I’ve decided to coin a new term, “sharianity,” which is defined as the state of mind implicated in the citing of examples of sharia law being enforced somewhere in the world (or imagined instances of it being enforced somewhere in the United States) to stoke up anti-Muslim hysteria here at home (by arguing, arbitrarily, that sharia law is taking over America, and that, therefore, we must discriminate against all Muslims living in the United States). In two threads (so far) on Facebook, I have taken on this particular hysteria, part of the larger anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping across some factions of this country.
It’s important to emphasize that opposing the exploitation of horrendous acts of violence abroad under the guise of sharia law as a pretext for advocating prejudice and discrimination here at home is in no way a defense of or tolerance of or acceptance of those acts of violence. Just as the opposition to rationalizing any other form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of a given race as a pretext for that racism is not an expression of approval for the crimes committed, so too opposing rationalizing this form of racism by pointing to some crime committed by some members of the given race (or, in this case, religious community) does not in any way imply approval of the crimes committed.
While it may be true that a significant portion of world Muslims support aspects of Sharia law repugnant to Americans, it’s also true that those who exploit that fact most vigorously to condemn all Muslims en masse are precisely those Americans who are most similar to those who endorse and enforce sharia (close-minded, bigoted religious fanatics). Jihad, meet Crusades, brought into the Modern era by remarkably similar throw-backs of two different stripes….
One commenter captured the cornerstone of that fanaticism with the assertion that, since both Islam and Christianity can’t both be right at the same time, to be tolerant of Islam is not enlightened but rather confused. I’ve addressed this error of false absolutism many times (see the essays linked to in the fifth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, plus A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and An Argument for Reason and Humility). To summarize:
1) The world is comprised of groups of people, each defined to a large extent by some set of shared beliefs. Many or most of these hold beliefs that are considered “exclusive absolute truths.” In other words, they hold some ideological conviction (often, though not always, in the form of a religion) that they consider the absolute and indisputable truth, such that they know that their dogmatic certainty is the one correct one, and all others are wrong.
2) Of those that share this characteristic, at most one can be correct (though not necessarily any are).
3) By adhering to these exclusive ideological certainties, all such ideologues guarantee a perpetuation of a world divided by such mutually exclusive ideological absolutisms, often violently so, and, as we see in this case, even when not violently so, at least hatefully so.
4) Exercising the wisdom of humility, knowing that none of us are in possession of the one, final, absolute truth, but rather are mere human beings striving to understand a complex and subtle world and universe, is not the error of “relativism,” as such adherents insist, but rather the recognition that, while there is a single, coherent objective reality, our ability to ascertain it in its entirety is so limited that our various attempts yield these mutually exclusive absolutists ideologies instead.
5) This habit of thought is also the basis of the most robust system of gaining deeper and broader understandings of nature ever yet invented: Scientific methodology, which is based on skepticism rather than faith.
6) Faith may be a virtue, when it is pure enough not to conflict with humility, and takes the form not of words and beliefs, but rather of a sensation of being part of a wondrous and awe-inspiring reality. In this form, our religions become wonderful windows onto something that transcends them, and become languages that cease to divide us in violent and hateful ways.
Several commenters on both threads insisted that “they” (i.e., Muslims) have brought this on “themselves” by committing acts of terrorism and violence. This is, not surprisingly, a very popular meme. It’s also a very irrational one. I don’t recall a sudden outcry that white Americans had brought such prejudice on themselves when Timothy McVeigh, acting in the context of a large organized anti-government movement (that is even larger and more vocal today, and has even more paramilitary groups running around in grease paint firing semi-automatic weapons), bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (killing hundreds, many of which were children in the daycare center in the building). We use that concept of “they” very selectively, to vilify those out-groups we are predisposed to vilify, but to individualize acts of violence committed by members of groups (generally in-groups) we are not predisposed to vilify.
One commenter asked ”Where is your compassion for the young lady (who, according to the story, was executed under sharia law for participating in a beauty pageant) ??????” Again, condemning the hateful bigotry rationalized by means of exploiting that tragic event does not equate to indifference to the tragedy of the event itself. Americans commit crimes all the time, and their victims deserve nothing but compassion, but I doubt that many Americans would find that a convincing argument why generalized hatred toward Americans overseas, rationalized as a reaction to the crimes some Americans commit here (or there), can’t be criticized.
