• On Islam and answering my critics

    I have had many discussions concerning Islam and my views pertaining to it. I would like to flesh out here some of the criticisms I have had and answer them properly, also offering this as a post that I can point people to when this undoubtedly pops up again.

    Before I get properly started, one claim is that the number of posts concerning Islam (for example, on facebook etc.) seems to show I am prejudiced against Islam, or some such claim. I am a philosopher of religion. That’s my bag. I criticise religion. I have, for seven years, harshly criticised Christianity, I have written, edited or contributed to almost ten books attacking Christianity. No one has once levelled this accusation at me regarding that. Or the right-wing, Republicanism. libertarianism or any other position. But as soon as I criticise Islam, fellow liberals take offence (on behalf of the Islamic community). So if some stats about the 88% of Egyptian Muslims favouring the death penalty for apostasy comes up, I am asked why I am not apoplectic about 48% of Britons favouring the death penalty, or that the US do A or B and that I should worry about that more. But:

    • Why aren’t those philosophers of the death penalty more concerned about the Egyptian numbers in support of it for apostasy?
    • This is a red herring
    • I am a philosopher of religion, so this is my area of expertise. It’s like demanding an economist spend more time arguing for biodiversity, or an expert on Greenland be told it is more important that she concentrates on American economics, because X and Y. We all specialise.

    And so on. I would ask that when I criticise other groups of people, these same critical fellow liberals actually pick up on defending those subgroups and labels of people. In some sense, it says more about my critics than it does about me.

    What would be interesting is to look into the motivation for such defence. Ibn Warraq talks about liberals, over recent history, failing to criticise Islam in serious ways. When Salman Rushdie was issued a fatwa, at the time many liberals defended the Ayatollah in Iran and the street demonstrations calling for Rushdie’s death rather than defending Rushdie himself. Warraq maintains that this, and other things (like liberal newspapers failing to review his books critical of Islam even though he is a staunch defender of liberal democratic values), seem to point to liberals siding with the enemy of their enemy. In other words, liberals often hate the imperialistic machinations of the US, and the US reacts against countries which are predominantly Islamic, so liberals side with Islam. In fact, only the other day a staunch liberal on facebook was telling me how amazed he was that fellow liberals were defending Putin seemingly for this same reason! It is acceptable to be critical of both. This is not a false dichotomy.

    The confusion largely comes in a misappropriated conflation. Attacking Islam is not to attack Muslims, per se. If I attack the Bible as being a terrible book detailing terrible decrees for its adherents, I am not attacking my Christian friend down the road as being terrible. But this is clearly what is going on in the minds of many such critics of my position. Nowhere have I stated that “all Muslims are terrible” in some kind of hasty generalisation. And that annoys me. Attacking Islam is not necessarily to attack each and every adherent.

    The next misconception, similarly, is that my complaints do not take into account what most Muslims do believe or how they do act. Correct. This is entirely not my point, In moral philosophy, descriptive ethics is about describing how the world is, what it believes. Normative (or prescriptive) ethics deals with what people should believe. That is what I am interested in. I set out some axioms, and then talk about what Muslims, if they accept those axioms, should believe and how they should act (if they want to adhere accurately to those decrees), and take it from there. This becomes frustrating, because throwing around 1.6 billion Muslims as some kind of evidence that I am wrong is missing the point in a very major way. My point remains whether there are 0-infinity Muslims bucking the trend.

    It seems that there were several things going on with such discussions in general, which I will list here:

    1. Tarring all Muslims with the same broad brush used to attack radical jihadis
    2. Using circular methodology of setting out the axioms to then bring about a conclusion that I want
    3. The prevalence of my posts is representative of a bias and prejudice against Muslims
    4. That upwards of a billion Muslims is evidence against my position

    I have already sort of mentioned this point above, but let me expand. What is my case? Well, as set out to begin with here, and then largely here and then in public debate in Bournemouth the other night is as follows:

    Christianity and Islam are different in that Christianity is based on the Bible which is the inspired word of God and can be seen in a myriad different ways (fallible, metaphorically etc.) and is written in unknown times and places by unknown people. It can be interpreted literally, but it is not the literal word of God. Written by man, there is an interpretative layer which gives it greater wriggle room and adaptability. With 42,000 different denominations of Christianity, it can be cherry picked to support any position you might hold: loving/hating gays, slavery, blacks, prosperity, socialism etc. etc. It’s success has been in its dilution and adaptability, like an organism adapting to its environment in evolution.

