Islam

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Trying to get a handle on the diversity of reactions, ideas, the fair and the unfair, the complexity, around Islam.



INTRODUCTION

I've been long been intrigued by Islam, and the debate around it. There's a combination of fair and unfair criticisms, swirled around by distortions on both sides.

And strangely, it seems that Atheists, Humanists and the like, for all the theological criticisms we might make of Islam, seem to be one of the groups defending Islam against the numerous unfair, nationalist, biased and even racist remarks (technically, criticism of a religion is an issue of sectarianism, not race; things can get a bit confused - criticism of Islam as a religion is not being racist - it is something to keep in mind). Yes, there are atheists who make broader unfinessed attacks, but they're more the exception than the rule; at least in Australia, most of the people making unfair criticism don't seem to be Atheists or Humanists.

So, I've decided to write this article, synthesising the wash of fair and unfair, valid and invalid, theoretical and cultural ... along with historical, theological and other perspectives.

It is long, comprehensive and thorough ... at least to my way of thinking. I'm not sure if you'll want to read all of it. If you're finding the length overwhelming, I suggest you read the introductory bits, along with the Grand Summary, and then sample what might be of interest via the table of contents ...


My own experiences, my references, and where I'm coming from

So, what has been my experience of Islam? Muslims can always say that "If you had looked into Islam thoroughly enough, you would now be convinced of its merits, so if you are not yet convinced of its merits, then you cannot have looked into it enough." But, to be sure, the issue is more whether an outside impartial observer would see my attempt to engage with Islam as genuine.

So, going back far enough, I went to Turkey to see a Solar Eclipse. Indeed, I witnessed a human, friendly face of Islam. The people there were gracious and friendly, when they weren't trying to sell you a leather jacket. Many Muslims drank alcohol. And you could not help but feel ... how ON EARTH could we ever have been fighting such a warm people, and be trying to kill each other? It was just such a ridiculous thought to contemplate.

Then I've been to a Mosque open day. Living down to the stereotype, our guide got very worked up when I mentioned evolution vs. creation - out of curiousity - figuring out where they stood. "That's Blasphemous!". Ummm ... well, Okay ... I've also been to a talk by Anwar Ibrahim, hosted by local Muslims in conjunction with the Greens. I've reviewed the booklet put out by Australian Muslims, which talks about how Islam would be part of what would seem an open tolerant multicultural Australia. I also tried to get in touch with a Muslim group in Australia - but they never answered the phone or emails ... things moved on, but I did make an effort at the time.

When a friend of mine arrived late at a Muslim-hosted debate and sat in the women's section by accident, and then realised, he was worried - and then they women around him said "don't worry about it". It was an accident - and it wasn't an issue.

I'm aware of the writings of Waleed Aly on Islam, and also of the comment on Waleed's position by John Perkins - a book by the title of "Islam, Arrogance and Delusion". I've also read "The Jihad Seminar" by Hanifa Deen.

But I'm also aware of the Humanist writings about global religious intolerance, and of how people challenging Islam are killed or imprisoned for blasphemy, not to mention other Shari'a crimes which would not be crimes in the West. Then you have the various non-state terrorists committing crimes and atrocities in the name of Islam - not just to non-Muslims - but also other Muslims. But, equally, the Singapore Humanists have put us onto writing(s) by more moderate Muslims.

And I've spoken to various people and read numerous articles on the internet. And, shock, horror ... I've also made good use of Wikipedia - but rather as a supplement, not a main source.

And I've heard stories of Muslim men - and women - behaving badly. One friend tells me of an Muslim couple where the woman is forever yelling at the man, grabbing the lawnmower off him as he mows, because what he's doing just is not good enough for her. Another friend tells me of a Muslim woman neighbour who spoke to him till on the street till her husband came at him yelling in a foreign language - and after that she never spoke to him again or met his eyes. Of course, to be fair, there were credible stories of similar things happening in times past with other ethnic groups such as Greeks and Italians.

Another person tells me about how Muslim women refused to show their ID at a university exam, claiming harassment because she was a Muslim and he was harassing her. And then, of course, there's the past story of Muslim women not wanting to lift their veil for authorities such as police - till some Imams said it was appropriate for women to do this in such circumstances.

And locally I'm aware of the excesses of Muslims - of aggressive protests at the Global Atheist Convention, and how Ian Bryce found himself intimidated by a group of Muslims following a debate. You wonder what Muslims who are behind the considered statements we hear from time to time would think of this sort of behaviour.

But, then most recently, I saw Ian Bryce debate Hamza Tzortis, who put a strident defences of Islam. While Waleed has a mild amount of special pleading which creeps in, Hamza was strident in his arguments the Islamic God was the God, that the Koran was demonstrably the divine work of God, and that all criticism of Islam was the result of criticism from people who did not understand it.

So, I'll be drawing from all these sources. Hamza was the one who made some clear theological, philosophical and social claims about Islam, and I will be scrutinising these in some detail. I've not yet been involved in a debate over Islam myself, but have experienced all these views, I make my assertions against an imagined composite defender of Islam; perhaps you've experienced arguments in favour of Islam having similarities to this yourself.

But, keep in mind, the more strident the claims about Islam, the easier it is to criticise them. As noted later, a "personal Islam" is outside criticism. But we do not hear from those satisfied with just a personal Islam.


TABLE OF CONTENTS



THE GRAND SUMMARY

So, I'll take a wide ranging view. While Atheists have many things to criticise about Islam, they do have a strong "live-and-let-live" attitude to people who choose to practice Islam. In this way, our views tend to be more "progressive" than critics with a Christian or racial (sectarian) bent. Having said that, there are many Christians who welcome refugees and in particular, Muslims.

But, here's some of the points I'll be developing:

  • Muslims have a right to believe as they do, and practice their religion. We all have a right to hold false beliefs. It's not illegal to be wrong - at least not yet, anyway.
  • Islam makes various theological and ethical claims which we Atheists do not believe in; beyond just believing, Muslims say others should recognise it not only as a choice, but as being true. I as an atheist stridently disagree with the claim that Islam is true, much as I endorse it as a valid choice.
  • Some Christians claim that their own God exists and take the cultural privileges of Christianity for granted then assert the superiority of their own religion and make claims about Islam which are not true to portray it as a threat.
  • Some Australians challenge Islam as part of a racist view; this may be a vague nationalistic view with inconsistencies which show up prominently on close examination, with a rose-coloured glasses view of what "Australian values" really are and mean. Some have a stronger racist view, others may indeed be part of extreme right wing groups.
  • While the Australian Government has a legitimate concern about terrorism, their view seems skewed in the light of the prominence given to non-terrorist killings. There is the vexed issue that some genuine terrorist threats have been averted, but also there have been false alarms and general ineptitude in conducting police investigations.
  • While the West has its history of colonialism that is to be acknowledged and regretted, this is not the sole source of the relative poverty of Muslim nations. To assert otherwise is a distortion and special pleading. In pursuing the Islamic cause, advocates rely on numerous distortions and fallacies. To be sure, that probably happens in political debate generally, quite separately to anything religious.
  • Islam does not represent a population threat to Australia, as Buddhists are growing in number more rapidly.
  • Islam does not represent a threat to our legal system, given how difficult it has been for us to change our constitution in only moderate ways; few recognise the inertia contained within our legal system.
  • There is a chance that disproportionate resources will be directed to Islam as the result of an appeal by that religion; nevertheless, this must be considered in the light of the privilege of mainstream Christianity.
  • Some Australians who are Muslims, not necessarily by choice, can suffer human rights abuses along the lines of forced marriage, FGM, honor killings and general abuse. It is also possible that more general rights which all Australians have as the result of being Australian citizens will be sidelined through an appeal to Shari'a law and the Islamic culture. This is a valid concern.
  • While some Australians might suffer under Islam as the result of cultural groups - not the state, it is worth recognising that overseas both Muslims and Non-Muslims will suffer under Islam. The local and international situations are very different things.
  • Australian coverts to Islam, including women, have nevertheless found it to be a positive experience, and there are claims that reported domestic violence is no higher Australian Muslim families than it is in non-Muslim families.
  • Islam does not have the same philosophical basis for equality and the equality of men and women as the western tradition does, much as the western legal tradition certainly has its own problems.
  • Islam is a diversity, and it is very difficult to make generalisations about it. We might note that Muslim women are not supposed to marry non-Muslim men, while Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women. Nevertheless, some schools of Islamic thought endorse these marriages, and Hanifa Deen is a respected Islamic commentator who is herself married to a nominal Catholic. Nevertheless, we can carefully, in certain cases, state that such-and-such a trend within Islam is of concern.
  • Cultural Islam in Australia has a richness and diversity which is frequently glossed over by outsiders.
  • Different Muslim voices in Australia have compared women being raped to exposed meat, but also have endorsed Islam as a part of a multicultural Australia, and endorsed Muslim women raising their veils in interactions with police and other authorities.
  • Some Australian Muslims have participated in violent protests, and it is not clear that all Australian Muslims endorse our legal traditions about freedom of speech or sexual equality.
  • Freedom of speech is an issue we struggle with, and some people try to stir up trouble under the cover of freedom of speech. However, the fact that we as a society struggle with this is a strength, not a weakness.
  • Australian Muslims have spoken up clearly against terrorism.
  • In some Islamic Republics overseas, human rights abuses are systemic and are justified through an appeal to Islam. Certainly, there are also Islamic majority countries with systems of law that validate human rights. Broadly speaking, it is not Australian citizens who will suffer under Islam, but rather those unlucky enough to be living overseas in Islamic republics.
  • Australian Muslims tend not speak up against Human rights abuses conducted within Islamic Republics overseas.
  • Muslim majority countries with progressive legal systems close ranks in international forums like the UN to provide a shelter through religious privilege for Organisation of Islamic Country (OIC) members who are Islamic Republics and justify human rights abuses through an appeal to Islam.


