If “Islam” is the problem, what’s the solution?

I swear this is the last time I’m going to reference this idiotic Bill Maher-Sam Harris-Ben Affleck dust-up. But Ramesh Ponnuru makes a pretty good point, one that I’ve kind of made also, and let me just say that if the guy who wrote a book titled The Party of Death tells you that your argument is simplistic and hyperbolic, you should probably listen:

But Harris and Maher went off track themselves: At no point did either distinguish between criticizing beliefs common among Muslims and criticizing Islam itself. Harris started things off, recall, by attributing these pernicious beliefs to “the doctrine of Islam.” Later on, he defended himself by saying, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” Maher, absurdly, chimed in: “That’s just a fact.”

I don’t find it offensive when people criticize Islam (or, for that matter, Christianity) as a font of bad ideas. But I think it’s more likely to be counterproductive than useful in countering illiberalism and radicalism among Muslims. And it’s not a stretch to treat an attack on the Islamic religion as a criticism of all or most Muslims.

The beef that Maher and Harris have is with liberals who are, in their view, insufficiently critical of the more illiberal and/or dangerous aspects of Islam. My response to that would be that most U.S. liberals who have a real interest in the Islamic World have spent the better part of the last 13 years (did I say 13? because it’s really more like 25, or 35) trying to get our own government to stop bombing and/or starving the people who live there, so there’s maybe not a whole lot of room left for a great Western liberal critique of Islam just now. I’ll concede that there’s some cultural relativism involved here as well, but not, as Maher and Harris would characterize it, in the “we’re all special snowflakes and every culture is good in its own way” sense.

On the contrary, to the extent that relativism plays a role in this discussion it’s far more likely to be in the “only Muslims can fix what’s broken about Islamic society” sense. And look, there’s a lot that’s broken. Believing that apostasy from the majority faith is a crime worthy of execution is a sign that something’s broken. The practice of female genital mutilation in some parts of the Islamic world (which is a regional and cultural problem far more than it’s a “Muslim” problem, but still) is a sign that something’s broken. Honor killings are a sign that something’s broken. The prevalence of slavery or near-slavery is a sign that something’s broken. Mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities is a sign that something’s broken. The abundance of authoritarian regimes and violent extremist opposition is a sign that something’s broken, in this case with plenty of help from the liberal West along the way. Lots of these things are still broken in the West, too, but the point that people like Maher and Harris need to understand is there is no great American thinker who’s going to solve these problems for the Islamic World. Much as they might wish it to be so, Bill Maher and Sam Harris are never going to lead Muslims to a universal embrace of Western liberal values, but they sure can drive a lot of Muslims in the other direction if they keep at it.

What Ponnuru calls “counterproductive” I would put to the Bill Mahers and Sam Harrises (and the Andrew Sullivans, though he’s much more careful than they are to say that groups like Daesh are but one troubling manifestation of the religion, and not fully representative of the religion as a whole) of the world in a different way. Say we all wake up tomorrow and decide that you’re right; “Islam,” whatever you mean by that in this context, is in fact the problem. Not religious extremism or social and political stagnation or corrupt oppression or misogyny in general, but Islam. What now? We wait for every Muslim on the planet to convert or to embrace atheism? We march off to war and force them to convert? What? If “Islam” is the problem, then there really is no way forward that doesn’t involve some kind of “Clash of Civilizations”-type massive war, is there? Because Muslims aren’t going to leave the faith we’ve now categorized as uniquely problematic just because we really want them to. This is basically the same question I’d ask of anybody who is hell-bent on proving that Daesh, the “Islamic State,” really is “Islamic”; I mean, OK, so what? Does that mean we’re at war with “Islam” now? That’s not a fight we’re going to win, sorry.

