In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre there’s been an increase of a very particular commentary: dissident Muslims critical of Western liberals for being reluctant to weigh in with forceful condemnations of Islamic intolerance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali raised the issue in April, and last month Eiynah at Nice Mangos made similar points. Since both women come from Muslim cultures I tend to give their commentary more weight than, say, Bill Maher, whose acquaintance with Islam consists of what he sees in the news. As they say, you only hear about the planes that crash.
Ali and Eiynah raise good points though. I think it is true that Western liberals like me tread more carefully when it comes to criticizing Islam. There are several reasons for that, the first being familiarity. As a general rule it’s a good idea to be a little more tentative when dealing with an unfamiliar topic - which Islam is for many of us. Christianity is the dominant religion here. Even those who are atheists or who grow up without practicing it can’t help but learn about its rough contours through osmosis. That puts us on surer footing and makes it easier to weigh in sensibly on the subject. Not doing so with Islam is less about moral relativism or some misguided stab at sensitivity than it is a healthy respect for our own ignorance.
To the extent that we do comment, we often first try to draw parallels with our own experience with organized religion - which again, Christianity is our reference point. And the Christianity we see in the news disproportionately represents the Westboro Baptist churches and Ku Klux Klans of the world. They aren’t the majority of Christians and we know that, but someone observing from the outside could easily get that impression. When we see something similar elsewhere we take that into account.
We also take into account how religion is interpreted. We see fundamentalist Christians take a line of scripture about homosexuality being an abomination - right next to, say, a line that says shellfish is also an abomination - and think: yeah, maybe they’re not getting a real good reading on that. Mainstream Christian denominations are more likely to interpret those passages as artifacts of their time and not the inerrant word of God. It isn’t hard to imagine zealots of another religion having such a literal reading of their sacred texts.
Most importantly, our stance towards Islam can’t be divorced from our recent history. Before the war in Afghanistan was launched we were told that it would liberate women there. It was pretty obviously done to give progressives a reason to support the war, and at a minimum it created some hesitance to oppose it. After it was clear the war was having a disastrous effect on women, some remained deeply conflicted about it. And of course, once second thoughts began to emerge we were treated to graphic depictions of what would happen if we left.
Islam’s status as a religion, and its stance towards women in particular, cannot be divorced from our foreign policy. The issue gets raised here not for the promotion of more enlightened thinking but as the prelude to a new round of freedom bombing. It’s not like we’re saying: there’s a humanitarian crisis happening, let’s set up an extensive network of well-supplied refugee camps to reach out to and aid the victims. It’s: let’s have a military response. Criticism of Islam has slipped too easily into demonization, and greasing the skids for the latest adventure, for many of us to feel comfortable signing on too freely to it.
I understand the frustration people like Ali and Eiynah have with that. They’ve felt (and continue to feel) the effects of religious intolerance firsthand, and would like the vocal support of those who would seem to be natural allies. In the West, though, Islam is not as well understood and is often treated as a monolith. Liberals want to be extra careful that condemnation of its violent lunatics not be conflated with comment on the religion as a whole - a reflection on the planes that don’t crash, as it were.
We know how Christian fundamentalists use the Bible to justify hatred and intolerance, and are anxious not to allow a corresponding criticism of extremist Muslims to be taken as a comment on Islam generally. And since we’ve seen how the Othering of Islam has been bundled with highly problematic responses, we know that any such commentary is not made in a vacuum. There is, in short, an awful lot of context that Ali, Eiynah and other Muslim-raised critics do not account for.