    Islam is different, it is the word of God, dictated through Gabriel over 22-23 years in a cave to an illiterate prophet. Thus the Qu’ran, which the revelations became, are accepted by all Muslims as being the immutable word of God, a divine monologue if you will. It is not an anthology of poetry, history, proverb, allegory, myth, narrative etc. as the Bible is, but a set of divine decrees and guidance from the “mouth” of God.  This means that Islam demands that society adapt to it, scientifically, economically and morally (to a much larger degree than Christianity, say).

    This is crucial, and was not seen clearly enough by detractors.

    Let me start by looking at one of the axioms. To be a Muslim, which literally means one who”submits to the will Allah” (Islam meaning “submission” or “surrender”), one must believe, then, in Allah. Otherwise, you would be a deist, or some other religious label. If this word has meaning and properties, it must refer to a belief in Allah, and this must come from somewhere. I would like to a thought experiment or set of propositions for the reader to answer:

    • a) Imagine that God existed
    • b) Imagine he actually revealed decrees (X and Y) to mankind through a prophet which was accurately recorded
    • c) Does it then follow that a follower of this God could more or less accurately behave as according to X and Y?

    What follows is, it seems, yes, a believer could be more or less accurately following the decrees of God in some meaningful sense.

    This is the idea of “True Islam” that I go to lengths to express. I don’t think any Muslims, or any substantive number that could in any way represent Islam, believe in the denial of a) or b).

    Many people don’t like the broad brush stroke of “Muslims believe” because it is thought that the term “Muslims” encapsulates a wide variety of Islamic believers and traditions involving very large numbers. Yes, it does and there are. But none I know of would deny a)  and b). If this is not the case, then please show me. In other words, in some way, a) and b) are essential properties to the term “Muslim”. This is the heart of the debate.

    Is my methodology wrong, then, in setting up the parameters of the debate to favour my conclusion?

    Part of the issue is, and I said this in the lead up to the Dorset Humanists debate, that detractors have not read the Qu’ran, and, indeed, many, many Muslims do not have a working knowledge of the text. I was overjoyed when David Warden of the DHs took me up on the challenge of reading it and did indeed find it a struggle. This causes many issues, but the main issue remains:

    If the Qu’ran is an accurate representation of God’s word (i.e. is God’s word such that Arabic is seen as God’s language and the Qu’ran should be read in the original language), and if it contains guidance and decrees of how Muslims should live (including entailing submission therein), then there are Muslims who are more accurately following orders than others.

    If we then include Muhammad as a divine prophet and role model, we have more criteria against which to evaluate Muslims. As I have set out before, as he was a militaristic leader who beheaded people and became more expansionist and less peaceful, we have a problem.

    I am not setting up this debate to get the conclusions I want, and argue in a circular fashion. I don’t want this conclusion. However, either Muslims in the vast majority, if not all, cases, believe a) and b) or they don’t; and and if they do, where does that leave us?

    It is vital that people read the Qu’ran to get this point. It is a torrid and morally abhorrent book. It declares things which I fundamentally disagree with. I came away from reading it feeling, on every page, dehumanised. The book declared that Muslims, in no uncertain terms, cannot be friends with non-Muslims, that we are to be treated with contempt. The children I teach (and this is no joke) could do a better job of creating a moral handbook than the Qu’ran. That statement should be treated with the seriousness I give to it. That is not a throwaway statement.

    So, are the actions of a few extremists indicative of the entire population, such that I might appear prejudiced. If I were to believe that the entire population is going to act as a handful has, it would be claimed that I may well be.

    However, I am not saying this. I am not saying what IS happening, but what SHOULD happen (descriptive vs normative) given the axioms. What DOES happen is that where liberal Muslims are morally progressive, they are putting their intuitive, perhaps societal, morality first, and then post hoc ratonalising it with the Qu’ran, or even failing to rationalise it scripturally. This is a GOOD thing, but this does not make them accurate Muslims if such accuracy can be evaluated against the Qu’ran. Either God said verse after verse against non-Muslims or he didn’t. Since some 19% of the Qu’ran details aspects about non-believers (what to do with them or what God will do with them in the eternal torment of hell), there is a skewed obsession with the likes of you and me.

