I have been asked by a ‘liberal’ friend, “What’s your problem with Islam?”
I now have to put ‘liberal’ in scare quotes because the word no longer means what one might expect it to mean. I consider myself to be a liberal: a secular liberal democratic atheist Humanist sums up my political persuasion.
That I have to spell this out today is pretty much entirely down to the matter of Islam.
This is about why that is.
Like many atheists I’ve been a critic of religion for some time, but up until the end of the last century, mostly low key and within my private experience. My outrage at religion amounted to complaining about the terrible treatment of the Python team by Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and laughing along with Irish comedian Dave Allen as he made fun of the Catholic church.
Then, within a decade came: the internet proper, 9/11, The God Delusion – and all hell let loose. Focusing originally on Christianity, my sideways sneer at Islam became a full frontal response to this dessert religion as its horrors became more apparent. At least Christianity, from the same region, had been sanitised out of all proportion … after first being turned into a monster by the Roman Catholic church. One might wonder what Jesus would have thought of Roman Catholicism, given his feelings on organised religion in his time.
Blogs, facebook, Twitter, Youtube, smart phones … all of a sudden we have full access to each others’ thoughts, and we find that despite how social media can bring us together, it can actually show us how awful our fellow man’s mind works. It’s not always pretty.
So, what’s my beef with Islam?
Islam & Muslims
This is a discovery you make early one when you start to study Islam from the outside – and no amount of apologetics, excuses, nuance or referrals to scholars makes a jot of difference, because to any clear thinker the ‘Religion of Peace’ narrative remains all smoke and mirrors. I can honestly say that despite many interactions with all sorts of Muslims, even reformists and liberals, my estimation of Islam is never improved.
This might seem contradictory when I say that I also acknowledge that many Muslims I’ve come across are really decent people. I have felt great empathy with many ‘ordinary’ Muslims that just want to get on with their lives, and I have sympathy for them and gladly support them when they are persecuted – which is nearly always the persecution of ‘brown’ Muslims, because in my experience ‘white’ Muslims are still rare enough that I don’t see them being persecuted so often.
I have special respect for the efforts of many liberal Muslims, like Maajid Nawaz, Irshad Manji, Usama Hasan, Haydar Zaki, because these people are on the receiving end of abuse from fellow Muslims more than we atheists are. They want to practice Islam in the context of a secular liberal democracy, so that they are as free to believe and practice their principles as the rest of us.
This raises two questions: Why do I have a problem with Islam if these people are decent Muslims I can live with? Why do many ‘moderate’ Muslims have a problem with these people if they are fellow Muslims?
The answer to the first is found, in part, in the answer to the second: Moderate Islam is not moderate by secular liberal democratic standards, and many ‘moderate’ Muslims don’t like these liberal Muslims, because they are liberal; and liberal to a ‘moderate’ Muslim is tantamount to being in league with the devil. Islam is a conservative religion; but there are contradictions.
In a Muslim community in Britain you can be a beer drinking pork consuming rare visitor to a mosque, and you’re basically just a bad Muslim – and yet you become pious on the first day of Ramadan, and the contradiction is so obvious that it’s a running commentary on Muslim social media sites. Such an inadequate Muslim might be scolded for their bad ways – in fact they might hide their ‘secularism’ from their family to avoid the hassle. But they’re still Muslim.
Here’s a contradiction, right here. The attacker of Nice, France, was a ‘bad Muslim’ in this respect – even a minor crook. But I doubt that his family considered him an apostate. And yet Maajid Nawaz, ex-Islamist, strip joint visitor, is in the eyes on many Muslims in Britain a traitor to Islam, an apostate, a ‘House Muslim’, an atheist even. That’s because Maajid Nawaz puts secular liberalism before Islam – well, not quite that simple, but he puts secular liberalism before many prescriptions in Islam that would otherwise be put first, by a ‘real’ Muslim. The actual terrorist is merely a ‘bad Muslim’, the liberal Muslim is ‘un-Islamic’.
Islam demands allegiance to Allah and Mohammed first and foremost – before nation or even family – in fact Islam is a nation. And even though many Muslims live secular liberal lives in our democracies, they will always point out that Islam comes first, and so denounce Maajid Nawaz for not doing likewise.
Islam is full of such complexities, to such an extent that whenever you engage in debate with a Muslim you pretty much have to start from scratch, in the basics, to discover what sort of Muslim you’re dealing with.
Now this already sounds to some ears like I’m being ‘Islamophobic’ (a terrible word we’ll get back to). But I’m not. I’m being critical of Islam specifically; and to some extent I’m being critical of Muslims for how they portray it – which is to say they are often duplicitous in how they present it. I’m not talking about the extremes of Taqiyya or entryism. I’m talking the difficulty in getting straight answers from many Muslims to very simple questions.
