When I got home from work on the night of the terrorist attacks in France my heart sank to see the news. My family was confused as to how any person could be motivated to deliberately perpetrate such evil, and I felt such compassion for and solidarity with the French people.
It’s time to have a conversation. A conversation the “regressive left” doesn’t want to have and a conversation conservatives have in many ways derailed. We have to talk about Islamism.
Maajid Nawaz in a talk with Sam Harris at the Harvard Institute of Politics defines Islamism as the forcing of Islamic beliefs on others. Islamism should be separated from fundamentalism and Islam as a whole.
This linguistic distinction is very central to Nawaz and Harris’ new book “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” Any time someone attempts to talk about the important issues concerning Islam with the left they are not only denied a lexicon by which to have the conversation; they are degraded as bigots and Islamophobes. This includes members of the left and Muslims trying to have this conversation. This is a perversion of what could be called liberal principles such as tolerance and pluralism.
The conservative conversation seems to largely be, “Ya’ll people need Jesus. We need to just stomp them into the dirt.” Conservatives aren’t afraid to call radical Islam what it is, but conservatives are not, in my view, providing an adequate linguistic distinction for anyone to have a meaningful conversation. Nor are conservatives offering any viable long-term solutions.
I’m not sure what’s worse – no conversation or a bad one.
Nawaz has coined the refusal to name Islamism the “Voldemort Effect.” Others see an “us versus them” dilemma and consider war and conversion the solution. I’d call that the “Darth Vader Effect.” We know you have good intentions, but your priorities are out of order.
In order to have a productive conversation we have to recognize the role of religion. Islam is not a religion of peace or of war. It is a religion, and you can find harmful, benign and positive aspects in all of them. This isn’t to say all religions are equally good or bad in the slightest, but I won’t get in to that today.
It is important not to construct apologetics for the toxic bits of religion. Strongly held beliefs such as the oppression of women, martyrdom, certainty in paradise, violent jihad (as distinguished from the internal struggle) and philosophical certainty must be as Harris puts it, “…destroyed intellectually.” The solution is not apologetics but reform.
We have to find some method by which to lift the Middle East out of its Dark Age. Nawaz describes the Islamists as a disproportionately powerful and vocal minority. The flipside of that coin is that the majority is disproportionately powerless and silent, and we aren’t helping. Many on the left refuse to talk about the problems in Islam, and in denying the usage of criticism even by Muslims, they disempower those who need the most support.
The Muslim reformers, feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, minority religious groups, secularists, atheists, apostates etc are shut down before they can even mention the need for reform and the need to ideologically combat Islamists who pretend to speak for the whole of Islam and all those residing in nations they control. Then we complain at not hearing moderate voices coming from the Middle East.
This conversation is subverted and these people are abandoned when we allow words like “Islamophobia” to carry any weight. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are people racist against Arabs, Semites, Persians, Indians, Africans etc, but criticism of ideas does not constitute racism. Furthermore, a person is not racially defined by their religion even though there are people bigoted against religions.
There is a difference between criticizing or even mocking ideas and degrading people. As Nawaz put it, “No idea is above scrutiny, and no individual is beneath dignity.” There is a difference between scrutiny or satire and bigotry.
Normalizing this scrutiny is challenging. Religion has the anomalous ability to construct ideas, even patently bad ideas, without the usual criticism due to some taboo on scrutinizing faith-based beliefs. But this scrutiny has to happen in the West and in the East for reform to be an option.
We have to promote the most benign interpretation of the Quran possible, or these victimized people will continue to be lorded over by madmen with anachronous ideas.
Separating Islam from Islamism prevents blurring the lines between the two making it less likely for Muslims to be blamed as a whole, and it allows conversation about those aspects of Islam that require reform. We want to see the rise of nations of law, equality and democracy in the Middle East, but this will not happen without reform.
Reform will not occur without standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable reformists and victims in the Middle East who need all the support they can get. The least the West could do and perhaps the most is entertain a conversation.
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