Encourage a More Progressive Islam: The Peaceful Muslim Majority Should Dominate the Conversation

The debates around the Charlie Hebdo shooting have been raging hot and fast: should there be a stronger military response to militant Islamists? Does the Quran promote or at least allow violence, and if so, is Islam really a religion of peace? Are principles of the right to free speech and basic respect for the feelings of religious people compatible?
We’ve tried, and mostly failed, the military response tactic. Even where gains appear to have been made in the short term, a new crop of fanatics soon rise up to strike, as they feel their country’s honor has been violated by invaders who have no right to dictate what they should believe, what laws they should make, or what form of government they should create. It’s a fact of history that invasion, real or perceived, by foreign armies invariably provokes those disposed to violence to take up arms; these, in turn, convince the young, the aimless, and the self-righteous to join them in their ‘sacred’ cause. Even if the intention of the ‘invaders’ is to liberate or to protect (though I’m not convinced that’s entirely or even usually the case on the part of governments), these military interventions usually turn out worse for everyone in the long run. Consider the domino effect from our early intervention in Afghanistan against the Russians to our seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East. While each intervention on its own seemed justified to many in the short term, the deeper all parties dig themselves in with more fighting, the more the bodies pile up and the deeper the tensions run, generating yet more conflict.
So how about the religion itself, and its holy book? The Quran indeed contains violent passages, allowing and even commanding its readers to kill those who violate certain commandments or who don’t believe. The Bible is also chock-full of both divinely tolerated and divinely commanded violence, including rape, murder, mutilation, and lots of genocide. Christians, for centuries, invaded other countries, overthrew rulers, tortured and killed heretics and ‘witches‘ (including little girls), and harshly oppressed the Jews, from baptizing and kidnapping their babies to murderous pogroms. All this with consent, by silence or by instruction, of religious authority figures, including the Pope.

So why does the western world widely consider Christianity a religion of peace, and Islam a religion of genocide? Well, Christianity has undergone a pretty thorough reformation through the influence of better philosophical and evidence-based ideas, starting with the Protestants, continuing with the Enlightenment, and up to the Age of Science and Human Rights. With widespread literacy and open trade came the awareness that the old dogmatic, sin-obsessed, holy-war-glorifying ways are actually quite awful for human well-being, and that hey, if God loves us, maybe he doesn’t actually want us to live that way. Now, except for abortion clinic bombers, the odd Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik, and certain pundits, fundamentalists, and warmongers who seem to long for the days of the Crusades, Christianity is now, in comparison, mostly a benign family of religions of tolerance, peace, and good works. Even if, as I believe, they get a lot of stuff wrong (mostly the metaphysical stuff; otherwise, many of the ethical systems they promote are not half bad), Christian religions bear little resemblance to their forebears who enacted Old Testament values with gusto. Same goes for (most of) the Jewish family of religions.

This takes to our modern Age of Human Rights, in which the rights and interests of individual persons are of primary concern, so that any and all human institutions, be it religion, corporation, community, or government, is judged by how well it serves to protect and expand human rights. Is Islam compatible with this new understanding of the importance of human rights, in that they are at least on equal footing with religion, if not taking precedence over it? (From the religious viewpoint, of course: most modern, reformed, and mainstream religions seem to promote a robust conception of the centrality of human rights in their moral systems, and see no real conflict. The most progressive believers, as well as atheists and secularists, think that too many religions are still retrograde and unjust in their beliefs regarding gay, women’s, and children’s rights.) Should the threat of offending religious people be sufficient to limit that most sacred of human rights to the western world, free speech? We’re still figuring that one out when it comes to extreme cases, such as those that specifically incite violence, or ‘hate speech’. But for the most part, I think the general attitude of the western world towards free speech is the correct one: it should rarely be constrained, except when’s demonstrable that severe and direct harm will almost surely result from it. Even the speech of people with the most disgusting views must be tolerated in the interests of being an informed person, since it’s important to know who they are and what the bad ideas are that influence them. Most religions in the western world have become pretty comfortable with the idea of free speech and have come to value it highly, including the more moderate forms of Islam.

