Stereotypes and Muslim Presidents

Jose Duarte has an intelligent blog post on the Ben Carson/Muslim President controversy over at Medium. I respond to some of Duarte’s critics in the combox of his blog.

Carson’s comments are all over the place, but here’s a link to the CNN version.

I’m not a believing or practicing Muslim, so my comments at Duarte’s blog shouldn’t be construed as a defense of Islam per se; they’re intended as criticism of the incredible hypocrisy and culpable ignorance of people like Carson and those who agree with him.

For documentation of my comments on political Catholicism, I’d suggest reading Geoffrey Robertson’s The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Violations. For documentation of what I say about political Judaism, I’d suggest reading John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s much-derided but in my view unrebutted The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  Here’s Robert Menendez on the holiday of Purim. This is how Menendez’s thoughts on Purim were received by some of my supposedly civilized Jewish neighbors here in New Jersey–a rabbi, no less.* For a mind-blowing defense of the Book of Esther–including an explicit defense of collective punishment and mass murder–I would suggest reading Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther. And here is the full text of the Book of Esther itself, which you can probably get through in about half an hour or so.

The more of this anti-Muslim hypocrisy I hear, the more I feel like reverting back to Islam and declaring a jihad against the unbelievers. If I could get over the whole God thing (heaven, hell, angels, Satan, miracles, prophets, etc.), I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Wow, I should probably be careful with these cardiac metaphors.  “Know that God comes between a man and his heart…” (Qur’an, 8:24).

*Postscript: I had originally said “Menendez’s comments” rather than “Menendez’s thoughts.” Just to be clear: the author of the blog post begins his post by praising a 2015 Menendez speech at AIPAC, but then goes on to praise Donniell Hartman’s claims about Purim in 2015, not Menendez’s comments as voiced in the 2014 speech I link to above. (Actually, Hartman goes farther than Menendez in endorsing the claims of the Book of Esther.) So the author wasn’t literally responding to Menendez’s comments on Purim.

This ends up being a distinction without a difference, because Menendez 2014 and Hartman 2015 are saying virtually the same thing about Purim. Anyway, since “thoughts” is a little more precise than “comments,” I’ve modified the post.

Postscript, October 7, 2015: It’s hard to know how to comment on something like this, except to wonder out loud how “mainstream” political discourse in this country has descended to a level this idiotic. How did we get to the point at which well-paid people shovel pure garbage onto the nation’s airwaves, regard it as political commentary, influence the electorate, and get taken for granted for doing so?

Postscript(s), October 10, 2015: A useful item worth reading on this topic. Hat-tip: Fauzia Qureishi and my Mom.

Things just keep getting better.

Rally organizers in New York City suggest demonstrators target mosques in all five boroughs. In Dearborn, Michigan, protesters are being asked to bring their weapons for an “open carry, anti-mosque, pro-America rally.”

I’m just waiting for the pro-gun types to say, “Well, if the Muslims want to protect themselves, they should just make sure to be as heavily armed as the protesters.” Actually, shouldn’t Ben Carson be saying that? Maybe next week we can look forward to the Retaliatory Rally Against the Judeo-Christian Tradition, featuring large mobs of armed Muslims gathering in front of churches and synagogues.

I’m trying to remember why my family fled the insanity of sectarian strife in Pakistan for the U.S., but it’s not coming to me at the moment. All I know is that escape to Israel or Turkey is not an option. Or Pakistan, India, or Syria. Even Canada is becoming iffy.  There’ll always be an England? 

Puerto Rico?

32 thoughts on “Stereotypes and Muslim Presidents

    • No, they haven’t been refuted. What Locke says in the Preface of the Two Treatises is relevant here. He’s addressing potential critics of his book:

      If anyone concerned really for truth undertake the confutation of my hypothesis I promise him either to recant my mistake upon fair conviction, or to answer his difficulties. But he must remember two things:

      First, that caviling here and there, at some expression or little incident of my discourse, is not an answer to my book.

      Secondly, that I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of them worth my notice.

      The criticisms I’ve seen of Mearsheimer and Walt are either cavilings or railings. They’re not an answer to the book.


  1. I think Carson is equivocating between:
    (1) Subject S is a Muslim
    (2) Subject S is a Muslim and will do what Muslims ought (ought not) to do
    where the predicate ‘Muslim’ in 1 is descriptive and normative in 2. In his interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press he seemed to express something along the lines of 2. His subsequent comments following the interview seem to tilt towards 1, though even in those comments he oscillates between 1 and 2 without realising it.


