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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, March 07, 2011

A different sort of "What can you say?" - Islam and evolution

While we worry about how and whether to write about tricky issues of metaethics for the folk in the public square, some people have a much bigger problem.

E.g., if you're a Muslim in London you may find a lot of grief if you want to give a lecture to your co-religionists on the topic of "Islam and the theory of evolution" ... in which you plan to teach well-established science. You might find yourself getting outraged responses from members of your community, including what Chris Mooney would call "even, apparently, some death threats." You might, to put it another way, need to deal with a style of incivility seldom displayed by liberal atheists.

If so, perhaps you'd be wise to cancel the lecture and issue a public recantation of your "errors" - right? That's what Usama Hasan did, and I'm not going to blame him for doing what seemed needed to save his skin.

Look, I'm not an Islam basher, unless you count my sceptical attitude to religion in general ... and my denial of its authority.

I don't want to conceive of Islam as simply an enemy to be opposed by all possible means. It remains my hope that Islam can reform and adapt to secular modernity. It may be that not just some but most Muslims living in Western democracies have already embraced much in the way of liberal ideas (though it would be nice if they'd raise their voices and say so). But this kind of thing doesn't exactly give more hope. Where is the outrage from within the Muslim community that Dr. Hasan has been silenced and intimidated into a public recantation? Will we hear prominent Muslims condemning this? Will I be accused of "Islamophobia" for commenting on it?

11 comments:

DEEN said...

"Will I be accused of "Islamophobia" for commenting on it?"
Not by me at the very least. There's a huge gap between criticizing Islam's teachings and having an irrational fear that a single-digit-percent minority is going to somehow take over our society any day now.

James Sweet said...

It may be that not just some but most Muslims living in Western democracies have already embraced much in the way of liberal ideas (though it would be nice if they'd raise their voices and say so).

Recent data suggests this is the case with Muslims in many countries, not so much with British Muslims. The real shocking stat from that article is that out of 500 British Muslims polled by Gallup, the number who said homosexuality was acceptable was.... drum roll please... zero. The numbers among French and German Muslims, OTOH, was in line with what one might guess polling a conservative-leaning religious community. My understanding is that American Muslims tend to be even more liberal.

So Britain seems to have a unique problem here, and the specific reasons for it are far from clear. Best guess right now is that it's purely economic factors, e.g. a shockingly high number of British Muslims are unemployed. Go figure, poverty radicalizes people. Whodathunkit.

Then you've got fiascos like this one where the liberal Muslims who are speaking out in exactly the way you suggest get death threats from the radical Muslims, and the moderates choose to shield the radicals rather than the liberals. Oy...

steve oberski said...

Not to worry, Jeremy Stangroom and Chris Mooney are feverishly working on nuanced, thoughtful and balanced criticisms of Usama Hasan's strident attack on Islam as I write this.

longsmith said...

Wow, am I ever glad I found this blog....

thephilosophicalprimate said...

Where is the outrage from within the Muslim community that Dr. Hasan has been silenced and intimidated into a public recantation?

Predictably, nowhere.

Will we hear prominent Muslims condemning this? No, probably not.

Will I be accused of "Islamophobia" for commenting on it?

Almost certainly, because almost no one uses the term "Islamaphobia" except those who are inclined to toss it around with reckless abandon, eschewing both clear definition of the term and thoughtful reflection about where it can be legitimately applied. In fact, "Islamaphobia" is much like "scientism" in that respect.

Greg Egan said...

Almost certainly, because almost no one uses the term "Islamaphobia" except those who are inclined to toss it around with reckless abandon, eschewing both clear definition of the term and thoughtful reflection about where it can be legitimately applied.

