Apr 1, 2008

Is Islam inherently violent?

There's been a lot of talk, both on the conservative and the liberal side, about this movie "Fitna" that has just come out. It's a short movie with a clear ideological purpose: to show that Islam is an inherently violent religion.

I'm reminded of the Jon Krakauer book a couple years back Under the Banner of Heaven, which was about these Mormon guys who killed their sister-in-law and baby niece and claimed that God had told them to do it. According to Krakauer, these guys were supposedly influenced by the peculiar Mormon doctrine of revelation to commit this crime. Mormonism does have this rather ridiculous history of disavowing bits of its dogma that become politically inconvenient--it was only when the US threatened war that they had a revelation and gave up polygamy, and it was 1979 that they allowed blacks to become full members in the same way. Thus the argument went that this history uniquely prepared these men to believe that God was talking to them, and in some way helped these crimes happen.

Now, that analysis carries some weight in my opinion, and undoubtedly so does the argument that Islam is susceptible to violent demagogues. There are a lot of competing threads here--the conservative Christians like "Fitna" because they don't like Islam, the liberals don't like it because it's racist, and the atheists think all religions are violent and the reaction to suppress the video is shameful.

I sympathize most with the atheist side, but I think often they shading toward a kind of anti-Islamic bigotry:
Islam without violence is like an egg-free omelet. The religion is predicated on violence and the threat of violence. It's a religion of peace in the same way North Korea is a People's Democratic Republic.
I think there is much more to the story, especially when we look at history. Yes, it's true that throughout the Islamic world the political leaders tend to be quite violent and the theology of the religion is dominated by extremely conservative views that advocate things like wife-beating. The Islamic swaths of the world are obviously some of the more backward bits in terms of human right and so forth. However, I see this more as a socioeconomic phenomenon than anything else. Christians forget that 500 years ago they were still burning people alive for believing the incorrect thing, and atheists forget that for many centuries that same Islamic area was the intellectual and cultural center of the world. It would be simple to make a Christian version of "Fitna." All religious texts are littered with violent bits--my favorite from the Bible is Exodus 21:17, which deals with the rules for selling your own daughter into slavery.

I believe this shows that religion is mainly controlled by the society and not the other way around. With a liberal society the religion tends to be liberal and vice versa. And let us not forget that half the reason the place is so screwed up is western imperialism, mostly by Britain (which used to run Palestine and Iraq), but a little by the USA (i.e., the Shah), France (which used to run Syria). Perhaps religion can exacerbate violent tendencies, but it hardly seems the root cause of all violence.

Moreover, I think the kind of harsh criticism given by Pat Condell above only feeds into the whole culture war thing and is counterproductive. Islamic people have been merging into American society rather well--let's not cock that up now.

So here are my suggestions:
  1. Stop calling Islam inherently violent.
  2. Emphasize that people have the right to believe whatever they like, including Muslims.
  3. Emphasize ideas of "free speech" whenever possible to prevent confusion about government-sanctioned press.
  4. But also, stop trying to suppress criticism of Islam.
As for the last point, I do agree that there has been some shameful cowardice on the part of liberal westerners on this score. We must always uphold our fundamental democratic values, and if some Muslims can't deal with it, tough. If some people want to censor themselves because of their religious beliefs, that's fine, but you can't impose your personal obligations on others. Period.