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5 tips for criticizing Islam without sounding like a jerk

If you're going to go after a whole religion, make sure you sound like you know what you're talking about.


Chris Osterndorf


Posted on Oct 15, 2014   Updated on Aug 24, 2021, 1:52 pm CDT

You’ve probably heard a lot about Islam in the past few weeks, and most of it probably hasn’t been good. First of course, there’s the ensuing threat of ISIS, and the question of what America should do about it, if anything. Then, if that wasn’t enough, Bill Maher had to go and get involved, too.

On a now-infamous clip from October 3, the host of HBO’s Real Time stirred up quite a lot of controversy, when he and neuroscientist Sam Harris got into an argument with movie star Ben Affleck (as if he didn’t have enough controversy surrounding him already, with Batman and Gone Girl on his hands) over Islamophobia. Harris and Maher firmly believed that they, like other die-hard liberals, should have the right to criticize Islam, particularly in terms of the points that contradict their own political ideals. Affleck, however, also a die-hard liberal, felt that they were throwing the whole Islamic community under the bus, at the expense of a few extremists.

But the debate on the show was just the beginning. Well-known media critics like Reza Aslan made the case that Maher was being short-sighted. Others felt that despite the tactless way Maher went about it, his points about the more troubling issues within Islam were accurate (none of this is helped by the fact that Maher has been accused of a history of Islamophobia dating well before this event).

However, all this misses the more nuanced truth. Yes, it is okay to criticize Islam. It’s okay to criticize any religion, for that matter. We live in a country where, thankfully, we actually have that freedom. Nevertheless, there are several important steps one should take if they do want to criticize Islam (and not sound like an asshole while doing it).  

1) Don’t Assume All Muslims are the Same

To an educated person, this surely sounds simple, but its simplicity is also what makes it so important. That not all Muslims are the same is the most basic, obvious truth required to have an intelligent discussion on Islam, yet so many people still seem unable to grasp it.

As is the case with any religion, the followers of Islam are divided into many different factions. As there are many different denominations of Christianity, types of Islam also extend far and wide, beyond even the commonly referenced Sunnis and Shiites. But more importantly, Muslims, also like any other religious body, come from all walks of life.

In America, the idea that you will meet a Muslim who is even close to the extremists you see on TV is absurd. As a Pew Research study from 2013 (unsurprisingly) revealed, “American Muslims are more at ease in the contemporary world.” (Theresa Corbin actually wrote a piece for CNN recently where she talked about being a Muslim and a feminist, just in case you need more proof of this.)    

But you might be surprised to learn how, for lack of a less offensive word, “normal,” the study found the global Muslim community to be as well. “Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam.” said Pew. “Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.”

The study also found that “when asked specifically about relations between Muslims and Christians, majorities in most countries see little hostility between members of the two faiths.” They also argued, “Most Muslims around the world express support for democracy, and most say it is a good thing when others are very free to practice their religion.” Many, according to the study, even enjoy Western pop culture. And the biggest surprise of all? Muslims around the world are more likely to believe in evolution than Muslims in America (proving that religious trends in the U.S. are capable of crossing over from one faith to another).

Finally, it’s also important to realize that not all Muslims look the same, and that Muslim and Arab do not mean the same thing. Case in point, Pew notes that the majority of the world’s Muslims (62 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region. 

By this point in life, hopefully you know what happens when you assume things. This is as true of religion as it is of anything else. So if you want to make have a worthwhile conversation about Islam, it’s essential that you know what you’re talking about first.

2) Pick the Right Issues to Criticize

The assertion that “all Muslims are terrorists” or “all Muslims hate America” in this day and age makes you look like a royal dunce. Because there’s simply no evidence to suggest this is true. There are, however, several troubling aspects of the Muslim world, outside of America, which are worth being aware of.

