Heather asked me recently:
I am curious about your reluctance to criticize Islam. It’s like you’re saying that there is one idea, amongst all the ideas in the world, that is immune from being questioned or challenged.
With another horrific Islamist murder spree having just occurred in Orlando Florida USA, I am impelled to try to answer the question. It’s not so much that I am reluctant to criticize Islam as that I am reluctant to criticize Muslims. Not ISIS, mind you, or Omar Mateen, or any Muslims attacking and killing people. I denounce them unreservedly. But I defend the Muslims in America and around the world who have nothing to do with such incidents, and like most everyone are just trying to make a living and provide for their families. But they are often objects of calumny, discrimination and military bombardment by the West.
I am reluctant to criticize Muslims for the same reason I am reluctant to criticize blacks, Native Americans, Jews, homosexuals, the disabled and transgendered: because my society, the USA, has enslaved, slaughtered, ridiculed, oppressed and/or discriminated against members of these groups BECAUSE of their group identity. Prejudice against most of these groups is still widespread and, among some segments of the American population, increasing. But the only one of these groups the United States military is actively killing at present are Muslims. And there are powerful and influential people and corporations in the USA who want to escalate that killing many-fold.
I am reluctant to denounce Muslims because of the almost continuous terrorism committed by Western nations on Muslim countries over the past century, which has led to the deaths of millions of Muslims and left their societies in ruin. By “Western” I am referring primarily to the US, UK, France, and Israel, with Italy, Spain and other countries joining in from time to time. Western nations have invaded Muslim countries, overthrown their governments, stolen their land and resources, subjected them to brutal tyrants, and slaughtered them by the millions. When they fight back, with the limited weapons available to them, we are outraged and label them as terrorists, refusing to recognize our own far greater terrorism.
I am reluctant to criticize Muslims because Western media and leaders ignore the brutality and mendacity of our attacks on Muslim countries, and spread fear that the West is under assault by Islam “the most oppressive and dangerous of faiths.” By one estimate we have killed 370,000 Muslims, including 210,000 children since the Iraq invasion of 2003. That’s the equivalent of more than a hundred 9/11 attacks or thousands of Orlando attacks. No Western country has been at risk of Muslim takeover since the Ottoman army was repulsed at the gates of Vienna in 1689. Virtually every Muslim country in the world has been conquered and pillaged by a Western country since then, most of them within the past 100 years. In the past fifteen years western militaries have invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Gaza with modern weapons and overwhelming force, against which they were virtually defenseless. This is not terrorism? And just who is an “existential threat” to whom.
I am reluctant to criticize Muslims while they are the object of continuous denunciations by prominent American politicians, Christian zealots, xenophobic nativists, neo-con militarists, and a surprising number of intellectuals on both the right and the left.
Now some will say, “Yes, but defending Muslims is not the same as defending Islam.” That is true and, being an atheist myself, there is little about Islam I want to defend. But Muslims by definition are those who affiliate with some version of the religion of Islam, and to separate criticism of a religion from criticism of its practitioners is a distinction without a difference. Blaming all bad behavior by Muslims on Islam, is just as misleading as blaming all bad behavior by Christians on Christianity, or blaming all bad behavior by Americans on our constitution. But to my dismay prominent atheists, seeing an easy target for their denunciation of religion, have joined the racist and militarist right in piling on the Muslim community.
I identify as “Islamophobes” those who condemn Islamic practices and attacks by Muslims on the West, without also condemning the far more devastating attacks of the West on Muslims. Islamophobes have an irrational fear of Islam and an inability (or unwillingness) to objectively assess the damage and threat the two groups, Muslims and Westerners, pose to each other.
Islamophobes rationalize their bigotry against Islam in two ways. Firstly, they exaggerate and distort the bad behavior of Muslims relative to that of other cultures; and secondly, they attribute the bad behavior of Muslims to the influence of Islam without adequate evidence or justification.
The first distortion of the Islamophobes, that Muslims behave worse than other groups, can be illustrated by two examples. Islamophobes make much of the misogyny, homophobia, cruelty and violence of Muslims. Muslim women, we are told, only cover their heads or wear distinctive garb because they are compelled to do so by men and will be beaten if they don’t. The forced segregation of the sexes and privilege accorded men, according to one leading Islamophobe, heightens their sexual drive (or lowers their inhibitions) and leads to increased levels of sexual harrassment and violence against women, such as occurred in Germany last year.
But the available data do not indicate that rape and domestic violence are higher among Muslims than other groups. Although statistics on rape are widely under-reported, and their validity may vary widely from country, some data are available. Wikipedia reports rapes per 100,000 population in non-Muslim countries (figures averaged and rounded): South Africa 140, New Zealand 25, Greece 2, Spain 5, Austria 9, USA 30, Sweden 60, Canada 2, and Japan 2. In Muslim countries: Algeria 2, Morocco 3, Turkey 2, Pakistan 26, Bangladesh 8, Kazakhstan 10, Kuwait 5.