So how to stop the seeming spiral of parts of the Muslim world into an orgy of violence and the ideological dominance of its most extreme and retrograde forms? Encourage and promote those who stand against those violent ideologues. Most Muslims belong to this category of believers, and number among the most humane, thoughtful, and decent people you may care to meet. These are the Muslims who feel most, and most justifiably, beleaguered. They are as horrified as anyone else at all the atrocities committed in the name of the religion they identify with, perhaps more so since it’s other Muslims committing these crime, and like most Christians today, emphasize the nice parts of their holy book and interpret away the rest. And I’m sure they feel, as this thoughtful piece successfully argues, that it’s as ridiculous to blame Muslims as a group for the actions of Muslim killers, as it is to blame all Catholics for child-raping clerics, all Jews for the ultra-Orthodox few slinging feces at schoolgirls, or all atheists for Stalin’s genocide. It’s as ridiculous to expect all Catholics, Jews, and atheists to apologize and justify themselves following such atrocities, as it is to expect all Muslims to.

While there are still large parts of the Muslim world living under the rule of governments whose laws still carry out a retrograde understanding of justice, it’s just not true that most Muslims condone terrorist acts. Indeed, while doing research for this piece, I had a far harder time finding Muslim leaders who justify any kind of violence, even physical punishment for ‘apostates’ and criminals, than those that do. Outside of the rantings of pundits, who jump on the relatively rare examples of communities where a significant demographic believe violence is justified, it’s just not the case that Islam necessitates violence any more than Christianity does. Both revere holy books rife with passages promoting violence, but few Muslims and Christians are guided more by those passages than the peace-promoting ones. Yet it seems the pundits’ rantings dominate the major media outlets, while the voices of the peaceful majority of Muslims are all too often drowned out.

So if you’re one of those screaming and pointing fingers at ‘The Muslims’, let’s all stop being so damned self-righteous and smug in our own ‘enlightened’ point of view (yes, you too, my fellow atheists). Those of us who are interested in living in a more just, peaceful, tolerant, and free world should encourage such progress wherever it’s found, by praising it and trumpeting it from the rooftops. While I, too, feel that the world will be a better place when religion has lost its still too widespread dominance over the human heart and mind, I also know that many religious people feel a deep sense of identity with whatever faith they were brought up in, and this rarely changes quickly.

Who, then, will change the minds of those Muslims who hold beliefs contrary to principles of human rights and personal liberty? Will it be vitriolic Christians who point out the speck in their eye while ignoring the historical plank in their own? Will it be atheists who shout ‘Look, I told you so, that’s what happens when you consider ancient tribal texts the source of your morals’? I don’t think so, if history and a large body of research into why and how humans form their beliefs are any indication. The people who will change the mind of Muslims will generally be other Muslims.

So share widely every story of Muslims who hate violence and love tolerance, knowledge, and freedom, and let it it drown out the fundamentalists; I, for one, am rooting for their side in the fight over what broadly defines their religion. After all, they have the credentials and the inside knowledge of how it is to be a Muslim, to demonstrate to their fellow believers that the best way to be Muslim is to believe in a God of peace, tolerance, and justice. If you support these good people, you will become a help, and not a hindrance, on the journey of the human race, religious and secular alike, towards a more peaceful, tolerant, just, and wise world.

Here are prominent and influential Muslims and Muslim groups who stand against violence, to which I’ll keep adding as I discover them… and there are plenty to discover. Please share as widely as you can!

The Arab League and Al-Azhar condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

The Council on American-Muslim Relations condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
The Grand Mosque of Paris condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Imtiaz Ahmed condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting: 
The Union of Islamic Organizations of France condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

The Value of a Liberal Education, and Two Risks of an Ideologically Narrow One

I grew up in a large, pretty close-knit extended family. There was a lot of dysfunction, as with many families, but a lot of love too. While I was often frustrated by the choices of some relatives (such as the tendency to enable bad behavior by sheltering the ‘sinner’ from consequences, or pretending it wasn’t happening), I was also secure in the knowledge that I belonged to a large, loving circle of people who would never abandon each other.