The most obvious, rigorously picked apart one therein is the Muslim community’s treatment of women. And while it’s definitely not all bad in this area, there’s certainly still a lot that isn’t good. “Although many Muslims endorse a woman’s right to choose how she appears in public, overwhelming majorities in most regions say a wife should always obey her husband,” the Pew Study found. “Medians of more than eight-in-ten Muslims express this view in Southeast Asia (93 percent), South Asia (88 percent), and the Middle East and North Africa (87 percent). Even in Central Asia, a region characterized by relatively low levels of religious observance and strong support for a woman’s right to decide whether to wear a veil, seven-in-ten Muslims agree that a wife should carry out her husband’s wishes. Only in Southern and Eastern Europe do fewer than half (median of 43 percent) share this view.”

But the somewhat less documented yet equally troubling part of the global, Muslim community is attitudes towards LGBT people. Once again, this is less of an issue in the United States. As The New Republic’s Eric Sasson pointed out, “The U.S.’s two Muslim congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, are both members of the LGBT Equality Caucus and have spoken up in favor of gay rights.” Sasson continued, “Organizations such as Muslims for Progressive Values and the Al-Fatiha Foundation have done much good work helping LGBT Muslims reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. Some moderate Muslim clerics in the United States, and even a few conservative ones, have made statements suggestive of tolerance towards LGBT people and same-sex unions (albeit with caveats.)”

However, Sasson went on to talk about how things get complicated when you leave the U.S., and go into nations that are run by Islamic governments. “There is near unanimity of opinion,” he wrote, “regarding LGBT rights in places where Islam holds power: that it’s sinful and, more often than not, punishable by law. Even in countries where consensual homosexual activity is de facto legal, there is scant evidence of an openly gay populace, let alone examples of influential voices speaking up or influencing government policy to advance LGBT equality… In most of these nations, upwards of 90 percent of people consider homosexual activity morally wrong.”

Make no mistake, that’s a big deal. And all liberals—moreover, all caring peopleshould be concerned by this. Again, these viewpoints obviously don’t apply to all Muslims, nor do they give carte blanche to those who would dismiss Islam wholesale. But for the future of the Islamic community, and for the rest of the world (which we’ll talk about later), this has to be discussed.  

3) Understand the Context

Let’s get one thing straight: statistics are important, but they can also be manipulated. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Nicholas Kristof, who backed Affleck up during Maher’s panel (former RNC Michael Steele was also there, just to round things out), wisely asked whether Maher and Harris’ use of Islam statistics paralleled that of racists in America who would use crime statistics to demean the black community.

Though there probably isn’t a way of knowing for sure whether the numbers we have are entirely correct, Kristof (who has been surprisingly adept at addressing issues of bigotry here in America), poses an interesting question. After all, if Ferguson has taught us anything, it’s that twisting statistics to craft a narrative wherein minorities are portrayed as the bad guys is, sadly, all too easy. Interestingly, some have already started to question whether the study from the esteemed Pew Research Center, cited heavily by Maher (and, obviously, this very article), is slightly untrustworthy itself.

But while it’s easy to see how U.S. policy has other-ized and oppressed certain groups here at home, the same can’t be said of countries where the governments are predominantly Islamic-run, correct? Surely, their own backwards attitudes are solely on their heads.

Except, not exactly.  

One of the best points Affleck made on Maher’s show was that the U.S. has killed far more Muslims than Islamic extremists ever have. Undoubtedly, a large proportion of those slain are thought to be extremists themselves, but the irony here is that many of those extremists might not be in place today were it not also for the actions of America.

H.A. Goodman of The Huffington Post asked, “What geometric representation (he used concentric circles to illustrate his point) would Sam Harris give to the $262 billion in weapons that Western nations sold to governments like Saudi Arabia? After all,” he continued, “these are governments who essentially treat ‘women as minors,’ according to Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, when Bill Maher says, ‘There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7,’ he fails to mention that a big part of the reason is we prop up regimes who disagree vehemently with Ms. Ali on almost every aspect of life. Terrorists know this geopolitical irony all too well.”

Goodman isn’t talking about hidden secrets. These are hard realities, which we rarely think about when examining U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. And, as Goodman put it, to disregard them “while jumping on the bandwagon blaming a religion for regional instability, inevitably puts the blame on the average person of the Muslim faith who has nothing to do with massive arms transfers, grandiose foreign policy objectives, or blatant hypocrisy by the world’s most powerful nations.”

