Responsible Religious Criticism: Part One – Questions of Power

Provoked, as so often, by adorably elfin blogger Vlad Chituc, I’ve decided to codify some of my thoughts regarding the responsible criticism of religion, and particularly responsible criticism of Islam. This is a topic which has sometimes divided the freethought community: some see Islamophobia in some of the criticism which prominent atheist writers direct toward aspects of Islam, while others see in these accusations of Islamophobia an attempt to silence legitimate criticism of a set of ideas and practices which is particularly inhumane.

The reason for these disagreements, in my judgment, is the extraordinarily complex set of overlapping considerations which are at play during any discussion of Islam in America. Particularly challenging are the overlapping power dynamics, which make it almost impossible to discuss this issue at any angle without considering questions of oppression, voice, and violence (both physical and rhetorical). A consideration of these power dynamics will therefore be necessary as a preliminary exercise, before we can approach the question of how best to critique Islam (and religions in a similar social and cultural position).

The purpose of this post is not to “call out” any individuals or groups as Islamophobic. Rather, the purpose is to explore the question “How can the freethought movement responsibly engage in criticism of aspects of Islam (values, beliefs, practices etc.) which are inhumane without reinforcing the oppression of Muslims?” I also hope my discussion here will be of value to those who also wish to engage in robust criticism of other religions which share a similarly disadvantaged position in US society, such as Native American religions and African Indigenous religions.

1. The Inherent Worth and Dignity of All Persons
I am a Humanist, and part of the Humanist creed is a commitment to the equal dignity and basic moral worth of every person. This includes Muslims. Therefore, I am committed not just to not slandering or demeaning Muslims in any way, but to actively opposing their oppression and any violence against them. I am not free until all are free, and the freedom of Muslims is intimately connected with my own. At the same time, I am committed to opposing any ideology which promotes inhumane practices which are an affront to human dignity. Values, beliefs, and practices which traduce the dignity of persons must be opposed whatever their source, and any attempt to silence such criticism is to support what is morally outrageous. The tension between these two commitments is, I believe, at root of much of the discussion around these issues in the freethought community.

2. The Reality of Islamophobia

Islamophobia is real, and it is profoundly pernicious in America right now. Overt acts of Islamophobia include acts of violence against people because they are, or are perceived to be, Muslim (witness the recent spate of attacks following the bomb at the Boston Marathon), slurs against such people, and discrimination in the workplace and by government agencies. Islamophobia is also demonstrated more covertly (as all forms of oppression are), through persistent negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and other cultural products. It is not at all a stretch to say that Muslims are currently oppressed in America: their ways of being in the world are negatively affected by power structures which demean and degrade them in ways large and small.

3. The Nature of Islamophobia
Islamophobia does not mean “hatred of/fear of Muslims”, just as homophobia does not mean “hatred/fear of homosexuals”. Rather it is a shorthand which means something akin to “structures of oppression which affect Muslims”. Thus something can be “Islamophobic” even if it does not display overt fear of or hatred of Muslims: anything which contributes to the structures of oppression which oppress Muslims might be said to be Islamophobic. Thus, for instance, the perpetuation of a derogatory stereotype about Muslims which encourages neither fear nor hatred (and even which was not intended to be derogatory) can be Islamophobic in the sense I use the term, just as a cartoon (for example) which perpetuates negative stereotypes about gay people can be said to be homophobic regardless of whether it is an overt act of fear-mongering or hatred. While this definition may seem odd or over-broad, it is consistent with scholarly use of the term, and with how such terms are routinely understood by anti-oppression theorists and activists.

4. How Religious Adherents are Oppressed through Inaccurate and Derogatory Stereotypes and over-Generalizatons

One of the most prominent ways in which a cultural group is oppressed is through the perpetuation of misinformation about them, often in the form of derogatory generalizations in which negative characteristics (or characteristics perceived to be negative) of a subset of the group are applied, by implication, to the whole group. Examples include generalizations about women (“Women aren’t good at math”); generalizations about gay people (“Gay men are incapable of monogamous relationships” (note how here non-monogamy is simply assumed to be negative in order to serve the normative purpose of the speaker); generalizations about ethnic groups (“African Americans are criminals”); and, of course, generalizations about Muslims (“Muslims are terrorists”). These generalizations are pernicious because 1) they are false; 2) they elide differences between individuals in order to enforce a particular view of a group, thus denying members of said group full individuality (and thus full humanity); 3) they serve as justifications for “punishment” of whole groups of people on the basis that they all share the problematic characteristic (e.g. the US is attacked by a small group of terrorists in country x, therefore country x is responsible, therefore we go to war with the people of country x; some Muslims put bombs in backpacks and blow them up, so we go out and beat up other Muslims).

