Monday, February 2, 2015

Is it Racist to Criticize Islam?

            It almost goes without saying that the subject of Islam is a bit of a hot button these days. Conflicts sprout up on an almost daily basis, and rare is the month that goes by without some form of atrocity getting committed by some person or group claiming Islamic inspiration. Whether it’s mass kidnappings of young girls, beheading members of other religions, rioting and even outright mass murder over cartoons of their prophets, suicide bombings, inter-sect warfare, or whatever new item that comes up in the news, it’s hard for an outsider to come away with a positive impression of the faith these days.

            At the same time, Islam does not lack for defenders even among those who decry these atrocities. It’s not unusual at all for non-Muslims to excuse the religion from culpability, claiming that the perpetrators aren’t “true” Muslims, or that those who level criticism are being Islamophobic or even racist. And sometimes, such defenders may even have a point, because it’s also not unusual for people to go way over the top in broadly labeling everyone who bears a Muslim identity as a potential threat. But on the other hand… not so much.

            Of course, the easy response to claims that criticism of Islam is racist is that Islam is not a race. But as true as that is, it also kind of glosses over the fact that opposition to Islam is often used as a mask to justify anti-Arab bigotry. I’ve read more than a few articles about people condemning a community of Arab ethnicity for their Muslim beliefs, when the community was in fact majority Christian. Since it’s not acceptable in modern America to attack people simply for being Arab, people do sometimes attack the religion associated with being Arab as a sort of racism-by-proxy.

            The other issue that such a glib response tends to gloss over is the fact that religious bigotry is a thing. It’s not technically racism, but it’s still bigotry.

            So am I saying that it may not be racist (at least not directly) to criticize Islam, but it’s still bigoted to do so? Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying either. The point is that both sides kind of have to exercise a bit of nuance and critical thinking on the subject. Look at the circumstances, the context, and the content of the criticism. Generally speaking, if someone is criticizing Islam because it’s something strange, brown people practice, then it’s probably racist criticism. If someone is criticizing Islam by lumping everyone who identifies by that label into the stereotype of violent misogynist, it’s probably religious bigotry of some stripe. For that matter, if someone is opposing a particular idea simply because it’s Islamic, that is also probably religious bigotry.

            But there are legitimate criticisms of Islam. As a religion and an ideology, Islam is a collection of ideas (though not necessarily the same collection from one person to another). Some of those ideas - such as encouragement of charity and community responsibility - are good or could have good arguments made in their favor. We shouldn’t reject those ideas merely because they are Islamic. Some of them - such as the ideas that Allah exists and has marching orders to give us, Muhammad was a god-inspired prophet who conveys those orders, or that people who stop believing either of those ideas should be killed - are bad. We shouldn’t refrain from criticizing those ideas merely because they’re Islamic. Ideas, religious or not, are legitimate targets of criticism, and opposing the bad ideas contained in Islam is not the same being bigoted towards Muslims or toward any particular race.

            Once again, we return to a recurring theme that comes up in my blog: one of the great bad ideas of religion is the packaging of ideas together under a defining monolithic label. The good ideas (and indoctrination) can be used to generate deep commitment to the monolith, which in turn makes it incredibly fraught to try and attack the bad ideas. Such attacks are perceived as assaults on the monolith itself, and with it the good ideas that it contains. So you end up with situations where people refuse to question whether their religion’s creation myths are true, because that implies questioning the authority of the religion that proclaimed it, which in turn implies questioning that same religion’s pronouncements against murder. But there’s no logical link between the myth and the moral pronouncement other than the fact that they both got packaged into the religion. Breaking these kinds of links is one of the reasons that criticism of religion is essential to a progressing society.

             So to bring the topic back around, I guess the answer to the question in the title of this post is “not necessarily.” The mere practice of criticizing Islam (or any other religion) is not inherently racist or even bigoted. But there are ways to use the excuse of criticism to engage in racism and religious bigotry. It’s up to all of us to think carefully about the criticism we encounter, as well as the criticism we produce, to ensure that we are avoiding those pitfalls.

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