    • I agree with you, but I actually think that your formulation understates the problem. It’s not just that he’s equivocating, but that he’s construing (2) in a more tendentious way than your (2) lets on. It’s more like:

      Subject S is a Muslim and will do what I take Muslims to be obliged to do,

      where the construal of Islam’s obligations is both the strictest and most sinister one conceivable. There are two assumptions embedded in (2). One is that S’s being a Muslim entails S’s acting as a Muslim ought with respect to the entire breadth of duties that could in principle bind a Muslim qua Muslim. The second is that acting as a Muslim ought entails acting on the most sinister interpretation of Islam that anyone can think of.

      I find this mode of discourse to verge on a form of insanity. Of what other religion would anyone infer that if you know that Smith is a Jew or a Catholic, you can validly infer that Smith’s beliefs and practices are fully adherent with everything that the faith could be said to required of him, everywhere and in all contexts–and that the duties themselves are the craziest ones the religion has on offer? Imagine confronting Joseph Lieberman or Eric Cantor with the most esoteric details of halakha–like metzitzah b’peh–and then saying, “Well, your belief in this barbaric practice unfits you for office. And surely as a Jew, you must believe in it.” Of what other religion would anyone infer that if you know that Smith is a Jew or a Catholic, that by itself is sufficient for inferring that his version of Judaism has to be on par with members of the Kach Party, Opus Dei, or the Crusaders? But such things are routinely taken for granted in discussions of Islam, at least in the United States.

      Fourteen years after 9/11, it’s difficult to process how ignorant people are about Islam. I just re-read the Qur’an for the first time in six or seven years, for a conference I attended a few weeks ago on Qur’anic interpretation. Two things struck me: how many myths have grown up in supposedly sophisticated non-Muslim discourse about what the Qur’an says; and how even as an amateur and an apostate, I was able to produce “apologetic” tafsir of contested doctrines that gave them a certain degree of plausibility. Counter-intuitively, discussion of Islam (and the treatment of Muslims) has become worse as time has passed since 9/11. What passes for sophisticated discourse is just breath-takingly infantile and hypocritical. Aside from vague invocations of “tolerance” and “multiculturalism,” we don’t seem to have learned (or taught) a thing.


  2. “There are two assumptions embedded in (2). One is that S’s being a Muslim entails S’s acting as a Muslim ought with respect to the entire breadth of duties that could in principle bind a Muslim qua Muslim. The second is that acting as a Muslim ought entails acting on the most sinister interpretation of Islam that anyone can think of.”

    Now that I think about it, (2) and (2*) seem to rest on a subtle ambiguity. On the one hand, “interpretation of Islam” can mean orthodoxical or traditional beliefs and practices. On the other hand, it can mean Islam’s doctrinal essence. Do you have the former or the latter in mind?


    • I actually mean something broader than either traditional beliefs/practices or doctrinal essence. I mean both of those things together plus any belief or practice that could in principle be attributed to a believing Muslim qua Muslim.

      In other words, the view I’m attributing to Carson (and people like him) is one that espouses the following principle:

      If S is a Muslim, you can validly infer that S holds any belief and practices and/or any practice that counts, however vaguely, as Islamic.

      This principle implies that if Derrick is a Muslim, we can attribute beliefs/practices to him without asking him what he actually believes/practices; we just find any old belief/practice, make sure that it’s Islamic, and attribute it to Derrick because he is, after all, a Muslim. The usual practice is to haul out a hadith collection, find some embarrassing hadith, and pin its contents on any Muslim you want to discredit.

      Actually, if the principle were true, I could ascribe any belief to you that I wanted to, simply by opening Sahih Bukhari to any random page, and insisting that since you’re a Muslim you must (in fact) believe everything on p. 459, whether you’ve read Sahih Bukhari or not. Come to think of it, if the principle were true, I could attribute all of Sahih Bukhari to you whether I’d read Sahih Bukhari or not. I wouldn’t need to read it. I’d just need to know that it was a book containing Islamic beliefs and that you were a Muslim.

      It sounds crazy (it is crazy), but this is how huge numbers of ignorant people have come to think. Just spend some time reading people like Robert Spencer, Hugh Fitzgerald, Raymond Ibrahim, Pamela Geller, Andrew McCarthy, and their followers. They’re fringe figures, but their views have disproportionate influence, and the Ben Carsons of the world are the inevitable consequence of that influence. I regret to say that I was once a (distant) fellow traveler of that crew (from a safe distance), via my friendship and association with the writer Ibn Warraq. But I was pretty careful to keep my distance even then, and for the last five years, I’d say that “keeping my distance” understates things.


      • Here’s a postscript on “how huge numbers of ignorant people have come to think.” The will to be ignorant and keep other people ignorant almost defies belief. If it’s an offense to get students to memorize the Five Pillars of Islam, isn’t it an offense to get them to learn even the basic tenets of Islam as such? I don’t dispute that the students probably aren’t taught the basics of Judaism and Christianity either, but doesn’t that argue for teaching them the basics of all three religions rather than lashing out at teaching the basics of one? Somewhere in the article, someone takes issue with the idea of reciting the Five Pillars of Islam “as a prayer.” Since when is a recitation (in English) of the Five Pillars of Islam a prayer? That’s a new one on me. Try it in your mosque sometime.

