When I hear informed and critical
individuals that I respect rail against Islam - the religion of a fifth of
the human population – if
I didn’t know better, I might be led to believe that I was hearing some
Bible-thumping fundie preacher assailing “that gutter religion.” We have
come to expect such conduct from bloviators on the right, typified by FOX
News panels. But not from such educated, intelligent and sophisticated
individuals as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher who, in their
assault against Islam, have allowed their indignation to overwhelm their
Let me be clear: I condemn unequivocally the barbarism
and brutality of Islamic radicals such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Likewise the
brutality of the Crusades and the Inquisition, and the brutality of the
indiscriminate shelling of Gaza. But none of these atrocities suffice, by
themselves, as adequate reason to condemn, respectively, all of Islam,
Christianity or Judaism.
There is much more to Islam than beheadings, genital
mutilation and holy wars.
Harris, Dawkins, Maher, Hitchens, et al., seem to believe
that from some verses in the Qur’an, we can deduce the behavior of most of
that fifth of the human population that identifies themselves as “Moslem.”
This, of course, is plain nonsense.
Consider: I move into a new home. A realtor tells me,
“this is a diverse neighborhood. The home on the left belongs to a Moslem.
Across the street lives a Jew. To your right is a house formerly owned by a
Christian, but he’s gone now.”
So from this, should I conclude that the
guy on the left has four wives whom you will never see because they wear
“bee-keeper suits?” That his daughters have been genetically mutilated, and
that his son builds suicide vests in the basement? And that the fellow
across the street once had a son, but because the kid was disobedient he was
turned over to the elders and stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and
when his debts piled up he sold his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7) – all
according to Holy law of the Torah? And the Christian? Should I assume
that, following the Biblical instruction of his Lord and Savior, he sold all
that he had and gave it to the poor (Matthew 19:21)? Presumably he had no
pension or savings because he was told in the Bible to “give no thought to
the morrow.” (Matthew 6:34)
The Islamaphobes’ moral condemnation of a billion and a
half of their fellow human beings, on the basis of some verses found in the
Qur’an, is equally ridiculous.
In fact, if I am told that my neighbors are Moslem,
Jewish or Christian, I will know virtually nothing more about them until I
become personally acquainted with them. Is the Moslem a Sunni, a Shiite, or
neither, or is he a non-believing “ethnic Moslem.” Is the Jew Orthodox,
Conservative or Reform, or maybe even an atheist? Is the Christian a devout
Catholic, an evangelical, or a Unitarian?
Recently a guest on Bill Maher’s show
identified himself as a “secular Moslem.” I confess that at first I was
puzzled. Isn’t “secular Moslem” an oxymoron – like
a “married bachelor”? But then, as I reflected on it, it made perfectly good
I am personally acquainted with many
"secular Jews" and “secular Christians.” In fact, I suppose that I qualify
as one of the latter. I totally reject traditional Christian theology
preferring to accept the scientific view of the universe and the
inviolability of physical laws. I firmly believe that “God” (whatever
that word might mean) had nothing to do with the ancient anthology known
as “The Holy Bible.” I am “Christian” in the sense that I accept, critically,
most of the moral teachings attributed to Jesus (who may or may not have
actually existed). I do so, not because “Jesus said so” or “the Bible tells
me so,” but rather because, after decades of studying, teaching and writing
works in moral philosophy, I have concluded that much of moral message
attributed to Jesus makes sense – in
a word, it is reasonable, on grounds independent of alleged Divine
But not all Christian morality makes moral sense to me. I
have no use for what David Hume called “the monkish virtues” such as
celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, solitude, and least
of all, blind faith. I reject these because they are unreasonable and they
violate my moral sense. And as I look at human history, I find that these
“monkish virtues” are the source of untold human misery.
So am I “really” a Christian? Evangelical
Christians would say “no” because I have not accepted Jesus Christ as my
personal savior, and I do not accept without reservation and critical
scrutiny, the moral teachings attributed to Jesus. And yet, when the Mormon
Church claims that there are more than eleven million “Mormons,” they
include me, regardless of the fact that I
effectively left that religion in my teens, and
since then have entered a Mormon church just twice – in
each case for funeral services for my parents.
