Defending Muslims, Critiquing Islam

The dilemma of a contemporary secular humanist

Posted Jun 09, 2017

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in the United States right now. It must feel terrible: the stares and glares at the grocery store, the taunts on the school yard, the abuse hurled at you on buses, the ignorant caricatures of your religion on television, the hostile degradation of your faith on right-wing talk radio, the vandalism of your mosques, the hateful words of Donald Trump and his minions—and so on. According to the reports of Human Rights Watch, hate crimes against Muslims in the USA have increased precipitately over the last two years. In such a toxic socio-political environment, where certain Americans who know next to nothing about the history of Muslims, the beliefs of Muslims, the rich and varied heritage of Muslims, the enormous diversity of Muslim cultures and ethnicities, or the internal debates, interpretations, and conflicting schools of thought among Muslims—these same Americans regularly proclaim sweeping generalizations and malevolent stereotypes, spew ignorant condemnations and reductionist critiques…well, it must be quite rough right now. Like I said, I can’t imagine.

And that’s just here in the U.S. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be Muslim right now in Myanmar—where the minority Muslim community there is subject to violent riots, military repression and displacement, and denial of citizenship. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be Muslim in Occupied Palestine, where violent oppression and human rights violations are relentless.

When I think of Muslim individuals and families—men, women, and children—who live in parts of the world where they are suspected, stereotyped, and denied, I feel nothing but empathy and compassion. When I think of my Muslim friends, neighbors, and colleagues—and hear their stories of the daily humiliations and worries—I feel like offering whatever consolation and help I can.

All of the above notwithstanding, I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be an atheist in many Muslim majority nations today—such as Malaysia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates—where simply lacking a belief in God warrants the death penalty. In Saudi Arabia, atheism is actually designated as terrorism! I can't imagine what it must be like to be a skeptical blogger in Bangladesh, where my freethinking kin are being murdered on a regular basis simply for expressing their ideas. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be a homosexual in many Muslim majority nations—such as Iran, Afghanistan, or Qatar—where being gay can also warrant the death penalty. And I also can’t imagine what it is like being a woman in Yemen or Somalia—where opportunities for economic or personal independence are relatively scare; indeed, according to 24/7 Wall St., of the top 10 worst countries in the world to be a woman, all but one are Muslim majority nations. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia, where I would be required by law to always have a male guardian grant me permission to do various things I might want to do—like travel, get an education, start a business, or have a medical procedure. And I would not be allowed to drive. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim living in a Muslim majority nation who doubts the tenets of my faith, or who has lost my faith altogether, or who wants to marry someone of a different faith, or who wants to convert to another faith—the potential legal persecution could be vicious, not to mention the potential ostracism and alienation from my community.

Finally, as a secular humanist—an atheist and naturalist—I simply can’t imagine how so many people can believe in the religion of Islam which—like the other two Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity—is founded on shaky historical claims, untrue myths, and regressive moral outsourcing.           

Such is the dilemma for any progressive secular person who supports human rights, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion—and who despises prejudice, nationalism, tribalism, racism, etc.—while at the same time, is skeptical of religious claims, critical of religious authorities, dubious of ethical systems based on supernatural assumptions, and down-right hostile to any religious scriptures or systems which justify slavery, patriarchy, homophobia, intolerance, or violence.

On the one hand, I painfully wince at the Fox news nonsense that fans the flames of xenophobia, fear, intolerance, and Islamophobia. These same pundits deny global warming, block stem cell research, stymie women’s reproductive rights, denigrate homosexuals, support a vile, racist, incompetent man as president, and consider secular folks like me to be immoral, unpatriotic scoundrels. I shirk from their bigotry, and have no desire to join their chorus that is so critical of Muslims—thereby causing real harm and damage to men, women, and children. I want to keep a long arm’s distance from them and their conservative agenda. I want to make my Muslim brothers and sisters feel safe and secure, supported and loved.

On the other hand, I personally don't think the Qu’ran is from God, I don’t think Muhammad was the most moral of men, I sincerely doubt that many of the stories in the Hadith are true, I don’t think there is a devil, I don’t think there are jinns, I don’t believe in a heaven or a hell (and the hell in traditional Islam is particularly nasty, by the way), and I find many of the specific scriptures, tenets, doctrines, and dogmas of traditional Islam problematic at best, dehumanizing and destructive at worst. Finally, my sympathies for ex-Muslimsapostates—is supreme, given the double-burden they often shoulder—disliked or distrusted by non-Muslims in the West who often see them as Muslims, and simultaneously alienated and often hated by Muslims, who see them as traitors, deserters, infidels—or simply dishonoring their families.

So what to do? I’m not sure. For now, I try to make a distinction—precarious and porous though it may be—between Muslim people and doctrinal Islam. By “Muslim people,” I mean the individuals and communities out there who deserve respect and rights and protections, like all people. They have a right to their beliefs, their heritage, their faith, etc. I seek to be a friend to them, as best I can. By “doctrinal Islam,” I mean the main scriptures (the Qu’ran and Hadith), the vast canon of Islamic philosophical writings, and the supernatural teachings and assumptions embedded in the Islamic faith. To me, these doctrinal components of the religion of Islam are open for vociferous, rigorous critique—just like the doctrinal components of all religions. I seek to bolster that critique. And I’m grateful to live in an open society—well-steeped in both Christianity and Enlightenment values—which allows me the freedom to do so.