        But it’s not just middle school instruction that’s at stake. About a year ago, I submitted a class on Islam for approval by my college’s curriculum committee (“Islam and the West: Encounter and Conflict”), and it was sent back to me for “Revise and Resubmit” in part on the grounds that it was too biased in favor of Islam. “Too much Islam, not enough West” was the complaint. The readings consisted (among others) of the Qur’an, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the Americans,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel (!), and a few essays by Bernard Lewis (!), Samuel Huntington (!), Reza Aslan, and a few other prominent commentators, Muslim and non-Muslim.

        So a course taught by an apostate Muslim which requires that all students, believing and non-believing, read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel is too Muslim in orientation (!). I could understand the reverse criticism better than I can understand this one. Believe it or not, there isn’t a single course on Islam in the whole of our curriculum. If/when approved, mine will be the first, and it’ll have a PHIL, not RELS prefix (though it might end up being cross-listed).

        If you want to see the source of the Ben Carson phenomenon, spend some time (if you haven’t already) at the Shariah: The Threat to America site (along with Jihad Watch, New English Review, Daniel Pipes, and all the rest). It’s hard to know what’s worse–the actual Islamist threat to America, or the self-appointed anti-Islamists who want to keep us safe from it.


        • I’m assuming that you’re asking whether I think he’s different from the rest of the prominent critics of Islam out there. It’s a tricky question for me to answer, not conceptually but personally. We were very good friends for awhile, but we no longer appear to be. I say “no longer appear to be” because I wasn’t personally aware of any incident that led to a falling out, but he hasn’t answered my emails or phone calls in four years. So either that’s a really big technological snafu, or it’s a falling out. I’ll answer your question candidly, but if he sees this, I don’t want him to think that I’m trying to exacerbate the rift between us. Still, I want to give you a candid answer.

          The short answer is that I do think he’s different from the rest. For one thing, his interests are basically textual, and focused on the Qur’an. He’s very knowledgeable on the subject and has very interesting things to say. I’m not a believing Muslim, so I have no trouble buying the heretical/blasphemous parts of his interpretations. I agree with much, though not all, of what he has to say in criticism of Edward Said’s Orientalism. I certainly agreed with his belief that Islamic societies need to be secularized, and that we ought to support the secularizers insofar as we can. And of course I agreed with his critique of Islamic fundamentalism and the relativist excuse making for it. Why I Am Not a Muslim was a courageous book to write.

          But Ibn Warraq started writing on Islam in 1995, well before 9/11. Before 9/11, he was essentially ignored. After 9/11, there was a lot of pressure to turn him into an all-round expert on the connection between Islam, terrorism, and contemporary politics. It’s just a plain statement of fact that he was not (and is not) an expert on that subject. He’s an apostate Muslim with a long-standing interest in textual and interpretive issues in the Qur’an. He has no deep knowledge of terrorism or contemporary politics. He hasn’t traveled at all in the Islamic world. He barely knows any actual living, breathing Muslims, so book learning aside, he has no idea what life in Islamic societies is like–including Muslim life in Europe and North America. He’s never really practiced Islam in a wholehearted way, either, so he doesn’t have an insider’s sense of what it is to live and believe as a Muslim.

          Add to this that he has lacks the sort of academic credentials that get you steady academic employment. I don’t mean that as a criticism; I just mean it had a particular economic consequence. He’s never had a steady academic position or funding in this country. So he’s had to function as a freelancer. Originally, he worked for the Center for Inquiry, which was somewhat left-leaning in orientation, but there were institutional problems there, so he left.

          After he left, he started getting funding from essentially right-leaning sources, and was obliged to convince them that he was on board with their various agendas. This became less a matter of what he explicitly said than a matter of who he started hanging out with–Pam Geller, New English Review, Jihad Watch, etc. But it was also partly a matter of what he said. His writings on Israel and Zionism are colossally ignorant: he really has no idea what he’s talking about and would be well advised just to stop writing on the subject. His writings in defense of “the West” are muddled, overgeneralized, overly-rhetorical, and on the whole badly argued. His critiques of modern Islamic Studies are overstated and often ignorant. His total lack of sympathy for the civil rights predicament of Muslims in this country and for Muslim victims of secularizers, Zionism, and imperialism, is (to put it mildly) a real blind spot.

          So while I still think there’s a difference between Ibn Warraq and people like Pam Geller, Daniel Pipes, Hugh Fitzgerald, Robert Spencer, et al, he himself started to blur the difference maybe five or six years ago. Little by little he’s become less different from the rest than he was. I blame their influence on him. The entire anti-Islam industry co-opted him for their own twisted agenda. He was vulnerable to their manipulations. The outcome strikes me as unfortunate.


