How Reza Aslan Damages the Discourse

Reza Aslan Christiane Amanpour Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Reza Aslan, Christiane Amanpour, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

One of the journalists I most admire is Christiane Amanpour. I never miss her show Amanpour on CNN International if I can help it.

On 21 October though she disappointed me – she fell into the trap many liberal Americans do (and New Zealanders too, as I’ve written about)  of giving Reza Aslan a voice as a spokesperson for moderate Islam. Aslan is no such thing – he’s a liberal Muslim who is an apologist for all Islam. He’s tied himself in knots over the last few weeks trying to separate Islam from the horrendous actions of many of its followers, even to the extent of lying about the practices of the religion.

Here is the full interview, entitled Confronting Religious Extremism.

Even the title of the segment annoyed me: ‘Confronting Religious Extremism’. The whole show was about extremism within Islam, but they felt unable to even be honest about that. It’s this extreme left-wing thing about not offending people’s beliefs that is leading so often these days to liberals defending Islam, which contains, as Sam Harris so succinctly put it, a “mother lode of bad ideas”.

Amanpour appears to be another sufferer of Islamophobia-phobia (I credit Greg Gutfeld for the term), the fear of being labelled an Islamophobe. One of the best descriptions of the origin of this condition I’ve seen comes from Pliny the in Between in a comment on the article by Professor Jerry Coyne I have referenced below. Pliny the in Between said:

Pliny the in Between

Among other things, Pliny the in Between is a talented cartoonist and you can see the cartoons at the website Evolving Perspectives.

Along with Amanpour and Aslan, the segment included British journalist and columnist with The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Her contribution to the discussion was of the type needed if there is ever going to be any progress in addressing the issue of extremism within Islam. I for one was very impressed by her. As everyone knows, you can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge it. This is what Ahibhai-Brown did and what Aslan consistently fails to do.

Aslan was the same as always. While appearing to acknowledge the problem, he then spent most of his time distancing Islam from it, and taking the opportunity to get a few digs into Sam Harris while he was at it. Alibhai-Brown clearly saw straight through his attempts to exonerate Islam from all blame, and picked him up on it at one point:

Aslan: But I think the real issue here is people with a public persona – people like Bill Maher or like Sam Harris for that matter – just seem to mimic the same kind of media simplistic rhetoric to a much larger audience and more destructively, tend to do so in the name of the, as the clip that you showed, the hundreds of millions of Muslims who “don’t take their religion seriously”. What that does is create a much more dangerous situation, because if we are going to confront Islamic extremism, which is a very real, very dangerous thing, what we need is those hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not share those values, those ideologies, to be at the front line of this. And all we’re doing with our rhetoric is essentially dismissing them, alienating them.
Amanpour: So to you then Yasmin, … clearly as Reza pointed out, there are problems … in some of the more extreme countries. How do you counter that? But how do you also view the … moderates? How do you … or do you, have any effect on the radicalisation here in England for instance?
Alibhai-Brown: You know, even six months ago I would not have said this, but I fear, and I would say to Reza, that many of us, perhaps, are failing to realize the penetration … of some of the Wahhabi doctrine that has really penetrated in the middle-classes in the UK, across Europe, in North America, and this idea that all we have is hatred directed at us, that’s point number one, and we have to look at this now. … And I don’t feel able to say, the way I did once, that the majority of Muslims don’t think like this, because I fear that many of them have started to believe some of this. And the other point that we in Britain thankfully do talk about, the way our governments have nurtured this. Have nurtured this by never ever looking at what Saudi Arabia was up to for example. So our dialogue now is becoming much deeper in terms of could America and the UK and the European countries have stopped this kind of penetration and in my view they could have.

Then, by misrepresenting Sam Harris’s words, Amanpour played right into Aslan’s hands (my emphasis):

Amanpour: Reza, what have we done wrong so to speak? I mean first of all that thing that Sam Harris said basically suggests that you can only be a self-hating Muslim to be a good Muslim.
Aslan: Yeah, yeah, Sam Harris is apparently the expert on what it means to be a Muslim and what it doesn’t mean. Look, I think this is a very important issue that Yasmin brings up here, that there is a kind of Salafism, Wahhabism that has infected a large swathe of the Muslim world, and that has been quite deliberately done. I understand Prince Alwaleed’s [Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, subject of Amanpour’s preceding interview] desire to not want to bring up the past, to talk about the present, but the past matters because it is still so very much the present. And the United States, the British government, have done a very little to actually counter this sort of infectious Saudi ideology, particularly in the poorer places in the world, like in South Asia and Afghanistan and in parts of the Middle East. But at the same time, what we need to do is empower the enormous majority of voices in the Muslim world who are fighting back against this ideology. Listen, if ISIS calls itself Muslim, it’s Muslim. All you have to do is say you’re a Muslim and you’re a Muslim. If they say they’re acting on their ideas of what Islam is, then take their word for it. But the fact of the matter is that the people that ISIS is killing are Muslims, the people that are fighting back against ISIS are Muslim, and so the Islamic identity of ISIS doesn’t really say anything about Islam as a religion. So what we need to do is ensure that there is the much larger but not as loud voice of Islam – that they are empowered to push back not just against these horrific actions, but as Yasmin says, against the very ideology that fuels these kind of actions.

