Female Circumcision: A Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. Or at least in three of the four branches of Sunni Islam. In the Shafi’i school it’s obligatory, and in the Maliki and Hanbali schools it’s recommended. Only in the Hanafi school is there considerable ambiguity, where some jurists hold that female circumcision is preferred, and others resist a religious prescription and even say that it’s undesirable.

The Reliance of the Traveler is the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law, from al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar is a prestigious institution of Sunni Islam, and basically Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican. The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s popular translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris (the prepuce) instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. He treats the Arabic word “bazr” as referring to the clitoral hood or prepuce, and doesn’t indicate what other term might refer to the clitoris if “bazr” does not. In contrast, the vast majority of scholars believe that “bazr” means clitoris, not the skin around it (see Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam, p 138). In Shafi’i Islam, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates (dark blue, below) also happen to be the places where clit-cutting is heavily frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time Shafi’i Islam was introduced; this was a part of the world where female circumcision hadn’t been practiced. Obviously the Shafi’is haven’t been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Similar apologetics have been tried by other Muslim leaders. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, has claimed that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. Circumcision, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin (the prepuce) at the top of the clitoral glans. But as with Keller’s misleading translation, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It’s a religious practice as much as a cultural one in regions dominated by Shafi’i Islam (which requires it) and Maliki and Hanbali Islam (which both encourage it).

We often hear that female circumcision isn’t a religious requirement in Islam because it’s not mentioned in the Qur’an. But that’s like saying anti-abortion isn’t religiously grounded in Christianity because the Bible has nothing to say about abortion. The Qur’an is one of Islam’s many authoritative religious writings, along with the Hadith, the Sira, the Fiqh, and the texts of Sharia law. All of these are understood to convey the will of Allah — regardless of what the “historical Muhammad” would say on the matter if we could somehow ask him.

This is well put by Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose specialty is the Maliki school of Islam. In his landmark book on medieval Spain (where the Maliki school dominated throughout the 8th-12th centuries), he refutes myths of Islamic tolerance, and in the section on female circumcision, he writes:

“Today’s discussions on whether or not the practice of female circumcision is actually prescribed ‘by Islam’, or whether it was a pre-Islamic practice that Islam kept, or whether it was a practice that Muhammad did not condone but that later clerics implemented, are irrelevant to the fact of its approval in Maliki law and therefore to the logic of its practice in lands ruled by Maliki law right down to the twenty-first century.” (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, p 143)

It may be “Islamophobic” to point this out, but it’s factual, however much facts are out of fashion. Few liberals and media outlets like to admit that female circumcision has anything to do with Islam.

Which makes last year’s events in Detroit a very interesting post-script. Two Muslim doctors were charged in April 2017 for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” Now, obviously the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right — the thing no one cares to admit: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I explained in this post. Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients. They will doubtfully win, but you gotta love the irony: the only liberal multi-culturalist who will speak truth on this matter is a lawyer, who will say anything to defend the indefensible.

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Confessions of an Islamophobe

“No one has upset the Islamophobia cabal more than Robert Spencer. First, he knows more about Islamic doctrine than they do. Next, he has outed all the tricks they use in their taqiyyah bag to disinform the public. Finally, and most importantly, Robert will not be cowed. Please read this important book and make sure you share it with as many people as possible.” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, human rights activist)

Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I have liberal politics, but it’s rare to find liberals like us who commend the work of Robert Spencer. He’s a political conservative who runs the Jihad Watch blog, has written numerous publications, and is viewed by some as an Islamophobe. The problem with that word is that it conflates bigotry with any examination of how jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence, recruit among peaceful Muslims, and advocate for oppression by sharia law. Spencer is no bigot; and so it is somewhat surprising that in his latest book, Confessions of an Islamophobe, he has decided to wear the label his critics have foisted on him.

“Good” Islamophobia?

Spencer wants to make a distinction between good and bad Islamophobia. He says the bad version certainly exists, is never justified, and people have no reason to be afraid of all Muslims. Yet there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the disproportionate number of Muslims who embrace a commitment to reestablishing the caliphate, on the basis of normative Islam. He writes:

“I am not an Islamophobe within the meaning of those who have affixed this label on me. In other words, I am not the ‘bad’ kind of Islamophobe who wants any innocent people, Muslim or otherwise, to be victimized. Instead I am what I would call the ‘good’ kind of Islamophobe, someone who is honest enough to call a problem a problem, even when the whole world wishes to ignore or deny its existence.”

