Thursday, July 20, 2017

Separating what is wrong about Islam -- and what is right about Muslims.

Ali Rizvi, born in Pakistan into a "moderate to liberal Muslim family," has also lived in Saudi Arabia and Libya, giving him experience of three different Muslim cultures that helped him differentiate Islam as a religion from the diverse cultures of Muslim people.   This experience has led him to say:  "The left is wrong on Islam.  The right is wrong on Muslims."

Rizvi, a writer and a physician, now lives in Canada.  He was interviewed (by Sean Illing for about his new book, The Atheist Muslim.  Illing writes:

"Rizvi’s book is partly a plea for secularism and partly a defense of Islam as a culture. It’s also an internal challenge to Islam as a body of doctrines. Rizvi speaks directly to agnostics, atheists, and humanists living in the Muslim world, enjoining them to embrace secular culture without abandoning their Muslim identity."

Rizvi clarifies that this is not just about Islam as religion but "the Muslim experience," which he says is more personal and has more to do with identity than with ideology.  He says that, especially in the United States, it's difficult to keep any argument from devolving into a left-right division.   Both sides, he says, are really missing the mark.

Rizvi:  "They were both conflating 'Islam' the ideology and 'Muslim' the identity.  Islam is a religion;  it's a set of beliefs, a bunch of ideas in a book.  It's not human.  Muslims are real, living, breathing people, and to me, there's a big difference between criticizing ideas and demonizing human beings. . . . 

"Neither side was making that distinction.  On the left, people were saying that if you have any criticism against Islam, then you were a bigot against all Muslims.  On the right, it was like, there are a lot of problematic things in Islamic scripture, so everyone who is Muslim must be banned . . .  [They] weren't making that distinction between challenging ideas, which have historically moved societies forward, and demonizing human beings, which only rips societies apart. . . .

"That's what this book is about.  It's about making that distinction between Islamic ideology and Muslim identity, and explores how we can have an honest conversation about ideas and beliefs without descending into bigotry against those who might challenge or hold them."

Rizvi further draws a dynamic distinction:  culture is always evolving, but religion tends to dogmatize culture and arrest its development.  Although identifying himself as atheist, he says that he retains some of the cultural elements of his religion -- as do many secular Jews and Christians, who no longer believe in those religious tenets.

Sean Illing said that he approached this interview with some trepidation because, as a liberal, he recognizes how so many in the left feel obliged "to beat back the bigotry on the right" toward Islam.  So liberals are hesitant to criticize some elements of the historical religious teachings lest they seem unsupportive of Muslims as people.

Rizvi responded to this by saying:  "When Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson say something that's homophobic or misogynistic, people on the left descend on them like a ton of bricks.  They're very comfortable with criticizing and satirizing fundamentalist Christianity.  But when it comes to Islam, which has many of the same homophobic and misogynistic teachings, they throw their hands up, back off, and say, whoa, hold on, we must respect their religion and culture."  

Rizvi says that he understands the liberal impulse to protect the rights of minorities;  but he also points out how this is "very frustrating to our liberal counterparts in Muslim-majority countries, who are fighting fundamentalist Islam the same way that liberals here fight fundamentalist Christianity, and they're even risking their lives for it.  Many have died for it.  Yet they hear their liberal counterparts in the West calling their ideas "Islamophobic."  This is a devastating double standard for them."

Those on the right, Rizvi says, see all Muslims as the same, which fails to recognize the millions of people in the Muslim world "who are atheist or agnostic but must publicly identify as Muslim or they'd be disowned, ostracized, or even killed by their families and governments."  Unfortunately this attitude extends to the right-wing's Islamophobia, most evident in Trump's first attempted Muslim ban.

To the question of whether Islam is a religion of war or a religion of peace, Rizvi says it is neither

"It's just a religion. . . . Sure, the scriptures . . . have inspired a lot of people to do good things, but they have also inspired a lot of people to do bad things as well.   Look at it this way. . . .  Almost all of my Jewish friends eat bacon.   Now does that mean that Judaism is suddenly okay with bacon?

"This is the difference between religion and people. . . .  When I say that most Muslims I know are very peaceful and law-abiding, that they wouldn't dream of violence, that doesn't erase all of the violence and the calls for martyrdom and jihad and holy war against disbelievers in Islamic scripture. . . .  The hard truth is there is a lot of violence endorsed in the Quran, and there are other terrible things, as there are in the Old Testament.   But there are more people in the world -- even if it's a minority of Muslims -- who take their scripture seriously.   It's dishonest to say that violent Muslim groups like ISIS are being un-Islamic."

Then there follows a discussion between Illing and Rizvi about other factors that go into determining pathways of violence, including geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions.   They agree on how difficult it is to ascribe weight to the various factors.

Rizvi:  "We have had a lot of discussion about the US foreign policy and how that has caused problems in the Muslim world, but we somehow shy away from talking about the equally important religious, doctrinal basis for these terrorist acts.   We shouldn't deny that either.  I'm convinced that one of the main reasons we haven't resolved this problem is that we are afraid to make the complete diagnosis.

By "complete diagnosis," Rizvi refers to a broad understanding of the religious ideology but also the historical, social and economic conditions, geopolitical changes, psychological traumas -- and the psychological appeal of fundamentalism and of belonging to a group, as an antidote to all those other factors for the young people to whom it appeals.  Ignoring any of these for simplistic answers will ultimately fail.

Rizvi:  "The way we think about this is strange. We try really, really hard to dance around it. When someone tells us they did something for political reasons, we accept it easily. 'Sure, they did it for politics.'  When someone says,  ' I did this for money,'  we believe them.  Even when people say, 'I played Doom, the video game . . . we take it at face value and have all these cultural conversations about the role of video games . . . in violence.

"But when people say, 'I'm doing this in the name of Allah,' and quote verse 8:12, which says, 'Strike the disbelievers upon the neck and strike from them every finger tip,' and we see them doing exactly what those words say, we look at that and go, 'No, no, it's got to be politics. It’s got to be for money. Let's see what video games they were playing.'

"That's the only thing I have a problem with. I acknowledge the other causes. I have explored them in my book. Yes, there are political grievances, and there are foreign policy grievances. We never deny those. So why do we deny that religion itself, the scripture itself, can drive these atrocities?"

Rizvi is not, repeat not, taking the same position of those who simplistically attribute it all to a "violent religion."  Far from it.   But he is saying:  religion is a factor -- and we should not shy away from it.  But keep it in perspective.

Another factor explored in Rizvi's book and discussed in the interview with Illing is the appeal of fundamentalism and belonging to a group for many young men who are disillusioned and otherwise hopeless about their future.   These are the ones who are ripe for recruitment, the "wandering souls," who respond to the appeal of a structured system, a set of beliefs, an identify -- and they often make a commitment without understanding it fully as a religion or ideology.

But Rizvi, never settling for easy answers, says that for him the more interesting question is:  "Why is Islam, why is this particular religion, so appealing to them?  Why do people prone to violence find Islam so appealing for their purpose?"

There's much more.   It's provocative and enlightening.   I intend to read the book.  For anyone who would like to understand more, it's:  The Atheist Muslim:  A Journey From Religion to Reason, by Ali Rizvi, St. Martin's Press, 2016.  As an atheist Muslim scientist and medical doctor living in North America in the post-9/11 world, Rizvi sought to find a way to criticize extreme Islam without demonizing his entire people


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