Islam and a Crisis of Pluralism?

At a recent academic seminar, Swedish artist Lars Vilks was attacked by a Muslim student and forced to cease his presentation as the crowd angrily rushed the stage.  His presentation, juxtaposing homoerotic images with Christian and Muslim images, was controversial and has aroused some interesting questions.  See the video here.

First, it should be accepted that Muslims, or religious people generally, are not the only group to oppose, often violently, unpleasant images, ideas, or people.  For instance, many Americans are proud of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which declares that Congress may make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, of of the press…”. Indeed, these “liberal principles” are what America was founded on!

What most people in America do not know is how this eloquent defense of civil liberties has been regularly ignored.  The Alien and Sedition Acts criminalized “false, scandalous, and malicious” statements about government officials “with intent to bring them into disrepute”; for example, many people who criticized the policies of John Adams’s administration were arrested and sent to prison under this act.

The Supreme Court, at the time of the First World War, decided that freedom of speech could not be allowed if it created “a clear and present danger” to the nation.  The court case in question was in reference to a man named Schenck, who had been imprisoned under the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to say or write things that would “discourage recruitment in the armed forces of the United States”.

World War Two brought even more repressive legislation in the form of the Smith Act, with made it a crime to “teach and advocate” the overthrow of the government by force and violence. During the war, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis were given prison terms, not for specifically advocating the overthrow of the US government, but rather distributing literature like the Communist Manifesto; not to mention the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were put into detention camps simply because of their national origin.

Granted, the previous examples are during “war time” in the US.  However, even during the Cold War (virtually a meaningless term at this point) an atmosphere of hysterical fear of communism led to loyalty oaths for government employees, imprisonment of men and women based on their political beliefs, and jail terms for anyone refusing to answer questions put to them by the House Committee on Un-American Activities about their political affiliations.  Hostility towards free speech and free association is not limited to Muslims or Islam.

The question does remain though: Are Muslims incapable or unwilling to respect a diversity of opinion; especially when that opinion offends their particular beliefs?  Furthermore, is there a  “clash of civilizations” in Europe and increasingly in the US?

It has become fashionably common to portray Islam and the West (both monolithic and non-descriptive terms) as inherently opposed. Unfortunately, the general public in America and Europe view of Islam has become “news” of a particularly unpleasant sort.  The media, governments, and academics are virtually in agreement: Islam is a threat to Western civilization.

So, is there a crisis of pluralism in Islam?

First, the fact that democracy is quite absent from a large part of the Muslim world has been a talking point for many commentators in the West; however, this reality is grounded in history, economics, and politics; not in religion.  Secular governments have existed in the Arab and Muslim world; Nasser in Egypt and Sukarno in Indonesia to name just two examples.  Incidentally, the demise of a secular, largely popular, government in Indonesia under Sukarno disappeared because of US policy; mainly out of a misplaced fear of his communist leanings.

Iran’s brief democratic experiment in the early 1950s was rolled back by US/UK policy. Mohammad Mossadegh was democratically elected and immensely popular among Iranians; however, his economic policies- nationalizing a British-owned oil company- lead to a US led coup and the installation of yet another brutal, despotic regime under the Shah.  Democratic movements have been consistently crushed and authoritarian leaders kept in power in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; all US allies. Further examples exist; the French in Algeria and Morocco, US/Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This brief history, without mentioning centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism, suggests that democratic movements in the Muslims world over the last seventy years have largely been crushed and beaten back by the West.  This hindering of democracy had little to do with Islamic opposition to such political movements, but rather with Western imposition and imperialism; particularly under the umbrella of the Cold War.

Furthermore, the failure of civil governments to provide a cleaner government, stop vice, and help the poor has led many Muslims to seek alternative avenues to freedom. Also, when nonviolent means of protest are eliminated (like in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan, and Indonesia under Suharto) violence becomes the only mechanism a poor and oppressed populace can use to initiate change (known as the battle between ballots and bullets). Until men like Bernard Lewis, Robert Spencer, or Daniel Pipes explain this, a “clash of civilizations” paradigm should be abandoned.