So just who is, or is not, a “Moslem”? Is a “secular
Moslem” really a Moslem if he does not pray five times a day, does not
believe that “there is no God by Allah and Mohammad is his prophet,” enjoys
without a qualm a good ham sandwich with a beer, and selectively endorses
some moral teachings of the Islamic tradition, while rejecting others? He
presumably calls himself a “Moslem” because he was born of Moslem parents,
raised in a Moslem community, and identifies himself with the culture and
traditions of Islam, all the while rejecting the theological world-view of
the religion of Islam. And when some educated bigots on the opposite side of
the Earth, disparage his traditions, he will defend those traditions.
Recently I searched Google to find out what portion of
the Russian population was Moslem. The answer? About twenty million (13%).
Of these twenty million, I learned, about thirty percent were “orthodox” and
the remainder “ethnic.” Presumably, very few of those “ethnic Moslems” are
inclined to join ISIS or Al Qaeda, strap on suicide vests, or slice off the
heads of “infidel” Christians and Jews.
Yet that “orthodox/ethnic” distinction seems to be lost
on the islamaphobes. “Call yourself a ‘Muslim,’ and we will conclude that
you are a fanatic. After all, it’s all in the Qur’an.”
Sophisticated students and scholars of world religions
understand, as the islamaphobes apparently do not, that “Holy Scriptures”
(i.e. the Bible and Qur’an) do not convey unified and lucid moral messages.
Instead, each book is a “cafeteria” of vague and often conflicting moral
teachings. As one wit put it, “the Bible (also the Qur’an) is like a
prisoner of war: torture it enough and you can get it to say anything.”
Accordingly, the Bible and Qur’an do not instruct
behavior as much as they justify it. Are you a Moslem who is enraged by the
slaughter of over a million of your co-religionists in “the global war on
terror”? If so you will want to strike back. Will the Qur’an condone this?
“Seek and ye shall find.” So in the Qur’an (5:34) , there is this: “Slay or
crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled
from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in
the world hereafter.”
But also in the Qur’an, there is this: "Even if you
stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand
against you to kill you," and "if anyone murders an innocent person, it will
be as if he has murdered the whole of humanity."
Orthodox Jews claim that the land of
Israel (including Palestine), was given by God to “the seed of Abraham” – namely,
the Jews. But the Arabs are traditionally believed also to be “the seed of
Abraham,” through Ishmael, the son of Hagar. But never mind that., say the
Zionists. “This land is our land.”
In sum: we take from the holy books what we need to
confirm our pre-existing inclinations, and we ignore “inconvenient” verses.
I know of no orthodox Jews who have killed their neighbors for working on
the Sabbath, as instructed in Exodus (35:3). Nor am I aware of any
Christians, outside of Trappist monasteries, who have sold all their
possessions and given to the poor.*
Most significantly, perhaps, the Qur’an
teaches tolerance to Christians and Jews – “the
people of the book.”
Fanatics in each of the Abrahamic religions have been
unspeakably vicious and cruel to “infidels” under their control. I offer no
excuses whatever for the savage executioners of ISIS and Al Qaeda, nor for
the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition, nor for Israeli massacre at Sabra
and Shatila in 1982.
In contrast. all three religions have provided examples
of righteous compassion and toleration toward members of other faiths. Both
doctrine and history testify that in this regard, Islam takes the moral
First of all, toleration of Christians and Jews (“people
of the book”), is a central tenet of Islam. The Qur’an expressly forbids
“compulsion in religion.” (2:256) Abraham, Moses and Jesus are all regarded
by devout Moslems as authentic prophets of Allah, with Jesus second only to
Mohammad. On the other hand, neither Judaism nor Christianity recognize
Mohammad as a prophet.
As for history, when the Moslem armies overran Egypt,
they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect of Christianity older than
Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished in Egypt to this
day under Moslem rule.
When Pope Urban II launched the crusades in 1095, a
prominent objective was to drive the “infidel” Moslems from the Holy places
in Jerusalem. When the Moslem warrior Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1185,
he allowed Christian pilgrims access to the Holy sites, a guarantee that
endured throughout the Islamic occupation of Palestine. And when the Jews
were driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century, they found safe refuge in
In a square in central Damascus stands enduring evidence
of Moslem toleration, for there, side by side, one will find Christian
church, a Jewish synagogue and a Moslem mosque. For centuries, Christian and
Jewish structures and communities have flourished peacefully throughout the
Moslem regions of the world.
