Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Toward a Liberal Critique of Islam

Adil Doukali, A Muslim chosen to represent Spain
in the 2007 International Bear Rendezvous.
The word liberal covers a great multitude of sins. But common to all the different uses and misuses of liberal is the underlying idea of liberality: "The quality of being open to new ideas and free from prejudice" (from the Oxford Online Dictionary). More mundanely, liberality can also simply mean generosity; in fact the Roman Goddess Liberalitas was the deified representation of the virtue of generosity.

Liberal opposition to Islam emphasizes the fact that Islam has, from its beginnings to today, always and everywhere been the enemy of individual freedom. The debased and degrading status of women in Muslim societies is Exhibit A in this critique. The criminalization of homosexuality and the brutalization of LGBT people is also a central issue, and so is the lack of freedom of speech in Muslim societies, as well as the absence of separation between church and state. Once upon a time such things as individual liberty, women's equality, sexual freedom, gay rights, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state were all core liberal values.

"I Can't Think Straight", the movie.
Reactionary opposition to Islam, on the other hand, is a very different animal. It is characterized first and foremost by an "us versus them" xenophobic attitude that is usually explicit, and that often proclaims itself proudly and crudely. To these close-minded reactionaries, the main problem with Islam is that it is foreign, and/or that it is not Christian. The oppression of women and lack of freedom generally in Muslim majority societies might be included in the reactionary critique of Islam, but only as a secondary consideration. This critique comes almost exclusively from fundamentalist Christians, and, therefore, the oppression of LGBT people under Islam is not even a peripheral issue. Freedom of speech is also not a genuine concern of these reactionary Christians, because they don't want their own religion subjected to public criticism. And separation of church and state is also a foreign concept to the right-wing Christian critics of Islam.

It is very easy, at least in theory and at least on paper, to clearly distinguish these two very different positions as I have above. But today it seems as if all criticism of Islam is automatically assumed to originate from the "far right", while the leftists have adopted a perverse lockstep apologetics in which Islam is mindlessly defended against all criticism, thus validating right-wing claims to ownership of opposition to Islam. How did this happen?

More Adil
After all, the rampant misogyny and homophobia, and the total lack of even a pretense of basic human rights in Muslim majority societies is hardly a well kept secret. Nevertheless, many progressives, liberals, and leftists have stupidly talked themselves into believing that the adherents of the world's second largest, and demonstrably most violent, religion are somehow the pitiable members of an oppressed minority group! This self-imposed delusional thinking is exacerbated by the way in which leftist parties and organizations have adopted pandering to Muslims as a strategy for gaining members and votes.

Several specific phenomena have fed into the Left's embrace of Islam and even of Islamism. First there was the invasion of Iraq, which succeeded in casting reactionary thugs in the role of "freedom fighters." Then there was the mother of all internet memes: "Obama is a Muslim", which succeeded in training progressives to associate negative representations of Islam with right-wing bullshit. To this has now been added the hysterical misrepresentations of the Israeli response to the so-called "peace flotilla", during which progressives proved that they had totally lost all contact with reality to such an extent that openly anti-Semitic, martyrdom seeking Jihadists were transformed into victimized "peace activists." And then to top it all of was the ludicrous progressive defense of the Ground Zero Mosque, led by that arch-progressive, Michael Bloomberg.

Probably more important than any of the above, though, has been the near total collapse of the secular left in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This collapse (greatly accelerated by the end of the Cold War) created a political opening that has allowed reactionary Islamists to go from strength to strength in terms of popular support among the Arab and Muslim masses. This has essentially silenced what should be the most important voice against Islam: those who know first hand what it means to live in "submission" (the literal meaning of "Islam").

Kiana Firouz, Iranian lesbian activist
It's gotten to the point where the "Religion" section at the Huffington Post is now dominated by thinly disguised (if that!) Islamic apologetics and Islamophobia-baiting, while politically progressive Pagans (whom Muslims have sworn to wipe off the face of the earth) line up to voice their clueless "Solidarity with Islam."

But I honestly do think that it is possible to make headway against this stream of mindless "sharia compliance" among supposed liberals. There are even positive signs, if one looks hard enough for them. For example, a recent poll found that the most popular political party in the Netherlands among gays is Geert Wilders PVV, according to the Dutch gay newspapaper Krant (as reported in the English language version of the website).

I suppose, though, that the real issue is for liberal-minded individuals to think for ourselves, regardless of the party-line being promoted by the Glenn Greenwalds, Andrew Sullivans, etc. Gee, what a concept. Independent thinking from the very people who claim to support the freedom of individuals to think for ourselves and to freely express own own individual opinions!

Gay victims of Islamist death squads in Sadr City, Iraq