Is there something about Islam?

(A worth reading analysis by Kenan Malik, an author, BBC broadcaster, lecturer, NYT columnist and a proud atheist. F. Sheikh)

“Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on ‘Why I am an atheist’. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn’t.

My response is to say: ‘Yes, that’s true. But it is true also of believers.’ I point out to my students that in the Bible, Leviticus sanctifies slavery. It tells us that adulterers ‘shall be put to death’. According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. And so on. Few modern day Christians would accept norms. Others they would. In other words, they pick and choose.

So do Muslims. Jihadi literalists, so-called ‘bridge builders’ like Tariq Ramadan (‘bridge-builder’, I know, is a meaningless phrase, and there are many other phrases that one could, and should, use to describe Ramadan) and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur’an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.

I’m making this point because it’s one not just for believers to think about, but for humanists and atheists too. There is a tendency for humanists and atheists to read religions, and Islam in particular, as literally as fundamentalists do; to ignore the fact that what believers do is interpret the same text a hundred different ways. Different religions clearly have different theologies, different beliefs, different values. Islam is different from Christianity is different from Buddhism. What is important, however, is not simply what a particular Holy Book, or sacred texts, say, but how people interpret those texts.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The ‘Buddhist fundamentalism’ of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the ‘Burmese bin Laden’, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.”

“And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as Isis or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. Religion does, of course, play a role in many confrontations involving Islam

The tenets of Islam are very different from those of Buddhism. Nevertheless, many conflicts involving Islam have, like the confrontations in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, complex social and political roots, as groups vying for political power have exploited religion and religious identities to exercise power, impose control and win support. The role of religion in these conflicts is often less in creating the tensions than in helping establish the chauvinist identities through which certain groups are demonized and one’s own actions justified. Or, to put it another way, the significance of religion lies less in a given set of values or beliefs than in the insistence that such values or beliefs – whatever they are – are mandated by God.

And it is in this context we need to think about whether there is ‘something about Islam’.There are a host of different views that Muslims hold on issues from apostasy to free speech, views that range from the liberal to the reactionary. The trouble is that policymakers and commentators, particularly in the West, often take the most reactionary views to be the most authentic stance, in a way they would rarely do with Buddhism or Judaism or Christianity.”

The whole article is worth reading and he concludes his article with following paragraph:

“So, yes there is something about Islam that needs challenging. But equally, there is something about secular liberalism, and the blindness and pusillanimity of many secular liberals, the bigotry of many critics of Islam, and the cynicism of many secular governments in their exploitation of radical Islam, that needs challenging too.”

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