Criticism of Islam can result in very nasty and very personal backlashes, as Sam Harris continues to notice, but I was a little surprised to watch John Stewart grill Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the Daily show on the March 23, 2015 episode. John often meets with authors promoting their books, and mostly laughs, pitches them softball questions and tells people to go buy the book.
With Ayaan, who was there to promote her book “Heretic,” he immediately focuses in on this question,
“What is it, do you think, that is inherently different about Islam?”
For John, Islam is just a religion going through the painful process of modernization. So they’re killing people, discriminating against Christians, women and Jews, persecuting outsiders with violence… it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Christians did all that and more in their day.
It’s a little like the USA telling China or India they need to be mindful of their pollution; the USA has already had its huge growth spurt. We know now that pollution is bad (though we continue to be a top offender) but we don’t want the rest of the world making the same mistakes.
John’s point is that outside moderation of Islam is bound to fail, and what we should be doing is supporting the insiders, the moderate Muslims.
How easy is that going to be?
Well, nearly impossible.
Ayaan says Islam is a message of death over life.
John balks and asks, “You don’t seriously believe the majority of Muslims value death over life do you?”
But she’s right: Muslims (and Christians, and many other religious people) think the afterlife is more valuable than this life. This life is a test, a process, but it’s short and fleeting.
They also believe in a divine law that’s more important than secular law (exactly like early Christians). John points out that the evolution of Christianity can be used as model for the evolution of Islam…
But there was never an evolution. Christianity was forced to paganize by the Roman Emperors, who had a hand in declaring doctrine, ritual and practice. But they resisted.
Then came the Enlightenment – the church lost its power to persecute and punish as liberals and freethinkers began to speak out, voice concerns, even ridicule Church dogma. They weren’t insiders or reformers. They were satirists. And scientists, and mythology scholars.
People began publishing hundreds of treatises about the mess which is church history; laughing and mocking religious beliefs as simple-minded superstition, being openly critical of passionately held beliefs.
Christianity never evolved from the inside (at least not to a more tolerant, more inclusive practice); Christianity has been forced to change to maintain relevancy in a world where an increasing number of intelligent people find themselves without faith, not because they don’t want to believe in God, but because the institution and specific tenets of Christian doctrine are infantile and devoid of reason.
Christianity is an impossible faith, that can’t be grasped with reason, and must be believed on principle – believe first, and you will see the Truth. In the past hundred years the church has been forced to evolve from an openly racists, anti-gay, misogynist culture to something more refined and liberal because otherwise they would have gone out of business, at least in some areas (usually, more educated and affluent areas).
John and Ayaan both hope liberal Muslims will be able to reform all the others, but I doubt that’s going to happen. And the reason is this: to “solve” the Muslim problem, we need to get Muslims to prioritize this life over the next life – to focus on living this one life now and forget about what’s after death. In other words, to give up on the core and principle feature of not only Islam but also most other religions, and become a more spiritual, Buddhist, “Salvation is in the Right Now” kind of feel good philosophy. She also wants Muslims to accept that the Koran is “just a book written by men a long time ago.”
Ayaan says if we get rid of religion, all the other problems – economic, political – will resolve themselves.
In almost every case, political revolution comes first; once free, people will seek to create wealth and establish a market economy. With wealth and jobs and a higher standard of living, people can build universities and focus on education. I believe people with comfortable, happy lives filled with joy and happiness will be far less likely to relish the idea that the afterlife is an escape from current suffering.
Is Islam inherently violent?
John quickly jumps on a logical error she makes; conflating radical Islam extremists with Islam in general, and asks, “Isn’t that an unfair leap?”
But that’s a tricky questions. Of course, not all Muslim are violent. And of course you can choose to ignore many points of the Koran, choose how you interpret the Holy Book, and come up with a looser, more liberal, more peaceful way of co-existing with other humans. But is that Islam?
I have this argument with my mother sometimes:
To me, the core, defining, unchangeable first principle of Christianity is that Jesus matters; he and he only offers some benefit that is greater than any that can be found in any other religion.
