The Islam Problem

In an essay for the Guardian UK, writer Ronan Bennett takes novelist Martin Amis to task for his alleged racism towards Muslims.

We can dispense with Amis’s polite fiction that he is talking about “Islamism”; there are just too many generalisations (“The impulse towards rational inquiry,” Amis wrote elsewhere, “is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male”), too many references to “them” and “us”. When he says, for example, “they” are gaining on “us” demographically, he is demonstrably not talking about “Islamists”. The danger of being overrun, outnumbered, outbred is a repugnant trope beloved of supremacists everywhere (it was used by the Evening Standard about “aliens” 100 years ago). It is, for example, horribly familiar to Arab Israelis, and to Irish Catholics (from whom Eagleton is descended). When Amis voices his fears of being overrun, he is, and he knows he is, perpetuating and enhancing the spectre of the other, and loading it with the potent imagery of swarming poverty, violence and ignorance.

I haven’t read Amis’s particular remarks here, so I can’t comment on them, but I have seen him behave like an ass in print before, and very little he says would surprise me.

However, there’s a far more interesting point here: is criticizing Islam racist? I don’t think so. Bennett himself disagrees, saying this:

Those who claim that Islamophobia can’t be racist, because Islam is a religion not a race, are fooling themselves: religion is not only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white. Islamophobia is racist, and so is antisemitism.

But a few paragraphs down he talks about the “sheer variety of belief” and “cultural diversity” within Islam.

I think the Muslim faith is generally infantile and dangerous. But I also feel that way about Christianity and Judaism. (I tend to look more kindly upon Hindus and Buddhists…not because I think their beliefs are any less stupid, but because they seem to be far more lassaiz faire than the Big Three in the West. There’s nothing, so far as I know, in Hindu or Buddhist faith about killing or converting infidels. So they’re definitely a lot less dangerous.) I do think that Amis’s statement that rational inquiry is short on the ground in the Muslim population is probably true…but the same can be said of fundamentalist Christians or orthodox Jews.

On the other hand…well, I can’t remember the last time the Pope issued a death edict to anybody for suggesting that Christ may have been making it all up, or that Jews rioted violently over cartoons mocking Moses, or the last time someone was arrested and threatened with serious beating and/or death for naming a teddy bear Jesus. Despite the excesses of Mossad, Jews are not particularly known for suicide bombing.

Is it some sort of Western cultural imperialism to suggest that killing people for disagreeing with or disregarding your faith is pretty goddamn barbaric? That stoning women to death for perceived misbehavior — another act that happens at least a few times a year in Islamic communities, and not so much in Christian or Judaic communities — is something other than merely a different cultural norm?

And if the Islamic community in general is really so outraged and scandalized by these lunatic behaviors, why do those who commit them generally go unpunished either in secular or religious courts?

I do not believe this has anything to do with any particular ethnic groups within the Islamic diaspora at large. For many centuries, Arabic culture was far more rational and refined than European culture, by anybody’s standards, for example. I don’t even think that intolerance, barbarism and misogyny are indelible signifiers of Islam itself. And I believe that there is much of philosophical and sociocultural value to be found in the Qu’ran, as there is in the Bible and the Talmud and the Bhaghavad-Gita, even if you do not choose to join the faiths associated with these works.

But it’s hard to argue that, out of the three belief systems that dominate in the West, Islam does seem to produce the most violence both within and without its ranks.

I don’t think this means Islam should be suppressed (or at least, suppressed any more than any other religion), or that Muslims ought to be persecuted. People have a right to their beliefs, no matter how goofy.

But I do think that the Islamic community at large might want to think about reconsidering the tolerance with which it handles the more lunatic fringe within itself. Or hire some better PR people.

Of course, you could say the same thing of Martin Amis.

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  1. “Is it some sort of Western cultural imperialism to suggest that killing people for disagreeing with or disregarding your faith is pretty goddamn barbaric?”

    Well, yes. But who said that all cultural imperialism was bad? In fact, I’d say that the West itself could use a bit more of that cultural imperialism, and a little less moral relativism.