Really? Islamophobia is a very real phenomenon, and Australia is suffering from something of a wave of it at present. What other term should be applied to this:

http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/muslim-prayer-group-targeted-20110305-1biw5.html

Whoever was responsible for the death threats against Dr Hasan should be condemned unequivocally, and if possible charged, tried and imprisoned. And it's certainly reasonable to debate the duty incumbent on moderate Muslims to oppose the extremist lunatics who pretend to speak for them. But the fact remains that in many Western countries, thousands of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims are subject -- at times -- to bigotry, vilification and discrimination. "Islamophobia" is an appropriate term for this. The fact that the same word can be abused in order to silence people who are having a discussion in good faith about the social and political implications of Islamic doctrine, rather than simply being hysterical xenophobes or political opportunists, is unfortunate, but that's hardly a reason to treat the term itself as some kind of marker of recklessness.

Mariah said...

I agree with both thephilosophicalprimate and Greg Egan, to an extent.

Islamophobia, as it were, is a huge problem. It is fed by racism, jingoism, and Christianist (and in India, Hinduist) impulses. It drives paranoia, slander, and occasionally vandalism or even violence. It's a real problem, as real as antisemitism -- and just as the abuses of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel don't make antisemitism any less real, so is it true that the abuses of Islamic radicals doesn't make "Islamophobia", as it were, less real.

But TPP is also correct insofar as that a disturbing amount of the time the word "Islamophobia" is used not to refer to this irrational fear/persecution of an immigrant minority, but rather as code for "Shut up, that's why." For geopolitical reasons, radical Islam is very dangerous right now, and it's not necessarily Islamophobic to ask whether there are theological factors that exacerbate the geopolitical roots of this danger.

(FWIW, "antisemitism" is occasionally used as a similar bludgeon, particularly in regards to criticisms of Israeli foreign policy. This is not nearly as rampant as misuse of the term "Islamophobia", but it does happen)

So I get TPP's frustration about constantly hearing charges of Islamophobia. The word is so overused, it becomes difficult to tell whether it is being used accurately, to refer to racist, jingoistic assholes, or if it is being used to silence legitimate criticism.

Ophelia Benson said...

in many Western countries, thousands of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims are subject -- at times -- to bigotry, vilification and discrimination. "Islamophobia" is an appropriate term for this.
"Islamophobia" is not at all an appropriate term for mistreatment of Muslims; the right term for that would be "Muslimophobia" - or, better, just skip the single-word approach and call it mistreatment of Muslims. Islam does not equal Muslims, and it's perfectly reasonable to dislike Islam.

steve oberski said...

@Greg Egan

The term "Islamophobia" is used to stifle any criticism of Islam.

The fact that Islam is both a religion and a political ideology makes this term a conversation stopper when used by the politically correct.

All cultures are not equal, and as a 7th century tribal culture that still clings to it's patriarchal, homophobic and misogynistic roots, it is important that Islam not be accorded special status that makes it immune from skeptical scrutiny.

I attended a talk by Irshad Manji last night, she is the author of "The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith.".

She is a fierce critic of the western policy of multiculturalism:

Multiculturalism was an idea rich with flavor and juice 40 years ago. Since then, its vitamin content has been sapped by the lax attitude that my teachers passed on to my generation, and that we’ve bequeathed to today’s teens and twenty-somethings.

“All cultures deserve respect,” I relentlessly hear from students. Anything else isn’t just racism; it’s unthinkable. Therein lies the rot.

We’ve stopped thinking. And, in the process, we’ve stopped feeling for those who tell us that they need to escape their cultural caves, or risk death.

That’s what happened to 16-year-old Canadian Muslim, Aqsa Parvez. A few days ago, her control-freak father and cowardly brother pleaded guilty to strangling the young woman in the name of tribal “honor” — the kind of honor widely observed in their homeland of Pakistan.

This week, I mustered the emotional gumption to read through the “statement of facts” about Aqsa’s case. So many pathetic details leaped out at me. But one has been gnawing away at me: A month before her murder in late 2007, Aqsa “confided to her closest friends that her father had sworn to her on the Koran that if she ran away again, he would kill her. Her friends tried to assure her that her father could not be serious” [emphasis mine].

Her friends were dead wrong.

Teenagers tend to be shrewd. Many are downright clever. And some are bloody smart. Not in this case. I can’t claim it’s all because multiculturalism has pulverized their legendary suspicion of parental power.