From the ninth century through the eleventh, Baghdad was
the pinnacle of civilization. There the sciences flourished, and ancient
historical, literary and philosophical texts were translated and preserved.
The western number system, originally from India, was refined, and algebra
(an Arabic word) was advanced. To this day, most of the prominent stars
above bear Arabic names.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, a much better astrophysicist than
historian, places the blame for the decline of Islamic science and
scholarship on one man: the theologian, Al Ghazzali, who persuaded the
Caliph to ban the teaching of mathematics and science.** Though I am no
historian, this strikes me as much too simplistic. If Al Ghazzali had a hand
in the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism over science and scholarship, then
surely he must have been as much a symptom as a cause of this cultural
defeat. And might not the fall of Baghdad to the Mongol Hordes in 1258 have
had something to do with the end of the Golden Age of Islamic science?
Whatever the cause, the decline of Islamic civilization
at the hands of religious fundamentalists bears an urgent warning today, as
fundamentalists in Congress and state legislatures deny science, seek to
slash the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National
Academy of Sciences, and defund the teaching of science in the public
schools and universities. And in Texas, which is leading the headlong rush
back to the tenth century, the state Republican platform advocates the
banning of instruction in critical thinking in the public schools.
Even so, the fall of Baghdad did not mark the end of
Islamic civilization. Afterwards, masterpieces of literature and art were
created, as well as architecture, from the Alhambra palace in Granada (13th
century) to the Taj Mahal in India (17th century).
In the 1982 movie, “Laurence of Arabia,” Prince Faisal
(brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guiness) reminds Laurence (Peter O’Toole):
No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green
trees. There’s nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing...
Or is it that you think we are a something that
you can play with. Because we are a little people. A silly people.
Greedy, barbarous and cruel.
In the Arab city or Cordoba there were two miles
of public lighting in the streets when London was a village... Nine
centuries ago... I long for the vanished gardens of Cordoba.
Islamic culture has left an enduring legacy throughout
the world. We would do well to acknowledge and admire it.
Very well, but we still have an ongoing
struggle with “radical Islam” – ISIS
and Al Qaeda. How might we best deal with these savage fanatics? Above all,
we do so by separating the fanatics from the vast majority of Moslems who denounce
the radicals who are besmirching their religion and culture. This
should not be difficult if we recognize, as the islamaphobes apparently have
most of the victims of radical Islam have been Moslems.
The primary objective of ISIS and Al Qaeda is to unite
all Moslems in a “clash of civilizations” against the infidel West, and the
United States in particular. The 9/11 attacks and the current atrocities are
all directed toward this end. Implicit in this “clash” is an insistence that
“Islamic civilization” is an undifferentiated monolithic whole.
Tragically, the islamaphobes have bought it. The
aforementioned atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Maher, etc.), along with
evangelical Christians, and opportunistic demagogues such as Donald Trump,
have, by treating Islam as a unified and malignant dogma, become unwitting
allies of the radical Islamists. Consider, for example, Trump’s proposal to
exclude “all Moslems” from entering the United States.
This undifferentiated attack on all Moslems threatens to
exclude from the battle against ISIS and Al Qaeda, the most steadfast
allies, namely moderate, “ethnic” and even “secular” Moslems. A “war”
against a fifth of humanity is a “war” that the West cannot win.
Finally, the islamaphobes relentless attack on the
Islamic religion ignores a compelling lesson of history: religion thrives on
persecution and martyrdom. Caligula and Nero couldn’t defeat Christianity.
Seventy years of “official state atheism” in the Soviet Union did not
eliminate Russian Orthodoxy. When, in 1844, the mobs in Illinois murdered
the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and drove the Mormons from their homes and
across the Mississippi River into the wilderness, the Mormons, including my
ancestors, walked across the great plains and over the Rocky Mountains and
established their “Zion,” which continues to thrive to this day.
Clearly, the islamaphobes will not destroy Islam by
condemning an entire religion and tradition due to the behavior of a few
fanatics. It is far more likely that they will motivate the “indifferent”
(ethnic and secular) Moslems to defend their traditions. If so, the we will
lose the support of invaluable allies in the fight against the radicals.
