This quote from Reza Aslan provides a fascinating look into how apologists think:
“People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text.”
By Ali A. Rizvi
What Aslan is saying here is pretty extraordinary. He is asserting that sizeable percentages of Muslims around the world — many of whom have said in multiple polls that they support killing apostates and stoning adulterers to death — don’t get these views from their religion, but their attitudes are somehow inherent in them as people.
Think about that for a second. Aslan isn’t being equivocal here — he is using absolute terms. He’s saying interpretations of the Quran have “nothing” — nothing — “to do with the text,” and “everything” — everything — to do with people’s “prejudices and preconceived notions.” In his New York Times op-ed, he wrote, “If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs.” The fault, according to Aslan, lies with people, not the scriptures.
As my friend Christopher Massie points out: “The conclusion that disproportionate numbers of intrinsically violent and misogynistic people reside in a certain region of the world could not be more bigoted or racist.”
Recall also when Ben Affleck referred to criticism of Islam as “racist.” By saying that, he implied that Islam or its adherents are all of a particular race. This, of course, is a remarkably racist assertion in itself.
Here’s the thing: there is good reason to believe that neither Aslan nor Affleck is racist or bigoted. Why, then, would they make such bigoted statements demonizing large groups of people?
This is the consequence of conflating criticism of ideas with bigotry against a people.
Aslan says that these “prejudices and preconceived notions” can be “cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political” — but never religious. Really? So every time a jihadist yells “Allahu Akbar” and severs the head of a non-Muslim from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran, you can blame every possible factor for his actions except the one source that literally contains the words, “Smite the disbelievers upon their necks”? And these words have nothing to do with an action that is completely consistent with them?
The apologist’s inevitable response will be that these words are being read too “literally.” And there’s a good reason that reading holy books “literally” — or exactly the way they’re written — terrifies religious apologists. I’m with them on this. It terrifies me too. It is for this reason that Aslan insists that approaching these holy books the way most people approach most books — by reading the words on their pages precisely as they are written and assuming that the author actually meant what he wanted to say — is somehow “unsophisticated.”
He is partially right about one thing: thankfully, the vast majority of Muslims don’t derive all of their morality from the Quran. But he is wrong to completely dismiss those who do — those who don’t just dismiss scriptural passages as “words on a page,” but take them seriously.
Words have power. Aslan acknowledges this when it comes to the role of politics, culture, and nationalism in shaping people’s “prejudices” and “preconceived notions.” But he doesn’t acknowledge this when it comes to religion. This doesn’t make any rational sense, considering the incredible influence these holy books have held over billions of people for millennia, despite a plethora of scientific discoveries and advancements that have successfully countered virtually all of their claims.
Apologists like Aslan will often go to unreasonable lengths to protect inhuman ideas at the expense of real-life human beings. They will also label criticisms of ideas, books, and beliefs “bigotry” or “racism” in the absence of any substantive counter-argument.
As a brown-skinned man with a Muslim name and family who grew up in Muslim-majority countries well into my twenties, I think it is an injustice and an insult to genuine victims of anti-Muslim bigotry to exploit their pain and struggle by using it to stifle any legitimate criticism of Islam. This is precisely what umbrella terms like “Islamophobia” do.
Since the Maher/Harris/Affleck dust-up, this conversation has finally broken into the liberal mainstream in a big way. Moderate Muslims of the “this has nothing to do with religion” variety like Aslan are finally being called out and held accountable for their claims by their fellow liberals. Many of them are now re-evaluating their own views.
Despite the initial reflexive backlash, this is a welcome development in the long run. It is a valuable opportunity for atheists of influence to engage with a fast-growing community of reformers and secularists from the Muslim world. Sam Harris is co-writing a book with Muslim reformist and ex-jihadist Maajid Nawaz, and engaging with Irshad Manji. Brave new voices emerging from within countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are demonstrating value for honesty and introspection despite great risk to their lives. Ex-Muslims and atheists from Muslim backgrounds are coming out and organizing at unprecedented rates. These are the voices we need in our discourse, not those of disingenuous apologists like Aslan.
Ali A. Rizvi is a Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and musician who resides in Toronto. He is currently writing his first book, The Atheist Muslim.