Yes, You Can Criticize Religion, But

In the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali v. Brandeis University (not a real legal case, at least not yet), I am on Team Brandeis. Though I’d never dispute that Hirsi Ali has the right to express her views on Islam, I don’t think those views should be legitimized with an honorary doctorate, and I also don’t think Brandeis violated the overarching principle of free speech by rescinding it. They extended an invitation for her to speak on campus, which strikes a fair balance.

Those of us who’ve expressed concern over Hirsi Ali’s views have been accused, frequently, of being afraid to criticize religion. I can obviously only speak for myself, but I think this is a facetious accusation. I opposed Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree because she repeats the same tired, Orientalist “clash of civilizations” myth that has so disastrously influenced Western relations with the East for centuries. I further opposed her degree because she blamed advocates of multiculturalism for driving white supremacist Anders Breivik to commit mass murder, and believes Christians should forcibly convert Muslims.

I have been told I should excuse those statements because of her personal experiences with Islam. There’s some evidence she fabricated much of her background, but I am not particularly concerned with the sanctity of national borders and therefore don’t care if she lied to receive asylum or not. At minimum, it seems clear she did undergo female genital mutilation, which is a deplorable violation of her human rights.

Like Hirsi Ali, I consider myself a women’s rights activist. You won’t find me apologizing for FGM, or indeed for any practice that restricts women’s rights, regardless of whether or not religious arguments are used to justify it. I am not a cultural relativist.

Still, I think Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam cross a red line, and this forces me to consider another question: how do we criticize religion?

Be Accurate

This is so obvious that I’m depressed it even has to be mentioned, but make sure your criticisms are accurate. For example: there is absolutely nothing Islamic about FGM. Grab a Quran and look for it. You won’t find anything about FGM in it. You also won’t find anything justifying forced marriage, or mandating veils.

It’s certainly true that the above practices are common in some predominately Muslim countries. It’s also true that imams often participate in perpetuating these practices. But as I witnessed over and over again in Christianity, and for that matter in atheism, people have never hesitated to abuse a belief system to justify their own prejudices. The root of the problem is human nature, not Islam.

In the case of FGM specifically, the practice is not limited to Muslim communities. According to Forward, a British human rights organization, it’s also practiced by Christians, animists, and even non-believers. Contrary to what Hirsi Ali would like you to believe, it’s not in any reasonable sense an Islamic practice. And it happens to pre-date Islam.

It’s fair to criticize Muslim leaders in some communities for not doing enough to combat the practice. It’s inaccurate to claim that Islam, or even religion itself, is the source of the problem. Religion doesn’t enjoy an exclusive monopoly on misogyny.

Understand The Implications

As reported by Religion News Service today, atheists and agnostics experience the lowest percentage of hate crimes in the United States. This could be because of their low numbers; regardless, it seems obvious from the data that anti-atheist violence isn’t particularly prevalent in the US.

Muslims and Jews, however, experience much higher rates given their numbers, and Muslims and Sikhs are most likely to become victims of bias-motivated manslaughter and homicide. This is probably because these groups are most visibly religious–and non-white. Atheism in the United States is still overwhelmingly dominated by white men, and as a result, privilege is at play.

Much has been made of a 2012 Gallup poll that revealed 43% of Americans would choose not to vote for an atheist. The same poll showed that 40% of Americans would avoid voting for a Muslim candidate. That’s a statistical dead heat once you control for margin of error.

There’s certainly still discrimination against atheists; I don’t intend to erase that fact. Nevertheless, I think it’s false to claim that atheists are a persecuted minority in the US. The available data just doesn’t support it. That claim is much more applicable to the American Muslim community (and I’m focusing on this community, rather than another minority faith, due to the context of the Hirsi Ali controversy).

The consequences of repeating inaccuracies about a marginalized group can be severe. This contributes to prejudice and that in turn can lead to violence. At the very least, it gives the impression that atheists are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of anti-Muslim violence. How rational are we, really, if we can’t bring ourselves to admit the facts?

In a global context, repeating inaccuracies is similarly damaging. There seems to be a prevailing misconception that in Islamic states, Muslims are privileged over everyone else, and this is only partially true. In Bahrain, for example, the Sunni minority is privileged over a Shiite majority. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are accused of blasphemy right alongside Christians and atheists.

The reality is that in Islamic states, as in all states, the ruling class is privileged over all others and ultimately, this has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the construction and maintenance of power. To cosign Hirsi Ali’s sentiments is to endorse a dangerously simplistic perspective on the world. This does not assist the project of advancing human rights. Rather, it restricts it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Proceed with caution. If you’re truly invested in advancing human rights, including women’s rights, make sure your critiques are accurate. Do your research. Know your history. Take the time to talk to people who practice the faith you’re about to criticize; you lose nothing by hearing another perspective.

