“Well, culture is what gives a civilization its power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
– Ben Franklin
I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but I like to read. A lot. My parents instilled a love of books in me from a young age, and much of who I am comes from the ideas, values, and perspectives I’ve viewed through the lens of the written word. In many ways, writing is one of the purest windows to the mind of another person, one of the only ways to truly see something as someone else imagines it, yet at the same time being a dialog between you and the author, a merging of minds that is difficult to replicate in other mediums.
A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but since this is going to be a discussion on religion, I felt it was appropriate. I started with books for many reasons, some subtle, some obvious. The most obvious, however, is that I’ve been reading some very interesting books over the past week, and wanted to discuss some of my thoughts on the subject. And yes, I did read all of those in the last week. Like I said, I enjoy reading, and I can do it very quickly.
For those who bothered, you probably noticed that most of those books were by the same author. The first two are primarily about the author’s life (I read the third one first) and are absolutely fascinating, but not as important to my thoughts on the subject. If you only read one of them, I cannot recommend Heretic enough, although you will likely be compelled to read her life story afterwards as I did.
Either way, these books are not the only source of data for my discussion, as it was some serious Google-Fu that led me to them in the first place. I strongly believe that anyone who refuses to even acknowledge an argument coming from a source they disagree with has an incomplete understanding of any debate. If someone has their mind changed by a “dangerous” argument that just means they didn’t really understand the subject and probably need better information to back up their current position.
So, as my mother would say, get to the point already. Sorry, I’m working on it! My topic today is Islam. Well, to be fair, I’m really only going to be scratching the surface of everything I want to say on the subject, but you have to start somewhere. So I’ll jump right into the pool and worry about swimming to the deep end later.
I like to define things, so what is Islam? Fundamentally (rim shot), it’s a religion. That’s not a particularly useful definition though, because first we have to have a common language on religion itself, which could easily be its own topic.
I used the modified quote in the beginning to illustrate a point. Many of my readers will recognize the reference, recognize the words that were changed, recognize the attribution is perhaps a bit less than accurate, and perhaps understand the additional joke of using a man who tends to have quotes falsely assigned to him while still sharing the actual speaker’s first name. The amount you enjoy the joke will depend on how well you recognize the references as well as how well you share my personal sense of humor. For those who “get” it, the recognition and humor is automatic, for those who don’t, even explaining it will likely only get an polite chuckle. Our culture literally determines how we understand and relate to the words, and what meaning they have for us.
Religion is a form of culture. And it has meaning, at various levels, for everyone, regardless of their personal relationship with religion. For the devout, religion is a comfort, a core ideology, a relationship with the world, their community, and the divine. For the secularized, it’s mostly a set of customs they learned as a child and followed to keep the family happy, for tradition, and because it gets them days off work. For the atheist, it’s perhaps an annoyance, a symbol of ignorance and dogma, or perhaps something they just try and avoid. In all cases it has meaning, and even the atheist’s personal values were likely influenced by religion, much as our rule of law and government has been influenced by it.
The trick with culture is that it’s virtually invisible when it’s familiar, and overwhelming when its not. It’s sort of like a smell; a familiar smell fades into the background, and unfamiliar one dominates your senses. When I studied anthropology, culture was everything, and we attempted to take an objective look at cultures around the world.
I probably would have failed my class for saying it, but I believe the core idea of American anthropology isn’t particularly useful or realistic. Bias was to be avoided, “ethnocentrism,” judging other cultures from the perspective of your own, was used in the same way as “racism” or “bigotry.” To do proper anthropology, you needed to see other cultures the way they saw themselves.
In my opinion, this isn’t really possible. You can’t look at culture objectively. Why not? Because what is “objective” when describing culture is already subjective. For example, to an extremist living in the Islamic State, the very idea that you can view another culture outside of their holy war rhetoric is heretical. Critical thought itself is considered arrogance and is disapproved of.
It’s hard to think of reason as a cultural phenomenon, but it is. Europe especially, and much of the U.S., believe that a rational, logical approach to the world is the only view that makes sense. It’s an easy trap to fall into…after all, it is rational to come to the conclusion that reason makes sense, pretty much by definition.
The problem is that there is a large portion of the world that has been taught since birth that critical thought is evil, and to question their lot in life is shameful. This isn’t my opinion, although many intellectuals will try and say it is. To them I say this…you don’t get to determine what others believe just because you don’t believe in it. Sorry.