But that’s redefining phobia itself. Phobia is commonly understood as an irrational fear of something, and Spencer’s concerns about Islam (as he would obviously agree) are not irrational — any more than Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s or Sam Harris’s are. I’m not sure why he wants to co-opt the idea of phobia in a positive way like this. It will doubtfully catch on.

I believe that Islamophobia is a propagandist term, as people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris have always said, and as Spencer used to say. It’s propagandist because what people really mean when they call people “Islamophobes” is that they are bigots. But any religion is fair game for the razor, and harsh critics of Islam are not necessarily intolerant of Muslims as people; certainly Robert Spencer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, and Sam Harris aren’t. There are genuine bigots — like Terry Jones — and for them, the proper term to use is exactly that: anti-Muslim bigotry. We don’t call people who are prejudiced against Jews “Jewaphobes”; we call them anti-Semites. Someone who is “honest enough to call a problem a problem”, as Spencer says, is not phobic, and to redefine it this way is really a form of double-speak.

Aside from his willingness to wear a label that doesn’t apply to him, Spencer is in fine form in his latest book, and I’ll review some of the issues he brings up. Starting with pussy-grabbing.

Pussy-Grabbing and Linda Sarsour

The rise of Linda Sarsour as a national feminist leader shows how far feminists have fallen. Sarsour’s offenses are legion, but perhaps she’s most infamous for painting sharia law as benign for its provision of interest-free loans. Seriously. At her most vicious, if you can believe the irony, she outdid President Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” remark. That a boor like Trump would broadcast his impulses to grab women’s genitalia is no surprise, but who would have guessed that he would be trumped (sorry) by his own arch-enemy. Linda Sarsour — that wonderful feminist hero — declared that human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserved to have her pussy removed, and on top of that to be violently attacked. Back in March 2011, she said that she wished she could remove Hirsi Ali’s vagina, as she (Hirsi Ali) “does not deserve to be a woman”. Hirsi Ali also needed an “ass-whipping”, according to Sarsour.

It’s hard to imagine a more Orwellian ass-backwards view of feminism than Sarsour’s. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation, and Sarsour was obviously implying that she “deserved what she got”. Incredibly, Hirsi Ali is hated by many leftists like Sarsour, and has been banned from speaking at college universities. And why? Because she has called for a reform within Islam. Because she is honest about Islam. Because she cares about the millions of Muslims, not least women, who suffer under sharia law. For all of this she has been branded a hateful “Islamophobe”, while mean-spirited liars like Linda Sarsour are considered feminist heroes.

It gets worse. As Spencer points out, Sarsour doesn’t just endorse sharia, but also a rhetorical form of jihad. Last summer she denounced the Trump administration saying, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,” and, “I hope that when we stand up to those [like Trump] who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts that from us as a form of jihad.” Her statements were controversial, since jihad means (and has always meant) violent warfare in all schools of Sunni and Shia Islam. Sarsour quickly protested that she meant a non-violent standing up — a metaphorical jihad — and she was probably being honest on that point. But as Spencer says, Linda Sarsour isn’t stupid. Even though she herself may mean a non-violent standing up, she obviously knows that when other Muslims who know the real meaning of jihad in Islam hear that, they will hear it as a call to violence. Speaking “words of truth to a tyrant” isn’t mutually exclusive with violent uprisings; they’ve gone hand in hand throughout history. And as much as I despise Trump, if any Muslims were to try assassinating him on the inspiration of Sarsour’s rhetoric, she could (and should) be held legally accountable for incitement to violence, exactly as Spencer says.

