Let’s say I post a criticism is Islam (or of some Muslims) somewhere on the net. What is the most likely impact of this action? I know. Crickets chirping, right? But let’s think about the possibilities. Even if it is an e-drop in the digital ocean, I, like others who add their comments to countless social media accounts are trying to communicate something to someone. That may or may not happen, but as it is the point of posting in the first place, it’s worth thinking about it. So, my question is, what kind of impact will my criticism have?
If I say something about the mistreatment of women or homosexuals in Islamic countries, will my words have any positive impact on the lives of vulnerable people in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or those living in ISIS controlled territories? Or will my criticism simply add to the din of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the west? Will I in some small way help to ease the pressure on those oppressed by Muslim strictures? Or will I in some equally small way help others to make a case for bombing runs abroad and discriminatory policies at home? If I complain that Muslim women are oppressed through the need to wear a burqa, will this help to give some poor lady the right to bare her face in public? Or will my comment be just another insult to Muslims in general, even the women wearing those burqas? If I complain about female circumcision, will I help to spare woman this procedure, or will my comments serve simply denigrate those who have already had it? If I simply disagree with something Muslims believe, will my comments to that effect give them something to think about? Or will they just add to the stigmas already placed upon Muslims now living in the west? Might my comments (whatever the specifics) help to inspire some nutcase to go scapegoat a random Muslim on some random street corner in America?
And by random Muslim, I could well mean a Sikh, not because I’m unaware of the difference, but because those inspired to such random violence generally don’t.
Could my criticism have more impact on the lives of Muslims actually living in the west? Perhaps. But what would that impact be? Will I inspire people in a predominantly Muslim community to be more accepting of some of some of their own members? Will I make them a little less likely to entertain acts of terrorism? Is that even a real concern, much less a real hope? Or will my criticism simply provide one more signal that the western world is truly hostile to their own ways? Will I give them one more reason to insulate themselves against the rest of us, and live apart even as they live nearby?
I can do some things to increase or decrease the likelihood of positive impact. I can study-up to make sure I have a reasonable point, or I can pass along a meme with a real gotcha kinda gut-punch? If I choose the former route, what then? A reasonable criticism presupposes a basis for constructive dialogue, even a willingness to listen to the response. Sitting up here on the northern edge of northiness, I’m not sure I have such a basis for constructive dialogue, and I suspect your average Muslim (whether living in the West or otherwise) will have even less reason to give a damn that some random guy has a bone to pick with his or her religion. There may be inroads to make such conversations possible, but they don’t begin with the criticism. They don’t begin with me sitting down and saying; “I’m gonna take Islam down a notch today.”
I write this because some people seem to think criticism of Islam is a moral obligation. They can often point to bad things happening in Muslim circles, and I can often agree that some of those things really are bad. But how the Hell do I express concerns about things without making life more miserable for the countless Muslims here or abroad who just want to get through their day?
Much as I do.
It’s not at all uncommon to see net-warriors goading certain parties to be more critical of Islam. This is often coupled with an effort to minimize criticism of some other interest. Evangelical Christians, for example, will sometimes complain of atheists that we criticize Christianity while ignoring Islam. (A common gambit here is to suggest that we are too scared to criticize Islam. …chicken if you don’t, so to speak.) Voices within the right wing echo chamber frequently ask why the left complains of homophobia in their own circles when the executioners of ISIS literally throw gay men from rooftops. The answer frequently strikes me as obvious. No-one from ISIS gives a damn what I type. The far right here in America probably doesn’t either, but they are a lot closer to it than anyone living in ISIS-controlled regions of the world. Net battles are all sound and fury, this is true, but there is a lot more cause for hope when speaking to people with more cultural baggage in common and less political baggage piled up between them.
I used to hear and read similar games played on the subject of communism. Some folks would wonder out loud how the American left could be so critical of our own nation when we have so little to say about the crimes of the Russians. Why didn’t we protest their policies, I recall a few folks saying. I always thought the answer was damned obvious. The
The political context of such conflicts simply don’t give us a clear line from a criticism to a positive outcome or even a constructive dialogue. More to the point, the criticisms themselves suffer in this case from a lack of attention to context. It isn’t just that Muslims are unlikely to listen to a random criticism from a random non-Muslim; that criticism is unlikely to be worthy of consideration in the first place, still less so if it is made under the illusion that the value of such a criticism could be determined in the abstract.