So here we go again: “… the Islamic identity of ISIS doesn’t really say anything about Islam as a religion.” Aslan has with that phrase abrogated Islam of all blame in the matter. He has basically backed down from his previous comments that acknowledged there’s a problem, as he constantly does. He contradicts himself and removes all the value of those comments he makes in opposition to extremists. Further, he takes every opportunity to have a dig at Sam Harris, which in my opinion is just childish.

He did the same thing in his interview with Jesse Singal in Science for Us entitled ‘Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists get Wrong’.

Aslan: If I were to put the difference in those worldviews in the simplest way … someone like Sam Harris or Bill Maher sees religion as defining people of faith, their values, their motivations, and I see people as defining their religion.

Singal: What do you mean by that?

Aslan: I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.
People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

Aslan has completely mischaracterized the argument about people bringing their values to their religion for his own purposes. He is trying to say that religion contributes nothing, which is, of course, nonsense. It is true there are varied interpretations of all religions worldwide – it would be ridiculous to say otherwise. Those of us Aslan terms “New Atheists” are not suggesting that an Islamic terrorist’s only motivation is Islam. We say that for some people, Islam motivates them to do terrible things. None of us submit that being a Muslim makes someone a bad person, and we all acknowledge that there are tens of millions of good people in the world who are Muslim. Further, we acknowledge and support the many who are working to counteract the damage done by those who preach Salafism and similar extreme interpretations of the Qur’an and hadiths. But if you said to the average committed Christian, for example, “Your values and morals have nothing to do with your religion,” they’d disagree vehemently.

The truth is that many who speak out against groups like DAESH (ISIL), Al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram, Al-Nusra, Al-Shabaab and the Khorasan Group, or the people who support them, are putting their lives at risk. When Nick Kristof mentioned during the now infamous exchange on Bill Maher’s show that a Muslim friend had been killed for speaking out against Islam, he was making Harris’s point. As Harris himself put it:

Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.

Jerry Coyne

Professor Jerry Coyne (any pic has to include a cat!)

Professor Jerry Coyne wrote a great piece about Aslan’s most recent op-ed on the CNN website. As he points out:

I don’t think that anyone would claim that many actions that are largely motivated by religious beliefs have no other causes, something that Aslan claims all New Atheists think.

This is where Aslan is constantly going wrong. He accuses Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne (some of the “New Atheists”) of making sweeping anti-Islam statements, but the only sweeping statements are Aslan’s misrepresentations of their positions. He says their criticisms of Islam are dangerous because they alienate Muslims, who we have to get on side if reforms are to be made. However, their criticisms of Islam are all exactly the same as his. The difference is he denies the problems have any relation to Islam, thereby letting the religion’s leaders off the hook and moving the attack to the critics rather than cause. He writes in the CNN op-ed for example:

In the case of Bibeau, [the perpetrator of the attacks in the Canadian parliament] his violent behavior could have been influenced as much by his religious beliefs as by his documented mental problems, his extensive criminal past or his history of drug addiction. Yet, because Bibeau was a Muslim, it is simply assumed that the sole motivating factor for his abhorrent behavior was his religious beliefs.

None of those Aslan terms “New Atheists” has ever said Islam is the sole motivation for Bibeau or any other Muslim terrorist. The problem is that Aslan insists that Islam is never part of the motivation. It is Aslan who is dangerous because he won’t acknowledge that the way some are teaching about Islam is part of the problem. Those teaching Salafism/Wahhabism are inspiring people to commit atrocious acts and it’s likely many of them wouldn’t have committed those acts without that stimulus. The majority of Muslims, who don’t support what the extremists are doing in the name of their religion, need to speak out. It is hard to speak out and they need encouragement. When people like Aslan, who is such a prominent voice for moderate Islam, deny Islam is the issue, it cuts off conversations that need to occur.

8 Responses to “How Reza Aslan Damages the Discourse”

  1. AU says:

    Well, if you’re going to be fair, you should at least point out that Aslan also says that Islam doesn’t make someone a good person, even though, it can (just like it can make someone a bad person).