Is Female Circumcision a Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. The Reliance of the Traveler is a manual of Islamic law (the Shafi’i school) from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious institution of Sunni Islam. (Al-Azhar is Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican.) The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting, though Spencer does not, that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s Translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. In Shafi’i jurisprudence, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. There is a close correlation between the Shafi’i school of Islam and the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates also just happen to be the places where clit-cutting is more frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time with Shafi’i Islam, and this was a part of the world where female circumcision had previously been unknown. Obviously the Shafi’is have not been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Spencer does note the other apologetic tactics used by Muslim leaders who deny that clit-cutting has religious sanction. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, insists that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. The former, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin at the top of the clitoral glans. As Spencer notes, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It is recommended on religious grounds by the Maliki and Hanbali law schools and is considered obligatory by the Shafi’i school. It is a religious practice as much as a cultural one in these three schools. (Only in Hanafi regions is it “purely” a cultural issue; the Hanafis allow female genital mutilation but do not consider it a religious virtue.) But it is “Islamophobic” to point this out. Unless, that is, you happen to be a lawyer defending clients who are being prosecuted for clit-cutting. Spencer notes the case of two Muslim doctors from Detroit who were charged this year (in April 2017) for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” In reality, says Spencer, the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I just explained. No western liberal or media outlet likes to admit that, but Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients.

If the court rules in Chartier’s favor, that would set a disastrous precedent for creeping sharia. I don’t see it happening (most legal experts think the defendants will lose), but the fact that the argument is being taken seriously is too much.

The plight of gays, near and far

What is morally repugnant ( “racist”, “Islamophobic”) to many people is calling attention to the plight of women under Islamic law, not the actual mistreatment of women under Islamic law. The same is true for the plight of gays. Islam has a death penalty for gays based on its religious writings, and that penalty is enforced in many Muslim countries. But calling attention to this is considered by many LGBT activists more offensive than the Islamic killing of gays itself.

So for example, the transgendered Theresa Sparks, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, objected to bus ads that were run in 2013. The ads highlighted the mistreatment of gays in Islamic law. “Posting those ads,” she claimed, “suggested that all Muslims hate gays.” Spencer (who is vice-president of the organization that ran the bus ads) rightly notes that the ads neither stated nor suggested that all Muslims hate gays. Sparks had nothing to say at all about the practice of killing gays where Islam is the rule of law. You can bet her reaction would have been different had the bus ads cited Leviticus and Romans in order to call attention to homophobic elements in Christianity. I guarantee you she wouldn’t have objected that such ads “tar Christians with too big a brush”; and I’m sure she would have had plenty to say about the influence of the apostle Paul on those who regard LGBTs as deviant.

Then there is Chris Stedman, Executive Director of the Yale Humanist Community, who is gay, and who writes for Salon.com. He too objected to the bus ads, and wrote an article called “Stop Trying to Split Gays and Muslims”, which is conceptually absurd. Stedman is surely aware that gays like him in other parts of the world suffer far worse for their orientation — especially gay Muslims. How can he be so clueless to think the bus ads were trying to “split gays and Muslims”?

Sparks and Stedman aren’t alone. Many LGBTs — the same folks who cry foul when you use the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgendered person — fall utterly silent when it comes to Islamic crimes against gays, which are by far the worst. While this is baffling, Spencer suggests two reasons:

“It is likely attributable at least in part to the common human tendency to find the near enemy more urgently to be fought than the far enemy, even if the far enemy is, in the long run, more lethal. Sparks, Stedman, and others like them have experienced opposition from conservatives for the choices they have made in life about aspects of their core identity. It is unlikely, however, that they have encountered Islamic jihadis or even sharia supremacists who are willing to confront them openly. The Islamic disapproval of gays and the sharia death penalty remain abstractions for them. Conservative Christians, by contrast, are all too real.”

The second reason:

“There is a deeper reason, however, that is related to that one. Gay and transgender activists may be aware of the sharia mistreatment of gays, but they don’t say anything about it, and disapprove of those who do, because of ‘Islamophobia’. Opposition to jihad terror and to sharia oppression of gays and others is identified in the United States and Europe of the 21st century as a conservative ‘right-wing’ issue. And there is that near enemy again. Should gays in the west today join conservatives, including Christian conservatives, in standing against Islamic oppression of gays and its call for violence against them? To do so would not only mean uniting with the enemy they hate the most, but it would also mean ostracism and villification from the members of their community who refused to go along with them.”

I think he’s right on both counts. I’m a left-leaning liberal and member of the LGBT community, but I can say I’ve never had these problems. Part of it is that I have no use for identity politics, and I avoid the “guilt by association” trap. I care about what someone is saying more than who is saying it. Robert Spencer may be worlds apart from me politically, but I’m happy to join his hands when I agree with him on a critical issue like Islam.

