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Beating a dead camel

Today, over at the A.V. Club, there was an interview with Aasif Mandvi, an actor of whom I'm very fond. And at some point, it was mentioned that Mandvi is from a Muslim family, which, inevitably, attracted some goons in the comments section doing the usual bafflegab about how Muslims are evil woman-oppressing gay-murdering cartoonist-threatening jerks.

Now, while I've got a rep over there as the dipshit who actually goes in and mixes it up with the commenters, I know better than to get involved in that shit -- at least on that turf. But one commenter said something that I wanted to address, and I might as well do it here, where no one's really paying attention.

But why? It's a topic I've talked about here before, and I'm sure I'm mostly preaching to the choir. I'm not likely to change anyone's mind, and I'm probably just engaging in a fairly self-indulgent form of 'someone is wrong on the internet'. I don't really know what to tell you, other than that this is personal to me, and the frequency with which it is expressed gets me down. I hear it all too frequently from people who should know better, often under the cloak of atheistic 'indifference', which I'll discuss later.

So, here are a couple of points before I begin:

1. Why do you care about this? You're Arab-American, but you aren't Muslim and you were raised white.

The commingling of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is extremely common, and what harms one group usually harms the other. Anti-Muslim sentiment harms Iranians and Pakistanis, who aren't Arabs. Anti-Muslim actions by Israel harm Lebanese, who are not all Muslims, and Israeli Arabs have become collateral damage in the Israeli war against Palestinians. Anti-Muslim sentiment in America is often directed against Arabs, even though the majority of Arabs in America are Christian; the first Middle Easterner killed in post-9/11 backlash violence was a Sikh who was neither Arab nor Muslim. But beyond that, I just don't feel comfortable at the best of times taking advantage of the white privilege available to me. One may as well ask why whites cared about anti-black discrimination, or straights about anti-gay discrimination.

2. You're a hardcore atheist. Why defend religious fundamentalists?

First, atheism does not give me a blank check to discriminate against religious people; why should I treat them in the same way that I condemn them for treating other people? Second, atheists hardly have a monopoly on moral behavior. The state atheism of France has been a positive boon to that country, but the state atheism of the Soviet Union was a disaster. Atheists are quite capable of being bigots, racists, sexists and homophobes, and not believing in God gives you no more instant moral credibility than believing in God does. Objectivists are atheists, and I don't agree with them on pretty much anything. Third, I do not defend religious fundamentalism; I condemn it, always, when it does harm to innocent people. But millions of Muslims are themselves innocent people, and are not fundamentalists, but rather moderates or even progressives. To tar the whole religion with the extremist brush does no more good than claiming all Protestants are like the Westboro Baptist crowd, or that all Catholics are like the pederast priests. Atheists are never going to be in the majority, and if we're going to expect practical change, we have to learn to work with religious people and help their progressive elements thrive.

So. The main part of the guy's comments I wanted to address:

I guess my original point was that while Christians have a history of violence and intolorance, they seemed to have evolved (ironic pun!) past that, where as most Muslim nations are still stuck in the 14th century.


Let's address this a little at a time, because it's not as crazy on its surface as it might seem. It actually contains a lot of common misconceptions about Islam that are in very wide circulation. I've argued before that the belief that Islam is worse than Christianity because its fanaticism protects it from criticism while Christianity is not only 'reformed' but also much more tolerant of dissent is, at best, ignorant, and at worst, completely disingenuous. But let's move a little bit beyond that.