You can’t be a Christian just by believing in some Christian values like “love one another” or “turn the other cheek.” That isn’t Christianity, those are universal moral principles that can be found in other religions. What is Christianity? The belief that Jesus offers a personal and particular salvation.
You can be a Christian and still believe that, in God’s infinite wisdom and mercy, he will allow some non-Christians into heaven anyway. And if you are a good Christian and not a hate-fueled fundamentalist, you need to believe that. It’s no use putting all the blame on God or other people and saying, “well they had their chance but they refused Christ” or “God gave them every opportunity.”
If that’s the stupid system God built and God doesn’t have any control over it, and if I in my humble, limited, sinful being can not only think of a fairer, better, more inclusive system of salvation but moreover want it – as in, I notice the Christian system of salvation sucks for 80% of the world’s population and I don’t think so many people should suffer eternity because God and his proselytes failed to reach them – then God is either not Good, not Wise or not Just (and hence, not God, who is, in St. Anselm’s words, the “Greatest Thought that can be Thunk.”)
But you can’t be a Christian and believe in the “Many paths, one destination” mantra of new age spiritual gurus. You can’t be Christian and believe there is nothing inherently superior in Christianity. You can’t be Christian and say, “It’s fine if people practice other religions or worship God in their own way. Jesus works for me but there are other paths to God.”
That’s exactly why I can’t call myself a Christian. There’s a hard line that needs to be illuminated; the crossing over of which leads you from believing Christian to liberal Agnostic.
Ayaan wants to change Islam, but what she really wants is Muslims to stop being Muslim and start being more civilized. For her there is little distinction between “Radical Muslim” and “Muslim” because they believe the exact same things. There is nothing different about their beliefs, only the amount of cultural violence they personally feel empowered to perpetrate against other cultural and religious groups.
Muslims believe in the superiority of their religion. They believe infidels need to convert and worship Allah. They believe the next life is more important than this one, and that God’s law is more important than man’s laws; and that you can find God’s laws in the Koran, which was written by him (through his only prophet, Muhammad).
I don’t believe these are beliefs of fundamental Islam only; I’m pretty sure these are the basics tenets of Islam, and if you can’t accept them, you’re probably not a Muslim.
John Stewart counters with the argument that a “group of radicals have stolen the religious texts and are using it for nefarious purposes.” He doesn’t think it’s a problem with Islam – he thinks it’s a problem with people in general. People are always going to be violent, racist, bigoted, and persecute minorities. “It’s like atomic energy,” he says, “split it this way, light the world, split it that way, blow it up.”
But this is a very weak analogy. Religion isn’t an unbiased tool, used wrongly for dark deeds. Religion is the universal justification for our cultural actions; it gives us confidence and permission and purpose. Can every religion be used for nefarious purposes? No. Most Eastern spiritual disciplines talk about non-violence.
Will humans always be violent and evil? No.
Children raised in democratic, positive cultures of acceptance and non-discrimination show no natural traces of bigotry and hatred for people different from themselves. They aren’t told “God hates fags” or that white people are better than other colors.
The root of the problem is not people, the root of the problem is outdated religious texts that continue to include extremely dismal, old-fashioned, hate-filled dichotomies of us vs them, leftovers from primitive times when different cultures and races were constantly battling for resources.
I’m with Ayaan on this one; I think Islam has shown, repeatedly over the last few decades, that when introduced to a relatively peaceful and benign culture of tolerance and acceptance, that same culture will have increasing incidences of race- and religiously fueled violence, in a way that can’t be said of the introduction of any other body of religion, race or culture. But I don’t think there is a cure or a fix – or at least I don’t believe that we can start with changing the religion and work on the other stuff later.
Though I’m obviously a hobbyist blogger with very little real political and economic understanding, it appears that the USA’s constant exploitation of the resources of Islamic regions continues to destabilize economic and political stability in those regions, which creates the exact culture in which Islamic Extremists can thrive.
What do you think about this highly charged topic: Is Islam inherently violent? Violent in a different way than Christianity was/is? (Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but the sword…” and “Unless each of you hates your father and brother, he cannot follow me.”) Is there any way to make peace between various religious groups without forcing them to give up their central beliefs? And also without the necessity of the entire world being converted to one religion?