Friday, July 23, 2010

Further thoughts on the empirical evil of Islam

As you may have read in what was supposed to be my last word on the subject of Islam, I am torn on the issue. I have nothing against Muslims, but I have everything against the religion. Love the sinner, hate the sin, is another way of putting it.

And the liberal, people-loving side of me really wants to be tolerant and inclusive. I want the "coexist" bumper stickers to reflect my personal philosophy in some way. But it doesn't. Just because all religions are equally wrong does not mean that they are all equally benign. As an atheist, I look for the truth in things. As a humanist, I look for the morality. And Islam - as a religion, of course, but also as a culture - is immoral.

Just as before, not all cultures are equally harmful, so Muslims living in Saudi Arabia are not representative of Muslims living in Michigan. I don't know too much about Muslims who are culturally Western, although the few that I have met did exhibit a slightly shocking level of misogyny and homophobia (a word that doesn't seem to capture the essence of the disdain, disregard and absolute hatred that it is supposed to define). I won't use the isolated cases of Muslims in my personal experience to speak for everyone and I won't even make any guesses about individuals in any country.

But there are facts to consider. In the Middle East it is routine for women to be stoned to death for adultery. In the Middle East it is routine for thieves to have their hands cut off. In the Middle East it is routine for homosexuals to be killed simply for being gay. This is not a sensitivity issue. It is wrong. This is simply the tip of the iceberg of problems and social injustices endemic in Islamic society, but for now I think it serves my point.

And it is absolutely true that not all Muslims approve of these practices. It is perhaps even true that some of these practices are not specifically called for by Islam but are cultural elements of a geographic society. But it is true that it is absolutely justified by use of the faith itself. Christianity is a religion that is equally false and almost equally dangerous, but it has been diluted and defanged by science and the Enlightenment and by centuries of revolutions and reformations. Practically no practicing Christian actually intends to stone women, children or homosexuals, even though the commands to do so could not be more clear.

But those caveats are red herrings. They are distractions from the fact that states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Somalia (perhaps not much of a state these days, but whatever) routinely employ dramatic and brutal punishments for what we would consider to be civil offenses. These societies are underpinned by a viciously evil interpretation of a religion. I want to grant everyone equal love. I don't mind if everyone wants to quietly, privately practice their own religion. But when a religion is responsible for inciting brutish and primitive evil, I cannot pretend to just accept it as a healthy and normal facet of their religion. These practices are not worth keeping or even remembering as anything but a bloody bad memory. The Catholic Church should not be proud of its behavior during the Inquisition, Germany is certainly not proud of its Fascist past; so should the Islamic Middle East put this religious tyranny behind them and look forward to a peaceful, secular future.

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg


Ed said...

First off I am mostly playing devil’s advocate as I was in your last post about Islam. I admit to holding a similar view of Islam, as you might have guessed from my response awhile back to your post on Sam Harris's Ted talk. (some cultures are superior to others when using a standard of human flourishing and prevention of suffering) That said, I challenge you (and myself) to go further when considering Islam.

"But there are facts to consider. In the Middle East it is routine for women to be stoned to death for adultery. In the Middle East it is routine for thieves to have their hands cut off. In the Middle East it is routine for homosexuals to be killed simply for being gay."

While these are indeed facts, the assumption is that they are a result of Islam. Assumption isn't proven causation.

“Chapter 24 of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, explicitly instructs believers to whip those found guilty of adultery. A leading Muslim scholar, Maulana Muhammad Ali noted that "stoning to death was never contemplated by Islam as a punishment for adultery."
Certainly amputation is prescribed in Islam and Homosexuality condemned:
5:38 "As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah," and 7:80-1 "And Lot! (Remember) when he said unto his folk: Will ye commit abomination such as no creature ever did before you? Lo! ye come with lust unto men instead of women. Nay, but ye are wanton folk." but can one say that the application of this suggested punishment and condemnation is because of Islam rather than a willingness on the part of an oppressive brutal regime to control the population by any means necessary?

--continued in second comment--

Ed said...