... And there's a lot more detail to work through which I've not managed to summarise here. Nevertheless, I've attempted to segment this article through a table of contents, so you can work though it as you see fit.


THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF ISLAM

Islam is a diversity, more so than Christianity. Individual Imams can make their own statements, but it does not mean those statements are "owned" by all Muslims. A priest in a Catholic Church may make some comments, for example, about the nature of news and how we relate to it, but we'd not normally see that as being "the voice of the Church". Of course, if he spoke about something central to doctrine, we might see it differently. Further, different denominations have different views on Christianity. But somehow this greater diversity within Islam is a struggle to come to grips with.

In spite its diversity, all Muslims pray towards Mecca, providing them with something in common. Within Catholicism, for all their differences, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits all look towards the Pope.

It is hard to generalise about Islam. For most anything you say, there will be exceptions. There's a principle in Islam that women cannot marry non-Muslims, but male Muslims can marry women non-Muslims. However, there are schools which allow it. Further, Hanifa Deen, a woman Islamic commentator, is married to a notional Catholic; as far as I can tell, nobody in Islamic Australia questions her credentials as a commentator.

While we hear about segregation of men and women in Mosques, not all mosques have segregated groups. For prayer, however, men and women line up together because they have each others' shoulders touching - but the lines alternate. Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia has a substantially segregated society with many limitations on women, the Grand Mosque incorporates no such discrimination, with men and women mixing together. For sure, there do not seem to be any women Imams - but then again, not all Christian denominations have ordained women ministers.

So, whatever "grand sweeping statement" is made about Muslims, it must be a contingent statement. Make a generalisation, and Muslims will invariably say "but not all Muslims believe or do that". It is difficult to make anything universal statement about Islam, but you can criticise "such and such practice or trend within Islam". Even then, some Muslims will say "aha! but that is not Islam" ... and the question arises ... so what is Islam anyway? There's a theological minefield. But I'll get to this later.

But there is one generalisation that, as far as I can tell, can be made, with very few exceptions. Muslims, be they individuals or nations, will normally refuse to scrutinise human rights and other abuses committed in the name of Islam by state-based entities. Moderate Muslim nations which have progressive legal systems will, via the Organisation of Islamic Countries, refuse to endorse scrutiny by international bodies of other Islamic Republics whose human rights abuses are justified through an appeal to Islam. Women Muslims who talk about women's rights in an Islamic context will refuse to speak up against the unfair treatment of women in nations such as Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

Along the way, I have heard Hamsa make a dismissive comment that the nations where these bad things happen "aren't really Islam". This defence has various problems as I'll get to later, but in any case it is a superficial comment that does not really engage with the issue. It may well be that there's more than one form of Islam, and it would be wrong to claim these practices are representative of Islam - but nevertheless, it does happen, and the activities are obscured internationally by representatives of more moderate states.

Having said this, Muslims do often and frequently unite against violence committed by individual Muslims, when that violence has not been organised by a recognised Muslim country, at least one that is in the OIC.


Islam as a Religion in our world, in our nation

My Secular principles hold that people have the freedom to believe or not as they see fit, and would always grant the freedom of Muslims to be Muslims. Still, there are tensions around Islam that are worth understanding. There are implicit privileges for the dominant religion, Christianity. That's a problem, and they are worth pushing back against; but that doesn't mean Islam should have any special privileges, either.

Religious figures like Cardinal Pell claim a special status to tell us about the nature of the world and morality, and the way the laws should be. He does not have a special status. Nor do Muslims.

But, Muslims have their right to speak out - as does Cardinal Pell - as does anyone - it's only a problem when a special status is presumed or granted. Much comment seems to be not just "participating in debate", but rather "I claim an external source of validity, so you are obliged to bloody well listen".

In a free society, there's a freedom to believe; in Islam as much as anything else. We should never judge people solely on this basis. However, to the degree that their actions and beliefs are problematic, this needs to be acknowledged.

I am sure many Muslims are just people who "Obey the laws of the land, work hard and raise a family". At the same time, some Muslims do argue for some sort of special privilege and/or status, particularly in the shadow of earlier colonialism and claimed current global inequality.

The past sins of colonialism need to be recognised. Inequalities in our globalised world need to be recognised. While there's global inequality - it is not "anti-Muslim" in origins and intention. It does not mean Islam has any special status.

And, to be sure, as outsiders Muslims are at a disadvantage. Much violence against innocent Muslims originates in the prevailing tension, to some degree whipped up and/or taken advantage of by Government. Too many people cast judgement on Muslims merely for being Muslims, rather than to separately see as problematic some particular actions and behaviours.

I challenge the validity of all religions. I see much criticism of Islam originating in Christian privilege, with a presumption of the worth of "white Christian Australia". While the Koran has its problems, it can likewise inform a worthwhile and positive lived experience. However, we should take it no more seriously, and give it no more privilege, than any other religion.

There's a lot of violence and contradiction in the Bible. Nevertheless, as a lived and personal non-fundamentalist experience, Christians can live worthwhile lives. It's good to see some Christians challenge the Australian Christian Lobby, and good to see Christians who support progressive policies such as Voluntary Euthanasia.


Associated practices

While many Muslims lead good lives, practices such as FGM, honor killings, child marriage, forced marriages and so on happen more frequently in Islamic cultures than others. Some Muslims claim it is "not part of Islam", but this presumes that there is a divinely ordained religion called "Islam". Certainly, there's a social phenomena called Islam, and it is fair to separate your version from others, but that's nothing to do with it being a divinely ordained religion.

You can believe in Islam and distance yourself from practices such as FGM or child marriage, or human rights abuses. Muslims might separate themselves from terrorism conducted in its name. For sure, many Muslim Kurds are fighting against Isis.

There's an issue of how much you should be blamed for atrocities committed by others in the name of things you are associated with. Active support for criminal acts is an issue, but has little to do with Islam. Individual criminals may justify their acts through Islam, but perhaps that's more like Christian believers who have in the past bombed abortion clinics. Violent criminals will use a lot of means to justify their violent acts.



THEOLOGICAL, HISTORICAL & MORAL CLAIMS

Here I consider the claims about the religion which are "mostly internal" to it, with limited reference to the world around us.


Theological and Historical claims

Most religions claim there is at least one God. As an atheist, I do not believe this. Hamza Tzortis justifies the existence of God as being dependent on notions of infinity ( see here ), which are contestable at best. But, even assuming there's some merit to those arguments, it would only oblige a Deistic God - someone got the universe started, and then left it to its own devices. God was never the source of moral truth, nor did he take any particular interest in us, or have a plan for us. It's making a jump to assume this "God" was the Islamic God. But - putting this issue to one side - we have no need of this hypothesis to explain the development of the universe.

It's also claimed that the Prophet's testimony is divinely inspired, which we've no reason to believe. In fact, on close examination, Islam's early history seems quite questionable - see for example the channel 4 documentary


One Islam?

Islam claims to be unified in its theology; all Muslims worship the same God. Rather, Islam is an ecosystem of ideas vaguely connected. Claiming some things are "Islam" and some things are "not Islam" is a quagmire. Some forms of Islam may be very different, as Creationism is very different to mainstream Christianity. And these differences may be important and worthwhile - but, nevertheless, they are still forms of the same religion. This article shows how easy it is to get stuck in a theological minefield.


Moral claims

A claim about Islam is that it provides a worthwhile divinely ordained moral code. However, as Socrates has said:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

And Epicurus :

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

This criticism is equally valid of all religions, of course - to any religion which makes the claim that it has a moral code "of value".


Moral unity?

Hamsa claims that the fact that different Western nations have different ages of consent shows that it is all built on quicksand, with our traditions built on "nebulous relativism". However, he glosses over the fact that within Islam there are strongly varying schools of thought - there's not exactly a unity there either. But I don't claim that Western traditions have some magic moral blessing bestowed upon them - or even some underlying philosophical unity ( though we do try ) - just that they are stronger for recognising the very real ambiguities in the way we relate to the world, rather than pretending they don't exist.


Historical scientific innovation - science and Islam

In its prime, Islamic society was a great innovator in science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy. Averroes was considered one of the forces behind the European Enlightenment. And it is known that Greek works lost during the dark ages were preserved in Islamic society, eventually finding their way back to Europe.

However, Islam fell foul of its own internal tensions and quashed the intellectual vigour it once had.

Commentators like Hamza note how the Koran emphasised the pursuit of knowledge. I'll take his word for it. Certainly, early Islamic societies advanced our scientific understanding. However, the Koran said nothing about medicine, cosmology or other sciences which were not already known at the time, which would have helped rather a lot more than mere encouragement. For instance, there is nothing about the germ theory of disease, and the Koran wrongly asserts that the Sun travels around the earth ( see later on defences against this claim ).

