In the wake of the controversial exchange between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, ‘progressive’ media like MSNBC and The Young Turks have been severely misunderstanding criticism of Islam and how religious belief influences people’s moral behavior and opinions. So I want to make another attempt to explain the position of people who share my particular views on the matter.
These groups are condemning any criticism of Islam because they hold to a peculiar, irrational view that criticism of Islam – as a doctrine set forth in a set of holy texts – equates to equal condemnation of all people who identify as Muslim.
No amount of explanation seems to be able to fix the misunderstanding in such a warped view, but I keep hoping that something will help us reach an understanding. With the following brief article, I have tried to convey the clearest possible explanation of what it means to criticize Islam and how that criticism relates to Muslims as people.
First understand that we say there is a difference between Islam – again, as a doctrine set forth in a set of holy texts – and people who identify as Muslim.
We are not saying that all people who identify as “Muslim” hold exactly the same set of beliefs, nor with the same strength conviction. Every person, Muslim or not, has many different factors that determine their beliefs and attitudes.
Religion is one of those influences, but not the only one. Being raised to believe that a certain holy book is the perfect, righteous word of God, and that certain prophets speak a perfect, righteous message from that God, and being surrounded by a society that holds those beliefs, can have an influence on a person’s beliefs and attitudes about the nature of the world, morality, and other people. And if those holy texts and prophets have said hateful and immoral things, then that can deeply influence the beliefs of people who were raised to believe those texts are the word of their perfect God.
The degree to which that belief results in a person adopting harmful ideas, or whether they adopt those harmful attitudes at all, will vary depending on a variety of factors including how devout they were raised, as well as other messages in their culture. It is possible for other factors (including simply not even reading their own holy books) to cause a person to mostly or entirely ignore the immoral ideas preached in the holy texts that they believe are the word of God.
So what we are saying is that while people who identify as Muslim can end up with different beliefs and attitudes, the influence of belief in the Quran and hadiths is not a positive contributor and it must be countered by other factors.
But this does not mean that we would expect all people who claim to believe in those texts will hold the exact same set of views. What it does mean is that we would expect to see disproportionate numbers of people who identify as “Muslim” holding certain immoral beliefs compared to people who adhere to belief systems that are not based around texts or prophets which contain those same messages.
We are talking about the overall influence that Islam – a doctrine set forth in a set of holy texts – has, which can be seen in trends among adherents.
So when we point out that polls indicate that disproportionately large numbers of people who identify as Muslim believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, or that support for religious law tends to scale with religiosity, that is not a condemnation of all people who identify as “Muslim”. It is an acknowledgment of evidence indicating that belief in Islamic holy texts – that is, Islam – is a harmful influence on people’s beliefs and moral values.
Perhaps the simplest way to get to the root of the issue is to ask this question of those who condemn people like Harris for criticizing Islam:
Do you think that being raised to believe in a certain holy book – to believe that it is the perfect word of God – has any influence on a person’s beliefs? For example, do you think that being raised to believe in a holy book that says your righteous God, your creator, condemns homosexuality as unnatural and immoral can have any influence on someone’s attitudes toward gay people, homosexual behavior, or same-sex marriage? What if that holy book says men are in charge of women and may hit them if they repeatedly disobey?
If your answer is anything other than “None. Zero.” then I cannot fathom why you would say it is wrong to criticize Islam. At that point we are merely discussing the degree of influence that Islam has, not whether Islam can be a harmful influence and warrant criticism.
And if you do say “None”, I would tell you that I think the evidence indicates otherwise, and then we can have that discussion. But either way, you need to understand what we mean by our criticism, and not act as if we mean something else.
But that is not my claim. If you view polls of Muslims on their opinions you will will find that the overwhelming majority claim to support religious freedom, oppose suicide bombings as a legitimate means to defend Islam, and support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to wear a veil.
Granted, the overall meaning of these results may not be quite as good as the plain numbers suggest, since many people’s definition of ‘religious freedom’ may differ from yours and mine (so they may still support discrimination against atheists), and majorities of Muslims also believe that a woman should obey her husband (so it isn’t clear how much freedom they actually support for women).
But although even these attitudes among Muslims may be tainted by Islamic belief to some degree, the overall results on those particular issues are positive.
My position is that belief in Islamic holy texts tends to be a harmful influence on people’s attitudes about particular issues that those texts make harmful declarations about. The texts also contain some positive messages but they do not remove the harmful ones, so Islam must still be criticized.
In short, I am saying that the Quran and hadiths contains doctrines and claims that deserve criticism, and thus no religion should praise them as righteous and holy messages from a perfect prophet or perfect God.