Your enemy is not faith. Your enemy is fundamentalism, in all of its forms. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s better to criticize specific practices and the individuals directly responsible for perpetuating them rather than an entire faith. It’s more accurate, and when we’re discussing issues this sensitive and this important, accuracy is to be preferred.

And finally: if you’re willing to cosign a sweeping attack, especially one put forward by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on an entire belief system you have some immediate soul-searching to do. The facts are simply not in your favor.



13 thoughts on “Yes, You Can Criticize Religion, But

  1. I think it’s important to recognize the distinction between religion as it’s defined in the canonical documents of a faith, and religion as it’s customarily practiced. I’m not so sure that the former should always be taken to override the latter, as you seem to be arguing.

    I’ll concede right up front that if you define “Islam” as “the rules and practices which are commanded in the Qur’an”, then FGM isn’t an Islamic practice. On the other hand, the Old Testament doesn’t forbid mixing milk with meat, but it would clearly be wrong to conclude that this isn’t a Jewish practice. Similarly, the New Testament says that Christians should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor, but does it follow that anyone who doesn’t do this isn’t really a Christian?

    And then you get to the edge cases. Does the Bible command believers to refuse blood transfusions? The Jehovah’s Witnesses say it does; other denominations say it doesn’t. Is that a “Biblical practice” or not? The Bible says that prayers offered in faith can heal the sick, so are Christian Scientists following the Bible when they forsake all modern medicine in favor of faith healing?

    Because texts are amenable to endless reinterpretation and there’s no way to objectively settle the dispute between competing opinions, I don’t consider looking to those texts to be a workable way to decide what is and isn’t part of a religious tradition. The only feasible solution, in my mind, is to look to ordinary believers to see what they consider to be part of their practice.

    It’s true that FGM predates Islam, but I’d argue that it’s been “adopted” by Islam (and, as you note, some non-Islamic cultures as well). However it became incorporated into Islamic societies originally, Islam is now serving to perpetuate the practice. It may well be true that the root problem is human nature, but I’d argue that religion in general serves to sanctify the worst parts of human nature and impede moral progress by leading people to claim a more-than-human justification for their misdeeds and prejudices.

    • I don’t think anything you’ve said invalidates my argument. The fact that there is no monolithic Islam, or Christianity, or whatever, is exactly why we shouldn’t be making generalizations about these belief systems. One person’s Islam is not necessarily indicative of someone else’s Islam–so it’s absurd to criticize ‘Islam.’

      It’s also a bit much to say that Islam has ‘adopted’ FGM. In some communities, people justify FGM with arguments they say are Islamic. That’s not even close to the same thing as ‘Islam,’ the religion, adopting the practice of FGM. This is not a reasonable thing to say.

      Nor is it reasonable to claim that religion impedes moral progress. Rather, it can be a powerful force for good. Take the organization I volunteer with, Femin Ijtihad. We use sharia’h to argue for women’s rights in Muslim communities; ie, we argue that egalitarianism is more Islamic than the alternative. Working within in a community’s value system is often more effective than working outside it.

      There’s just nothing rational about any of these arguments that religion is somehow holding the entire human race back. I don’t think a world cleansed of religion would necessarily be any more just than the world we have right now.

  2. look at any Islamic country and compare how the minority Islamic sect is treated let alone those of Christian or other faith. Do you see anything like the instituational persecution often codified in law in non majority Islamic states? Do you see anything close to the routine oppression and violence in non Islamic states?

    How moderate can ‘mainstream’ Islam be? Ask a practising Muslim what the punishment for Apostasy is. What the punishment for Homosexuality is. I could go on.

    And I’d be interested to know when the Shi’ites became a minority and took power over the Sunnis in Bahrain?

    As you say ‘Do your research, Know your history’.

    Madame I think you are a cultural relativist.

    • That’s a lot of ignorance for one comment but I’ll try to address it as best as my sanity will allow.

      Yes, I see quite a bit in the United States, and other countries, that resembles the ‘routine oppression and violence’ you decry in predominately Muslim countries.

      Exhibit A: the prison industrial complex. Exhibit B: police violence, which disproportionately affects minority groups. Exhibit C: surveillance, which also disproportionately targets minorities. Exhibit D: a thriving religious right bent on establishing theocracy.

      To borrow a Biblical reference, you have a beam in your eye that you should remove before ranting about these specks.

      Not all Muslim sects treat apostasy and homosexuality the same way, nor is there anything resembling consensus among Islamic scholars what the punishments for both should be–or if there should be any punishment at all.

