The left has Islam all wrong: Bill Maher, Pamela Geller and the reality progressives must face

Confusion over Islam and how to relate to it imperils free speech, without which no secular republic can survive

Published May 10, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (HBO/CNN/AP/Evan Agostini)
(HBO/CNN/AP/Evan Agostini)

Whatever her views on other matters are, Pamela Geller is right about one thing: last week’s Islamist assault on the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest she hosted in Texas proves the jihad against freedom of expression has opened a front in the United States.  “There is,” she said, “a war on free speech and this violent attack is a harbinger of things to come.”  Apparently undaunted, Geller promises to continue with such “freedom of speech” events.  ISIS is now threatening to assassinate her.  She and her cohorts came close to becoming victims, yet some in the media on the right and the center-right have essentially blamed her for the gunmen’s attack, just as far too many, last January, surreptitiously pardoned the Kouachi brothers and, with consummate perfidy to human decency, inculpated the satirical cartoonists they slaughtered, saying “Charlie Hebdo asked for it.”


But first, allow me a brief yet illustrative digression.

No one can deny the nobility of the sentiment that prompted Ben Affleck, on Bill Maher’s "Real Time" last autumn, to rush to the defense of what he sees as an unjustly maligned Muslim population with his outburst, as heartfelt as it was misguided, that it was “gross” and “racist” of Maher and Sam Harris to denounce Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.”  It seemed par for the course that Affleck followed the lead of so many progressives and conflated race and religion regarding Muslims.  The semantically unsound rubbish concept of “Islamophobia” disorients well-meaning people and incites them to spout illogicalities with a preacher’s righteousness.

One must, though, call out New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for backing up Affleck on the same show, and, later, in an editorial.  Kristof, after all, should know better.  He trades in words and ideas, and his acceptance of the fraudulent term "Islamophobia" contributes to the generalized befuddlement on the left about the faith in question and whether negative talk about it constitutes some sort of racism, or proxy for it.  It patently does not.  Unlike skin color, faith is not inherited and is susceptible to change.  As with any other ideology, it should be subject to unfettered discussion, which may include satire, ridicule and even derision.  The First Amendment protects both our right to practice the religion of our choosing (or no religion at all) as well as our right to speak freely, even offensively, about it.

One must, however, recoil in stupefaction and disgust at the consortium of prominent writers who just signaled de facto capitulation to the Enforcers of Shariah.  I’m referring, of course, to the recent decision of 204 authors to sign a letter dissociating themselves from PEN’s granting the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the brave, talented surviving artists of Charlie Hebdo.  (Disclosure: I have friends among Charlie Hebdo’s staff.)  The authors objecting did so out of concern, according to their statement, for “the section of the French population” – its Muslims – “that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.”  A “large percentage” of these Muslims are “devout,” contend the writers, and should thus be spared the “humiliation and suffering” Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons allegedly caused them.

Europe’s colonial past and the United States’ current (endless) military campaigns in the Islamic world, as well as prejudice against nonwhites in Europe, have predisposed many to see, with some justification, Muslims as victims.  But apart from the blundering wrongheadedness of the PEN writers’ dissent (Charlie Hebdo’s undeniable courage won them the award, not their artwork) and putting aside the question of whether France’s Muslims are necessarily “devout” (French law prohibits religion-based polling, so who could know?), or uniformly “humiliated” by Charlie Hebdo, or necessarily “embattled,” one thing transpires with arresting clarity from the authors’ declaration: Among the left, the confusion surrounding Islam and how we should relate to it imperils the free speech rights without which no secular republic can survive.  We have to clear this up, and fast.

There is no legitimate controversy over why the Kouachi brothers targeted Charlie Hebdo.  They murdered not to redress the social grievances or right the historical wrongs the PEN authors named.  They explicitly told us why they murdered -- for Islam, to avenge the Prophet Muhammad.  Progressives who think otherwise need to face that reality.  Put another way, the Kouachi brothers may have suffered racial discrimination and even “marginalization,” yet had they not been Muslims, they would not have attacked Charlie Hebdo.  They would have had no motive.

