HRS International

Getting it

On Sunday, September 12, the New York Times ran a selection of letters from readers reacting to debates about the Ground Zero mosque and the planned book burning in Gainesville, Florida. The thrust of the letters was that any concern about Islam was a sign of ignorance and that criticism of Islam was an act of bigotry against Muslims.

Getting it

By Bruce Bawer, HRS

On Sunday, September 12, the New York Times ran a selection of letters from readers reacting to debates about the Ground Zero mosque and the planned book burning in Gainesville, Florida. The thrust of the letters was that any concern about Islam was a sign of ignorance and that criticism of Islam was an act of bigotry against Muslims. Scott Gibbs of Raleigh wrote: “I have been appalled by some of the angry rhetoric directed at Muslims in recent weeks.” Gail Dreyfuss of Chicago suggested that “non-Muslim women might like to wear headscarves in solidarity with our Muslim sisters.” And a man who lost his wife in the Twin Towers on 9/11 proposed that “religious and cultural differences can be understood, maybe even accepted, or less feared, by listening to others, not just our own shouts.”

These letters were depressingly typical. They reflect a view of Islam that dominates the mainstream media and that is standard issue among ordinary citizens who think of themselves as liberals. Nine years after 9/11, it is stunning, maddening, and inexcusable that throughout the Western world, supposedly educated people continue to repeat the same misguided, nonsensical rhetoric about the religion whose adherents took down the World Trade Center.

At the root of this widely shared perspective on Islam is the notion that criticizing it is somehow an act of prejudice. Hurtful, tasteless, offensive, ugly, mean-spirited, undemocratic, un-American: over the years, and especially in recent weeks, given the controversies over that mosque and that planned book-burning, I’ve seen these and countless other, similar adjectives hurled at critics of Islam. The unspoken assumption behind all this adjective-hurling is that Islam is, or is comparable to, a racial or ethnic group, and that criticizing it is therefore an act of bigotry.

Of course, Islam is not an ethnic or racial group but an ideology. This is a point that has been made over and over again, and somehow it still doesn’t stick. At this point I don’t know what it will take for some people to get it. It is not, after all, a subtle or complicated point. On the contrary, it is very simple and elementary. Islam is an ideology, and is therefore, like any other ideology, fair game for critics. Some people’s apparent inability to grasp this blindingly obvious point is frankly baffling to me.

I mean, really. I attended Lutheran Sunday school from a very early age, and I do not remember a time when I did not understand that the point of the whole shebang was that we kids were being encouraged to subscribe to a certain set of propositions about man and the universe. That was why we were there – hello! That was why we were being read those Bible stories and taught those hymns. As a kid I bought books from door-to-door Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, and read about Catholic beliefs and Methodist beliefs and so on, and got a pretty good idea of the different ways in which a variety of traditions, all of which identified themselves as Christian, chose to make sense of things. I understood early on that it was up to me to look at all this stuff and decide what, if anything, I wanted to buy into. That was part of my freedom as an American. Of course, I didn’t need to buy into any of it if I didn’t want to. That was my freedom, too.

Which brings us back to Islam. Like Catholicism, Mormonism, and Lutheranism, Islam is not an ethnic group or a skin color, not a style of clothing or a type of cuisine. It is a set of propositions about man and the universe. You can learn something about those propositions by reading the Koran and hadith (the sayings of Muhammed), which are available online in English translation. Nine years after 9/11, there is no excuse for an informed adult living in a Western democracy not to be familiar at least with the main points of Islam. Among the main points are these. The universe was created by Allah. Muhammed is his only prophet. All human beings are born Muslim, and those of us who do not consider ourselves Muslim have been misled. Every Muslim is obligated to believe that the Koran was dictated by Allah to Muhammed, and must therefore accept every statement it contains as a statement of fact and obey every last one of the dictates set down in its page. Since the Koran is the literal word of Allah, moreover, it is not susceptible to “interpretation” of the sort that might soften its message.

Further, all Muslims are obligated to view the life of Muhammed – a warrior who married several wives, including a girl not yet in her teens – as an exemplary life that they should strive to emulate. All Muslims are obligated to accept the systematic subordination of women to men (that’s what those headscarves are about, Ms. Dreyfuss). Among much else, this means that a man may take up to four wives while a woman can only be married to one man; a man is free to divorce at will while a woman must endure a lengthy and complicated set of divorce proceedings and even then may not be granted a divorce; a woman’s testimony is worth less than a man’s in a court of law; a husband has the right to beat his wife; and so on. All Muslims must acknowledge the supremacy of sharia law, under which (among much else) female rape victims and homosexuals are subject to execution.

There is, to be sure, one significant difference between Islam and the other religious ideologies I’ve mentioned. If you’re brought up Islam and you decide to leave the fold, you’re not free to do so. Under sharia law, apostasy from Islam is a sin that is to be punished by death. In this way, as in many others, Islam is irreconcilable with Western notions of individual liberty. Speaking of which: Islam doesn’t mean “peace.” It means “submission.” Think about that. And, no, it doesn’t do any good to dismiss the Koran by pointing out that there’s nasty stuff in Leviticus, too. In 2010, none of us, not even the most fanatical Christian fundamentalists, actually live according to Leviticus. By contrast, ask any acknowledged Islamic scholar whether every single word of the Koran is still binding on Muslim believers. The answer you will get is yes.

This isn’t all, of course. There’s a lot more where this came from. But it’s a start. Before sounding off about criticism of Islam, people should first take the time to get acquainted with the principal tenets of Islam so that they will know what they are talking about – and so that they will understand why some of us do indeed view this particular set of propositions about man and the universe as a threat to freedom.