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Will the real Islamophobes please stand up?

Richard Dawkins in a still from The Root of All Evil?

No, you don’t have to have read the Qur’an to have opinions about Islam.
Legitimate opinions.
Even scientific opinions.
There, I said it.

Look, I understand that there’s this common assumption that a religion can be summed up in its text. That all believers in a religion believe that the text is the true, unchanging word of God and therefore it can be assumed that the text dictates their beliefs in all regards, which means that adherents of a religion who don’t abide by (your interpretation of) their faith’s text are either renegades or hypocrites or both.

The problem with this is it’s not true.

It’s a myth perpetuated by religious believers who think that because their faith is based on a belief in the text of their religion, wholly and completely, and everybody else who either openly (by their words) or more implicitly (by their deeds) does otherwise is not a true insert-religion-here.

In reality, religion is as much about behavior as it is about belief. In reality, not everybody believes that religious texts are the end-all and be-all of their beliefs. And when they do believe this, it would be the understatement of the year to say that their interpretations of those texts differ (heck, some religions don’t even have texts). In reality, probably the worst thing someone could do when trying to evaluate the effects of religion would be to listen to what religious believers themselves say is a true representation of their faith, and only base their assessments on that. Because– apologies if this sounds harsh– they don’t get to decide what their religion is and does. At least, not for anyone but themselves. The fact of what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is what determines that. And what self-proclaimed adherents say and do is often not in line with what their texts say they should say and do. Sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes very deliberately.

Yes, I’m aware of how central the Qur’an is to Islam. I am aware of the belief that the Qur’an should not even be translated into a language other than Arabic, because Arabic is believed to be God’s own tongue and any reading of the text in another language is therefore inherently flawed and mistaken. I am also aware of the astonishing diversity of beliefs and behaviors on the part of self-professed Muslims regardless.

I am aware that text does not dictate what religion is.
I am annoyed by believers and atheists alike who pretend otherwise.

I also know, for that matter, what real Islamophobia is.
Real Islamophobia is a distortion of reality which makes Muslims inherently lesser by virtue of being Muslim. Real Islamophobia constructs conspiracies of what Muslims believe and do and shrieks about those, rather than things Muslims actually believe and do. Real Islamophobia is “creeping Sharia” in Oklahoma. It’s “Obama is secretly a Muslim.” It’s “Muslims don’t have the same rights as we do because Islam is not a religion; it’s a political agenda– so let’s ban the construction of a Muslim worship center anywhere near Ground Zero.” It’s “We should forbid Muslims from immigrating to our country, because they will take it over and ruin it.” It’s differentiating Muslims from “us” in the first place. It’s rampant in the US and the EU alike, and it’s disgusting. It is bigotry. It is wrong.

You know what doesn’t make you an Islamophobe? Criticizing Islam without having read the Qur’an.

Now, I should stipulate that I’m not saying that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens aren’t Islamophobes (wasn’t one, in Hitchens’ case). In fact, they may well be/have been. Failing to differentiate between Islam (belief) and Muslims (people) is a good sign of it, and I think all three have done that.

You shouldn’t treat beliefs like people, or people like beliefs, which is one of the reasons why focusing on the text of a religion is so problematic when you’re trying to discuss what the people who actually practice that religion are doing. Sure, you might accuse them of cherry-picking as a last resort if you find that they are actually friendly, polite, non-bigoted, genuinely decent people in spite of the nasty things you’ve found in the text to which they ostensibly adhere. But you can’t make them examples of the great evil that their religion purportedly inflicts on the world, and when talking about this great evil you are not only doing them an injustice but are factually incorrect when you implicate them in your accusation. That’s the problem.

I know it’s a little more complex than just parroting “He hasn’t read the Qur’an and yet says bad things about Islam; he must be a bigot.” But geez….in the interests of accuracy and arguing in good faith (sorry), try and get it right.

Oh, and try not asserting that all atheists (or even “New Atheists”) must agree. Not only do we not have a text; we don’t have clergy either…not being a religion, and all.

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