Category Archives: Islam
Since I have been having a little discussion on the side with a Muslim, Rahman, in relation to an older post (see this note, et seq), this seemed apropos. Join in, if you like, but let’s bring the discussion over here. You can see more of these great cartoons over at Jesus and Mo dot net. The problem that Jesus has with the Qu’ran is precisely the one that always strikes me when I read it — “berating the infidel and fantasising about their punishments.” It doesn’t only border on the sick, it is seriously twisted.
Lawrence Kraus took part in a debate at University College London that he won hands down. He won it before he had said a word. The proposition to be debated was: “Islam or Atheism: Which makes more sense?” The debate, organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy, despite assurances that the audience would not be sex segregated, was indeed sex segregated nevertheless, and by being so made clear that Islam makes no sense, and is an ideology that self-respecting women, as well as men, should avoid. Kraus himself threatened to walk out, and last minute adjustments were made, but the issue was not really resolved, and (in my view) it would have been better had he not appeared at all. That would have been a much more powerful message than any he could have delivered in words, and he could with some justice have claimed that he had won by default, the behaviour of the Muslim organisers having made his point as eloquently as it could be made in any case.
The problem, apparently, goes much deeper, for this is not the only sex segregated event that has been hosted at University College London. As Richard Dawkins made clear in a Tweet, it is an offence that University College London, the first university in England that did not have religious tests for admission, and the first university to accept women students, should allow its facilities to be used in such a way as to flout its most sacred traditions of freedom of thought and the principle of the equality of women and men. This should not have happened, and it certainly should not happen again.
To my mind, however, this poses deeper questions. Not only does it show clearly that Islam makes no sense — but no sense at all — for it simply cannot encompass the idea that humanity is composed of women and men in roughly equal numbers, and thinks it appropriate to segregate men from women in response to a supposed revelation from a god; but it shows that Islam is a danger to democratic polities and a subversive element within democracy. When the best educated Muslims consider it their duty, in the name of Islam, to contradict a fundamental premise of European culture, that men and women are equal participants in society, in governance, work, opinion setting, education, teaching, leadership, and consider it their duty to introduce sex segregation into one of the leading secular institutions of higher learning in Britain is not only an offence, it is a clear indication of the danger that Islam is to the values upon which British freedoms are based. And this applies pari passu to democracy and freedom throughout the West, as well as in nascent democracies that could be stifled at birth, if the reign of Islamic theocracy is given room to spread its illiberal ideas unhindered by the severest criticism — something that, because of terrorist threats, is already in doubt.
The title of this post comes from the theme of a book by David Nirenberg which explores the relationship between Western civilisation and what Nirenberg calls anti-Judaism. He deliberately avoids the usual terminology of anti-Semitism, because he is dealing with a cultural phenomenon which is characteristic of Western culture: not a racism, per se, but a culturally embedded idea of Jews which has nothing really to do with real Jews themselves. It is an intellectual anti-Judaism and not (as such) a racial anti-Semitism, and, according to Nirenberg, anti-Judaism “has been at the very center of Western civilisation since the beginning.”
The quotation comes from a critical notice of Nirenberg’s book in The Tablet, which summarises the theme of Nirenberg’s book as follows:
From Ptolemaic Egypt to early Christianity, from the Catholic Middle Ages to the Protestant Reformation, from the Enlightenment to fascism, whenever the West has wanted to define everything it is not — when it wants to put a name to its deepest fears and aversions — Judaism has been the name that came most easily to hand.
According to Nirenberg, anti-Judaism
should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifice of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.
This is obviously a startlingly new way of understanding, not only Western culture itself, but the complex historical role that the Jews have been forced to play in its development.
Of course, the central concern of Nirenberg’s book is taken up with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, in which Judaism (or, rather, a conception of Judaism which has little to do with Judaism as this has been understood and lived by the Jews themselves) plays the role of “the Other,” the negation in terms of which Western civilisation has sought to understand itself.