There are inconsistent claims about the origins of life which can only be claimed to match current thinking through conceptual abuse. This suggests early scientific advances under Islam were a precarious cultural phenomenon, rather than anything divinely inspired.

In spite of its achievements, Islam has some blind spots when it comes to rights. Which is not to claim that western society is grandly superior - it has its problems too. Rights are a slippery issue and we struggle with them too. However, having problems ( which we can analyse ) does not stop us from recognising problems and contradictions elsewhere. It's not like there's some sort of "conservation of idiocy", where us being good means others have problems ( and vice-versa).

This is not to deny the West's colonial legacy. Nevertheless, I feel an impartial analysis would not put all the blame for poverty in Islamic societies at the feet of the West. The collapse of innovation happened independently of colonialism, well before it even existed. In fact - if Islam had continued on its original trajectory - without collapsing under its internal tensions - it might have been the colonial power, taking over Europe. The shoe would have been on the other foot.

While I don't believe Islamic moral claims have validity through divine inspiration, it is still possible a worthwhile code of living may be derived from Islam. However, this is an "ad-hoc" collections of ideas that are useful because they happen to be useful, not because they have been divinely inspired. Further, they are usually applied by someone who was ethical to start with.


Harms and benefits of religion

We can of course recognise the harm that religion does, or its benefits. John Perkins, for example, makes many criticisms. I prefer to see things as a mixture, including some positives.

Problems with Islam are worthy of closer examination.


Origins of religions, and Historical positives

I understand King Josiah put together the Hebrew Bible for political ends, trying to bind his people against external threats, and I'd imagine Prof. Christine Hayes would at least be willing to endorse that as reasonable. Similarly, it seems that Islam emerged from the takeover of much of Arabia by Bedouins. The religion would have served to bind people together and enable worthwhile trade between disparate people with little else in common.

I recall seeing the text of welcome of a Caravanseri in Turkey as exhorting people to participate in "honest trade". Drawing from the views of Umberto Eco, who says crimes are indications of what people actually get up to, we can only assume that these exhortations were indicative that people were in fact quite susceptible to dishonesty, and you needed some means to improve trust and honesty.

John Perkins writes about how limiting credit limits an economy; well, I have my own ideas about credit, echoing that of Margrit Kennedy; some details are included here. But, regardless of the effect of credit, it clear to see that improving social capital and trust will enable trade, and Islam may have helped here.

In fact, David Graeber talks about how Adam Smith developed a lot of his ideas from Mediaeval Islam, how the Arabs first used "checks", and how Sharia provided an integrated approach to lubricate the economy. He also talks about how religions partly developed in response to an amoral market.Interesting stuff. The picture around Islam gets more complex.


Enlightenment / Averoes / History of thought

Victor Bien ( Treasurer, Humanist Society of NSW ) sees that Christianity has been through the Enlightenment, which has served as a moderating force, something Islam has not experienced, not to mention the colonialism it also experienced, which can't have helped.

Still Averroes was an Islamic scholar who was an important Enlightenment figure. However, he was operating during the earlier "Open" stage of Muslim culture, before the "Closing of the gates of Ijtihad" - so even the Western Enlightenment can claim a heritage going back to early progressive Islam.

Victor sees three major sources posited for Islamic extremism:

  • social pathology (disaffected unemployed youths etc.);
  • political economic disenfranchisement (part of global inequity driving anger and blowback);
  • the actual "content" of Islam.

This line of thought is mirrored by Ayan Hirsi Ali, and obviously several others. I've a lot of sympathy with her views. But, the important thing is - even if she's wrong, are there reasons why she's wrong? And, further, assuming there's problems - it does beg the question of how she ended up where she did. There may be some considered responses to Ali coming from Islam, but I've not seen any.

Still, no faith, including Islam, has a monopoly on regressive values. The ultra-right in Australia promote racism, something other Australians find offensive. And for sure, there are various people doing dubious things, and the degree to which they "get away with it" is not a function of its dubiousness.


ISLAMIC APOLOGETICS



Islamic explanations

In the face of these criticisms, Muslims do have explanations. Of course, Christians have their own separate brand of explanations - called "Apologetics" - but I want to be careful about using Christian terminology. Are Islamic "explanations" fundamentally different to Christian ones, just because it is a different religion? I'll leave that for you to decide.


Semantic arguments and Islamic change

Muslims spend a lot of time worrying about what words mean. Waleed Aly, for instance, says that "Fundamentalism" is not a notion which can be applied to Islam, because it is a "Christian" notion, and not applicable to Islam.

Well, can't we just say that regardless of the exact history, there is a concept which can be applied to any religion, and issue is not the history of the term, but whether it can be applied to describe similar distinctions and concerns, separately to how the term developed? What we are talking about is a "literalist, inflexible" approach to the original words, which can be identified in any religion - Islam included.

Irshan Manji, a Canadian Muslim commentator ( see for example, here and the website here ) talks about "Literalism", but also refers to "fundamentalism". But - let's call it literalism - taking the words literally. As has been noted by John Perkins, Muslims cannot ignore any verse in the Koran. Christians can pass over verses when they can justify it. And they can put aside much of the Old Testament, saying Jesus put in a new contract which put the Old Testament to one side. In comparison, Muslims have less "room to move" - they can "interpret" the Koran in different ways, but they cannot ignore any given verse.


Defences : quote mining and misinterpretations

Quote some lines out of the Koran in criticism, and some Muslims will claim you're quoting out of context, "quote mining", or you're drawing from a mis-translation. They claim that if you read not just an isolated quote, but rather in context, it then makes sense, and is not as problematic as first appears.

Now, this does bring up the whole idea of how you can communicate meaning at all. There's a claim the Koran can only be appreciated in the original Arabic; at the same time there are claims that Islam has a "clear and simple message". I don't think I'm the only person to see a conflict here.


The solar system.

According to The Skeptics Annotated Quran 36:40 - It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.

Two things linked together as similar - suggesting the idea they both turn in an orbit - around the earth. Given this interpretation, we see the science of the Koran is incorrect.

Now, Muslims have made some claims that in fact this could be interpreted as the sun moving in its track around the Galaxy, but this is to twist things out of any reasonable interpretation. The focus of the passage is the Sun and moon with implied reference to the earth. I do not believe that anything in the Koran talks about galaxies, which were only discovered using western telescopes ( only one galaxy - Andromeda - along with the two Magellanic Clouds are visible with the naked eye - and no progress was made in their identification before the development of the telescope.).

Further, original Islamic astronomy embraced and developed the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. It is difficult to believe that they would not have been following the lead set in the Koran.

So, here, biased apologetic voices speaking for Islam would bring up the galactic orbit; but any reasonably impartial reader would see this as an appeal to the Ptolemaic model of the solar system.


Self sealing criticism defences - the courtier's defence

Much criticism of Islam is met with the rejoinder that critics and observers "should look at the details of Islam for themselves" with the claim the criticism originates in a superficial view of Islam. I've seen Ian Bryce accused of this.

But, the question remains - can you look in Islam sufficient detail, that you can then make a credible criticism? Or, must anyone who looks into Islam in sufficient detail then find it worthwhile; anyone criticising Islam cannot have looked at it hard enough, for there are no criticisms to be made ...

In logic, we call this a self-sealing argument. Maybe you're correct. But you shouldn't assume it in demonstrating your points to others. Another way of putting it is to say it is "The Courtier's Defence" - you just don't know enough to understand yet - so shut up. This notion is developed in a different direction in the article here .

For, the invitation to "look at Islam", is later followed by "You cannot understand it properly unless you understand Arabic" ... so why were you not honest enough to say that in the first place? When will you avoid the defence of saying "you do not understand Arabic"?

I've tried to look at Islam thoroughly - and try to take on board what Muslims say about Islam - as compared to just its critics. But will I ever have looked at it carefully enough to satisfy people criticising my review? The question also remains - where is the burden of proof ? If you're invited to look at Islam thoroughly, at what point will people stop saying that you've misunderstood it, or make some fine theological or semantic distinction? But maybe it was never a genuine invitation in the first place. There was never the possibility that anyone who looked into it properly could remain unconvinced.

For believers, Islam may always seem to make sense. But from the outside, you may be seen to me making fine distinctions which avoid criticism and argument.



The Freedom of Religious belief - and non-belief - and the burden of proof


Muslims ( and practitioners of all religions ) have the right to believe what they will.

Muslims can have their religion private. If all they want to say is "I have my religion. It works for me, and I have no desire to discuss it with others" - well, that would be the end of the argument, wouldn't it?

But it a rare believer who stops here. It is only when you assert the worth of something to others that a dialogue is started up. Claims are made, which can be disputed ( on both sides ). We're invited to look at Islam not just as a personal choice, but as an overarching set of ideas which interact with society.

The assertion seems to be that not only is it their prerogative to believe, it is a demonstrably valid belief, and others ought to necessarily also believe. Others believing becomes a reinforcement for your own belief. Their belief gives them an entitlement to be heard. And then, it also means that the fact that their God exists gives them a reason to say that things in the world ought to be a certain way.

So, the issue becomes not that believers merely believe, but rather that they also say that others should also believe as they do, and their belief ought to be recognised as legitimate.