    I agree with you that Islam can make people do bad things – you can have a decent person, who, because of Islam, does bad things. Of that there is no doubt. Similarly, you can have a bad person, who because of Islam, does good things. Of that there is also no doubt. And you can also have what Aslan says – that a good person interprets Islam liberally because they are a good person, and a bad person interprets Islam in an extreme and bad manner because they are a bad person.

    As for your comment that “Those teaching Salafism/Wahhabism are inspiring people to commit atrocious acts”. Salafism doesn’t automatically equate violence. Salafis follow a very conservative brand of Islam – yet you have Salafis who are against violent Jihad. The term you should be using is Takfiris – this is what al-Qaeda and ISIS are.

    Think of it this way – all English are Brits, but not all Brits are English e.g. some are Scots, Welsh. Similarly, almost all Takfiris are Salafis, but not all Salafis are Takfiris.

    I think you are raising some important points, but it is equally important that you present an unbiased view and get things factually correct, otherwise your blog will be considered by many as just another “Islamophobic blog”.

    At least you are allowing comments that are not 100% in agreement with you – that to me is the first sign that you are not an Islamophobe. Sadly, there are a couple of sites that did not allow my comments before, including one by one of the “New Atheists” you mention in your article.

    • Hi again AU. I do agree that there are many people who lead better lives, and have reformed their lives because of religion, including Islam. I don’t personally think there is a direct link between Salafism and violence, and I hope I didn’t imply that in my article. There are always other factors in play too. I do however think that a combination of conservatism and any religion is a bad one, and although I don’t know for sure, I suspect a stronger link between conservative forms of Islam and violence than between moderate Islam and violence.

      • AU says:

        Hi Heather,

        Thanks for clarifying. Yes, I would agree with you that conservative forms of religion do tend to lead to a view of the world where there is less scope for tolerating others, and hence more violence.

  2. Ken says:

    I agree with most of this, particularly re Aslan. But though the new atheists don’t claim religion is the only motivator of behavior, for many this is a technical admission only, as some hugely downplay any other factors. I’ve long been a fan of Sam Harris, but I find him to be among the worst in this regard.

    What frustrates me is that Sam won’t even really engage on this topic. I had an email exchange with him once where he just went quiet when certain points were made.

    I recently watched all three hours of Sam’s discussion with Cenk Uygur. Here too I found I was usually in agreement with Sam, except when it came to the role of politics as a cause of terrorism against the west.

    Sam seems happy to all but ignore the 20th century history of western intervention in the middle east, the oppression and millions of lives lost or displaced, as somehow unimportant to the reasonably recent radicalisation of some peoples there, leading to the backlash we see now (even though he was happy to cite a history of Arab attacks on Christians as motivation for the Crusades).

    In particular, Sam used al Qaeda’s desire to rid the Arabian peninsula of US troops as an example of their religious motivations. When I wrote to Sam I used this example to make the exact opposite point.

    Osama bin Laden gave three reasons for 9/11: the million or more innocents that died in Iraq due to sanctions, at least half of which were children; US support of Israeli oppression of Palestinians; and ridding the holy land of US troops. Only the last of these is religious, and I would say it has a strong political dimension as well, given bin Laden also said his goal re 9/11 was to provoke an over-reaction from the US that would destabilise corrupt middle east govts, like Saudi. And other two are almost entirely political. Yet Sam ignores these statements that don’t fit his meme in favour of the last which (partly) does. In our email exchange, he never responded to this point.

    It is Sam who always says we should believe what people say their motivations are, yet he won’t even engage to refute the first two of these statements in favour of the third.

    I also told Sam that, as an atheist, I was drawn to his writings on religion because of his eloquence and often exquisitely expressed logic. So when he fails to apply the same logic to his own claims I find it more difficult to defend him as much as I’d like. Very frustrating, because he actually provides those like Aslan a legitimate argument to use against him, obscuring the fact that much of what Aslan says is not legitamate.

    • AU says:

      Well, that’s the reason Sam Harris and the other “New Atheists” are called Islamophobes. It isn’t because any criticism of Islam is Islamophobia, it is because their criticism is driven by tribalism and when it comes to Islam, they are willing to overlook the complexities of things and overplay the role of religion in many of the bad things that happen in the Muslim world.

      • Ken says:

        Nah, that’s wrong for two reasons. First, it suggests they could remedy their own situation, but there are plenty like Aslan who are happy to misrepresent any criticism of Islam. Second, Sam is more often right than wrong, despite his rather large blind spot in this area.

        • AU says:

          I am not sure I understand your logic.

          Just because someone is more often right than wrong on something, it doesn’t mean they cannot be wrong about something.

          James Watson is more often right than wrong on genetics and biology. However, he is wrong when he suggests that Africans are less intelligent than “whites”.

          • Ken says:

            You could say I’m agreeing with you that if Sam were driven primarily by tribalism, he would be more often wrong than right.

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