This is a guest post and reblog from Abdullah. Abdullah grew up in a Sunni Muslim family but today identifies as a secularist. He’s a writer by passion and editor by profession. You can find his work at http://abdullahwrites.wordpress.com.
In case you missed it, yesterday Sadaf Ali, Director of Community Development at the Ex-Muslims of North America, wrote a guest-post on PZ’s blog: Ben Affleck, You Are Not Helping, stressing the vital need for nuanced criticism of Islam from people who know what they’re talking about. A couple of days ago, Heina from Heinous Dealings on this network gave a concise, eloquent statement on the same event: Bill Maher/Sam Harris vs. Ben Affleck/Reza Aslan: I Choose Neither, expressing what I and many of my community members feel about the inadequacy of all the people presently given platforms to weigh in on this debate.
Abdullah’s piece serves as a crucial contribution to this conversation: How factually right or wrong is Sam Harris in his critiques of Islam?:
I’m sure you’ve seen the video by now: Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Nicholas Kristof, and Michael Steele arguing about Islam and how it fits in liberal culture. In the video, Harris and Maher argue that Islam is incompatible with liberal values, and that liberals should take a harder stance against it. This essay deals specifically with the points that Sam Harris makes, arguing that they’re reductionist and erase the progress achieved in Islamic societies, past and present.
To begin with, I’d like to say that I don’t think Ben Affleck had a good response to Harris. But I also think that he recognizes his own ignorance. When Harris starts making his argument, Affleck interrupts by saying, “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” But Harris responds that he is “actually well-educated on this topic.” This, from the get-go, shows Harris’s arrogance and blindness to his subjective and limited standpoint.
Harris then goes on to say that “Islam at the moment is the motherload of bad ideas.” This is not a new argument, and goes all the way back to the Age of Enlightenment. In “The erasure of Islam,” Ziauddin Sardar argues that many of the biggest Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, attacked Islam for being “the embodiment of fanaticism, anti-humanism, and irrationalism.” (Source) Sardar argues that, contrary to this view, the idea of the Enlightenment itself was actually a result of Islamic influence on Western thought:
“Islam developed a sophisticated system of teaching law and humanism that involved not just institutions such as the university, with its faculties of law, theology, medicine and natural philosophy, but also an elaborate method of instruction including work-study courses, a curriculum that included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, medicine, and moral philosophy, and mechanisms for the formation of a humanist culture such as academic associations, literary circles, clubs and other coteries that sustain intellectuals and the literati. The adab literature and institutions were, in fact, what enlightenment was all about in Islam.”
At first glance, this definition of adab seems strange. Today, the Arabic word adab simply means literature. However, historically, the term had a different meaning:
“Nearly all arabists have accepted that it derives from the plural adab of da’b, which means manner, habit, condition, state, or behavior, but originally conveyed the sense of way, path, or track, exactly as Sunna originally meant road, path, etc. Sunna came to be used for religious purposes, while da’b retained its figurative sense of manner or condition and adab was reserved for something similar to Sunna, but in a secular context. Adab indicated a set of rules inherited from the ancestors which comprised practical ethics, separated from all Koranic and traditional teachings, and also the sum of educational elements needed by a man [sic] who wanted to behave appropriately in all circumstances of life.” (Source)
It’s worth stressing that adab was a secular endeavour, a path towards the truth that can be seen as one that is parallel to the religious path. And that’s why, as Sardar argues, “One cannot have a revolt on behalf of reason in Islam because reason is central to its worldview: reason is the other side of revelation…”
Adab played such a large role in Muslim culture to the point that Wahhabism, the extremist ideology that today inspires many Islamic terrorists, most notably members of ISIS, has anti-adab beliefs at its very core. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, its founder, believed that the intent of adab “was the glorification of pre-Islamic ancestors and practices rather than God.” (Source)
Sam Harris argues that “jihadist” Muslims are at the “centre” of Islam, with political Islamists just behind them, and moderate, day-to-day Muslims behind those. This has the implication that violent Muslims have the true understanding of Islam, and all other Muslims are imperfect; that being a “jihadist” is the ideal, pure version of Islam. That’s a fundamentally flawed understanding of Islamic thought and history. “Jihadist” Muslims have never been the core of Islam, much to their chagrin. By claiming that the violent, irrational Muslims are the centre of Islam, Harris is not only reinforcing the European colonialist narrative, but also bolstering the Islamic extremists’ own narrative and declaring them the winners.