Of course, there's a similar burden on me. As an atheist, I could just live my life, and not tell the outside world about my atheism. Or, I could just tell people about it if they ask me. Or, I could take the initiative in talking to others about my atheism, and advocating for it. But, for the present, I don't want people to be an atheist as I am, I'm just arguing about the details of the Muslim position. We could both be wrong, you know ...

Several issues seem to get confused. Is Islam being treated fairly? Is Islam being considered as valid for its believers? Are the claims believers make about it true or false. We might summarise the dilemma:

Is it possible for Islam to be considered generally by non-believers as untrue, at the same time as Muslims generally are not picked on and Islam is not being treated fairly?


Assertions about the validity of Islam

If you're making claims, those claims have to be understood and be found persuasive by the audience. If you claim you're correct, but the other party cannot understand the details, then that's a strange move. You can sure make a claim, but nobody else will be persuaded of its validity. They may acknowledge that you think something to be true, but that is different to acknowledging that it is true.

There's a presumption that Islam is theologically valid as understood by its believers. These arguments by Muslims may well placate Muslims, but they will not persuade outsiders. To persuade others, you cannot presume a conclusion. You enter the other's mindset, assume for the sake of argument that it is not necessarily correct, and then argue for its validity. I see a lot of this presumption behind arguments Muslims make. I've also seen a combination of these leaps of logic, which would appeal to Muslims who already believe, along with some packaging to try to make it appeal to non-believers too. As Muslims invite you to check out the Koran, and Islam for yourself - I also invite you to reflect on whether you've seen this yourself.

There's always the rejoinder that no outsider can properly assess Islam. But think about this. That means that only Islam can assess its own truth. So, you can never justify Islam to an outsider.

Now, apart from criticising atheism, Muslims claim that - regardless of whether you believe or not - Islam has a richness which is skirted over and ignored by critics; you "really need to look into Islam itself". This may have an initial appeal - but then, as evasions and distortions become clear, the claim loses its lustre.

Still, in spite of all I say elsewhere, I acknowledge the "richness" of Islam, the depth of ideas, and the intellectual legacy the West owes to Islam. But, Islam does not ever provide any sort of "theological truth" or "metaphysical truth about the universe". It can provide an interesting perspective on moral ideas, but only in the context of an analysis which is broader than Islam itself.

Perhaps Islamic thought is not as appreciated as it should be, but being appreciated is different to being accepted as true. To the extent that Islam is marginalised because mainstream Christian culture has privileges, then that's a point. In reality, neither Mainstream Christian Culture, embedded and seeped in our world such as it is, nor Islam should have any privilege.

But, one step behind the privileges of Christianity is the privilege of all religious beliefs in our society. This causes its own issues.

Further, some "special pleading" does enter into the argument for Islam. Yes, it is true that a certain "racist tone" leaks into a lot of analysis of Islam. Scam emails circulate which describe some abuse by Muslims around a school or other community where people push back; it describes them unfairly and it did not happen. It is true that this is unfair. But that does not mean that Islam's theological claims are therefore true, it just means that there's "unfair treatment" of Islam.

There's also so-called "Islamophobia", which is a label presumably attached to a position to try to label it as irrational, emotional and knee-jerk. But, just as there may be Islamophobic comment - I've tried to identify some of that phenomena in this article - it is similarly a knee jerk defence to label all comment critical of Islam as "Islamophobic". The question remains - is there non-Islamophic criticism of Islam which is also valid? I think the answer is yes.


HUMAN RIGHTS, COMPASSION, AND ISLAM

Human rights are the things that individuals ought to be able to do. Compassion is an inclination to look after others. Islam can in fact support ideas of financial equality, charity, caring for each other and not being selfish.

Islam can work to increase mutual trust and support amongst those who are already believers. This influence has a mixed track record; Ayan Hirsi Ali talks about how the Mosque was an oasis of warmth and consideration in the otherwise brutal outside society - so its reach can be strangely small.

However, when it comes to individual rights, there is a very different approach in Islam as compared to western notions, particularly when it comes to the rights of women and sexual equality.


Islam and sexual equality

Islam claims that its practices replaced preceding far more abusive practices. For example, killing baby girls, and having many wives. Muslims claim that Islam represented an improvement on these past practices, giving women new rights. This is correct as far as it goes, assuming history really developed that way.

However, it falls down in assuming that this historical improvement was enough in broader terms - that is for separate assessment, not just assertion. It is the difference between making an assessment of some relative change as compared to an absolute assessment. Maybe it would be good to go beyond the Islamic improvements. Perhaps the idea that there was a past improvement commends the idea of further improvement. Perhaps the greater rights the Western tradition gives to women ( for all its problems ) would be a worthwhile further improvement.

There is said to be a "respect" for women in Islam, they are said to be "valued". However, the corresponding right of sexual equality in the UN Charter of Human Rights does not exist in the Cairo declaration, the corresponding Islamic document. This document pays lip service to equality of the sexes, and then talks about women having "equality in human dignity" with "rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform". Western ideas of "human rights" include "equality of the sexes"; there's no similar emphasis in the Islamic tradition.

One reason for veiling women ( and controlling them) is to prevent the temptation of men. This is quite asymmetric. Leading their lives, women are not prone to temptation by men ? Why are impacts on the social and spiritual lives of men considered more important than any impacts, freedoms - or indeed temptations - of women?

There are many other distinctions between men and women. Women cannot become Imams. It is men who are promised paradise with virgins to look after them. Further, in contrast to men having many women in paradise, women would be provided with "one man they would be happy with" ( and that's not necessarily in the Koran or Hadiths, but seems to be a commentary). The testimony of two women equals one man. Segregation between men and women at physical meetings. Women being relegated to the "Sisters' Corner" in Muslim internet discussion forum, rather than being expected to be a part of the general debate.

There is a fundamental difference here. The logical consequence of this asymmetry is obvious. I see women treated as unequal. No amount of rationalisation will avoid that. It may be that the lived experience some women in Islam is be positive, but you cannot get around the logical concliusion which all of this drives towards.

This approach pushes responsibility for violence against women onto the victim. It's always seemed strange to me that somehow the man concerned is given a free pass for something that should be condemned.

Incidentally, I'm not really taken with the notion of the virgins in paradise. They have some pretty appealing attributes - being well endowed amongst them - but at the same time, it feels as if they're not "real" - more robots than real women or something along the lines of the Stepford Wives. Real women have an appeal that these caricatures do not have. But I guess the description must appeal to some.

Now, while I've seen Muslims get worked up over the meanings of words, here's a time where I do. We have several different words and notions:

  • women are valued
  • women are respected
  • women have sovereignty and autonomomy
  • women should not be considered responsible for crimes done to them

"Respecting women's sovereignty and autonomy" does not seem to naturally emerge from Islam. While women can make claims under Shari'a law, there's a definite asymmetry. The concept of "women having sovereignty and autonomy" emerges much more naturally from an enlightenment approach. That is not to say our legal traditions and systems of Government are without their own problems - our ability to point out the problems in our own approach is in fact a strength.


Segregation and approaches

There's concern about segregation of men and women in university meetings in the UK; we had this in Sydney when Hazma Tzortis toured Sydney. There's some ambiguity about whether this is "voluntary" or "obligatory" segregation, much as that might sound like a contradiction. If on entry you can sit in the "mixed" or "only your sex" section, then there's an element of choice thrown in. When a friend of mine arrived late at a Muslim-hosted debate and sat in the women's section by accident, and then realised, he was worried - and then they women around him said "don't worry about it".

And, as has been noted, there are mosques where the sexes are not segregated.

Nevertheless, while we can at least grant some notional autonomy for willing participants in a religious service to run affairs at that service as they all hopefully consent to, there's a big difference between a religious service and secular gatherings. There was at one stage an attempt to enforce discrimination in lectures at UK universities - there's been a push back against it.


Responsibility and blame for rape and violent assault

For all the talk of "valuing" women, there's a fundamental question: who is more responsible for violence to women - the woman, or the criminal? To me, that's a fundamental litmus test. Now, if you're talking about causality separately to responsibility, it does get a little more subtle - see my article on light and rape, in reply to Miranda Devine. Dr. Ida Lichter ( in a speech to the Sydney Institute ) notes that:

Some clerics believe women are not innocent victims of violence if they are insufficiently covered. Senior Australian mufti Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, once declared that all non-veiled women, Muslim and non-Muslim, could encourage sexual attacks: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street . . . and the cats come and eat it, whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem," he said. Similarly, an Islamic Mufti in Copenhagen stated that women who refused to wear headscarves were "asking for rape".

While at some level, the veil is normally supposed to protect women from men, the fact remains that women in Australia open themselves up to a lot of criticism - in a perverse way, it means they are likely to be greater victims, picked on by non-Muslim Australians.


Contrasts - women as independent agents

Of course, some women will talk feminism within the context of Islam. They will note how one of the Prophet's wives proposed to him. Women may voluntarily convert to Islam and voluntarily wear the veil, seeing it as source of identity and perhaps providing a "place" for themselves. Rather than worrying about the subtle differences between "being respected" and "having sovereignty", they will see opportunities and possibilities, with no effective limitations on their freedoms or the life they wish to live. Regardless of the details, they will see their lived experience, and those around them, as positive.

