We need a progressive debate on Islam: This is the right way to counter Donald Trump, and be honest about extremism

Freedom of speech, secularism and equal rights must guide the way we discuss all religions -- and take on bigots

Published December 27, 2015 10:59AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Dominick Reuter/HBO/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Dominick Reuter/HBO/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)

We can pardon some species of ignorance and suffer little grief for it. Unfamiliarity with the joys of classical music or the aesthetic frisson afforded by the poetry of Sylvia Plath may be regrettable; not being up to snuff with Epicurus’ idea of the good life is nothing any literate individual would wish to boast about. Such are shortcomings we might want to correct at our leisure. But other kinds of ignorance put us at risk and cannot be so lightly dismissed – especially when religion is concerned.

These days, as we know, across the globe and here at home people are dying and killing for one religion in particular, Islam. We need to understand Islam and the relationship between its canon and the behavior, at times violent, arising from it. We need to maintain perspective and refuse to let fear color our response when dealing with it. And we need, most of all, in dealing with the challenges the faith presents us with, to stand by our Enlightenment values of freedom of speech, secularism and equal rights for all.

We need, it follows, frank, informed discussion about Islam, and not, say, Trumpian invective or “uncorked” commentary from the likes of Gov. Mike Huckabee or the anti-constitutional musings of Dr. Ben Carson. Yet progressives, well-intentioned though they are, have imposed strictures on this discussion that make it risky to speak about the religion without dread of castigation. Criticize Islam (not Muslims as people, Islam), and pseudo-liberal martinets will descend upon you and try to silence you with charges of “Islamophobia.”

I’ve defined this insidious junk noun many times. I won’t repeat myself here, but will instead cite the words of the late Christopher Hitchens: the “stupid term — Islamophobia — has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam's infallible ‘message.’” Hitchens’ efforts to expunge it notwithstanding, the “stupid term” has long enjoyed a vogue; and those wielding it as a weapon, the self-appointed status of defenders of civil liberties and the downtrodden. The “stupid term” has thoroughly infected our speech code, which the 2016 GOP contenders gleefully flout to prove they can declare truths about the religion before which we craven liberals supposedly quiver and quail.

This week I find myself writing of a Huffington Post article, “Five Ways Journalists Can Avoid Islamophobia in Their Coverage,” by Gabriel Arana. I first noted its publication with some surprise. Major press outlets have already been taken in by the “Islamophobia” ruse and regularly publish feel-good pablum that steers well away from any incisive treatment of the faith. Do journalists really need additional prodding to censor themselves about Islam even more than they already do? Of course not.

Yet that didn’t stop HuffPo. In his “5 Ways” piece, Arana expands on and codifies all the wrong responses to Muslim-bashing from the likes of Fox News stars Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly (as well as Trump), and, in the process, does injury to the cause of free speech.

For starters, obviously, Arana falls for the semantic swindle inherent in the notion of “Islamophobia.” Remember, linguistically speaking, “Islamophobia” ought to denote an (irrational) fear of or prejudice against the religion, not Muslims as people (which would properly be “Muslimophobia,” or just “anti-Muslim bigotry”). Firebomb a mosque or harass Muslims on the street and you commit hate crimes and acts of violence, and are liable to prosecution. But question, challenge, disrespect or even ridicule Islam, and you are availing yourself of your constitutional right to free speech. You are dispraising a religion, which is nothing more than a hallowed ideology.

And ironically, progressives should find a lot to criticize in Islam. If you are a woman, for instance, you might dislike what the Quran says about your worth vis-à-vis men. You might remember that the Islamic canon condones female genital mutilation, though the sickening practice antedated the religion. And you might take little comfort in knowing that the Quran ordains wife-beating. To put it mildly, the ideology of Islam offers little for liberals to rejoice about, and there should exist no objective reason to stigmatize those who point this out.

Back to the HuffPo piece. It wants journalists to “make sure they’re accurately representing a community made up of 1.6 billion people worldwide,” which is tough, since “The heart of the problem with the media’s coverage of Muslims is that most of us simply do not know enough about Islam.” To rectify this, he suggests visiting a mosque and purchasing a copy of a book on Muslim Americans he links to. I know nothing of the book, and think visiting a mosque is a fine idea, but why not just read the Quran? It’s far shorter than the Bible, much more gripping, and certainly more informative, being, after all, the inerrant, sacred Word of God, according to Islam. Once you’ve done that, you might delve into Why I am not a Muslim, by the Islamic apostate Ibn Warraq. That Warraq had to write under a pseudonym should tell you something.

Arana announces that “Those of us in the media must cultivate personal relationships with the Muslim members of our communities -- the greatest antidote to prejudice there is.” He adds that, “The tenor of the coverage of Muslims and the Islamic world would be far better if each member of the media had a close friend who practiced the faith.” Again, lost in the confusion stemming from the word Islamophobia, Arana conflates criticizing Islam with prejudice against Muslims as people. Befriend a Muslim, discover that he or she is no monster, and presumably all your liberal objections to the highly illiberal doctrines laid out in the Islamic canon will vanish? I think not. Would the “tenor” of journalists’ coverage of al-Qaida atrocities have differed if they had had tea with Osama bin Laden? One should hope not.

