Monday, January 26, 2015

8 "Rules" for Talking About Islam in the 21st Century

     Regardless of how you feel about Islam, it's nearly impossible to have a conversation about politics or world events lately without converging upon that topic, if even tangentially.  Terrorism, immigration, free speech, globalization, church/state separation, etc.; even if Islam isn't the main topic of discussion, it's usually still a relevant side topic.  When it does come up in conversation, instead of having everyone persevere with a cool collected demeanor so as to produce a meaningful dialogue, what usually happens involves flaring emotions, obscene slurs, and feelings being hurt all around.  No one benefits from this type of discussion, and almost everyone ends up with fewer friends, more enemies, and in a shittier mood than when the conversation started.

     Naturally then, everyone's typical inclination is to just avoid talking about Islam altogether.  While this may save face in the meantime, surely we all recognize that this isn't a viable solution.  We have to talk about issues in order to understand and solve them.  And many geopolitical issues today relate, in one way or another, to the religion of Islam.

     I'm proposing that, in order for us to have successful dialogues in the future, we should attempt to agree on some basic principles for discourse whenever Islam comes up in discussion.  If we can agree on these 8 simple "rules" I've outlined below, I'm hopeful that we can have many productive conversations, all while growing our friends' list, shrinking our enemies' list, and feeling better about ourselves and those in the world around us. 

1. Make Sure You Understand the Concept of Free Speech.

     This part is crucial, and cannot be emphasized enough.  First of all, speech in this context is not only the sounds produced by a person's mouth while trying to communicate, but also any form of communication: speaking verbally, using sign language, writing, putting words on the Internet, making videos, etc.  Speech simply refers to an individual publicly stating her opinion by whatever means she so desires.

     Free, as an adjective to speech, implies that an individual should not have to worry about violent or legal reactions to her speech.  Regardless of her message, the concept of free speech should ensure that the worst response she has to endure is harsh criticism.

     A lot of people claim to accept this principle, until things start getting offensive.  There is this pervasive trend in the Western world where we feel that it's necessary to criminalize certain forms speech due to their offensive nature.  While we can all agree that some forms of speech are definitely offensive, or even hateful, I still believe that insofar as they are still speech, they should remain legal.

     To drive this point home, let me provide a hypothetical: let's say there is a group of people who are angry about something I've written, and are actively protesting in public calling for me to be put to death; my local police unit sees this as dangerous and decides to arrest those protesting.  In this situation, I would criticize their arrests as a violation of their inherent free speech rights.  Even though they clearly hate me and want me dead, I still recognize their right to say whatever they want.  Granted, I would probably hire a couple of body guards and install a new home security system to be safe, but they still have an inherent right to free speech. =)

2. Even Though All Speech is Free (read: legal), Not All Speech is Descent

     Given the previous point, it may seem that I'm promoting free range for people to sling obscenities and racial slurs every which way; nothing could be further from the truth.  I am as bothered by prejudiced generalizations as the most bleeding-heart liberal--I just think the proper way to respond to such speech is with better speech, not legislation.  I stand by my statement that all speech, so long as it is only speech, should be free from legal or violent consequences.  However, there are certain types of speech that should be criticized harshly and with the utmost vigilance in the public domain.

     There is a commonly asserted concern from liberal voices with respect to Islam that those critical of the faith are being racist or bigoted.  I'm going to elaborate on that point more in the next section, but for now I'll say that I think there is some truth to that assertion.  We should pay close attention to the specific things that people say, and attempt to ascertain the intentions behind their speech.  Whenever we come to a clear conclusion that their speech is based on a lack of understanding, compassion, or nuance, and seems motivated by a desire to denigrate and shame those individuals or groups that don't conform to their cultural norms, we should immediately recognize their words as ill-intended and counterproductive at best; evil, at worst.

     The best way to handle hate speech, offensive speech, willfully ignorant speech, or any other form of evil nonsense, is to either 1. ignore it (if it's clearly troll bait), or 2. collectively and adamantly respond to it with the harshest of criticisms based on evidence and compassion.  Perhaps I'm being too optimistic about the general goodness humanity, but I think public criticism of these types of speech can be more effective than trying to legislate against them.

3. Let's Be Clear About What We Mean When We Say "Race"

     The word "race" gets mentioned a lot in discussions about Islam, and while I don't think it's irrelevant, I do think we need to be clear about what we mean when we say "race" in this context.  Islam, as a religion and a collective idea, is not a "race" in the same way that we have historically constructed classifications like "white," "African-American," or "Asian" which are all based on arbitrary physical appearances.  So whenever criticism of Islam, or of Muslims, is presented, we should be careful not to automatically assume that such criticism is racist.

     Many different voices are presenting criticisms of Islam, and their intentions vary.  For example, when individuals such as Sam Harris or Bill Maher criticize Islam, regardless of your opinions of these men, you should immediately recognize that their criticisms are based on the ideas and tenets of Islam, not on the physical characteristics of Muslim people.  On the other hand, when a white American refers to Muslims as "sand ni**ers"--a real term that I have personally heard many people use--there is a clear case of racist paranoia and hate.  Individuals in the latter group often focus their criticisms of Islam on the physical features of stereotyped caricatures of Muslims.  They focus on their beards, or burqas, or hijab, or Arabic dialect, or brown skin.  I am convinced that these individuals are critical of Muslims for racist or bigoted reasons, and they deserve our harshest criticisms.