What is it about Islam that simultaneously both motivates jihadis to kill and so many progressives to exculpate the religion, even when the killers leave no doubt about why they act?  The second part of the question is easier to dispense with than the first.  Progressives by nature seek common ground and believe people to be mostly rational actors – hence the desire to blame crime on social ills.  Unfamiliarity with Islam’s tenets also plays a role, plus, I believe, the frightening future we would seem to be facing as more and more Muslims immigrate to the West, and the world becomes increasingly integrated.  Best just to talk of poverty and the like, or a few “bad apples.”  But to respond to the question’s first part, we need to put aside our p.c. reading glasses and examine Islam’s basic elements from a rationalist’s perspective.  Islam as a faith would not concern progressives, except that some of its adherents choose to act as parts of its dogma ordain, which, to put it mildly, violates the social contract underpinning the lives of the rest of us.

Islam is a hallowed monotheistic ideology, as are Judaism and Christianity, the other two Abrahamic “anti-human religions” (to quote Gore Vidal), that preceded it.  From a rationalist’s perspective, any ideology that mandates belief without evidence is a priori dangerous and liable to abuse.  This especially applies to monotheism.  Objectively, polytheism was better.  Look back in time.  The many gods of Greek and Roman antiquity, by their very multiplicity, presupposed a spirit of pluralism in their societies and even a certain ludic variety.  I worship Zeus, you Aphrodite; he follows Ceres, she Diana.  The classical gods quarreled and copulated, stirred the heavens to storm and sent down rain on the crops, tossed earthward thunderbolts, and now and then accepted propitiations from us humans, but otherwise, didn’t do much to bother us.

Enter the God of the Israelites.  Jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal, He issued His Decalogue.  What is Commandment Number One?  “You shall have no other gods before Me” -- an absolutist order implicitly justifying violence against those who haven’t gotten the memo.  Even after “gentle Jesus meek and mild” entered the picture, Tyrannus Deus continued His brutal reign, with legions of His Medieval votaries waging crusades against rival monotheists in the Holy Land, hurling themselves into battle as they cried Deus vult! (God wills it!).  And, of course, with Jesus came (the highly non-gentle, non-meek, non-mild) idea of eternal torment in hell as divine retribution for sin – surely no inducement to peace and tranquility, either.

Recognizing no Holy Spirit or mediating, moderating heavenly offspring, the Prophet Muhammad transformed the Judeo-Christian Despot on High into an even more menacing, wrathful ogre, whose gory punishments meted out to hapless souls after death fill many a Koranic verse.  Shirk, or associating another being with God, is, of course, a paramount sin in Islam.  Iconoclasm, or smashing asunder God’s rival deities as represented in idols, was and remains a favorite pastime of Islamist totalitarians, as was tragically demonstrated by the Taliban’s 2001 demolition of the awe-inspiring Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS’s devastation of ancient statues in Iraq.  Such crimes are not perversions of Islam, but actions based on its canon and a fanatical desire to emulate its luminaries.  To wit, after conquering Mecca, none other than the Prophet Muhammad (whose life Muslims hold to be exemplary) devastated the 360 idols of the Kaaba; and the Quran (Surat al-Anbiya’, 21:57-58) recounts how the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham to Jews and Christians) broke apart idols.  Monotheistic Islam and destruction, thus, go hand in hand, along with the (intolerant, divisive) proclamation that the Quran is the Final Testament, God’s last word to humanity, superseding the previous (equally preposterous) “revelations” of Judaism and Christianity.

The meme “Islam – the religion of peace” might evoke snickering now, but it was wildly inaccurate long before 9/11 and the plague of Islamist terrorism.  For starters, the Prophet Muhammad was a triumphant warlord leading military campaigns that spread Islam throughout Arabia and initiated the creation of one of the largest empires the world has known.  His was a messianic undertaking.  He preceded his invasions by demands that populations either convert or face the sword.  Verses sanctifying violence against “infidels” abound in the Quran.  Even the favorite verse of Islam’s apologists, Surat al-Baqarah 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”), prefaces a warning that Hellfire awaits those worshipping anything besides God.  The real meaning of the word “Islam” is, in fact, surrender -- to God and the inerrant, unchallengeable path He lays out for us.  Surrendering denotes war, groveling, and humiliation – not exactly the kind of behavior liberals tend to value.

