Archives For Middle East & Islam

Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims is an important addition to the cultural conversation about Islam in America. I follow this conversation with interest, because as a graduate student in Jordan, I wrote my master’s thesis about different narratives about Islam in the United States. In particular, I focused on the relationship between language and power. I read dozens of books from across the spectrum, from Islam’s most ardent defenders to its most vitriolic critics. My research confirmed by sense that so much of the debate about Islam isn’t fully honest. It is less concerned with debating meaningful issues than with attempting to dominate the debate and squelch dissent. In general, I find this to be true of both “Islamophobes” and “apologists.”

This book fits within my overall sense of the debate. It is an apologetic work, dedicated to defending Muslims by destroying the credibility of Islam’s fiercest opponents. The author offers a relentless exposé of the sheer ugliness of individuals like Pamella Gellar, who profit from and take a perverse delight in hatemongering. This critique is important and necessary. Although I believe many Americans have legitimate concerns about Islam, at some point I have to call a spade a spade: many of the individuals who get involved in this debate are hateful, ignorant bigots. Lean exposes some of them, as well as the financial incentives undergirding their little empire. That is the book’s main strength.

But the book suffers from the same deficiency that so many other apologetic works do; it doesn’t engage at all with legitimate questions or concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam. To cite just one example, Lean tells us how terrible it is that Islamophobic organizations distribute material claiming that Muhammad slept with a nine year-old. However, he never engages with the fact that this tidbit is actually true, according to early Islamic sources. Nor does he engage with problematic aspects of shariah codified in classical Islamic jurisprudence. He writes off concerns about Islamic organizations in the US, despite extensive documentation that many of these groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Islamophobic industry” blows many of these things out of proportion, and I think honest analysis would dissipate many fears, but I don’t find approaches like Lean’s particularly helpful. Pamella Gellar and Robert Spencer may be hatemongers, but they are so successful because their work finds traction among average Americans who see things in Islam that legitimately concern them. Blowing off those concerns will not help things; what this debate needs is more patient, honest discussion about these critical issues. Perhaps Lean would argue that such discussion is beyond the scope of his book, but if he really wants to disarm the Islamophobes, this is where the conversation must go.

Lean’s book does a service in exposing the worst aspects of the Islamophobic industry, but I fear it will only speak to an audience that already agrees with him. Those who have sincere questions or concerns about Islam will find little to satisfy them, and will need to look elsewhere for answers.

When I was studying in Jordan, I got a kick out of watching student elections unfold each fall.  The campaign blitz was like nothing I’ve ever seen.  Apparently, UJ students who run for student office feel obligated to print hundreds of photographs of themselves and plaster them all over every tree on campus.  Some even print massive banners, which they hang from buildings.  I always meant to take some photographs to share on my blog but never got around to it.  Fortunately, an online Jordanian newspaper called 7ibr (prounced “Hibr”) just released a photo essay a couple weeks ago couple.  Here are a few of my favorites, but you can see more over at 7ibr.





Yesterday I discovered a pretty impressive website called Syria Deeply, an alternative journalism project dedicated to the Syrian war.  It apparently launched on December 3rd, and I only learned about it yesterday from this article at Fast Company, which described the innovative site as a:

“story monitor” and “news dashboard” dedicated to reporting on a single beat, a redefinition of the “beat” focused on covering one continuous, chaotic storyline and the communities involved, rather than covering a broad topic or genre.

That’s a pretty good description of the site.  I’ve spent the past 600+ days trying to make sense of the war from news stories and op-eds, but as the Fast Company article put it, “the user experience of the Syria story sucked.”  This site is a marked improvement and worth checking out if you’re interested in the conflict.

In the past decade, a cottage industry has developed to explain “true Islam.” Those who wish to learn about Islam can find hundreds of books, visit countless websites, attend interfaith dialogs, tour mosques, or listen to university lectures. Despite all this, many Americans are still unsatisfied and hungry for answers about Islam; they are bewildered by the diversity of conflicting answers and explanations, and want to find the truth once and for all. I shared some of my thoughts on this elusive quest in an article titled How to Teach About Islam, but would also like to share ten principles for motivated self-learners who sincerely want to learn more about Islam.  Actually, these are good principles for learning about anything.