We were also a very insular family. We mostly hung out with each other and a few close family friends, pretty much all from church and pretty much all holding similar beliefs. Many of us kids, especially the older ones, had little contact with people outside of family and church. Many of us were (and some still are) home-schooled with a very conservative, fundamentalist Catholic curriculum, and many others attended all or mostly religious schools.

Given the state of much of the public school system, at least in the working class neighborhoods where many of us grew up, a part of me sympathizes with this choice. American public schools often leave much to be desired, to say the least. Since we have such a rotten system in America of funding public schools, with funding determined by the local tax base, we create a classist school system where the kids who need the most help don’t get the funding. So much for the non-aristocratic, egalitarian, freedom-of-opportunity ideal of America! But I digress…

But it seemed that the choice to limit our schooling to a strict Catholicism-centric education was usually based less on the concern with education quality as on a concern with raising children to replicate their parent’s beliefs and lifestyles. This makes sense in a certain way: parents want what’s best for their children, and people generally believe their own beliefs are the best, so, it’s logical parents want their children to believe and live as the parents see fit.

But here’s the way in which that doesn’t make sense: children are not replicants of their parents. They have their own thoughts, their own personalities, and their own sets of experiences. The world is full of different beliefs systems and lifestyles, often incompatible with those of the parents, that fulfill people, that suit them and make them happy. Every child, however they were raised, will inevitably confront that fact, and in today’s world of rapid, comprehensive access to data from all over the world, it will not take long.

Many parents recognize these facts, and are comfortable raising their children in a cosmopolitan fashion.

They want to equip their children with all the information they might require to navigate the world successfully in any community they may end up being a part of. To this end, they want children to truly understand not only their own beliefs, but the beliefs of others. While these parents may explain to their children why they think their own beliefs are better, they know that understanding the alternatives strengthens their capacity for critical thought. These patents also understand that their children should be comfortable interacting with people who believe and behave differently than they do, and familiarity with other faiths and cultures is the best way to accomplish this. Last but not least, these parents have the epistemic humility to admit that there’s a possibility that they are wrong, and they want to afford their children the opportunity to discover for themselves if that’s the case.

Such wise parents would agree, as I do, with Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who promotes the idea that a study of world religions should be a basic part of childhood education. Since religion is so central to both private and public life for most inhabitants of the world, he argues, children require this information to be wise and informed citizens. I think the same applies to science, politics, history, literature, and other disciplines relating to how people go about sharing, navigating, and understanding this world together.

For those parents who insist on providing an ideologically narrow education for their children, I’d ask them to consider this questions: when children grow up and confront different beliefs, customs, and lifestyles for the first time, as they inevitably will, what happens? What happens, for example, to the child of Biblical fundamentalists who finds out that almost all scientists, besides the half-dozen quoted in their textbooks, believe the Earth is billions of years old? Or that prayer doesn’t, statistically, prove to be effective in healing people? Or that people of other belief systems often live as harmonious, happy, fulfilled, ‘blessed’ lives as they do? Or even better? What happens to the barely educated woman, married off in her early teens and taught to be submissive to her husband, when she discovers that other women have the opportunity enjoy a rich intellectual life, a successful career, or a partnership with a spouse that respects her as an independent person?
For some children educated in this narrow way, whether their parents’ intentions were benign or otherwise, they will mostly reject alternative beliefs and ideas they come across out of hand. (‘That can’t be true, Dad would never lie to me.’ ‘I feel deep in my heart I know the truth, so I don’t need to question it.’ ‘Those poor Buddhists, they didn’t learn about Jesus. When they do, then they’ll truly be happy.’ ‘That’s the Devil talking, better not listen or I’ll be tortured in hell.’ ‘Liberals don’t believe in anything, but I do, so they must not have anything of value to say.’ ‘Environmentalists should just trust God instead of the government to protect the earth.’) They will grow up to more or less replicate the lives of their parents, happy in the security of knowing that they know the truth, what life’s really all about.
Others (I think very much a minority, but some) will thoroughly question the beliefs they were raised with in light of new ideas they’ve confronted, and in the end retain their parents’ beliefs because, to them, those beliefs ‘held up’ to the scrutiny. They might make some modifications here and there, but overall, stay convinced. These few are among the happiest of people, even happier than the unquestioning believers, I think, because they enjoy not only a sense of security in their beliefs, but intellectual satisfaction.