Despite Wahhabist claims, anti-intellectualism is a divorce from an Islamic tradition that spans all the way back to at least the ninth century. (Source)
The irony of Wahhabism is that in its fight to purify Islam from secular influences, it erases Islamic history. Islamic thought is intertwined with secular thought. One cannot erase secular thought from Islamic culture without erasing huge chunks of Islamic history.
There’s no doubt that Islam today is facing a decline in advancement, but that is in large part due to the influence of Wahhabism on Islamic culture globally, which cannot be overstated. Wahhabism is not only the ideology of ISIS, but also the ideology of Saudi Arabia, one of the U.S.’s main allies. And thanks to its immense wealth, Saudi Arabia has managed to infiltrate cultures all around the world, including in the U.S. itself, where the Saudi embassy distributes hundreds of hateful books in American libraries and mosques. (Source)
It would be absurd, however, to equate Islam with Wahhabism. Muslims today continue to fight against this puritanical malice, and there are many Muslim thinkers who keep the tradition of adab alive. One such prominent figure is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a Sudanese-American professor who specializes in human rights in Islam. In line with the adab movement, An-Na’im argues that Islam, human rights, and secularism are interdependent. (Source)
Harris also talks about the political views of Muslims around the world, cherry-picking statistics, thus drawing an oversimplified picture. He starts by claiming that “78 percent of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should’ve been prosecuted.” What he’s trying to do is portray a uniform view of Muslims opposing the publication of the cartoons depicting Muhammad. The truth, however, is more complex. In a Q&A the BBC wrote about the events, it stated that “some Muslims have accused protestors of overreacting.” (Source) It lists examples of Muslims showing support for the publication of the cartoons, some going so far as to republish them:
“A weekly newspaper in Jordan reprinted some of the cartoons and urged Muslims to ‘be reasonable’.
“Websites produced by and for Muslims have shown the cartoons or linked to them. One liberal website said Muslims were making a mountain out of a molehill.
“Some Muslims, mainly in Europe, have supported the re-publication of the images so that individual Muslims can make their own minds up and welcomed the debate on the issues that the cartoons have raised.”
There is, in fact, a long history of Muslims depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In her paper “From the Literal to the Spiritual: The Development of the Prophet Muhammad’s Portrayal from 13th Century Ilkhanid Miniatures to 17th Century Ottoman Art,” Wijdan Ali details the depictions of the Prophet throughout the ages by Muslim civilizations. She writes, “The earliest depiction of the Prophet Muhammad that has reached us is from the Arabic version of Jami’ Al-Tawarikh dated 1307…. In one of its miniatures, the Prophet is shown replacing the black stone in the Ka’ba.” (Source)
Ali goes on to detail and give visual examples of depictions of the Prophet from the Ilkhanid Dynasty in the 1200’s all the way to the Ottoman Dynasty in the 1600’s.
Talking about “78 percent of British Muslims” as if they’re representative of Islam missing a large part of Islamic culture. It neglects the fact that Muslims had no problem with depicting Muhammad for centuries. It neglects the fact that many Muslims today still don’t, some actively supporting such artistic freedom.
Moving on, Harris discusses how Muslim societies treat women and gay people, an argument often touted by interventionists to justify the invasion and colonization of Muslim countries. While it’s certainly true that women and LGBTQ folks are oppressed in many Muslim-majority countries, this argument misses the nuances and differing political opinions among Muslims. There are many initiatives in Muslim societies that advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people. Two examples are Meem and Helem in Lebanon. There is, as well, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), whose members include Daayiee Abdullah, an openly gay imam. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is yet another LGBTQ rights organization, dedicated towards providing mosques inclusive of LGBTQ Muslims. (Source)
Defending Harris, Bill Maher claims that progressive Muslims “are afraid to speak out,” but that’s clearly not true. There are many prominent progressive Muslim writers. When it comes to gender and sexual diversity issues, besides Daayiee Abdullah, Irshad Manji and Shereen El-Faki are two popular figures among the many that represent the voices of progress in Islam. Shereen El-Feki is the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, and Irshad Manji is the author of several books, including The Trouble With Islam Today, a critique of Islam from the perspective of a Muslim. Manji is also the founder of Project Ijtihad, which aims to “develop the world’s first leadership network for reform-minded Muslims” by reviving Islam’s tradition of independent thought, known as ijtihad. (Source)
When it comes to women’s issues in Muslim societies, Tunisia this year passed a progressive constitution celebrated as a breakthrough for women’s rights. Article 46 of the Tunisian constitution explicitly outlines Tunisia’s commitment to gender equality, in the political, economic, and private spheres:
“The State shall commit to protecting women’s rights and seek to support and develop them.
