Islamophobia and Criticism of Religious Belief

In an article on freedom of expression, Phyllis Chesler writes, “The greatest danger is a closed mind and a finger-on-the-trigger. The minds are closing all over Europe; rather late in the day, a small resistance emerges. American minds have also been shutting down for many years.” She refers to the problem of self-censorship in discussions of issues of race and religion. Focusing on the fear of being accused of Islamophobia, she cites the following test for the same devised by former Green Party presidential candidate Lorna Saltzman:

Lorna Saltzman’s Test

Do you favor equal rights and treatment of women and men?
Do you oppose stoning of women accused of adultery?
Do you favor mandatory education of girls everywhere?
Do you oppose slavery and child prostitution?
Do you support complete freedom of expression and the press?
Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?
Do you oppose government- and mosque-supported anti-Semitic publications, radio, TV and textbooks?
Do you oppose the wearing of burqas in public places, schools and courts?
Do you oppose segregation of the sexes in public places and houses of worship?
Do you oppose the death penalty for non-Muslims and Muslims who convert to another religion?
Do you oppose “honor” killings?
Do you oppose female genital mutilation?
Do you oppose forced sexual relations?
Do you oppose discrimination against homosexuals?
Do you support the right to criticize religion?
Do you oppose polygamy?
Do you oppose child marriage, forced or otherwise?
Do you oppose the quranic mandate to kill non-Muslims and apostates?
Do you oppose the addition of sharia courts to your country’s legal system?
Do you disagree with the quran which asserts the superiority of Islam to all other religions?

Saltzman’s test certainly avoids the problem of self-censorship, but I suspect it contributes more to the problem than to the solution. Although, as Chesler points out, it was written “tongue in cheek,” the implication is that all the questions accurately characterize Islam. While I am no Islamic scholar, I have little doubt it does not. For example, to the question, “Do you support the right of an individual to worship in her chosen religion?” one could cite the words of the Quran, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” I find no mention of female genital mutilation in the Quran. There is no Quranic mandate to kill non-Moslems and apostates, although there is a strong tradition in favor of the latter. According to the Quran, “These! Their recompense that the curse of God, and of angels, and of all men is on them!” A curse is not the same as a death sentence. As for the former, there are certainly belligerent passages in the Quran against infidels. However, it also says, “And fight for the cause of God against those who fight against you: but commit not the injustice of attacking them first: God loveth not such injustice.” As for the last question, it is hardly uncommon for religions to assert their superiority over others.

In a word, Saltzman manner of taking issue with Islam corresponds to the fashion currently prevailing in political “discussions.” This consists of replacing rational argument with villification of one’s opponent by associating them with some commonly recognized evil, such as, in this case, female genital mutilation, child prostitution, “honor” killing, etc. Instead of taking issue with an idea, the goal is to demonstrate that the “other” belongs in an out-group. As usual, this familiar manifestation of the Amity-Enmity Complex sheds more heat than light. It is particularly inappropriate in the case of religious differences, where it approaches the bigotry that it claims to oppose. Moslems and Moslem organizations are sometimes reckless in their accusations of Islamophobia, leveling it at anyone who criticizes their religion. Harry’s Place, hardly a haven for right wing bigots, has documented numerous examples of this tendency. They are certainly crying “wolf,” but the problem won’t be solved by confronting them with a real wolf.

Religious bigotry is real. It is a manifestation of an aspect of human nature that has been singularly destructive throughout our history. Unless we control it, it is likely to become even more destructive in our future. Moslems can point to as many instances of real bigotry and discrimination as adherents of other religions. However, when they dismiss anyone who takes issue with their doctrines as an “Islamophobe,” they sacrifice the credibility necessary to fight real discrimination.

The discussion of religious differences cannot be put out of bounds. This should be as obvious to religious believers as to those who, like myself, are not. It is hard to imagine a subject concerning which it is more important for us to “get it right.” After all, the nature of our religious beliefs will have a profound effect on our goals, behavior, and the manner in which we deal with others in this life. If religious believers are right, they may also determine whether we will be surrounded by pleasures or suffer unimaginable tortures for billions of years into the future. In a word, Chesler has a point. These are matters of overriding importance. If we are to arrive at the truth, we must be free to think about and discuss them freely. Considering what’s at stake, we simply cannot afford self-censorship. If religious believers are really convinced of the truth of their doctrines, they should be the last ones to fear criticism of their beliefs.

As I pointed out earlier, I personally take issue with all forms of religious belief. Most of my own reasons for rejecting religion in general were brilliantly set forth more than 250 years ago by Jean Meslier in his Testament. He focused his criticism on Christianity, but the logic of his arguments is, if anything, even more powerful in the case of Islam. For example, Moslems believe that God created human beings knowing in advance that he would eventually subject most of them to incredible tortures lasting not just for billions and trillions of years, but for an inconceivably long time into the future. Such a being does not correspond to the elementary notions of justice that He, presumably, was responsible for creating in our minds. He is supposed to feel emotions such as anger and love that are certainly understandable as human traits that have evolved because they have promoted our survival, but would seem to have no rational explanation as mental traits of a supernatural being. In particular, he is supposed to be capable of furious personal anger at human beings, infinitely inferior creatures he created himself. It is hard to imagine what reason he could possibly have for feeling such emotions, seemingly as irrational for him as feeling personal rage at some obscure harmless bacteria would be for us. Presumably, if God gave us a brain, his intent was that we should think with it. If we do, these and many other logical objections to Moslem doctrines must occur to us. It would seem that anyone who honestly believes these doctrines would not fear criticism, but would be glad to answer it in the interest of saving their fellow creatures from a terrible fate. If, instead, they meet all such objections with cries of “Islamophobia,” and threaten their fellow Moslems with death if they change their minds, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they are not interested in promoting the truth, but rather the illegitimate power of those who profit from falsehoods.

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