Just how “terrifying” is Islam?

August 17, 2010

The proposed Islamic cultural centre and mosque in New York has recently been drawing a lot of press, and a lot of fire, apparently because of it’s nearness to the September 11th ‘Ground-Zero’. The usual thuggish language has been employed by the usual suspects, and quite honestly, I don’t think it’s really worth commenting on them.  But what is interesting is some of the discussion from people I wouldn’t normally consider “The Usual Suspects”.

Of all the major religions, I find Islam—in its bellicosity, its subjugation of women, its reliance on texts filled with hate and horror (and yes, I know the Old Testament has its gruesome parts and vengeful God), and the desire of many adherents to install Islamic law in their countries—the most repugnant.

The above quote is not from the Daily Mail, or from Sarah Palin, but from Jerry Coyne, author of “Why Evolution Is True”, a man whose blog I enjoy immensely and whose views I generally agree with (to the extent a British leftie like me can agree with an American, anyway). Reading his discussion on the New York mosque, however, this quote jarred quite significantly.

In his discussion he’d already mentioned Sam Harris’ take on the New York mosque, quoting:

And honest reasoning declares that there is much that is objectionable—and, frankly, terrifying—about the religion of Islam and about the state of discourse among Muslims living in the West, and it is decidedly inconvenient that discussing these facts publicly is considered a sign of “intolerance” by well-intentioned liberals, in part because such criticism resonates with the actual bigotry of not-so-well-intentioned conservatives. I can see no remedy for this, however, apart from simply ramming the crucial points home, again and again.

As a “well-intentioned liberal”, an atheist, and a person with no like of religion in general, I would kindly request that Sam Harris take a long run off of a short pier, if he would be so kind.

Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris (and other self-declared liberal-lefts) are wrong. Islam is not the religion as portrayed in Western media. Islam is not monolithic. Islam is not out to destroy you, eat your babies or chop your hands off. Islam is different. The various forms that Islam take incorporate various practices that are – on the surface at least – rather alien to Western culture. But this does not make “Islam” “the most repugnant” of religions, nor is it terrifying.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand Islam. I do, however, understand Christianity. I understand that the Christian Bible has some god-awful things in it, but I understand that Christians do not believe that mass slaughter is moral because it is in the Old Testament. They don’t believe that children should be stoned to death if they disobey their parents, they don’t believe that rape victims should be forced to marry rapists under penalty of death. That these issues are screwed up in the Bible make amusing rejoinders to the question of religion and morality, but most honest atheists would recognise that Christians don’t do that. Similarly, most atheists would recognise that Stephen Green of the Christian Voice does not speak for most British Christians, that Fred Phelps does not speak for most American Christians, and that – for that matter – the Pope really does not speak for most Catholic Christians.

So why is there this automatic assumption that Islam is any different from Christianity? Why does Jerry Coyne feel comfortable writing “and yes, I know the Old Testament has its gruesome parts and vengeful God” when excoriating Islam? Why does the Christian Bible get a free-pass in this instance, yet Islam is slammed as “the most repugnant”?

If you read the press, you’d think the answer was obvious. It was Muslims that hijacked four planes on September 11th. It was Muslims that blew up bombs on July 7th. It was Muslims in Madrid. Muslims wear face veils. Muslim clerics have said some outrageous things. Blah blah blah.

So What?

It was Christians that spent decades trying to blow each other up over Ireland. It was Christians who assassinated abortion doctors. The Pope is a bloody Christian. The Bishop of Rochester is a bloody Christian. For that matter, Stalin almost certainly was an atheist. Do the Atheists who so freely condemn Islam really want to go down that road? After years of atheists saying “Oh no, Stalin may have been an atheist, but it wasn’t atheism that made him a mass-murderer”, do they really want to assert that what they read in the newspapers must be indicative of Western Muslim moral thought in general? Seriously?

As I said earlier; I don’t understand Islam. I don’t know what it is like to grow up as a Muslim, or to live as a Muslim in the West. I do not have the knowledge to separate the hyperbolic bullshit from the facts. But then I suspect neither do Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris. So I’ve decided I’m going to do something about this. I want to learn about Islam as it is actually practiced in the West. I have no idea how to do this, but I’d like to try. This seems like a good starting point.