I’ve tried writing this several times, once about the perils of multiculturalism and once again about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, when truth be told, once I stripped away the meandering introductions all it really boiled down to was an articulation of my distaste for Islam. Now that that’s out in the open, I’m sure the cries of Islamophobe will come rolling in – which is one of the reasons I’m not too keen on this religion of peace. (That would be the same religion of peace that is currently engaged in internal civil war, with Shia and Suuni factions bitterly opposing one another)
This is something that should really go without saying, but I feel the need to preemptively defend myself – I don’t hate or dislike Muslims, it’s the ideology I have a problem with. To coin a phrase, I’m hating the sin and not the sinner. While I’m at it, I should point, in the interests of fairness, I have no great love for Christianity, much less any organised religion. But here I am, talking about Islam and not Christianity, because today Christianity is like a muzzled dog, there’s no bite.
This a difficult topic to discuss because any concern or critique is immediately seized by the twin hands of Islamophobia & Racism, and the life is throttled out of the discussion before it’s began. (Much in the same way any criticism of Israel is immediately anti-Semitic). Strangely, it’s usually those on the left that are quick to toss around labels, the very same people who are normally guardians of ideas like feminism, equality, and gay rights. But there’s a danger to shutting down debate, if valid concerns are ignored, if people are derided as racist or Islamophobic, their views are driven underground, If people are pressured into silence, then in the end it is unsavoury groups on the far right that champion the cause. Do not underestimate how many voters are single issue voters.
If we take a memetic1 approach to religion then its function is to replicate and survive, and in order to do that it must contain a set of processes which allow it to remain intact, or adapt. One of the ways a religion can secure its future is by preventing criticism, in other words, it has defence against environmental threats. This manifests as a belief that holy texts are divine revelation - the true, infallible word of god; it is therefore perfect and to question it would be to criticise god himself. This memetic trick is quite clever, it presents claim and evidence as one entity – this knowledge comes straight from god, god has given you this knowledge, therefore it is true. The memetic defence can go a step further by dictating punishments for those who do question or criticise its authority, acting as a deterrent to would be blasphemers and punishing the inquisitive souls who raise uncomfortable questions.
The Abrahamic religions have a rich tradition of punishing those who blaspheme, yet there is only one which continues to do so, both in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. Admittedly, in the UK the punishment is not delivered by the law courts as blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008, instead retribution comes from the public. Take the case of gymnast Louis Smith who drunkenly mocked Islam in a private video which was leaked; he was given a two month suspension and also received death threats for his actions. Imagine if this video had been mocking Christianity, it wouldn’t have made the news. This is how de facto blasphemy laws work, by creating such a social taboo around a subject that there is no need for the courts to intervene. The Church of England is the state church, and it wouldn’t dream of acting in such a manner, it respects the hard won ideals of the enlightenment - that no idea is above criticism, beyond reproach, or immune to mockery.
If practitioners of any faith wish to hold their belief system in such high esteem that they consider it unquestioningly perfect, fine, but do not expect non-believers to hold it to the same standard; nor should us heathens and kuffars be expected to self-censor for fear of offending believers - nor should we be expected to receive censorship for that which may provoke a reaction, e.g. the drawings of a prophet. Again, argue bad taste until you’re blue in the face, but the fact that a simple satirical cartoon can elicit such a violent and quite literally lethal response is unacceptable in the modern world. If you disagree with the violent response but in the very same breath qualify your disdain with “...but you know the reaction you would get”, you are an apologist. Let us not deflect – the real issue is not the drawing (no matter how offensive or in bad taste you declare it to be), but the reactions.
There’s also the small issue of the findings of a fairly recent ICM poll which suggested over half of Muslims think homosexuality should be illegal – which is a far cry from taking umbrage to the notion of same sex marriage. Now, I certainly don’t think a person is homophobic for having religiously based reservations on the topic (I do think their beliefs are homophobic). Wanting to criminalise my lifestyle on the other hand? A touch homophobic. In the interests of fairness, I did hear a Muslim say homosexuals were condemned only when they conducted their affairs in public, but keep it behind closed doors and it was all fine. Ah, yes, nothing like an entire life lived in total secrecy – because as soon as someone were to find out, either by mistake or wilfully, then it was over, time for condemnation and punishment.
Of course, some would argue this is all down to interpretations of the text, that those who would profess such views are twisting the faith, are not true Muslims, just as those preaching literal (or ‘radical’) interpretations of the texts would level the same charge. It’s a simple logical fallacy, the ‘no true Scotsman’. Open to interpretations or not, the fact is, the texts offer justifications for the actions in the minds of adherents.
And yes dear reader, I’m perfectly aware that ‘Not all Muslims...’ - I’m perfectly aware there are moderate Muslims who do not think or react in the ways mentioned above, but then clearly we’re not talking about that denomination of the faith. (I thought we were supposed to mock Not all x responses? Or is that only when it comes to men and white folk?)
When it’s stripped away, and I’m being honest, I resent the pedestal Islam is put upon – I dislike the social taboo surrounding criticism of the religion, the violent reactions to satirical cartoons, and the apologetic responses from non-believers to those attacks. I dislike the fact non-believers constantly proclaim Islam as ‘a great faith’ - if it’s so great why aren’t you apart of it? These are things afforded to no other section of society, it elevates an imported religion above the church of the state, and we are forced to capitulate to it, to surrender our right to freely criticise and mock in order to keep the peace and not offend anyone. We spent too long winning freedoms from one religion to simply surrender them to another.
A few years ago there was an outcry about Halal meat sold in high-street restaurants and big-name supermarkets without being labelled as such. The idea of the packaging remaining unlabelled is curious – if you are trying to attract faith-conscious shoppers, why skip the label? Unless you think the label will put off more people that it would attract? So then what is the purpose? One can only assume it has something to do with the logistics of the supply chain - buying a Halal meat, selling a portion in unlabelled packages, and marketing the remainder as Halal. As a former vegetarian I never accepted the argument against Halal on animal welfare grounds, most Halal meat is stunned before the blood is drained, just as typically slaughtered animals are stunned (although there still remains a small percentage where this is not the case). What is of concern are those members of the public who hold religious views and are unknowingly eating Halal meat; for some, eating meat that has been blessed in the name of another god is idolatrous – and if we are now in the business of respecting all faiths, then it would be unethical for such meat to remain unlabelled.
We laugh at other traditions, but we’re commanded to revere Islam, which, just as many other religions do, has precepts so fantastic, every rational person should pause for thought – child brides, winged horses, and splitting the moon in two. There’s also the wholly voluntary practice of women not at all being forced to cover their hair, face, or entire body – because they should be modest - lest they stir up (apparently) uncontrollable urges in men, which then...victims blames. (If the woman was modest she wouldn’t have been raped!) I suppose in that sense modern feminism and ancient Islam are compatible, all men are rapists.
The lack of criticism allowed is a problem, it does a huge disservice to the modernisers and reformers within the Islamic community; members who are so very often on the front line of abuse. We need to make it clear that rational debate and criticism is allowed; that concerns about religious practices or extremism are not ‘Islamophobic’, and they’re certainly not hateful.
1Memes are cultural units of expression which are analogous to genes. Ideas and practices which are repeated and replicated, transmitted across a population and down through generations. e.g. ear-rings as decorations