While I have not read the book, simply reading the short review in The Tablet seemed to bring me into familiar territory. It happened to me, suddenly, without warning, one Sunday morning, as I was giving my homily for the day. In fact, so startling did it seem to me that I was caught in mid-sentence, and spent the remainder of the time speaking about what had just occurred to me, that Christianity explicitly defined itself in opposition to an imagined Judaism. Anyone who has spent much time attending Christian worship will be familiar with the theme. It is an indelible part of the imaginative picture that Christians have of the Jews, and it is written deeply into New Testament texts. It has to do, basically, with a fundamental dualism in terms of which Christians understand their faith. There is, on the one hand, Jesus, the messenger of love, gentleness and compassion; and then, on the other hand, there are the so-called Scribes and Pharisees, the people of the law, whose world is composed of dead rules and regulations, stultifyingly moribund and judgemental, which thinks of religious faithfulness entirely in terms of externals which do not touch the sensitive inner life of true spirituality.
A video from Egypt which went viral on the internet tells the true story about Islam and women. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Islam makes a strict distinction between the roles of men and women. Women are confined to their sphere, men to theirs. But women in Islam are not respected or honoured. They are feared, and because they are feared they are restricted and controlled. The sexualisation of women who are dressed in bags is much more obscene than the sexualisation of women who are free to display their sexuality. Hidden as it is from men, and ignorant as Muslim men are about women, they tend to think of women purely in sexual terms. Muslims very often stigmatise the West as decadent, because people express themselves freely, which means, of course, that women even look like women. But women looking like women is not a matter of flaunting sexuality. It allows women as many registers of self-expression as it does men. But a woman dressed in a bag is always a sexual object, by definition, because that is what is being hidden. That is why women in Egyptian and other Muslim societies are so often sexually harassed in public, because the only aspect of woman that is ever on show is her sexual aspect, even though, since Muslim men are afraid of it, they try to hide it, but the more they hide it, the more deeply sexual women become, and the more they fear it and despise it. This, it occurred to me, as I watched this video (of which I show only a part), is how it is with women and Islam. It is a profoundly disturbing realisation, especially when it is seen through this lens:
The level of frenzied violence depicted here is troubling. How is it possible for men to behave in this way towards women? It reveals Egyptian society as a deeply misogynistic, an almost unbelievably misogynistic society. The need to control women that this video illustrates is clearly a foundational aspect of the society. I think it is undoubtedly Islam that is at the root of this. This does not mean that Islam alone, amongst the religions, is misogynistic. This is obviously not the case. Almost all Christian churches display a entrenched misogyny, and the history of the place of women in Christianity is not edifying, as Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven amply illustrates. The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches of the East, which account for most Christians living today, both exclude women from priestly ministry, and the subordinate role of women in Evangelical Christianity is well known. But Islam outdoes almost all the religions in the degree of oppression of women. That we permit Islam to continue its oppressive practices with respect to women in otherwise free societies is, it seems to me, an offence against the values of democratic societies, and it is storing up social problems precisely like the ones we see convulsing Egyptian society today. We have to stop pretending that this is a legitimate aspect of the freedom of religion. It is not. Those who immigrate to democratic societies must be required to accept, as founding principles, the equality of men and women, and to discard practices that militate against it.
Lately, I have been reading Wafa Sultan’s book, A God Who Hates, and it is certainly a bracing read from the point of view of someone, like me, who has been trying (and not always succeeding, no doubt) to give Islam the benefit of the doubt. It began a few days ago when Ophelia Benson (over at Butterflies and Wheels) put up Wafa Sultan’s talk at the Women in Secularism Conference 2012. It’s a powerful speech, and expresses well the desperate plight of women in Islam. In a comment I made under Ophelia’s post, I mentioned that the speech had convinced me to buy her book, and I ordered it from the Book Depository shortly thereafter. Wafa Sultan is a psychiatrist who escaped from the imprisonment of Islam by moving to the United States, and now writes and speaks widely against what she calls the “prison of Islam.”