They will feel a part of Islam, and find it advances their comfort with life around them. People who convert to any religion can of course experience this. They will feel pride, rather than feeling sidelined.

I recall a story of a woman who lifted her veil to eat an ice cream without her husband batting an eyelid - in that case, it would seem, there was no coercion from her husband - it was rather something done by free and individual choice. This is at the same time as we can also see sexism, coercion and violence associated with Islam. In Islamic Republics like Iran, wearing the veil is compulsory and enforced by the religious police.

The "rights" debate can be distorted, focusing on the "right" of women to wear the veil, while ignoring the fact that women are coerced into wearing the veil in many Islamic Republics, and are denied the right not to. Sure, women have the right to wear the veil. There's the difference between the local and global significance of Islam. Surely, at the same time as we acknowledge the right of women to wear the veil, we should also recognise overseas Islamic coercion?

As noted by Ida Lichter, there's an emphasis in western feminist commentary on the freedom to wear the veil, while ignoring the freedom not to. It's a strange blindness. Further, she sees that Islamic feminists ignore the abuses of women that have been justified through, or at least associated with, Islam.

For sure, I'm someone who happened to be born with a Y chromosome - a man, and I'm writing about the treatment of women. On the one hand that can be dismissed. And look, to be sure, perhaps some of the concern for women in Islam is driven by a pre-existing concern about Islam rather than a genuine concern for women. Is the critic is aware of the prevalence of domestic violence and other violence against women outside of Islam? I am sure trying to look at the overall context, but I'll leave that for others to judge. The point remains, however, there are numerous women pointing out issues with how Islam treats women. They sure don't seem to be slaves of some nationalist agenda, operating from more of a "human rights/treatment of women" framework. You sure don't have to be a bloke - and it is part of the bigger picture.

It's claimed that according to the Koran, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, but Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women - another example of asymmetry and how it is rationalised. Still, Hanifa Deen is married to a lapsed Catholic, which would be against the Koran on that basis. However, I've not heard any other Muslims challenge her authority. Now, it may well be that some Islamic communities enforce this notion; this would violate human rights - freedom of religion - and the freedom to mix with other religions. Still - in times past - the prohibitions between Catholics and Protestants marrying are awful to contemplate.

So, we must be clear that just because something is in the Koran does not mean that all people who identify as Muslims follow it, just as we should not think of all Christians as being "fundamentalist". But there is certainly a tension around ideas.

Then there's being an apostate or leaving Islam. While some elements of the Koran talk about belief being voluntary, once you're in, you can't leave on pain of death. Apostasy is a crime in some Islamic Republics.


THE EXPERIENCE OF ISLAM IN AUSTRALIA AND OTHER WESTERN NATIONS - MULTICULTURALISM - ASSIMILATION

Undoubtedly, in Australia many Muslims are community minded and lead good lives, and converts see it as a path to personal contentment. Many public statements are about Islam being a part of multicultural Australia.

We can see the degree to which many either Muslim migrants or from migrant families have embraced Australian sports. Anyone who claims that Muslims are "separate" has to recognise this. Now, I don't know what proportion of Muslims have embraced Australian culture in this way - but the fact remains that it can and does happen, is and is quite obviously genuine and is also quite prominent.

Waleed Aly claims that domestic violence and other conditions are statistically no worse in Australian Muslim families than they are in non-Muslim families. Certainly, Islam can be a foundation for a effective family. While FGM and child marriage might well be a very small proportion of the Muslim population - where most Muslims would emphatically say they do not want anything to do with such traditions - still - it would be more prevalent in families that identify as Muslim, and like justify the practice through Islam.

Hanifa Deen asserts that some Australian Islamic sentiments embrace Australian secular law. These Muslims would rather keep their heads down and not make a fuss, working and raising a family as people do. So, the voices of Radical Islam tend to be the ones we hear.

Deen wrote "The Jihad Seminar" on that well known sermon against Islam in Melbourne which was the trigger for a protracted court case. On reading it, it becomes apparent that while there is something called "hate-speech" - something which needs to be limited - hate-speech is a secular concept, and is fundamentally different to Blasphemy.

Some Muslims do think that something Blasphemous is also an example of hate-speech. And it ain't necessarily so. And while something might seem clear in the legislation, once a concept hits the courts it is pored over and pulled apart - and you wonder just what happened. That's the courts I guess. Of course, I can only say so much here - the book itself is worth reading for all that I can't say here.


The Constitution and foundational values

Now a problem here is that just what the "foundational values" of Australia is open to much discussion. Even with our constitution, you wouldn't believe the range of opinions about where Australia is headed, and what our constitution means to us. And that's in the mainstream. You don't need to go very far to find conspiracy theories about how our constitutional intent has been "lost". And look ... I embrace the ideas put forward by the Defence of Government Schools group all those decades ago that our founding fathers intended for a much stronger separation of church and state than we currently have.

So, the point is that even "mainstream Australians" bicker over what our "values" are, let alone what that means in the current legal context.

We only have to take a look at the record within Australia for changes to our constitution - very few have passed (hey - psst - would you like to nationalise the banks? Or ban the Communist Party? Whattya reckon?). Working within "the system", the options for radical change are severely limited, something that many generations of people living in Australia have managed to work out for themselves.

Being Muslim does not give you some sort of magic access to make grand changes to our legal system. The idea you'll be able to "lobby" for change is ridiculous. The next option is that of trying for revolution. Do you also think you'll carry along the police and armed forces with you? OK, contemplate revolution if you must. The point is that grand change under any sort of reasonably conceivable approach is a delusion as much for its Muslim advocates as for some Australians who try to envisage it as a threat.

But, bringing it back to Muslims and their views ... I mean, we can all have our views on what "Australia" is about. The issue is whether Muslims can be said to be obstinate in their lack of engagement with a notion that most Australian non-Muslims would acknowledge - blasphemy is not necessarily hate speech, and while freedom of speech has been much abused, it is nevertheless a valid notion. Importantly, would their case for the validity of Blasphemy be based on the idea that their religion informs them of how laws ought to be?


The negatives

In contrast to positive statements, Imams such as Sheik Al-Hilaly's have made public provocative comments, comparing women to uncovered meat. However, to be fair, at the extreme, the Westborough Baptist Church was picketing the funerals of Gays, and the KKK claims a Christian heritage. The problem is figuring out what proportion of Muslims are characterised in this way, and to do it in a way which is fair and equitable.

In the UK, threats of violence have meant debates were abandoned. In Australia, participants at debates on religion organised by Islamic groups have felt intimidated, and protesters at the Global Atheist Convention held up placards saying that Ayan Hirsi Ali should "burn in hell".

Some Australian Muslims justify offensive behaviour using Islam. Muslims have participated in violent protests against films such as "Innocence of Muslims". While Muslims can be offended, the laws of western nations around making films are not based around principles of Blasphemy, and to be violent in such a protest does betray Australian values.

Whether local or international, this behaviour is justified through Islam by those committing it. Other Muslims outside those groups say it is cultural, not endorsed by the Koran. Others claim Islam is compatible with Human Rights, and community Muslim leaders have condemned the violent protests. Leaders have also distanced themselves from Sheik Al-Hilaly's provocative comments, comparing women to uncovered meat.

It is also worth recognising that nominal "Westerners" can be behind violent demonstrations, and we have extreme right-wing elements in our midst. Somewhat benignly, students do from time to time do things which others find offensive like burning flags, resulting in no shortage of hand-wringing by middle Australia. Further protests in Europe can be a lot more violent than any in Australia, so we need some perspective.


INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES

While there are some harrowing stories out there about Islam - valid ones - there's also a cultural complexity that is frequently lost on critics too, to do with a lived experience - positive, benign, and perhaps being marginalised - to relate to and understand. Here's a few examples.


Leaving Islam

There are credible stories of people in Islamic nations finding their safety at risk if they leave Islam. However, the experience in "New Humanist" was not of someone who felt a religious command to avoid publicly announcing their atheism - the sentiment was much more not wanting to hurt their parents' feelings. But they sure did not feel a "religious" fear.


Islamic rebound

Apart from positive assimilation, Gaby Grammeno has identified the "rebound" phenomenon for some Muslims. On reaching Australia, getting away from their home nation, they "rebound" into fundamental Islam - perhaps becoming more fundamentalist than they were before - somehow separating the problems of their home country from Islam, and still believing Islam is a "good thing" - the more fundamentalist the better.

Now, at another level, Australians do get caught up in the simplistic answers provided by shock-jocks - not to mention conspiracy theories of various types. We shouldn't be too surprised that something similar - a grasping at simple answers where others are to blame - should be the result of adversity and confusion.

There are stories of immigrants to Australia getting worked up about our cultural changes since they arrived, but being ignorant that their own home country has been through similar changes, and it is no longer the place they left. This is nowhere near as bad, more a "cultural clang" than anything else - Islamic rebound is rather worse.


Double other

Some Muslims, called "Secular Muslims" in a recent Big Ideas radio broadcast here, are seen as "not Muslim enough". So, there's a depth of culture that we are not aware of. Some Muslims will have pork burgers at Maccas without a second thought, and presumably there will be no consequences. But others will fall foul of this internal tension. I hear the radio broadcast and think "man I'd like to buy you a beer - or whatever might be your beverage of choice".