All in all, it’s a pretty childish game, I am talking about, but it’s one that seems to have extra traction as applied to Islam. The right wing has done a good job of generalizing the sense of war in our present age. In the days immediately following 9-11, George Bush was careful to tell the public that we were not at war with Islam or with Muslims in general. That didn’t ensure authorities would treat Muslims with anything near the respect deserved by any human being or even with the respect that should simply go with due process, but at least the man did make an effort to define America’s wars (reckless as they were) in ways that didn’t make innocent Americans into the enemy. The right wing echo chamber has been working damned hard to change that in the years sense then. Whether it was the fight over the so-called Mosque at ground zero or the constant drum-beat of professional bigots such as Pamella Geller, Ann Coulter, or virtually the entire Fox News Network, they consistently nudged the nation (and the world) toward a vision of one grand apocalyptic battle between the western world and the Islamic World. To be sure, there are voices within the Islamic world that agree with them on the terms of this war, but the mating calls of violent people will always resonant with those of their own enemies. The bottom line is that an awful lot of people see Islam itself as a force to be reckoned with, an enemy to be defeated with rockets abroad and with rhetoric at home.
This situation has the effect of skewing a number of general conflicts between Islam and its would-be critics. The philosophical arguments fielded against Islam by atheists, Christians, and others take on the significance of a political agenda. Sam Harris, for example, has suggested that 9-11 inspired him to become a vocal atheist. At the end of the day, atheists and Christians will have our disagreements with Muslims. If there have ever been paths to constructive dialogue between these communities, the notion that violence rests on the consequences doesn’t help much. Too often those of us on the other end forget just how much of that violence falls on Muslim communities. As the question is framed in popular culture, it is almost always about what they might do to us. What we have done to them never really seems to be on the table. Muslim and an atheist (or a Christian) could theoretically have a thoughtful discussion about their beliefs. Such debates are not the norm.
It wasn’t too log ago that I encountered a white nationalist on twitter claiming that Islam was a virus. He didn’t want that virus to infect the western world, and so his tweets on the subject moved back and forth between the notion that Islam itself was a virus and the notion that Muslims were the virus, that they must be kept out of western nations. To say that this was dehumanizing rhetoric would be putting it mildly. I have always regarded the dangers of comparing people to diseases (mental or otherwise) as one of the legitimate lessons of Nazi history. What surprised me about this example was the number of people who joined the conversation in order to defend the notion that Islam was a mental illness. Their interest in the argument, of course, stemmed from Richard Dawkins notion of religion as a kind of mental virus. That the specific comments in question were nowhere near so abstract was lost on the majority of those chiming in to defend the man’s comments. That the man producing them was a committed white nationalist was also lost on his many defenders. And thus a group of philosophy dude-bros came to the aid of an outright bigot without ever realizing the point at hand was more than a theoretical matter about the nature of religion.
Sometimes a philosophical discussion is anything but.
A second, and perhaps more serious problem lies in the nature of human rights abuses carried out by Islamic regimes or by militants under the expectation that such regimes will protect them. These deserve a response of some kind, but the countless war-mongers spreading news of every atrocity ever committed in the name of Allah certainly aren’t doing anything to promote respect for human rights. (Honestly, I think some folks suffer from terrorist-envy.) I often pass along what I take to be credible news accounts of atrocities, and I am happy to support the efforts of organizations such as Amnesty International or other such organizations working to prevent human rights abuses. That may sound weak, but at least it doesn’t strike me as adding fuel to a fire. If there are better ways to address such atrocities, ways that don’t amount to promoting violence and prejudice in their own right, then I am open to reading about them.
All of this may be much ado about less than nothing. Someone wrong on the net and all, but to degree that any of these criticisms matter, my point is that telling the world you don’t like Islam isn’t all that helpful. Being helpful at this point in history is a little more difficult than usual, but a good number of people could stand to try a little harder.
Cue comments about the “regressive left” in 3, 2, 1…