1. Be open and objective. The worst thing you can do is approach the study of Islam by seeking to confirm your preconceived ideas. If that’s all you want to do, you will find plenty of resources–and won’t be any wiser for it. Approach your studies with openness and objectivity, on the other hand, and you will discover a rich and complex subject that will stretch your preconceived notions, whatever they might be.

2. Seek out varied opinions. No single person can speak for the religion of more than a billion people, who are scattered across countless cultures throughout the world. Just as you will find tremendous diversity in opinions about Christianity and its impact on the world, you will find a broad range of ideas about Islam. Deliberately seek out voices who take different approaches or even disagree with each other. If you accumulate diverse perspectives and opinions, these will add up to a wealth of knowledge and wisdom; you will have no choice but to think, evaluate, and synthesize.

3. Learn from books.  If you want to learn in-depth, you need to seek out well-reasoned books.  This doesn’t mean you should only read books that adhere to a certain ideological position; it means finding books that are “logically argued with skill or care”, are rooted in hard data, approach that data with sound methodology, and make a genuine effort at objectivity.  If the author sounds extreme or uses passionate language to arouse emotions, you should be careful.  I won’t tell you not to read them, but counterbalance them with books that are just as passionate about the opposite position.  Then think hard about where the truth lies.

4. Learn from people.  Islam is not about dusty texts in ivory towers; it is about the faith and lives of human beings.  Unfortunately, too many people try to learn about Islam without every getting to know any Muslims.  In fact, some of the self-proclaimed experts on Islam have almost no contact with Muslims.  We need a real-world context in which to interpret academic knowledge; that comes from actually stepping out into the real world.  If we don’t have this crucial firsthand experience, we are susceptible to unique biases and can run down intellectual rabbit trails that have almost nothing to do with reality.

5. Learn something about holy texts, interpretative texts, and lived experience.  Consider these as concentric circles, each broader than the one before.  You won’t learn about true Islam by reading a Qur’an cover-to-cover.  You need to understand how Muslims interpret the Qur’an, which means knowing something about the sunna, shariah, and commentaries.  But even mastering 10th century books about shariah won’t teach you a thing if you exclude the third circle: how Muslims actually interpret and live out this body of knowledge in their lives.  All three circles are important.

6. Expect complexity. No matter how hard you look, you will never find “true Islam.” You will find a contested faith, with complex doctrines and a complex history, for which radically different individuals and organizations are debating and competing.  Some of these you will respect and feel kinship with; others will terrify you. Both groups will ground their beliefs in Islamic doctrine and tradition in ways that sound convincing. If your brain is hurting and your feelings are torn, you’re probably on the right track.

7. Eschew generalizations.  The corollary of #6 is that you should immediately suspect simple conclusions or sweeping generalizations about Islam.  Nothing is that easy.

8. Let everyone speak for himself. Intellectual honesty and basic human decency demand it.  Popular books about Islam are full of takedowns and character assassinations, on both sides of the spectrum; they are very good about telling you who you should hate.  Have principles and stand for them, but before you declare war on a new enemy, make sure you at least read something they’ve written or watch them on YouTube.  Then decide.

9. Take everyone with a grain of salt.  As the proverb says, every man seems right in his own eyes.  Most people with strong opinions about Islam sincerely believe what they say, and they can all sound convincing.  Hear them out, but also recognize that there are real tensions and conflicts between different sides; this becomes more apparent as you gather more viewpoints.  It takes patient investigation to reach the heart of the conflicts and make judgments about where the truth lies.

10. Expect common ground with other religions. People are the same everywhere.  They love their families, want lives of dignity and happiness, and want to provide good futures for their children.  They uphold virtues like kindness, charity, respect, and fairness.  People are also equally flawed.  They are at times mean, selfish, greedy, and intolerant of those who are different.  The great religions attempt to make sense of this dual nature of mankind and its relationship to God and the cosmos, so it’s unsurprising that we find similarities among them.  It’s also unsurprising that our religious doctrines and practices are susceptible to this same dual nature.  Religion can be a powerful moral influence and inspire tremendous works of humanitarianism and charity, but it can also be a powerful exclusionary force that feeds hate and intolerance.  Expect to find both aspects in Islam, and consider how this compares to other religions.

