Whether it’s through the exploits of PZ Myers (whose writing served as the inspiration for this article) or the political commentary of Danish cartoonists, we’re reminded constantly of the special treatment Islam receives from the global media.
Phrases like “you need to be more tolerant,” or “don’t intentionally provoke them,” come out when anyone criticizes Islam, its tenets, or its followers. Given the reaction of many of those followers (the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for instance) it might appear reasonable to treat Islam as a special case, an issue around which we must all tread on eggshells for fear of reprisal.
To that I say phooey. Muslims aren’t ignorant savages who can’t handle intellectual criticism, and the well-meaning but ultimately misguided and patronizing attempts of the left to “shield” Islam from criticism are not only wrong-headed, but degrading.
First, all belief, all faith, all scientific theory, everything must be subject to scrutiny. Nothing is sacred. Which, is a real problem for not just Islam, but all religions, because sacred is exactly what they purport to be. But the reality is that in a free-thinking democratic society people must be allowed to question any and all beliefs and draw their own conclusions.
After examining the issues, an individual may decide that some things really are sacred and become a genuine believer, but those who disagree must be allowed to view all beliefs through a critical lens.
Up to now we’ve unveiled a general critique of people who try to shield religion from criticism. It’s simply not a good road to go down if a society is at all concerned with free thought and free expression. But I’d like to address the idea that Islam specifically needs to be handled with kid gloves and that Islam and its adherents are incapable of receiving criticism, or tolerating dissent. This idea is not only patently false – it’s insulting.
Historically, Islam has been one of the world’s most tolerant religions. While Europe was in the throes of unimaginably destructive religious warfare, the Ottoman Empire - a quasi-theocratic state - ruled large numbers of Christian vassals in peace and prosperity. The story of the Ottoman Empire is most certainly not without violence, but it was a state grounded in toleration.
The Balkan states, which today are so synonymous with religious strife and persecution, were, under Ottoman rule, one of the safest, most tolerant places in all of Europe, with minority Christians even rising to positions of influence and importance in the Sultan’s court. Islamic scholars were making advances in natural and ethical philosophy for centuries. Anyone who tries to explain to you that Islam is somehow different because of its history or politics simply has no understanding of that history. Radical political Islam is relatively new, at least on the scale we see it today.
Returning to today, Islam has developed a reputation for violence and extremism. The Danish cartoons come to mind. There were riots, protests, bombings, and cries for the beheading of people who would dare blaspheme against the prophet. All of these things happened in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Indonesia, but not here. Why? It’s because there is no peculiarly violent character to Islam that all Muslims share.
Muslims in Akron, Ohio didn’t protest in the streets and demand the heads of the cartoonists. They continued to live their lives and reflected on what they viewed as an inflammatory and offensive act. But they didn’t bomb embassies, or burn effigies of the president. The people who did those things live under brutally oppressive governments in desperately poor areas of the world. What you saw was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The riots and death threats may have been overtly religious, but they were more socio-economic than anything else. Anywhere you see political instability and poverty you’ll find people who don’t need much to push them over the edge. This is true of Catholics in South America, Hindus in Kashmir, and of course all sides in Northern Ireland.
It isn’t that the faith of Muslims instructs them to behave with violence and outrage, it’s that many countries with large Muslim populations are developing nations with dysfunctional governments and failing economies. As Ireland’s prosperity has grown, its sectarian violence has diminished. As affluence and stability spread to Europe following the 30 years war, religious pretexts for violence became less and less frequent.
As the Muslim world enters the 21st century and its societies become more democratic and their economies more robust, people will stop thinking of Islam as a singularly violent religion. The reality is that all religions are violent, if the people who believe them are pushed to the brink by other factors.
So the next time some ultra-left wing, politically-correct jerk tells you not to criticize Islam, accept that they’re probably well-intentioned but realize that, ultimately, their rebuke of you is a sign of their own paternalism and ignorance. Islam doesn’t deserve special treatment. Muslims aren’t frightened children whose hands we need to hold and whom we can never criticize. Islam is a vibrant religion with intelligent followers, and it deserves to be treated as such.