We atheists are not alone in this difficulty. It’s not some incapacity of the western mind to get our heads round the mystical aspects of Islam. It really is how Muslims respond that’s deceptive, and often intentionally duplicitous. I know we are not alone because I’ve seen Muslims like Maajid Nawaz ask the very same questions we ask, and get the same evasion in response.
Language, logic, reason – these are not some incomprehensible magical tools. They may take some mastering but they are actually straight forward. It’s not difficult to answer simple questions: plain speaking, direct and honest answers. But that’s what you won’t get, form many many Muslims. And Islam is not some mystical system that is immune to searching questions; it’s more the case that many Muslims are immune to giving straight answers.
Why is that? That’s another aspect of Islam – the terrible elements of the religious texts, hiding in plain sight, behind a very thin veil of evasion, because straight answers are just too much of an indictment of the religion.
What Is Islam?
The first response you’ll get if in the company of a regular Muslim when I attempt to answer is exemplified by the following:
@ronmurp when you don’t follow my religion, don’t tell me about the virtues.
— Zara Isha (@zara_isha) August 20, 2016
Non-Muslims have no right to tell Muslims anything about their religion? This seems a little unfair, not least because their religion is full of crap about how bad un-believers are.
Notice that subtle difference too, which we’ll meet again: Many Muslims are not the least bit shy about telling us how bad we are as people; and yet we have to go out of our way to show that we are criticising Islam, not Muslims, because attacking the latter upsets our pseudo-liberal PC police, who work on the presumption that we are being offensive, because in their minds to criticise Islam is to offend a Muslim.
Well, stuff that. Anyone is entitled to an opinion on anything. Of course it helps if you study the subject matter on which you opine, but not always to the degree of emersion into ‘scholarship’ demanded by Muslims (as if most Muslims have more than a shallow understanding of their own religion).
So, what is Islam, now that I’ve asserted that I have as much right to an opinion as anyone.
Is My Opinion Valued? Hell No.
Perhaps the most common instruction we receive from Muslims is, educate yourself, read the Quran. They say it with such enthusiam you get the feeling this will be enough – a small price to pay, reading an ancient text that’s shorter than the Bible. Sadly, when you tell them you have, the goal posts quickly move. Here’s an example.
Islamophobia has become fashionable, sexy and dinner table banter in the UK today. That is a total disgrace and… https://t.co/4TaZU94HJT
— Ajmal Masroor (@AjmalMasroor) August 18, 2016
@AjmalMasroor Sure you’ve read the Quran and it’s anti-Kuffar hate.
— Ron Murphy (@ronmurp) August 19, 2016
Of course he has, he’s an imam – but a gentle prod is often needed to get a reaction.
@ronmurp I bet you have never read the Quran my only response would be please read it with an open mind
— Ajmal Masroor (@AjmalMasroor) August 19, 2016
Well, a bit more pleasant that many responses that demand the same thing: read the Quran. After telling him I have read it …
@ronmurp what have you read, who is translator and did you read the context of each and every verse’s history and reason for revelation?
— Ajmal Masroor (@AjmalMasroor) August 19, 2016
Oops! Moving goal posts. Been here before. We get into versions – seems I always read the wrong translation, blah blah. Let’s cut to the chase. Is there going to be a point where we can actually discuss specifics?
@AjmalMasroor You said “Please read it with an open mind.” Now you imply even that isn’t enough. Moving goalposts is common response.
— Ron Murphy (@ronmurp) August 19, 2016
@AjmalMasroor You think it needs such deep understanding, isn’t clear enough as it stands?
— Ron Murphy (@ronmurp) August 19, 2016
Well, that was that, no response. Of course I can’t expect every Muslim to stop what they are doing and teach me what they know about Islam, but what usually happens is that they start out telling me what I should learn, but if you ask awkward questions they soon jump out, and many will soon turn to blocking.
Learning About Islam, From Muslims
You can learn a lot about Islam from Muslims, about how they respond to questions about Islam. It’s often as telling as reading the texts.
In fact this is so common and predictable I now have this to hand:
There are exceptions to this pattern. The Muslim I quoted earlier, the one that started out telling me I have no right to an opinion on Islam, she was decent enough to engage. But she is an Ahmadi Muslim, and people of that sect seem far more tolerant than many other Muslims, as a general rule, as much as you can apply general rules. I asked her an awkward question. She flat out said that to be honest she didn’t have an answer.
