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I’m a liberal, but not a knee-jerk one. I’m an atheist, but not one who thinks all religions are equally problematic or that they should be judged by the violent behavior of religious extremists. I think the Bible and Quran both contain ridiculous passages and reasonable passages. Religious fundamentalists can quote portions of their holy books to justify loving their neighbor or killing their (infidel) neighbor.
But at the risk of being called Islamophobic, I think Islam is the worst and most dangerous religion by all human rights standards.
I’ve been more critical of Christians than Muslims because I live in South Carolina, where politicians try to meld public policy with Christianity and worry about sharia law being used in our legal system. If I lived in a Muslim country, I’d be more openly critical of Islam and sharia law — unless I had good reason to fear for my life. The threat of death is part of the problem, but it’s not what I think is the root of the problem — the real issue is their pervasive commitment to reading the Quran literally.
I’ll illustrate with six memorable events in my direct and indirect dealings with Muslims and ex-Muslims:
1. In 1987, a math colleague from India asked me for a letter recommending him to teach at a university in Saudi Arabia. Though the school’s math department recommended him, its administration said no. He later learned that he was rejected because of my Jewish name. He didn’t even know I am Jewish.
2. In 1990, I visited Egypt and met with a math colleague. When he took me to his home, his wife ran from the room because her face was uncovered. After she served us tea, he suggested that we go sightseeing. When I asked if his now-covered wife would join us, he said no because he feared people might throw rocks at her for being outside with two men. (Egypt was one of the more secular Middle Eastern countries at the time).
3. After meeting Dr. Taslima Nasrin at an atheist conference in 2002, I invited her to give a couple of talks in Charleston sponsored by the College of Charleston and the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. Since 1994, this courageous human rights activist has been living under a fatwa issued by Bangladeshi Muslim clerics calling for her death because she criticized Islam’s repression of women in her novel, Shame. Our secular humanist group roundly applauded Taslima. However, College of Charleston officials, primarily some members in the Religious Studies program, criticized me for recommending her as a speaker because she was so negative about Muslims. My response was, “Duh! What did you expect from someone under a fatwa?” I understood their post-9/11 concerns because of harassment of Muslim students on campus — I, too, want to avoid stereotyping, but not by hiding the truth.
4. At a 2007 Atheist Alliance International convention, I had the honor of introducing Ayaan Hirsi Ali, also under a fatwa because of her criticism of Islam. She had recently published her remarkable book, Infidel. Everyone went through metal detectors just to enter the hotel ballroom. Since there had been death threats against her, she needed bodyguards all the time. Recently, she has been in the news because Brandeis University cancelled its plan to award her an honorary degree after protests from some students and Muslim organizations. She apparently committed a crime against multiculturalism by her uncompromising anti-Islam views.
5. In 2007, I invited a local imam and two other Muslims to speak at a meeting of our secular humanist group. I told them we are mostly atheists interested in learning about different religions, but I don’t think the imam understood his audience. He focused on how reasonable Muslims are since they have the same prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses) as Jews and Christians. When he painted sharia law as a benign and peace-loving way of life, we pointed out the many atrocities committed in the name of Islam. The imam told us that the perpetrators aren’t “true” Muslims.
6. On May 17, 2014, I accepted an invitation to an open house at the Central Mosque in Charleston. The guest speaker was Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, Director of Gain Peace in Chicago. His two-part talk was on misconceptions of shariah law and on science in the Quran. Ahmed made sharia law sound appealing — he mentioned that it supports freedom of religion — and he blamed the media for distorting Islam. He said one thing with which I agree completely: “Don’t believe everything you hear on Fox News.” (They don’t much care for atheists, either.) During the question period, I cited a Pew Research Center finding that 64% of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam and 75% support stoning people to death for adultery. He replied to this and similar comments by saying those aren’t true Muslims. (That reminded me of a joke from a lawyer friend: “It’s those 98% of lawyers who give the rest of us a bad name.”) The imam also cited passages to show why the “infallible and perfect” Quran is a science book.
Most Christians and Jews don’t believe the Bible literally. The root of the problem with Muslims is that they do take the Quran literally. I’ve talked to many well educated Muslims and imams, but have yet to find one who says Muslims can accept some but not all of the Quran.
Of course, Muslims will often interpret the Quran to make sense out of nonsense, much like people of other faiths frequently do with their holy books. For instance, Dr. Ahmed justified issuing a fatwa only against a person at war with Islam, but of course some interpretations of “war” include displaying cartoons of Muhammad. Interestingly, a brochure at the mosque quoted American Muslim, Yusuf Islam, formerly known as British pop star Cat Stevens: “Everything made so much sense. This is the beauty of the Quran. It asks you to reflect and reason.” Yusuf’s reflection led him to say about those who were burning an effigy of Salman Rushdie (under a fatwa for 25 years), ”I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.”
I prefer judging people by how they treat others rather than by their religious beliefs. But we’ve seen countless incidents where religious absolutism justified violence. If Muslims want their religion to be viewed more favorably, they must forcefully and publicly condemn without qualification any violent strain of Islam regardless of what the Quran says.
To close on a positive note, I must say that every Muslim I met at the open house was warm and friendly. They provided information about their local free clinic that gives medical care to the uninsured and indigent regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. And the food at the open house was terrific.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image via Shutterstock.