What I can claim is that gooey sentiments about colorful cultures, developed over two generations, have helped make it inconceivable that a brown-skinned tyrant who lords it over his entire family might very well mean what he says.

In the hands of today’s students, multiculturalism is a fruit that has over-ripened. The fact that all human beings are born equal has thoughtlessly become confused with the myth that all cultures are born equal. Truth is, cultures aren’t born. They’re constructed by people, and people are fallible.

Which means there’s nothing blasphemous about taking seriously the horrifying aspects of any culture. To do something about the terror that power-holders can inflict under the banner of tradition, we must first acknowledge that tradition isn’t sacred. It doesn’t give you a pass to terrorize.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, yes, but we also need to bear in mind that we have other opponents over on the political right.

For those who don't know, Greg spends a lot of his time helping asylum seekers of Middle Eastern origin, here in Australia. In doing so, I'm sure he is (massively!) hindered by the widespread cultural xenophobia here, which has underpinned harsh refugee policies. Whether or not we like the mindless application of the term "Islamophobia" to silence critics of Islam and cultural practices associated with it, there's another aspect of the puzzle. How do we, here, in Australia, get out the message that, by and large, Muslims are not people to be feared, and that a fair bit of extra compassion to refugees would not go astray?

I'm sure Greg is as much as I am against throwing around the word "Islamophobia" at the drop of a hat, though he can speak for himself. But let's all remember that here in Australia there's a further political context. As there is in various other Western countries.

I kinda wish the word "Islamophobia" would go away ... But I can totally see why someone who is actually rolling up his sleeves and helping interned asylum seekers might see priorities very differently.

Greg Egan said...

@Ophelia:

I agree it's preferable to use terms precisely, and to identify what it is that's objectionable about an attitude or behaviour as accurately as possible, but I'm not persuaded that "Islamophobia" is a word whose sole use has been to try to silence people. When an opinion poll [http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/44546.html] gives the results:

Q1: When a family migrates to Australia should it be possible for them to be rejected purely on the basis of their religion?

Q2: Should the Australian Government exclude Muslims from our migrant intake?

Q1 Q2
Agree: 19% 25%
Disagree: 65% 55%
Don't know: 15% 20%

then I don't accept that a description of this result as "Islamophobia" is by its very use of the word some kind of attempt to silence good faith criticism of the pernicious aspects of Islamic doctrine. Or if a commentator on the Egyptian protests starts telling us "Some of them have beards! And prayer mats! They'll be at war with Israel by the end of the year!" then I'm going to call that "Islamophobia".

It's perfectly reasonable to dislike Islam.

Yes it is. Islam as it is defined and practised by many millions of people is, in my view, extremely odious -- and most of my Muslim friends have suffered from extremist Islam as much as my Ahmadi and Mandean friends who were singled out in Pakistan or Iran by Muslim religious bigots. And maybe "Islamophobia" is not the right word to use when, in Australia, they can't get a taxi once the driver sees their face, or a job interview once the employer learns their name. Maybe it's not even the right word to use when women who choose to wear head-scarfs are verbally abused and spat on in the streets. But what's the right word for the assumption that any and every Muslim is a supporter of the most egregious practices and beliefs ever held or committed in the name of Islam? You might prefer some other term for this, but I'm going to call it "Islamophobia".

@Steve:

You're preaching to the converted with every substantial point in your comment, but "The term 'Islamophobia' is used to stifle any criticism of Islam" does not mean the term "Islamophobia" is only used by people who wish to stifle any criticism of Islam, any more than (as Mariah points out), the term "antisemitism" is only used by people who want critics of Israeli government policy to shut up.

I have absolutely zero interest in tolerating violence against women, or tolerating attitudes that lead to violence, on the grounds of "respect for cultural difference". I have absolutely no interest in minimising the effect that religion has on these attitudes. But equally, I have no interest in minimising the effect on people of always being judged by the worst members of a group to which they belong.