First, it hardly seems necessary to point out that Christians have not moved past violence and intolerance. If they had, abortion doctors in America wouldn't fear for their lives, gays could get married in any state of the union, and the Lord's Resistance Army would never have existed. Our entire system of law is based on Judeo-Christian religious values. Now, it may be true that there is less violence in the West by Christians than there is in the East by Muslims, but that's not from lack of intention; it's from lack of opportunity. The attitude of many Christians towards women and gays is quite similar to that of many Muslims. It's not that a lot of Christians don't agree that sodomy or fornication shouldn't be punished by death; it's that they live in a society that frowns on that sort of thing. In other words, Christianity hasn't moved away from violence at all; society (much to the regret of many Christians) has. What happened to change western views was not a reformation of Christianity, but rather a secularizing of society, a de-emphasizing of the role of religion. This is what we need to see in Islam, as well -- not a reformation, but a secularization.

Second, looking to the past only makes Islam look better and Christianity look worse. In the actual 14th century, Christianity was just emerging from a prolonged Dark Age, while Islam had spent centuries in a cultural, technological, and social Golden Age. During the Crusades, the bringers of intolerance, brutality and oppression to the Holy Lands were Christians, not Muslims. And after the 14th century, the cultural golden age known as the Renaissance was, once again, not a flowering of Christianity, but a liberalizing of society that allowed the arts to flourish without the usual interference from the Church. And the 15th-17th century in Christianity was marked by the torture, repression and censorship of the Holy Office, while Islam underwent periods of reform and revival under the Ottoman Empire. It's only recently -- as in the last century -- that Christianity has been marked by a notable degree of tolerance and nonviolence (and that was largely the result of secular societal pressure) and Islam has been marked by a notable degree of fundamentalism and oppression (and that was largely a reaction inspired by social factors like western Imperialism and secular nationalism).

In a way, this plays into the incredibly common misperception that Christianity, unlike Islam, has had a "Renaissance" or a "Reformation", and the lack of one in Islam is what has kept it from "progressing" like Christianity. Rather than address this myself, I'll just quote Fred Halliday, from his highly recommended book 100 Myths About The Middle East:

This injunction [that the problem with Islam is that it is in need of a 'Reformation'], repeated by some Muslim reformers as well as Western observers, confuses several issues. First of all, if by 'Reformation' is meant a period of debate, rational discussion of religion and the rejection of a single religious authority such as the Vatican, then Islam has long exhibited such tendencies. Islam, without a Vatican, has no concept of heresy. There never was, after 661 A.D. and the division between Sunni and Shia, a single authority, and there is not even a formal religious hierarchy as in Christianity.

If by 'Reformation' is meant religious thinking freed of dogmatism, then the history of Islamic thought has long been characterized by rationalist and open trends, notably that of the Mu'tazilis (8th and 9th centuries A.D.), who criticized dogmatic thinking and were supported by Caliph Al-Mamum in 827 A.D. and the Andalusian philosopher Ibn-Arabi (died 1273). For centuries Muslim thinkers, largely but not only Shi'ites, have practiced what is termed ijtihad, independent and critical interpretation of sacred texts and traditions. More recently, in the 20th century, there have been many Muslim thinkers who have reviewed, in an open and critical spirit, the claims and interpretation of Islam.

However, this call for a 'Reformation' also misrepresents other issues. On one hand it ascribes to the Protestantism that followed the Reformation a freedom of spirit and tolerance of secular debate that is markedly absent from much of today's Protestantism, as is evident in the fervent intolerance of the U.S. On the other hand, and most importantly, it confuses cause and effect: Arab society and much of the Muslim world are not dictatorial, authoritarian or intellectually paralyzed because of religion, but the other way around -- it is the existence, for other reasons, of such states and societies that itself produces a paralyzed religion. The solution to censorship in the Arab world, for example, or the inequality of women, is not to be found in changing religious doctrine or interpretation, but in a changing society and the state themselves. For its part, Islam is capable of greater theological flexibility, starting from the principle -- which is available for use by those who so choose -- that the verses of the Qur'an, instead of being one block of unchallengeable dogma, divide into those which are nasikh (i.e., which prevail), and those which are mansukh (i.e., which are prevailed over). To most Muslims, for example, verses on stoning criminals to death or on slavery are, in the contemporary world, mansukh.