Covering up Orlando

The code of silence helps make sense of the FBI cover up of the jihad attack on the gay club in Orlando. On June 12 2016, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people in the club, and injured 53 more. I remember the days that followed. My Facebook feed was full of screeds written by liberal friends who blasted conservatives for saying this was a jihad attack or had anything to do with Islam. I went on record saying the opposite: that Omar Mateen was more than likely inspired for religious reasons, and I put those odds at about 85%. Sure enough, it came out that he was inspired by the Boston Marathon bomber, and had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State over phone calls that he made right before walking into the club and opening fire.

But as Spencer says, in this case the LGBT activists can be partially excused, because Omar Mateen’s jihad attack was covered up at the highest levels. A day after the attacks, in a sanctimonious speech, Barack Obama dismissed the evidence of Mateen’s phone calls to 911, saying that fears of jihad were groundless. A week after the attacks, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the FBI would release transcripts of Mateen’s phone calls, but that the transcripts would omit Mateen’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups. “We are not going to further his propaganda,” she said, then adding — wait for it — that they were still trying to “get as much information as possible” about why Mateen did what he did.

That’s right. She dismissed the explanation right under her nose — that Mateen killed gays in line with his holy duty as an adherent of the Islamic State — and called that explanation “propaganda”. Lynch and the Justice Department were pounced on for this blatant cover up, and they did backpedal a bit, and later released the full transcripts. But as Spencer says, the damage had been done.

Bacon Patrol

All of the craziness described above — Linda Sarsour being hailed as a national feminist, an American lawyer willing to defend clit-cutting on grounds of religious freedom, social activists speaking loudly against sexism and homophobia unless it’s the Islamic kind, law officials covering up jihad attacks — derives, in part, from worries about “anti-Muslim backlash”. It’s a backlash that almost never occurs. As Spencer points out, since 9/11 (2001) there have been over 30,000 jihad attacks worldwide. Until the Finsbury Mosque attack in June of this year (2017), by contrast, there have been no Muslims killed by bigoted “Islamophobes”. 30,000+ jihad attacks vs. a single hate-crime attack is a sad excuse for moral equivalence, but there you have it.

Spencer describes events occurring in the wake of the jihad attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England (May 22, 2017). The Muslim attackers killed 29 people and injured many more, and there came a later attack at the London Bridge (June 3) killing 7 people and injuring more. For a long while after the attacks, England was on high alert, but the police were as much worried about backlash. They increased their patrols at mosques in Cambridge when strips of bacon were left on car windshields to insult Muslims. This is how the British police were allocating their resources in the wake of jihad massacres: bacon patrols. Says Spencer:

“Not that any such hate crimes, whenever they actually occur, are ever justified. But the proportions were off. Twenty-two people were dead in Manchester and seven in London at the hands of Islamic jihadists. One would have thought that in light of that, the Cambridge police would have laughed off a few strips of bacon in front of a mosque, and told the mosque leaders to direct their attention to more important matters, such as working to root out jihad terror sympathizers and plotters from their communities.”

To be fair, backlash concerns are more legitimate in a United States where Donald Trump is president. But not nearly to the extent we grant it. In the wake of jihad attacks, the proper response of Muslim leaders is to work against jihadis and Islamists in their own community instead of constantly playing the victim card. It’s not just conservatives like Spencer who say this. The liberal Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz is equally fed up with the lack of perspective, and has held up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in positively empowering ways, rather than playing the victim card and/or rioting in the streets.

Verdict

Confessions of an Islamophobe is vintage Robert Spencer. The man has been hated on for bad reasons. He has been accused of cherry-picking violent verses out of the Qur’an and ignoring peaceful ones, but in reality the verses of warfare have been interpreted by Islamic authorities throughout history as being normative for all time, while the peaceful passages are not only fewer in number, they are conditional, and superseded (in the Qur’an itself) by the warfare passages on the basis of their status as later revelations.

He has right-wing politics, but he does not believe that most Muslims are terrorists or bad people. He has never stated that the United States is in danger of being taken over by Muslims and transformed into a sharia-based caliphate. (I don’t think that’s a danger in America either; Europe may be another story.) It’s true that Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have articulated goals to take over the U.S., and it’s true that spokespeople for the Council on American-Islamic Relations have let it slip that sharia rule in the U.S. is their objective. But their chances of success are almost zero, and Spencer acknowledges that. He is no more an irrational alarmist than he is a bigot.

