January 21, 2016

How We Talk About Islam and Muslims

Harper's Muslims and Christians
Harper's Muslims and Christians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the earliest mistakes I made in writing this blog was to use the term "Christians" without attaching any specifiers. This was a mistake because Christianity is extremely diverse, and it is difficult to communicate anything meaningful about the entire group of people who identify themselves as Christians. Even when it comes to some of what appear to be core tenets of their faith, Christians can hold rather different beliefs.

It took awhile, but I would gradually learn to refer to "some Christians" or "Christians who believe..." when I was talking about some but not all Christians. This was not only more accurate, but it reminded me that whatever I was saying almost certainly did not apply to all Christians. Similarly, I began to use terms like "Christian extremists" or "Christian dominionists" when referring to Christians for whom such labels applied. I'm not suggesting that any of what I do now is the final word on terminology - only that it represents some improvement from where I started.

I've made many of the same mistakes when it comes to Islam. Like Christianity, there isn't much that can be said that applies to all Muslims. Some Muslims are Islamists who seek to impose Islam on their neighbors. Some are not only Islamists but jihadists who seek to impose Islam on others through the application of force. These groups are often referred to collectively as Muslim extremists.

Plenty of other Muslims, especially those living in democratic societies in the West, have little interest in living under Islamic law, imposing Islam on anybody, or engaging in violent jihad. They simply want to be part of democratic societies in the same way many non-Muslims do. Like many Christians, these Muslims can appreciate the value of church-state separation and just want the space to practice their religion. Some are even interested in working to reform Islam. Characterizing all Muslims as terrorists, Islamists, jihadists, or extremists is inaccurate, misleading, and unfair. And yes, it is also bigoted.

When we speak or write about a group of people that is extremely diverse, it is helpful to attempt to specify which segment(s) of the group we have in mind. If we fail to do so, we open the door to a variety of misunderstandings. Similarly, when we encounter someone else who is writing or speaking about a diverse group of people, we should not assume that we know his or her intent but seek clarification. It is an extra step, but it can be invaluable in advancing reasonable dialogue and short-circuiting the cycle of outrage.

Islam is a religion which includes elements of faith and the supernatural. I consider these ideas to be flawed and worthy of criticism. I see no reason to exempt these ideas from criticism when they come from Islam and then to criticize them when they come from Christianity. In fact, to do so would seem hypocritical (or at least inconsistent). Criticizing aspects of Islamic dogma is no more or less "gross and racist" than criticizing aspects Christian dogma.

But aren't there people out there criticizing Islam who are bigoted against Muslims? Of course there are! We have all seen examples. What we must understand is that the fact that some people who criticize various aspects of Islam might also be racists or xenophobes does not change the acceptability of criticizing Islam in the slightest. Their presence does not somehow make the criticism of Islam "gross and racist." We can oppose anti-Muslim bigotry even as we criticize the ideas found in Islam or encourage reform.

One of the things that has helped me grasp the importance of the relevant distinctions among Muslims is increased familiarity with the Muslims and ex-Muslims who are working to reform aspects of their religion. By unfairly lumping these reformers into the same category as the Islamists, we are not only painting a false picture - we are undermining their efforts at reform. And by screaming "Islamophobe" at anyone who criticizes Islam, we are doing the same.

If you are not familiar with the "gross and racist" reference used above, you can see the source of it in this brief video clip. Referring to the criticism of Islam, actor Ben Affleck says, "Its gross, its racist" (right about the 1:54 minute mark).

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