Many know that “jihad” means both spiritual and non-spiritual striving in the name of Islam, with the latter connoting holy war.  As we speak, the violent are bearing it away, rendering the peaceful definition irrelevant.  The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the shooting at Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest attest to how extremists are determining our discourse about Islam, and compelling us to deal with the religion at its worst.  Even though the majority of Muslims in the West are hardly on the warpath, the overarching aim of jihad, of the messianic mission launched by the Prophet Muhammad, remains Islam’s conquest of the planet -- the most illiberal goal imaginable, threatening to every aspect of Western civilization.

The canonical glorification of death for the sake Islam, or martyrdom, similarly belies those who would argue that the religion’s nature is pacific.  If you, as a progressive, do not believe in the veracity of the Quran, then you have to accept Arthur C. Clarke’s diagnosis of those who “would rather fight to the death than abandon their illusions” as complying with the criteria of “the operational definition of insanity.”  Insanity hardly engenders peace.

All those who, à la Reza Aslan, maintain that Muslims today do not necessarily read the Quran literally have lost the argument before it begins.  What counts is that there are those (ISIS, say, and al-Qaida) who do, and they are taking action based on their beliefs.  To the contention, “ISIS and al-Qaida don’t represent Islam!” the proper response is, “that’s what you say.  They disagree.”  No single recognized Muslim clerical body exists to refute them.

When “holy” books and their dogmas dominate, societies suffer.  Whatever Islam did for scholarship in the Middle Ages, the dearth of top-quality institutions of higher education in Muslim countries today stems at least partly from the reverence accorded to, and time spent studying, Islam and its canon.  Says a respected report, the highest-ranking university in the world within the Dar al-Islam occupies the 225th spot.

Islam’s doctrinaire positions on women are infamous enough to merit no repetition here. Their sum effect is to render women chattel to men, as sex objects and progenitors of offspring, and foster the most misogynistic conditions on the planet: nineteen of twenty of the worst countries for women, according to the World Economic Forum, are Muslim-majority.  Some Muslim countries are deemed more progressive than others, but their progressivity varies inversely with the extent to which Islam permeates their legal codes and customary laws – the less, the better.  Not liberal at all, that.

The above are the stark doctrinal and practical realities of which no honest progressive could approve, and which form the bases of the religion.  Regardless of what the peaceful majority of Muslims are doing, as ISIS’s beguiling ideology spreads, we are likely to face an ever more relentless, determined Islamist assault.  We can delude ourselves no longer: violence is an emergent property deriving from Islam’s inherently intolerant precepts and dogma.  The rising number of ethnic Europeans mesmerized by Islam who set off to enroll in the ranks of ISIS attests to this; and may prefigure serious disruptions, especially in France, the homeland of a good number of them, once they start returning.  There is nothing “phobic” about recognizing this.  Recognize it we must, and steel ourselves for what’s to come.

This is no call to disrespect Muslims as people, but we should not hesitate to speak frankly about the aspects of their faith we find problematic.  But it’s not up to progressives to suggest how an ideology based on belief without evidence might be reformed.  Rather, we should cease relativizing and proudly espouse, as alternatives to blind obedience to ancient texts, reason, progress, consensus-based solutions, and the wonderful panoply of other Enlightenment ideals underpinning our Constitution and the liberties characterizing Western countries.

The only path to victory in this war in defense of free speech lies through courage.  We cannot wimp out and blame the victims for drawing cartoons, writing novels, or making movies.  We need to heed Gérard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief, who declared, as he received the PEN award, that "They don't want us to write and draw.  We must write and draw.  They don't want us to think and laugh.  We must think and laugh.  They don't want us to debate. We must debate.”

In doing as he urges, we will give the terrorists too many targets to attack and convince them that we will not surrender, not cede an inch.  That means the media needs to begin showing Charlie Hedbo’s Muhammad cartoons.  We must stop traducing reason by branding people “Islamophobes,” and start celebrating our secularism, remembering that only it offers true freedom for the religious and non-religious alike.  And we should reaffirm our humanistic values, in our conviction that we have, as Carlyle wrote, “One life – a little gleam of time between two eternities,” and need to make the most of it for ourselves and others while we can.  There is nothing else.

This is not a battle we have chosen; the battle has chosen us.

It’s time to fight back, and hard.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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