Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Can we have an intelligent debate about Islam?

My recent post about "green on blue" killings in Afghanistan provoked the sort of comments that indicate we have, in the modern West, a real problem having an intelligent conversation about Islam. Not the to-and-fro about the geo-strategic issues regarding Afghanistan, but comments about beliefs within Islam and their possible consequences.

The sort of comments which indicate this are the "yes, but in the history of Christianity ..." comments and the "don't be so nasty about Muslims" comments which are pretty standard responses when Islam and Islamic belief is discussed.

Conspicuous about both types of responses is that the reverse is almost never applied. Critiques of Christianity or varieties thereof (such as the role of Christian conservatism in US politics and culture) are almost never confronted with the "but in Islam ..." response. It is as if Christians are Real People, so are expected to take any criticism on the chin, but Muslims are Morally Protected Personages, so one has to bend over backwards to make it clear that one is not singling out Islam and Muslims.

Similarly, criticisms of Christianity, or political manifestations of Christianity (such as the role of Christian conservatism in US politics and culture) are almost never confronted with "but don't be so nasty about Christians" responses. Once again, it is as if Christians are Real People, and so have to wear any negative implications of their belief systems, but Muslims are a Morally Protected Personages, so criticism which might in any way imply anything bad about Muslims is not permissible.

Ideas and consequences
Folks, ideas have consequences. It does not matter if the believers of particular ideas are white, black, brown or brindle; ideas have consequences. It is perfectly legitimate to explore those ideas and their possible (or demonstrable) consequences.

There are, of course, many complexities in this. One of which is not every believer buys into every set of ideas associated with their religion. Even if they do accept particular ideas or doctrines, the extent that they do in practice can vary wildly. Perhaps part of the problem is we are more culturally familiar with Christianity and so are much more aware of the reality of that among Christians.

So, the issue about the doctrine of taqiyya or permitted deception is not whether Muslims are trustworthy as some personal characteristic. The issue is about religiously-sanctioned opting out of some basic norms of social life.

Just as the issue about high-trust and low-trust societies is not about whether individual members of such societies are good or bad people, it is whether social dynamics are such that trust is such a precious commodity that it is applied extremely narrowly. One of the basic reasons for Western success is that Western societies evolved to be high-trust societies (and the more high trust, the generally more successful). One of the issues with large-scale migration is that it does seem to lower the trust level; likely largely because of lower levels of mutual knowledge and fewer common preferences or shared signals.

Discouraging history
As for the "yes, but in the history of Christianity ..."  response, I completely fail to see how it is reassuring. In the history of Christianity, thousands of people were burnt or hanged as witches, millions of people were killed or starved to death in religious strife precisely because people took the reigning doctrines of their religion very seriously. The obvious spectacle of Muslims willing to kill in large numbers in the name of their religion may well invoke aspects of Christian (or, for that matter, Jewish) history, but they are not reassuring aspects. Particularly given the technological possibilities of mass destruction in our era.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]

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