Part of the book is about Wafa Sultan’s own experiences of growing up in Syria. One of the most poignant is the account she gives of moving to the United States. Her husband preceded her, and when it came time for her to leave, she had to get passports for her children. But she had no authority, as their mother, to apply for such documents. The children did not belong to her. They belonged to their father. In order to get passports, she had have a male relative, who could vouch that she had the permission of her husband to do this. As she says:
When I submitted a request for a passport for my children, the officer at the emigration and permits department refused to give me one on the grounds that, under Islamic law, I was not my children’s legal guardian and that it was up to their father to submit the request. 
When she presented the power of attorney she was told:
That’s a power of attorney, not proof of guardianship. It gives you the right to dispose of his property, but you do not have guardianship of his children.”
“But they are my children, too, sir,” [Wafa replied]
“A woman is not the guardian of her children. Do you understand?” 
The upshot was that she had to find a male member of her husband’s family (an alcoholic, “notorious for his ill nature and poor character, because of which my husband had never wanted to introduce him to me,” she comments laconically), and it was he, not the children’s mother, who was entitled to speak on behalf of her husband. That says a lot about the position of women in Islam.
Wafa had to leave her children in Syria, until she and her husband could afford to support them in America. Her description of leaving Syria is very telling and poignant:
I fled my prison with suitcases containing nothing more than painful memories. 
But she not only fled the prison-house of Islam, she fled towards freedom, determined to raise up those whom “Allah had cut down to size until they were smaller than flies.”  She had no clear vision, she says, but
America re-formed me, armed me with knowledge, clarified my vision, and helped me to outline my plan to save those victims. I decided to bring “Allah” to justice on criminal charges. 
The rest of the book shows us just how she did this.
She began by writing essays that were printed in Arabic language papers in the United States, some of which raised the ire of her readers. Eventually, she was invited to speak on Al Jazeera to a Muslim “scholar.” She suggests that the main reason she was asked to do this is that it was held that when she was demolished on TV, her voice would be silenced once and for all. But she did not back down, and gave as good as she got. At one point she actually told the “scholar” to shut up and let her speak, which, for a woman in Islam, is simply unheard of. Al Jazeera later apologised for her appearance and the offence she had caused to Muslims. But what she has to say goes right to the heart of Muslim beliefs, because she attacks Islam at its central point, by criticising its prophet Muhammad. She calls him a false prophet, and gives chapter and verse for making this judgement.
It must really have stung when Dawkins ask Mehdi Hassan whether he really believed that Muhammad rode to heaven on a winged horse, because he apparently does believe it. We’ll begin with that particular exchange in Hasan’s Al Jazeera interview of Richard Dawkins. If you watch the whole interview, note Hasan’s belligerent interviewing style, and how, after being challenged, he became, if anything, even more aggressive than he had already been.
Hasan’s defensiveness shows clearly how much the imputation stung. How is it possible, Dawkins asks, incredulously, for someone to believe such a fanciful story in the 21st century? And yet Hasan comes back quickly with his unqualified , “Yes, I believe.” It’s a bit like Thomas (in the account in John’s gospel) meeting the risen Jesus, and saying, “Lord, I believe.” Yet Thomas goes on to say, “Help my unbelief.” But there is not even the shade of a question in Hasan’s response. He believes, full stop! (It is notable, though, that he does not mention splitting the moon, a miracle that does not offer the option, sometimes taken, that it was an optical illusion. In Pickthall’s translation of Sura 52: The Moon, verses 1-2, this reads: “1. The hour drew nigh, and the moon was rent in twain. 2. And if they behold a portent they turn away and say: Prolonged illusion.” Apparently there were some rational people around at the time! )
According to Salman Hameed, in an op-ed in the Guardian entitled “Muslim thought on evolution takes a step forward,” which adds, in the subtitle, the claim that the debate on Islam and evolution sponsored by the Deen Institute, was “[a] high-quality debate of a sensitive topic [which] did not disappoint, as all panellists bar one accepted the scientific consensus,” and so moved Muslim thought forward. This claim is, at best, misleading. Yasmin Khan, also writing in the Guardian, ends her article “Muslims engage in quest to understand evolution,” with these remarks:
As the event closed I was left restless and sensed that others felt similarly conflicted. I tried to envisage how to establish a consensus of Muslim opinion on this topic. Where was the call to action? Who would bring the necessary scholars and scientists together to form a legitimate committee?
