I have recently reread The Koran. Before I post commentary on the book itself, I wanted to write something regarding some trends that are relevant to the worldwide conversation regarding Islam.
The main point of this entry is to discuss how folks who attempt to have any intelligent public conversation about anything involving Islam are caught between two irrational forces.
First, there is anti-Muslim bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. For years, there has been hate and violence aimed at people of the Islamic faith. In the United States, this situation has been exacerbated by the results of the recent Presidential election. At this stage, Trump and his surrogates are talking about Muslim bans and Muslim registries. Mosques are being vandalized, and women wearing Hijabs are being attacked all over the United States (Some cases where reports of anti - Muslim violence that have been proven to be hoaxes. However, many more instances appear to be genuine). Even before recent developments, those expressing prejudice against Muslims have used legitimate criticism of Koranic text, oppressive Islamist laws, etc. to paint all Muslims in a negative light. This very much complicates genuine conversation and criticism.
On the other side is a movement originating out of the far Left that demands no criticism of Islam or The Koran in any way. At its worst, this movement has accused the victims of Islamist murder, such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, of bigotry. They have also set their sites on people who are campaigning for human rights in the Islamic world. Amazingly, some folks who are Muslims themselves have been called bigots for campaigning against honor killings, guardianship laws, forced Islamic veiling, etc. In some cases, it can be argued that some extreme Leftist voices have allied themselves with Islamists who have murdered and threatened critics. Though inconsequential in light of the big picture, I have been called a bigot (and a Trump supporter!) for what has been respectful criticism of text in the Koran, as well as when I criticized oppressive practices imposed by the Saudi and Iranian regimes. I only mention my own experiences to help build a picture of what I am referring to.
Another important point is that this is a not a one-sided argument. Bigots have latched on to all aspects of this issue and often try to insert themselves into real discussions. Some, who critique the Koran and Islam, while not racist, engage in scathing commentary that naturally incites strong responses. Not all emotional responses to criticism are folks trying to impose de facto blasphemy rules, some of the pushback against critics of Islam is just vigorous disagreement in of itself. Many critics, while not bigots, generalize a lot about Islam, which is in my opinion makes no sense directed at such a varied and diverse faith. There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many of these issues.
Unfortunately, rational and decent folks, as well as human rights advocates and reformers, are caught in the middle between these groups. This issue is relevant both to people talking about human rights in Islamic societies and enclaves as well as to general discussions about Islam and Islamic texts.
There is also a lesser version of this trend that is not nasty and uncivil and does not automatically label all criticism of Islam as bigotry. Instead it is a tendency to excuse or minimize harm done by Islamists and deny that there is anything negative contained in The Koran. Some just do not want any Islam and/or any religious beliefs critiqued but argue their case without name-calling. Though I do not agree with this line of reasoning, I consider this as an intellectual disagreement and I welcome conversation on this topic.
I should note that, in my opinion, those who disagree with particular criticisms of Islam are not part of the above. It is those who are irresponsibly throwing out the term bigot or Islamophobe that I am referring to. A vigorous, productive and intelligent discussion of various aspects of Islam invariably will involve those who criticize and those who disagree with that criticism. In fact, I often disagree with the criticism of Islam that I read.
For those who want further reading on this topic, I have compiled a list of sources and evidence regarding this trend here . In regards to my feelings on criticizing religion in general, my post on the subject is here: Religion and Its Critics.
The question arises as to what is the motivation and causes of what I can only describe as a hyper-defensiveness towards Islam. I will speculate based on conversations that I have had as well as on opinion pieces and blogs that I have read. First, there is an understandable reaction to the anti-Muslim Bigotry and violence aimed at Muslims. This has become even more of a concern with recent developments in the United States.
Second, there is a streak of cultural relativism that is popular in some elements of the far Left. This leads to the belief that that non-European cultures and belief systems should be immune from moral and ethical standards and even the standards of logic and reason. I may explore cultural relativism in another post.
Finally, there seems to be an extreme form of critical race theory operating. There are those who believe all oppression that exists in the world to be perpetuated by white men and colonialism and that any criticism of culture or acts of non-white men is invalid.
Readers of this blog know that my criticism of religion tends to be directed at specific aspects of it. I rarely, if ever criticize an entire faith. I find all the major religions to be too diverse to generalize about. I try to be respectful and try to listen and consider other people’s view. I also tend to praise certain aspects to religion in my commentary. I generally to do the same thing on other social media, particularly Twitter. My commentary on the Koran will not be a scathing attacking on the text. It will not be all negative, nor it will not be all positive. I will not hesitate to express my opinions of ideas found in the Koran that I find reprehensible.
