I listened to Akbar Ahmed on Fresh Air today. Ahmed made the following point: there is an understanding that there will not be any acceptable public mockery of black Americans, e.g., the use of the “N-word,” so by analogy one should not mock Muslims as a group. How do readers feel about this? My response below the fold….
The fact that a “moderate” Muslim “intellectual” makes such a specious argument is a shocking testament to the lack of thoughtful criticism that Islam has been subject to in the Western world. By thoughtful, I mean to exclude the crude caricatures of the religion routinely trotted out by Christian evangelicals and other assorted right-wingers (I consider myself on the Right, but I don’t consider Michael Savage style critiques thoughtful). No Muslim intellectual should be able to make an analogy between a religion and a race, because one may always (theoretically at least) leave Islam, but one may never leave a race. A racial identity is an indelible accident of fate, a religion is a confession of choice. This seems common sense, but there is an ambiguity in the sense that Islam, like Judaism, uses a national/ethnic lexicon on occasion. Sometimes ideologues speak of the “Muslim nation,” while according to shariah one is a Muslim if one’s father is a Muslim.
There is also a tacit acknowledgement of the ethnicization of Islam from Westerners, use of terms like “the Muslim atheist Ibn Warrq” or “the liberal Muslim” Salman Rushdie. I generally respond to such phraseologies by suggesting that if Ibn Warraq is a “Muslim atheist,” then Richard Dawkins is a “Christian atheist.” We do not treat races and ethnicities the way we do religion in the West, religion is like politics, a set of beliefs one espouses which is subject to reflective critique, or does not a colored savage partake of the same rights as any man? But, some Westerners are making a faustian bargain with Muslim “community leaders” and allowing the ethnicization of Islam. Seeing as how they are not Muslim themselves (and so will not suffer the ill effects of the emergence of a neo-medieval Muslim community on a personal level), and ethnic minorities are often tactical allies against the forces of the Right this capitulation and betrayal of the disestablishmentarian heritage of the Left is understandable (though contemptible).
The reality is that Muslims themselves understand that religion is not treated like race. Nations like Saudi Arabia render to non-Muslims the rights of second class citizens, and even exclude non-Muslims from the environs of their sacred cities. Why is this acceptable while apartheid in South Africa was not? Because one may always choose to become a Muslim. Islam has pride of place in the constitutions of nations like Malaysia, how would we react if the white race had pride of place in the constitution of a Western nation? We understand that religion is different from race and ethnicity, and though we might not favor discrimination in the name of the former, we understand that it is qualitatively different than discrimination in the case of the latter. But though we render to religion this liberty and some shielding from critique which would ensue if the principle of discrimation was based on race or ethnicity, we also expose it to criticism and evisceration because it is nothing but thought.
Muslims wish to roll back the understanding between religion and reason forged during the Enlightenment: believe as you will, but be ready for criticism. Some “progressives” wish to enable this process because of the specter of Islamophobia and short term political advantage against the Right, but in the process they will sell out a fragment of humanity which can not defend itself from the specter of clerics who wield the God delusion with frightening efficiency. I have advocated making piece with the religious impulse, but, the terms which some Muslims wish to impose are not acceptable, I will not accept with equanimity the consignment of those who may be saved to the darkness which I myself rejected.