On Monday I helped coach a group of leaders from all around the world in the opening session of the Harvard Kennedy School’s “Global Change Agents Executive Education Program“. It was an inspiring day: participants from all continents and numerous nations shared their stories, explaining what called them to change the world. One story particularly moved me: an impassioned plea from a Nigerian leader for the return of the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Islamic militant group Boko Haram, delivered with a forceful dignity and quiet despair which shook the room.
I recall this because a month ago Freethought Blogger Kaveh Mousavi wrote a open letter to me on the subject of criticizing Islam, in response to a piece I wrote a while back on responsible religious criticism. The letter was thoughtful, personal, and carried a powerful moral charge. While I argued that special care should be taken when criticizing elements of Islamic beliefs and practices in the USA, because of the minority status and precarious social position of American Muslims, Mousavi feel we should criticize Islam with the same fearlessness we tend to treat Christianity, keeping in mind the many around the world who suffer in Islamic nations. Freethinkers in the west, Mousavi argues, must stand in solidarity with those working internationally to help reign in the tyranny of Islamist regimes:
we ex-Muslims living in Iran need your solidarity, we need to have a voice among western political discourse, we need to open the walls, and make people pay attention to what happens in the Middle East, because without it, there would never be hope for us. They would easily silence us with no fear of repercussions, but a repercussion can be a reaction from the international society, a condemnation in the UN, a strong word from Obama (this all might seem counter-intuitive to you, but yes, these things really do help).
I have spent the past month considering my response. I find this a genuinely difficult issue. Like so many issues of ethical import, the question of how I, as an Englishman living and working in the USA, can engage in responsible criticism of Islam requires me to weigh core values against each other. On the one hand, I absolutely want to stand in solidarity with people who suffer under Islamist regimes. No person of conscience can read the stories of the treatment of women by the Taliban, or children by Boko Haram, and fail to feel the spur of conscience pricking them. On the other, I refuse to contribute to the marginalization and oppression of Muslims in this country by making my critique in such a way which promotes demeaning or racist generalizations about Muslims or Arab peoples.
A simplistic way to solve this dilemma would be to perform a basic calculation: the oppression of Muslims and others in Islamist countries is so much worse than the oppression of Muslims in America that the weight of my effort should be spent criticizing that. I can see how someone could come to that conclusion: the atrocities my Muslim and ex-Muslim friends describe – friends imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured, and killed for having the wrong religious or political beliefs; women beaten, raped, then caned for supposed adultery; children attacked on the way to school – are beyond the experience of almost every American, regardless of their religious affiliation, and absolutely must be opposed.
Yet that conclusion is too trite: it fails to take into account my context, my identity, my resources, and the nature of my voice. I am a white Englishman living in America, and an out gay Humanist to boot. It is unlikely – very unlikely – that my voice will be heard and respected by Islamist regimes and encourage them to change their policies. The freethought movement, on the other hand, might listen to what I have to say about avoiding Islamophobia – and so by that analysis perhaps I can do more good focusing on improving the discourse within my movement than by railing ineffectively against far-flung regimes.
That doesn’t satisfy either. If I incessantly raise my voice to scold atheists about the “right” way to criticize inhumane practices related to religious beliefs, and say hardly anything about the inhumane practices themselves, it seems to me I would have lost moral perspective. Those who are more incensed by “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” than by the imprisonment and torture of people because of their religious beliefs have a broken moral compass. The idea that one’s voice is unlikely to change an abhorrent situation, and therefore one should not raise one’s voice to deplore what is abhorrent, is disempowering and self-excusatory: it gets one off the hook of having to come up with a way you might be able to make a difference. At its worst, taking the moral high ground when other atheists criticize some Islamic practices and beliefs in the “wrong” way while staying silent about the morally outrageous nature of those practices and beliefs is simple moral hypocrisy and insufferable self-righteousness. I do not wish to fall so far as that.
