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Apr 12 2012

Islam is dangerous

The extent to which I object to any religious belief is more or less commensurate with the level to which it informs one’s daily life. If you privately believe that the universe is 20 minutes away from being devoured in a ball of flame, but you still do a good job filing my tax returns, it’s really not my place to get all hot and bothered by your delusion. This isn’t to say that, if given the opportunity, I won’t say something about how ridiculous your beliefs are. After all, the truth is important. However, it simply doesn’t interest me to put my shoulders into exposing the irrationality of your particular faith. After all, provided you make no (or comparatively few) life decisions based on it, it’s a bit arch of me to go after it.

Islam, at least insofar as I understand it (and have seen it practiced) is one of those faiths wherein daily observance and connection to day-to-day life is much more persistent. Christianity, by comparison, has fewer daily rituals and practices that mark someone as “a Christian”. There is no dress code, there are no dietary restrictions, few necessary public observances. It is far easier to be a “stealth Christian” than it is to be a “stealth Muslim”. Couple that with daily prayers and the phrase “inshallah” (which one of the guys I work with uses – to be sure, one branch of my family doesn’t talk about the future without saying “God willing”, so that kind of obeisance is not exclusively Muslim), and you get a religion that is very much a ‘live in’ one.

Perhaps the most visible signifier of Muslim belief is the head covering that many Muslim women wear (either by choice or by coercion). I’ve known sisters, both who would describe themselves as ‘observant’ – one wore the head scarf, the other did not. It was very much a choice for them, and I have no quarrel with that. The only thing that weirds me out about the whole practice is the fact that it is an open, visible sign to everyone around you that you subscribe to the belief that women ought to cover their hair for ‘modesty’ purposes. I would be, I imagine, similarly put off by a Catholic woman who wore a wimple or a Hindu woman displaying a bindi (although the bindi is often cosmetic rather than religious).

But one cannot escape the fact that, at least here in North America, there is a lot of danger associated with women who wear hijabs. Danger to the women themselves, at least:

California police are investigating a possible hate crime in connection with the death of an Iraqi woman who was beaten unconscious on Wednesday. Shaima Alawadi was found next to a threatening note saying “go back to your country.”

Fatima Al Himidi, told KUSI-TV her mother had been beaten on the head repeatedly with a tire iron, and that the note said “go back to your country, you terrorist.”

I’ve greatly enjoyed this week of poking fun at religion, but nothing fills me so quickly with a mixture of cold fury and visceral disgust than people who imagine their theological disagreement grants license to commit acts of violence against their fellow human beings. There may be people out there who are less tolerant of religion than I am, but there’s definitely a larger number who are more tolerant. I think religion is inherently harmful, and I don’t think it matters what ‘kind’ of religion you’re talking about: faith undermines human progress and contributes to human suffering. That being said, there will never be a point at which I allow my distaste for the idea turn into an attack on the individuals who hold it.

Someone in California was simply not able to distinguish between criticism and physical violence, and beat an innocent woman to death for the crime of wearing a hijab. Calling Shaima Alawadi ‘innocent’ is perhaps a soft sell – her job was cultural sensitivity training for military personnel going to Iraq. Presumably, I suppose, so that the Iraqis wouldn’t beat those personnel to death and leave notes telling the invading American troops to go back to their country. Perhaps someone should have provided the killer with some cultural sensitivity training about the United State’s policy of religious tolerance, and its anti-discrimination laws (to say nothing of anti-murder laws).

This post should not be read as an admonishment to you, gentle readers. I can’t imagine in a million years that anyone in the FTB audience would even dream of committing an act of violence against someone simply because they have religious beliefs. I’d imagine in fact that most people, religious or otherwise, would shrink from even the idea of murdering someone over a disagreement, no matter how serious. Rather, this is intended as an invitation to join me in lamenting the fact that, for all the hysteria over “creeping Shariah” and the Islamification of “Western” society, Shaima Alawadi was more at risk than risky.

I was upbraided on Twitter this week for using the phrase “war on religion”. It was probably precisely for reasons like this murder. Our conflict with religion is not, and must never become, an armed struggle. Our world views are in conflict, and insofar as that can be described as ‘war’, it behooves us to use the appropriate armaments – succinct and evidence-based argument, mockery and satire, compelling human stories – whatever it takes to expose religious ideas for the falsehoods they are. That being said, there will come a time when we will be called to defend religious believers – not because we share their beliefs, but because we share their humanity.

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24 comments

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  1. 1
    troll

    I really don’t see much of a difference between the individual or individuals who murdered that woman and the individuals who flew planes into buildings a decade ago. The scale is smaller, but the act and motivation are equally vile.

