Sunday, September 10, 2017

A conversation about Islam

Today's post is a conversation about a difficult subject. The participants are professors from the Sacramento State Philosophy Department: Randy Mayes, Matt McCormick, Russell DiSilvestro, Kyle Swan,  Chong Choe-Smith, Saray Ayala-L√≥pez, Tom Pyne, and Brad Dowden.  

Randy: Matt, one of our many shared interests is tolerance and I know we've both defended some controversial views on this subject. You have argued that religious traditions, despite doctrinal commitments to universal love and compassion actually tend to foster intolerance in the faithful. Do you think this is a general truth, or are there important distinctions to be made between different religious traditions?

Matt: I think it’s a general truth, but there is a lot of historical variation that depends on all sorts of political and economic circumstances. Right now I’m really concerned about what appears to be going on within Islam. The polling data shows that very large majorities in a large number of countries, and significant minorities of people identifying themselves as Muslims have a number of intolerant, regressive, and dangerous views. We have good empirical evidence, I think, that that large percentages, sometimes significant majorities, of Muslims in Egypt, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Pakistan, Thailand, and many others hold these views:
  • Only one faith, Islam, can lead to heaven. 
  • Sharia law ought to be the law of the land, even for non-Muslims. 
  • Crimes such as theft should have corporal punishment such as whippings or cutting off of the hands. 
  • Adulterers should be stoned.
  • Apostates should be executed.
  • Suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified. 
  • Homosexuality is immoral and ought to be punished. 
  • Violating the edicts of Islam, such as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed, should be punished. 
  • Women should not have equal treatment politically, socially, morally, and religiously. 
  • Women, out of religious morality, should not be exposed to the view of men other than their family members or their husbands. 
  • Honor killings are justified for women who have had premarital or extramarital sex.
So, it seems clear to me that Islam is fostering intolerant and morally objectionable views that are deeply at odds with values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal treatment for women and minority groups (LGBTQ). Obviously this is a pretty controversial thing to say, but if the polling data are to be trusted, it's also a pretty straightforward inference.  I think it is irresponsible for us to pretend that this is not so. It needs to be dealt with and discussed honestly.

Russell: I think, right out of the gate, you are going to get a question about whether those who hold these views are genuinely Muslims, or (setting that aside) whether they accurately speak for Islam as a whole. How do you answer those twin questions? (By the way, in a somewhat parallel case, I like the answer C.S. Lewis gave to the question: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”)

Matt:  Well, we're talking about extensive face-to-face interviews with 38,000 self-identifying Muslims in 39 countries. People who want to deny that the people in the survey are “true” Muslims, run the risk of the No True Scotsman fallacy. I have a nominalist view about who’s a Muslim, or Christian--they are pretty much who they say they are. While we can challenge the PEW survey, it’s one of the best, most reputable polling groups around. We should be open to methodological objections, but I’m not aware of any serious ones. It’s better to start with their attempt to get good statistical information than with people’s anecdotal evidence about Muslims that they happen to know.

Tom: We really need to try not to get trapped into tail-chasing arguments over ‘authentic’ Islam. When some objectionable feature is shown to be a core tenet, Muslim apologists raise issues of misinterpretation, fine points of Arabic, or the objectivity of sources. The Western audience is ushered into a dialectical funhouse where rational criticism is mugged and strangled. ‘Islam’ = the set of beliefs and practices that satisfies a certain homeostatic property cluster. That’s what Pew investigated.

Randy: These data are interesting, and certainly ought to factor into anyone’s overall understanding of the reality of Islam. But it’s not news that predominantly Islamic countries don’t typically aspire to Western ideals like religious pluralism, secular democracy or equal rights for women and minorities. Do you think the data are showing that people in Islamic countries are becoming increasingly committed to Islamic fundamentalism and increasingly hostile to Western values? Or perhaps that until now we have harbored the illusion that these are features of repressive governments rather that of ordinary Muslims? If neither, why does it concern you so much now?