TERRORISM IN AUSTRALIA

Back in 2009, we had the Holsworthy Barracks terror plot. Now, I do think this was a real, legit terrorist plot. Maybe it would have come apart at the seams had the terrorists tried to carry it through. But I think there was a genuine intent there. I think it was real, and in fact the State averted a tragedy.

However, this is to be held in contrast to the recent raids in pursuit of supposed terror suspects. They did not uncover anything. In fact, there are stories of the anguish felt by children knowing their mother was not properly dressed and in the presence of men unknown to their family - namely, the police who had done a raid. Supposedly, they were looking into genuine leads. Well, you do wonder about how "genuine" they were, but has this been scrutinised properly? There seems to be a contrast between "investigations" which have been whipped up politically, as compared to "investigations" which emerge from "regular" politically unmotivated police initiatives.

Look, I do hope that family gets over it. But, like ... newsflash ... If that family were just trying to be a part of Australia like most people, I'd imagine the experience would have made them lose faith in Australia. And, while I don't want target anyone, it would be an experience that could well radicalise people in a bad way. Terrorism, caused by the police, rather than stopped by them.

Now, I make this criticism in the light of - I think - a genuine terrorist plot back in 2009. So, the authorities do need to keep a lookout. But, at the same time, you wonder if they've got the balance right.


Slants on the Man Harold Monis attack


This was indeed a tragedy. However, there's still something to be said.

It was not the result of raids by police that did not occur - it was the result of ineffective monitoring by the state of people already involved in the justice system. It was a failure of mental health rather than terrorism. Monis was involved in a lot more than Islam, with an eclectic interest in various "new age" religions. So, to associate "Islam" is a difficult one.

I recognise the difficult situation the police were in. I recognise the tactical difficulties they would have had, and the difficult decisions they would have needed to make, and the fact that they do put their lives on the line. However, at a strategic level, I wonder if the situation could have been handled differently. Perhaps fewer lives could have been lost.

Into the bargain, Iran said that Monis was in fact a criminal back in Iran, who they requested. Point is, just as we should not accept every claim made from overseas, we should not, equally dismiss overseas criminal claims - maybe people really are criminals in a way we would understand. Further, various people in the Muslim community in Australia did feel "set up" in the washout.

Monis' motives also shine a spotlight on what "terrorism" is. Is "terrorism" the use of "terror" for political ends? Or is "mass violence" without a "political" edge marginalised? ( See the following section on distorted perceptions).


General freedoms

While some may be concerned about the onset of Shari'a law, Muslims, terrorism etc. etc., it's worth noting that many in Australia see the hooey about terrorism as in the first place, an excuse for the Government to shore up its political profile amongst the community; and second, as an excuse to put in draconian laws that would not otherwise be seen as reasonable. It fits in with the shadow of 911.

So, rather than the threat from terrorism being engaged with appropriately, the greater threat of Government laws and intrusion becomes, in its way, more significant.

Much as I can write a lot, I'd better hold back here; I suggest you read material by the Australian/NSW Council for Civil Liberties and also the Pirate Party ( Disclosure - I am a member of the Pirate Party).


DISTORTED PERCEPTIONS - CRIME, OVERSEAS AND LOCAL, ANIMALS, HALAL SLAUGHTER AND REGISTRATION

We have a complex history of terrorism in Australia. But, along with terrorism, there's many distortions in perception- that includes violence suffered by people, harm to animals, and different types of violence.

It is worth noting that other terrorist acts have not been associated with Islam - for example, the Sydney Turkish Consul General Şarık Arıyak and his security attaché Engin Sever in 1980.

However, keep in mind that other acts of violence do take place in Australia, and are also of concern. The Hoddle Street massacre. Port Arthur. Strathfield Mall shootings. And it does seem that legitimate concern about such non-terrorist killings and violence drops in prominence. You have the usual range of "prominence glitches", where both non-fatal and fatal domestic violence has little prominence compared to public violence between men. And you have large violent acts of "revenge" dropping through the cracks because they are not "terrorism killings".

It's become clear that its not "violence" objectively speaking, based on how many it kills or could kill, but rather whether that violence can be linked to the motive of terrorism, that gets people's interest. See here
for example.

The question remains - are we concerned about violence which kills people, or are we concerned about terrorism. Between the media and the Government, there does seem to be a distorted perception - at the same time as terrorism would be a real issue, and one worth engaging with. It shines a light on other dualities and contradictions in our perspectives on the world.

Take animals, for instance. Are we concerned about their suffering? Well, there is a lot of suffering animals inflict on each other - as for instance, when a cheetah kills a gazelle. So, perhaps our concern is about humans causing suffering, rather than suffering with a "natural" origin.

While we can be concerned about humans causing suffering of animals generally, we can be more concerned about particular humans and particular animals. Consider, for instance, the conditions of slaughter of "Australian" livestock in Indonesia, not to mention the fate of many animals involved in the "live export" trade. Now, one assumes that a good deal of livestock around the world suffers in inhumane conditions, and that also the Indonesians would have treated livestock - either grown in Indonesia, or from non-Australian sources - and this would not really have been "on our radar". But why not? Do we ignore suffering which are not involved in? Suffering we cannot do anything about? How do we relate to suffering caused to animals, regardless of the cause?

Now, similarly, we can be concerned about Halal slaughter of animals. But, the question remains whether scrutiny of this comes from a general concern about the welfare of animals, or from a selective concern about the suffering of animals caused by something else of pre-existing significance - in this case, Islam - in the sense of looking for something to criticise Islam for. So, while the suffering of animals through Halal slaughter may indeed be an issue, when we someone concerned about this suffering, without any indication they have a more general concern about animal welfare, we can see that this concern emerges from a narrow agenda.

If any group is concerned about animal welfare in broad terms, and criticises Halal slaughter as part of that, well fair enough. But if a criticism of Halal slaughter is in the context of other criticism of Islam, and demonstrates ignorance of the broader issues around animal welfare, I suggest that criticism is not "genuine".

We can of course wonder if it is legitimate to even eat any meat, let alone worry about how it is slaughtered. Some people are vegetarians on this basis. I'm not a vegetarian, but acknowledge the issues. At some level, I feel disquiet that meat is a commodity, which much meat sitting on the shelves which is thrown away. I guess there's a lot of waste built into the economy. But this waste sticks in my craw. We can likewise wonder about suffering caused by:

  • people in Australia
  • institutions in Australia
  • people overseas

So, we see hints of a similar selectivity. People in Australia may be abused by others in Australia, with that abuse being justified through Islam. Now, in contrast, in Muslim Republics overseas, people will be abused by state based Shari'a law. But we can do little about that suffering caused by Islam overseas. But, further - overseas - suffering may be caused by Islam, or it may be the result of more generic secular dictatorships, or it may be caused by more generalised famine and/or civil war. It does seem that we're not so much concerned about suffering, but rather suffering from particular causes which resonate with us.

Now, in the past, we treated very well people seeking political asylum who were escaping from Governments we considered enemies of the West - for example, Petrov in Australia. But, we were not that worked up about refugees from nations which either had no particular affiliation or were vaguely associated with the West and/or the US. Most interestingly, we sent refugees from Saddam's Iraq back to Iraq, saying the Government was benign - and then half a year later we attacked them, when they were then suddenly evil enough to justify it.

So, in relating to suffering associated with Islam - there's some which can go on in Australia - a limited amount - and how does that compare with the other sources of abuse and suffering which happen in the background, which we don't particularly pay attention to? Then, there's the international human rights abuses, justified through Shari'a law. Our options for changing those Governments is limited, though there certainly seems to be a good amount of concern for this in various circles.

But, at least we've identified a lot of different sources of harm, violence and human rights abuses - that which happens locally, and that which happens internationally. And that which is justified or associated with Islam, and that which has other causes. If we are to be selective - we should at least acknowledge it - and - if we can - justify it.


Dietary and other practices

Islam has a practice of Halal slaughter. There's a legitimate concern about this, as articulated by the rspca : here and here

And, it does link into the whole issue of live animal exports, which I don't have time to consider here.

I understand Jewish Kosher slaughter is motivated by the notion of blood being sacred and the property of God, and probably Halal operates in similar fashion (religion separates some things as "sacred" - the property of God - as compared to "profane" and mundane. In this usage though, "profane" does not have any derogatory sentiment). There's a fundamental clash between religions claiming to be "ethical" and the way in which they relate to animals, something that only secular philosophy can see clearly. In comparison, the RSPCA also voices concerns about Kosher slaughter here


Halal registration

Apart from Halal slaughter, there is also the notion of Halal registration. Now, if that Halal food involves humane slaughter, as defined by the RSPCA, the ethical issues around eating Halal meat are not much different to eating meat generally.

But the issue remains that Halal registration might be obtained by a given shop, and not be labelled. Effectively all of us then pay for that registration. This is problematic. The idea of proper labelling is an issue I have pursued elsewhere in the context of GMO foods - it is not just a concern about Halal food.

Dick Smith has refused to register his brand, and his explanation makes interesting reading. Notably, there is a much stronger hoax version, criticising Islam, that is attributed to Dick Smith, but one which he did not make.