The guy makes other claims, which pop up all too sadly in discussions of Islam by both right-wing anti-Arab bigots and 'enlightened' atheists all along the political spectrum, and aren't really worth more than a line or two of refutation:

- Violence by Islamic fundamentalists is 'worse' than violence by Christian fundamentalists (usually because it is perceived as containing elements of anti-Semitism, misogyny, or homophobia).

A.: It doesn't really matter much to the person you're killing why you're killing them.

- You can't compare the (allegedly 'Christian') violence of the I.R.A. to the (allegedly 'Muslim') violence of the P.L.O., because the latter is 'worse' for the usual nebulous reasons.

A.: Nothing could possibly make colonial powers more delighted than the fact that ignorant people have somehow managed to ignore their horrible crimes and focus instead on which reaction to those crimes is 'better' or 'worse' because of its purported religious character. The people in charge of the British and Israeli governments probably shit themselves laughing when they hear people say the PLO or IRA is 'worse' and turn the whole thing into a religious argument, completely ignoring the primary cause of colonialism.

- If Muslims aren't evil fundamentalist jerks, why is all the terrorism that takes place by Muslims?*

A.: Beats me. Ask a member of FARC. Or a Mexican narcoterrorist. Or a member of Revolutionary Struggle. Or a Naxalite. Or a Nepalese anti-monarchist. Or a member of SWAYOCO. Or the FLNC. Or the ETA. Or anti-military insurgents in Myanmar. Or a Hutu militiaman. Or an Abkhazian separatist. Or a member of FLEC-PM.

Or, if you feel like going back farther than just terrorist attacks that happened in the last six months, you could ask a member of the Tamil Tigers, or the IRA, or Shining Path, or a member of the Order, or someone from the Lord's Resistance Army, or a Serbian, or...well, I'm pretty sure you get the point.

*: The poster actually said: "I'll bet you the next twenty-five terrorist bombs are set off by Muslims. The next twenty five, starting now. Winner gets 100 internet points. I'd take that bet any day." Guess what? You lose.

- It doesn't matter that non-Muslims have engaged in terrorism, because more people have been killed in terror attacks by Muslims.

(a) Prove.

(b) Gore Vidal: "In the concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. 'After all,' said Isherwood, 'Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.' The young man was not impressed. 'But Hitler killed six million Jews,' he said sternly. 'What are you?' asked Isherwood. 'In real estate?'"

Comments

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dyskodyke
Jun. 30th, 2010 11:11 pm (UTC)
I think you should post this over there. It might not change minds, but I'm all for starting up internet fights.

Seriously, though, this is a really articulate and intelligent response, backed up with actual logic and evidence. I'm sure the crazies won't know what to do with those latter two things, but maybe one or two people will actually learn something.
also_huey
Jul. 1st, 2010 02:28 am (UTC)
Put me down for #1.
bassman42
Jun. 30th, 2010 11:59 pm (UTC)
That's a great rebuttal for an unfortunately all too common form of hatred and bigotry. I understand why you didn't post it at A.V. Club, but I'd like to see the ensuing debate!
bluetara2020
Jul. 1st, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)
Good points, all.

Frankly, I find it disheartening that hatred is such a human constant and is often wrapped up in religious and sanctimonious trappings.

And the piously virtuous then claim that those of their faith have either never done, would never do or have 'evolved' past the need to do violence of that sort make me want to -headdesk-

Hatred is hatred is hatred. Extremist is extremist is extremist. Doesn't matter what they call themselves or in what name they do what they do. They teach hatred, they breed hatred and will eventually die choking on hatred.

And it's petty of me but part of me can't help but think good riddance.
koganbot
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
Leonard, you might want to add that the treatment of Jews over the last couple of hundred years in Germany, Austria, Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia (just to mention the countries from which my ancestors - all Jews - emigrated/fled) was rather stress-inducing for the Jews. It would be facile to say that this was all caused by Christian anti-Semitism (nationalist anti-Semitism played a role as well), but Christianity was in the mix.