11. Expect differences from other religions.  Just because human nature is constant, and our religions share similarities, does not mean that all religions are identical.  Each major religion developed in unique circumstances, with substantially different holy texts, founding experiences, hermeneutics, and histories.  These differences can have important ramifications in the real world.  Don’t buy the mushy modern idea that all religions are the same; they aren’t.  Carefully consider what is the same and what is different, and what these differences might mean.

12. Consider dimensions other than religion. Religion cannot be separated from other dimensions of human experience like history, politics, sociology, and economics.  Contemporary discussions about Islam’s nature are inseparable from subjects like political theory, colonialism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American foreign policy, immigration policy, gender issues, and human rights.  Understanding various viewpoints requires understanding something about many of these subjects.  You didn’t know what you were getting into, did you?

13. Examine yourself. The reason many non-Muslims want to learn about Islam in the first place is because they are curious about how Islam might affect them or their society personally.  They are interested not just in Islam, but its interaction with their lives.  That means this is an equation with two parts, and we need to give equal thought to our own lives, religions, societies, and politics.  There are two dangers here.  One is drawing moral equivalencies between every negative or concerning thing we find; the other is refusing to examine ourselves or admit any possible wrongdoing on our own part.  Don’t let that stop you; in between these two extremes is plenty of room for serious thought and vibrant discussion, and this is where much of the hard work needs to be done.

14. Be civil.  Contemporary debates about Islam’s nature are nasty.  Heated rhetoric and vicious accusations often substitute for reasoned discussion.  Many voices so despise each other that meaningful dialog has become impossible.  The debate would benefit from a little more civility.  Stand up for your beliefs and advocate for them without apology, but have some human decency; let your arguments rest on principle and not hatemongering.

15. Never stop learning. You’re embarking on a big quest.  Don’t let me scare you away; if you only have time to read a book or two, by all means go ahead.  Just have the humility to recognize you that you are still in the shallow end of the pool, and be on the lookout for further opportunities to grow your knowledge.  Enjoy the quest, enjoy the people you meet along the way, and always remain open.

Former Army officer Tim Mathews has a response to my AFJ article on Abu Muqawama.  He mostly agrees with my diagnosis of the problems with discourse about Islam in the U.S., but believes my proposed solutions are way overkill.  Military commanders do not need to turn their subordinates into Islam scholars; they want direct, useful, practical knowledge that will make their units more effective combat.  This is the reply I left on Abu M:
I’m very glad to see your thoughtful response to my article.  More than anything, I had hoped to spark some discussion about how Islam is taught in various government agencies, so am glad to see you carrying the discussion forward.

You write, “As should be clear, I agree with problems that the author identifies in the US. However, I fail to see what this has to do with the issue of educating our personnel.”

One reason you might disagree with aspects of my article is because you viewed it primarily through the lens of preparing deploying soldiers.  That is an important part of what I’m writing about, but I actually intended the article to encompass a much broader range of government needs.  Government employees have many different reasons they might need to understand something about Islam.  Congressmen and their staffs are trying to make sense of the alleged “shariah threat” and calls for anti-shariah legislation; law enforcement agencies and the FBI need a way to understand and delineate between “moderates” and “extremists”, so they can hone in on real threats while respecting the civil liberties of ordinary Muslims; military commanders concerned with preventing the next Ft. Hood want to know how they can recognize extremist ideology; government agencies involved in any sort of outreach to Muslim communities struggle to find partners they can work with, because the largest American-Islamic organizations that claim to speak for American Muslims are tarnished by alleged links to extremism and terrorism.  These are all issues where the “culture war” intersects with policymaking, so I believe government employees working such issues really need to understand Islam at a deeper level.  Unfortunately, numerous examples show that these groups may be susceptible to the arguments of the culture wars.  It is these sorts of groups I had in mind when I wrote the article.

Every training/education program that touches on Islam will be unique, and have specific needs.  An Islam primer for deploying soldiers will look nothing like a program designed for counterterrorism agents working on domestic Islamic radicalization.  My goal was to lay out some principles that might be useful across this entire range of activities, but I had to tackle this enormous subject in a mere 3,000 words and admittedly could have done a better job explaining the diversity of approaches needed.  I think you offer many good thoughts on the needs for deploying soldiers, and hope such discussion will continue.

