January 25, 2020

LETTER: Mischaracterizations of Islam will not advance religious tolerance

Editors of The Bradford,

Last issue’s piece for Spontaneity Says, written by Alex Doe (“Unpopular opinions: the touchy subject of religion,” October 2015), contained mischaracterizations of Islam that contribute to a dangerous narrative of civilizational conflict.  It is admirable that the article made an attempt to address such a controversial subject as religion, but it is unacceptable that the piece’s treatment the topic so wrongly characterized the Muslim faith, especially in a time of renewed concern over terrorism that has seen Muslims face increasing public hostility.

Though the piece was nominally a criticism of the overly rosy picture public school students are given of all religions, only one of the five or so specific pieces of evidence (the prohibition in Exodus 35:2 of working during the sabbath) was aimed at a religion other than Islam, and it wasn’t given much treatment.  Four of the five critical points centered around either the Qur’an or Muslim public sentiment.

The first criticism presented, that “Muhammad consummated his marriage with a nine year old girl named Aisha,” entirely ignores the fact that child-marriage, though clearly taboo today, was commonplace among Bedouin tribes, pre-dated Islam, and is not related to Islamic theology.  This appears less a criticism of Islam than an attempt to malign the character of the Prophet Muhammed, bearing a striking resemblance to the claims of Geert Wilders, a far-right, xenophobic Dutch politician, that Muhammad was a pedophile.

Other criticisms in the piece are based on assertions about Qur’anic commands that are simply untrue.  A supposed Islamic “injunction to kill or convert every non-Muslim…along with all adulterers and apostates” is offered as a paraphrase of Qur’an 2:191-193.  In reality, these verses do not say anything about apostasy or adultery, and actually describe self-defense.  Qur’an 2:190 and 2:193 in fact encourage restraint in conflict, stating respectively, “do not transgress limits” (also translated as “begin not hostilities”), and “Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.”  The vast majority of Muslim scholars consider forcible conversion to Islam prohibited by the by Qur’an 2:256, which states, unequivocally, “There is no compulsion in religion.”  To say the Qur’an contains an “injunction to kill or convert every non-Muslim” is to suggest that aggression and violence are central to Islam’s religious teachings, which is clearly and indefensibly false.

In a further attempt to suggest that Islam is inherently incompatible with a modern understanding of human rights, the piece also cherry-picked data from conservative Muslim countries, and ignored data from countries with relatively moderate Muslim societies.  Polling data was included showing that roughly 60-80% of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, and Malaysia believe capital punishment should be applied to apostates.  No source was cited for the polling numbers, but a recent study by the Pew Research Center on the same question tells a much more nuanced story: in Turkey and Lebanon, support for applying the death penalty to apostates was 5% and 6% respectively–not much greater than the margin of error.  Another Pew study from 2013 showed that support for executing apostates in Muslim-majority countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina only ranges from 1 to 4%.  That the piece made no consideration of the huge variances in civic society, cultural values, and the strength of democratic traditions across Muslim countries is at best deeply flawed and at worst disingenuous.

The cumulative effect of all of the piece’s arguments is to suggest that violence and intolerance are central to Islam.  This is not only wrong–it also has concerning implications.  In a famous 1993 article in Foreign Policy, “Clash of Civilizations,” influential Harvard political theorist Samuel Huntington warned that in the post-Cold War world, most conflicts would occur along the faultlines of global “civilizations,” rather than over the ideological differences that had lead to the 20th century’s previous conflicts.  Democracy had defeated fascism; capitalism had defeated communism.  Was it now time for the West and the Muslim world to square off over conflicting social and religious values?

The piece’s view of Islam as inherently violent and incompatible with human rights poisons the important public discourse over the condition of Muslims in Western society, terrorism, and the Syrian refugee crisis.  Ben Carson has stated that he thinks a Muslim would be unqualified to be president because Muslim “tenets” are incompatible with the U.S. Constitution.  More than one U.S. presidential candidate has suggested rejecting Muslim refugees and admitting only Christians, under the rationale that Muslims would more likely be violent, even though the refugees are disproportionately women and children.  Donald Trump has notoriously called for barring all Muslims from entering the U.S., even American citizens currently abroad, until it is known why they have such “hatred” for the United States.

All of this rhetoric is especially harmful because it plays directly into the narrative of civilizational conflict–the same narrative used by extremists to justify violence.  Telling Muslims, especially those trying to build lives as law-abiding citizens in the West, that their treasured beliefs and cultural identity is fundamentally incompatible with modern values or human rights can lead to a feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalization.  Fortunately, the domestic atmosphere in the U.S. has been largely tolerant.  U.S. Muslims are more highly educated and have higher incomes than national averages.  Nearly 6,000 Muslims serve in the military.  There are currently two Muslim U.S. Representatives.  Yet in the wake of the Paris attacks, many U.S. Muslims rightly feel the presence of growing hostility.  The piece was wrong to complement the bigotry many Muslims already face by trying to justify a supposedly “progressive” case against Islam.

A single essay in a high school newspaper probably won’t have much of an effect on national discourse.  But at the same time, public sentiment is the sum of many parts, each of which, including those found in The Bradford, are important.  It would be good to keep Samuel Huntington’s advice in mind.  Those in the West, he counseled, must “develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations.”  For the “relevant future,” Huntington admitted, “there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.”  Refraining from characterizing an entire religion as an existential threat and instead calling for greater tolerance and cross-cultural understanding would be a good place to start.

– Keenan Ashbrook, ’16

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