Or perhaps a better analogy is that America is one of the last developed countries to retain the death penalty, considered utterly barbaric by the citizens of most developed countries, and yet these same folks who are indignant over the lack of compassion shown by my criticism of their bigotry would be the quickest to take offense at any similar bigotry directed toward Americans in general by virtue of our continued execution of occasionally innocent convicts.
The trick of finding an atrocity committed by the group toward which you are eager to direct your bigotry is an old one. It was used frequently by people very much like the “sharianists” (those who invoke sharia as a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry) to rationalize their own racism in the past, just as it is being used now to rationalize the popular prejudice of the present. If there had been an internet fifty or sixty years ago, Southern racists would have posted news stories of African Americans committing crimes, using those stories to condemn African Americans in general, just as some are now doing to Muslims.
The problem, of course, is that bigots are always perfectly insulated against any information that might expose to themselves the ignorance and hatefulness of their own bigotry. That’s the beauty of ignorance: Those who suffer it are able by virtue of it to ignore all information and reason that might inconveniently challenge their bigotry. And so the disease of racism, of bigotry, of hatred, “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” (as the very prescient and insightful author Sinclair Lewis said of how Fascism would come to America), marches on, unstoppable. And these new bigots are its foot soldiers.
The concept of “tolerance” popped up, of course, both rejecting and co-opting it at the same time (“those animals don’t deserve to be tolerated, but, if you’re so committed to tolerance, what about tolerating us bigots?”) But tolerance does not mean tolerating specific crimes by specific people; it means tolerating diversity that is not violent or predatory in nature. Being Muslim is not violent or predatory in nature; hating Muslims is.
But there is a degree of tolerance required, even of those who express such bigotries. I believe in the degree of tolerance that recognizes their speech to be protected, and to be opposed not with physical force, or any suggestion of any call to physical force, or any suggestion of any call to the passage of laws prohibiting such positions, but rather just with reason and knowledge and the power of competing speech. But it should not be tolerated in the sense of being disregarded and left unopposed by better reasoned, better informed, and more life affirming ideas and arguments.
Several commenters typically, tried to “rubber-and-glue” me in various ways, suggesting, for instance, that by criticizing them I was committing the same error they were supposedly committing by criticizing Muslims (unsurprisingly unable to distinguish between criticizing specific people for their own specific behaviors and criticizing whole categories of people for behaviors committed by some members of those categories). Two on two different threads bizarrely invoked the “glass house” proverb, suggesting that it was wrong of me to “throw stones” at them for the sin of throwing stones at Muslims in general.
One commenter implied that I must be an anti-Christian “bigot” since I was criticizing these good Christians for hating Muslims, to which I replied that no, I didn’t hold Christians in general responsibility for the viciousness of some. I also referred them to my arguments in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, in which I argued vehemently against such anti-Christian or anti-religion presumptions.
I pointed out to another the questionability of insisting that “Christianity” stands in opposition to “liberalism.” Many great liberals have been Christians. Many liberal civil rights leaders have been men of the cloth, and a whole movement called “liberation theology” was prominent for decades, particularly in Latin America. I pointed out that one of the great ironies cited by many on the left is that the words attributed to Jesus sound much more like words that could be spoken by American liberals today than by American conservatives, with a focus on social justice and compassion and “tolerance” and a commitment to humanity. I pointed out that the commenter did not represent Christianity in its entirety, any more than those murderers in the article represent Islam in its entirety.
Several commenters tried to justify their reporting of the incident as unassailable in and of itself, though it was clear that the purpose was to advocate for discrimination against Muslims here in America. I pointed out that of all the destructive ideologies that exist in the world, when a group of people repeatedly seek out and publish examples of one in particular, plucked from the far side of the planet, to make a specific point about a specific culture that, coincidentally, they have been striving to vilify in general, here at home, for the past decade, that is no longer simply the condemnation of a particular set of violent acts motivated by a particular belligerent ideology. It becomes clearly identifiable as a pretext for an antagonism focused on a particular race or ethnicity.
