If it is broke

Continuing with Reza Aslan is wrong about Islam and this is why


  • Malaysia has a dual-system of law which mandates sharia law for Muslims. These allow men to have multiple wives (polygyny) and discriminate against women in inheritance (as mandated by Islamic scripture). It also prohibits wives from disobeying the “lawful orders” of their husbands.
  • Bangladesh, which according to feminist Tahmima Anam made real advancements towards equality in its inception, also “created a barrier to women’s advancement.” This barrier? An article in the otherwise progressive constitution which states that “women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and of the public life” but in the realm of private affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody), “it acknowledges Islam as the state religion and effectively enshrines the application of Islamic law in family affairs. The Constitution thus does nothing to enforce equality in private life.”

And then there’s Turkey. Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider point out that it’s no good pointing to Turkey as evidence for the claim that it’s “facile” to say that women are “somehow mistreated in the Muslim world.” Turkey is not evidence for that because for decades it was more secular than other majority-Muslim countries.

Only apologists would ignore the circumstances that led to Turkey’s incredible progress and success relative to the Muslim world, and hold it up as an example of “Islamic” advancement of women’s rights.

And why does any of this matter?

We believe that Islam badly needs to be reformed, and it is only Muslims who can truly make it into a modern religion. But it is the likes of Reza Aslan who act as a deterrent to change by refusing to acknowledge real complications within the scripture and by actively promoting half-truths. Bigotry against Muslims is a real and pressing problem, but one can criticize the Islamic ideology without treating Muslims as themselves problematic or incapable of reform.

There are true Muslim reformists who are willing to call a spade a spade while working for the true betterment of their peoples — but their voices are drowned out by the noise of apologists who are all-too-often aided by the Western left. Those who accept distortions in order to hold on to a comforting dream-world where Islamic fundamentalism is merely an aberration are harming reform by encouraging apologists.

You can’t fix it if you refuse to believe it’s broke.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    one can criticize the Islamic ideology without treating Muslims as themselves problematic

    An ideology cannot exist separately from the people who hold to it. You can’t criticise an ideology without criticising the people whose ideology it is. And if those people demonstrate, time and again, in country after country across the world, that they are incapable of reform, aren’t you trying to hold on to a comforting dream-world if you don’t see that as a problem?


  2. Scr... Archivist says

    …without criticising the people…

    What does “criticising the people” actually mean if it is not merely criticizing their ideas?

    …those people…

    Every last one of them? Name five exceptions.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    What does “criticising the people” actually mean if it is not merely criticizing their ideas?

    Read #1 again: “criticizing the people” means “admitting that they are incapable of reform, and the only final solution to the Muslim problem requires their extermination. They’re not just normal people with bad ideas; they’re bad people that need to be eliminated.

    It’s all there in comment #1.

  4. says

    What does “criticising the people” actually mean if it is not merely criticizing their ideas?

    Maybe similar to the kinds of moral/character judgement people direct at bigots? That could be seen as having something extra that seems missing from the implications of merely criticising ideas. Also could be actions, not just ideas.

    Of course, not all are like the bigots, hence the reference to “not all men are like that”.

    So maybe we should conclude that men are incapable of reform…and…

  5. brucegorton says


    They are perfectly capable of reform, if they weren’t we wouldn’t see it happening. You may not like the way their society is headed, you may not like the reforms they are introducing, but they are reforms.

    The thing is – if they can reform in one direction they can just as well do it in the opposite, but not if you define them as the enemy.

    They are human beings, perfectly capable of changing their minds, and should be treated as such.

    I do not say respected, because all too often respect is just silence in the face of wrongdoing, which is why so many atheist elders seem to want it so badly with regards to sexism or racism.

    But they should be treated like humans. When we treat them like “The enemy” we build them up to being something they’re not, we project our own worst onto them and nothing they can do can change that.

    At which point it is no longer they who are incapable of reform.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    From post #5:

    They are perfectly capable of reform, if they weren’t we wouldn’t see it happening

    From the OP:

    You can’t fix it if you refuse to believe it’s broke.


    What does “criticising the people” actually mean if it is not merely criticizing their ideas?

    Use your imagination (try not to use it to construct straw man adolescent extermination fantasies such as those A Masked Avenger’s knee jerked into in post #3). Or if that’s too much for you…

    How about, just for starters, not selling weapons to their theocratic regimes? How about exerting economic pressure on them, explicitly linked to their policies (we’re doing that to Russia…)? How about, say, facilitating the movement of asylum seekers from those places to more civilised countries? Any increase in the numbers of immigrants could be balanced out by quickly and efficiently deporting those elements already here who profess to hate the west and want to live in a sharia Caliphate. That’s a win-win.

