Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Trouble With Islam

Our perception of the world is colored pretty strongly by the culture in which we're raised. Our media is naturally biased to portray our own cultures, our own history and our own religions in a comparatively positive light. I have the advantage, when observing the behaviors of people from other cultures, of having been raised by open-minded, worldly parents, of having been exposed to a diverse cross-section of people in my life and of having lived for a year in France, a country just different enough from my own to help me appreciate the even vaster differences which must exist in the world. Nevertheless, I can't pretend not be biased by my white, middle-class, Judeo-Christian American upbringing.

As far as I can tell, the trouble with Islam is not the religion itself. It is the culture of misogyny and violence that is often so closely associated with it. Recently, there was a horrifyingly ironic story out of New York City. Muzzammil Hassan, the man who founded an American Muslim television network with the specific goal of improving American perceptions of Islam post-9/11, beheaded his wife. The act of murdering a lover who is about to leave you (Mrs. Hassan had just filed for divorce) is a common enough crime in any culture. But death by beheading (whether the decapitation was the cause of death is not known for sure, but seems likely) is somehow more distressing to me than the more common crimes of passion. The fact that Muslim terrorists have a habit of using beheading is evidence enough that they are aware of how horrible it is to us. It is the ultimate act of hatred against a person, and when it is done to one of our journalists and broadcast, it is the ultimate act of hatred against an entire culture: ours. It is interesting to note that Muzzammil Hassan was not considered an especially devout Muslim by those that knew him which again suggests that it is not merely the religion that is the problem.

Of course, it's not fair to judge a culture by its worst extremes, by its mad men. But I have seen misogyny and oppression of women perpetrated on a wide scale by an entire community of Arab Muslim men. The year I studied abroad was spent in a large-ish city in the south of France, Montpellier. France is host to a large number of Arab immigrants, largely due to its colonial past. The tension between the French and Arabs and the rampant racism against these immigrants is a related issue. But for now, let me describe the neighborhood I walked through every day to get to and from my apartment in the suburbs from downtown. The neighborhood, centered on a street called Cours Gambetta, was almost exclusively Arab and the main street was lined with middle eastern cafes, restaurants, markets, etc. A non-Arab woman, such as myself, walking along this street would often be subject to frequent wolf-whistling and vulgar language. You see, to those men, I was a whore simply by virtue of my being unaccompanied by a man and, possibly, due to my clothing (you know, jeans, t-shirt, sexy uncovered head). As to the women in the neighborhood, you would be hard pressed to find them. Cafe after cafe was filled with customers, all male. It was not uncommon to see an old man, a young man and a little boy all sitting at the same table in an open-air cafe being served by a waiter. But never did I see a woman (except very occasionally a couple of bold French women), nor even a female server. Compared to wife-murder, this is a subtle example of misogyny but one that can not be dismissed as the act of mere extremists.

Of course, the most obvious issue with Islam is the number of acts of terrorism committed in its name. Defenders of Islam call it a peace-loving religion but unfortunately for those who make this argument, it is rather too easy to find passages in the Koran which clearly instruct its followers to kill non-believers and be rewarded for their actions. Defenders of Islam will then find similar passages in the Bible. The question is not whether Islam can be practiced peacefully, or whether Christianity can be practiced violently. History and common sense illustrate the possibility of both. The problem is that Islam, for one reason or another, is much more frequently used as a justification for violence in modern times than is Christianity. Whatever the reason, it's a problem for all those peace-loving Muslims out there.

The Muslim population seems to have an on-going public relations problem due to their over-sensitivity, their inability to assimilate and their reluctance to condemn extremist action. Remember the riots over the portrayal of Muhammad in Danish cartoons, the murder of a Dutch film-maker whose work criticized Islam, the multiple fatwas (death sentences) issued against Salman Rushdie for his unflattering portrayal of Islam? Most people get cranky when their religion is insulted, but rarely to the point of causing mass mayhem and murder. And then we have the frequent clashes between Muslim culture and Western culture in small legal issues. I remember female Muslim medical students in England being unable to practice medicine due to their refusal to wash up to their elbows because it would mean exposing too much of the flesh of their arms. I think the veil has been related to more reasonable, though still bothersome, requests for accomodation, but to refuse to follow modern hygiene habits due to forearm chastiy? We can not assimilate into one society with such disparate standards. Finally, it would certainly help if international Muslim organization would swiftly condemn acts of terrorism and even be seen assisting in bringing these criminals to justice. I'm sure there are some who do, but there are just as many who remain silent.


  1. If it were politically incorrect to say that the Sun is hotter than the Earth then one would hear statements about how both the Sun and the Earth are hotter in the center than at the surface and how the center of the Earth is really, really hot while the surface of the Sun is much, much cooler than the middle, and what's more, the Sun is not particularly hot for a star while the Earth is warmer now than it was 100 years ago, etc., etc.. (And, come to think of it, it IS politically incorrect to point out that the sun was hotter in the end of the 20th century, causing global warming on Mars and possibly explaining some of the recent surface temperature rise on Earth, but aside from that...) Political correctness does not require us to ignore the fact that the Sun is hotter than the earth but it does require us to believe that both the Bible and the Koran are comparably bloodthirsty books. One cannot say, for instance, that al Qur'an contains many passages instructing the faithful to butcher the infidel without pointing out that the Bible has such passages, too, and, of course this is quite true. But it is also rather uninformative.

