Friday, October 17, 2014

What Kristof Doesn't Understand

One argument sometimes heard when people express dismay at the horrific violence perpetrated by Muslims around the world is that it's unfair to condemn Islam for the crimes of some Muslims. Other religions and ideologies have their criminals, too, you know.

Well, this is true as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Consider Nicholas Kristof's recent column in the New York Times. Kristof was part of a debate on Bill Maher's television show a week or so ago that has received a lot of attention. Here's Kristof's description of the show:
Our conversation degenerated into something close to a shouting match and went viral on the web. Maher and a guest, Sam Harris, argued that Islam is dangerous yet gets a pass from politically correct liberals, while the actor Ben Affleck denounced their comments as “gross” and “racist.” I sided with let me offer three points of nuance.

First, historically, Islam was not particularly intolerant, and it initially elevated the status of women. Anybody looking at the history even of the 20th century would not single out Islam as the bloodthirsty religion; it was Christian/Nazi/Communist Europe and Buddhist/Taoist/Hindu/atheist Asia that set records for mass slaughter.
These two sentences are odd. If Islam elevated the status of women how bad must they have had it before Islam came on the scene? It's also simply misleading to lump Christians in Europe together with Nazis and Communists as though the Nazis and the Stalinists were Christians. The Nazis were pagans and the Stalinists were atheists. To somehow identify the faith of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the thousands of other Christians who risked their lives to smuggle Jews to safety during the holocaust and the tens of thousands of Christians who were martyred by the communists in the name of 20th century state atheism is an obscenity. But set it aside. Kristoff goes on to give us his second reason:
Second, today the Islamic world includes a strain that truly is disproportionately intolerant and oppressive. Barbarians in the Islamic State cite their faith as the reason for their monstrous behavior — most recently beheading a British aid worker devoted to saving Muslim lives — and give all Islam a bad name. Moreover, of the 10 bottom-ranking countries in the World Economic Forum’s report on women’s rights, nine are majority Muslim. In Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt, more than three-quarters of Muslims favor the death penalty for Muslims who renounce their faith, according to a Pew survey.

The persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Bahai — and Shiites — is far too common in the Islamic world. We should speak up about it.
This sounds so tepid a condemnation of evil as to be almost a parody of itself. It's about as mild as if Kristof had said that the beheadings and what not are "inappropriate, and we all might wish the Islamists wouldn't engage in that sort of unpleasantness." Why are liberals so reluctant to use the word "evil"? If that adjective doesn't apply to ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general what does it apply to? Republicans? Dick Cheney?
Third, the Islamic world contains multitudes: It is vast and varied. Yes, almost four out of five Afghans favor the death penalty for apostasy, but most Muslims say that that is nuts. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, only 16 percent of Muslims favor such a penalty. In Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, only 2 percent or fewer Muslims favor it, according to the Pew survey.
Kristoff thinks that because the percentages are small there's nothing much to worry about here. The problem is that if only 10% of Muslims world-wide favor the death penalty for apostasy that's still 100,000,000 people which is quite alot of people, don't you think?
The caricature of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion is horrendously incomplete. Remember that those standing up to Muslim fanatics are mostly Muslims. In Pakistan, a gang of Muslim men raped a young Muslim woman named Mukhtar Mai as punishment for a case involving her brother; after testifying against her attackers and winning in the courts, she selflessly used the compensation money she received from the government to start a school for girls in her village. The Taliban gunmen who shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating for education were Muslims; so was Malala.
This touches on a crucially important distinction between Islam and other religions, especially Christianity, and it goes to the fundamental problem that Bill Maher and Sam Harris were trying to get at (I can't believe I'm on the same side as these guys).

If Christians behave barbarously they're violating the core tenets taught by their founder. They're betraying him, the Gospels, and their professed convictions. They cannot be said to be acting like Christ. On the other hand, if Muslims behave barbarously they're actually following in the footsteps of their founder who throughout his life resorted to violence and slaughter. Moreover, their behavior is consistent with much of the Qu'ran. In other words, moderate Muslims lack the theological resources to condemn the behavior of groups like ISIS, which is why it's so difficult for Muslim clerics who oppose ISIS to do so on theological grounds.

ISIS has put moderate Muslims in a very difficult position. In order to oppose the savagery of these terrorists Muslims have to both reinterpret the Qu'ran and ignore the example of the Prophet whom they revere. Maher and Harris understand this, Kristoff and Affleck evidently don't.