Sunday, January 11, 2015

Debating Islam In Circles

It's happened again. A group of terrorists, Islamists, jihadis - whatever the preferred term is - has murdered a number of people. As always, the killings were sloppy, barbaric and indefensible.

However, in a morbid way one hopeful thing about these new Islamist murders is that they were somewhat specific. The primary targets were cartoonists that had insulted the prophet. The following hostage crisis was at a kosher supermarket.

It is a glimpse into the sadistic mind of the Islamic terrorist when they stray from the formula of an indiscriminate public transit bombing or beheading of the nearest journalist. When Islamists kill indiscriminately it can be construed by some as an attack on a citizens of a government involved in foreign wars. Some talking heads will try to tell the west that the building disappeared or the train exploded because of some foreign policy squabble.

But when the Islamists specifically reach out to murder the people they're most angry with - cartoonists and jews - it's clear that there is nothing resembling "rational" motives related to wars or poverty. It's clearly an ideological and personal bigotry against people who do not follow their brand of religion. A homicidal desire to make people who disrespect their dogma disappear.

What follows these attacks is typically an outpouring of anti-Islam sentiment. Much of it is not the most refined, compelling or educated critiques - Godwin's law is proven true several times.

Then comes the reaction to the reaction. For as much as people fear Islamist murders, people fear "Islamophobic" reprisal attacks. The type of person that appears most likely to make this fear a reality is the stereotypical American "nutjob". Too much ammunition, an incredible lack of mental health treatment, and a person perhaps dumb enough to believe there exists an al-Qaeda sleeper cell in a Sikh temple.

It is a rational fear - white men shoot up post offices and elementary schools, it is not a stretch of the imagination they're capable of flipping their lid and attacking a mosque.

But this fear is often tied to a massive false equivalency - the idea that the mostly-secular west is somehow due to go insane. Islamists are seen as a "safe" version of insane. The real worry is that everyone else is going to release pent up anger and something incredibly bad will happen. Some people actually do view global politics as if they were in a group therapy anger management session full of generally friendly people. It's the first world viewing itself in the lens of the most first world problems.

Shia Twelvers are a minority in Islam. They are often victims of the worst of Sunni Islamist violence.  It would be surprising to find any Shia muslims on the list of perpetrators of the attacks in France. One of the beliefs of the Twelvers is happens to be that the Madhi will return and make everything good again.

Regardless of the odds of any messianic story coming true, the lives of the majority of ordinary "muslims" in the west is more controlled by the belief that there is a chance that a neo-Timothy McVeigh or Anders Brevik will return and lay waste to everything they hold dear in this life. Nothing can be said to alleviate this concern, just as muslims themselves cannot say anything to assuage the fears of those worried about more Islamist violence.

The result is very cyclic and pointless discussion.

Muslims kill cartoonists, but not all muslims are terrorists.

Racists criticize Islam, but not all critics are racist.

Both statements can be understood to be true without much thought so it's confusing that each sentence is a rallying cry for entirely different perspectives.

Friends of Islam and critics of Islam. If one had to choose to be in one group or the other, it seems preferable to be in the group denying subtle racist tendencies than to be in the group defending a religion with a questionable history.

The "not all muslims are terrorists" red herring is to put Islam and muslims within a shield of low expectations. It's as if muslims can exist in modern society and be generally pleasant in every day conversation, they've won a seat at the table of modernity.

Compare this to how we treat every other ideology beholden to a deity. Mormons are on the cusp of being unfit for political office due to their unwavering opposition to gay marriage. For a number of "reasons", to mention their abuses most euphemistically, Catholics are not running very many schools anymore. Anglicans and other European churches define how comfort causes indifference and lack of vision. Evangelicals are evil incarnate - anti-choice, pro-gun, anti-poor, pro-Republican...

Hands off the ordinary muslim. He's got a job, minds his own business and does not drink. A model citizen of our times!

"He's religious and conservative, but it's alright - he's Arab/Persian/Pakistani/Indonesian/North African/etc... and you know how they are."

The condescension in some is that western college educated people are clever and responsible enough to have mutable religious beliefs. Bonus points in flexibility are awarded to wealthy peers and those that spent time in liberal arts programs. All the "underprivileged" are thought to be stuck. In fact, it appears some think it a "white privilege" to be clever enough to change one's mind.

Indeed, it is a white privilege to be an apostate. But not because white people are smarter than everyone else, but because privileged people support systems that make it difficult for nonwhites to be anything but a part of their religious and cultural track. Whites are thought to be the free agents of religion, everyone else is still on contract.

Recall that a lot western leaders for better or worse thought reservations for Native Americans was a decent idea. Further, many colonial adventures ended with borders that reflected a white man's conclusions of what made up a society and nation state.

Borders do not mean what they used to, but a certain population of concerned, self-appointed, entitled white people are still defining the parameters of interaction. White people, religious or not, are to be respectful of Muhammad. In return, muslims are to be on-side in matters concerning the battle these "enlightened" white people are fighting with what the white people define as their common enemies.

It fits to a formula. The more adherents and the less social success, the more secular people will feel a moral obligation to place absolutely outrageous behavior "in context". Respect will be paid to any ideology, either as a form of self-preservation, the firm belief that a "clash of civilizations" will meet a violent end or the wishful idea that everything popular must have some redeeming qualities.

Ultimately the conversation is one that wealthy secular people are having with themselves. Muslim majority societies are not all the same, but they generally sum to be an alien world that the rest of the humanity is not excited to be a part of. The debate is reduced to strategy about how to change it. Some people want to launch the photon torpedoes, others want to put the "noble savages" in a multicultural time capsule, others see the solution as coordinating a worldwide charm offensive.

In western cities many seem to believe muslims are a minority like any other, but this simply is not true. Regardless whether they share a smile or a frown, people wish for overtly religious people of all stripes to dial it down. It is bigotry to desire society to modify its skin color, gender or sexuality. The same rule cannot be made for religion. It is rather offensive to even pretend the concerns exist on the same plane.

Islam harbors one of the largest groups of people still believing in a medieval view of monotheism. More embarrassing is that the "progressive" wing of the faith makes the cultural norms of the Victorian era seem delightfully inspired and forward-looking.

Despite what many say to the contrary, Islam can be blamed for its bad apples. But the true failure of faith is that its best apples are not sweet. It should not be controversial to not like them apples.

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