  3. This issue really isn’t very complicated at all. Pick up the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament and you’ll find all sorts of things that will seem alarming to any 21st century American committed to the separation of church and state. Go on the Internet and you will find Christians and Jews articulating ideologies that will seem alarming to any 21st century American committed to the separation of church and state. But of course Ben Carson and his ilk do not suppose that anyone who self-identifies as a Jew or a Christian is committed to opposing the Constitution and instituting a form of government that requires people to adhere to the most literal and strict interpretation of Mosaic Law or Christian worship and morality. Now it’s just barely possible that these people mistakenly believe that the Constitution does set up a form of government that requires people to adhere to the correct interpretation of Christian scripture. But to think so is as moronic as recognizing that it doesn’t but insisting that no sincere Jew or Christian could honestly endorse the Constitution. So either Carson & pals actually want to enforce Christian doctrine and practice via legislation, in which case they are the ones who are at odds with the Constitution, or they simply fail to acknowledge that not all Muslims are political Islamists, in which case they are operating with a double standard on which the same complex and subtle relationship to scripture and tradition allowed to Christians and Jews is being denied to Muslims. Meanwhile, actual American Muslims span the same spectrum that actual American Christians and Jews do, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Zuhdi Jasser. Thinking that they’re all like the Tsarnaev brothers is like thinking that all Christians are like the wackos who bomb abortion clinics. And this is all quite obvious. There may be interesting sociological questions about the prominence of political Islamism among American Muslims, but we don’t need any empirical studies to know that Muslims can be sufficiently decent and committed to respecting the Constitution to qualify for public office.

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    • Assuming it gets approval! I have to redo the “Learning Objectives” so that they better reflect the General Education Curriculum Rubric for Distribution Area VIII. Inshallah, when I find the motivation do to this, sometime before the Day of Judgment, I will resubmit the proposal, and it’ll get approval.

      Can you imagine God creating the world by this process, by the way? We’d still be sitting around in the ex nihilo stage waiting for committee approval. I’d love to see God handle an FC Curriculum Committee “Revise and Resubmit.”

      Ironically, speaking of revise and resubmit, I may end up ditching the Ayaan Hirsi Ali book in favor of Paul Moses’s The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Felician is a Franciscan school, so mention of St. Francis tends to be irresistible to bureaucratic decision-makers. It’s like “Simon says” but with St. Francis instead of Simon. “St. Francis says: give me a $10,000 raise, and reduce my course load to a 2:2.” Done! “St. Francis says: approve Khawaja’s course, NOW!” Done! Mission integration at work, folks.

      I’ll post the syllabus here at some point. Minus the Area VIII-compliant GECC Learning Objectives.


      • Someone interrupted my bi-weekly reading of Aristotle’s De Anima with this story. It’s all over the news here.
        In the light of the above I’m afraid you’re going to have to put off moving here for a while. I know you’re an apostate and all but as long as you look the part or bear a Muslim sounding name you can be on the receiving end of anti-Muslim bigotry. Call it collateral damage. On a serious note, I’m not as shocked about this as the author is. I’ve been alive long enough to know that the kind of bigotry that fuelled this woman’s rage isn’t exclusive to whites, British, non-Muslims, or your garden variety confederate flag donning southerner. You can find those attitudes almost anywhere, be it amongst minorities or even among those who claim to be above it all. Anyhow, the takeaway line:
        1. Being a minority doesn’t immunise you from bigotry
        2. When in a heated exchange with a fellow bus traveller expect to be lumped with the worst of your kind (be it racial or religious)
        3. Don’t count on fellow bus travellers to intervene even if a threat of bodily harm is made

        Liked by 1 person

        • OK, forget England.

          I hate to one-up you on bigotry anecdotes, but how about this, from Jerusalem:

          “It started with knives, then cars and now guns,” said Aliza Ben Zichri, 59, a local resident who rushed to the scene after hearing gunfire. “Why not put them under curfew?” she asked, referring to the city’s 300,000 Palestinian residents. “I should be able to walk freely.”

          What she’s saying is not totally unreasonable. She’s Jewish, and she lives in a Jewish state that systematically privileges Jewish life over non-Jewish life. So what appears to you and me as solipsism is actually totally reasonable to her. Translated, she’s saying: “I should be able to walk freely around Jerusalem, even if the result is that 300,000 people are confined to their homes.”