    “another act that happens at least a few times a year in Islamic communities, and not so much in Christian or Judaic communities”

    Actually, I’d say that the way in which these sort of acts are under-reported from Judeo-Christian communities is evidence of a media bias. When was the last time the American media covered Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem throwing rocks at cars that mistakenly drove down the wrong street on Saturday, or the assault on women who get on a ‘segregated’ bus and refuse to sit in back?

    There is a difference in degree here, but that difference is more-or-less exactly in line with the greater levels of poverty in the Arab world, and authorities aiming the outrage of the poor at scapegoats.

    A greater difference is that the Koran does not have a lot of the sort of wiggle-room in terms of multiple authors, mistranslations, copying errors, and linguistic shifts to give legitimacy and cover to more liberal interpretations that the Old and New Testament enjoys. All Islam is ‘fundamentalist’ in terms of literal interpretation because of that, and about the only thing you can do is a selective reading.

  2. “All Islam is ‘fundamentalist’ in terms of literal interpretation”

    Yes, but all Muslims are not.

    The problem with sweeping generalizations like Amis’s is that they never hold up to scrutiny. Not all followers of a religion adhere strictly to its tenants. Humans are funny that way. There are rebels in any group, and religions are certainly no different. (I know several drugged-up, over-sexed Mormons who will happily back me up on this.)


    Islam (or at least the particular strain of it practiced by charming individuals like the Ayatollah and Osama bin Ladin) is the only major world religion that’s currently and actively preaching violence as part of its official canon. And that’s certainly notable, if only from a sociological perspective. Pointing that out is not racist. Ignoring it for fear of being seen as racist is not noble, nor is it indicative of your personal enlightenment. It’s self-righteous, white guilt nonsense.

    And I really have to say, pointing out that Christianity was, at one time, just as violent in its official policies doesn’t help anything. Saying that only serves to make you sound like a pissed-off 15-year-old calling his dad a hypocrite for telling him he can’t drink vodka at dinner.

    Clerics telling their followers to kill people is a bad thing, period. It was bad when Christians did it in the Crusades, and it’s bad when Muslim leaders do it today. It’s the ultimate abuse of trust, and it should never be excused on the grounds of cultural differences.

  3. Josh is right in that the 3 major monotheistic religions are full of hypocrisy, bigotry, exclusivism, and, too often, institutionalized hatred. Kind of makes sense, since they’re all derived from the same Semitic (Middle Eastern, not just Hebrew) sources. Living in the most religious “Christian” country in the developed world is certainly no fun, and American Christians seem to take relish in being assholes. That said, I think I am appalled a bit more at the most extreme elements in Islam than the others. I mean, rioting and killing people over cartoons? And, regarding Palestinian suicide bombers: No political or religious cause is so important that a human being should immolate himself in its name. Hamas? I shudder to think of what kind of society these people would create if they are given a state.

  4. They also still have ‘honor killings’ in many Islamic states.

    If I was to sum up what the main problem is with Islam in one sentence, it would be this:

    Islam is the only major religion that has not yet modernized.

    It is still the same way it was since it started. If Christianity was still the same way, we would still be burning women at the stake for practicing wicca. In Islam, women are still stoned to death. YouTube search and see for yourself – a horrible way to die. Pelted with rocks for hours – sometimes as long as 8 or 10 hours before finally dying.

    And women are stoned to death by villagers – typical, regular, everyday citizens. The people throwing the stones are the same people that many will say “oh, but not all of them are radical”. Well, the ones we don’t consider radical are still throwing the stones…

    …and many times it is for ‘crimes’ like being raped – something the woman had no control over. She gets stoned to death while the rapist gets 18 months in jail – or sometimes, not even charged!

    I respect your beliefs (or lack of) about there not being a God… I can understand people not believing that Jesus was the son of God, but I still find it hard to understand that anyone can believe that there is no higher power at all. My mom believes in God, but she admits that she is still not sure about Jesus being The Lord in human form. So I don’t even know if one can call her a “Christian”, because to be a Christian, you have to believe in CHRIST and accept him as lord and savior.

    Someone made this world. It isn’t ALL by chance (my belief only)… I laugh at the evolution/creation debate because I think BOTH sides are wrong. I think evolution did take place – with the help of an outside intelligence……..

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