As I have recently reread the book, I will be putting up at least one more blog on the Koran. As per the above I will include a combination of positive and negative things about the work. I believe that bigots will not likely be able to use it as a tool. As for folks on the other side, I am not exaggerating that there are some, who will label any talk of Islam or the Koran that is not One – Hundred percent positive as bigotry. Regardless of the terrible atmosphere out there, I will share my thoughts. I hope my readers find them interesting and that they spark some stimulating and lively conversations.
People have been wrestling with, embracing, rejecting, analyzing, criticizing, praising, condemning, using, and abusing sacred texts since the beginnings of such texts' existence; generally, the most compelling issues (and problems) are not in the text but in the behaviors of people, and -- as you well know -- many people throughout history have done both great and horrible things in the name of sacred texts. I wish you well in your objective critique of the Islamic texts, and I look forward to reading your offerings, but I hope your critiques will be textual rather than extra-textual. The latter creates problems. The former is more sensible. For example, I have read the Bible as literature rather than sacred text, and I have been richly rewarded rather than frustrated and irritated in my efforts. I recommend the literary approach.
i like RT's comment; that about says it for me, except that i'm prejudiced against all humans... i think they're all nuts...
Hi RT. I agree that there is something almost higher to Textual commentary.
With that, I am likely to do some of both. There are many reasons for this. My blog is only informal musings. The "Just talking about books and the world" thing.
I do think that these texts are filled with ideas and these ideas have an enormous impact o n the world. For example, throughout the Islamic world, laws and customers are directly influenced by the words in this book.
I do not believe that it is only the case that people do what they want to and find justification in the Holy Texts. Though that does go on.
With all that, I THINK that my commentary will be mostly Textual. Let us see how it goes.
Hi Muddpuddle - I think that humanity has shown itself to be a combination of good and bad. Lately I have been a bit pessimistic myself.
The bad can be so horrendous.
Having read the Koran I look forward to your further thoughts about the work. It is unfortunate that a vocal minority has chosen to blame all Islamists for the deeds of a radical minority within Islam. This is not a new issue but it is one that is exacerbated by the persecution of religious minorities (Christian and others) in countries ruled by Islamic fundamentalists.
This issue is made more difficult by the dangers of global terrorism. Unfortunately, the United States does not have a good record in dealing with perceived threats from foreign groups (witness the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII). I hope that voices of moderation will prevail when considering any future actions.
I can understand why you want to limit your discussion to the Koran and not Islam, considering what radical Islamists, and those inspired by them, are doing throughout the world today. One suggestion I may make is changing the title to the Koran, to spell out you are limiting your discussion to the Koran, and are not going to cover the much wider and landmine filled area of Islam, even though any discussion of the Book will inevitably lead to some discussion of its effects on the real world.
I forgot to mention that I have read the Koran, but many years ago, so I will be looking forward to your insights on the Book. I think I still have my copy somewhere, gathering dust, so I may do a little rereading along the way.
Hi James - Indeed there is a lot of negative steotypes about Muslims that get inflamed as a result of terrorism. I think that in the end, we will avoid the horrible things done to Japanese folks during World War II. But I think that ethical and reasonable people need to speak out about the dangers.
Hi Fred - I did want to make this post about the conversation regarding Islam. While I do not shy away from controversy, Islam is sick a big topic. One needs to keep posts focused. With that, as you mention, the conversation will inevitably involve Islam to some degree.
I am also thinking about reading a book written by one of the Muslim reformers that o mention in my supplemental material. That will open up the subject even more.
Well, it should be interesting, however and whichever way it goes.
What a thoughtful post! Saying all Muslims are X is just like saying all Christians or all Jews are X, it doesn't hold water. Good analysis can't lump such a large and diverse group of people into a single entity. It's frustrating when politicians, media, anyone does it. I would very much enjoy a post by you on cultural relativism!
Hi Brian! Having read the Koran I am looking forward to reading your thoughts and seeing your conclusions.
I agree with you that we cannot make blanket statements about people who think or believe (or vote) differently than us. Accusing others of "bigotry" while claiming to be a "freethinker" is not only arrogant but, frankly, a bigoted statement to make.
Which makes me appreciate all the more the fact that you, while allowing others to express their views, have always been respectful of people you don't always agree with (ahem). It's something I respect about you and one of the things that makes your blog enjoyable to read.
I watch future posts with great interest. Take care Brian!
Thanks so much Sharon.
You and I do disagree on a few things. But when I think about it, we share a lot of values.
I have heard about some of the issues that you are facing in the UK. Hopefully tolerance and moderation will prevail.
Indeed, all the major religions, as well as many of the not so big one, hold an enormous range of beliefs.