  7. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Dawkins, Maher et. al. are good at winning debates. But they are terrible at winning the argument.

    Ridicule and sarcasm are really effective ways to win a debate against an opponent with poor debating skills. But they don’t persuade people to change their minds. Especially so when the arguments being used are imprecise. Dawkins might have been an Oxford Professor but the arguments he makes are actually rather sloppy. Maher doesn’t pretend to be rigorous or fair, he is only trying to be provocative and funny. Which is OK for a comedian but he makes a lousy advocate.

    Worst of all are arguments from American exceptionalism. At best such arguments are going to convince some US citizens. Since I am not a US citizen, all I hear when someone starts on that line of argument is Colonel Blimp singing land of hope and glory. Sorry but we Brits have been there and done all that earlier and better. We had democracy first, we had a bigger empire, we ended slavery first. Our present is the US future, but that is a good thing because in return for giving up empire we got Monty Python which is a fine trade any day of the week.

    There are no Western values and there is no struggle between Western values and Islam.

    What are feared by bigots and claimed by nationalists as ‘Western values’ are in fact universal values. If we go back 150 years we can find every feature of Islamic fundamentalism in Western culture and worse. Jefferson raped his slaves for a start. And we don’t need to go back more than a decade and the US is using torture and causing the deaths of a half million to a million Iraqis in a futile imperialist exercise.

    The transition from traditional values to universal values in the US took over a century and the bloodiest war in terms of US lives in history. Compared to that, ISIS and Al Qaeda are minor irritants. All the Islamic terrorists in the world combined have not killed a tenth of the number of people that George W. Bush and his administration killed.

    The reason we know Al Qaeda was reacting against universal values is that is what all their internal documents and external propaganda states. Like the Communists who knew all about capitalism and very little about what would replace it, the Jihaddis know much more about ‘Western Values’ than the caliphate.

    If you want to persuade you have to take the opposition argument seriously and debate against that and not your opponent. Even if your opponent is ridiculous.

  8. Folie Deuce says

    In contrast to the nonsense Phillip just posted, Here is one Pakistani writer who sums it up quite well:

    the “majority of the Muslim world supports the Islamist ideology even if they don’t back the ensuing terrorism.

    Saying that ISIS represents all Muslims or Islam would be preposterous – just like saying that Islam has exclusive rights over violence. However, claiming that ISIS doesn’t represent any Muslims is even more absurd, just like saying that Islam does not influence Islamist terrorism at all. ISIS, al-Qaeda, TTP, Boko Haram, et al are the manifestations of the obvious influence of religion on religious extremist, and their identical ‘misinterpretations’ of Islam, which has the backing of the popular Muslim opinion, cannot be shunned as un-Islamic.”

  9. says

    @6, sonofrojblake

    From post #5:

    They are perfectly capable of reform, if they weren’t we wouldn’t see it happening

    From the OP:

    You can’t fix it if you refuse to believe it’s broke.


    …you…seem to be implying that the OP quote supports the idea that they are “incapable of reform”…(I’m not sure what you are trying to say, but this is what it seems like)

    But the OP quote doesn’t support that. So I’m not sure why you are lining these two quotes up like this…

    Please write your position out more clearly instead of relying on me (and others) to make my best guess.

  10. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    @8 Folie

    If you simply make rude comments, you aren’t going to be taken seriously. The reason that Dawkins and Maher are lousy at arguing is that they rely on lazy dismissals rather than arguments. Just like you are doing.

    It is very clear that there are bigots on both sides of the argument. The arguments made by many on the US right sound exactly like the arguments made by Bin Laden but with the religions reversed.

    One of the reasons to be careful here is precisely the fact that there is a large section of the US right for whom Muslims are the new blacks. They used to hate black people and now they hate Muslims.

    People used to argue that Christianity supported slavery. People are still trying to argue that Christianity is anti-gay. And if you look at the theology they are right. But even so the vast majority of ‘Christian’ countries have pushed the theological bigotry out to the margins to the point where none of the mainstream Christian churches recognize it as valid. If you look back at the history of how that process unfolded in the West you will see all the same patterns that are currently at work in the Islamic world.

    The reason that Al Qeada was originally formed is as a reaction against what they feared as ‘Westernizing’ influences inside Islamic countries. They are religious bigots and can only see ideas in religious terms. It is like the folk who try to argue against evolution by taking on Darwin as a person. Folk whose world view is formed by the word of infallible authority believe everyone else thinks the same way.