    On a general note, I quite simply do not understand nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. It baffles and confuses me. One’s nationality is an arbitrary bit of luck. Why is it such a huge deal to some people?

    And because I’m feeling impish, maybe instead of “war on religion”, you should say “jihad on religion”?

  2. 2
    Godless Dane

    That was fucking beautiful.

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    Is the killing best framed as a religious issue or a race/ethnicity issue? Yes, wearing the hijab was a religious requirement to the victim, but to the assailant it was likely just something that marked her as the hated Other (note that I don’t know any of the details of the case). I’m unconditionally against assaulting people for their choice of headgear, irrespective of why they wear it (no, not even for backwards ball-caps). That I might find their reasons for wearing it problematic is a separate issue.

  4. 4
    iknklast

    Bravo! Well said.

  5. 5
    baryogenesis

    Rarely comment, but am compelled to say: Very well written. It would be awesome to some day see this kind of piece accepted as an editorial in local papers.

  6. 6
    John Horstman

    So are you an absolute pacifist, or do you believe that violent action might be warranted in response to violent action? What about if that violent action is carried out by proxy, through the mechanism of the sate, by passing laws requiring the state to visit violence upon vulnerable minorities, say by executing people who engage in same-sex sexual behavior or raping women as part of ‘virginity tests’ or ‘informed consent’? Beating women who drive or executing people for practicing ‘alternative medicine’? Enslaving people? Engaging in genocide?

    If you’re not an absolute pacifist, I don’t think the line is clear at all, and if you are, then I think you’re very, very wrong in your belief that absolute pacifism is a good idea. Sometimes the best, or only, way to stop these kinds of things is to kill a whole lot of people with evil beliefs who refuse to actually look at the consequences of their beliefs and actions or consider that they might be wrong.

    This post should not be read as an admonishment to you, gentle readers. I can’t imagine in a million years that anyone in the FTB audience would even dream of committing an act of violence against someone simply because they have religious beliefs. I’d imagine in fact that most people, religious or otherwise, would shrink from even the idea of murdering someone over a disagreement, no matter how serious.

    True, I will not think murder is justified ONLY on the basis of a belief or disagreement, but those almost inevitably lead to actions. In no way do I think the murder of Shaima Alawadi was justified. That said, there may well be a time when we are called to defend religious believers, and there may also come a time when we are called to go to war with them. Both could be true at once (or not; right now the most likely scenario here is USA is looking like the potential need to defend the full human agency and bodily autonomy of women).

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    So are you an absolute pacifist

    No, and I’m not sure how you could have gotten the impression that I am. My point here is that religion as an idea cannot be defeated through violent means. While it is certainly reasonable to employ force to prevent atrocities like the ones you list, it is not an appropriate response to disagreement, no matter how strong.

    Sometimes the best, or only, way to stop these kinds of things is to kill a whole lot of people with evil beliefs who refuse to actually look at the consequences of their beliefs and actions or consider that they might be wrong.

    Yeah… no. Not even close. The answer to the problem of religion is not killing all the bad people until there’s only those who agree with us left. I guess I was premature in my assumption that there weren’t any megalomaniacs on these threads.

  8. 8
    camarye

    Sadly, it appears you were premature.
    But then, we see such attitudes even among those we exalt. (Hitchens, anyone?)

  9. 9
    oldebabe

    Okay, speaking of Islam, et al, lots of discussion about women’s head scarves, burkas, etc, all good comments, but what’s with all those troops of males groveling with nose to the ground, and rear raised up to/for… what?…and not just daily, but up to 5 times per day??? Every time I see it, the silliness (or suggestiveness…) of the positioning makes me smirk, and wonder: how can they?

    It’s too bad we have to take any of this seriously.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    Personal anecdote:

    In high school, I took a class in world religions taught by a really cool guy named Mr. Simeonides. On the day we started the unit on Islam, he showed the class a video. There was a serious problem with either the tape or the TV, because the audio would periodically short out, making a rather rude noise. It was distracting at first, but eventually we managed to find our maturity and stop laughing at the sound. One of the climactic moments of the video was a view of the Hajj in Mecca, with millions of Muslims praying before the Kaaba. As one, they bent over to touch their heads to the ground in submission to Allah.

    The audio chose that exact moment to short out, producing a particularly loud blast.

    I was laughing so hard I had to be excused from the classroom to regain my composure.

  11. 11
    hall_of_rage

    Fuck. Someone killed a cultural sensitivity trainer for soldiers going to Iraq?? We so desperately need such people! Fuck. This makes me so angry.