But I have to say that the most common experience is evasion, moving goal posts, abort conversation … even abuse.
The Islamophobia Game
The term ‘Islamophobia’ is used by many Muslims, Muslim organisations, and especially by Islamists, to classify criticism of Islam as hate speech, along side actual anti-Muslim hate speech and racism against Muslims that are from non-white ethnic backgrounds. The term is also used in this same context by many non-Muslim ‘liberals’ (pseudo-liberals) that buy into this narrative that criticism of Islam amounts to bigotry against Muslims. The purpose of this is to shut down criticism of Islam.
The problem is caused partly by the fact that many Muslims demand a great deal of respect for their religion, their prophet Mohammed, the holy book the Quran, and for Allah. Blasphemy laws still exist in countries from which many UK Muslim families have migrated. This expectation of respect is not met by many people across the political spectrum in the west because we don’t have any particular respect for our traditional religion of Christianity.
Respect and Tolerance
There is a real problem with the Respect/Tolerance issue. Here’s my view on respect and tolerance:
I respect people by default, but will withdraw that respect if that’s warranted, in my opinion. I don’t disrespect people for exhibiting straight forward ignorance, since we are all ignorant of what we don’t know. We can all learn more. My disrespect is usually reserved for all the people that have the tools and information available, but who lie for ideological reasons. To be honest, I feel this is still a failing on my part, a succumbing to an emotive response, because as a Humanist that values the sciences it has been made clear to me many times that such ideological positions are caused by the indoctrination into ideologies – even if self indoctrination. We are not the masters of our own minds we feel we are.
I do not respect ideas. Or more specifically I don’t think ideas are things that deserve respect. Certainly not such a respect that they be treated with kid gloves and protected from criticism. To oppose the criticism of ideas is about as bad a stance humans can take, as that’s when bad ideas can take hold and lock you into a hateful state of mind, while at the same time convincing you that you are being a decent human being. Ideas MUST be open to criticism, even ridicule if that helps drive home how bad bad ideas can be.
This is so important that I tolerate disrespect for the ideas I value: secular liberal democratic Humanism; freedom of speech; human rights. But, since I also have no particular respect for ideas, I am happy to support mine in opposition to any others. The toleration of bad ideas is an important element of free speech. Toleration does not require approval.
The intolerance to the expression of ideas is really not good enough, whether from the pseudo-liberal left, or the conservative right; though these days it seems to be the latter that’s making a more robust defence of free speech.
This intolerance is also an integral part of Islam, because they put respect for Islam above the toleration of criticism of Islam, such that it MUST NOT be criticised. Though they’ll often say it’s OK to criticise Islam, most that say that pretty quickly interpret fair criticism of the religion as hate speech, toward Muslims. They conflate the religion with the believers.
The respect issue can get out of hand, even for an otherwise decent Muslim. This is an example of a recent conversation, but it is far from atypical. I had questioned the general principle of respecting religions …
Of course I would never disrespect any religion, no matter what.
OK. Whatever religion ISIS hold … even accepting it isn’t Islam, or at best is a perverted version of Islam, do you respect their religion?
Isis are terrorist everyone knows that. They twist Islam to suit their own sick perverted agenda & spread hate & intolerance as well as committing acts of terror. You too are twisting religion to justify you’re hatred & intolerance of other religions!
The respect/tolerance thing only works one way when the chips are down. At the prospect of having their Islam linked to ISIS Islam, panic, denial, rage ensues.
For the liberal democracies that tolerate Islam, but don’t respect it, this is as big a barrier to progress as any. If we can’t have a robust exchange of ideas, we risk what often follows outrage – violence; and Islamic terrorism is evidence that this hateful ideology inspires it.
And it’s not just Muslims that demand respect for Islam. The toleration of ideas you disagree with and the demand for respect for your own is now lost on the pseudo-liberal left to such an extent they too will use violence to shut down speech that they don’t like. Is it any wonder that the ‘regressive’ authoritarian left and conservative intolerant authoritarian Islamic right are such compatible ideologies?
We have a great tradition of satire and ridicule in the west that we often direct religion’s way, as well as towards politicians and political systems, especially when they are caught misbehaving or being stupid. When people of the west make fun of and criticise Islam, this is seen as offensive, a lack of respect.
Add to that the rise in Political Correctness, and we have a lot of pseudo-liberals demanding respect for Islam that they have never required for Christianity, to such an extent that it has become nearly impossible to be critical of Islam without it being seen as a direct attack on and disrespect for the feelings of Muslims – which of course it inevitably becomes, if Muslims ‘choose’ to be offended in that way. I say ‘choose’, because of course in many ways, like their religious beliefs, they didn’t choose their expectation for respect; they were indoctrinated into expecting that respect, by the content of the Quran (“creating mischief in the land” – basically preaching another religion or disrespecting Islam – which are punishable by death).