Matt: I don’t know about a trend up or down. What seems clear is that whatever other causes of belief and behavior there might be, the religion itself--the Imams, madrassas, mosques, doctrines being promoted, believers, sermons, and so on--are fostering these ideas specifically and directly. But for fear of appearing prejudiced, we’re not acknowledging this fact, and we often attack people who do as ignorant. Part of the solution to eliminating dangerous religious beliefs and attitudes has to be to be to make intolerance, violence, and theocracy unacceptable and tolerance, equality, and democracy the norm. And to be clear, I think it is Muslims themselves who are suffering the most harm from the former.

Kyle: I think this is important, Matt. It seems relevant that Muslims here in the US are more moderate and become more moderate the longer they are here. You haven’t said anything about Muslim immigration to the US, but consider this your opportunity to do so.

Matt: The polls of Muslims, moving from the Middle East progressively further to the west, show these intolerant and severe views dropping off. British Muslims, for instance, hold many of these views at much lower rates. To me, this could suggest a moderating effect of contact with places where tolerance, separation of church and state, equal treatment, and equal protection are the norm. I’m pro-immigration; letting more, not fewer Muslims immigrate to the U.S. could facilitate understanding, tolerance, and reform. It’s also the right thing to do given the tragic conditions in the Middle East.

Chong: In these conversations, I worry about two sorts of generalizations: (1) that extremist versions of Islam held by a few are held by many and (2) that Muslims who hold certain beliefs that are objectionable to some hold every objectionable belief associated with Islam. The polling data supports that while a majority of Muslims in many states believe in theocratic rule (no sharp division between church and state), it is inaccurate to say that a majority of Muslims would condone suicide bombings or other unjustified acts of violence. This is something that careful philosophers understand, of course, but it is easily missed by others.

Matt: Chong you are completely right about the danger of misinterpretation. I worry about that a lot. But that just means we have to be clear, not fight back with a willful misinterpretation of our own. Concerning your (1), the surveys have found that many morally extreme views are quite widely held. There’s no evidence here that a majority of Muslims condone suicide bombings, but there are alarmingly high minorities of them who do in the poll. Even 5% or 2% is cause for grave concern. And my argument is that the prevalence of other less extreme, but harsh and intolerant views in the mainstream fosters those more extreme views out at the margins. Concerning (2), I agree: these polls do not imply that a Muslim who holds one belief also holds every objectionable belief associated with Islam. I argue that holding some of them makes the cultural, religious, and social environment more receptive or encouraging to holding those beliefs, and even stronger ones, all other things being equal. When many Christians in the Midwest, for example, have the view that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, it facilitates those Christians and others in believing that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.

Chong: I think we agree about the importance of not perpetuating further misconceptions about Muslims around the world. But I think I’m more skeptical of the polling data than you are. I think polling data generally are unreliable and susceptible to all sorts of misinterpretations. We are rarely in a good position to know the motivations for the responses or how the respondent understood the questions/answers. For example, respondent A may have agreed that Sharia law should be the law of the land because he is a devout Muslim and does not accept a sharp division between church and state while respondent B may have selected the same response because he believes the above and that the severe corporal punishments proscribed therein still applies today. Only the latter may be regressive and dangerous (from your cultural perspective).

Saray: Another concern I have is that it’s just so easy to cherry-pick the evidence. Those PEW polls you cite also suggest that there is a widespread support among Muslims for democracy and religious freedom (e.g. an average of 72% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 55% in Middle East-North Africa prefer democracy over a strong leader; while 94% and 95% say religious freedom is a good thing). Also, an average of 58% in Middle East-North Africa think that living things have evolved over time, a number not very different from what the PEW center found for other religious groups in the US .

Tom: I think Matt’s claims about the moral views of Muslims and Islam stem from a general view, namely, that the effect of religion on morality is at best contingent and neutral, but in many cases religion causes people to act worse. He’s been directing this critique to Christians and Christianity for years, always accompanied by argument. So this is just another instance of that view. As to the argument, Pew Research Center lives and dies on confidence in its findings. Tests for veracity can be built into instrument design. So it’s more rational to believe that they are accurate than to believe they are not.