Was talking to a Jewish woman a couple of weeks ago who told me that growing up here in Denver in the 1930s, she learned to keep her Jewish identity a secret. The national headquarters of the KKK was in Denver at the time (at least that's what she believes; I haven't checked this myself). The mayor of Denver through much of the '30s and '40s was a member of the KKK, though this wasn't revealed until after he left office. (This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the subject of Christianity versus Islam - just that if you'd interviewed someone who mentioned that he was from a Christian family, odds are that that particular point wouldn't have caused people in a comments section to start wondering about that person's potential association with or culpability for the racism and anti-Semitism and genocide that occurred in countries containing lots of Christians.)
ludickid
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:16 am (UTC)
Yeah, no question. In the same essay I quoted above, Gore Vidal confesses to bafflement that so many of the "New Class" Jewish intellectuals of the 1970s conservative movement expressed such blatant homophobia, because it meant allying themselves with Christian anti-Semites who, until just a few decades before, had made it a literal article of faith that Jews were forever doomed to persecution and damnation for having murdered their Savior. Vidal felt, not without cause I'd say, that if the two ever teamed up to get rid of gays, the Christians would remember pretty soon after that they were never that fond of Jews, either. (The people he was writing about, naturally, accused the essay of being anti-Semitic.)

Older folks can remember when the Christian right's attitude towards Israel was to hold their collective noses and send money (better than letting the Reds get their hooks into the place, and after all, Armageddon can't happen without the Jews being in charge of Jerusalem), but after 9/11 it seems that half of Christian America suddenly woke up and decided that they just loved the Jews, always had, and you started to hear people saying "Judeo-Christian values" who had previously said things like "Jew-run media".

It was pretty clear to most observers that the right was just starting to make a shallow common cause with Israel against the new Islamist boogie-man, but a few remained delusional enough to believe that the Christian right really loved them all of the sudden. Anyone who still wondered whether the important thing for the Christian side was loving the Jews or hating the Arabs found out a few years back when Charles "Little Green Footballs" Johnson, previously one of the most reliable Muslim-bashers in existence, began to notice that the 'anti-Jihadist' movement in Europe was largely made up of people from groups like Vlaams Beland and the BNP, that were themselves pretty anti-Semitic. Rather than saying "Hey, he's right", they branded him a heretic and basically threw him out of the party.
krinndnz
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Hey, some of this was new to me, and all of it will be useful for future pushback. Thanks.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 1st, 2010 04:33 am (UTC)
ルイスは東京行きの航空券、買いました。
(Anonymous)
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:31 am (UTC)
ローレックスの修理、7万円以内でできると嬉しい。
(Anonymous)
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:31 am (UTC)
10万円は覚悟が必要。
manningkrull
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:40 am (UTC)
ローレックスの修理、7万円以内でできると嬉しい。
thaitea
Jul. 1st, 2010 06:30 am (UTC)
"When it is possible within repairing and 70,000 Yen of [roretsukusu], it is delightful"
manningkrull
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:17 am (UTC)
Well, duh!
perich
Jul. 1st, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
I lurve you.
littlewashu
Jul. 1st, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this -- I miss reading stuff like this from you more often.
tawdryjones
Jul. 1st, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
That was like a soothing Tiger Balm for the bruising of that horrid Comments section. Sheeeyit.
sabiha_basrai
Jul. 1st, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
thank you! i just participated in a workshop confronting islamaphobia full of people who didn't understand the concept of imperialism or institutional oppression. the stupid comments almost made me throw up on people's shoes.

also, aasif mandvi's cousin recently married my friend and my parents met him at the wedding. my mom asked for his autograph and he wrote "this is your moment of zen."
(Deleted comment)
cleversimon
Jul. 3rd, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
A+++++
Would forward to obnoxious family members again.
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ludickid
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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