The debate has lifted the lid on this Pandora’s Box, but the next steps are uncertain. Without more structured engagement with Muslims, the concept of human evolution will continue to be both an intellectual and spiritual minefield.
If it continues “to be both an intellectual and spiritual minefield,” then there was less apparent agreement than Salman Hameed suggests. Indeed, as Jerry Coyne, reviewing the event, suggests:
Given nearly unanimous Muslim opinion on the impossibility of human evolution (something I’ve learned from studying how Muslims reconcile science and faith), and opposition to evolution itself in many quarters, there is no way to establish a Muslim consensus on evolution (which should be that everything evolved according to natural processes) without getting rid of Islam.
If this is the takeaway message from the conference, then no wonder Yasmin Khan was so conflicted!
But, it seems, after all, that this was the takeaway message. For example, take the summary of the debate offered by Farrukh Younus in a post on his blog entitled ”Evolution and Islam 2013“. While Sameed claims that all except one accepted the scientific consensus on evolution, this is far from being the case. It is even important, I think, to take into account the emphases that Younus places on the different panellists participating in the debate or discussion or series of talks (it’s not altogether clear how the conference was organised). To take one example, Professor Ehab Abouheif, who teaches biology at McGill University in Montreal, apparently defined evolution, and then went on to suggest a common misunderstanding that may impede the acceptance of evolution by religious believers. According to Younus:
Crucially he addressed a common misunderstanding, that in evolution you do not transition from one species to another. That is to say the common belief that we originated from monkeys and apes, despite sharing extensive similarities, is an over simplification and inaccurate representation of evolution.
Of course, this is true. We share common ancestors with monkeys and apes; we did not descend from monkeys and apes themselves, which are species equally evolved with ourselves, just as every other living species has a evolutionary history that shares its origin with the origin of life on earth. But Younus says none of this, as though remarking on the misunderstanding, without explaining the significance of that misunderstanding, is sufficient.
My title could apply equally well to the overly sensitive people in Pakistan who are too often urged to mob violence by any perceived insult to Islam or its prophet. However, I mean it to apply to those engaged in the sort of mindless religious violence that got a man beaten and then burnt to death by an outraged mob in Sindh province in Pakistan. Jerry Coyne justly quotes Steven Weinberg’s famous remark that
[w]ith or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
Clearly, free speech is a fantasy in a country where this happens so frequently, and it raises very serious questions about the ability of Islam to adapt to the modern world. I think this is something that needs to be faced very bluntly. While I am aware that there are those like Irshad Manji and Ed Hussain who think that Islam can moderate itself, and fit comfortably with democratic forms of governance, the evidence so far is not at all promising. I recall the televised conversation between Manji and Salman Rushdie in New York, where Rushdie’s dissent from Maji’s views, though politely expressed, was very clear. It was obvious that he did not think that Islam and democracy were easily compatible.
Many Muslims come to this country, sequester themselves in ethnic communities where women have almost the same status in a free democracy that their sisters have in Muslim majority areas of the world, and the Supreme Court has just muddied the waters as to whether a person’s freedom of religion permits her to wear the niqab, or the accused have a right to see their accuser. The question, to my mind, is whether people have the right to live in a democracy and yet practice age-old misogynistic customs which directly imply women’s secondary place in society and in the home, and whether other citizens are forbidden from raising the question of the conflict between these customs and democratic governance and the equality of citizens. Does sensitivity necessarily forbid criticism and distrust of those who practice customs so at odds with the presumed equality of all people which is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?