I’ve never written about Islam before because journalists and bloggers have been shamed, threatened, and killed by Muslims for criticizing Islam. A lot of other people have chosen not to publicly speak objectively about Islam out of fear. This may seem like a victory to some Muslims, but censoring discussion about Islam has also had the effect of keeping non-Muslims from being able to learn about Islam and understand it. Since they can’t hear the objective side of the story, they only hear the Islamophobic side. Now that I.S.I.S. has basically ignited WWIII, and Europe is being flooded with Muslim refugees from the Middle East, people are talking about Islam more than ever, but the public dialogue still has its hands tied. The mounting tension combined with mounting misinformation is making non-Muslims panicky and distrustful of Muslims.
I’ve received more E-mails asking me to write a blog about Islam/Muslims than any other topic. It would be pointless for me to write a blog explaining what Islam is since Wikipedia has already done a better job of that than I could. What I can offer is some perspective on whether or not you should be afraid of Muslims and Islamic culture.
It’s tragic that there’s so much ignorance about Islam, because there are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. That’s almost one fifth of the entire human species. If you take any group of 1.5 billion people you’ll find every possible kind of person from the most intelligent saint to the most ignorant murderer, and you’ll find the same spectrum of personalities if you poll the populations of each of the world’s major religions.
People act basically the same regardless of what religion they profess. Most self-proclaimed believers are effectively non-practicing, or “lapsed,” as the Catholic Church would say. Most believers have never read their sacred book cover to cover. If they have, they’ve only done it a few times. They glazed over parts of it. They ignored the parts they didn’t understand, and they never read much if anything critical of their religion. Most people don’t fully understand the religion they claim to believe in, and they don’t base their entire lives around it. They base most of their decisions on cultural norms, personal wants and logic.
Some people might call non-practicing theists hypocrites. I just call them human. It’s human nature to mimic the culture you were raised in. It’s all you know about life, after all. So humans tend to accept the creation story they were told and repeat the rituals they were taught. But most people are poor, busy, stressed, not-exactly-geniuses, looking for love and trying to succeed in the modern world. Life is demanding, and people have too many real world problems to deal with to spend their evenings reading contextual analyses of ancient manuscripts. So the average person exercises their faith just enough to feel safe in death and then gets on with their life.
Religion is just a hat most people wear. Underneath the hat, they’re exactly the same as anyone else who wears any other hat. They’re just people who live in houses, struggle with bills, love their family, enjoy hobbies, go to work every day and hope they can retire in comfort. They’re just faces you pass on the sidewalk. They have personality flaws, but most of them would never and will never kill anyone. The worst thing they’ll probably ever do is not fulfill their potential.
There will always be a percentage of followers in any religion who will fixate on the most aggressive aspects of their decided holy text. There will always be Kim Davis’s, Westboro Baptist Church’s, Osama Bin Laden’s, Crusades and Inquisitions. That threat will always be small, but it will always be real as long as people believe in books that contain (or can be interpreted to contain) divinely inspired instructions to harm other people. On a philosophical level, this means you should be a little afraid of religion, but it doesn’t mean you should be afraid of religious people moving into your neighborhood.
You can find inhumane instructions if you dig deep enough into any major religion, but most people don’t follow them, because they either didn’t read that far or it’s not socially acceptable or practical. The average Muslim is no more likely to go on a murderous Jihad than the average Jew is to stone a woman for adultery. The average Muslim doesn’t support I.S.I.S. any more than the average Christian supports the K.K.K.
You probably already know that. You’re not really afraid your Muslim neighbor is making bombs, but you may be struggling to decide how much you should respect your neighbor’s exotic cultural practices, particularly the ones that seem oppressive, like forcing women to cover their breasts and faces.
The bottom line on that question is, you can’t make a categorical imperative out of refusing to objectively criticize anyone’s ideas and behaviors. If we did, all cultural progress would cease forever. In ancient Hawaiian culture, women weren’t allowed to eat bananas, and the punishment for eating them was death. Everyone in the world today would agree that’s not just, logical or divinely inspired. None of us are closed-minded or disrespectful for disagreeing with that practice. That rule needed to become obsolete.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to hold people accountable. You’ve known someone your entire life who believes and does things that you believe are wrong, but you still value that person and enjoy their company. You don’t sit around at night pondering whether or not you should be offended by their antics. You just accept them and move on. If their behavior comes up in conversation, you express your disagreement politely and honestly, because it would be doing your friend a disservice by silently condoning behavior that you believe is counterproductive. If they don’t listen, you’re able to just agree to disagree and get on with your lives. You’ve done that before. Every day we’re honest without being spiteful. If we can do that in every other aspect of life, we should be able to do it when we disagree with other people’s religions. It would be illogical and hypocritical to love some people despite their differences and hate others for theirs.
At this point some of you may be thinking, “Sure, in theory we should all get along like a big hippie commune, but right now in the real world, Muslims are murdering each other in droves in the Middle East in the name of Allah. Muslims are overcrowding European cities and bringing all the crime that comes with overcrowding and poverty. The author of this blog even prefaced it by saying that he, himself, has been terrorized into not speaking openly about Islam out of fear of being murdered in cold blood. That’s not for nothing. That means something.”
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the very existence of I.S.I.S and the recent shootings in France prove I’m being way too lenient and forgiving towards Islam. Le’ts assume your worst fears are true. What’s the call to action that raises? Do you exile all the Muslims? Do you round them up in the streets and shoot them? Do you pass laws suppressing their culture? Do you sneer at them in public and bully them?
Every religious and ethnic group in the world has, and always have had, rules that are good, bad and irrelevant. Every culture is constantly evolving as it adopts customs that work and abandons ones that don’t. No culture was ever improved by insults, fights or killings. Cultures improve as the population’s knowledge and self-empowerment increase. Cultures devolve as the population’s access to education and basic needs decrease.
If you’re worried about any group of people oppressing, terrorizing and killing people, the best thing you can do to combat that threat is to donate to free online education and work to eliminate poverty. When people are educated and safe, they’ll naturally gravitate towards fulfilling their potential as a self-actualized individual instead of fighting to secure rewards in the afterlife.
Update: I’ve written a follow-up blog to this one:
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