In Who Speaks for Islam, John Esposito recounts some relevant statistics on Muslim perceptions and desires for democracy.  According to professor Esposito “Substantial majorities in nearly all nations surveyed (95% in Burkina Faso, 94% in Egypt, 93% in Iran, and 90% in Indonesia) say that if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as ‘allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day’”.

The belief that Muslims oppose democracy and pluralism is quite unsubstantiated.  A popular example of Muslim opposition to free speech and pluralism is the 2005 Denmark cartoon controversy.  A Danish newspaper published cartoons that showed the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.  This event led to mass protests in Europe, Africa and East Asia, as well as vandalism and violent attacks against Danish embassies and property.

To be sure, the decision to vandalize property and violently attack people are not justified.  However, we should be mindful of the major complaints by Muslims around the world; namely, that Islam and Muslims are consistently denigrated and equated with terrorism.  Note, for example, that the cartoon did not satirize or ridicule Osama bin Laden but rather the venerated Prophet Muhammad.

While no one should be denied the right to speak their mind, the questions is whether the outrage was against free speech or against the continuos denigration and vilification of Islam.  There is a distinct difference between the cause of violence and the trigger that sets off violent action.  The cartoons that were published were merely the trigger that ignited passions, fears, and grievances from decades of poor economic policy and opportunity, despotic political regimes, and lack of cultural and social cohesion in Europe.  The recent event in Sweden represents another trigger moment, rather than a reflection of the believed danger of Islam.

In times of economic and political struggle, many Americans advocate a return to the Constitution and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.  Similarly, after decades of failed democratic movements, secular regimes, and Western economic policies, many Muslims urge a return to the Islamic principles and values that made Muslim countries so powerful throughout history.  This is not a desire to return to religious dogma and intolerance; rather, it is the next experiment of a repressed, humiliated, and poor people.

Just like Christians, Muslims represent many diverse orientations, from literalist/fundamentalist, conservative, and traditionalist to secular and reformist.  The difference is that Muslim reformers have had decades, not centuries, to initiate reform and change.  Furthermore, many reformers pursue reform not from a position of power and strength but from one of relative weakness.  These reformists seek change in the face of authoritarianism, repression, war, and Western neo-colonialism.

The problem is not Islam any more than Christianity (liberation theology) or Judaism (radical zionism) is the cause of its extremists and terrorists; it’s the political radicalization of religion that creates militant ideologies.


9 thoughts on “Islam and a Crisis of Pluralism?

  1. “Western” non-muslims often have the nerve to ask–where are the moderate muslim voices condemning terrorism—these voices are loud all over the non-western world—the west never bothers to hear them—-but a muslim might ask the same question—where are the voices of non-Muslim “Westerners” when it comes to condemning “Collateral Damage”?—a term concocted to ease the guilt of massive civilian losses in “Western” wars.

  2. Anon:

    Thanks for the comment. To your first point, I couldn’t agree more that people in “the West” often clamor about the need for more moderate muslim condemnations of bin Laden or suicide bombing. I have written about some of them (see my post “The Myth of the Silent Muslim Majority”).

    Your second point is well taken. The anti-war movement in the US, and a good bit of the West generally, is dead. Furthermore, a symptom of radical nationalism is the belief that the actions of “my” country are always good and the actions of “them” are always bad. The notion of “collateral damage” is, too often, an excuse for death and murder. You make a great point that people in “the East” are justified in asking why so many in the “West” seem to participate and support war, death, and destruction.

    I, for one, am opposed to the Iraq war and US policy in the region generally. I think the death and destruction that have come from America’s wars are unjustifiable.