“The State shall guarantee equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of all various responsibilities of all fields.
“The State shall seek to achieve equal representation for women in elected councils.
“The State shall take the necessary measures to eliminate violence against women.” (Source)
The constitution also “guarantee[s] freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices,” and “commit[s] to preventing calls of takfeer [calling another Muslim an unbeliever] and incitement to hatred and violence and confronting them.”
This can be seen as a victory for progressive Muslims against Wahhabism, which uses politics of takfeer to justify sectarian violence.
The Tunisian Constituent Assembly voted overwhelming in favour of the new constitution, with 200 members of the assembly voting for it, 12 voting against, and 4 abstaining. And 85 of those who voted in favour of the constitution are members of Ennahda Movement, an Islamist organization. Only one member of Ennahda voted against, and another abstained. (Source) Evidently, it’s possible for Islamists to be progressive.
Add to this the fact that the President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, is a human rights activist and member of Congress for the Republic, a secularist party, and we see an image of Tunisian Islamists and secularists cooperating towards progress. This is in sharp contrast to the picture Sam Harris likes to draw of Muslims as people stuck in the seventh century.
Even when we look at conservative Islamist parties, we cannot look at voting trends and support for political parties from a single lens, namely that of religion. A study conducted on the support base of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) concluded that “support for Islamist parties is fluid. On the one hand, it depends on factors relating to the policies offered by a specific party and how credible the party is to the voters. On the other hand, it is influenced by factors that vary across countries, such as, for instance, the size of the welfare organizations of the Islamist organizations associated with the party.” (Source)
It’s also important to keep in mind the role Islamist parties play in political systems around the Muslim world. Islamist parties are seen by many as opposition parties, parties that call for dismantling the status quo. It’s this view that led voters to support Islamist parties following the revolutions of the Arab Spring. In the conclusion of the study on the PJD, the researchers wrote that “the strength displayed by the Moroccan Islamists in 2002 – when it doubled the number of votes received – was largely the result of positioning itself as a credible opposition. This might be true for other Islamist parties as well, given that other opposition groups have largely been co-opted and regimes in power lack legitimacy.”
When Harris talks about “20 percent” of Muslims supporting Islamism, he’s neglecting the socioeconomic and political realities of Muslims, thus turning them into fanatical ideologues, ones driven purely by religion.* This is an incredibly orientalist, reductionist worldview, as are his beliefs on Muslims regarding science and reason and women’s and LGBTQ rights.
Sam Harris draws a picture of Muslims that reinforces the European colonialist narrative, reinforces the Wahhabist narrative—both of which reduce the entirety of the history of Islam to one driven by religious fanaticism and ideology, both of which are ideologically driven fantasies that racialize Muslims by lumping them all together and ignoring the differences and nuances and rich and vast history of Islamic progress, both of which are utterly and incredibly and fundamentally oversimplified and wrong.
*Hiba’s note: I’ve been working on a piece addressing this topic, but on a more narrow scale: Why do Muslim women seem to subscribe to and have affinity towards norms and values that oppress them? It will be a long piece, with a table of contents, and probably the most significant essay, in my own estimation, that I will have written in 2014. I can’t wait until I am able to release it.
PS: Since I’m still trying to deal with mental health issues etc, and this means I’m not doing much writing myself, I am working on providing more valuable guest posts in order to shed light on the voices of ex-Muslims and/or reformist and progressive Muslims here. Stay tuned. I’m excited.