I see some subtle economic interactions. Now, if there are openly Halal grocers and people choose to shop at them, good luck to them. Other people could then buy non-Halal food at the major shop chains. However, given just how all-sweeping modern capitalism is ("The ago of the greedy bastard", as Terry Frost would put it), large firms are not comfortable with this, and so try to pursue every possible market segment. And if that registration can be shared amongst all consumers, its easier to administer, the firm has more profit ... QED.

So the problems with Halal registration are not just the result of something called Halal registration. Another driving force is the desire of firms to expand their market coverage regardless of the details. Many campaigns by large firms have had hidden things which bite them in the bum - for example, the Woolies promotion using overseas celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was challenged by Australian farmers, saying this was a subsidy which was coerced out of them, in pursuit of increased market share rather than increasing the overall consumption of fruit and vegetables by Australians. Woolies also attracted criticism from their "Fresh in our memories" campaign around Anzac day (while the Daily Telegraph, critical of Woolies, did its own tasteless things). Then you have the idea that some suppliers rely on what is effectively slave labour. Can they do anything right? I suspect these large chains are so driven by the dollar that ethical claims are mere window dressing. There's a certain logic to the whole picture.


Duality - violence in Australia

But, bringing things back - how much of total violence in Australia can be attributed to Islamic-associated terrorism? Now, this could be some sort of duality. An absolutely vast majority of Muslims are not associated with terrorist violence. However, of recent terrorist acts and plans, the larger proportion are Islamic-associated. You can wonder what the proportion of total violence in Australia. And then you can wonder exactly how we define "terrorism".

But, when I say Islamic - Associated, let's be clear - those conducting the violence justify it through an appeal to Islam. Many others who identify as Muslims scorn the behaviour as "un-Islamic". Well, that actually a legitimate claim to make, but there are layers of complexity here, which I'll go into elsewhere.


Accusations of disproportionate focus - "picking on" Islam

Criticisms of Islam can be answered with the claim something else - similar and perhaps worse - is done elsewhere - so why aren't you also worried about that? Well, actually, it's pretty common with any criticism of anything. You say you're worried about X, and somebody else says "why aren't you also worried about Y, which is also harmful".

Well, the answer is that in worrying about harm X, you're not claiming it's the worst harm in the world, but rather that is an area where you're more able and motivated to change things. Of course, many criticisms are not put forward in this finessed way, acknowledging other sources of harm along the way, there's often a "yelling and screaming" component about the significance, seeing this particular harm as abhorrent and "of the scale" compared to everything else. And sure, this is worth being aware of. But just because someone else is doing something similar, it doesn't automatically get you off the hook, either. It's leading to the so-called "Tu quoque" fallacy, as they call it in the trade.

In my own case, while I'm critical of Halal food not being labelled, I have a history of concern over labelling of GMO foods; but there are other areas where sure, there might be harms other than the one I am noting that is associated with Islam. But a harm elsewhere does not mean that this one loses all significance; sure maybe more resources should be directed towards that other harm, but that does not mean we should ignore this one. Further, if many things are ignored all over the place, surely it is progress to advance on one of those causes?

In any case, the door does swing both ways. Ida Lichter notes that Islamic feminists look towards more female-friendly readings of the Koran, but ignore the human rights abuses done to women in the name of Islam (again, from a speech to the Sydney Institute):

Veiled activists are showing little interest in campaigning against forced marriage, child marriage, polygyny, unilateral divorce for men, unequal rights to custody or compensation, opposition to women’s entitlement to only half the inheritance of a male, or a woman’s testimony in court being half the value of a man’s. Nor do they join NGOs that challenge illiteracy amongst the women in Arab countries, female genital mutilation that affects over ninety per cent of females in Egypt and Somalia, leniency for perpetrators of "honour killings", the requirement of four male witnesses to prove rape, segregation in the public space, and a husband’s permission to leave the house.


SHARIA LAW & OTHER ASPECTS



Shari'a Law

As noted, many Muslim majority countries are secular, and may have limited or no Shari'a law. Strangely, such laws are creeping in elsewhere, and they are of concern. Certainly, where people - as equals - voluntarily enter into some sort of "Islamic Mediation" which does not claim to trump the regular court system - no problem. That is, after all, a private arrangement. But, if people want "Shari'a Law" to have the force of "The State Law", then that's a problem.


Our legal system

Now, this is an area where you need some care. While our legal system has problems, I still think it best to operate on its own principles, without any involvement of Shari'a Law. Yes, our legal system has problems - ones we need to work on - but Shari'a law has worse problems.

You can talk about how our legal system reflects the capability of the wealthy, or the prudishness and interests of the ruling class, emphasises "victimless crimes", or steamrollers people into submitting to a great many minor injustices because the cost of solving them is more than it is worth.

Yes, our legal system does have its problems. However, it depends on what you emphasise. It has its positives. It does do a much better job of recognising Human Rights than Shari'a Law does. And as convoluted and problematic as the rules of evidence are ( such a prominent feature of those US law shows), they're not as bad as the testimony of two women being equal to one man.


Cultural superiority

This is not to claim that in some sense, our culture is superior to the culture in which Islam and Shari'a law emerged. It an accident of history, not a reflection of some inherent superiority. But we can still recognise and celebrate the virtues of that thing we stumbled upon, through more "arse than class", to use a metaphor.


Concern - funding and privileges

Now, while there are some people identifying as Muslim, agitating for the introduction of Shari'a law in Australia, these people are as naive as many Australians are about grand changes to our legal and Governmental structures. See the section Constitutional Law. Making such grand changes would be very hard.

However, while the notion of "imposing Shari'a law" in a way that "replaces" our legal system is, to my way of thinking a totally ridiculous notion, there are still ways in which Islam can take a destructive hold of our government and legal system.

One possibility is where people do not assert their legal rights available under the law either because they are ignorant or through cultural pressure. Of course, a lot of non-Muslims might likewise not assert their legal rights because they are ignorant or can't be bothered, but that's different to it being squashed by cultural norms.

One such example is where a divorce settlement is arranged under Muslim protocols, but the woman concerned would have a fairer arrangement under the Australian legal system, but is coerced into to not seeking intervention under the State's legal system. Maryam Namazie has stories of exactly this sort of thing in the UK.

Another possibility is that inappropriate funds are directed to Muslim services. Of course, a decent swag of money is directed to Christian operations, and that's not right either. Along these lines we have the installation of foot washing and other equipment in universities.

Lastly, we can have the imposition of muslim protocols on activities which a stridently non-religious in character, such as lectures incorporating segregation. There's also some minor issues about Halal registration, which I've noted separately.


Hate speech & Blasphemy

Hate speech as a concern, but we must scorn Blasphemy laws. One thing that became clear reading Hanifa Deen's "The Jihad Seminar" was how Muslims do not see the distinction. Within the UN, we've seen a resistance by Islamic States to grant Human Rights precedence over Shari'a Law - though some commentators do try to emphasise their compatibility.


Shari'a law, rights and segregation

I recently saw the film "Don't bury my heart", hosted by Sydney Feminists and UN Youth Australia. It was a fascinating, if morbid, insight into the operation of Shari'a Law. You hear a lot about how it operates, but a detailed account can always give you a greater insight. Here, one school student killed another in a fight, and they would be normally executed unless the family of the victim agrees to suspend the execution. In this case, the family has a "right" to have the murderer executed.


ISLAM IN THE WORLD - OTHER COUNTRIES



Progressive Muslims around the world

It is also worth understanding that "Liberal Muslims" in Egypt have been one of the forces pushing against constitutional recognition of Shari'a Law. While we can wonder about whether "Moderate Muslims" can push for progressive values, there's a clear example in Egypt that it does. And, for all its other problems, its worth noting that Iraq pushed for the preservation of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. And, for sure, many Muslim Kurds ( and other Muslims - and other people of other religious and non-religious identities ) are fighting against ISIS.


Global diversity

While there are women in some societies who are not obliged to wear the veil, and do so by choice, there are societies where wearing the veil is compulsory, and is enforced by the religious police. In Iran, there is a movement by women "Neither veil nor submission" - and members have been attacked violently by the religious police.

Ayan Hirsi Ali has a harrowing story to tell about Genital Mutilation and the dark side of Islam. In other nations, violence against women is justified through Islam.

You have public forums on Islam where the Islamic speakers are intimidating, or - at worst - have made threats of violence which have meant the forum was shut down - as has happened in the UK.

Then you have the machinations by Islamic Republics in the UN trying to make Blasphemy an exception to free speech. These abuses and excesses need to be identified - and challenged.


Separate religion and it's practitioners

One defence is to separate the "religion" from the people practicising it, and blame all problems that can't be evaded by other means on the people practicising it.

Ian spent some time criticising many religions, and in particular Islam. Hamza seemed to ignore the point that if a religion had problems, it may not necessarily deny the God existence, but it sure doesn't look good for that God.

It is strange that a God would divinely inspire a text, and then leave its interpretations to vagaries of human thought and conflicting viewpoints - and not anticipate how the religion would survive it's originator's death. With so much having gone wrong in the meantime, how can that God have the attributes of "all powerful" or "all wise"? The best you could say is that he's making a "damn good effort", considering his constraints. One explanation is that it is a "human thing", but it does seem strange that God with all his miracles and interventions - is not willing to stick his oar in here and there just to clear things up.