          I saw a documentary the other day in which Alan Dershowitz waved away the checkpoints used against Palestinians as an “inconvenience” that couldn’t conceivably be compared to the object protected by them, human life. What he omitted is that given the location of the wall and the checkpoints, if a Palestinian suffers a medical emergency in, say, Abu Dis, the chances of his getting to a hospital in Jerusalem in time to save his life within the “golden hour” are slim. This despite the fact that the linear distance between, say, the center of Abu Dis and Al Muqassid Hospital in East Jerusalem is about a mile. Let’s face it, dude. We’re in the vicinity of #SomeLivesDontMatter.

          Remember when “Why do they hate us?” was a question that asked why Muslims hate non-Muslims? Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and we get to ask the question with the pronouns reversed. Why do they hate us? Like all of us? Even the ones sitting around reading Aristotle?

          For whatever it’s worth, I’m not surprised by this particular outburst, either. What I find harder to understand or digest is why bigoted attitudes have gotten worse as the actual terrorist threat to the US and Britain has declined. Compare Islamist terrorist attacks with gun violence in the US. There’s no comparison to be made; gun violence is an epidemic, terrorism is not. And yet you don’t find people keying cars with NRA bumper stickers, or holding the Oregon shooting against gun owners in this way (not that they should). But wear a hijab…and you’re a member of ISIS? I honestly, seriously don’t get it.

          We had an event at Felician the other day (I was the moderator, astaghfar, astaghfirullah)–“Islam: Our Students Speak“–where Muslim students came out and talked about their experiences of being mistreated–the hijab-wearing women and their children being on the receiving end of the worst treatment. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought they were lying about the mistreatment they were getting. Just surreal cases of bullying and abuse, no different from the one on that bus. Maybe I’m confabulating, but I don’t think things were this bad in, say, 2005.

          I don’t know, maybe moving is the wrong idea. Maybe what we need is to stay put and engage in some jihad. Naturally, I’m referring here to the peaceful kind of jihad in defense of our moral and civil rights.

          Peace out.


  4. Timur Kuran’s The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East and Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism were very enlightening reads.


  5. I have a question Irfan

    you know that the Right is saying Islam is particularly murderous. For instance, Scientology is very dangerous, but it’s hard to find Scientologists saying openly that infidels must be killed. They’re saying that Islam is much more extreme and openly murderous. How do you respond to that? Are there such things as liberal Muslims? Can someone contradict much of the Right’s rhetoric about Islam without being an apologist for Islam?


    • I think the relevant question to ask is whether Islam is or has been more murderous than either Judaism or Christianity.

      (1) Suppose we take it as a historical question. If so, we need to do two things: (a) consider the whole history of the religion from its inception to the present, and (b) come up with a criterion by which an action counts as being motivated by the tenets of the religion. Taken historically, Islam is not more murderous than either Judaism or Christianity.

      (2) Suppose we take it as a doctrinal question. Are the doctrines of Islam more murderous than those of Judaism or Christianity? Well, on the narrowest reading of the doctrines of Islam, those doctrines are the ones enshrined in the Qur’an. Is the Qur’an more murderous than the Old Testament? Not by a long shot. How about the New Testament? The answer is equivocal. Jesus came to confirm rather than abolish the Old Law, and there is nothing in Jesus’s teachings that implies that the Israelites were wrong to conquer the promise land and slaughter its inhabitants. His teaching abrogates that in the present without condemning it in the past. He can hardly claim that the Old Law was not God’s law–and he doesn’t. Further, the Book of Revelation is pretty bloody (to the extent that it has a clear meaning).

      Catholic teaching includes natural law as part of the content of the Christian religion, and natural law teaching includes just war theory. Christian just war teaching is no more or less murderous than the Qur’an’s injunctions to military jihad. If we include the teachings of all of the major Jewish rabbis and Torah commentators (including many of the ones currently on the payroll of the State of Israel) and/or all of the Church fathers and saints, and compare/contrast them the Islamic hadith and sira tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more than competitive with the Islamic for murderousness.

      A great deal of right wing commentary on the murderousness of Islam consists of (a) very inept readings of the Qur’an’s injunctions to jihad and/or (b) selective readings of the sira and hadith tradition.

      Re (a): No believing Muslim can dispense with the Qur’an, but even as an atheist I would say that on the whole the Qur’an’s enjoins defensive, retaliatory, or retributive force–not initiation or aggression. There may be a few passages that contradict that, but the bulk are defensive. For that reason, arguments of this nature are, frankly, illiterate.

      By the way, the stark contrast between the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible on this issue is, frankly, overwhelming. There is no Qur’anic counterpart to the Hebrew Bible’s doctrine of “the ban” (herem)–the divine injunction to genocide. For a book-length discussion, see Susan Niditch’s War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. Nor is there a major Islamic holiday devoted to a work of scripture that enjoins genocidal violence, like Purim, which celebrates Haman’s genocidal victory over the Persians (in the Book of Esther). This is how Wikipedia glosses Purim, by the way:

      They [Mordecai and Esther] decree that Jewish people may preemptively kill those thought to pose a lethal risk. As a result, on 13 Adar, five hundred attackers and Haman’s ten sons are killed in Shushan. Throughout the empire 75,000 of the Jewish peoples’ enemies are killed (Esther 9:16).

