Sunday, September 30, 2012

I am a 9/11 liberal

Last week, comedian (and atheist) Bill Maher had Salman Rushdie on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and defined a term: "9/11 liberal." He noted that he is one, that Rushdie is one, that Sam Harris is one, that Christopher Hitchens (who he calls "Chris"--like nails on a chalkboard, that) is one. I am one also. See the video here.

Maher's definition goes like this: "These are people--we are liberals, and we are liberals on almost every issue, but not the Muslim issue."

He goes on to elaborate
"Let's define where we are different than the mainstream liberals because I have routinely gotten booed here on the show sometimes, on my stand-up act, when I say, and liberals hate to hear this, that all religions are not a like. When you say that, they think that you're a bigot and we're not a bigot.  ... You [Rushdie] wrote an essay, I think it was an op-ed in the New York Times soon after 9/11; you said and I think it was entitled 'Yes, This Is About Islam' because that's the mantra, is that it's not about one religion. And I think that what us 9/11 liberals say is, yes it is about this one religion because it is different. There is no other religion that is asking for the death of people, and Sam Harris say it this week, he said that 'We are free to burn the Koran or any other book. We are free to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. But without apology....'" 
I've had this discussion three or four times this week, especially given the whole focus on blasphemy that we're forced to endure again. Essentially, there are at least six major aspects to the topic of what we might call the problem with 'politicized Islam,' to borrow from Rushdie on the show, all but one of which come up on Maher's Real Time episode.
  1. Not all Muslims act like this--liberals in general are quick to point this out and stick tightly to the argument that it is unfair to judge the religion as a monolith;
  2. We're fed a narrative that all Muslims act like this--liberal conspiracy theory in action (this is the one not covered on the show);
  3. Islam is actually a different religion than the others, despite the barbarity in essentially all ancient scriptures--again, liberals like to compare the Old Testament, which nearly no one takes seriously, to the brutality in the Qur'an, which many Muslims do take seriously (a nontrivial difference);
  4. Islam simultaneously is and is not the problem at hand; 
  5. This isn't about Islam versus the West, however many things make it look that way;
  6. This problem is hard to fix and a solution is at the center of what is needed.
I'll happily concede (1) on this list. Absolutely and happily, what is certainly a vast majority of Muslims do not blow up embassies or kill people or engage in riots just because someone creates a slight against Islam or something related to that religion. We must recognize (3) here, though--Maher says without contention from anyone on his show that something like half of Muslims are okay with the idea of beheading someone who insults the religion, even if they, themselves, wouldn't do it. Is that the right number? If it's only 15% instead, does that make it okay? Even if (2) is merely a crackpot conspiracy theory--FOX "News" and other conservative media sources notwithstanding--it's almost impossible to tell what percentage of Muslims are extreme in this "not in the streets, but still, holy shit!" way.

Point (3) has another imporant aspect to it--the tu quoque aspect where liberals love to raise the argument that Christianity (and Judaism) have their share of brutality in their scriptures, in their histories, and even in practices that happen now in the world, particularly in Africa. This is troubling, and it's immaterial. Badly behaving Christians does not make an excuse for badly behaving Muslims--or anyone else.

Now, more on (3), Islam really is different. As Maher noted, a fair proportion of Muslim "moderates," in that they aren't storming embassies or violently rioting, are perfectly alright with violence perpetrated against those who insult the Prophet, or Islam in general. Here, we haven't even talked about the vast human rights violations that exist throughout all of the conservative Muslim world and much of the rest of the Islamic population of the world (though, to be fair, not all of it). Rushdie comments that Islam has changed in the last half a century, but again, this doesn't excuse it, even if it allows him to put his thumb on the correct problem--politicized Islamic super-conservatism.

How is Islam different? The Qur'an is more brutal than even the Old Testament, and it is far more explicit about who should receive that brutality. The coherence and adherence in Islam are far higher than we see in other religions as well. Then there's the willingness to turn to violence in defense of perceived slights against their religion--which strongly exacerbates the problem Rushdie points to since it makes many Muslims easy to motivate to extremism with just the right kinds of provacation. Hence we get stories like this in the same week: "Protesters torch Buddhist temples, homes in Bangladesh" over a perceived slight to Islam, as reported here by MSNBC. Islam, like Christianity, also has a core element of religious conquest of the world. While essentially all that remains of Christianizing the world now are (way too common) mission trips, Islam is still far more bent on making everyone Muslim. The Qur'an calls for everyone to be Muslim or to be subdued, to be clear, while the Christian Bible only calls for the Gospels to be preached in every nation (to hasten the end of the world, though, which is a pretty screwed up motivation, admittedly). Again, though, we see how easily the tu quoque trap of pointing also at Christianity arises. Badly behaving Christians do not bear upon badly behaving Muslims--and besides, most infidels are quick and happy to point out that both are badly behaving religious people, citing religion as the problem.

That brings me to (4)--Islam is and is not the problem. Of course, the mathematician in me also rejects this rhetorical game, given that the statement doesn't make sense in a strict logical way, but bear with me. Islam is not the problem here. Rushdie is absolutely correct about this: politicized Islamic extremism is the problem putting the violence in the streets and in embassies (though conservative Islam is it's own brand of trouble). By way of naming the problem correctly and seeking a solution (5 and 6), Rushdie is very perceptive here, then. These extremist Islamic leaders are whipping up Muslims into a froth and letting them do the politically useful thing--being violent, blowing things up, and generally perpetuating the political agenda of Islam against the world.

On the other hand, Maher nails it, though he's railroaded a little in the video clip, by saying that what allows this to happen is that people believe the tenets of Islam in the first place. Islam, as elaborated upon above, is a religion that advocates absolute brutality for minor offenses, including victimless ones and a religion that demands very strict adherence. Rushdie agrees with him--if people didn't believe these things, this problem would not exist--but this is where he railroads Maher by pointing out that people do believe this stuff. Thus, as much as I want to take the easy solution and say "if people just didn't believe their religions, all would be well," I'm forced to conclude that reaching them and getting them to give up their religious identities would be almost impossible. So, while Maher nails the problem--Islam is the problem--Rushdie keeps the focus on dealing with the reality--Islam is not the problem. Rushdie does not drop his identification as a 9/11 liberal to do this.

So, what do we do about the problem, which we can clearly identify as being the politicization of extreme Islam, fueled by the strength and cohesion of Islamic religious beliefs? It's hard to say. Rushdie comments that we have got to appeal to these Islamic leaders to stop skewing facts and whipping their populations into froths. Really, though, if it is so politically useful to them to do so, getting them to change on that front will be difficult. Rana Foroohar, assistant managing editor for TIME Magazine, also on this episode of Real Time, thinks that the people need to be reached, not the leaders, and she is perhaps correct. If they are going to be reached with something, it may be best to say that all this violence is coming because of your leaders' abilities to exploit your religious beliefs against you and the world. Even if this isn't as hard-line as what Maher (or I) would want--that Islam religious belief, is the problem, so stop believing it--it may hit home and leave open the kinds of nagging doubts in many that maybe, just maybe, their religious beliefs actually are the problem at hand.

What do you think?


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