And what about that religion, Islam? We
should treat it with tolerance and respect, acknowledging its contributions
to world civilization. As a wise man once observed, the best way to kill a
religion is to feed it to death. If, as I believe, all dogmatic religions
reside on foundations of myths and ignorance, the best antidote is critical
thinking and confirmed knowledge. No modern industrialized nation can
flourish without a practical acceptance of science. Technology, as applied
science, requires that acceptance. And the methodology and attitude of
science – what
Jacob Bronowski called “the habit of truth” – promotes
secularism and erodes religious dogma.
Promote scientific education and critical
thinking, and time, along with tolerance and patience, will accomplish what
the bluster of the islamaphobes cannot. The Abrahamic religions –Christianity,
Judaism and Islam – will
persist, but as “traditions” more than dogmas. In fact, we have seen this
erosion at work ever since modern science arose during the Renaissance. It
is noteworthy that the most secular countries in Europe, Norway, Sweden,
Denmark, The Netherlands, all have “official state churches” which, like
their monarchies, are empty traditions. Perhaps, with the long passage of
time, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad will be regarded as “real” and as relevant
as King Arthur, Zeus and Wotan.
Of course this eventual transition from dogma to myth and
folklore is not guaranteed. The fall of Rome was succeeded by the Dark Ages,
and Islamic science never recovered the excellence that it achieved in tenth
century Baghdad. There is no assurance that Christian fundamentalism, which
has apparently captured the Republican Party in the United States, will not
replace evolution with creationism, historical geology with Genesis, and
Constitutional Law with Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. If science and
secularism are to prevail, they must be steadfastly defended. In this
struggle, education is the most effective weapon.
Summing up: Islamaphobia is wrong, because:
It is simplistic – there
are many “Islams.” And many self-identified “Moslems” are non-practicing
“ethnics” and non-believing secularists.
It falsely assumes that Moslem behavior follows from
the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’an (like the Bible) conveys conflicting and
often contradictory messages.
Accordingly, islamaphobia is immoral because it
attacks innocent individuals.
It is impractical: It undermines the struggle against
the radicals by alienating potential allies in this struggle.
It is self-defeating: Persecution and insult provokes
resistance and solidifies the loyalty of individuals to their religions.
The ongoing attack of the US government and media against
ISIS, Al Qaeda and other radicals is profoundly misguided. It seems that we
are more concerned about not offending the Saudis (who significantly supply
the radicals), and the Turks (who are profiting from sales of oil stolen by
ISIS), than we are about directly engaging the radicals. We alienate
potential allies in Moslem countries which detest the radicals. We
steadfastly refuse to coordinate our attacks against ISIS with the Russians,
who are more threatened by ISIS than we are. Since the 9/11 attacks, Russia
has suffered more losses from terrorist attacks than has the United States.
These include the school massacre at Beslan, the Dobrovka theater bombing in
Moscow, the airliner destroyed over Sinai. Twenty million Moslems reside in
Russia, and in addition along the southern border of Russia are Moslem
states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Most of these Moslems
are not immediate threats to Russia. But among them are a few dangerous
fanatics, two of whom planted bombs at the Boston Marathon..
The United States and Russia are united by
a common enemy – radical
Islam. A recognition of a common enemy was reason enough for the United
States and England to forge an alliance with Josef Stalin. Vladimir Putin is
no Stalin, and he is the democratically elected leader of his country. If,
as some charge, Putin is a thug and a despot, that is the Russians’ problem,
So what prevents us from joining Russia in
the fight against this common threat? First of all,we
fail to correctly prioritize the threats we face. Second, the American
government and media totally refuse
to view the struggle against radical Islam through Russian eyes, preferring
instead to restart the Cold War, to the great satisfaction of the
Military/Industrial (add “Media/Congressional”) Complex. But isn’t Russia a
serious threat once again to our national security? I don’t think so. (But
that’s the topic for another essay – soon,
I hope. In the meantime, see my "Letter
to My Friends in Russia").
And so, absent a radical re-assessment of the threats
before us (a re-assessment that is nowhere in prospect), we will continue to
muddle along with talk of a “clash of civilizations” by intelligent
individuals who should know better. Meanwhile, an effective strategic
response to radical Islam is set aside.
As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wisely observed:
“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens
inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”
* Here is “President Jed Bartlet’s” brilliant
takedown of Biblical literalism from “The West Wing.”
** Neil deGrasse Tyson explains
the downfall of Islamic science here: (Re: Hamid al Gazzali, go to time
3.25. For context, go to 1.20).
Copyright 2016 by Ernest Partridge