What could happen, however, and probably will, according to Spencer, is that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to undermine counter-terror efforts. There will be increasing challenges to our way of life — the kind we see in Europe all the time. There will be more jihad massacres, more assaults on women and gays, and other threats. For these reasons, Spencer calls himself a “good Islamophobe”, someone concerned about the harm and devastation Islam brings into everyone’s lives. I don’t think co-opting that problematic term is particularly helpful here, but he’s substantively right. There is much to ponder in his new book, and I’ve only scratched a few chapters in this review. Read it all, and reflect on what it really means to be a humanitarian.

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.

 

 

Dying Words: Jesus and Muhammad

In a video about the famous last words of Jesus and Muhammad, David Wood suggests that we learn a lot about someone by pondering his dying words, especially if the person’s death is painful and agonizing. He’s a Christian apologist but makes an interesting point.

Jesus died by crucifixion, obviously a hideous ways to die, and as he hung on the cross, skin dangling like ribbons from his scourging, he said of his tormentors,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Lk 23:24)

Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies (Mt 5:44), and he practiced what he preached. If you can love and forgive your enemies while being crucified, you’ve pretty much outdone yourself. His words had an impact, as we see when the first Christian martyr Stephen was being stoned to death; he cried out similarly, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60)

Muhammad’s death was also agonizing. He was poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims, but the poison worked slowly, eating away at his organs. He said:

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians, for they built the places of worship at the graves of the prophets.” (Sahih al-Bukari 1:8:427)

Muhammad’s dying prayer was not a forgiveness petition like Jesus’, but a curse. He was forbidding his followers to build a mosque on his grave, and made his point by calling down Allah’s curse on Jews and Christians, who were known for doing this sort of thing. Note the irony: Islam’s second largest mosque is in fact built over Muhammad’s grave in Medina. So if Jews and Christians are under Allah’s curse for building places of worship and the graves of their prophets, then so are Muslims. Muhammad in effect cursed not only unbelievers, but Muslims themselves.

For present purposes it doesn’t matter how historical the accounts are in the Christian and Islamic sources. What matters is that this is how Jesus and Muhammad are depicted, and it’s what many Christians and Muslims believe about their savior/prophet. Dying intentions speak volumes, and in these cases one is an act of extreme charity, the other a parting blow.

Defending the “Religion of Peace”: Six Flawed Strategies

How do Muslim apologists defend the idea that Islam is a religion of peace? In a number of ways, but it boils down to six. Three of them are scriptural strategies, debates over what the Islamic holy texts say and require. The other three are non-scriptural strategies which foist the blame for Muslim violence on something other than religiosity. Let’s consider them all.

Scriptural Strategies

There are generally three apologetic strategies used to prove that the Islamic holy texts — the Qur’an, the Sira, and the Hadith — don’t promote or require violence.

(1) The Reinterpretation Defense. This strategy relies on interpreting the holy war texts in a way that opposes their evident meaning. We often hear that jihad is a spiritual struggle, not a physical or military one. It’s actually both and has always been so. If jihad were only a spiritual struggle, then the sections in the Qur’an about booty and spoils of war make no sense. You don’t get spoils out of a spiritual struggle.

The requirement to wage literal warfare has been mandatory since the days of Muhammad, and remains so in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Shafii legal manual ‘Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler) is one of the highest authorities on the subject, and certified by the Al-Azhar University as reflecting the “practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community”. The manual devotes a single paragraph to jihad as spiritual struggle, and then spends seven whole pages on jihad as warfare. It makes clear, as the Qur’an does, that jihad is physical warfare against non-Muslims:

“Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word ‘mujahada’, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ The scriptural basis for jihad, is such Qur’anic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (2:216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolators utterly’ (9:36); and such hadiths as: ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me’, and ‘To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’ “

The idea that jihad is purely a spiritual struggle is a fantasy.