Present in all of this was another example of one of the great ironies of modern American right-wing ideology: While its adherents claim, on the one hand, to believe in individual responsibility, they also think in very collectivist terms. The incident they cite is not about individuals committing an act of violence, but rather a cause to indict an entire culture, not all of the members of which subscribe to sharia law (and of those that do, not necessarily this more repugnant variety of sharia law).
There are some other great ironies embedded in this ideology. The habitual dismissive disregard for the Constitution espoused by the ideological camp that claims most loudly to be the great champion of the Constitution, for instance, is discussed below.
But a less well-known right-wing hypocricy is the convenient blend of relativism and absolutism. A subjective relativism is invoked to insulate arbitrary opinions, such that no opinion can ever be deemed better informed or reasoned than any other. This is combined with a conveniently invoked absolutism that declares that the set of arbitrary opinions, each of which can’t be challenged because all opinions are equal, comprise together the One Exclusive Truth by virtue of the fact that anything else would imply the error of relativistic thinking!
So, it is possible to condemn Muslims for being Muslims and insist that they must be excluded from American society as violators of absolute truth, and condemn those who say that this is bigoted for failing to accept just one more equally valid opinion! Reminiscent of John Calhoun insisting that the liberty of slave owners was threatened by emancipation of slaves (and that the rights of minorities had to be protected by ensuring that the rights of African Americans weren’t), these specimens insist that their right to be different by advocating for the discrimination of others is the one difference that should be respected!
This deftly convenient blend of relativism and absolutism came up repeatedly in the assertion that the commenter’s personal experience and personal perceptions were inviolate, and that therefore any suggestion that any of it might be empirically false or irrational or offensive was just someone else’s opinion, and therefore inadmissible as a response to the commenter’s condemnation of others for their (the others’) beliefs or identity.
There is clearly a convenient inconsistency, as well, in the way in which the selection of what to be indignant about and what not to be indignant about occurs, serving a blind ideology rather than a rational and humane philosophy. There’s no indignation over one of the richest nations on Earth being obstructed (by them) in its efforts to address poverty, homelessness, hunger, and other forms of needless and curable destitution within its own borders, a travesty that is actually within their political power to confront, but there is boundless indignation over the sins of a distant culture operating in a distant land, because that travesty is committed by a foreign enemy that they are eager to vilify.
We are talking about a political and cultural movement in America which blends the worst of all ideological worlds, mixing a form of individualism only invoked as a justification for belligerence and indifference to the neediest in our own society with a form of collectivism only invoked as a justification for belligerence toward all those outside our own society. It is a particular blend of individualism and collectivism selected not to serve humanity, but rather to attack humanity, to hate rather than to help. (See The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.)
Here is one telling comment, that was applauded by others on the thread:
Americans were traumatized by 9/11. And, because of that they will be develop a certain dislike or mistrust of the culture that perpetrated it. That’s understandable. The fact that moderate muslims do not denounce the radical muslims looks like tacit approval of 9/11. The fact that when muslims emigrate to the US and other countries, they remain insular also doesn’t help. Western culture is so different to theirs makes it difficult for them to do so. Having American citizens of muslim descent become terrorists doesn’t help. So I suspect those are probably reasons why we are seeing the intolerance.
While my experience is anecdotal, female friends of mine have had problems with muslim men at work. The men feel strongly that they should not have to work with women and that women should not work at all. Well, this is America and women work outside the home. Furthermore, A muslim man just about knocked me to the curb when I was in London in May. I was in his way. I guess as an infidel and a woman, he felt he could do that. I made it clear that it would be assault if he even touched me. There were muslim-only cafes in London and women were not permitted in some. Wonder if this is what we will see in America if we’re not vigilant? Will we tolerate that sort of discrimination? I never thought I’d see it in London. Should we tolerate that here?
I’m also concerned at the apparent acceptance of sharia law and the apparent small inroads it’s making in the US. IMHO, islam needs a reformation–it’s like it’s operating in a bygone era. Educating the people would help. Once they’re educated, they’re not as dependant on one person’s interpretation of the koran as we see now in some muslim countries.