  12. 12
    shargash

    I grew up in SE Pennsylvania, the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and there bloody well is a dress code (not to mention goofy headgear for women). Contrariwise, one of my best friends at work (sadly gone on to another job a few years back) was a practicing muslim woman (second generation Iranian refugee) who was absolutely indistinguishable in her dress, language, and demeanor from a generic American 20-something Christian (or Jewish or atheist) professional.

    I agree that Islam in general appears to inform people lives more than Christians (in general), but I think that is more an aspect of power than of the religion. If (when) Christians find themselves with the short end of the power stick, they would be just as nutty as muslims.

  13. 13
    Leon

    With you on that Crommie! This is one of those things that just shouldn’t have to be said…but obviously, it needs to be said a whole lot more often.

    And even after incidents like these, somehow we’re the militant ones, the extremists, the group that makes for the biggest threat to Western civilization. It boggles the mind.

  14. 14
    Winterwind

    The only thing that weirds me out about the whole practice is the fact that it is an open, visible sign to everyone around you that you subscribe to the belief that women ought to cover their hair for ‘modesty’ purposes.

    I don’t think we should make assumptions about why women wear the hijab. There are a significant number of women who wear it because they believe it is required for “modesty”, but there are other important reasons for wearing it, just as there are a range of reasons for Christians wearing crosses, Sikh men wearing turbans, Hindu women wearing bindis, or Christian nuns wearing wimples.

    One problem with the idea that Muslim women primarily wear the veil for modesty, is that it implies that most Muslim women believe that unveiled women are immodest, wanton sluts who probably deserve what’s coming to them if they are sexually harassed. This is likely to create resentment towards Muslim women particularly in a society where Muslims are a minority and people are ignorant of the range of views within Islam.

    I don’t make assumptions about the personal beliefs and values of a woman wearing a hijab, any more than I do about a Sikh man wearing a turban, because I understand that for many people these accessories are simply markers of their upbringing and cultural identity. One of my classmates in high school was a boy of Greek Orthodox background who wore a crucifix around his neck. He was also quite a sex-obsessed misogynistic playa who liked humiliating porn and fantasised about cheap and easy sexual encounters with girls. If you asked him his religion, he would have said “Christian”, but anyone who made assumptions about his beliefs on modesty, love or virtue based on his crucifix would have been barking up the wrong tree.

    Some reasons for wearing a veil, turban, bindi or crucifix include:

    * a desire to feel a connection to one’s mother, father, grandparents or other family members
    * a desire to continue the cultural traditions of one’s ancestors
    * a sense of belonging to one’s subcommunity
    * advertising one’s beliefs or membership of a social group
    * submitting to coercion, force or social pressure

    I would be, I imagine, similarly put off by a Catholic woman who wore a wimple or a Hindu woman displaying a bindi (although the bindi is often cosmetic rather than religious).

    I’m actually a little distressed (but not suprised) to hear that a woman wearing a bindi might put you off or make you uncomfortable. My mother wears a bindi (in Tamil we call it “pottu,” “பொட்டு”). Once again, it bothers me that people would make assumptions about her views on modesty or propriety. Many of us of minority backgrounds wear these symbols simply because they’re part of our traditions, not because we subscribe to particular dogmas and wish to advertise that fact and subtly pressure others into adopting them.

    I suppose part of the reason I feel defensive is that opposition to religious symbols can happen for two reasons when it comes to minorities:

    1. I’m against the veil, bindi, turban etc. because, having educated myself about the religions involved and the diversity of views within these religious communities, and having understood that there are a range of reasons for wearing such a symbol, I nevertheless object to them on the grounds that they are rooted in outdated and patriarchal values which go against my principles.

    2. I’m against the veil, bindi, turban etc. because they are symbols of dirty foreigners/savage barbarians who are not like us!! I resent migrants because they come over here and steal our jobs and assault our women and refuse to assimilate and refuse to work and live on welfare and support terrorists and don’t wear deodorant!!! If they want to live here they shouldn’t wear such outlandish things and they should learn about OUR VALUES!!!!

    I’m not for a second suggesting that you were advocating the second position. But people who hold position 2 like to pretend they hold position 1 to make their views seem more reasonable, which makes this an emotionally charged issue.

    To be honest, I don’t think my mother even knows why she wears a pottu. I don’t think she thinks about it, any more than I think about why I tie my tie in a Windsor knot when I wear a suit. I suppose someone might say that by wearing a Windsor knot I must be a royalist, because the Windsor knot was probably invented by the Duke of Windsor or King George V. This is not an entirely fair comparison, because no one claims the Windsor knot is about supporting royalty, whereas a significant number of Muslims claim the hijab is about modesty. Nevertheless, I suspect a large number of veiled Muslim women wear the hijab for the same reason my grandmas wear the pottu, and for the same reason I wear a Windsor knot – that’s the way my Dad taught me to do it, that’s the way I’ve always done it, and I don’t see any particular significance in it. It’s just a tradition.