One also wonders whether anyone would appreciate being enlisted as a journalist’s token Muslim friend. In any case, objectivity and fact-based analysis are what’s called for, not sentiment.

Arana’s Point 2 is “Be careful whose views you give a platform to.” “Among the more harmful misconceptions,” he writes, “about the role of media is that it’s our duty to provide ‘balance’ and let the audience decide between opposing points of view.” His recommendation to avoid such misbegotten “balance”: don’t allow “Islamophobic ideologues” like Pamela Geller to “spew racist garbage.”

Islam is not a race but a religion; you can convert to Islam but not to a race. In any case, confrontation between opposing points of view is the essence of free speech, and fosters clarity and comprehension. This really ought not to be a controversial point, and certainly not for an editor at a liberal publication. It is the central argument in John Stuart Mill’s classic essay “On Liberty.” “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.”

Earlier in his piece, Arana had mentioned Sean Hannity as a “spreader of hate” to be countered by the sort of Islam-positive coverage he espouses. Well, Hannity’s heated interview with unabashed Islamist Anjem Choudary (awaiting trial in the United Kingdom for allegedly supporting ISIS) is a wonder to behold, chiefly because Hannity lets Choudary incriminate himself by arguing his Islamist views, whitewashing nothing. Though reduced to name-calling, Hannity emerges from the encounter as a something of a defender of liberal ideals. One takes away a key fact: the “balance” Arana urges us to eschew can show us that we, whether progressive or conservative, have more in common with one another than with an imam who preaches that Islam and Sharia must, in the end, apply to us all.

Journalists should approach readers as adults smart enough to tell right from wrong, not shield them like children from controversial speech.

Arana’s Point 3: “Challenge Prejudice and Debunk Outright Lies,” which journalists should do by “arm[ing] themselves with information.” Toward this end, he links to interviews with Reza Aslan, whose wildly misleading commentary on Islam I’ve critiqued many times before. So I’ll refrain from doing so here again, with this exception. Arana: “For instance, when confronted with the idea that Islam is inherently degrading to women, Aslan points out that Muslim-majority countries have elected female heads of state seven times. The U.S.? Zero.”

What is Arana really saying here? It seems like he’s implying that conditions are better for women in Muslim countries that have elected female heads of state (Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, among others) than in the United States. Such a notion hardly merits rebuttal, but anyway: a 2014 World Economic Forum report found that 19 of the 20 worst countries on Earth for womenare majority-Muslim, including a couple who have had female heads of state.

Aslan also says (in the linked video) that in Indonesia, “women are absolutely 100-percent equal to men.” Tell that to those poor Indonesian girls who have had their clitorises ritually sliced off by genital mutilators. In the phony “Islamophobia” debate no one ever thinks of the victims.

Arana closes that pathetically off-base segment with a plea for journalists to call out Donald Trump for lying about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11. As far as I’ve seen, journalists have been doing just that.

“Choose your words carefully,” Arana then admonishes, telling us to be “more precise” in our language about Islam. “Islamic terrorism,” bad; “religious extremists,” good.

Except that anyone with passable reading skills can discern that “Islamic” is more precise than “religious.” And an extremist is not necessarily a terrorist. If a terrorist kills on account of dogma found in the Islamic canon, he or she may be most succinctly described as an Islamic (or Islamist) terrorist. Why such verbal shilly-shallying? After all, one has no qualms about saying “Islamic charity.”

Arana then informs us that Daesh, as a name for the terrorist entity in Syria and Iraq, is good, but the “Islamic State” is bad. “The idea,” he says, “is to avoid implying that what the terrorists have created in Syria and Iraq is an actual "state" or actually ‘Islamic.’”

Here Arana is parroting the easily disprovable (see this) White House claim that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. But who is Arana (or President Obama) to declare ISIS un-Islamic? No universally recognized Muslim spiritual authority has the right to do this. And as bloodthirsty and besieged as it is, ISIS does have some attributes of statehood, including tax collection, a system of justice, and a recognized leader. It’s not up to Arana to urge us to report otherwise.

Arana’s final counsel is to “Provide Context.” Don’t just “’report the facts’” he says, putting the phrase in quotation marks as if to signal its manifest erroneousness. (“Just the facts” from a journalist? Mon dieu, we can’t have that!) “Contextualize what’s out there.” This means “counteracting the impulse to flatten the distinctions between the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.” Specifically, “The attacks in Paris had little to do with the exodus from the war-torn country, but the moment a Syrian passport was found among the evidence in the recent Paris attacks, the two issues became conflated.” He asks us to point out that it’s “highly unlikely” that terrorists might “infiltrate” the U.S. via the country’s refugee system.”

So, according to Arana, journalists should not plainly recount the facts but instead couch them in terms exculpatory of Islam. Are we to do the same for other religions and ideologies? If not, why not? Why should we accord just Islam this privilege?

A forthright discussion about Islam is just what progressives need to snatch the topic away from Republicans bent on using it to stir up fear and win votes in 2016. It would allow us to clarify and reaffirm the Enlightenment ideals we really should be standing up for. And we should recall what gets lost in this tiresome “Islamophobia” debate: the believers of today can, especially after exposure to free speech about religion, wise up and become the atheists of tomorrow. This applies to all votaries of faiths. And remember, none of these faiths are true. None.

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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