      Well, it was a pre-emptive strike. So I guess it’s OK to celebrate it, and get little kids to join in on the fun–then accuse other people of having a murderous religion which indoctrinates little kids in doctrines full of hatred. Here is Esther 8:11-14 in the King James:

      11 By these letters the king permitted the Jews who were in every city to gather together and protect their lives—to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the forces of any people or province that would assault them, both little children and women, and to plunder their possessions, 12 on one day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.[b] 13 A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province and published for all people, so that the Jews would be ready on that day to avenge themselves on their enemies. 14 The couriers who rode on royal horses went out, hastened and pressed on by the king’s command. And the decree was issued in Shushan the citadel.

      Why license to kill the little children? Well, because they’re Persian children. It’s like something out of a Stephen King novel.

      As for (b), an intelligent Muslim can pick and choose parts of the hadith and sira tradition in terms of principles found in the Qur’an. So the most objectionable ones drop out. This may be ad hoc, but it’s not murderous.

      (3) Suppose, finally, someone asks why modern-day Islam is so bloody. The answer is that the Muslim world overlaps with the developing world, and the developing world is bloody. Islam plays a role in the explanation of why, but it’s not unique, and it’s not the only factor in the explanation. Anyway, the Catholic Church has its pedophile scandal, the Jewish State has its fifty-year-long military occupation of the Palestinians, and the Orthodox Church has its Milosevic. Nothing unique about Islam when it comes to crimes against humanity.

      I’ve just contradicted the Right’s rhetoric about Islam. I’m an atheist apostate from Islam. I’ve said that over and over, openly, and have written criticisms of Islam that go to the heart of the faith. No one can legitimately call me an apologist (though some have). I infer from my own example that you say what I just said without becoming an apologist for Islam. All you have to do is say what I said and repudiate the essentials of the Islamic faith.

      The American Right is led by ignorant, hypocritical people who are more interested in demagoguery than truth. They’re dogmatically committed to defending Israeli policy, and dogmatically committed to militarism and imperialism. They have no viable leadership and no viable solutions to any actual political problem that we face. It’s unsurprising that they have to create monsters to slay–or have others slay–to distract attention from their own impotence and ineptitude. Islam has become their monster. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146). Great advice, but don’t expect the Right to take it. Just try to imagine Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or John Boehner puzzling over Beyond Good and Evil, and you’ll see the problem.


        • That may explain some of it. Some of the rest of the ill-feeling might arise from the Muslim world’s having to confront the after-effects of centuries of imperialism–e.g., having to confront antagonists whose conceit convinces them of their superiority, and then convinces them that their superiority entitles them to spill Muslims’ blood, and constrain Muslims’ liberty, at will.

          I forgot to answer your question, “Are there any Muslim liberals?” Yes, of course there are. There’s no inherent incompatibility between being sincerely devoted to Islam and being a political liberal. I do think that there’s an incompatibility between the underlying values of any of the Abrahamic religions and those of political liberalism. Each of the Abrahamic religions demands belief in God on the basis of a coercive ultimatum. Faith is demanded by a God who punishes you for non-belief in him and who expects belief on the basis of an ad bacculum fallacy. The symbol of that ultimatum is God’s injunction to Abraham to sacrifice his son (whichever son).

          Ultimatums of that kind are illiberal and incompatible with liberalism, but are at the center of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creed. So while you can be a good Jew, Christian, or Muslim in the sense of being sincerely pious, devoted, adherent etc to one of those faiths (or two or three at a time for all it matters) and a totally sincere liberal at the same time, my view is that people in that situation never really grasp what their faith demands of them. So a J-C-I liberal ultimately has to dilute the actual demands of faith in order to keep those demands compatible with liberalism. She has to dilute the specifically coercive nature of the demand at the center of the faith. I don’t think it’s an accident that the greatest J-C-I philosophers (Maimonides, Aquinas, Ghazzali) were anti-liberals.

          Those facts are perfectly compatible with the possibility that we might elect, say, a Keith Ellison to the presidency, and that he might make a better president than anyone currently in the running. Same reasoning applies to judges.


      • I think that you rightly understand the Qur’an but wrongly understand the Hebrew Bible. Think of the Hebrew Bible as the story of a superior being who regards human beings as test subjects and keeps trying one technique after another to elevate the subjects to something like Godhood. As with every such research program, you throw away the failures. (As it is sometimes put “nothing personal.” You are just a bacteria colony that isn’t developing right.)


        • I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree with your interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (I’d have to hear more) but I don’t see how it indicates a misunderstanding of the Hebrew Bible on my part.