AFJ article

July 13, 2012 — 1 Comment
My article is out in the new issue of Armed Forces Journal: How to Teach About Islam.  This is the paper’s thesis:
Government agencies will never escape their dilemma if they continue searching for an authority who can speak for “true” Islam. Islam is a deeply contested religion, even among Muslims, and the arguments of both extremes are shot through with truth, falsehood, exaggerations, omissions and assumptions. Much of the debate about Islam in the United States is intellectually dishonest. Rival voices are less concerned with sincere discussion than with heavy-handed tactics to dominate the conversation, such as efforts to control government classrooms. The only way out of this dilemma is also the most intellectually honest one: to understand the battle for American perceptions of Islam, to map out the topography of the debate and to teach students to critically evaluate rival arguments.

The paper will probably upset some people at both ends of the debate, because each side wants to a priori sanction certain opinions and silence other ones.  I believe that in this toxic atmosphere, the only way forward is to give each voice a hearing, but rigorously scrutinize what each is saying.

Belief and action

July 12, 2012 — Leave a comment
In my most recent post about Islam, I mentioned that there is often a tremendous gap between our professed beliefs and how we actually live.  The best treatment of this I’ve ever seen comes from the pen of John Stuart Mill, in his masterpiece On Liberty.  Sometimes, this dissonance is a good thing; it tempers the worst excesses of fanaticism.  Other times it is a tragedy, when we fail to live by our most noble and cherished principles.

As I write this series of posts, it’s healthy for non-Muslims to reflect on their own belief systems as well.  That is the other side of this enormous equation, which I hope to treat eventually.   In the meantime, I’ll let Mill take it away.  If you’re not a Christian, the passage works just as well if you substitute your own most sacred moral principles.

These [Christian precepts] are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them.

When a non-Muslim wants to learn about Islam, it’s not uncommon for him or her to visit the local Barnes & Noble, buy a Qur’an, and start reading from page one.  While this impulse is understandable, it’s probably the worst possible way to learn about Islam.  It’s a little like sitting down to read the Bible straight through; even if the weary reader makes it as far as the obscure dietary restrictions in Leviticus, he probably won’t last much longer.  He certainly won’t learn much about Christianity.

Why such difficulty?  Because religious scriptures don’t necessarily stand on their own, especially not when they’re approached like a novel, with no methodological tools at hand.  Even those Christians who believe in sola scriptura have elaborate hermeneutics that clarify how the Bible should be approached and interpreted.  Furthermore, holy texts only come to life in human communities, which determine how to interpret and apply them.  Islam is the same way.  For a non-Muslim in the West, the challenge of approaching Islam is even greater than Christianity, because most of us lack the background knowledge and historical context to make any sense of the Qur’an whatsoever.  To even approach the Qur’an or the subject of Islamic beliefs, you need to know something about the sources of Islamic authority and how they actually work.

I don’t have the time or space to go into great detail about the subject.  For those who are interested, there are plenty of good books on the subject, written by authors who possess far more expertise than I ever will.  But I’d like to present a very basic sketch, which will help guide us through future posts.

I think of Islamic belief and practice as a series of concentric, expanding circles:

(1) The Qur’an
(2) The sunna, which consists of the words of the Prophet (hadith) and his actions
(3) Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence
(4) What Muslims today actually claim to believe
(5) What Muslims actually live out in the real world

These circles get consecutively larger, offering increasing room for diversity.  Note that I do not just consider static texts, but how these texts are believed and applied.  This is essential to understanding the Islamic world today, and is one place where rabidly anti-Islamic writers go wrong when they focus primarily on medieval texts.  Let’s briefly consider each circle:

(1) The Qur’an: Nearly all Muslims believe the Qur’an is the inviolable revelation of God and thus holds absolute authority over believers’ lives.  However, the Qur’an can be difficult to interpret because its verses are not ordered chronologically and can only be understood by knowing the specific context in which they were revealed.  The Qur’an is thus inseparable from early Islamic history.  Despite the Qur’an’s authority, there is room for interpretation.  For one thing, Muslims believe that some verses abrogate or override other verses, but there is no consensus on which verses abrogate which.  For another, many verses–particularly those revealed in Medina, where Muhammad led a political community–were revealed in response to specific problems in a specific time and place.  Muslims today disagree about how these verses should be applied.  Should they apply literally?  Are there underlying principles that should apply today, but adapted to suit modern circumstances?  Should Medinan verses apply at all?