I’m glad I’m of a certain age. Our children and grandchildren will have quite the challenge on their hands.
Another commenter responded to this by asserting that she is not a bigot for agreeing with it, but rather ”a realist” who “see(s) Islam for what it is.” Ironically, both emphasized that Islam is stuck is Middle Ages, apparently not having a mirror handy to notice the Inquisition and Crusades standing at each of their shoulders.
I responded to the latter’s assertion that these were ”very good examples” by pointing out that they are very good examples of how to rationalize xenophobia, by combining false (and empirically refutable) assumptions with an assumption of being completely justified in an anti-Muslim agenda. I pointed out that a huge number of moderate Muslims have denounced the 9/11 attacks; that their denouncements have been all over the media for the past decade (and I provided some links to inventories of such denouncements by Muslims), and that her twice repeated insistence that no such denouncements occurred was an example of “confirmation bias,” by which one perceives what is most ideologically convenient for them to perceive.
This all, of course, boils down to defining the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and then conveniently looking for all of the reasons to condemn all of those who belong to the out-groups, while blithely disregarding all of the often very similar (and sometimes more egregious) transgressions being committed by those who belong to the in-group. (See Inclusivity & Exclusivity.)
The main argument is that, since there are threats confronting America, any degree of xenophobia is justified. There are real threats and challenges in the world that impact the United States, both within and without its borders. But, while we have laws governing people’s actions within our borders, their freedom of belief, speech, association, and religion are all constitutionally protected. (There are fairly well-defined exceptions to freedom of speech of course: You can’t incite violence, commit slander, etc. Also, freedom of religion stops when a practice claimed to be a religious one violates a law whose purpose is other than to infringe on the religious belief itself.) If someone violates our laws, we prosecute them for doing so. If they don’t violate our laws, then there is no issue.
What we don’t do, what we have learned is the wrong thing to do, is to identify people according to their religion, ethnicity, race, or political ideology, and in some way or another, target them for those things in and of themselves. Being Muslim in America isn’t a crime, must not be perceived to be a crime, and those who treat it as a crime are the ones in error. Gross, horrible, shameful error.
The commenters were adamant that we are not doing enough to nip this threat in the bud, to confront and obstruct the intrusion of Muslim culture into our society. But we have a little thing called the US Constitution, which guarantees all Americans, and all legal residents, freedom of belief, of religion, of assembly, as long as they do not break any Constitutionally permissible laws in the process.
Ironically, once again, the same ideological camp that crows about being the true defenders of the Constitution turns out to be the principal threat to the Constitution, trying to whip up a predisposition to target a particular religious community living within the United States that, to the extent that it is translated into the kinds of policies consistent with that predisposition, would be a frontal assault on both our Constitution and our decency as human beings.
Among the comments were comments about how all of this bigotry is justified by the clash of cultures, somehow exhibiting a complete historical amnesia concerning how discredited that justification is. One of those commenters then insisted that all of these fine people posting on that thread would undoubtedly treat Muslims they encounter with love and respect, to which I pointed out that some of the posts included: “Those Jackasses Muslims (sic)…,” “AND THE GOVERNMENT LEADERS IN AMERICA STILL SAY WE CAN CO-EXIST WITH THESE ANIMALS ?? WAKE UP, PEOPLE !!” I mentioned that maybe that was a form of “love and respect” I just wasn’t familiar with.
There was then an endless going round in circles over the insistence that calling people “jackasses” isn’t bigotry, conveniently disregarding that feeling the need to impugn their entire religious community while doing so is. And no amount of pointing this out had any effect whatsoever.
There was the suggestion that I should be criticizing those Muslims who enforce sharia law overseas rather rather than those criticizing them here, to which I responded that 1) they are not mutually exclusive, and when I enter into conversations with Muslims in which they take positions that I find offensive, I have no hesitation to take them to task for it; and 2) having said that, there is a difference between criticizing remote others with whom I am not engaged in any process of shared self-governance and over whom I have little or no influence, and criticizing fellow citizens advocating an attitude and a policy for our nation that I find offensive and reprehensible.