The United Nations multi-country study on Men and Violence found the following percentages of men confessing to rape: Bangladesh 10%, Sri Lanka 15%, Cambodia 20%, China 22%, Indonesia 23%, Indonesia-Papua 49%, and Papua New Guinea 62% (numbers rounded). Of these only Bangladesh and Indonesia are predominately Muslim. Sri Lanka and Cambodia are predominately Buddhist, and Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua are largely Christian. The study found that the single greatest motivation cited by men who had raped in all countries studied was a sense of sexual entitlement. This was true of Islamic, Buddhist, and Christian countries but highest in atheist/Maoist China. Looking deeper into the experiences of men who raped (non-partner), the study identified factors (in order of importance): childhood emotional abuse or neglect, childhood sexual abuse and sexual victimization, alcohol and drug use, fights, gang involvement, depression, and current food insecurity.
Connected but separate from the misogyny issue is the accusation that Muslims are more violent and cruel than other cultures. Once again this is belied by the data. Murder rates are an example where the data are generally considered more reliable than rape data. Much is made of ISIS beheadings and Muslim honor killings. Yet, if we look at the data we find that Muslim countries often have murder rates below the world rate of 6.2 per hundred thousand. Wikipedia reports the following homicide rates: Algeria 1.5, Egypt 3.4, Morocco 1.0, Tunisia 3.4, Jordan 2.0, Turkey 2.6, Pakistan 7.7. In comparison some representative non-Muslim countries: Russia 9.5, UK 1.0, Argentina 7.6, US 3.8, Mexico 15.7, Ethiopia 8.1, and New Zealand 0.9.
All of these data may be questioned, but to ignore them while citing anecdotal accounts to demonstrate the misogyny of Islam is disingenuous. Lacking evidence for their claims that Islam is more violent and misogynistic than other societies, the Islamophobes highlight anecdotal and isolated events, and claim without evidence that they are representative. This is a particularly shameful approach for those Islamophobes who are also scientists, as it violates the most basic principles of their profession.
The second distortion employed by Islamophobes to demonize Islam is to attribute Muslim bad behavior to the religion of Islam, and to ignore or deny more compelling and proximate factors, such as revenge for Western terrorism. Many studies have been done of the motives of Islamist terrorism. Factors identified include “social networks,” and the “tight bonds of family and friendship” inspired alienated young Muslims to join the jihad and kill.”
What the recruits tended to have in common – besides their urbanity, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their education, their facility with languages, and their computer skills – was displacement. Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared. … [T]he background of the hundreds of global (as opposed to local) terrorists who were incarcerated or killed and for whom authorities have records, as being surprising for their Westernized background; their lack of religiosity before being “born again” in a foreign country; the high percentage of converts to Islam among them; … 80% of the attackers studied had some kind of physical or mental disability.
Yet such factors seldom enter into the narratives of the Islamophobes, who when challenged will ask “When did we ever say Islam was the ONLY factor in terrorism (or misogyny or other misdeeds attributed to Muslims)?” Yet when each new incident arises, Islam is the primary factor they consider. The outrage over the Orlando murders illustrates this obsession. The killer was an angry, violent young man, apparently conflicted over his sexual identity. Yes, he was a Muslim, but by most accounts not very religious. He saw in DAESH an ideology into which he could channel his rage. His homophobia, if that’s what it was, (maybe it was more Latinophobia) is by no means confined to Islam, as the examples of tweets in Heather’s last post showed. To simply seize on his religion as motivating his crime is simplistic. Yes, he cited DAESH, but I would question if even DAESH is essentially a religious movement. It is led by Sunnis, predominately former Saddamists, who were displaced from their positions of power and privilege by the Bush/Blair invasion, and placed under the control of Shiites seeking revenge. They are all Muslims, with the same Qur’an. Their religious differences are primarily a pretext for a struggle for power and wealth.
Thus I defend Muslims to counter the distortions, put forward by Islamophobes, which currently dominate the discussion in the main stream media. It is critical to combat the prevailing narrative because the military industrial complex, the giant petroleum countries, right-wing bigots, neo-cons, and evangelical Christians are all currently pushing for ever more military action against Muslim countries. Not content with one hundred years of terrorism that have only spread misery and left the Middle East in disarray, these interests, like the Bush/Blair administrations in invading Iraq, always claim the next military action will result in peace, tranquility, and democracy in the countries we savage. And some outspoken Islamophobes who claim to be liberals are engaging in a ruthless attack on fellow leftists who fail to embrace the Islamophobic line. With Islamophobia threatening death and destruction to Muslim countries and discrimination against western Muslims, refraining from attacks on Muslims and Islam, especially claims not based on sound evidence, seems a prudent course for the moment. When Western militarism turns its sights toward China, maybe I will begin to criticize Muslims and defend atheists.
Note: since writing this I have read Ken’s response to my claim in Heather’s last post, that religion is not the root cause of the Orlando shootings. With his usual good sense Ken noted: “While the values came before the religion, the religion reinforces the values and does so in a way that prevents adherents from openly questioning them. That is the insidiousness of religion. It makes it more difficult for the cultures it is embedded in to change over time.” I agree with this and it reinforces my claim that it is Muslims who should be defended, not Islam.