The point seems to have arrived when it is no longer possible to have a reasoned discussion about Islam, its extremes, and the threat that it poses for democratic governance. This was brought home to me a day or so ago while reading the comment stream on Ophelia Benson’s post Moderation and Tolerance. Indeed, I was so taken aback by the accusations that were made that I simply did not use my computer yesterday, but spent my time reading Nick Cohen’s new book, You Can’t Read This Book. When I read the comments at first I really couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Improbable Joe” and I have had our differences of opinion, but even though he admits now that he “made a mistake,” it’s not quite clear to me what mistake he thinks he has made.
The first comment goes like this:
Eric is an anti-Muslim bigot. So are you.
The second comment takes this point a lot further:
David Amies: Eric and Ophelia will tell you that even the ones who condemn violence are secretly supporting violence. According to them, there’s no good Muslim except a dead Muslim.
Not only have I not said any such thing, I have not even thought such a thing. It has not even crossed my mind that I should seek the death of anyone, ever. As to being an anti-Muslim bigot, I’m not at all sure what that means. The Penguin Dictionary has this under ‘bigot’:
noun somebody who is obstinately and intolerantly devoted to their own religion, opinion, etc.
Since I am pretty obstinately devoted to unbelief, perhaps I am, in this sense, a bigot. Nor am I particularly tolerant of some aspects of the religions, especially when religions set themselves up as moral exemplars or authorities on moral matters or make exaggerated claims for the source of their moral beliefs. I find intolerable, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in many of the stands that they have taken, their latest one regarding insurance and contraception for employees of Catholic hospitals not least. I find intolerable the letter that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to Members of Parliament about the assisted dying legislation before the House of Commons in 2009 and 2010. So, yes, I do think my unbelief leads me to a certain kind of intolerance to religious involvement in politics. If that makes me bigoted, then I am. But I have never suggested, nor would I ever suggest, that anyone should end up dead because of it, and I find that an inexcusable calumny on my good name.
But let’s go back to the issue at hand, namely, the role that Islam plays in the West, and its influence on our laws, society, and governance, including its unquestionable effect on freedom of expression. One of the things that I think it has done is so to divide opinion about itself, that makes it is almost impossible for us to discuss Islam and the problems raised by Islamism without the kinds of accusation being thrown around that Improbable Joe has bandied about over at Butterflies and Wheels. The point that I was trying to make in the post entitled Quicksand of the Mind, is that it is so difficult to distinguish between what is a reasonable concern and what is not one. Taking Muslim opinion alone, it is very hard to distinguish between Islamism and Islam, to distinguish radicals from the ordinary, law-abiding Muslim who just wants to live freely in a democracy, without any grandiose expectations about the future of his faith and its eventual dominance over the faiths and freedoms of others.
To take an example. I have expressed before my own belief that it is reasonable to ban the burqa, that this article of clothing is, in fact, in direct conflict with the equality of women, and, while some may choose freely to wear it, where it is worn, it is very difficult to distinguish voluntary from involuntary compliance. Interestingly, the Muslim Canadian Congress agrees with me. As their statement says:
The MCC agrees that the state has no place in the bedrooms or wardrobes of the country. However, if the status of any woman in Canada is affected by what happens in the bedroom or wardrobe, be it spousal abuse or the forced wearing of attire meant to marginalize girls or women, then we feel the state must intervene. Society has a role to play to ensure the human rights of girls and women are not being compromised behind closed doors.
On the other hand, Ayaan Hirsi Ali disagrees, because she thinks banning the burqa doesn’t go far enough. Consider this clip from an interview shown on Australian TV.
Listen carefully to what she has to say, because she wants us to take the discussion much further. The burqa is a side issue. What we should be having, she says, is a real debate about values, and that is not happening, and it is not happening largely for the reasons lying behind this post, that if we start having that debate, accusations of racism and Islamophobia and bigotry are thrown around carelessly, and the real issue is never addressed.
Amongst the comments in my “Quicksand of the Mind” post Dan very kindly linked a pew research poll which shows that Muslim extremism is not growing (or at least is not thought by most American Muslims to be growing) in the American Muslim community. Of course, it also shows that there has been no significant decline either. I’m not sure what the results show, and how they should be interpreted. When I watch a condensed version of The Third Jihad, the film for which the New York Police Department has been taken so sternly to task by the New York Times for showing it to police who were taking an anti-terrorism course, I wonder. This film, narrated by Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a devout secular Muslim, who is alarmed by the extremist Islam and its stated aims, raises important questions about what, exactly, radical Islam really is. I am told by some that Christian radicalism in the US is a much greater problem, and perhaps, in some respects, it is of more immediate political importance, but Dr. Jasser, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Nonnie Darwish (that is, people who should know, if anyone does), and others, seem concerned enough about the influence and aims of political Islam, that I wonder why we should ignore such voices, especially in view of the fact — and it seems to be a fact — that a part of Islamism’s strategy is to pretend to be well-integrated into democratic societies at the same time that they gently work towards Islam’s goals of dominance. There is, of course, nothing, at the moment, that anyone should fear — in other words, there is no immediate danger – but I am reminded, as I say this, that people like Jasser and Hirsi Ali are saying that we often miss the point when we are discussing Islam and its place in democratic polities. But again, as I said before, the quicksand looms as soon as you begin writing such things.