          The Qur’an repeatedly describes life as a “test” as well. Though it doesn’t want to elevate the subjects Godhood, it wants to elevate them to a transcendent state it calls falah, often translated as “salvation” but meaning, more literally, “the ultimate triumph possible to man.” So if your interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is correct, it bears affinities with the Qur’an. What I would question in both cases is why an omniscient being needs to administer a test in the first place. There’s no point in administering a test when you have infallible foreknowledge of the answer.


    • I didn’t say “gun violence was an epidemic.” I said “gun violence is epidemic.” “X is an epidemic” is an epidemiological claim. “X is epidemic” is a metaphorical claim; it’s equivalent to saying “X is rife” or “X is all over the place” or “X is out of control.”*

      Put in more literal terms: The per capita rate of victimization due to gun violence in the US is much higher than that due to terrorism. Gun violence in the US is much higher than it is in peer countries, as illustrated by comparative homicide rates.

      *PS. Sorry, I looked and I did say it was an epidemic. But I meant it’s epidemic in the metaphorical sense.


        • I don’t think military jihad is more integral to Islam than crusading to the sects of Christianity that take (or have taken) crusading seriously. In other words, if the question was, “Is military jihad more integral to Islam than crusading is to American Presbyterianism?” the answer, “Well, yes it is–but that’s because Presbyterians aren’t crusaders.” But if the question is, “Is military jihad more integral to Islam than militaristic crusading is to, say, Catholicism or the Orthodox Churches?” I think the answer is no, even though the Vatican doesn’t field any armies per se, and Orthodox priests or monks haven’t literally wielded weapons in the field.

          Military jihad is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The reason is fairly obvious. The injunction to say, prayer (the second pillar) is relatively acontextual: every Muslim is supposed to pray the prescribed prayers at the prescribed times. That injunction has nothing to do with the context in which the injunction was made. The reasoning for prayer is just: God exists, you are obliged to remember him, so pray.

          But military jihad is only permissible in contexts resembling those in which the Qur’anic injunctions to military jihad were made. And it’s neither clear how to define that context, nor who has the authority to do the defining. When is a 21st century war sufficiently like the Battle of Badr to justify military jihad? And who gets to decide? There’s no clear, univocal answer to such questions. So for most Muslims, military jihad becomes a dead letter. I don’t mean that the injunction to fight goes away. I mean that it gets diluted by the controversies about when jihad is legitimate.

          You might say, “That only proves that military jihad is less integral to Islam than its own more integral features. It doesn’t prove that military jihad is less integral to Islam than crusading is to, say, Catholicism or the Orthodox Churches.” (I’m using the word “crusading” to denote “sacralized support for military aggression,” not literally crusading for the reconquest of Jerusalem.)

          I’d just say this: Both Christianity and Islam have doctrines that justify holy war. Both have engaged in holy war in history. But crucially, for both, that history has extended into at least the twentieth century. Once you see the degree of Catholic/Orthodox involvement in militarism, it becomes implausible to suggest that Islam is unique in its militarism. Islam and Christianity are competitors for the laurels of militarism (alongside Judaism in its Zionist varieties). Islamic militarism based on Islamic fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. The usual date given for its rise is 1979 (the Iranian Revolution). But if you look at the twentieth century before then, it’s Catholic and not Islamic militarism that stands out.

          Three quick examples:

          1. The Orthodox Church (or churches) supported the Serbs in the Bosnian wars. (I don’t mean that they were united in supporting the Serbs, but Muslims aren’t united, either.)
          2. The Maronite monastic orders supported the Phalangists in the Lebanese Civil War of the early 1980s (see p. 357 or so of the link).
          3. The Catholic Church was notoriously complicitous in highly militaristic forms of fascism in the twentieth century–Salazar, Franco, and Mussolini being prominent examples.

          My point in adducing these examples is not to suggest that The Catholic Church (or The Orthodox One) declared crusades in all these cases and then fielded divisions of the Vatican Army alongside Salazar, Mussolini, et al. My point is that it makes perfect sense to say that there was specifically Catholic support for fascist militarism throughout the twentieth century, that this support came from the Church (or from eager parts of the Church), and that it invoked Catholicism in support of fascism and militarism. And don’t forget that both Mussolini’s and Salazar’s were imperialist, expansionist regimes, especially in Africa.

          Christian support for militarism has recently waned, but that doesn’t prove that militarism is less integral to Catholicism than it is to Islam. My point is that the fact of Christian support for militarism cuts against the idea that Islamic support for, say, the Taliban or Al Qaeda is all that distinctive, or that military jihad is more integral to Islam than crusading to Christianity. Muslims are doing, in a different form, what Catholics were doing a few decades ago. The explanation for why the Church did it then but not now, and why the Islamic world is engaging in it now but wasn’t then, is more political than theological. So is the difference in the form that the militarism takes. But it’s simplistic to say “Islam is distinctively militaristic, Christianity is not.” That only seems plausible if you fixate on today’s headlines and forget the recent past. But that’s not the way to decide what’s “integral” to a religion.


