The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

Based on a Facebook status.

After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.

Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.

It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion.

There are critiques of this viewpoint beyond the weakness of its arguments, three of which are worth outlining. Firstly, it strips facts of context. If you’re a Shiite in Beirut and people you know have been killed as ‘refractory infidels’ — if ISIL claims their deaths ‘avenged the dignity’ of Muhammad’s companions, whose accession your tradition rejects, and connects you with heathen pre-Islamic religion through a mangling of the name Hezbollah — how likely are you to think this has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam? Don’t Islam and its history have a great deal to do with it?

Second: erasing religions’ role in atrocities produces splash damage. If it’s taboo to acknowledge faith’s contribution to brutality, how can the people affected move on whose sanity depends on that? I have colleagues who grew up in Hezbollah country, others who’ve lived under the threat of forced marriage, others who listened to their siblings scream when knives were taken to their genitals. Denying the ‘true’ faith could have done this means saying the worst thing any survivor can told: that what they experienced wasn’t real.

Thirdly, most critically: reacting to the attacks on Muslims that follow events like last week’s by shielding the public image of Islam denies that the rights of Muslims are as universal as any group’s. It buys into the idea discussions of religion’s role in violent acts must be a referendum on those rights — that if it ISIL were as ‘real’ a product of Islam as Sufism, if Islam did contribute to bombings as Christianity and Hinduism do, it just might be okay to push a woman wearing a headscarf under a train or shoot your Muslim neighbours dead.

It isn’t okay no matter Islam’s record, not because that record is sancrosanct, but because the rights of Muslims not to be terrorised don’t rest on it — because there is nothing ISIL will ever do for which individual believers half the world away are culpable, or which justifies fascism or McCarthyism. (Could ISIL hope for anything better than mass hostility to Muslims in the west?) It’s possible to see religion as one cause of attacks like last week’s, in a vast, complex nexus of factors, and know Muslims fleeing ISIL don’t deserve to be punished, hounded or harassed.

Similarly: it’s possible to be terrified by attacks on refugees and fire-bombings of mosques without thinking religious violence is ‘nothing to do with’ religion; without treating religion and ‘extremism’ as non-overlapping phenomena, or applying arbitrary and inconsistent tests for which kinds of Muslim count as ‘real’; without saying silly, ahistorical things about religions being ‘perverted’, or that believers who murder people are wrong about their own motives, and would behave the same in a world without religion — because shut up, they just would.

We don’t need bad apologetics to refrain from collectively dehumanising believers. Muslims don’t deserve to be treated as human beings because their religion is a squeaky-clean monolith of peace and love that never produces anything bad — they deserve to be treated as human because they are, and because no amount of harm a religion might cause makes all its followers responsible. If that’s not obvious, it’s because we’re used to debating brown people’s humanity: we can allow Islam to be critiqued without making Muslims’ conditional.

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The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct
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6 thoughts on “The Rights Of Muslims Don’t Rest On Islam Being Sacrosanct

  1. 1

    IMHO clues on how to deal with this situation, and the general course it is likely to take, can be gathered from history. Just four hundred years ago, it isn’t really that long ago, there was another religion which thought it had all the answers and considered it right to inflict its will on all of humanity. It was also divided on matters of doctrine. The larger sect sought to suppress and destroy heretics and apostates through torture, mass murder, and war. The main fight lasted for over two hundred years and smaller local conflicts are still with us today.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wars_of_religion

    A nasty snapshot of a more narrow application of force:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldensians

    Placed in that context, modern mass murders, beheadings and burning of people in cages, and the useless bloody violence in Paris … it barely registers.

    The good news is that in comparison modern conflicts tend to be shorter and to involve far fewer people. May that tend continue.

  2. 2

    Well writ, Alex Gabriel and agreed.

    @1. lorn :

    Placed in that context, modern mass murders, beheadings and burning of people in cages, and the useless bloody violence in Paris … it barely registers.

    In that context yes maybe – but to the people who are getting beheaded, burnt alive in cages, massacred, experiencing genocide and enslavement, etc .. and their loved ones and families it registers a whole lot more of course.

  3. 3

    Good article. For anyone convinced that ‘Islam’ is the sole cause of ISIS’ behavior I suggest reading this: https://www.marxists.org/subject/anarchism/nechayev/catechism.htm

    The mindset of ISIS and other apocalyptic groups is spelt out in perfect clarity in Nechayev’s pamphlet. He required no belief in a virgin filled paradise for martyrs or the fulfillment of any doomsday prophesies to justify his omnicidal creed, he only needed his warped psychology. The most stiking thing about Nechayev’s programme is that he appears to be fighting for nothing. He offers some vague promise of a better world but then says “this is a matter for future generations to decide. Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction. ” Islam may have shaped the nature of ISIS’ violence, its targets and its rationale. But to find the root of the horror, the viciousness of this group you need look only at the darkest facets of human nature. Any philosophy can be bent far enough until it becomes a pretext for burning down the world in the hope a new and better one will spring up in its place. And in the end, the burning becomes an end in itself.

  4. 4

    It’s definitely religiously motivated but I don’t see why that makes it a religiously sound motivation. Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity and kept many idols of himself to be worshipped throughout the empire. I think if a Christian called him “fake” they’d be entirely justified in doing so.

    Thirdly, most critically: reacting to the attacks on Muslims that follow events like last week’s by shielding the public image of Islam denies that the rights of Muslims are as universal as any group’s. It buys into the idea discussions of religion’s role in violent acts must be a referendum on those rights — that if it ISIL were as ‘real’ a product of Islam as Sufism, if Islam did contribute to bombings as Christianity and Hinduism do, it just might be okay to push a woman wearing a headscarf under a train or shoot your Muslim neighbours dead.

    On top of just being dehumanizing it smacks of the usual left wing unwillingness to protect human rights on the grounds they are human rights. Turning the conversation into a referendum on the “goodness” of an individual ignores that human rights are human rights whatever the situation. A murderer is as right to expect freedom from torture as anyone else and trying to paint them as a good person just concedes the argument before it even began.

  5. 5

    Turning the conversation into a referendum on the “goodness” of an individual ignores that human rights are human rights whatever the situation. A murderer is as right to expect freedom from torture as anyone else and trying to paint them as a good person just concedes the argument before it even began.

    Actually, the whole point of a justice system is that certain rights can be revoked by the State. Most obvious example, Freedom of Movement.

    The problem, of course, is that public opinion is not a court system and there is no due process. It is unfair to prosecute all Muslims for the action of a few, even if there exists the possibility that some Muslims were indeed complicit to terror plots. Thus to use the trappings of a court rule of law when dealing with demographics rather than individuals is incorrect because there’s no due process to justify the revocation of certain rights.

    Arguing “you can’t fire bomb the Mosque, they have a right to property and religious conscience blah blah!” is going to fall on deaf ears, when the assailants are not framing their firebombing as court justice. Such an argument would only work after the assailants are arrested and charged with a slough of criminal activity and are then subjected to the courts. Which would require police to perform their job with complete impartiality.

    Trying to bring up human rights to a lynch mob is pointless–they know they’re violating human rights, but they see it as justified, in the same way that the court system can determine that the State is permitted to revoke the human rights of a criminal. It’s the “justification” of the lynch mob that must be attacked.

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