4. Altogether, Let's Condemn the Racists

     Let's identify those individuals who are attempting to hijack a potentially fruitful discussion by slinging their racist, bigoted, and ignorant remarks to and fro, and let's all tell them to stay the hell out of our conversation.  Ignore and avoid them whenever possible.  But when it's not possible to ignore them, do not hold back on your critique.  Let them know exactly why they're wrong, and remind them that nothing good ever comes from fear-based hate and ignorance.

5. Let's Be Clear About What We Mean When We Say "Extremist"

     In this context, the word extremist refers to individuals who take their beliefs far too seriously and attempt to force others to live by their standards, often using physical intimidation and violence as means through which to operate.  It is not fair or accurate to assert that "all Muslims are extremists."  However, if we're following rules 3 and 4 properly, we'll likely find that the only people making such sweeping generalizations are those we've already agreed to condemn.

     Typically, we have a view of the "Muslim extremist" as a violent jihadist--the ISIS fighter, the al-Q'aeda operative, the Boko Haram murderers.  After this, there appears to be a troubling assumption in liberal circles that the only other type of Muslim is the peaceful moderate.  So there is a false dichotomy where the peaceful moderates are juxtaposed against the radical extremists.  Islam is a huge world religion with over 1.5 Billion adherents, and those two groups (moderates and extremists) certainly make up parts of the overall picture--moderates dominating the largest section.  However, there are varying levels of religious zeal along the continuum between those points.

     For example, a Pew study from 2013 revealed some troubling statistics in the opinions of various Muslim populations around the world.  When asked if Sharia law should be applied to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, 74 percent of Egyptian Muslims said yes, 50 percent of Indonesian Muslims said yes, and 44 percent of Malaysian Muslims said yes.  Even more troubling, of those who agree with Sharia, 81 percent of Egyptians, 60 percent of Malaysians, and 48 percent of Indonesians agree that stoning is the proper punishment for adultery.  Finally, 86 percent of Egyptians, 62 percent of Malaysians, and 18 percent of Indonesians, who agree with Sharia, also agree that the death penalty should be applied to anyone who leaves Islam.

     While these individuals referenced in the previous paragraph may not be joining the ranks of ISIS, al-Q'aeda, or Boko Haram, I do not think they can easily be counted among the ranks of the peaceful moderates, either.  I would submit that Muslims who agree with the sentiments above should be considered as a sub-group of what we call "extremists."  They hold views and opinions that simply are not compatible with any sort of cultural pluralism.  To successfully live together in the 21st Century, we have to be willing to tolerate those who do not conform to our own worldview, and coexist peacefully.

6. Altogether, Let's Condemn the Extremists

     Just like the individuals we're condemning and ignoring from rules 3 and 4, I think the extremists have nothing productive to add to a serious conversation about the future of a global community.  They deserve the same condemnation levied at the bigots and racists.  Whether you're an atheist, a Christian, a Muslim, or a member of any other belief system, if you're serious about living in a pluralistic society, I think we can all agree that the extremists have no place in this conversation.

7. We Have to Feel Free to Talk About the Motivations of the Extremists

     Are you still with me?  I hope so, because this next part is where the conversation seems to break down and get even more divisive.  Call me a Kantian, but I'm deeply concerned and interested in learning about the motivations or intentions behind actions.  If a person donates a large sum of money to a charity, I'd like to know whether they did it due to their empathy, the potential for public praise, or for getting rid of a portion of their income they didn't want to pay taxes on.  For the recipients of their donation, I'm sure it's all the same; but for me, knowing the intentions behind the action tells me what sort of person you are.

     With regard to religious extremism--this certainly applies to all religious extremists, but we're focusing on Islam in this post--it is often argued that jihadist martyrs and fanatics do what they do for psychological, political, or economic reasons, and that the teachings in the Qur'an or the Hadiths have nothing to do with their actions; they are simply misinterpreting the faith, as it were.  I'm not ruling any of those arguments out, and I strongly encourage psychological, political, and economic factors being a part of the overall discussion.  It would be naive to claim that those factors have no place in this argument.  However, I find it equally naive to assume that religious zeal motivated by scripture has no part in this discussion.  We have to be able to consider the likelihood that these extremists believe certain things based on their understanding of Islamic scriptures, and that their actions are motivated by those beliefs.

     Part of what needs to happen--and what is happening, thanks to the efforts of people like Maajid Nawaz--is a revolution of thought within Muslim culture.  The reason we are able to freely ridicule and criticize Christian extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, is because Christian culture endured the Protestant Reformation.  I don't think there is anything inherently more violent about the tenets of Islam as opposed to Judaism or Christianity.  In fact, a cursory reading of Leviticus and Deuteronomy will show you that Christian scriptures are probably even more violent than Muslim scriptures.  The difference is that very few Christians take those violent sections seriously anymore, and while it's definitely a minority of Muslims that take the violent suwar and Hadiths seriously, I think we would all like that number to be even smaller.

     Regardless of whether or not you agree with me on this point, all I'm asking is that we allow it to be part of the conversation--that a reasonable person can present the theory that religious extremism is often motivated by specific religious doctrines--without unjustly being labeled as a bigot, racist, or Islamophobe.

8.  Let's Commit to Settling Our Differences Through Words and Aim for Decent Discourse

     If we can all agree on these previous rules or guidelines, I'm hopeful that we can have many fruitful discussions about the future of a global society, and the roles the moderate religious groups (Islam included) can play in that society.  We will still have many disagreements, disputes, and perceived injustices, but if we can commit to settling these issues through dialogue and diplomacy, I'm hopeful that we can maintain some measure of peace and coexistence.

     Let's listen to each other, see the good intentions in each other, think carefully about our responses, and do our best to educate ourselves and others about the issues we care about.  "So say we all."