There’s been a lot of talk lately conflating Islamophobia and racism. Of course the knowledgeable among us know that Islam is not a race but a religion made up of people of diverse ethnicities and races. Those who use the term racist to accuse others of Islamophobia are themselves guilty of a kind of racism that views all muslims as brown, exotic people from the east, when that simply is not an accurate depiction of all Muslims. But there’s no magic in words, so terminology aside, I think we need to ask ourselves a question about the role of criticism and how it’s received in western society when it’s deployed against religion.
Religion is a tricky thing. Though it’s a set of ideas that one freely ascribes to, these ideas area held so deeply that they are exalted as a fundamental part of someone’s personhood; it’s tied up in many people’s identities. The result is that when religion is criticized there’s an impulse to get defensive in the same way one reasonably does when they hear someone ridicule another for their race, sexual orientation, sex, or gender. But religion isn’t like those things because those things aren’t ideologies; they do not inherently come with prescriptions for thought and behavior that can be upheld or ignored. They may be in some ways reasonably generalizable predictors of thought and behavior, but those thoughts and behavior are contextual, not inherent.
Religion on the other hand does indeed come with inherent prescriptions for thoughts and behavior. Mind you there is a distinct difference between religious people and religion. Being religious in some ways acts as a predictor of thoughts and behavior as trends within religious sects, but by no means are those thoughts and behaviors necessarily uniform within or across sects. What is generally uniform across religious sects is the collection of ideas contained in the holy book or books that people in a given religion generally choose from to construct their religious identity. Because people don’t choose from those ideas uniformly, they must be open criticism. Simply put: while all people may be created equal, not all ideas are, and lets face it the wisdom of bronze age patriarchs often misses the mark for people living in the digital age, an age in which patriarchal structures are being dismantled and new power dynamics are emerging.
The problem as I see it is that the kind of push back we see against religious criticism is rarely a defense of religious ideas, but rather of religious people. The recent spat between Reza Aslan and Sam Harris is a great example. When Harris said that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas . . .,” Aslan didn’t respond by defending the specific sorts of ideas to which Harris was referring. Frankly, as a thinking person he couldn’t. What highly educated modern academic is ready to offer up a robust defense of the religious scriptures that allow the likes of ISIS to justify their brutality? But Islam is a part of Aslan’s identity so he had to offer up some defense of his identity, so he responded by defending moderate muslims. While we should be glad that there are intelligent, modern people who have looked over their religious texts and rejected the sort of ancient wisdom that calls for brutality in the name of the sacred, this in no way engages the point brought to bear that there is a lot of twisted nonsense in Islam and other religions that needs to be rejected for the sake of human decency. Furthermore, it is no surprise that moderates reject their religion’s brutal recommendations; this has been the status quo for the entirety of the modern era; let’s face it, though there are certainly timeless truths that can be learned from religious texts, the totality of ancient wisdom just isn’t applicable to modern life, and despite what ISIS, Al Qaeda, and others might believe, really liking Yahweh a lot probably shouldn’t be a suicide or death pact. To be clear Aslan goes wrong in this way: that there are moderates is not the point. Moderates only matter when they are willing to check the aggression of fundamentalists. In this vein the Kurdish Peshmerga are worthy of praise; much of the Iraqi Army leaves a lot to be desired. However, lets not get ahead of ourselves; we have yet to see what the most faithful of these groups would do with real power in their hands.
When it comes to defeating fundamentalism, the only prescription is to change minds, and the power of argument and criticism is one good means by which we can do that. Now argument and criticism of the ilk provided by Harris may not be an effective way to change minds; that seems a fair criticism. But if that is your critique, make that critique instead of offering the red herring of forcing the critic to pay lip service to a moderate majority that has yet to reel in the worst extravagances of the fundamentalist minority.