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Glib and simple-minded January 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a piece entitled “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?”, Nicholas Kristof starts by presenting good evidence for an affirmative answer — which he then ignores. He begins:

The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”

Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many of us assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.

Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet it looks as if Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.

Many ask, Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?

The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Note some revealing word choices by Kristof: fanatical Muslims only seem to murder in the name of God, implying that their self-declared motivations shouldn’t be taken at face value; and the university professor was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, implying that “insulting the Prophet” is a crime one could legitimately be accused of.

In any case, Kristof admits that lampooning Christianity, Judaism or atheism won’t get you murdered, while lampooning Islam might. But instead of attempting to explain why that is, he argues that it can’t possibly be Islam’s fault — because not all Muslims are murderers:

Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents

The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by Al Qaeda, killed at least 37 people.

I’m not sure how another example of Islamic terrorism is supposed to make Islam look better, but in any case there’s no reason to think Al Qaeda or the Charlie Hebdo terrorists are clinically insane: their actions are completely comprehensible based on the beliefs they profess. And unfortunately, many of those beliefs are not extremely rare in the Muslim world. For example, a 2013 Pew poll found that in many countries, large majorities of Muslims think sharia (which mandates severe punishments for blasphemers, heretics, adulterers, homosexuals, etc.) is the revealed word of God and should be the law of the land — 86% in Malaysia, 83% in Morocco, 74% in Egypt, 72% in Indonesia, 71% in Jordan, to name but a few. And where sharia is the law of the land, you will not find freedom or equality or tolerance. Just last week, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, was shackled in a public square and given 50 lashes out of the 1,000 he was sentenced to for “insulting Islam” on his website.

Kristof is correct that no one is suffering the effects of Islamic ideology more than Muslims, but we do them no service by denying the root of the problem. We should be encouraging Muslims to reform the illiberal doctrines of their religion, not pretending that Islam-inspired violence has nothing to do with Islam. But instead of acknowledging that some values are better (or worse) than others, Kristof opts for glib and simple-minded ecumenism:

The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.” … Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world — and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.

It’s not intolerant to criticize bad ideas, or to point out the link between beliefs and the actions they motivate. Terrorism, oppression and misogyny are not randomly distributed across the globe: they are products of ideology and culture. The real divide is between dogmatism and reason, between tribalism and humanism, between theocracy and liberalism. If your faith is on the wrong side of that divide, then it’s part of the problem.

Charlie Hebdo

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