For consideration I offer the following:

Journal for the scientific study of religion
Volume 41 Issue 2, Pages 213 - 225

Islam and Human Rights: A Case of Deceptive
First Appearances

"It is a common belief that Islamic-based government, when serving as an ideological foundation for government, facilitates the poor protection of human rights. However, most studies of the relationship between Islam and individual rights have been at the theoretical and anecdotal levels. In this article, I test the relationship between Islam and human rights across a sample of 23 predominately Muslim countries and a control group of non-Muslim developing nations, while controlling for other factors that have been shown to affect human rights practices. I found that the influence of Islamic political culture on government has a statistically insignificant relationship with the protection of human rights..
...Figure 1 illustrates the insignificant relationship between Islamic political culture and human rights practices, as many of the countries with the worst human rights records, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan (when the Soviet-installed regime was still in power), have secular- oriented regimes. A closer look at the distribution of cases finds what appears to be a curvilinear relationship between Islamic political culture and human rights as both highly secular and highly Islamic governments, for the most part, have the worst human rights records. In contrast, countries with moderate Islamic or mixed political cultures, such as Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia, and Tunisia, have higher human rights scores. This pattern is to be expected because extremist governments must repress both opposition groups at the opposite ideological pole and moderate opposition. It is important to note the weak nature of this pattern because of the small variance in human rights practices across the sample. Eighteen of the 23 predominately Muslim countries have human rights scores that are three or lower and the highest score in this sample is four (out of a possible six). This tells us that something other than a government rooted in Islam is repressing human rights in the sample of predominately Muslim nations...
The data have provided strong evidence supporting the assertion that government rooted in Islam does not facilitate the abuse of human rights, as the variable representing Islamic political culture was consistently statistically insignificant. The Islamic political culture variable was found to be insignificant even before control variables were added to the model. Despite all the doctrinal and theoretical differences between Islamic and Western notions of human rights, Islamic countries still uphold roughly the same standards (or lack thereof ) as other developing countries. Again, it is very hard to use Sharia or Islamic political culture as a justification for torture or government- sponsored violence against individuals. In addition to replicating the results of other studies that found religion to be an insignificant determinant of human rights practices, the study confirmed the importance of democratic government as a necessary condition for the protection of human rights."

Price also points out "It is important to note that religious tradition, doctrine, and text do not always translate into practice. Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, whose regimes have claimed to function according to Sharia, do have poor human rights records. Iran and Sudan, however, had abusive governments before Islamic-oriented regimes rose to power, and secular-based regimes in Islamic countries such as Syria and Iraq are also among the worst violators of human rights."

--continued in third comment--

Ed said...

The following link lists the intensity and type of human rights abuses by country,,258329,00.html

Congo: 90% Christian
Rawanda: 93% Christian
Brundi: 67% Christian
Algeria: 99% Islam
Sierra Leone: 60% Islam
Egypt: Islam official state religion (90%)
North Korea: 64% atheist
It seems clear many nations engage is brutal, oppressive, torturous behavior, on par with the worst of the Middle East. Is Islam the reason for the abuses in the Middle East or is something else the cause?

Ed said...

Thoughts on the Steven Weinberg quote:

It is not religion per se that causes good people to act badly, but authority (something that for many people religion acts as of course)

nathaniel wallace said...

Ed: Thank you so much for reading and considering my posts so carefully. I really appreciate the challenges you make to my (largely uninformed) opinion of Islam. It is a difficult subject for me because it is so vast and, as you have pointed out, not straightforward. It is entirely possible that Islam and human rights abuses are both effects of the same cause. It would seem, at the very least, that the two are related, but it is not clear what their relationship is.

It always makes me uncomfortable to write these posts on Islam because, as I mentioned, a large part of me wants to claim that all cultures are equal and that everyone's ideas have merit, but that just isn't true. And although I may be able to point to one culture or another and say that it has fundamental flaws that keep it from ever being good, I certainly cannot say that my culture is good either. It may be better in some parts, worse in others, but if the human race does survive into the next century, it is entirely possible that none of our currently existing paradigms are able to take us into the future.

My views on Islamic culture are heavily colored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali's fantastic books. I realize that she may well be biased, but I feel comfortable adopting her position on this subject, as I regard her as a kind of expert.

At the same time, it makes me uneasy to write so forcefully about a subject that I know so little about. I try to hedge my opinions as much as possible without diluting them completely, but it is still a terrible habit to get into. I will likely try to steer clear of Islam for the next few weeks.