I want to begin with something that The Philosophical Primate said in a comment on yesterday’s post, and I hope I will be forgiven for quoting all of it:
I honestly do not believe that Islam is intrinsically worse than any other faith-based religion. Rather, it is merely trapped — for the moment — at an earlier stage in religious development. Islam is currently as Christianity was in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages — oppressive, totalitarian, theocratic, and violent, not least to its own adherents, especially women. So too was Hinduism not so long ago (many remnants of which still remain), shoring up the caste system and demanding (or at least reinforcing) such quaint and charming traditions as suttee. So too was Mormonism until the Mormon patriarchs decided that the benefits of Utah’s statehood outweighed the benefits of their quaint traditions of murder and child-rape/slavery/marriage. So too are any and all religions based primarily on faith (and indeed, faith-based political ideologies like the various forms of Communism), because unsupportable claims are the ideal tool for rationalizing unconscionable actions.
No faith-based religion is worthy of ANY respect whatsoever, at any stage in its development. The fact that broader cultural forces of enlightenment and progress can force reform on backwards traditions does not alter their inherent backwardness, it just makes them more neighborly. That neighborliness is certainly important, but it is not worthy of respect: Rather, it warrants only wary tolerance. Tolerance, not respect — and always wary, because faith remains intrinsically perilous, easily exploited to rationalize any reprehensible nonsense believers invent.
While I largely agree with The Philosophical Primate here, I want to make some qualifications. It does not seem to me helpful to say that Islam is ”trapped at an earlier stage of development.” It is not clear to me that there is any measure of development for religions. However, it does seem to me that Islam has reached a particularly difficult stage in its trajectory at which it feels trapped by circumstance into becoming, along some of its axes, a particularly virulent form of itself, at a time when Christianity (in particular), under pressure from the Reformation and the wars of religion, has been forced to become more liberal and tolerant. I agree that no religion is deserving of our respect, and that about them all we should be warily tolerant. But I do think — and I do want to say this with tolerance and respect for those Muslims who have been able to make the transition to modernity without abandoning those things which they consider to be of spiritual value in their faith – that there are aspects of Islam which make it particularly dangerous, and largely inhospitable to significant revision, at least on a large scale. It is perhaps worth mentioning those features here.
First, there is no central authority in Islam, so Islam is how it is interpreted by any number of different “authorities”, and this tends to produce a kind of competition to the most literal reading of the religion. Where authority is dispersed in this way, the tendency is to try to outdo others in faithfulness to tradition, to the words of sacred texts, and to severity of interpretation. (The same tendency can be seen at work in evangelical Christianity.) And this dispersed authority is further intensified by using the street as a way of enforcing the conclusions of the “scholars”.