Much has been written over the last few days about the anti-Islam rant of Bill Maher and Reza Aslan response to them. See here, here and here. Personally, I think that the approaches adopted by both sides are rather problematic. This is why.
The sweeping generalizations and condemnations made by Maher and others are dangerous because they, intentionally or not, incite hatred and anger against average Muslims everywhere and anywhere; the rise of hate crimes against any segment of the population is simply unacceptable. We cannot protect our secular democratic values by breaking them, or undermining them in any way. And we should not forget in this regard that some of the anti-Muslim agitators out there, even though they might be American born and bred, are themselves opponents of “secular” values, to the chagrin of Maher et al, and their conception of democracy may not be as democratic as they would like us to think, or as they themselves may think, as evident by some of their own pronouncements a variety of issues from immigration to women rights.
But, to go back to the issue of generalization, the intrinsic problem here is that the practice itself ignores the complex relationship people have with their holy books. People are not consistent practitioners of the edicts of their professed faiths: consciously or unconsciously, publicly or privately, they always cherry-pick from the holy texts, be it to serve their perceived interests or their innate prejudices. This tendency is universal, real, and it complicates all our generalizations and assumptions. As such, it doesn’t matter what the Qur’an or Sharia say about anything. The real question is: to which extant are Muslims willing to regulate their lives according to the dictates of the Qur’an and the Sharia when they have the freedom to choose? A related question: what are those teachings that seem to be more on their mind of Muslims more often than others?
Evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are not that concerned with Jihad, be it aimed against their rulers or the perceived infidels in their midst, or abroad. Women rights, however, seem more pertinent. But, and as evidence suggests once again, and as Reza Aslan tried to point out, Muslim societies are too diverse for generalizations in this regard. FGM is a problem in African societies, where it is practiced by some Christian and animist communities as well, and is unheard and frowned upon in the Middle East. Moreover, the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia and Iran is indeed quite different from the way they are treated in Turkey, Indonesia, Lebanon, or elsewhere.
Still, it is a rather “safe” generalization to say that the way women are treated in Muslim majority countries today is definitely not on par with the standards currently set by Western societies. But, we have to bear in mind here that the same generalization also applies to other non-Western countries where Hindus, Buddhist and/or Christians are in the majority. The problem here seems to be related to the prevalent level of modernization and education rather than religion. Still, the treatment of this gap in Muslim-majority countries does clearly call for a discussion of the place of traditional Islamic values in our modern world.
But this discussion will not be easy, especially when we consider that some of the advances that certain Muslim countries have made in this regard did not come as results of an internal assessment. Rather, they seem to have materialized as a result of Western colonialism, and/or through an autocratic imposition from the top by the ruling elite. For this reason, all societies and states that have witnessed such developments seem to be currently witnessing a variety of popular pushbacks all of which are justified on the basis of a return to traditional and more “authentic” Islamic values.
Indeed, the secularism prevalent in Turkey and Indonesia and elsewhere in Muslim-majority countries did not come as a result of an evolution of Islamic thought and values, but were imposed from the top by a political and intellectual elite inspired by Western values and precedents and in the face of stiff resistance from the religious establishment and other religious movements, except for those it that were coopted. As such, and while these secular values seem to have a genuine popular following today, one that cut across communal and social divides, they do not by any means represent a strong unifying ethos for the populations involved, which is why the rise of Islamist political parties and movements there is troubling to many. In other words, these societies are clearly still divided on the issue of the role of Islam and its traditional values, and might be headed towards a showdown in the near future, perhaps even a violent one.
Note on FGM
FGM may not be an Islamic teaching, but it is currently endorsed by most Muslims scholars in those African societies where it is practiced. In fact, this has been the case since the introduction of Islam to Africa. The Sunni Maliki school of thought has long endorsed it, and this is probably why it is the prevalent Islamic faith in Africa today, even if it is being currently challenged by Wahhabism (see correction at end of this post). As such, Muslims who practice FGM perceive it as innately Islamic. There is, therefore, a certain amount of disingenuousness when people like Aslan claim that it is not an Islamic issue. In the Muslim societies where FGM is practiced, it is certainly an Islamic issue, and pushig against does meet with resistance and denunciation from Muslim scholars there. Since, it is not the position of non-Muslims to decide on what constitutes a correct interpretation of Islam, from their point of view, the issue is in large part related to the role of Islam in these traditional societies.
On a related note, the question of what constitutes a correct if not the correct interpretation of Islam is not the fundamental issue that Muslims need to debate. Indeed, the real discussion that Muslims need to have is on how to safeguard the basic rights of all Muslim as well as all non-Muslim citizens living in Muslim-majority countries, especially in connection to such issues as freedoms of religion, expression and assembly. Arguing as to what constitute the correct interpretation of the faith is divisive, unending and will not help Muslims deal with any of their current developmental problems and challenges.
The red herring that is the uniqueness of Islam
Both the opponents of political Islam and its advocates often fall victim to the same pitfall: a belief in the uniqueness of Islam in terms of how central its role is in the life of the believers. The former insist on it in order to attack Islam and sow it as incompatible with modernity, and the latter in order to attack secularism, reject modernity and justify their atavistic outlook on things. I used to subscribe to this point myself a couple of decades ago, but further reflection and reading weaned me off of it. Indeed, Islam’s role in the life of its adherents is not as uniquely central as some would like us to think. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc. all played and play a similar role in the lives of their adherents, so long as the societies involved can be described as pre-modern and nondemocratic.
The dual empowerment that comes with modernity and democracy, however, seem to gradually empower the peoples involved to consign the holy and the divine to a secondary status in their lives, trusting more in the findings of science, the dictates of reason and the laws that they themselves make through the democratic process. Since all Muslim-majority countries are still, to varying degrees, caught in the midst of this transition, the contradictions that we observe, and the occasional setbacks, seem too numerous, and sensational as to blind us to the actual progress being made.
As a result of the Arab Spring phenomenon, for instance, people in a variety of Muslim-majority countries, countries where the processes of modernization and democratization have long stalled, are not only challenging their autocratic rulers, but many of them are also challenging traditional Islamic values. While the battle is far from won, it is clearly being fought. It’s only ISIS and its practices that are being rejected, political Islam itself is proving to be not as popular as its adherents thought it and want it to be. There are major segments of the population, and not the adherents of minority faiths, that are rejecting political Islam and the traditional values of Islam as well. Secular and modern values have managed, to varying degrees, to carve a foothold for themselves in these communities, and the battle for the soul of the Muslim-majority populations is still unfolding.
Relying on useless generalization in the face of such complex processes is dangerous, counterproductive, and downright “stupid,” as Aslan contended on CNN.
Correction: Memory failed me with regards to FGM. The Sunni school of thought that actually endorse it is the Shafi’i and not the Maliki school. The Maliki and Hanafi schools merely recommend it, while the Hanbali school strongly recommend it considering it a way to honor women. For this, the practice is also widespread in certain Asian countries as well, and not only Africa, most notably in the Aceh Province in Indonesia. This Wikipedia article is actually quite informative: Religious views on female genital mutilation.