Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Can we critique Islam without being racist?



This week the Guardian published a bizarre comment piece from Andrew Brown claiming that disliking tenants of Islam is akin to disliking all Muslims. In a confused analogy, he conflates religion with race and offers parallels with anti-black racism and antisemitism. This idea that even objective criticism of Islam must be considered a personal or even racist attack is not unpopular amongst the political Left. In response, a writer from the Ex-Muslims Forum posted an excellent comment that I am reposting here as it conveys a pertinent message about how liberals in western democracies often relate to Islam, and the importance of critical engagement with all religions. 

"As Exmuslims, we critique Islam because there are many aspects of Islam that need to be critiqued. In particular, we seek to oppose Islam's apostasy codes, which are oppressive and lead to persecution.
We have found it is quite difficult to get some people to listen to our stories because they fear that acknowledging these issues will contribute to a critical view towards Islam. 
The idea is that particularly reactionary teachings and aspects of belief that lead to critical judgements of Islam are in and of themselves prejudiced. The resulting logic of this is that Islam should have special privileges, in as much as basic human conscience and ethical critical judgement of people living in a secular culture should not apply, or be expressed, towards Islam. 
The fact that criticism exists, is the offence.
Effectively, this is to propose a kind of proxy blasphemy code and apostasy code, wherein the liberal secular space defers to Islamic taboos. Dissenting Muslims and Exmuslims have to conform to these proxy codes too. Everyone else is free to critique their own religion, and other faiths and ideas too. But Islam must be protected.
However, Muslims are free to critique all religions, belief systems and moralities, because evangelising Islam, and proffering critique and judgement is not only a divine prerogative, but the closing down of ethical, critical judgement towards Islam is also a divine right.
As we can see, this is an ethical and moral mess.
This is an aspect of liberal relativism that is morally flawed and unsustainable without damaging basic principles of liberal secularism. It also means that aspects of Islam that need to be criticised, like Islam's apostasy codes, remain unexamined, and with that authority unquestioned, their capacity to hurt people and cause harm increases.
Another fear is that being critical of aspects of Islam manifests in prejudice towards Muslims, and this is an understandable response given how parts of the far-right do project generalising narratives of communal responsibility on Muslims. As Exmuslims, we understand this, because being from ethnic minorities ourselves (apart from growing numbers of former white converts) we are also prone to be in the targets of bigots who project their hostility onto anyone who 'looks' Muslim, whatever that is supposed to be.
The key to dealing with this is for the Left to take ownership of the issues that need to be critiqued, and do so through the prism of liberal secular values, so that they cannot be co-opted by the nationalist right, who have agendas that are not tolerant.
Sadly the instinct of relativism too often prevents this reckoning from occurring. The silencing of Exmuslims voices is the norm, although we are trying to change this.
There are three main layers of silencing of apostates voices. The first layer is the hardcore religious silencing, which includes notions that we deserve to be killed and harmed. Under that is a second layer of some Muslims who may not agree we should be persecuted, but don't want to have these problematic aspects or religion talked about, because of feelings of embarassment, fear of the consequences, or cognitive dissonance regarding apostasy / blasphemy codes. The third layer underneath this is the relativism of white liberals who are often in concordance with silencing instincts over these issues, including silencing of Exmuslims, for the reasons we outlined earlier. Often, relativist liberals simply pretend we don't exist.
But silencing never works, and it only increases the problems.
It is important to understand that anti-Muslim bigotry is real. At the same time, the reality of the need for Islam to be critiqued has to be acknowledged by the Left, and by Muslims who live in liberal secular democracies too."