BTW Stefanie. I actually have a lot written on Cultural Relativism. But the post turned into a Many headed hydra with no end to it. I need to find a way to pair it down and get it under control.
TERRIFIC post as usual, Brian!! I greatly enjoyed reading it!
You know, for those of us who are either progressive or moderate, this is a very thorny issue indeed, as it combines bigotry, and women's rights. Ironically, in this case, these two issues seem to be at odds with each other.
My answer to this is the same answer I give to all political issues: moderation is the key. Women's rights must be upheld, without a wholesale condemnation of this or any other religion. Unfortunately, most of the world's religions -- and this includes Christianity -- are patriarchal in nature and structure, so it's not surprising that they contain misogynistic elements. Pagan religions are perhaps less misogynistic, but still, even the ancient Greeks and Romans denigrated women, and THEY were pagans.
While it is undoubtedly true that white men have been, and still are, responsible for most of the world's oppression of women and minorities, men of other ethnic groups should not be excused when their behavior toward women (and other ethnic groups) is oppressive and abusive. That is TOTALLY absurd.
I am not very familiar with the religion of Islam. Unfortunately, it's the misogynistic aspects of it that have gotten the most worldwide attention, and thus, are probably the very ones most non-Muslims are familiar with.
At the risk of being accused of bigotry, I have to say this: misogyny seems to be built-in to Islam. I wonder if the religion could remain the same if these elements were to be removed.
This whole thing really calls for a lot of thought, and, I'm sure, many blog posts! It's like walking a tightrope; bigotry is not good, but neither is misogyny. If I were thinking of converting to another religion, I have to be honest and say that the very LAST one I would consider converting to would be Islam. Even as a Christian, I totally reject the notion that "the man is the head of the woman" while "Christ is the head of the man", and that women are supposed to be SUBMISSIVE to their husbands, which is something stated in the New Testament by both Peter and Paul. And I STRONGLY support women being pastors, priests, and rabbis. (Of course, Christianity's misogyny came directly from Judaism.)
I'd like to offer a quote by Rebecca West:
"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."
This is the whole crux of the matter. As a woman, I deeply resent being told that I MUST accept certain things in my life, JUST BECAUSE I'm a woman. Things like a lesser position in marriage and work. Things like disrespect. Things like being expected to "put out" when dating a man. Things like being considered a BODY first, and a mind last. Things like being told that I can't do such-and-such simply because "women are not supposed to do that". Things like being told that "women must be quiet in church" and "women are not to have spiritual authority over men". In short, being A DOORMAT.
The basic problem with the misogynistic component of Islam is that men blame WOMEN for THEIR own lust. They consider women's bodies either their own or their fathers' properties, to do with as they will. From this springs the notion that women have to be all covered up so as not to TEMPT MEN. Certainly I am not advocating the opposite extreme, which is truly demeaning to women, as well.
Again, I abhor ALL extremes. Women who consider themselves feminists, and yet, don't mind wearing low cleavage and other clothing that reveals too much of their bodies, are really sabotaging themselves. They are making themselves sexual objects. This criticism goes for so-called "feminist art", as well. Judy Chicago, for instance, became famous by creating art based on women's genitals. I can accept her images as long as they remain abstract. But when they are overly graphic and realistic, I must object. She is then obviously playing right into the hands of misogynists by making female body parts the exclusive subject of her art. Men have NEVER made male body parts the exclusive subject of their art. True, there are such things as phallic images, but the great masters of Western art have never made such images their one and only subject matter.
I once began to read an English translation of the Bhagavad Gita. The translator was the then leader of Krishna consciousness in the Western world -- A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who passed away some time ago. I've always been interested in reading about other religions, and decided to investigate this sacred Hindu text. Well, at first, I found it very interesting. However, I stopped in disgust when I read a note by the translator. This note stated (I'm paraphrasing, as I don't remember the exact quote) that women have to be "controlled" and not allowed freedom of movement within a city, because women TEND to be morally loose, and so, would bring shame and disgrace upon a family!!! I saw RED when I read this!!! (Nice alliteration, right? Lol.) Now I regret not continuing to read, as it was the translator's note that infuriated me, and not the text itself. However, he was interpreting what the text was saying. This book has to be misogynistic to some extent, or Prabhupada would not have made such a statement. Still, I do regret not reading further, and thus, learning more about the tenets of the Hindu religion.
I would like to go back and continue reading the Gita, but when I do, I will pick another translation. I'm thinking of the one by Stephen Mitchell. Sure, that might sound bigoted on my part. Mitchell is a Westerner, after all, and I'm sure he has more progressive ideas. At the risk of sounding redundant, I'm walking a tightrope here!