On the other hand, acknowledging that Islamic society, like every other society on the planet, is a work in progress and that such progress is never going to really be finished, that opens up possibilities. Maher and Harris seem to have this vision of Western liberalism that met the problem of regressive Christianity head on and can do the same to regressive Islam, but that’s a fundamentally ahistorical view. Western liberalism has worked within the framework of Judeo-Christian society to change its orientation, not to defeat it (which it would not have been able to do had it tried). Similarly, those aspects of what we would call “liberal values” that have taken root in the Islamic World have done so by working with and within Islamic society, not against it. Social transformation doesn’t work any other way; it can’t be imposed by the Great Thinkers of a neighboring society and it certainly can’t be imposed on the tip of a Hellfire missile. If the problem is misogyny within Islamic society, then Muslims who are not misogynists can convince those who are to change their thinking, or else marginalize them. If the problem is a streak of political dysfunction within the Islamic World, then movements like the Arab Spring, which work in fits and starts and are going to fail over and over again until they succeed, can end that dysfunction and create representative governments that work for, rather than against, their citizens. But if the problem is “Islam,” then that means all Muslims are part of the problem, and I’m afraid there’s no real answer for that.


7 thoughts on “If “Islam” is the problem, what’s the solution?

  1. >>>I’m afraid there’s no real answer for that.<<<
    Not so bleak. Listen
    1. The West is influencing the Muslim world anyway: with its free market economy. The free market is penetrating the whole world via the capillaries of each society. Via the mass media tv-commercials, and IT. The free market has a globalizing power. It weakens even the permafrost of the Muslim world, and the Islam bulwarks are staggering. This is provoking the Islamism. But this cannot stop the ‘wind of change’ of the free market.
    2. Attacking somebody’s god-belief is contraproductive indeed. Better is, presenting a nicer alternative. But what? And how?
    3. When I lost my god-belief myself, I started to reconstruct our human origins with all anthropological, archeological, paleoanthropological and other scientific stuff I could get. And that is much. It enabled me to devise an alternative origin story for the backwarded Adam-and-Eve Story. The story of how 4 mya our kind deviated from the path of the normal ape-men, by the culture of names for the things. How they became linguistic apes, started using the fire, became religious apes, singing and dancing the origin story of their tribe, and so on. A coherent story of our mental, spiritual evolution, using the physical and archeological evolution of the mainstream scientists. A science based Western alternative for the stupid monotheist story. Nice. But how this nicer alternative can be brought in? Preaching? With a book? No way: doesn’t work.
    It has to become a project. A never ending project, and preferably from the UNESCO. The UNESCO can say: the fundament of our Universal Declaration, the “being human of every human”, the basis of everybody’s human rights, has never been worked out since 1948. Now, 2014, we dispose of all the needed scientific material to fill this gap. So we, UNESCO, invite all state universities all over the world to participate in our project.
    You can imagine the tumult, rising from all bulwarks of god-belief. But UNESCO say: we don’t attack nobody’s belief. We only fill a long waiting gap under out Universal Declaration, that’s all. And goes on. People all over the world get being curious: what is going on? Oh, a new vision about human origins. A give it a look. And newspapers bring interviews of eggheads about the possibilities and desirabilities of the project, tv-debatings, name it.

    What do you think of this idea, Derek?

    1. I’m a big fan of UNESCO, but what you propose would still involve an outside institution modeling the “ideal society” for the Islamic World, and it’s not going to work. The kind of change you want to achieve is only achieved from within, and the West frankly needs to get out of the way. To the extent that the West has involved itself in trying to transform Islamic society it’s always been counterproductive, either unintentionally (by tarring the ideas of liberal democratic change with association with colonialism or other undesirable Western institutions) or downright intentionally (when we overthrow democratic governments because autocracies are more reliably pliant).

  2. The problem is “Islam,” and that means all Muslims are part of the problem, and I’m hopeful that there’s a real answer for that, and that those who side against that solution are dealt with as part of that answer.

      1. This is what I don’t get: the sudden alliance between the hard atheists and the fundie christers for the purpose of demonizing a quarter of the world’s population in one fell swoop. I can’t see what either group finds so satisfying that it becomes willing to set aside generations of hatred.

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