And while we’re on the subject of hypocrisy, let’s also return to LGBT rights for a moment. Sasson rightfully mentioned that “advances in LGBT rights in the West have only happened in the last 20 years—some might say just the last five—so it would be awfully hypocritical to fault the slow progress of LGBT rights in Muslim countries.” On top of which, to pat America on the back for LGBT acceptance, just because of advances in areas like gay marriage, doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go too. All one needs to do is look at the reactions to Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on television to realize that.

But, for the sake of argument, why don’t we say for a moment that America is near perfect in its track record on gay rights. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other countries, which aren’t controlled by Islamic governments, which aren’t also abhorrent when it comes to LGBT rights. Look at Uganda, for instance. Care to guess the predominant faith there? While the overall mix consists of Christianity, indigenous religions, and Islam, four-fifths of the population identify as Christian.

Or how about leaving the developing world for a minute. As the lead up to this year’s Olympics demonstrated, Russia is also notoriously bigoted and violent towards gay people. They, too, are a predominantly Christian nation. Even France, which has about as cosmopolitan an image as any country can get, has displayed a rather large amount of disrespect towards LGBT people as of late. Interestingly, while Christianity is the most common religion in France, much of the population doesn’t subscribe to any religion at all; they just don’t like gay people for non-religious reasons, which isn’t any better (as it would happen, France’s track record with the Muslim community isn’t great either).

Does all of this mean that you can’t criticize Islam for for its human rights failings in various places across the globe? No, it does not. Oppression is always worth being upset about. But it’s equally important to understand the context behind that oppression.  

4) Be Aware that Islam is Not the Only Religion with a Problematic History

In case those tidbits about Uganda and Russia haven’t already clued you into this, the Judeo-Christian faith can be extremely close-minded, too. One can equate organizations like the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church to Muslim extremist groups in a sense, though this comparison is not entirely applicable since neither of these factions is actively involved in killing people (at the moment). However, Christians have killed their fair share of people over the course of history. From the Inquisition, back to the crusades (where they attacked Muslims, mind you), the track record of America’s most popular religion is undeniably bloody.  

And depending on how you interpret it, the Bible is also not any less inflammatory than the Quran. On homosexuality, Leviticus 20:13 argued, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” On the treatment of women, Timothy 2:11 instructed, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.” And, just to be contradictory, there’s some stuff on slavery, too. Exodus 21:2021:21 said, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a club and the slave dies as a result, the owner must be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”

For the record, scholars have largely interpreted “slave” in the previous passage to mean “servant,” but that’s kind of the problem with talking about ancient belief systems. “Surely criticizing any religion in the 21st century, based on a holy text written centuries ago, seems disingenuous,” Sasson wrote, and to an extent, he’s correct. All religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and any other religion, is bound to go through reinterpretation after reinterpretation as time goes on. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the teachings of so many religions are often viewed as  “crazy.” Which is why a religion like Christianity isn’t exempt from examination either. Islam looks more problematic than other religions given recent history, but the whole of history tells a different story.

5) Keep an Open Mind

In the end, Sasson concluded, “Yes, we should be unafraid, even vigilant, about condemning those places in the world where regressive attitudes persist, be they in Indiana or Indonesia.” And he’s absolutely correct. But Goodman is also correct in urging people to keep a couple things in mind: 1) “Making the argument against blaming hundreds of millions of people for the sins of terrorist groups in their region is not the same as condoning wicked acts” and 2) “Repeating the phrase ‘radical Islam’ a billion times won’t change the fact that we sell hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons to governments that promote fundamentalism, thus providing them with a greater base of power to foster these ideologies.”

To reiterate, you have the right to criticize Islam. You have the right to criticize all religions. But unless you keep an open-mind going into that criticism, then you are subject to becoming a version of the very “extremists” you may be condoning. And while you’re at it, you might also look to the heroes of the Muslim community, too, who are working not only to change the way we see their religion, but also the way their religion sees itself.

In the meantime, while we wait for that change to occur, we’d all be wise to do some reading. To educate, to try to understand, and only then to criticize, once we’re 100 percent sure we actually know what we’re talking about.

Photo via Chris Pearce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 15, 2014, 10:00 am CDT