(2) The Hadith: After Muhammad died, he left behind many companions who had seen him, known him, and heard him speak.  In the following centuries, scholars traveled the Islamic world scrupulously collecting memories passed down by those who knew the Prophet.  These hadith explained the circumstances in which the Qur’an was revealed, and helped to interpret it and elaborate upon it.  A rigorous science developed to trace the lineage of these hadith (plural ahadeeth) and test their authenticity.  Thousands and thousands of hadith were collected.  Six primary hadith collections are used today, the most famous being those known as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.  Many Muslims today believe that both collections are authentic and inviolable, but even pious Islamic scholars sometimes disagree.  The complexity of hadith science, the widespread problem of hadith forgery, and the lack of a fixed canon means that there is room to disagree about the authenticity of specific hadith.  Many Muslim reformers and progressives use this to their advantage.  In some cases, they argue that hadith collection occurred in medieval or tribal, and reflect the biases of the age.  In other cases, they outright dispute the authenticity of hadith that seem to endorse intolerance, violence, or misogyny.

(3) Fiqh: If the early Muslim community had a specific question about an issue, the solution was easy: they could ask the Prophet.  After the Prophet died, Muslims were on their own.  What should they do if they faced a new situation, for which the Qur’an didn’t provide clear answers?  Islamic scholars who were well versed in the Qur’an and sunna did their best to make rulings, based on what knowledge they had.  They would look for an answer in the Qu’ran, then in the hadith.  If the situation wasn’t addressed, they would try to derive a ruling from analogous principles.  They also considered things like prior rulings, consensus among other scholars, and the general interest of the community.  Finally, they relied on their own reason.  This methodology, which varied slightly from school to school, was known as usul al-fiqh (origins or foundations of jurisprudence).  In short, usul al-fiqh gave scholars the tools to interpret the Qur’an and sunna and explain how they should be applied in Muslims’ lives.

Fiqh is extremely complicated.  Sunni Islam has never had a formalized clergy, so fiqh grew from the bottom up–from diverse scholars in diverse places, who were learned in the Qur’an, hadith, and existing jurisprudence.  However, fiqh has always taken consensus seriously, so prior rulings by top scholars were often considered authoritative.  This meant that over time, Islamic jurisprudence took on a general shape and direction.  Out of the hundreds of early schools, four main ones survive in Sunni Islam today: the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools.  Most traditional Sunni Muslims belong to one of the four schools, although they believe that all are legitimate.

Muslims emphasize how diverse Islamic jurispudence is.  Islam’s critics claim the opposite;  they believe that there is such a thing as Islamic orthodoxy, as attested to by Islamic law manuals and the writings of scholars, and that the differences between the four schools are minor.  This body of law, they say, endorses such problematic rulings as the death penalty for unrepentant apostates, the stoning of adulterers, the dhimmi system for non-Muslims, and Islamic government.  When Islam’s critics warn that Muslims are trying to impose “shariah” or “Islamic law”, it is this body of fiqh that they are referring to.  I will examine some of these claims in my next post.

(4) What Muslims today actually claim to believe: Islam’s critics often focus heavily on the first three circles–the Qur’an, hadith, and fiqh–and believe that these are absolutely determinative for Muslims today.  I disagree.  If you actually spend time among Muslims, you find that they draw their beliefs from many different sources, just as anybody else does.  We are all shaped by our upbringing, our relationships, our education, our political affiliations, our religion, our life experience, and our intuition.  Sometimes our beliefs exist in harmony with one another; other times we live with a great deal of cognitive dissonance.  We are not perfectly rational beings, and we go on living with complex, ever-changing belief systems.  Muslims are of course no different.  So it is important to recognize that the beliefs of present-day Muslims will look different than what is codified in ancient texts, and will vary greatly within different Muslim communities and even among individuals.

(5) What Muslims actually live out in the real world.  If we are not perfectly consistent in our belief systems, we are even less consistent in how we live.  Few of us–probably none of us–genuinely live in accord with our belief system each day.  Actual behavior will vary tremendously among people, so when we consider the implications of belief systems, religions, and ideologies, we need to consider how adherents of those beliefs actually live and act.