This is unfortunate in the western secular liberal democracy, because many people across the political spectrum are not going to give up their own expectations: to speak freely and frankly about political and religious systems with which they disagree.
Non-Muslims are told endlessly that Islam is a religion of peace; and that most Muslims just want to get on with living their lives and practicing their religion. And yet an expectation of, a demand for, respect for your religion is actually a divisive demand, and it causes more friction than would actually exist otherwise.
There are many examples of Muslims being intolerant of other views that clash with Islam. Just watch a few BBC programmes to see that there is an aversion to dealing with this contradiction among the Muslim community in Britain.
Here’s a tip: watch back episodes of BBC’s Sunday programme, The Big Questions, which often covers topics relating to religion. You will find time and again, with some exceptions, that self-declared ‘moderate’ Muslims will be in uproar when Islam is challenged, and will go to great lengths to avoid answering direct questions like, “Do you think homosexuals should be killed?” or “Do you think one can be a homosexual Muslim?” I can assure you that you will find much more bigotry, or evasion, coming from Muslims in those programmes than from anyone else.
Islam, ISIS and the Paradox of Islam
ISIS has been a disaster for Islam – more so than al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other Islamist and terrorist organisations. Ironic, give the early support for their new Caliphate.
The opposition to ISIS wasn’t at first as vocal in the ‘Muslim community’ as it is now. There was a general Muslim hatred for the west’s intervention in the Middle East, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in particular. Not surprising given that we know full well that these adventures never come off as expected, and are rarely undertaken for the good reasons professed for them. Many non-Muslims were anti-war too.
Personally I had mixed feelings about those wars. Yes, it was US intervention that sided with and armed the Taliban in order to counter Russian intervention. Yes, the justification of getting at WMDs was pretty weak excuse for attacking Iraq. But, the Taliban were killing people, and Sadam had been doing so, with our arms, for quite some time. I certainly didn’t lament the attacks on those despotic barbaric people.
But, apart from some belated success in the Balkans, interventions had rarely gone smoothly. Before then the USA could have made good out of 9/11, against the forces of the Islamist ideology. But 9/11 was all but forgotten after Afghanistan/Iraq. You’ll note that the most prominent use of 9/11 these days is as a demarcation in a narrative that diminishes Islamic terrorism, by pointing out how few attacks have occurred in the USA… SINCE 9/11 – it’s convenient to exclude it.
There are many criticisms one can make about the Iraq war. Here’s some:
- It was badly planned; rushed even, to avoid a stronger UN denunciation of it. There was, as they say, no exit strategy.
- The purposes were too complex, because not only was there the humanitarian desire to rid the region of Sadam, but also all the not so well hidden interests of the neo-cons asserting freedom by force, and the industrial military desire sell weapons, and to have a testing ground for them.
- And, to top it all, the cherry on the cake of barbaric depravity, Obama pulled out in too much of a rush. No sooner had the troops gone than the delicate Arab Spring reached Iraq’a neighbour Syria … and there, in Syria and Iraq, was the dreaded vacuum were ISIS were able to build their base, much to the regret of many, not least their victims, especially Yazidis.
This early victory, against the western secular dictator Assad, and the secular puppet government of Iraq, was seen by many as a potential true Islamic Jihad, a Caliphate, here to conquer and terrorise the western backed apostates.
The love for ISIS didn’t last, because it soon became clear that non-Muslims and western puppets were not their only victims. ISIS hated everyone that did not live up to their version of Islam. When that penny dropped the real denunciation of ISIS began. But still, there they were, the fault of the west – and never mind that so many western Muslims that had nothing to do with Syria and Iraq joined ISIS, the only common cause being … Islam.
Eventually ISIS made it absolutely clear that what they were doing is what they would do whether the west intervened in ‘Muslim lands’ or not. At last, ‘moderate’ Muslims, even politically duplicitous ‘Islamists’, who oppose violence, realised that ISIS wasn’t for them.
It’s surprising the outrage didn’t come sooner for Muslims living in the west, since so many had left the Middle East to escape the oppressive atmosphere of theocracies. Even today you’ll find Muslims like Mehdi Hasan being clear in their condemnation of ISIS, but still emphasising their view that it’s the fault of the west, because ISIS are “Nothing to do with Islam”.
This lie, this “Nothing to do with Islam”, and the “ISIS are not true Muslims”, and “They follow a perverted version of Islam” are little more than examples of the No True Scotsman Fallacy, which now should be labelled the “No True Muslim Fallacy”.