There were comments about “birds of a feather,” and invoking the name of Danny Pearl as justification for the bigotry. I responded to these with:
2) The existence of categorical identities is certainly a staple of human history. Whether we will always have them or not is not something my crystal ball can tell me, but they have always existed and do exist today. But what we do with them has certainly been variable, ranging from genocide to amicable co-existence. The question isn’t whether those identities exist, but rather when the focus upon them serves no purpose other than as a vehicle for inter-racial or inter-sectarian hatreds. The former may be inevitable; the latter is not.
4) To use individual acts of violence as an excuse for sectarian hatred may seem rational and defensible to you, but it is the same thing you are condemning; it is what killed Danny Pearl, not what will save the Danny Pearls of the future; it is the problem, not the solution. It is bigotry.
To assertions that the anti-Muslim hysteria is justified by terrorism, I responded:
5) Since a significant portion of Muslims do not support sharia law, and do not condone the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in general cannot be held responsible for either; only those Muslims who support sharia law or condone the 9/11 attacks can be held responsible, among Muslims, for supporting sharia law or condoning the 9/11 attacks.
6) This is especially true since there is no centralized decision-making authority embracing all of Islam, and certainly no pan-Islamic democratic mechanisms by which Muslims in general can be held responsible for particular factional “policies” of Islam.
7) The criticism isn’t directed at any one who object to sharia, or object to terrorism, or discuss either in the context of Islam, but rather precisely and specifically at those who exploit the existence of sharia, and of the terrorist attacks, to foment hostility toward members of a particular religious community IN GENERAL.
8) Cultivating antagonism toward such an ethnic community, en masse, rationalized by factually less-than-accurate assertions that Muslims have a monopoly or near-monopoly on terrorism, by means of the absurd assertion that America is under threat of being overtaken by sharia law as evidenced by its patchwork existence in distant lands, is, indeed, an expression of xenophobia, not of a well reasoned and defensible reaction to real circumstances.
9) Terrorism comes in many forms. We normally use it to refer to the weapons of the weak, fighting against stronger powers by the only means they have, which is to attack the most vulnerable. And I am 100% in agreement that such attacks are reprehensible, but I am not in agreement that they are significantly less reprehensible than killing or being responsible for the killing of tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of “collateral damage” inflicted by larger military powers just as eager to exert their influence forcefully in the world, but able to do so without targeting civilians specifically. The point is that many things escalate reactionary cycles of violence, and it is very common for those culpable in one way to only perceive the culpability of those who have inflicted violence on them, rather than include awareness of the violence they’ve inflicted on others.
10) Even terrorism more narrowly defined is hardly limited to Islam. It has been exhibited in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, in sub-Saharan Africa, and even by right-wing anti-government fanatics in the United States (remember Oklahoma City?).
11) There are always ready rationalizations for stoking the fires of tribalistic and religious hatred, such as those you’ve cited. Those you condemn for their violence committed their acts of violence in the heat of a very similar mania, and the repetition of it here and now is likely to feed, directly and indirectly, into acts of violence committed in its name. The anti-government extremists who stoked up that rhetoric in the years leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing I’m sure feel no responsibility for that act of violence either, but without them, it would never have occurred.
12) The fact that violence exists, that some of it is perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and that people have suffered horribly at its hands, does not justify or legitimate stoking a frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment directed toward peaceful and law-abiding Muslim citizens and residents of our own country.
14) If the concern is over terrorist attacks, then stoking those fires of reactionary tribalistic hatreds is not a very wise strategy for reducing the frequency or risk. In fact, the bigotry I am addressing increases rather than decreases our vulnerability in a multitude of ways, by cultivating more hatred directed toward us in reaction to it, by reducing cooperation of those best positioned to provide information that would help avert such attacks, by, in general, pushing people deeper into antagonistic camps, including people who never would have been antagonistic to us otherwise. You don’t address the threat of terrorism by starting with rationalizations for racial or religious hatred, but rather by asking yourself first and foremost “what set of policies would best and most effectively reduce this risk?” The answer to that latter question is complex and multifaceted, but included within its matrix is “the reduction of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States today.”