5. Islamophobia Exists in the Atheist Community

There is undoubtedly Islamophobia in some of the statements made by prominent atheists. Some of it is pretty transparent, and some of it is more covert. Much of it comes in the form of the sort of pernicious generalizations I describe above, and often these generalizations are well-hidden, so it isn’t always obvious that an inaccurate stereotype is being promoted. There will sometimes be legitimate disagreement as to whether such a stereotype is even being promoted – and this is the source of much of the contention around these issues.

6. Responsible Criticism of Islam Does Not Mean Treating Islam “The Same” as Christianity

This means that what constitutes responsible criticism of Islam is not the same as what constitutes responsible criticism of, for instance, Christianity. Christianity is highly privileged in the cultural discourse of America, and the effects of negative stereotypes of Christians are different to the effects of such stereotypes of Muslims. Christians can generally rely on their critics at least having some basic understanding that Christianity is a many-faceted and complex cultural phenomenon, while Islam is often treated as a singular monolith. Responsible criticism of Islam, therefore, cannot be criticism which simply treats Islam “the same” as (for instance) Christianity. Rather, the critic must recognize the different power-position Islam holds in society, and take that contextual difference into account when they frame their criticism (just as responsible criticism of queer culture requires the critic to recognize the different cultural status of queer culture relative to straight culture – you cannot simply treat them “the same” and ignore the wider cultural context).

7. The Social Privilege of Religion and Its Effects on Culture

Nonetheless, religions (as a whole) are privileged in the cultural discourse of the USA. Religion per se is privileged in political and cultural discourse through public expressions of the importance of religious faith by politicians at every level of government, by things like prayers and religious invocations at official ceremonies, by the requirement placed on almost all those running for public office to profess a religion, and in numerous other ways. Religious beliefs are frequently assumed to be “deeper”, more significant, and more worthy of consideration than secular beliefs, values, and practices. People are genuinely liable to take offense at a criticism of their religious views which they would not take were equivalent criticism made of their political views (for instance). As with all possessors of privilege, members of privileged religions (and sometimes members of other religions too) frequently experience the demand for equal cultural space to be an illegitimate attack on their “rights”. Sometimes this results in secular expressions (and even secular people) being oppressed in a way Muslims in a similar situation are not: case in point, the Interfaith Service after the bombings in Boston, in which Muslims were officially represented while nonreligious representatives, despite requesting a presence, were not.

8. The Added Complexity of Racial Considerations

Identity as a Muslim, though not necessarily restricted to any particular race or ethnic grouping, currently tends to overlap with membership of particular ethnic and racial groups. This brings racism and ethnocentrism into the mix as well, meaning that, when you criticize Islam, you could potentially be reinforcing racism as well as Islamophobia (for instance, when critics refer to “Arabs” in a general way when they actually mean “a subset of Muslims”).

9. 1-8 Make Criticism of Religions such as Islam Very Difficult

The interactions among 2-8 make achieving the goals described in 1 extremely difficult. Responsible criticism of Islam is hard. It is almost impossible to avoid criticism from some quarter when you problematize aspects of Islam. Those who are sensitive to the oppression of Muslims may criticize you for being Islamophobic. Those more sensitive to the privileged position of religion per se may criticize you for treading too softly. Responsible criticism of Islam in the early 21st Century in America is extraordinarily difficult to get right.

10. Yet Criticism is Essential to Responsible Membership of Society

Nonetheless, Islam is a profoundly important social and cultural force in the 21st Century. It is the second largest of the world’s religions (more than 20% of the world’s population are Muslim), it is one of its fastest-growing religions, and (in most versions) it has an awful lot to say about many aspects of human life, including the political and private realms. Therefore, not subjecting Islam to critical scrutiny would be the most irresponsible course of action of all, and it is up to us to find responsible, humane ways of doing so.

So, that’s the preliminary considerations out of the way. Hopefully it’s clear that responsible criticism of a religion such as Islam is a fraught process. While it is necessary to engage in such criticism, it is difficult to do so in a way which respects the full complexity of the social conditions in which we live. Balancing the need for criticism of inhumane ideas and practices with the need to dismantle structures of oppression which affect believers is a delicate task, and requires a nuanced approach. Exploring what such an approach might look like is the purpose of further posts in this series.

God and the Gay Humanist - A Response to Matthew Vines
Death Is Not the Answer
A Humanist's Guide to Working with Clergy
Building Better Secularists?
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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