    Let's see what the Monte Carlo method has to tell us. We'll pick a few random bits and compare them. Here's the method, starting with a randomly selected six digit number I will use the first three digits to pick a sura (chapter) from al Qur'an and the next two digits to pick the ayat (verse); and for the Bible I will use the first two digits to pick the book, the next two to pick the chapter and the last two for the verse. That should give us similarly random passages from both texts. You'll have to believe me that I haven't run the same numbers before and am not cherry-picking. Here goes:

    One of my favorite authors was born on July 7th, 1907, so let's start with his birthday. 70707 and take the square root and use the first six digits backwards. That ought to be random-ish. Let's see... sqrt(70707) = 265.907... backwards is 709562. So, for the sura starting with sura 1 and counting down 709 suras (wrapping around 6 times)give us sura 24, "The Light." That chapter has enough verses so here is our passage (with a bit of context):

    "24.54": Say: Obey Allah and obey the Apostle; but if you turn back, then on him rests that which is imposed on him and on you rests that which is imposed on you; and if you obey him, you are on the right way; and nothing rests on the Apostle but clear delivering (of the message).

    "24.55": Allah has promised to those of you who believe and do good that He will most certainly make them rulers in the earth as He made rulers those before them, and that He will most certainly establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them, and that He will most certainly, after their fear, give them security in exchange; they shall serve Me, not associating aught with Me; and whoever is ungrateful after this, these it is who are the. transgressors.

    "24.56": And keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate and obey the Apostle, so that mercy may be shown to you.

    "24.57": Think not that those who disbelieve shall escape in the earth, and their abode is the fire; and certainly evil is the resort!

    "24.58": O you who believe! let those whom your right hands possess and those of you who have not attained to puberty ask permission of you three times; before the morning prayer, and when you put off your clothes at midday in summer, and after the prayer of the nightfall; these are three times of privacy for you; neither is it a sin for you nor for them besides these, some of you must go round about (waiting) upon others; thus does Allah make clear to you the communications, and Allah is Knowing, Wise.

    Now for the Bible: Starting with Genesis and counting down 70 books (wrapping around once) gives us Deuteronomy. Counting down 95 chapters (wrapping twice) gives us chapter 28 verse 62. Here it is:

    60: Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of; and they shall cleave unto thee.
    61: Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the LORD bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.
    62: And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the LORD thy God.
    63: And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it.
    64: And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone.

    Hmmmm. We got lucky here from a PC point of view. Both passages seem similarly dire. That doesn't happen much. Let's try another. How about my birthdate (square root, first six digits backwards)-- 498303. That gives us sura 41 "Ha Mim" verse 30. Here we go:

    "41.28": That is the reward of the enemies of Allah -- the fire; for them therein shall be the house of long abiding; a reward for their denying Our communications.

    "41.29": And those who disbelieve will say: Our Lord! show us those who led us astray from among the jinn and the men that we may trample them under our feet so that they may be of the lowest.

    "41.30": (As for) those who say: Our Lord is Allah, then continue in the right way, the angels descend upon them, saying: Fear not, nor be grieved, and receive good news of the garden which you were promised.

    "41.31": We are your guardians in this world's life and in the hereafter, and you shall have therein what your souls desire and you shall have therein what you ask for:

    "41.32": A provision from the Forgiving, the Merciful.

    ... and in the Bible Ephesians, chapter 5 verse 3. Here it is:

    1: Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;
    2: And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour.
    3: But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;
    4: Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.
    5: For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

    Let's see, we're starting to see some running themes now. Both passages from al Qur'an talk about unbelievers' abode being the fire. Always with the fire in the Koran. And, while the passages from both texts contain threats for the wicked there is a general difference in person and condition. The Bible tends to use the second person conditional -- God will get you if you are wicked -- while the Koran uses the third person declarative more -- God will get them because they are wicked.

    But my point is not to tell you my opinions but to suggest a way to form opinions of your own. Poke around in the texts a bit, choosing bits at random so you won't cherry-pick and introduce confirmation bias into your samples and see what you think. The University of Virginia has both texts online in a fairly convenient form. (King James Bible / The Koran)

    I think that moderate Islamic scholars have their work cut out for them. The job is doable but by no means easy. There are big sections of the Koran where the most straightforward reading is pretty xenophobic. But that's my take. See what you think.

  2. Oh, and one more thing... As I was writing the above over-long comment I had something of a sense of déjà vu. Poking around a bit in my blog I found something I had written a couple of years ago that was similar. (See The Problem of Islam in The Teleoscope).

    Just doing a bit of recycling.