If all of this sounds overly dry and theoretical, I will try to bring it together in future posts as I begin to evaluate some of the claims made by Islam’s defenders and its critics.

While studying at the University of Jordan, a professor asked me to write a paper about “the reasons for Islamophobia in America.”  I spent the next two months laboring on the paper, which was entirely in Arabic.  I had to take it one painstaking sentence at a time, then review the entire thing with a native speaker over the course of several tutoring sessions, but at last I had a finished product and was ready to present it to the class.  I distributed copies the week prior, then came to class prepared to discuss what I’d written.  This was the gist of my paper:
Americans have a lot of questions and concerns about Islam.  They hear things about its doctrines, and see things happening in Muslim societies, that make them worry.  Discussing these concerns is very difficult, and they might anger and upset you, but if you really care about improving the way non-Muslims see your faith, you need to understand these concerns and be prepared to respond to them.  I am your friend, and have lived among you and enjoyed your hospitality as Muslims for two years, so I offer these thoughts with great respect for you and your religion.  This paper is intended to help you better understand and respond to American fears about Islam.

The presentation was a disaster.  Although many students privately told me the paper was helpful to them, the professor was irate.  Before I could speak more than a few sentences, he launched into a 30-minute tirade, which was largely about how the Mossad was responsible for September 11th.  I never got another chance to speak.  When I tried taking another class with this same professor the next term, he wouldn’t let me join his class.

I think my paper completely blindsided him; he was expecting me to parrot what he and many other Jordanian Muslims believed, which is that Americans are only afraid of Islam because the usual suspects like Jews, oil companies, and neoconservatives spread horrendous lies about them through the political and media organizations that they control.

So just what are these concerns that Americans have about Islam?  They should be familiar to most anybody who is reading these posts, but I’ll list some of the major fears that Americans harbor: (1) That Islam is inherently more violent than other religions, was “spread by the sword”, and advocates conversion or subjection of infidels through war or jihad (2) That Islam is a totalitarian ideology, not just a religion, and is incompatible with democracy and liberty (3) That Islam is supremacist and is incapable of granting full rights to religious minorities (4) That Islam is misogynistic (5) That Islam allows and encourages deception if it serves the faith (6) That Muslims are trying to replace secular U.S. laws and institutions with shariah and (7) That the largest American-Muslim organizations have extremist links and are the vanguard of this effort to Islamize America.

Many Muslims and non-Muslim apologists believe these are nothing more than hateful lies, and don’t even deserve to be engaged with.  As I’ve already stated, I disagree with that approach.  I believe that every single one of these concerns is vastly overblown, but I also believe that each is rooted in a seed of truth; that is why anti-Islamic authors can seemingly marshal so much evidence and sound so convincing to worried Americans.  I will not endorse any of these concerns, but neither will I dismiss them outright.  In coming posts I will do my absolute best to separate truth from falsehood, to explain where each concern comes from, and explain where legitimate concerns blur into wild conspiracy theories.  I will pay special attention to the ways that Muslims themselves are dealing with and responding to Islam’s more concerning aspects.

Here are a few of my conclusions front: Classical Islamic jurisprudence emerged in a specific tribal and medieval culture, and it enshrines many rulings that are extremely problematic today and justify some of the concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam.  This classical body of law has force in many Muslim countries, which is one reason we see some of the same recurring problems in these societies.  However, this body of law is not absolute and determinative in the way that Islam’s critics would have us believe.  Muslim reformers are working on a variety of different approaches to reform this body of law, and ordinary Muslims are often perfectly content to integrate the best Islamic principles with concepts like democracy, human rights, and tolerance.  I believe an Islamic Reformation is already underway, although it is so diffuse that we’ve had a hard time recognizing it.  Deep problems remain in the Islamic world that have religious motivation, and non-Muslims are right to be concerned and vigilant, but they need to be extremely careful not to encourage a paradigm that sees the West as being at war with Islam.  A healthier strategy is to recognize the seismic debates underway in the Muslim world, be extremely selective in identifying our true enemies, and give the rest of the Muslim world the breathing space to pursue its own path of reformation.  I personally believe this is happening faster than most of us realize.

*** NOTE: As I write these posts, I’m quickly realizing the pitfalls of spreading out an argument over so much time and space.  I am undoubtedly inviting misunderstanding, but I’ll keep doing my best.