There is nothing wrong with reinterpretation when you acknowledge that is what you are doing. It’s what reformers do when they reevaluate texts so that religion can survive and evolve. The Catholic Church did this at Vatican II, when it reinterpreted the gospel passion narratives to dispense with antisemitism. Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz wants to spiritualize the jihad and dispense with violence. He says, “We Muslims must admit there are passages in the Qur’an that require reinterpretation. Let us use existing tools of exegeses, such as specificity, restriction, abrogation, and metaphor to condemn [the violence required by the Qur’an].” As a reformist plan, that’s great. Reinterpreting jihad as a purely spiritual struggle is a commendable goal. The problem is that unlike Nawaz, most re-interpreters don’t admit the problem, because they don’t believe there even is a problem with the Qur’an. In their minds, they are not really reinterpreting, rather supplying what the holy sources actually mean, and insisting that people who read violence and other bad things from the Qur’an are mistaken. That’s not only wrong, it gives the fatal impression that reform isn’t necessary.

(2) The Context Defense. The idea is that verses may seem to endorse violence, but if you read them in context with the surrounding verses (the literary context), and/or understand them in their original setting (the historical context), they promote fighting only in self-defense. For example, when it says to “slay people wherever you find them” (Qur’an 2:191), it’s relevant that in the previous verse, the command has to do with “fighting those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190). And that’s certainly true. But there are many more verses that also command the slaying of unbelievers wherever you find them, and there is nothing from either the literary or historical context that qualifies the command at all. Examples would be “fight those who do not believe in Allah or the last day” (Qur’an 9:29), which is not about fighting in self-defense. It’s about offensive jihad, based on holy imperative.

Context is always crucial, and historians pride themselves on getting it right. Otherwise you can make a passage say anything you want. The problem is that in this case, apologists are just assuming that the context will prove what they want it to prove. They have this strange idea that context is somehow automatically liberating and results in more palatable readings of texts. Sometimes that happens, and it’s nice when it does, but it just as often doesn’t. The purpose of historical criticism isn’t to produce better theology (even when it can genuinely lend support in that regard). Its purpose is as cold as scientific inquiry: to let the chips fall where they may, for better or worse. Violence in the Islamic sources is just as obvious when taken in literary and historical context. It’s a mandatory requirement on Muslim believers; to subject infidels and bring them under the rule of Islamic law. The difference between the context of Muhammad in the 7th century and that of ISIS in the 21st doesn’t amount to anything that changes this.

(3) The Counter-Scriptural Defense. This is the game of scriptural one-upsmanship. To prove that Islam is a religion of peace, apologists will cite, “To you be your religion, and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), and “There’s no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), both of which sound progressive. The problem is that these texts aren’t the Qur’an’s final marching orders. The pattern found in the Qur’an, Sira (the life of Muhammad), and the Hadith is the same: only when Muhammad was outnumbered and building his power base in his early years in Mecca, did he counsel such a message of peace and tolerance. This was to ensure the survival of the Muslim community. (Ironically, it is these peaceful passages which fall prey to the context trap, not the violent ones as the apologists think.) In his later years in Medina, when the Muslim community had grown, the message changed to “fight those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190-191; the defensive jihad). Finally, in the latest period of Medina, when Muslims had the strongest and dominant position in society, the message changed again, from “fight those who fight you” to “fight those who do not believe in Allah” (Qur’an 9:29; the offensive jihad) for the subjugation of non-Muslims. These are the abundant passages which carry eternal force: Muslims are to kill infidels and heretics until they die in martyrdom (Qur’an 9:111), and should “not weaken and call for peace when they should be uppermost” (Qur’an 47:35).

There’s a term for this trajectory. It’s called the Doctrine of Abrogation, which says that later passages supersede earlier ones. It’s still the official doctrine in all schools of Islam, and derives from the Qur’an itself: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except when we bring forth one better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (Qur’an is 2:106). Allah changes revelations as he goes along, and the later (“better”) revelations trump the earlier ones. The early peaceful texts have relevance only when Muslims are vulnerable or in a minority position; the later violent texts have eternal force. Islam is unique on this point. In other religions you can play the counter-scriptural game with flexibility. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text in the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s why most scriptures are conveniently malleable. Not so the Qur’an. When liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine”, we should of course applaud them, but the fact is that their claims are toothless, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. Until actual reformers succeed in reversing the direction of abrogation, and manage to give primacy to the (very few) Meccan texts at the expense of all the Medinan ones — not to mention all the passages in the Sira and Hadith — the counter-scriptural game is doomed to fail.