    The actual forcing function that is behind the changes is the same one that drove the rise of universal values in the West – technology. The enlightenment was the product of the printing press and cheap paper. Mass democracy was the result of democratizing the press. Segregation and the Soviet Union were ended by television.

    Religion is not an input to culture, it is an output. The basis of the Sunni Shi’ia divide is not theological, it is cultural. Shi’ia Islam is rooted in the areas where Zoroastrianism was the old faith.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    @brianpansky, 9:

    I’m not going to tell you what to think, or how. The intent seems perfectly clear to me.

  12. chrisdevries says

    @10 – Phillip

    Religion is an input AND an output to culture. All cultures incorporate dogma into the story their people tell themselves that explains who they are and what they believe. In some places the dogma is religious. In the USA, the dogma is principally capitalistic (the American Dream). Most of us atheists and skeptics know that any unquestioned dogma is dangerous because no idea should be beyond criticism, and yet most human cultures exist in a state of complete denial that there is anything dogmatic about the ideology that binds their people, and thus only a small minority of the educated elite ever learn how to deconstruct their cultural mythology. Many of these individuals end up using their understanding of the system to manipulate others and gain money and influence. Still, each culture modulates its dogma differently – the capitalism that is actually practiced in the USA is quite different from the capitalism its people believe in. So too is the religion as practiced in theologies different from the religion as it exists in the minds of the devoted believers therein.

    Kaveh has, in the past, discussed the various ways a religion can exist, and whether believers who take things to the extreme and follow their holy book(s) to the letter are in any way practicing a more pure version of their faith than those who pick and choose what to believe and to do, ignoring vast swathes of what their religious text commands. One thing I have learned from the discussions on his blog is that the conditions under which religious beliefs are interpreted by the members of a culture matter. A rich, stable, well-educated country with a thriving middle class and low poverty, many of whose citizens regularly travel the world and experience other ways of life could produce an Islam for the 21st century, similar to how people in England see the Anglican Church today. And one would reliably find that the poor, unstable neighbourhoods in this cosmopolitan country, with high unemployment and poor education would be the places that would foster more insidious ideologies, just as in England, which has seen a resurgence of nationalism and the BNP (the equivalent dogma) during the recession (not to mention enclaves of Islamist thought centered around communities of Middle Eastern immigrants). People are predictable – these dogmas become the only thing they have to live for, to believe in when their future prospects turn to shit. Measures designed to vastly improve the quality of life of the majority of a country’s citizenry go a long way to ending extremist ideology.

  13. Dunc says

    How about, just for starters, not selling weapons to their theocratic regimes? How about exerting economic pressure on them, explicitly linked to their policies (we’re doing that to Russia…)? How about, say, facilitating the movement of asylum seekers from those places to more civilised countries?

    These are all perfectly reasonable suggestions. The fact that “we” (by which I primarily mean the US and UK governments) show absolutely no inclination to even consider any of these options should tell you just how sincere “our” commitment to human rights is. I mean, the idea that we’re teaming up with Saudi frickin’ Arabia to drop bombs on people in the hope of discouraging Islamist fanatics from chopping people’s heads off is probably the most absurd foreign policy idea I’ve ever heard proposed, given that the Saudis are the world’s leading exponents of Islam-inspired beheading. If there was an Islamist Olympics, the Saudis would take gold, silver, and bronze in the beheading event every single time. But they remain our good friends and principle allies in the region.

    (According to Mark Thomas’ fascinating book on the arms trade, “As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela“*, the UK is the world’s leading supplier of what is euphemistically termed “security equipment” – shackles, leg irons, electro-shock batons, thumbscrews, and the like – to Saudi Arabia. That’s how deep our commitment to human rights is.)

    (* The title is a quote from an actual “security equipment” catalogue. Yes, really.)

  14. Folie Deuce says

    Phillip, how is quoting a Pakistani author who describes the causal relationship between Islam and Islamic extremism lazy? Your post is filled with “lazy”, inaccurate generalizations (Sunni/Shia divide is not theological?). And you are guilty of trying to use false accusations of racism to shelter Islam from criticism. Nothing Sam Harris or Bill M. said was racist or bigoted.
    Here’s another “lazy” quote for you from a Muslim reformer:

    “Islam is not a religion of peace. It’s not necessarily a religion of war, either, but it would be a lie to deny that its history and literature are seeped in armed jihad, assassinations and bloodshed that simply cannot be swept under a carpet. Only we Muslims can reform Islam for future generations. But first, we must stop lying in the name of Allah. It’s no use denouncing ISIS while refusing to renounce jihad.”

    – Tarek Fatah

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