  3. After reading this opinion, I wanted to ask myself how much do I know about what ”Chase” is saying. I had to admit I knew little regarding the specific wars, names, reasons ( that Chase gave), and the outcomes and their meanings that Chase has offered. As I am not as familiar with history as Chase appears, I can only offer a limited opinion
    I don’t disagree. I also, do not agree with many of the conclusions.
    You end the piece with “the problem is not Islam any more than Christianity (liberation theology) or Judaism (radical Zionism) is the cause of its extremists and terrorists; It’s the political radicalization of religion that creates militant ideologies”. How can the suggestion of blame be deflected from an ideology that a person says he/she believes, whether terrorist-extremist-moderate, to a political or economic force when the extremist gave us the reason to begin with ( any/all “believers” are proud to be/do just that) ? Where do I get that information? From the person who leaves the message? According to your agenda, I should presume the “believer” is politically and economically outclassed, and is a prime mover in the life in question? I struggle to remember if I have ever heard an Extremist/Terrorist say that his/her action was due to education or politics as prime movers for their action solely. I hear oppression and there is always the inclusion of education/politics, but only in conjunction with a religious ideal, and that religious ideal ALWAYS seems to be the trigger ( you say the trigger is important, but I am asking why it is even a trigger). Why should we believe someone who tells us what they believe when its there actions that got our attention.
    What is pluralism? Accepting more than one idea? In political terms? In religious terms? Islam faces no disgrace for its lack of pluralism as long as they are not being asked to accept another’s “unfair” opinion of their so called belief? The author wants me to believe that due to political and economic terrorism ( with corresponding military involvement I assume) the unnamed but certainly insinuated US has played with other culpable partners, a controlling and specific role and is to blame for the killing, torture, and repression of smaller countries, weaker adversaries, and an implied sense of Western Democracy as the domination reason. No one can seriously (except perhaps an extremist) doubt that countries have gone to certain lengths to gain an advantage for themselves and what is believed to be for not only their own good but for the masses, for their own benefit. The position you seem to take is that someone “did it” to the Muslim people, and it was done due to a lack or political and economic strength. I find this to be a sound argument for explaining some, but certainly not all the atrocities that a usually small group of people calling themselves leaders do to their “people”. As you point out, mildly, governments fail to provide all that people hope for. A universal problem not bound by economics or politics or religion. But religion takes it a step further.
    Again, pluralism. Who accepts multiple ideas on the deep subject of right-wrong-meaning? Chase asks me to somehow conjuror up the vision of a repressed group of people who have been the direct recipient of unfair treatment. Repeatedly, in this piece, it’s the Muslim believer ( among many, most of whom when totaled constitute Muslims in this article) . I believe chase may be right in saying that Muslims opposing democracy is unsubstantiated. Western Democracy to be sure that is. As a citizen of the US I have been living in the mother’s womb of a uneven and shortsighted fairness perhaps, I make no apologies for where I was born country wise, but you speak as if the casual US citizen does not care, or care to find out, and is somehow liable for the actions of Extremists & Terrorists because of the Extremist/Terrorist economic and political lacking.
    Again, who do I believe Chase, you or these people words and then their actions. Notice I did not say Muslim. Ideas motivate people and when others suffer because of those ideas we judge according to …….. ?. Religion is a cause AND effect.

    Pluralism is hard to accept. More than just “your” opinion is not an easy thing for a human to accept when it comes to matters of faith and religion. Religious people are not the best examples of pluralism are they? I speak now of religious ideas not just dogma. Evolution versus two thousand year old texts that define a Supernatural reason and method for existence? Accepting that another has just as valid and perhaps better explanation is tolerated, but not accepted. What do Muslim schools teach about evolution? The Bible? The Talmud? The Koranic perspective is what to Evolution? How many states in the US actually teach evolution versus Intelligent Design/Creationism? Is it just as possible that the reason a culture or group of people don’t evolve is due to the belief system they have based upon a religious attainment of any kind?
    Education, Politics, Democracy. These are choices, even if not known. Realizing we all share this small planet…….is all the pluralism an Extremist or Terrorist wants. You say that is a radicalization of religion, somehow taken out of context. The evidence proves we both are right. Some do, some don’t. But I think those who kill for their beliefs are not killing for education, politics, and pluralism. Their killing because that’s what they were taught was an acceptable action by their religious ideology to achieve a goal of a Supernatural fantasy making the act itself justifiable.
    The problem is we do not teach well enough why to accept another’s point of view. We can do better I believe, but what does better mean to an Extremist/Terrorist?