      You know very little about the subject at hand. And fyi: cultural relativists are not particularly prone to unequivocably condemn practices like FGM. As I do.

      • You equate discrimination against Muslims in the US with that of Christians in Egypt with its forced conversions and mob violence? Or of Athiests in Saudi Arabia with a law which defines them as terrorists? Or Pakistan where the Blasphemy law is routinely used to condemn Christians to death?

        What about bombs at Shiite shrines and Mosques in Iraq? Or bombs and shootings at Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan? Is there anything approaching this level if violence against Muslims in the US? Violence mandated by religion.

        I specifically stated ‘ask a mainstream practising Muslim about Apostasy and Homosexuality’, Ask a practising Sunni who are without doubt the mainstream. Or indeed a practising Shiite.

        If I condemn the Pope and the Catholic church for covering up child abuses and state that all Catholics hold some blame and responsibility I’ll not get called a bigot.

        If however I condemn Islamic institutionalization of violence towards women I obviously am according to you. As is
        Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

        If I were to print a poster dipicting Jesus and Mohammed abusing a woman. Would it be Christians or Muslims who would threaten my life?

  3. Nice to know you’re on team Brandeis

    And why, pray tell, did Brandeis balk on their plans to give her an honorary degree?

    Well, as it turns out, her lifelong crusade against Islamic institutionalization of violence towards women hurt some Muslim’s feelings.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the victim of female genital mutilation. She was beaten in the name of Islam. She was the victim of a forced marriage. The guy who directed the movie she wrote was murdered by Islamic militants and she’s received countless death threats from the same people. When she talks about the dangers of Islam, she’s not some backwoods yokel spouting off about how the Jews is controllin’ the werld through them UPS satellites. She’s an exceptional, brilliant human being speaking from personal experience.

    Unlike you.

    And when Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that this religion; the religion she was born into and victimized by throughout her life; really does represent an existential threat to the rest of the world, she’s shouted down by the cultural relativists

    like you.

    • Oh. I get it. It’s not enough that I’m also an ex-religious fundamentalist woman who experienced violence during her upbringing. I’m just not the right kind of ex-religious fundamentalist woman. My experiences and conclusions don’t conform to your personal prejudices and therefore, I’m just a nasty cultural relativist.

      You don’t understand what cultural relativism actually means. If I were actually a cultural relativist, I’d make excuses for practices like FGM. I’d turn a blind eye to violence against women in other cultures and hesitate to condemn that violence, if I mentioned it at all.

      But that is not the case, and I am not a cultural relativist. I’m simply pointing out the truth: which is that there is violence against women everywhere, and that Hirsi Ali’s experiences don’t represent mainstream Islam. Because they don’t. They don’t, any more than my experiences represent mainstream Christianity.

      Those are the facts. If you don’t like them, that’s on you. But certainly don’t call yourself a rationalist.

  4. Wow where do I start with this? Firstly let me say I’m an Atheist having been bought up Church of England. I think all religious faiths and denominations range from being relatively harmless and ridiculous to downright dangerous and ridiculous. I think if I described the CofE as being towards the relatively harmless end of the spectrum I wouldn’t be courting controversy.

    Having read a number of your posts I finally had to write to point out how inconsistent and indeed disingenuous your opinions appear to be.

    You clearly have no truck with any criticism of Islam and see no inconsistances with womens rights and the application of Sharia Law.

    Whilst Islamic law extends some rights to women the Qu’ran requires women to be obedient to their husband’s and describes men as a degree higher than women in rights and responsibilities, it permits men to divorce their wives without cause and deny women custody rights to their children after a certain age. Just a few examples that are not open to any interpretation.

    What really shocks me is you bad mouth female critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maryam Namazie. Women who probably know a damn sight more about what its like to be a woman under Islam. Very real death threats and all.

    I get that coming from a Christian fundamentalist background you know far more about the swivel eyed loonacy of people with that particular brand of faith. But hey you don’t require round the clock protection when you call these guys out. And you don’t get branded a bigot and racist.

    In a previous post you claimed to criticize Islam is racism. I could point out the many factual inaccuracies in that post and your wooly reference ‘Post Colonialism’ However:

    The tragically irionic part was your defence of UK Universities ludicrous attempt to allow gender segregation on campuses on the spurious grounds of protecting visiting speakers freedom of speech. They did indeed use a fictictional case study. But the fact is Islamic groups are and were doing just this. I have seen it at first hand at UCL where I study. Two separate doors to a lecture theatre one marked Brothers and other Sisters. Rather menacing Islamist ‘thugs’ making it abundantly clear they will ensure it is observed too.

    Now the irony bit. Can you imagine those two signs being replaced by Blacks and Whites?

    Now that would be racism.