    What do liberal Muslims do with these verses? They either don’t know them, or they rationalise them away, or they ignore them. The only hope for a Muslim to remain an accurate Muslim yet not enact the more violent decrees is to have a decent framework to deliver such rationalisation. But the word of God is supposedly immutable, unless you can show me large tranches of Muslims who believe this is not so. With theories, as complex as they might be, of abrogation whereby the later verses of the Qu’ran abrogate the earlier (more peaceful Meccan) verses (and abrogation is derived internally from the Qu’ran and externally in the Hadith), then the problems are greater for the peaceful liberals than for the radicals. The violent verses are many and legion.

    I am not tarring people with a broad brush. I am not saying anything about Muslims as a collective whole and what they do do. I could do this. I could refer you to the PEW stats which, even when looking at the minorities (which are sizeable), do not look good. I am saying what (it matters not how many there are) they should believe given the axioms. The problem rests with having the Qu’ran as a holy book and the idea that it is the direct word of God. This is the key to the issue and one which I have very clearly set out before.

    Some say “who are you to declare what Muslims should believe?”, but I can throw that right back: who are you to declare they can rightfully adopt whatever claims they want and have equal standing with all other Muslims? Both are positive claims. I will always defer to the provenance and claims of the original book, without which there would be no Islam!!!! I don’t have to be a Muslim to access the same text as them, otherwise no non-adherent of anything would have a right to an opinion about the thing that they deny!

    When I get such criticisms of sounding prejudiced, it makes me think people just don’t actually read what I say, they just read the titles, or something. Here is how I ended my biggest piece at the centre of this, which I think are pretty fair:

    My main conclusion is this:

    Islam is defined by its creator, its holy book and the actions of its people. The first two are highly problematic, the third having large minorities with extreme views or actions. But those actions are largely on account of the first two points. Those liberals who edit out the bad parts of their holy book are cherry picking the holy book and this is diluting the true immutable word of God. If there is such a thing as a true Muslim, I think the radicals approach a more accurate version of that. This means that we need to reform the first two points to change and improve the third.

    These are complex issues and to say that Islam bears little resemblance and has little causal power in the development and sustenance of Islamic fundamentalist religious violence is, to me, absurd. If all of these states were secular humanist states, would such secular humanists be able to carry out such atrocities and claim it for secular humanism? They could carry it out, but no one would be able to ascribe such violence to the notion that they were secular humanists. That would be impossible. Not so with Islam. It’s there in the texts; go read them.

    I am not saying that Islam as a cadre of writing, history, and people is entirely responsible for extremist violence, otherwise all Muslims would be terrorists. Likewise all other external factors involved cannot wholly be responsible otherwise all other people with those factors at play (socio-economic etc) would be violent extremists. But there is a dangerous mix of many factors, of which Islam appears to be an important or necessary contributing cause.

    Islam needs a reform; I just don’t know if one could reform a religion which is based on a holy book which is the direct word of God without making the religion some kind of syncretic, effectively secular religion with little pedigree or relevance to its core history and contemporaneous values.

    If it did, though, I would be the first to be very happy about that indeed.


    Finally, there can be (and has been) criticism of my position that pointing out the correct causality in connecting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism with the religion of Islam may well be true but this does not help solve the problem. It is a consequentialist ethical position that though there is a truth, this truth doesn’t help and so should be suppressed.

    Possibly. I don’t know whether it helps or not. An alcoholic needs to admit problems with their core behaviour before reforming themselves. In such a way, Islam needs to reform by first accepting the problematic issues within its own theological, political and moral framework.

    Personally, I am interested in truth first and foremost, as a general rule of thumb. It is hard to get robust philosophy and morality without knowing the proper facts, and living on illusion. If Islam does have causal responsibility for Islamic terrorism on account of its holy book and divine characters, then I am sure as hell going to point it out. That said, I would not want my post to be used to unnecessarily drive divisive and counter-productive wedges between nonbelievers and liberal or moderate Muslims. Right-wingers may want to jump on views like this and use them for their own particular ends.

    Nothing’s ever easy.

    I am genuinely following what I think are the necessary corollaries of the text. I am not prejudging fact, I fact, I actually read the Qu’ran, which is more than I can say for some of my fellow liberals who are my biggest detractors. If you can find my posts to be unfairly prejudiced, then I will edit them as necessary. My goal is not to demonise Islam unfairly, but to establish truths and states of affairs which reflect reality.

    Finally, for my methodology to be wrong, it has to be shown where Muslims in any substantive numbers disagree with my axioms about the authorship.

    Category: ExtremismIslamPhilosophy of Religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce