You really can’t talk about shariah in 20 minutes

Vox‘s Worldly is a short (less than 30 minute) podcast on world-affairs. I listen to it because American politics is boring, and it’s not a major timesink. But, its brevity is something that has worried me, since this is not a long period of time, and it’s hard to address things in a subtle manner to a general audience in such a short segment.

The most recent one, Brunei just made gay sex punishable by death, illustrated to me a lot of the problems with trying to compress too much into 20 minutes. There are three hosts. A fair portion of the time they discussed Islam, and Islamic jurisprudence (shariah).

Though they didn’t mention it, one of the hosts is a convert to Islam. You can read about her in this article, How a Blonde Tattooed Texas Girl Became an ISIS Twitter Star.

I am a social constructivist when it comes to religion. That is, I don’t have a religion, do not believe in gods, and am willing to accede to a consensus of the believers as to what their religion is, as well as instrumentally taking into account what religious believers as a whole seem to think about their religion.

To give an example of what I mean,

  • I am fine with someone with a non-binary gender identity who rejects a great deal of hadith and is totally fine with apostasy from Islam, calling themselves a Sunni Muslim. I’m not invested in the idea that being a Sunni Muslim means anything more than a particular self-identification. I’m not a Sunni Muslim. I don’t care if you call yourself a Sunni Muslim.
  • But, I also assume that acceptance of non-binary gender identity and apostasy in Islam is not normative among the majority of the world’s Muslims, and as an apostate from Islam I am very cautious about going to Muslim-majority countries and expressing my beliefs. Apostates are still killed by mobs, and it is still against the law in many Muslim-majority nations.

Jennifer Williams, the host who is a Muslim, did a quick sketch of shariah and its various traditions, including the four Sunni madhhabs. I think her presentation probably misled most non-Muslim listeners as to the diversity of the interpretations and views across these madhhabs, as well as in the Shia and Ibadi schools. My personal experience and knowledge is that in reality most of the madhhabs differ less in their conclusions as to practice and more in terms of the sorts of methodologies they use to reach a conclusion (there are differences of degree…the Hanafi school is less rigorous in enforcement and inference of apostasy, but fundamentally agrees that it’s a capital crime along with the more strict Hanbali school). In fact, the flip way that Williams glossed over shariah and contrasted it with the Quran made it seem like she was a Quranist of some sort. I’m alluding to here about where she seems to imply shariah is just man-made, which totally underplays the centrality of its role in traditional Islam (including in Sufism). In any case, Quranism is a legitimate tradition…but it’s a very very minor tradition and one that is persecuted by mainstream Muslims (many Salafis also reject the traditional madhhabs).

Overall I had a hard time getting the point of the Vox piece aside from that conservative critics of Islam are bad and stupid. The two non-Muslims seemed really uncomfortable, because they did not want to align themselves with conservative American critics of Islam, while Williams is clearly familiar with Islam, but was hamstrung by the fact that their time was pressed, and to be frank her own views regarding her religion are somewhat on the heterodox side.

The fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims tend to have very conservative views on homosexual behavior and those views have historical precedent within the Islamic tradition. There isn’t necessary unanimity, but the debates within and objections from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation should give you a flavor. Nations on the more draconian end of the distribution of enforcing shariah criminal laws, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, already have something similar to what Brunei is shifting toward. Brunei’s views are extreme, but they are not an aberration. Traditional Islamic law has viewed homosexual behavior very skeptically.

But this does not imply that in the pre-modern world Islamic societies were notably intolerant of gay behavior or religious heterodoxy. One has to keep in mind that there is often a huge division between public and private domains in many societies, and this was and is true of many Muslim societies. Homosexual behavior and apostasy from Islam warranted severe legal consequences in the vast majority of Muslim societies in the past, and this remains the dominant, if not exclusive, view today. But there was often tacit tolerance and acceptance of homosexual behavior in many Muslim societies in the past, as there was acceptance of religious heterodoxy. The key is that these personal behaviors at variance with the law and custom of a given society could be tolerated so long as they were not matters of public dispute and controversy.

Loudly proclaiming oneself an atheist, or attacking Islam in the public square, would bring about severe sanction. But private skepticism was tolerated, and intellectuals were often indulged. An atheist philosopher might even benefit from patronage from the authorities. But a cult leader of a new religious movement would be violently suppressed. Similarly, homosexuality is not uncommon in Muslim countries. But public gay identity is severely discouraged, both by social pressures and legal consequences.