Kyle: I think the problem is that at least part of Matt’s concern doesn’t have anything to do with whether the surveys are accurate. A finding that many, or perhaps most, Muslims hold beliefs that are morally problematic is different than showing that what’s morally problematic there can be appropriately laid at the door of Islam. According to the best interpretation of Islam, does it teach those things? Does it teach that they all apply presently? In every society? Moderate Muslims argue that many of their co-religionists are wrong about a lot of that.

Matt: Kyle, yeah, that's a really good point. The “best” interpretation, as seen by the most radical and conservative Muslims, is the one that promotes the views I’ve identified as most morally objectionable. The “best” interpretation according to the moderate reformers is the one that most diminishes the emphasis on these views. I’m with them, if they are trying to moderate Islam from the inside. But this approach itself suggests that there is some other set of standards by which we can judge the interpretations than the text itself; a view that the former group, like fundamentalist Christians, flatly rejects. My fear, given the polls, is that the moderates are losing.

Saray: Matt, I’m very wary of essentialism, something we tend to do with groups of people, mostly those we see as different from us. When we inquire deep enough and with an open mind, we usually realize that there is a complex network of factors that explains their behavior, rather than a fixed essence. I wonder if you might be essentializing Muslims here. An alternative reading of the PEW results is possible, one that does not need to postulate any intrinsic wrong in Islam or those who follow it. The complex history of the relations between Western countries and the Middle East offers an explanation: given all the harm done to many countries in many different ways along history (often in the name of Christianity), and given current tensions, resistance to western culture is salient in those countries. If you look at the PEW results, the countries with higher support of suicide bombings are Tunisia, Egypt and Palestinian territories (15%, 29% and 40%, respectively). I don’t think this is by chance.

Matt: I definitely don’t want to be essentialist about the people. It’s the religious ideology that I’m singling out. There appear to be a lot of people insisting that the deepest, core values of the religious tradition are exactly those views I’ve focused on. Others say that those aren’t essential Islamic values but they do not speak for the majority. Also, we can agree that there are many other contributing factors. But that there are so many people in so many countries who espouse these views suggests that the common thread is Islam, not American imperialism, or something other than the religion altogether. It’s implausible, for example, to suggest that views in Malaysia or Indonesia about executing apostates, murdering cartoonists, and stoning adulterers are due largely to American war crimes.

Saray: I suppose I don’t think it’s as implausible as you do. For example, in 1966 the British and the Americans attempted to overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia. The real extent of the West’s role in fostering extremism isn’t that widely appreciated.

Brad: It is shocking to me that the Pew survey shows 86% of the people in Malaysia favor Sharia law as being the official law of the land, 83% in Morocco, and so forth. Do you suppose that the main reason why so many Muslims favor Sharia is that they see the institution of Islam as the only non-corrupt institution in their country? You don’t have to give a payoff to get an imam to do something, but you do need a payoff in order to get prompt police response, or a good job, or a building permit.

Saray: Brad, that actually connects to my point about resistance to Western intervention. When governments are corrupted (often aided by Western intervention) and the political scene is in general unstable (often as a result of Western intervention), religion might become the only institution to trust, and the only one reflecting some sort of national, racial or in general group identity. Islam might be for many people the only thing uncorrupted by the West. This could explain the support for Sharia law.

Randy: Matt, I think you agree with me that our beliefs, especially our normative beliefs, are not as introspectible as people assume. This is apt to be more true where believing the wrong thing can get you into trouble. Shouldn’t this weaken your confidence in the behavioral significance of the data? Members of the homeostatic property cluster we call Christianity say that they believe in the Ten Commandments, but few know what they are, and fewer live by them. Perhaps this explains why Muslims tend to assimilate so well when they immigrate. They aren’t saying what they believe so much as what they are supposed to believe.