I believe that religions can be powerful cultural and political forces which affect human behavior, for good and for ill. When Martin Luther King claims to have been inspired by his religious tradition and galvanized by his faith to put his life on the line for Civil Rights, I am inclined to believe him. Likewise, when suicide bombers say they are inspired by their religious tradition and galvanized by their faith to take the lives of others in the name of their god, I am inclined to believe them – that, to me, is the only intellectually consistent position. While political and economic forces certainly play a role in promoting religious extremism, and while extremism can take many forms (religious and secular, theistic and atheistic), it is impossible to celebrate religion as a potential force for good in the world while refusing to recognize its potential for evil. Religion is sometimes a causal factor (a causal factor) in human wickedness.
I believe too that the nature of one’s religion’s doctrines matters: some religions promote peace and goodwill more unambiguously than others. Some are more bloodthirsty than others. Some are more political than others. When examining the potential effects of a given religion on society, it makes sense to take account of these material differences in doctrine – indeed it is absurd to ignore them. If I am told that Frank is a member of imaginary religion X, which has only one religious tenet – loving kindness to all living things – while Bob is a member of imaginary religion Y, which has that tenet plus one more – gay people should be killed – it would be completely irrational of me to be equally willing to invite either Frank or Bob to tea with my (sadly also imaginary) boyfriend. My skepticism of Bob is entirely warranted, even though the two tenets of his faith are seemingly contradictory, even though I know nothing else about him, even though it is possible to interpret faith Y in a way which ignores the second tenet. Bob, as an adult, chooses his religious association and could have chosen X, but instead chose Y – and that is data I can legitimately use to judge whether, initially, I wish to associate with him. Likewise, it is data I can use to judge how likely it is that religion Y is going to be a force for good in the world in comparison to religion X. It is not the only evidence I would use to make such a judgment, nor would the judgment be uncomplicated, nor would it justify actual legal discrimination against Bob or any other Y-religionists – but it is data, and it is relevant.
Likewise, the differences between the doctrines of Islam and the doctrines of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. are a relevant piece of an appropriate and informed cultural response to the phenomenon of Islamism. They are not the whole picture, but they are a piece. We have every right, and even a responsibility, to consider how the doctrines of every religion affect how that religion is practiced in the world, to the good or detriment of people. To willfully ignore the fact that the core doctrines of a given faith are explicitly used to justify dehumanizing other people out of political sensitivity to a minority in the country whence the criticism springs is to fail in our ethical duty in a severe way. It is possible to criticize inhumane Islamic beliefs and practices while respecting individual Muslims – indeed it is essential to do so, for all our sakes.
This process of responsible criticism is made much more difficult when every conceivable criticism of certain Islamic beliefs and practices is reflexively labeled Islamophobic even by Muslims who are not extremists. Islamophobia certainly exists, and it is our duty to oppose that too (here I take exception to Sam Harris and others who seem to wish to completely taboo the term), but not all criticism of beliefs and practices carried out in the name of Islam, by Islamic authorities, or supported by Islamic texts, doctrines, or practices is Islamophobic simply because the subject of the critique is Islamic. If non-extremist Muslims perpetuate that trope, they end up harming those who are subjected to the ravages of Islamic extremism, because they will create a climate in the US and elsewhere in which it becomes essentially impossible to voice any principled criticism at all of inhumane outgrowths of the Islamic faith. As has been repeatedly pointed out by others, the victims of much Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves, and in solidarity with their companions in faith non-extremists everywhere have an interest in loudly critcizing the inhumane elements of their faith tradition.
Ultimately, in my view, responsibility is the key. Freethinkers must couch their criticism responsibly and thoughtfully, keeping in mind our moral duties toward a marginalized community in the US and victims of extremism abroad. Non-extremists of all religions must also bear in mind their responsibility to foster open dialogue about their faith, and accept that concrete elements of their faith tradition can, in certain circumstances, contribute to inhumane actions by co-religionists. We must not be blinded by stereotypes about any faith tradition into over-stating our critique. Nor must we be blinded by the sensitivities of the religious into under-stating it.