Over time I’ve determined that I am a liberal. This may surprise some and disgust others. That’s fine. When I say that I am a liberal, however, I mean it in the traditional sense, which is that I believe in individual freedom and choice, even when I disagree with those choices. This tends to put my political beliefs sharply at odds with both major political parties in the U.S., but if I had to break it down, I would say that I admire and strive for Democrat ideals but tend to agree with the more pragmatic and rational Republican methods (to a very limited extent). I won’t get too involved in American politics because A) it’s complicated and B) people tend to treat U.S. parties more like sports teams than philosophical or practical ideologies, a practice I detest.
On the subject of Islam, however, I have found that my Democratic “liberal” friends and I sharply disagree. It didn’t start out that way, and part of it is because I accepted the “ethnocentrism = bigotry” philosophy I learned in college. The problem is that this is bullshit, and not all cultures are created equal. And the part that disturbs me the most is that, in virtually every way, my liberal friends would agree with me…if I weren’t talking about Islam.
This is a deeper issue. I had originally intended for this post to talk about Islam itself, the Quran and hadith, the life of Muhammad, and the fact that we can’t seem to accept that when someone says they killed because Allah willed it, and the stories match their actions, they might actually be telling the truth. I may still discuss it at another time, but I feel that it has already been discussed in depth by people much more knowledgeable on the subject than I, and if you believe it doesn’t really say all that bad stuff, well, that’s your ignorance, not mine. Do some research, from both perspectives, and let me know what you come up with. I did, and it changed my perspective.
To me, the problem is that liberals won’t acknowledge their own hypocrisy. They won’t acknowledge that some things are more true than others, some things are objectively better than others, and that, while compromise is great, it’s not always an option if you want to stick to your values as a liberal. And when the only people who are willing to stick up for the oppressed are conservative bigots, you know you have an issue.
I’ve already written posts on feminism, racism, and homosexuality, and although they are not comprehensive of my views on those topics, they should indicate my general opinions. I strongly believe in the value of equality. I believe we are all humans, regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, fetish, and number of World of Warcraft accounts. And, although I do not believe in absolutes as a general rule, I do believe in basic human rights as a basis for civilization and as a rational individual.
I also believe that my values are not shared by everyone, and I believe that my values are fundamentally superior to those who disagree. This may seem to contradict my earlier statement, but it doesn’t, and in fact reinforces it. For the liberals reading this, hopefully this concept will appeal to you, because you’re the intended audience.
In my personal, as well as societal, culture, women are social equals to men. This may not always be true in practice, but since such inequalities also exist within genders, I don’t see this logic as particularly problematic. But if someone were to say, for example, that women should be subservient to men, I would rather vocally disagree, and probably consider them a chauvinistic asshole. I imagine the majority of liberals would agree.
So here’s the thing. That perspective is part of Muslim culture, whether you like it or not. Per their scripture, women are worth roughly half of a man, and regardless of the mental gymnastics you use to deny this fact, in practice the vast majority of Muslims worldwide share this cultural value. So you’re given an option…either the Muslim cultural value is lesser than my cultural value of equality, or women being subservient to men is just as valid as any other way of viewing the world.
Sorry, but I (and I imagine most feminists) would strongly disagree with the latter. We love to vilify Western colonialism, and blame it for all the issues in the Middle East, but we refuse to acknowledge that millions of people are trapped in a society that denies them what we consider basic human rights. In many cases, abuse, violence, and rape (effectively or literally) is the result. You can argue that we shouldn’t have gone in and altered existing cultures, but I would argue that outlawing cultural practices like burning widows isn’t oppression, but the opposite.
If the KKK or neo-Nazi parties were abusing, raping, and beating women and children, you can be damn sure it would be condemned, and people would be debating the “racist philosophy.” They wouldn’t be saying that it was just part of their culture, and that we should be tolerant and set up separate communities for the poor white guys who were threatened by black or Jewish colonialism in their communities that threatened their racist way of life. We wouldn’t make excuses for their behavior or their beliefs, because they fundamentally clash with our own.
Guess what? Many, not all, but many, of the core beliefs and practices of Muslim countries and Islam directly violate our values of equality, reason, and freedom. That doesn’t make every Muslim a bad person, any more than we should condemn every German or white Southerner. But we absolutely need to condemn the ideology that abuses women, homosexuals, and those who believe differently from them. And we need to recognize that it’s not just the extremists that we need to confront.
Sadly, I have to concur with Fox News for once. “Political correctness” is causing people real harm, people who have been abused their entire lives and don’t even know or understand the extent of the injustice that has been applied to them. Children are married off to men who beat and rape them and they blame themselves for the pain and confusion it creates. That isn’t the world I want my child to grown up in, and I’m willing to hurt some feelings, challenge some beliefs, and even kill if necessary to prevent it. We need to fight, physically and mentally, before the following quote becomes a reality:
“You can’t win, infidel. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”