Finally, there are two last things I want to add. It struck me as strange that the hosts casually remarked on the fact that the royal family of Brunei were religious hypocrites and not devout. From what I know about them I can see the hypocrisy charge as being on point. But it seems strange to me that one could make a claim about the inward beliefs of other people in such a casual manner if one was a journalist. It strikes me that the royal family are “bad people” and so journalistic standards are thrown out when it comes to imputing motives and inner states of mind upon them? This seems pretty common in a lot of journalism now, but I don’t think it should be. The same standards of evidence apply to the evil as well as the good.

If I had to bet it seems as if they wanted to portray the monarchy of Brunei as being run by “bad Muslims” who are perverting the real Islam of “good Muslims.” Williams, as a self-identified Muslim, can make this sort of judgment in a way that matters (since it’s her religious identity). But it’s weird for non-Muslims to make judgments of good or bad Muslims. You don’t believe in the religion in the first place!

Second, quite often in discussions about Islam there are assertions that people who talk about the religion need to be professionals or scholars. It is clear that none of the individuals, even Jennifer Williams, is any such thing. But they felt free to talk about Muslims and Islam (though the two non-Muslim hosts seemed pretty ill at ease). Why? Because they came to the “right” conclusions. Muslims good. Royal family of Brunei, bad, bad, hypocrites. Not the real Islam.

That whole aspect of the discussion is so dishonest and lacking in nuance. It’s a warped reflection of the reductive right-wing talking points that right-thinking intellectuals mock.


9 thoughts on “You really can’t talk about shariah in 20 minutes

  1. You’ve said before that liberal folk tend to be a lot more skeptical of Islam and muslims in private conversations with you. That definitely seems like what’s going on here – they want to tread carefully with criticism of muslims and Islam because they’ve been slotted as an oppressed group in the US, and hitting them tends to bring accusations of “Islamophobia” and “kicking down” on the left side of things.

  2. here is the weird thing btw: up until the 20th century homosexual behavior was more open and tolerated in muslim lands than in christian lands, or in south asia, among hindus. many muslim poets, including the mughal ancestor babur, wrote homoerotic verses.

  3. If the two non-Muslim hosts were uncomfortable with a choice between right-wing propaganda and left-wing propaganda, if they needed more than 20 minutes to provide nuance, well, couldn’t they have punted and chosen a different topic for this episode? But they sounded pretty comfortable to me.

    I was going to say, doesn’t this post demonstrate that you can say something in 20 minutes. But then I listened to the segment, really only 15 minutes, and it was pretty packed. Providing a map is great in a blog post, but actually conveying data is difficult in a podcast. It’s a lot easier to condemn polls without providing an alternative.

    (As to Williams’s identity, somewhere in the middle she says that she follows shariah.)

  4. One host called conservative America’s “conflation of Brunei’s shariah law, with all the rest of Islam” as “disturbing”! Tripping over themselves in impassioned defences of a religion they know very little about, you simply rarely hear this from progressives regarding, say, Christianity. And it’s clear he is doing it because “the bad guys” (conservatives), simply can no longer be agreed with about anything. You do wonder how far they would take this rationale.

    I wonder if there was a liberal gay person hosting the show with them, who was a tad more sceptical about Muslim beliefs about homosexuality, if their defence of Islam would have been so strong? This is exactly where progressives are losing the debate. They are seen to put aside their apparently most fervent moral beliefs about someones rights if they momentarily collide with another designated oppressed group. I have a hard time believing that not a single host present was more than aware that strongly negative beliefs about homosexuality are very common among millions of Muslims, and the majority of Muslims, going by almost every poll ever done. Yet apparently, as they say, this is “insane pigeonholing”.

    So overall, a bizarre and incoherent segment because that rambled away from Brunei Royal Family to very quickly getting defensive about all of Islam, and in the end answering non of it. This is what happens in cognitive dissonance.

  5. This is exactly where progressives are losing the debate.

    If today’s milieu is losing, I dread the day when they start winning.

  6. “here is the weird thing btw: up until the 20th century homosexual behavior was more open and tolerated in muslim lands than in christian lands, or in south asia, among hindus. many muslim poets, including the mughal ancestor babur, wrote homoerotic verses.”

    I know Brits of a certain class had a predilection for sexual adventure in Arab lands. But otherwise have no sense of the relative differences in toleration.
    Any books/articles on this?


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