In sum: scriptural strategies

All three scriptural strategies are legitimate, but Muslim apologists don’t use them properly when trying to prove that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. In the case of reinterpretation, they essentially don’t admit what they are doing (unlike reformers) and just pretend that the scriptural texts are fine and peaceful as they stand. In the case of context, it’s no help at all on this matter. And in the case of setting the few genuinely peaceful scriptures against the many violent ones, the Doctrine of Abrogation — indeed the Qur’an itself — renders the peaceful ones obsolete.

Non-Scriptural Strategies

Now we should ask how Islamic violence is accounted for by these apologists who don’t examine their scriptures carefully. Where do they put the blame in order to salvage Islam as a religion of peace? There are generally three strategies of blame-shifting.

(4) The Poverty Defense. The claim is that poverty and/or lack of education causes violence and terrorism. Social scientists have collected massive data on the socioeconomic background of terrorists, and unfortunately no evidence supports the idea that Islamic jihadists are unusually poor or badly schooled. The Princeton University survey in 2008 was a landmark in this regard. Another study done by the RAND Corporation focused on suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas on the West Bank and Gaza, and found that nearly 60% of suicide-bombers had more than a high-school education, compared with less than 15% of the Palestinian population on whole. Another study in Lebanon focused on Hizbullah militants, who were better educated and less likely to be from poor families than the overall population of the Shia areas of Lebanon. Nor is there evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among the destitute and deprived. In Pew surveys done in 2004, adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey were asked whether they believed that suicide-bombing was justified. Shockingly, the ones who voiced more agreement were those who were more educated.

Some then insist that poverty is at least the root cause of terror, even if terrorists themselves are not poor, the argument being that anger over poverty causes richer citizens of poor countries to join terrorist groups. This idea was tested by looking at data on 956 terrorist events between 1997 and 2003. Against expectations again, the data showed that the poorest countries — those with low literacy, and/or those whose economies were relatively stagnant — did not produce more terrorists. Moreover, when the analysis was restricted to suicide-attacks, citizens of the poorest countries were the least likely to commit a suicide-attack.

It is demonstrably false, in other words, that poverty causes violence or terrorism in the Islamic world. The idea seems intuitively absurd anyway. Many other places — Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it — are plagued by poverty and/or lack of education, and they aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures.

(5) The Political Grievance Defense. The claim is that jihadists and Islamists are motivated more by political grievances than religious ideology. There are two responses to this. First is that on one level this is a meaningless claim, because Islam is inherently political. Warfare (jihad), terms of law and order (sharia), and territorial claims (to subjugate the world and bring all nations under Islamic rule) are in essence what makes something political. By definition, groups like Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS will cry out against foreign policies. But their grievances, whether sincere or not, have nothing to do with things like enslaving underage Yazidi girls, killing Turkmen Shias, throwing gays off rooftops, and executing Muslim apostates. It’s not even necessarily the case that Islamic governments want their grievances solved. Muslims who have lived in Islamic countries know this firsthand — that Islamic supremacists use leftist narratives about oppression to their advantage, to deflect criticism and to further justify oppressing their own people. They thrive on grievances, which embolden them, open more avenues to paradise, and provide their reason-to-be. But they certainly don’t need to have grievances to wage war, and often they don’t.

The classic case is that of Thomas Jefferson, who responded to an unprovoked Muslim attack by launching war against the Barbary States in 1801. The unprovoked attack came sixteen years prior (1785), at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was shocked at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that they were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. All of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda sermons, and yet this was over two centuries ago, long before America even had a foreign policy. The Barbary Muslims had no political grievances against the U.S. They were just doing — in their own words — as Muhammad commanded in the Qur’an.

It’s true, however — and this is the second response — that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror. In that sense, a lot of the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. The last two American presidents were horrible in this regard. George W. Bush and Barack Obama labored under the illusion that the United States could bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this when he removed Saddam Hussein; Obama thought so when he aided in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result wasn’t democracy; it was chaos and anarchy in Libya; unrest and instability in Egypt; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. The dictators we have toppled were bad, but the jihad and Islamist groups who fill the void are worse. This is what political critics often point out, and as far as that goes, it’s an accurate observation. The problem is that the observation fuels the myth that jihad terror wouldn’t exist at all if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism, which — as cases like Thomas Jefferson prove — isn’t true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century. Muhammad is the jihad exemplar, and his eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. So while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a particularly hot target for jihad, and irresponsibly so, the jihad imperative exists regardless of what we or any nation does to provoke it.