Matt: Right, introspection isn’t very reliable. But that’s not my unique problem to address, or Islam’s special privilege to claim as a defense. The high numbers of people reporting abhorrent beliefs is evidence, I maintain, for concluding that the religion, among other things, is leading people to say and believe horrible things. If our measures of belief are off by a degree so large as to undermine that inference, then that problem is going to lay waste to all of our references to people’s beliefs. “McCormick, you’re wrong that Muslims believe bad things because of their religion because actually nobody really believes anything, or it’s impossible to measure beliefs.” That Going Nuclear objection is a bigger liability for the critic than for my argument specifically.

Randy: You’ll know when I’ve gone nuclear buster. But I just mean to build a bit on Chong’s skepticism about polls. I’m suggesting that in normatively non neutral contexts belief reports are relatively unreliable predictors of behavior. Belief reports are certainly a form of behavior, but I don’t think they are what most concerns you. I don’t want to overstate this objection, because some of those beliefs on your list are clearly reflected in traditional practices. The scariest ones, though, are harder for me to credit as predictive of individual behavior.

Saray: Right, and to further develop that concern, we could say that the fact that many Americans support the right to own guns is dangerous. Outside of the US, this support (and the belief that gun ownership protects people from crime) is really frightening. Many wonder how it is possible for a country like the US to be stuck in such an obsolete culture. We could read these results as giving us grounds to predict individual behavior, that is, individuals reporting these problematic beliefs about gun ownership will behave in problematic and dangerous ways. Or we could say that these belief reports, given the American context, are not giving us much grounds to predict individual behavior. You seem to favor the former reading for the results you report. With my example I’m trying to point out that the second reading might be a better one.

Matt: That’s a nice example, Saray.  If there’s reliable, accurate empirical evidence that a large majority has a belief, then, all other things being equal, that increases the odds of their acting in belief consistent ways. In the case of Islam, if we know that a large majority of the country condemns homosexuality on religious grounds, then we can predict that the environment will not be favorable to homosexuality. How those beliefs will come out, who will commit actions, or what they will do can’t be inferred directly. With regard to gun beliefs, we can see the results in behavior too. Americans love their guns, and it’s no accident that they have one of the highest rates of gun crimes in the world. Americans have morally objectionable beliefs about guns, in my view, and they are more dangerous as a result.

Saray: Matt, it seems you are worried, among other things, about women rights and LGBTQ people not being respected in communities that adhere to Islam. I can tell you have a genuine concern, but I think we need to be careful about how we address it. Well-intentioned people in Western countries tend to paint a very simplistic picture of the evils they see in “other countries”. Many Muslim feminists and Muslim LGBTQ activists are fighting against sexism and homophobia, but also, and importantly, against Western imperialism, colonialism and globalization. We need to make sure that in denouncing “other” religions and “other” countries, we are not playing the old game of “white western scholar to the rescue of ignorant oppressed people”.

Matt: I completely concur about being careful and respectful. The situation is not simple. On the other hand, the fact that I am a white male American scholar should not prevent me from being able to talk about a real phenomenon, or in itself raise doubts about the strength of my arguments or the evidence.

Saray: I also think you should be able to talk about this. But there is more than just respect and care we need here. Elora Chowdhury warns about the “benevolent first world feminist” in the US who devotes her efforts to try alleviate oppression of women elsewhere while being “oblivious to the US government’s role in creating or exacerbating harsh conditions for the women with whom she so wanted to be in solidarity”. A cautionary tale for people in the US, specially scholars, who want to talk and theorize about “other” countries and “other” religions is: be aware of oversimplification due to ignorance of all the relevant factors, but also, once you think you have found something significant and objectionable, be aware of the role Western countries, and in particular the US, play in creating or exacerbating the problems they are pointing out, and how our denouncing these problems could actually contribute to them.

Randy: That's interesting Saray. It reminds me of something else I think we need to be careful about, namely professors taking advantage of their position in the classroom by denouncing people, practices and policies they disagree with. Besides the fact that they are abusing their authority with students, they fail to consider that the effect they are producing may be the exact opposite of the one they imagine. That's a different conversation, though. It's nice to have a voluntary forum like this one where we can have a respectful conversation about a really difficult topic and invite students to participate in kind if they are so inclined.

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