But notice, the pew research poll can be set alongside other surveys that have been done of the Muslim presence in America. Here is one study of American mosques and their degree of support for violent jihad:
The survey’s findings, explored in depth below, were that 51 percent of mosques had texts that either advocated the use of violence in the pursuit of a Shari‘a-based political order or advocated violent jihad as a duty that should be of paramount importance to a Muslim; 30 percent had only texts that were moderately supportive of violence like the Tafsir Ibn Kathir and Fiqh as-Sunna; 19 percent had no violent texts at all.
The study looked at the degree of Sharia adherence of a randomised selection of mosques, and whether or not they offered literature recommending or urging violent jihad on the West. This quote gives their findings regarding the latter aspect of the study. Fully 81% of mosques, as represented by literature available at the mosques, encouraged the use of violence, 51% of mosques advocated violence in support of a Sharia based political order, 30% supported such forms of violence moderately, and only 19%, as the study says, had no violent texts available at all. So while 21% of Muslims, polled by Pew Research, reported varying degrees of perceived support for extremist Islam in the Muslim community, mosques apparently tell a different story.
Now, let me come to my conclusion. I began this post by referring to an accusation of bigotry made against me and Ophelia Benson. Needless to say, Ophelia is unquestionably innocent of this charge, and has, in fact, in the past, taken me to task for my more robust stand regarding the dangers of Islam. I daresay we are still somewhat divided on this point. I tend to see Islam as a dangerous religion, and nothing that I see of Islam as it is practiced elsewhere does not lead me with any confidence to the conclusion that it will be practiced here in Canada (to go no further) in greatly different ways. I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but Islam, as it is practiced worldwide is a dangerous and inhuman religion which seems completely oblivious to human rights concerns. I think that the same thing can often be said about the Roman Catholic Church in particular, and Christianity in general, and other religions probably raise similar problems. Religions tend to be absolutist and theocratic at their heart, and so religions pose a serious problem for democratic governance, as is evident in the American election campaign now underway.
However, this general concern should not blind us to what is happening in liberal democracies, and how, increasingly, as Nick Cohen points out, Islam is being protected by widespread self-censorship of the largest and most influential newspapers and publishing houses. And this means that we are not having the debate about values that Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks it is so important for us to have. And, as Nick Cohen points out, Islamism has in fact achieved in the West much that it set out to achieve. The Danish cartoon controversy set the stage. According to Cohen, this tells us all we need to know about the way Islam is insinuating itself into Western consciousness, and no one is willing to engage with it at a level where it could bring about any kind of clarity. He speaks with some concern about the fact that politicians should have been able to speak about a “cartoon crisis” with a straight face, and how, as a result of this,
The religious censorship it engendered met the criteria of dictators engaged in random retaliation:
- A modest critique produced an excessive reaction.
- Legitimate criticism of terrorist murder and the oppression of women was turned into something it was not, in this instance a prejudiced hatred of all Muslims.
- The threat of violent punishment hung in the air.
- Critics learned that the safe course was to say nothing, because they did not know where fanatics would draw their lines.
Intellectuals discuss freedom of speech in the abstract. But it always arises as a political issue in response to changes in society. The Danish press did not commission cartoons of Muhammad for a laugh, but because they could see new forces at work their country. [88; my italics]
This is what makes the whole thing such a quagmire, because the new forces at work want to remain unremarked and untouchable. Unable to say anything without accusations of bigotry and Islamophobia being flung about, people decide to play it safe and not criticise Islam at all, and go back to the safe business of criticising Catholics and protestants and the evangelical right, where, we are then told, the real danger lies. So, thumb your nose at the pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, but leave Islam alone, because, as everyone knows, they are peaceable, hard-working citizens, who just want to get on with their lives in peace and freedom. And of course, many are, and many do. The minority who aren’t is an unknown quantity, but they have enormous resources. The oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations is there for the asking, and, as many universities have discovered, it is there for the taking too, if they will swallow their pride, and represent Islam in a totally benign light. And this means that there is a strict dichotomy between extremists like Pam Geller and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, and accommodationists like John Esposito, at the The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, so that it is almost impossible to discuss Islam at all without inviting charges of Islamophobia and bigotry. But, surely, the best way to proceed is to distinguish what is true from what is false, as best we can, as in any other area we are accustomed to do. A counsel of despair that suggests that this cannot be done is not an option, if we want to defend human rights, both in liberal democracies as well as in places like Saudi Arabia, a notorious violator of human rights and freedoms.
For after all, we are faced with the repression and inequality which are characteristic of so many Islamic nations, and the persecution of their minorities, of women, and of those who find they can no longer believe at all. And even then, as the case of Hamza Kashgari demonstrates so vividly, the international weight of Islam is such that no matter where you live, Islamism is a danger. Ideologies know no borders, and networks of extremists that cross borders endanger us as much or more than home-grown fanatics. While I do not think the example of the Prophet is so benign as she thinks it is, Myriam Francois-Cerrah gets the point just right (in the article linked under Hamza Kashgari’s name above):
Fostering a climate of fear and oppression is the best guarantee of compliance and Islam is a traditional rallying cry for the masses, ensuring public support at a time of broader upheaval.
This, as Nick Cohen says, is the way that dictators everywhere govern. It’s the threat of random reprisal that is most effective in silencing dissidents. And this, as he points out, has happened in the West too. Of course, we can speak about Islam on blogs, but newspapers, politicians, and prominent others dare not voice any criticism, and the threat of random violence should they do so is something of which they are always poignantly aware, and this is a danger to all of us.