    1. Marc, very nice comment. Chase is in Germany at the moment and I will not try to speak for him on any of this (I sure he will give a full response to you in a week or so), but I will offer one humble thought. You started by quoting Chase:

      “the problem is not Islam any more than Christianity (liberation theology) or Judaism (radical Zionism) is the cause of its extremists and terrorists; It’s the political radicalization of religion that creates militant ideologies”

      While I don’t agree with him on everything, I find myself supporting Chase here. I believe his point was that Islam itself is not a religion of extremists. The number of those who read the Quran and decide to kill civilians in the name of religion dwarfs in comparison to the number of Muslims who are devote and peaceful. Yet, often in the west, Islam as a whole gets known as a violent religion because of the loud actions of a minority. Most Muslims do not agree with the actions of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. You seem to be trying to portray Islam as exceptional in their devotion to their faith. For example:

      “What do Muslim schools teach about evolution? The Bible? The Talmud? The Koranic perspective is what to Evolution?”

      I would ask you what Jewish schools in Israel or the US teach about the Quran? What Christian schools in the US or Europe teach about the Talmud or the Koran? Most public schools in the US (religiously unaffiliated) don’t teach about the Quran or Talmud most don’t touch creative design. Speaking of pluralism, there is a lack of academic pluralism in Muslim schools, just as there is in Jewish, Christian and unaffiliated schools.

      You end with:

      “But I think those who kill for their beliefs are not killing for education, politics, and pluralism. Their killing because that’s what they were taught was an acceptable action by their religious ideology to achieve a goal of a Supernatural fantasy making the act itself justifiable.”

      I would ask what Muslim group, individual or religious sect has killed with only religion in mind. Even Al Qaeda – the universally accepted example of a Islamic terrorist organization – is clearly terrorizing to accomplish a political goal. Tamil Tigers had a political goal. Hamas and Hezbollah have a political goal. Hell, Iran has a political goal. During the First Intifada, many innocent Israeli citizens were killed by bombs and guns – but they were not killed because they were not Muslim. They were killed because they were under a certain political establishment (note: I certainly do not think the killing of Israelis or any people is a valid or justifiable means to attain any goal. But it has to be noted that there was a goal). Similarly, 9/11 was committed by people who wanted to drive the US out of the Middle East; people who viewed the US as imperialist. Was this a Muslim attack? Sure it was committed by Muslims, but it was political in nature.

      To blame Islam for all terrorism in the name of Islam is folly.

      That being said, I could have completely misread Chase, so I am looking forward to his response.

    2. Marc: Chris has done a great job at answering some of your questions. Let me address a few points though.

      Your first point is that why should one not trust a particular person when he/she claims that their motivation is religious. If I have misunderstood, please correct me.

      On this point, I don’t necessarily disagree that religion may be a motivator in an individuals life. My point is that religion; separate from politics, economics, culture, and social life, is not the sole motivator. So for example: A muslim in America is much less likely to be radicalized and submit to suicide bombing, whereas someone in Pakistan is more likely. Why? Both claim to be Muslim, both claim to follow Muhammad and the Qur’an. Why is that someone in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even France is more likely to be approve of suicide bombings, apostasy laws, etc. while someone in America, Indonesia, or Canada is not?

      My point has been that what shapes an individuals understanding of his/her religion is the political, cultural, and economic situation in which one lives. Religion cannot be analyzed absent the social context in which an individual lives.

      Lets take another example. A Christian in Latin America during the 1980s saw Christ as “by the sword” and “a revolutionary man who taught to push back against imperialism”. Yet, a Christian who lived in Wisconsin during the same time most likely did not. Why? They both read the Bible, go to church, take the sacrament, pray, etc. The difference lies in the political, social, and economic society in which they both lived. In Latin America during the 1980s education was sparse, harsh military occupation, lack of economic opportunity, etc.; while in America education was available, some economic mobility existed, and there were no military occupations.

      Religion is a powerful motivator for both good and bad. But religious ideals and beliefs do not exist in a vacuum.

      Thanks for your comment! If there is something in particular you would like either Chris or me to address please let us know.

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