  6. appreciate all the responses. one thing that also struck me but i didn’t ask it earlier was the issue of the african slave trade. it’s common to here that muslims initiated it and continue to engage in it. I wonder now if colombus didn’t have a hand in it.


    • You’re welcome. I don’t really know enough about the origins of the African slave trade to know who exactly started it, but it’s plausible to think that Muslims did, simply because of their geographic “proximity” to Africa (in scare quotes because “proximity” is an understatement). I don’t think Columbus had a direct hand in the African slave trade. The indirect connection is just that having found “Indians” (i.e., Native Americans) unsuitable as slaves, the European colonists were driven to find a new source, and in time, Africa supplied that source.


  7. Irfan,

    This is the problem I find with Islam: the Koran is poetic. And sharia is not evolutionary. So we have the problem of interpretation. And the rejection of science to resolve interpretation. So the system is vulnerable.

    Western law is separate from Christian fable, and pagan fable, and they can evolve in tandem but law takes priority over fable. And science eventually takes priority over fable. Westerners also can appeal to hierarchies that are separately housed and in competition so that none has freedom to resist change.

    Jews created clearly articulated laws, but are less bond by them and have less need of them because of small numbers and economic and genetic interdependency. They have no hierarchy but their evolutionary strategy and needs varies little by geography.

    Islam has a complex diverse internally hostile collection of polities with conflicting tribal interests with no means of evolution and no means of dispute resolution.

    But it’s not written in a book and codified as law so we fight about this nonsense constantly.

    what do you think?


    • I don’t agree. The argument would be persuasive–the conclusions would follow–if the premises were true, but they’re not true.

      On Islam: The Qur’an is not entirely poetic. Some of the verses are straightforwardly, non-poetically legislative or narrative. Further, contrary to what you say, sharia is (or can be) evolutionary: it has the capacity for change, and it has changed. The standard means of interpretation is qiyas, or analogical interpretation, and the analogies you employ depend on what you regard as essentially similar between the analogues. Further, there’s a tradition of ijtihad, or individual interpretation. If you put qiyas and ijtihad together, there’s plenty of room for change. There are now feminist interpretations of sharia. That’s a gigantic change. I also don’t think Islam requires a rejection of science to resolve interpretation. I recently attended a conference organized by a Muslim astronomer who claims that the Islamic conception of God is consistent with modern astronomy. I don’t happen to agree, but his point is that the Qur’an issues injunctions to use reason to know the world (which it does), and that that is an affirmation, not a rejection of science. Fianlly, the “problem of interpretation” arises for all texts, not just the Qur’an.

      I think it’s an exaggeration to think that Western law is always distinct from fables. For just one example, consider the blue laws, which still operate in many states, and are not as peripheral to everyday life as people often believe. The fable in question is the Judeo-Christian conception of the sabbath. It’s also worth remembering that “Western law” operates in most Muslim countries as a result of prior imperialist involvement. The Pakistani legal code, for example, is almost entirely based on British law (via the prior involvement of the British Raj). Sharia only operates at the margins (which is not to say that its operation is unimportant). This may come as a surprise to people used to taking Pakistan’s status as an “Islamic Republic” at face value, but it happens to be true. Pakistan was founded, after all, by a British barrister. (I have cousins in law school in Pakistan. To the consternation of their more pious relatives, they spend their days learning British common law and American constitutional law.) I don’t know but strongly suspect that something similar is true of many other supposedly Muslim countries.

      I don’t understand why Jewish law becomes less important because of small numbers, and economic or genetic interdependency. Israeli law, like Pakistani law, is eclectic, but heavily based on the British common law tradition. Nonetheless, halakha plays an important role. As in Pakistan, Israeli family law is religious in character. File this fact under “Why Israel and Pakistan Both Suck, Resemble One Another, and Should Never Have Come Into Existence” (but why they should keep giving me entry visas to visit, despite my having said that).

      I don’t agree that Islamic countries have no means of evolution. They do. It’s just going to take awhile before the evolution takes hold. The first step, however, is to establish free speech, which is lacking in most Islamic countries. Also to develop the habits of free thought in the population, also severely lacking. That’s why I teach in Palestine and would like to teach in Pakistan (I guest-taught two classes in Pakistan in 2012, but would like to spend extended time there at some point). When you stand in front of a classroom in places like Abu Dis or Lahore, you stand in front of the “means of evolution” that will get these countries out of the mire that they’re in. I wouldn’t do it if I thought it was a lost cause. But I don’t think it is.


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