    I remember when I was a little boy, I thought it was really cool that my mother, aunts and grandmothers got to wear a pottu. I thought it was something special, grown up and mysterious. I wanted to wear one too and I was very disappointed to learn that only women and girls wear them all the time, although men and boys get to wear them in the temple and on holy days.

    When my sister was in high school, she decided one day to wear a sticker pottu to school as a fashion accessory. Some stupid white boy put his hand on her forehead and ripped the pottu off, and told her not to wear it again. When I heard about it I was bloody furious. Either this arsehole thought he was protecting Australian society from evil foreign values, or he thought that as a rational, enlightened white Western man, it was his duty to rescue my sister, a poor downtrodden Hindu girl, from the wicked fate of being coerced by savage brown Indian men into wearing a sticker pottu as a fucking fashion statement. If his sister wore a cross to my school, and I ripped it off her neck to save her from Christian patriarchy, I don’t think he would be too pleased.

    (Incidentally, I’m curious about why you mentioned the bindi along with the hijab and wimple as possibly off-putting. I can certainly see why the hijab or wimple could be interpreted as a statement about female modesty, but the bindi? A case can certainly be made that the bindi is a symbol of a patriarchal and sexist culture, but it requires greater knowledge of Hinduism than most Western non-Hindus have. So I’m curious as to what you think the bindi has to do with modesty.

    From my own knowledge, a couple of possible objections to the bindi are:

    1. It can be interpreted as an advertisement of a woman’s marital status, and thus her sexual availability. Married women typically wear red sindoor/vermilion unlike single women.

    2. It can be interpreted as symbolising a woman “belonging” to her husband. The red vermilion is applied by the groom to the bride in wedding ceremonies, and she stops wearing red bindi when her husband dies.

    There are further objections but I won’t go into more detail here.

    These two objections would apply equally well to, say, the exchange and wearing of wedding rings in Western culture, a practice which you probably don’t object to, despite its equally patriarchal roots. If you saw a woman wearing a wedding ring, you wouldn’t make any assumptions about her views on modesty or gender equality, would you? For most people, it’s just a tradition… much like the pottu/bindi in my culture.)

    In summary, I just want to say that people of minority backgrounds might wear religious symbols for a wide variety of reasons. If I meet an Italian woman who wears a crucifix, I won’t automatically assume that she’s trying to send a message, or that she believes I’m going to burn in hell, or that she subscribes to all Catholic teachings, including the immorality of contraception, abortion and homosexuality. If I meet a Sikh man wearing a turban, I won’t assume he’s highly religious, because the turbaned Sikhs I know range from atheists to highly religious people. And as for women wearing the bindi, I know how the bindi-wearing women in my family can fall anywhere on the religious, politcal or feminist spectrum.

    So I won’t make assumptions about the beliefs that women wearing the hijab subscribe to, on modesty or anything else.

  15. 15
    mynameischeese

    See, that all sounds good when you’re talking about something you’re Ok with, but I have often come across people who wear the confederate flag because (allegedly) they like “states’ rights” (whatever that means) and people who wear Nazi symbols because they want to “celebrate their ethnic herritage” (whatever that means) and your argument can be easily stretched to accomodate those people. But I judge them.

    Personally, I don’t have any negative feelings about bindhis because I can’t imagine any situation where I would be forced to wear one, but since I have been required to cover up for Catholic and Muslim “modesty” reasons, I really resent seeing women with whimples and hijabs and the like. Not enough to tell them to take them off, but I definitely judge them. Maybe as a man, that’s not something you can relate to.

  16. 16
    mynameischeese

    Also, my husband and I don’t wear wedding rings, except when we’re in a country where our lack of rings would bring harassment on us and would lead to us being denied a hotel room or whatever.

  17. 17
    Winterwind

    Hey, mynameischeese, what do you think you’re doing? You’re disagreeing with me on FTB, a clique of intellectual bullies, and I’m apparently slanderer-in-chief. Since you refuse to toe the party line, I’m obliged to write a malicious post in which I accuse you of being a Holocaust-denier or something.