Why talk about Islam?

June 29, 2012 — 2 Comments
Before embarking on my project of explaining my views on Islam, I need to deal with an important question upfront: why should national security professionals discuss Islam in the first place?

Some argue that singling out Islam for debate is inherently discriminatory.  After all, military members don’t feel the need to search out “the truth” about Christianity or Buddhism.  Intelligence agents and law enforcement officers don’t study the doctrines of ancient Judaism.  According to those who make this objection, the only reason national security professionals feel the need to discuss Islam is that structural or latent forms of Islamophobia lead them to unfairly single the religion out.
I disagree with this argument for two reasons.

First, Americans frequently discuss religion to whatever extent it intersects with political and social issues.  Americans don’t often talk about Christianity and terrorism, but they talk plenty about Christianity in other contexts.  If you are an activist for gay marriage, you most likely have a keen interest in Christian doctrines about sexuality and the role they play in the public policy debate.  If you are a biologist who cares about how evolution is represented in school textbooks, Christian doctrine is also of paramount importance.  If you care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then you need to know something about Jews who assert a divine right to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.  You are probably also interested in Christian Zionism, the phenomenon that leads many American evangelicals to offer unflinching support of Israeli policy.  All of these examples feature prominently in public discourse.  Americans don’t shy away from discussing religion in these contexts, because the role that religion plays is so apparent.

Islam matters for the same reason: because the role of Islamic belief is so apparent in a variety of political and social issues.  This list includes Islamic extremism/terrorism, the relationship between religion and the state, the rights of religious minorities, and the treatment of women.  These are huge issues, and there is vast room for disagreement and debate about Islam’s role, but it is indisputable that Islam has a role.  As most Muslims acknowledge, Islam was founded not just as a personal, spiritual religion but as a comprehensive way of life that has political, economic, and social dimensions.  For better or worse, this means that Islam is an important element of many political and social issues that involve Muslim communities.  I believe we are much better off acknowledging that, and then digging into the details of how Islam actually influences these issues, rather than pretending Islam doesn’t matter.

Second, anti-Muslim activism has become a serious concern in the U.S., and it has a national security dimension.  This alone makes Islam uniquely worthy of study.  Although I do believe Americans have valid concerns about Islamic belief and its ramifications for society, most skeptics of Islam do not rise to this level of rational concern; browse the websites and events where these people congregate, and you will mostly see a crass, bigoted hatefest.  It plays out in truly alarming behavior, like torching or desecrating mosques, ripping the veils from the faces of covered women, and shouting hateful things at ordinary, peaceful Muslim-American citizens.  This is a disgrace for the United States in its own right, but it also has an adverse effect on American national security by reinforcing the narrative that the United States is at war with Islam. 

To be clear, I do believe that the concept of “Islamophobia” is vastly overplayed to stifle even legitimate concerns and discussion about Islam.  I make this argument in my AFJ paper.  However, there is clearly a real phenomenon of vicious hatred directed toward Muslims, and we need a word to describe that.  As problematic as I find the word “Islamophobia”, I don’t know a better alternative.  In other words, “Islamophobia” is analogous to “anti-Semitic.”  The latter label is used to describe a real phenomenon of bigotry against Jews, but is also overplayed to demonize anybody who disagrees with the policy choices of the state of Israel.

One reason Islamophobia is on the rise is that Americans have valid concerns about Islam, but aren’t getting satisfactory answers from reputable voices.  Because many opinion leaders aren’t willing to engage with the hard questions about Islam, the ground is being ceded to right-wing extremist voices.  Their views are problematic and even profoundly wrong in some cases, but they offer a narrative that sounds plausible to worried Americans.  Islam’s defenders brand these authors and speakers as “hateful Islamophobes”, accuse them of lying, and ridicule their views.  What they don’t often do is actually engage with their arguments. 

Nobody is doing Muslims any favors by ignoring these arguments.  If I’m right, and Islamophobia is rooted in legitimate questions and concerns about Islam, then the only way forward is to plunge right into the heart of the controversy.  If some of those concerns are unwarranted, then corrective truth needs to emerge through patient discussion and engagement.  And if other concerns are warranted, then Muslims need to seriously reflect on those concerns and consider how they contribute to American perceptions of their faith.  Either way, open and honest discussion of Islam is essential.