Still others will end up with a smorgasbord of beliefs, considering some sacred and unquestionable, discarding others, and adopting new ones. (Conservative Catholics derisively call others ‘cafeteria Catholics’ for engaging in this sort of picking and choosing.)

Many more will engage in ‘doublethink’, holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. To take another example from the religion of my childhood, one might believe that it’s ‘spiritually true’ that the body and blood of Jesus is present in the eucharistic wafer, but also believe it’s scientifically impossible for a thing to have all the qualities of bread while simultaneously being composed of human tissue. (The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, how pervasive it is and the ways we deal with it, is discussed thoroughly and fascinatingly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I highly, highly recommend it.)

But there are two big risks for the hopeful yet, I think, misguided parents who seeks to shelter their children from knowledge that could contradict their own cherished beliefs. And I think parents would do well to consider these risks carefully before embarking on this project of transforming education into something more akin to indoctrination.
Risk #1: Your children might grow up to challenge you on your perceived deception. They will ask: What did you have to hide? Why did you feel you had to shelter me from thinking through these matters in an informed way? If what you taught me was really, evidently true, than why did you go to such lengths to keep me from learning about opposing ideas? And why would you undermine my ability to defend the beliefs you wanted to pass on, by keeping me ignorant of the challenges to those beliefs?
I went through that process myself, resenting my education which as narrow and limited until I took it into my own hands and chose a public college rather then the very conservative one my family would choose for me. Initially, I questioned the motives of my family, and was very angry that I was years behind in many subjects, especially science and history. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it was their tactics, not their motivations, that were at fault. But the damage had been done.

Risk #2: But by fair the largest danger is raising children with the potential to be bigots, even violent ones. While most children brought up to strictly conform to the beliefs of their parents will not turn out that way, of course, too many do. Consider this: what inspires oppression, warfare, and terrorists attacks? They come from the ideologically ‘pure’, from those who think it’s their job to make sure the world conforms to their ideology, from religious dogmatism to racial ideology to political utopianism. And the more isolated people are in their minds from the ideas and beliefs of others, the more sure, the more committed they are, that they are right, so everyone else must be wrong. And if others are wrong, if they are different, they are the enemy.

Since people are rarely convinced to convert to a whole new set of beliefs overnight, the ideologue often resorts to violence as a means of forcibly imposing those beliefs. Ironically, violence, though a popular tool
throughout history for trying to impose change, it’s the least effective, as psychologist Steven Pinker and other researchers reveal. To this day, religiously and politically motivated terror attacks and assassinations continue to make headlines.

Yet despite this, things on that front are getting better all the time. I recently heard Pete Seeger say, pertaining to the environment, that the world will be saved by people working in their communities. I think the world will also be saved by children who grow up in this new era where information about the world is not so easily hidden from them. Despite some parent’s best efforts, children can no longer so easily be sheltered in little bubbles of idealized ignorance, sentimentally dubbed ‘innocence’. Since information flows so freely, children now grow up exposed to media that brings others’ experiences so vividly to life, and are now more comfortable in the presence of people who look and think differently then they do. Familiarity with ‘others’ humanizes them, and communities will come to be determined mostly by shared interests, not by geographic location or ideological isolationism.

So parents, teach your children not only how to be good people, but to be informed citizens of the world. It will be a safer and more wondrous place for them and their progeny, and I bet they’ll thank you for it.