essays in religious literacy

Nuance is hard (cont’d.)

In Islam on October 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Andrew Sullivan has done his usual impressively thorough job of ferreting out some of the more salient points regarding the recent dust-up sparked by Reza Aslan (on CNN) and Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Ben Affleck (on Real Time), first in the first several paragraphs of two successive “Best of the Dish Today” sign-off posts here and here; then in a lengthy mid-day post today on The Trouble With Islam, and finally (so far) again at some length in tonight’s “Best of the Dish Today” as well.

I recommend them all (and by that I mean, all four of them together, in order, as a group) to anyone who is at all interested in understanding the political situation of Islam in the world today (or, mutatis mutandis, the situation of the world with political Islam today”). From the first post:

I think it’s pretty indisputable that any religion that can manifest itself in the form of something like ISIS in any period in history is in a very bad way. I know they’re outliers – even with respect to al Qaeda. But, leaving these mass murderers and sadists to one side, any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry, any religion that denies in so many parts of the world any true opportunities for women, and any religion whose followers believe apostasy should be punished with death is in a terrible, terrible way. There is so much more to Islam than this – but this tendency is so widespread, and its fundamentalism so hard to budge, and the destruction wrought by its violent extremists so appalling that I find Affleck’s and Aslan’s defenses to be missing the forest for the trees.
Yes, there are Jewish extremists on the West Bank, pursuing unforgivable religious war. There are murderous Buddhist extremists in Burma. There are violent Christian extremists in Nigeria, and in Russia. All religions have a propensity to banish doubt, to suppress humility and to victimize outsiders. But today, in too many parts of the world, no other religion comes close to the menace and violence of Islam.
Christianity has a bloody past and a deeply flawed present. Islam has a glorious past in many respects, and manifests itself in many countries today, including the US, humbly, peacefully, beautifully. But far too much of contemporary Islam – from Pakistan through Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia – is more than usually fucked up.

Sullivan is of course by choice and disposition a political blogger, so what caught my eye was, with all this broad brush painting, the repetition of concern regarding the absolutely central practice of scriptural interpretation (“any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry … is in a terrible, terrible way”) in his second post too:

[W]hen the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed [sic] become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.

The crucial qualifier here is “in the Middle East”, though one hastens to add “in Central Asia”, and then “in West Africa”, and then “in Southeast Asia”, until what we’re really left with, I think, at least for now, is the notable exceptionalism (!) of Muslim America. From Sullivan’s third post linked to above:

Yes, we need to make careful distinctions with respect to Islam in different places at different stages of development.
Conflating the Islam of America and the Islam of Malaysia and the Islam of Saudi Arabia is, well, dumb, especially as it relates to foreign policy. But to deny the core religious element of the violence in the Middle East, to ignore the fact that Islam, to a much greater degree than other faiths, is still resistant to some core freedoms of modernity, to ignore the fact that fundamentalism of this kind can do extreme damage to other Muslims and infidels … well this strikes me as another form of denial.

And finally the nuance kicks in, because statistics (h/t to the Pew Forum’s report on “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”):

[N]owhere has Islam come closer to a reconciliation with modernity than in America. American Muslims are far more like American non-Muslims than Muslims in any other country. On the core question of religious liberty, 56% of American Muslims “believe that many religions can lead to eternal life … Across the world, a median of just 18% of Muslims worldwide think religions other than Islam can lead to eternal life.” Here’s another big difference between Islam in America, and Islam elsewhere: “About half of U.S. Muslims say that all (7%) or most (41%) of their close friends are followers of Islam, and half say that some (36%) or hardly any (14%) of their close friends are Muslim. By contrast, Muslims in other countries nearly universally report that all or most of their close friends are Muslim (global median of 95%). Even Muslims who also are religious minorities in their countries are less likely than U.S. Muslims to have friendships with non-Muslims. For example, 78% of Russian Muslims and 96% of Thai Muslims say most or all of their close friends are Muslim.” I think it’s essential that this is better known in America, and that dumb conflations of Islam here and around the world – leading to foul prejudice and discrimination and fear – be challenged at every point.

Amen to that.

UPDATE October 10, 2014: And, as usual, the readers’ pushback that Sullivan gets is priceless for the way it furthers and deepens the conversation.

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