If you’re willing to be a bit mendacious, there are two guaranteed ways to make a lot of dosh in America. The first is to pretend that you’ve had a near-death experience and have temporarily visited Heaven, seeing God, Jesus, and your long-dead relatives and friends. This reassures Christians that all will be well after death. An example of someone enriching himself in this way is neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who, though his book Proof of Heaven has been thoroughly debunked, continues to rake in oodles of cash thanks to credulous Christians.
The second is to pretend that religion is a uniformly good phenomenon—that nothing bad comes from it. Anything like the terrors of Islamist extremism, or the Troubles of Northern Ireland, comes from culture, not faith. Were there not religion, these apologists aver, something else would take its place, causing precisely equal amounts of evil.
Although Mariam Sobh made an odious video claiming that ex-Muslims (read: Ayaan Hirsi Ali) were motivated to leave the faith by the prospect of gaining fame and money by criticizing Islam, there’s a big downside to that: fear of death. A vociferous ex-Muslim is a threatened ex-Muslim, and that’s why Hirsi Ali has bodyguards. It’s much safer and easier to extol religion, and these days the big money and fame is in extolling Islam. Guilt-ridden liberals lap that stuff up like cats at a bowl of cream.
The prime examples of those who gain renown from defending religion against all comers are Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan. Today we’re discussing Aslan, who, unchastened by the failure of his CNN “spiritual adventure show” Believer, is back in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine with his piece “Reza Aslan argues: There is no divide between Islam and American culture.”
This claim is problematic for reasons that you already know. First of all, many of the values imparted by Islam, and embraced by many (but not all) of its adherents, are truly in conflict with “American values”, at least as limned by progressives. Islam devalues women: in dress, in property rights, in giving them a role of temptresses, and so on; it is not a big fan of freedom of religion, especially for atheists; and it’s not a big promoter of gay rights or gay marriage. Further, at least as expressed by Linda Sarsour in her recent “jihad” speech, many Muslims, like Orthodox Jews and some extreme sects of Mormons and fundamentalist Christians, prefer to maintain semi-closed communities held together by identity politics. But unlike Orthodox Jews, the goal of some Muslims is to make their faith into a principle of government, for that’s what sharia law is. Here’s what Sarsour said:
Our number one and top priority is to protect and defend our community. It is not to assimilate and to please any other people in authority. Our obligation is to our young people, is to our women, to make sure our women are protected in our community, and our top priority, even higher than all those priorities, is to please Allah and only Allah.
Now of course many Muslim-Americans fervently desire to integrate into U.S. culture. Still, one can’t deny that certain values instilled by Islam, like those instilled by Orthodox Judaism and extremist Mormonism, are at odds with values of the wider society. That’s why the hyper-Orthodox and polygamous Mormons segregate themselves in enclaves where they can live their faith without being tainted by secular American culture.
Reza Aslan, of course, denies such a clash, but his reasons are deeply dubious:
There is no clash between Islam and American culture. In fact, there is no clash between any religion and any culture because religions are inextricably linked to culture.
Think of it this way: Culture is like a vessel, and religion is like water — it simply takes the shape of whatever vessel you pour it into. And this is why the prosperity gospel — the notion that what Jesus really wants for you is to drive a Bentley — can exist in the United States, and why the liberation gospel — the notion that Jesus was a warrior who fought oppression and poverty — exists in El Salvador. Both versions of Christianity are equally valid. They’re just dependent on the culture of the community to which they belong.
When you look at Islam in the United States what you see is an overwhelmingly moderate version of Islam, but more interestingly what you see is a highly individualistic form of the religion. Islam is a religion that often advantages the community over the individual, but in the United States, where the culture is rooted in radical individualism, you see a radically individualistic Islam forming.
The last paragraph itself notes the possibility of a clash between Islam and American culture, and yes, not all Muslims in the U.S. become “radical individualists.” But the first paragraph is just nonsense. When a minority religious group inhabits a society of a different faith, or no faith, their values not only are often derived from religion, but clash with values of the society in which they’re embedded. When those values deal with things like human “rights”, it can cause trouble. One cannot, for instance, sensibly say that there’s no clash between Islam and European culture, for that clash is painfully evident. (Again, I’m talking about religious values here, not the desire of Muslims to assimilate into Western culture.) It’s better in America, but my own observation of organizations like CAIR and Students for Justice in Palestine convince me that attitudes like Sarsour’s aren’t uncommon.
Because Islam, like Orthodox Judaism, is both a religion and a culture, in the sense of dictating ways of living throughout the day and not just at worship, Aslan can get away with saying that “it’s all culture.” But if large parts of that culture are drawn from religious scripture or dogma, then his statement is tautological and meaningless.
And if religions are inextricably linked to culture, why do you find people of nearly identical cultures, but of different faiths, in clashes that are sometimes deadly. In what respect do Shia and Sunni Muslims have different cultures if you leave out the disparate religious dogma that divides them? In what respect to Muslim men and women, or gays and straights, have different “cultures”? In what respect did Irish Catholics and Protestants have different “cultures”—if you leave out religion? Aslan would argue that these are cultural and not religious differences; but since he sees them as the same thing, that’s simply a ploy to exculpate religion, which is what he gets paid to do.
As the article goes on, Aslan even exculpates culture, saying “it’s just different people” who cause the supposed clashes. But here he slips up, because he then admits that these people are reflecting different “ideologies”, and ideology can include religion:
So he says this:
The clashes we see are created by people, not by culture or religion. When people say Islam doesn’t fit in with American culture, what they really mean is that it does not fit with their sense of self and their conception of themselves as Americans. It does not jibe with how they understand what Islam means. But they are doing what most people do when they try to define themselves, which is that they are defining themselves in opposition to an other. And for a great many Americans, that other is Islam. They know nothing about Muslims. They know nothing about the religion or its history. It’s just that Islam becomes a byword for whatever is not American.
But that contradicts this, which he states in the previous paragraph:
When people talk about the clash between religion and culture, it mostly stems from ideological reasons. Ideologies are predicated on certain absolutes, which provide a certain confidence about people’s identities and where they belong in the world. It’s how people construct their very understanding of the universe. Ideologies can include religion, but they can include nationalism, culture, and race. People who tend to fall back on ideologies are trying to create a sense of stability about who they are and how they see themselves in the world.
What this means is that the “people” who are said to clash with American culture, and here I’m referring to Muslims, are doing so because their ideology (read: Islam) gives them a sense of identity that is not the same as the “identity” of Americans. Yes, Americans have ideologies, too, but the clash I’m worried about is not between Christian ideology and Muslim ideology. I have no patience with Christians who demonize Muslims because they’re not down with Jesus as a prophet. What I do worry about, and what Aslan brushes off, is the feeling that Islam fosters values inimical to those that many Americans embrace, especially the values of democracy above theocracy and the notion of equal rights for all, regardless of sex, religion, or sexual orientation. This is not a clash between two religions. It’s a clash between religious values and Enlightenment values. I would not want to live in a country whose values and institutions reflect the ideas of Linda Sarsour.
Sarsour and Aslan are both dangerous because they want us to avert our eyes from a theology that is explicitly anti-democratic, and because that theology motivates terrible oppression against both Muslims and non-Muslims. Remember, outside the U.S (and even to some degree within it, Islam oppresses half of its own adherents: the women.
As far as I know (I don’t check), the only other person who blocks me on Twitter is P. Z. Myers.