You don’t have to look far in the world to see the truth of this. The oppressive injustices China has inflicted on the Tibetans are worse than even what western powers and Israel have done in the Muslim world. The Tibetans have bitter grievances against China, and yet suicide-bombing has not been the Tibetan-Buddhist response. That’s because Buddhism doesn’t require homicidal martyrdom. Islam does.

(6) The “Other Religions Have Their Problems Too” Defense.

This strategy is one of evasion. Instead of trying to explain disproportionate amounts of Muslim violence, the apologists pretend that all religions carry an equal potential for violence and harm. How often do we hear that Christianity has its abortion-clinic bombers like Islam has its jihadists? The problem is that this isn’t an analogy. Abortion-clinic bombers are a fringe phenomenon, and none receives endorsement from any mainstream Christians — or even from most fundamentalist Christians for that matter. There are many jihadists and Islamists, on the other hand, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia are to Islam what the Eucharist and resurrection are to Christianity. For every abortion clinic bomber there are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active, and they are properly doing what Islam requires. There’s no comparison here.

Then we hear about the medieval crusades. They are at least an analogy, and prove that a religion can indeed evolve by cutting entirely against the grain of its tradition. But the crusades resulted from the combination of unlikely forces. They copied the jihad in their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation, but in just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.

The crusades were essentially two things, (1) a defensive response to Muslim aggression, and (2) a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggression against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — Muslim offensives, uncontrollable Christian knights, and particularly ambitious popes — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem.  Muslims have never had problems justifying their holy wars. They’ve been the historical norm. The crusades were a peripheral and self-contradictory development in Christianity, and were foreordained to pass.

We can compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use better analogies. Vigilantism, terrorism, and holy wars are not the place to look. A proper example would be something like contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are non-trivial numbers of Catholics who do as the church teaches and refuse to use birth control.

The same is true about Muslims. Most of them are obviously peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not the equivalent of reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously, and for very good reason given the clear imperatives in the Islamic sources. Too many Christians held antisemitic attitudes before Vatican II, also for good reason; the influence of passion plays and other New Testament traditions can’t be overstated. If the Islamic world is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, then Muslims have uphill reformist battles ahead of them.

 

Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.

Chances of being Killed in a Jihad Attack

The Cato Institute has presented helpful data estimating the annual chance of being killed by jihadists in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as compared to in the United States. Though I think these analysts are a bit blasé about Islamic terrorism being a “manageable threat”, I agree that it’s important to keep perspective. Even in the highest-risk country (the UK), according to this analysis, your annual chances of being killed by a jihadist are woefully slim.

Over a year ago I explained the opposite problem, how the media downplays the jihad threat by misusing statistics and making pseudo-comparisons to other forms of terrorism to create a false impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad. In fact there is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian”, or such equivalent threat in the same numbers or backed by a mainstream ideology. The reason why there are so many jihad terrorists is because their activities are required by Islamic law which derives in turn from very plausible readings of the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith. And yet for all the routinely active jihadists, we should take some consolation from the following statistics from Cato, and not fall into fear-mongering.

 

Table 1: Fatalities and Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack, 1975–June 20th, 2017

Fatalities

Annual Chance of Dying

United Kingdom

2,632

1 in 964,531

Belgium

64

1 in 6,936,545

France

506

1 in 4,984,301

Sweden

20

1 in 19,001,835

Germany

148

1 in 23,234,378

United States

3568

1 in 3,241,363

 

Table 2: Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack by Period

Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack

1975–2000

2001–2017

United States

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 1,602,021

France

1 in 6,059,061

1 in 4,006,878

Belgium

1 in 9,611,873

1 in 4,373,511

United Kingdom

1 in 590,389

1 in 8,796,562

Sweden

1 in 22,145,655

1 in 15,858,016

United States (exc. 9/11)

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 19,772,468

Germany

1 in 17,338,091

1 in 47,429,484