref]I’m not interested in whether any liberal disagrees. I am sure that they exist. What I’m not convinced about is that they exist in large enough numbers to be seriously representative of what could meaningfully be called a liberal position.[/ref] But a failure to go and criticize Islam, writ large, full stop, is not moral cowardice on the part of liberals. It is not PC gone mad. And that’s I think where Faircloth gets it wrong.

It’s telling that there are only two groups of people who blame 9/11 on Islam—far right Christians and a certain brand of atheist. Few political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, liberals, or anyone else studying religion, really,[ref]I literally know of none. I say “few” to simply have some buffer, but I don’t want to understate how really rare a position this is among any serious scholar who has looked at religion and politics.[/ref] says “Islam caused 9/11.” Yet Faircloth and many other atheists present it as established fact. So why the disparity between modern scholarly thought and the anti-theist position?

It could very well be that a conspiracy-like story is true—liberals know Islam is responsible for these atrocities but don’t have the brass to say it, and the liberal academe, poisoned by postmodern multiculturalism, is too afraid to point out what atheists and Christians see so obviously. Or it could be that liberals, like me, might have a better view on Islam than atheists like Faircloth and the religious right do. It’s us who “get it” — Islam is not a broad, unified ideology; politics and social factors seem to be much more relevant in explaining suicide and terror attacks than Islam; proper criticism should be specific and not whitewash an entire ideology; and so on.

Now someone like Faircloth might sensibly object that Islam as an ideology, writ large, full stop, is to blame for these things. That the commonalities in the ideology shared by all 1.5 billion Muslims on Earth is the problem. Now they might have trouble squaring that with contemporary scholarly thought on the topic, but it’s a fair point they could make. But note that this isn’t a conversation about moral courage anymore, or whether criticism of Islam is islamophobic, or whether liberals need to be consistent. This conversation isn’t about when liberals will finally come around to reality (or why they might be hesitant to), but instead about what reality is. Disagreements are about the nature of Islam—if there can even coherently be one—and what the proper attitude we should take towards that is.

And there, I think, Faircloth falls somewhat short. Faircloth mentions some statistics (and there are some good ones coming out of this recent Pew survey), and references a few cases of terrorism, but I’ve gone on long enough for this post. I’m not convinced and I’ll address them shortly in a follow-up.

I’d just like to note[ref]For like, the fifth time. I really don’t want to understate how great Sean is.[/ref] that I think Faircloth and I agree a lot, and I don’t mean to imply that I think he’s racist, or bigoted, or that his motives are insincere. Faircloth is largely right: liberals should condemn anti-liberal practices and policies, and this includes swaths of radical Islam. But whether Islam is an appropriate target for that condemnation is unclear to me, and I haven’t seen a good case for it yet.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.


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