Waleed Aly claims that things that have gone wrong with Islam - for example - closing the gates of Ijtihad - were a function of people, not religion, and not the Koran. But, it does beg the question - if God is so powerful - why was he unable to keep things more "on track"?


Islamic nations as compared to Islam

While Hamsa criticises Islamic Republics as dictatorships, it is a worry that so many "moderate" Islamic Nations in the OIC support the idea that these nations should be above criticism at the UN Human Rights council.

There is also a presumption of truth, which precludes other analysis. Yes, there's a lot of distortion and argumentative abuse in Western thought. But, the different is that people can often at least logically consider the possibility that the other side is correct, even if only to argue past the issue. But it seems that Islam struggles to even recognise and engage with this possibility.

In looking at the state of the world, rather than seeing the decline in the Islamic world as resulting from unavoidable aspects of Islam, they re-frame any problems as resulting from insufficient Islam, with only a re-emphasis being necessary.

Further, rather than trying to cleave off nations which are "not Islamic", it does seem that many Islamic scholars - quite apart from nations - support blasphemy laws, and presumably the outcomes we see in Muslim countries. It seems a strange line to push - this is humane Islam, the good Islam, not the perversion we see in dictatorships - while the scholarly Islam does seem to support blasphemy laws - and the outcomes we have in these extreme nations.


Obnoxious international behaviour - International affairs and Islamic Republics

The IHEU statement by Roy Brown to the UN Human Rights Council criticising the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for their human rights double standards, noted on the 14th March 2013 on the IHEU website

Freedom of Expression and the OIC


Mr President,


Freedom of expression is once again under sustained attack from the member states of the OIC.


In Saudi Arabia last week, two activists were sentenced to ten years in jail for exposing hundreds of cases of human rights abuse in the kingdom.


In Iran, we have seen protesters imprisoned and even sentenced to death, for "waging war against God". But what strange logic can possibly equate criticism and peaceful protest with waging war? And since when did any government equate itself with God?


In Morocco, a colleague has had to flee for his life because he wrote of his doubts about Islam. [Speech by Kacem Elghazzali, HRC 22, item 4, 11 March 2013]


In Mauritania, two days ago, a group of nine antislavery protesters were attacked and severely beaten by police. [Private communication from IRA Mauritania, 10 March 2013]


In Pakistan, hundreds of Shias have been murdered for holding the "wrong" beliefs.


But we have waited in vain for condemnation by the OIC of human rights abuses carried out by agents of the State within its member States. Instead, we have seen protests against Islamic extremism condemned as "Islamophobia", which was recently described by the prime minister of Turkey as "a crime against humanity".


A crime against humanity, Mr President? No Sir. We see murder, ethnic cleansing, torture, kidnappings, suicide bombings, and terrorist attacks as crimes against humanity.


It is people that have human rights, Mr President, not beliefs. Protesting against human rights abuse, and pointing out where the responsibility lies, is not a crime, Mr President, it is a duty. And may we respectfully remind the member States of the OIC that it is their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression, not condemn it.
Thank you Sir.

For sure, something I agree with. People have the individual right to their own religion and beliefs - but "religions" themselves have no rights.

And when religion has an oar in government and law - it a recipe for trouble. Still, we need to distinguish between the way religion is used for evil purposes by some, and the international situation, as compared to those who only use religion to inform their lives in a positive way, without wanting it to influence the law.

There are other machinations in the UN trying to make Blasphemy an exception to free speech. Now - the abuse of process by the OIC nations at the UN is an amazing thing to hear of. It is happening - and on an ongoing basis.

Note, however, many Muslim majority countries operate under secular law - or at least, they're not "Islamic Republics" with Shari'a law - though they may well have a parallel Shari'a law system. It is also worth recognising that our court system has the so called "equity" division - which while nowadays a secular institution, grew out of the Religious Ecclesiastical Courts. See here

However, nations with an Islamic contingent - even if notionally secular - are also members of the OIC, and it seems, will vote in the bloc to suppress scrutiny by the UN, which is unfortunate - even if there is relative freedom in the nations through their "secular" status.

So, if we criticise "Extreme Muslim Countries" like Saudi Arabia, I've heard Muslims say "well, they're not really Islamic countries". Note those evasions coming through again. However, the point is, where there have been initiatives which would allow the scrutiny of countries like Saudi Arabia, national representatives of supposedly "progressive" Muslim countries have acted in international forums to prevent scrutiny. Likewise, they have voted to preserve "blasphemy" laws and give religion a special status.

Yes, some Muslim majority nations may have secular legal systems, be relatively progressive, and their citizens may be free from the civil rights abuses citizens within Islamic Republics suffer. However, they share in a collusion to provide privilege and freedom for scrutiny by those nations which do perform these abuses.

The interesting thing is that there's some agitation for recognition of Shari'a law in the UK and other western democracies when its not even recognised in many Muslim majority countries. Go figure.

As the result of a push by the Organisation of Islamic Countries, the HRC is now more concerned to limit its coverage of freedom of expression, and focus on abuse of the right to freedom resulting in racial or religious discrimination.

Opinions vary, but I wouldn't wish to condone religious discrimination. However, it does seem to limit our ability to speak out against Shari'a law - such as laws which require the stoning of women for adultery or the hanging of young gay men. Certainly, Muslims can be good people - we wouldn't want to think otherwise. Nevertheless, injustice is still injustice, regardless of a religious veneer. We're not just talking about the identity of a religion - but rather the things that are done in its name.


ISLAMIC RESPONSIBILITY FOR VIOLENCE AND OTHER ACTS


As an atheist, I do receive claims that "Atheism was behind the excesses of Stalin". Wow. Well, people don't realise that it was Stalin who got behind Trofim Lysenko, a Lamarkian, and locked up evolutionist Nikolai Valivov who died in prison. The world has lost two great people - tragically - Nikolai Vavilov and Alan Turing. So, well, yes, we get that ...

Unfortunately, some people commit offensive actions, and they do it in the name of Islam. This can be acts of terrorism, and it has been clear that many voices have been raised saying that "this is not Islam". Now at one level, these actions are not "that cultural Islam". I agree. Where I differ is whether you can sensibly make theological distinctions, and maintain that Islam is this "thing" called a religion, I wonder if many people identify "Islam" as a thing they associate with the valid ethical life they lead, see a lot of good people around them in the community around them, and don't look carefully into the theological underpinnings - they leave that to others.

However, it does seem that when under criticism, Muslims hide behind superficial claims like "that's not Islam", or "that's not an Islamic nation". A lot of the time, the criticism, the association, is unfair - but - at the same time the replies do not really address the substance of the criticism. Now, my reply to this would be something like:

The people doing those things, the governments executing those laws, are not following the same Islam as I follow. For me, Islam is a lived thing, a positive inclination, a community of good people. This good Islam with the good people I know is a completely different thing to the Islam that others consider. Yes, there are bad people out there in the world. Some of those bad people claim to do those bad things in the name of Islam. It is nevertheless wrong to associate me and those who follow Islam in the same way as I do with these practises; you are not taking the time to fully understand the lived experience of Islam as we experience it.

Now, note that this defence does not claim Islam is a unitary thing, or even a religion which has been ordained by God, and then go on to claim some things are "not Islam". But it is to me, an outsider, the best defence that could be made.


Answering for the details

Yes, Muslims have raised their voices against terrorism. I expect they've raised their voices against many things - the problem is that the rest of the community expect them to do so "loudly". But, they are dependent on the capriciousness of the media to have this communicated. I think some elements of the media do thrive on a negative portrayal of Muslims. However, it's not black-and-white. Yes, Muslims speak out against terrorism. Openly and publicly. You only have to take the time to look. However, even those who would criticise terrorism might have views we might find problematic. They might endorse:

  • Islamic Republics who justify human rights abuses through Islam.
  • Islamic identities who speak of women being responsible for rape.
  • The validity of the Fatwah against Salman Rushdie.
  • Violent protests against the "Innocence of Muslims".
  • Protests holding placards saying people such as Ayan Hirsi Ali should "burn in hell"

They also might refuse to acknowledge that practises such as FGM, honor killings, child brides and similar are conducted under the cover of Islam, claiming a distinction between Islam and cultural practices which "just happen to be there".

Now, I can't believe that all this is made up. I've heard too many first-hand stories of Muslims supporting obnoxious lines of thought, doing things like supporting Salman Rushdie's Fatwah, or intimidating opponents in debate. There's a collision of values. Much as we westerners might get upset about what people say or do, we do at the same time acknowledge their right to do that and the worth of free speech. That's a basic tension.

At the same time, yes I acknowledge there would be Muslims who do recognise and obey the existing rules of the land - at the same time as they would wish to change them. I mean, that's pretty much how I look at things. And further, we've had our own home grown people becoming violent at demonstrations and supporting obnoxious causes. It takes all kinds. But it is nevertheless worth identifying it where it is found. The identification of other problems does not of itself, however, mean that this problem is the only example. But as one example, it is still worth worrying about.

CONCLUSION


There a plenty of distortions and false accusations on all sides in a discussion of Islam. Islam has its problems - as do all religions - and you can see it being in denial about them - as are other religions. Equally, Islam is the victim of a lot of unfair criticism and stereotyping - even including those dubious chain emails you may have seen. It is a challenge to try to get your head around all the aspects - but it can be rewarding, too.