    But seriously, you raise some great points. I’ll definitely spend some time mulling them over. I understand that symbols are not worn in a vacuum, so their meanings can’t be determined solely by the wearer. Displaying a confederate flag in the context of a racist culture, when the flag is associated with slavekeeping states and a war fought for the right to keep slaves, is seriously problematic regardless of whether the displayer is just doing it to support states’ rights. The swastika is a holy symbol for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, but is firmly associated in the West with Nazism, white supremacy and genocide, which makes displaying one in public deeply problematic again. I suspect that many people who claim to be displaying these for innocuous reasons are actually lying.

    Personally, I just don’t feel the hijab is as wicked as the other two, maybe because I’m desensitised to it because I hang around with veiled Indian aunties quite a bit and don’t even notice their veil, any more than I notice my mother’s bindi. As you tactfully suggested, it could simply be that my male privilege is shielding me from understanding the impact of the ways in which religion controls women’s bodies. For the moment, I stand by my initial feeling that there is a certain amount of cultural insensitivity here, and that people are sometimes prone to being frightened of the veil and reading more into it than is warranted because they are less familiar with it.

    I think it’s cool that you and your husband don’t wear rings. A few years ago I decided that wedding rings were too much like symbols of ownership, and I wanted nothing to do with them if/when I got married. Later on my views softened somewhat. I decided a ring could also be a sweet symbol of love and commitment, and the problematic aspects could just be ignored. I don’t know how much leeway we have in reclaiming and reinterpreting old cultural traditions. Anyway, all that is pretty moot for me, because I’m going to be single for the foreseeable future, and I don’t know if I’ll ever want to marry, and gay marriage is still a long way off in Australia anyway.

  18. 18
    mynameischeese

    Ha! I saw that “intellectual bully” comment and laughed out loud. Pointing out racism on RDF = bullying? Yeah, so I guess that means that being racist is polite.

    Sorry to hear that you still can’t get married in Oz. Gay people still can’t get married here either, which is why we were going to boycott marriage, but we caved for legal reasons (we’re both different nationalities, so had to marry to have the right to live in the same country). The legal system is totally set up to reward heteromarriage and thus punish anyone who abstains from it or anyone who wants to engage in a different type of marriage.

  19. 19
    slc1

    Speaking of clothing requirements for women, Haneen Zoabi, who is a female Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, and who is a vociferous critic of Israel, although supposedly a devout Muslim, wears western clothing. If she dared to enter the Gaza Strip dressed like she appears in the Knesset, she would be lucky to escape with her life.

  20. 20
    Iamcuriousblue

    I understand xenophobia, even if I don’t agree with it. The fear is that immigrants will come in in such great numbers that natives will become a minority in their own land, and one will not be able to get by on simply the language, cultural assumptions, etc. that one grew up with. A lot of just comes down to laziness and a wrongful expectation that culture will stay the same over time. In North America, perhaps there’s an underlying knowledge of that those of us who are of non-Native extraction live on land that was brutally taken from its original inhabitants, who are now a small impoverished minority in their own land, and fear of a similar comeuppance to our people.

    The paranoia is especially true of those who are perceived as aggressively changing the culture, which is a widespread perception of muslims, a perception unfortunately fueled by a small but vocal minority of western Islamists, and some of the more misguided efforts of European governments to combat anti-Islamic sentiment through neo-blasphemy laws.

  21. 21
    Iamcuriousblue

    “Nevertheless, I suspect a large number of veiled Muslim women wear the hijab for the same reason my grandmas wear the pottu, and for the same reason I wear a Windsor knot – that’s the way my Dad taught me to do it, that’s the way I’ve always done it, and I don’t see any particular significance in it. It’s just a tradition.”

    As a complete aside, I’m somebody who wears a tie so infrequently that I’ve actually forgotten how to do it a number of times. But this actually had an advantage, in that because I was forced to actually look it up on the internet, I found that there are actually several methods of tying a tie, and discovered a particular one called a Pratt knot that’s both relatively easy to tie and looks quite good with the smaller collars on contemporary shirts. Something I probably would never have done if I’d simply remembered what my uncle taught me a never varied it.

  22. 22
    Raul

    Atheists are dangerous too. My grandparents were tortured and maimed in an Officially Atheistic state.

    We have all been taught what you will do to us if you get the chance.

  23. 23
    Crommunist

    Who is “you” and who is “us” exactly?

    And I’m pretty sure you didn’t bother to read past the title of the post.

  24. 24
    Beauzeaux

    Sometimes it’s best not to rush to judgment.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/06/us/shaima-alawadi-court-records-show-family-in-crisis.html

    There’s more to this than a simple hate crime. (Why her? She was just one of many women who wear the hijab. The frenzied nature of the attack [in her own home] points to someone who knew her.) It didn’t add up at the beginning and still doesn’t.

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