    But I guess when it comes to your defense of Islam my women’s rights end where their religious rights begin

    • Ah, how to respond. If you’d managed to leave a coherent response, instead of a rant reflecting your poor reading comprehension skills, it would be easier. But I’m always up for a challenge.

      I did not “defend” the report by UK Universities. I said quite clearly that it was a stupid recommendation. I also said that the response to it was disproportionate to the recommendation and eventually began to rely on stereotypes of Muslims. I stand by both assessments.

      Having researched shari’ah professionally I certainly have more knowledge of the subject than you do. There’s room in Islamic jurisprudence for egalitarian applications of shari’ah, and these are actively supported by progressive Muslims around the world. You do the cause of gender equality no benefit by erasing those progressive narratives simply because of your own, factually inaccurate, prejudices about Islam.

      Perhaps read a bit more before you decide you have opinions about a subject.

      • Sorry Sarah but you know nothing of me or my background but I can actually talk from experience.

        Just where are these ‘progressive muslims ‘ finding ‘Room in Islamic jurisprudence for egalitarian applications of shari’ah?’

        Is it in the Sharia ‘courts’ in the UK Where we both reside?

        Or maybe in the courts of Afghanistan? Where I see the NGO you act as ‘Social Media Intern’ for are doing very laudable work?

        I was bought up in inner city Birmingham in an area which has the highest percentage of Muslims in the city. My school had around 90%. I have a 6 muslim cousins, my aunt having married a Pakistani and converted. My eldest cousin, also my best friend at school, had an arranged marriage to a cousin from Pakistan. They have one child a boy. He was violent to her from the get go. When she finally got the courage to ask for a divorce, against her will, the family forced her to go to one of the many Birmingham Sharia ‘ Councils’ or courts. They insisted on over 6 months of face to face arbitration. To get agreement for divorce she had to agree that the paternal grand parents take custody of the boy which is in fact illegal for them to even to interfere in this area.The whole experience was devastating for her. She ran in the end with the child and she is in genuine fear for her life.

        Not in the UK then.

        It seems your NGO have worked hard in Afghanistan. Reviewing the Daft Family law Bill. Advising lawyers on highlighting women’s inheritance rights advising on appeals against stoning for adultery and where the victim of rape is forced to marry the rapist.

        The end result of that work?

        Now the international spotlight is going away, and the US is pulling out a new law passed by the Afgan Parliament banning family witnesses to domestic abuse sets the cause for women’s rights back to square one. Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch, said: “Opponents of women’s rights have been emboldened in the last year. They can see an opportunity right now to begin reversing women’s rights – no need to wait for 2015. The lack of response from donors has energised them further.”

        I can guarantee all that work will be a distant dream within 2 years.

        So not in Afghanistan then either.

      • Honey, I don’t live in the UK anymore. You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about on a number of fronts.

        I know the situation in Afghanistan. I know it a lot better than you. I know people who are actually in Kabul right now, working on women’s rights. You might not like my opinion, but I’m hardly uninformed.

        Groups like Femin Ijtihad, Progressive Muslim Voices and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community steadfastly promote LGBT rights, gender equality and freedom of expression. Your only quibble with them is that they still identify as Muslims, and that’s just not reasonable on your part.

        Your experience with Islam is not definitive–just like my experience with Christianity is not definitive, harmful as it may have been for me.

  5. “Honey”? What would your response be Sarah, to any man who opened his remarks to you with “honey”? You are being hugely patronising and I hope you know it.

    I also find it hugely amusing that your “experience with Christianity” is a credential you brandish at every opportunity until it comes time to compare it with someone else’s experience with Islam. Then, all of a sudden, personal experience is “not definitive”. Do you have those goalposts on wheels or do the Brothers help you to move them?

    Admit it, Carol Smith got you bang to rights. You blithely assumed that a former C of E Englishwoman would have no direct experience of Islam and you were wrong. She knows more that you, but you haven’t the humility to acknowledge it.

    As for Carol’s opinion that all the work done for women’s rights in Afghanistan is going to evaporate 5 minutes after the last Western troops leave that’s hardly controversial. Every Head of State in the West knows it. But they’ve spent enough blood and treasure and they want out.

    If you want to prove me wrong, go back to Kabul after the troops leave and call the Taliban “honey”. See where it gets you.

  6. That’s interesting about Islam and FGM. Kind of reminds me a bit of Christianity and male circumcision (MGM). Paul was clear that it’s not required for Christians and yet Christians will often justify the practice by saying “It’s in the Bible.” Despite OT circumcision being a minor snip off the end, not the removal of the whole foreskin. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said that FGM is not as bad as MGM in her opinion, but she may be talking about some of the less severe forms (removal of clitoral hood only).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s