Thanks for the thought-provoking post!! Hope you're having a WONDERFUL Saturday!! :) :) :)
P.S. Just checked out the Gita on Amazon. There's a translation by Eknath Easwaran. In the interests of fairness, I might pick up this one as well as the one by Mitchell. :)
Thanks so much Maria.
I second your call for moderation. It really is the path to a better world. I am one hundred percent tolerant of Religion, until religious believes call for the oppression of others, then I am intolerant of them.
I think at this moment of time, there is more oppression of women and other groups in countries that are non white majorities. Throughout Africa and the Islamic world, the oppression and violence of tens of millions of women and minority groups is incomparable to anything going on in The West. With that, there is plenty of oppression to go around and White men are responsible for plenty of it. I have found that the Right uses the oppression by non - Whites as a way to minimize oppression by Whites. The Left uses oppression by Whites to minimize oppression by non -Whites.
I will be posting my thoughts on the Koran itself in a couple of days. In my opinion, like The Old Testament, the Koran very misogynistic. I think that the heart of the Issue is governments and militant organizations all over the world that are dominated by Islam. That is, the problem is Political Islam. It is one of the great evils in the world. With that, hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world do not subscribe to Political Islam.
As you know, in my opinion you should reject any admonitions to accept things or do things because you are a woman. I tend to be a bit libertarian when it comes to dress and art (within limitations. I think you know I object to things that are harmful or extremely vulgar or that defy common sense). Within limits, I think that it is OK that different kinds of people will just express themselves in different ways. In the end, I blame the men who objectify women.
That translator’s note sounds inappropriate and ridiculous. I read the Stephen Mitchell translation of the Bhagavad Gita and I thought that it was excellent.
Thanks for the great comment!
Have a great Weekend!
Excellent article, Brian. I really enjoyed reading your post. But I do not comment on that. This comes from my education. My parents told me two things: never talk about politics or religion. I have kept this golden rule.
Have a great week ahead :)
Thanks A Reader's Tales.
I just cannot stay away from controversial subjects.
Hi Brian, I look forward to your commentary on the Koran. Political Islam is much in the news but I know next to nothing about the islamic faith itself practiced by hundreds of millions who are just living their lives and want nothing to do with the militant groups. As forvthe Koran know Mohammed was the great prophet but after that I draw a blank. I imagine like the bible there are beautiful parts but other parts that are problenatic in the modern world and should not be taken literally.
The whole subject of The Koran seems to have become so off-limits, which is unfortunate. It seems so loaded. The people who have been critical of it seem to have to go into hiding such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It's too bad I think she & others have made valid points about parts of what's in the Koran. But I have not read the book myself, and I don't really want to. But I look forward to your next post on it.
Hi Kathy - Indeed, I find that the Koran is a lot like The Old Testament, as a roadmap to morality, it is a mixed bag at best, but by our standards it is more bad then good.
In recent years I have been trying to learn about Islam. I have tried to speak to Moslems both in real life and on social media. I have also done some reading.
We often rightfully associate Political Islam with terrorism, But it is also leading to terrible violence and discrimination against women, gays, non - Muslims, some unpopular Muslim sects in nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Hi Susan - Some folks have tried to make it off limits. With that, there is a lot of discussion about it on social media, blogs, opinion pieces, etc. Sadly, many folks who have been critical of Islam have been murdered have had to go into hiding and/or had their lives disrupted in serious ways. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a good example. I reference her in some of my supplemental material that I linked to above.
Very thoughtful and well-said.
As a cultural anthropologist I had to battle more than once when it came to cultural relativism. I think it's very dangerous but widely accepted by many cultural anthropologists. At the uni, I was the only one who dared criticise certainy things like female circumcision . . .
I'm afraid that those tow sides you describe are linked and as long as they co-exist, I see no real solution.
I think a lot of the change we need should come from inside, from the Muslims, not from us. And Westerners should try to stay rational. In an age of confusion that seems difficult.
Posts like yours are a valuable contribution.
Hi Caroline - Indeed, the extremists on both sides have a kind of symbiotic relationship. Rational and ethical folks need to hold to our principles in response.
I think that cultural relativism might be OK when talking about theory and art. But as soon as one tries to apply it to actions, it is harmful and enables violent oppressive people.
I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post. It's important to be able to discuss these issues without the reflexive bigotry or the reflexive silencing of any critique or discussion that may be unfavorable. The foundational texts of a religion are just the beginning - there's the commentary that comes after, the way the religion is practiced in a culture (and what it has absorbed from the surrounding culture), and its changes over time. All of this needs to be better understood.
Hi Hila - Indeed, the exchange of ideas, as wellmas the fight for human rights, works best when outright bigotry, as well as false accusations of bigotry, are kept out of the mix.
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