In reality, any religious person is free to decide what religion they follow and what they define it to be. This is accepted clearly by many Muslims that keep telling us how many variations of lived Islam there are; how many varieties of Muslim there are – all fair enough.
But the biggest denouncers of Muslims are fellow Muslims. The Sunni denounce the Shia, and vice versa; they denounce the Ahmadis; all three denounce ISIS; ISIS denounce them.
It’s so crazy that some branches of Islam even have a term for it: Takfir – where you can denounce a fellow Muslim for being so un-Islamic that they become a non-Muslim, an apostate – and we know apostates should be killed, according to Islam. But it gets even crazier. If the accused Muslim can muster enough support, he can counter-denounce the accuser, because there’s nothing quite as bad as falsely denouncing a Muslim as a non Muslim, given the death sentence that would bring upon one’s head. The accuser become the apostate destined for the chop.
This is the ‘Monolith of Islam’ paradox:
- All Muslims are Muslims because they follow he Quran, Mohammed, Allah. That’s it. That’s the simplest most common aspect of Islam. That’s the monolith right there.
- There are 1.6 billion Muslims world wide and counting. Most Muslims will be proud to tell you so. That’s the monolith of Islam, right there.
- ‘Muslim lands’ – It doesn’t matter where a Muslim was born, the ‘Muslim lands’ are a thing, no matter how many people of other beliefs live there too (though there are precious few others in many cases). Mecca is of course the heart of ‘Muslim lands’. There’s the monolith right there.
- But, ISIS are not Muslims; Ahmadi are not Muslims; … some specific Muslim is not a Muslim because he killed a fellow Muslim, or did something improper. Takfir. There’s the paradox, right there.
- Where are all these 1.6 billion Muslims when so many of them, all of them effectively, are non-Muslims according to some other Muslims? Why are there any Muslims? That is the paradox of Islam, right there.
And Muslims have the nerve to complain to non-Muslims about presuming a ‘monolith of Islam’.
This is how Muslims deal with the fact that ISIS are Muslims and follow the Quran, Mohammed, Allah:
“ISIS use a perverted interpretation of Islam”
Really? How is that? Because, if you ask most Muslims, the Quran is inerrant, valid for all time, the perfect word of God, as recited by Mohammed, the perfect example. … and yet …
- Decent Muslims: Nice bits of the Quran mean exactly what they say. Islam is a religion of peace. The nasty bits of the Quran should not be taken literally. They require nuance and scholarship to understand.
- ISIS: The Quran? It’s good to go, straight from Mo
Who sounds more ‘authentic’ to you?
ISIS aren’t ‘interpreting’, ‘twisting’, ‘perverting’ They are taking it literally. As revealed to Mohammed. (allegedly)
Islam is it’s own contradiction, lived by contradictory people that have been indoctrinated into it (and it’s no surprise that troubled people from non-Muslim backgrounds become easy ‘reverts’, deceived by the false narrative). The indoctrinated can be radicalised by the Islamist ideology. And they can be plucked like ripe fruit by terrorist organisations like ISIS.
The respect they demand and pretend to show for other religions is shallow. The intolerance is deeply ingrained and exhibited in the Quran. They generally do not respect other religions but rather play the dishonest cultural game that has been common in the Middle East for centuries; but they are quick to anger and hatred when their precious religion is criticised.
The most honest are the reformers. They, like us, can read. And it doesn’t take much reading of the texts of Islam to figure out that you’re dealing with a 1400 year old political judicial ideology backed by the authority of an imagined vengeful god. But even many reformers are so keen to avoid racist abuse of their Muslim families that they will at times fall for the ‘Islamophobia’ narrative, and call critics of Islam ‘far right’, ‘racist’, ‘anti-Muslim bigots’.
The pseudo-liberal left are mostly, it seems, clueless about the content of the texts, and when made aware of it are easily duped by the apologists, the self-acclaimed Muslim representatives that form dodgy organisations (Muslim council of Britain, 5 Pillars) whose most obvious purpose is to defend the good name of Islam, and in some case also support Islamist political agendas.
Islam is a political judicial religious ideology. It deserves no respect whatsoever. There are many really decent Muslims that do deserve respect for the humanists they are, but even many of them are so caught up in the lies of the religion that they feel the need to defend it, even when it’s clear that the religion is prescribing the bad behaviours they themselves condemn.
Islam is a mind controlling ideology that must be the envy of the old Soviet Union ideologues. The pseudo-liberal left seem to love it so much that no amount of misogyny or homophobia done in its name can tarnish it.
What a blind mess we are in.