Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Discussing Islam


Islam is emerging as perhaps the most important social and intellectual (certainly religious) issue for the world. Many people find discussion of this topic frustrating. This frustration is a significant, modern-day phenomenon that I believe deserves a name. I will here call it "Islam Fatigue" (IF).

In my treatment of IF I do not, by any means, necessarily endorse all of its sentiments, but I believe that I have identified something which, if properly understood, is an important factor in countless discussions about Islam for a great many people.

IF is a complex, ever-growing phenomenon that seems to encompass a number of sentiments. Included in IF are the following factors that I perceive to be operating in the minds of those who suffer from IF:

(a) "The Surfeit": The sense that Islam and related subjects are demanding too much of our attention right now and are dominating too much discourse, and that this state of affairs promises only to become much worse before it gets better. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be indifferent to and to ignore Islam in an ever increasing number of areas including physical space, intellectual space, moral space, political space, and religious space. Many people are simply becoming "tired of" Islam and wish to focus on other things.

(b) "Death by a Thousand Qualifications": The sense that any discussion about Islam and related subjects demands an endless series of tedious, mandatory qualifiers every time they are discussed and that if the qualifiers are not used, one will generally not be given the benefit of the doubt in their absence. Additionally, there is the sense that in the presence of all of the necessary qualifiers, Islam becomes impossible to define and therefore impossible to discuss.

(c) "The Bigot": The sense that, by criticizing Islam, the Quran, Muhammad, or Islamic behavior through history, one will be seen by a significant amount of people thereby as a religious bigot.

(d) "The Transformation": The sense that Islam, on the basis of its growth and increasing influence, will cause a fundamental change in the way the world works in the future. There is some unease among non-Muslims about this possibility; indeed, there is unease among some Muslims, as well.

(e) "Jurisprudence": The worry that Shariah may be essential, or at least extremely important, to Islam in general, with the corresponding worry that a widespread separation of mosque and state may be awesomely difficult or even impossible to achieve in Islam.

(f) "The Double Standard": The sense that, especially in contrast with Christianity, Islam benefits from a large number of double standards that make reasoned and profitable discussion frustratingly difficult.

(g) "Knowledge is Acceptance": The sense that there is a ubiquitous, unquestioned assumption that learning more about Islam is a guarantee that one will cease finding it problematic. This assumption leads to the reflexive response to criticism of Islam that the critic, by virtue of his critical attitude, is deficient in knowledge; however, the general principle that negative attitudes toward religions and ideologies is necessarily the product of ignorance is a principle that is false since counterexamples are readily available.

I think that some combination of these factors goes some way to explaining the frustration that many people often express when discussing Islam and related subjects. They are so powerful, in fact, that they lead people to make the conscious decision not to discuss these topics at all for fear of some kind of negative repercussions.

I hope that the twenty-first century will turn out to be a great century for the development of Islam into new and modern forms. Energetic and vibrant discussion and debate should contribute to meaningful and beneficial developments in the religion.

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