Why I Refuse To Criticize Islam As A Feminist And Atheist

Sam Harris and Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins all want really badly for me to criticize Islam. They claim I’m scared to do so because Islamic extremists bully people into silence. They consider it a liberal failing that people like me have deferred to that bullying. They say it’s not “phobic” to criticize Islam, nor is it racist.

Then, of course, they say that we should profile Muslims, and their self-defense starts to fall apart. They fail to recognize that I do not live in a majority Muslim country, and that especially since 2001 but even before that, white Americans have exhibited incredible fear of Muslims (demonstrated by a call to profile them, coincidentally) and committed hate crimes against people who even “look” like they might be Muslim. They fail to see their own criticisms as so sweeping that they amount to a judgment on anyone with brown skin.

I won’t do it. I won’t take the bait of a patronizing call for feminists to set aside their goals in America to address problems in Muslim theocracies, and I won’t take the bait of an anti-intellectual call for atheists to denounce an entire religion simply because a handful of atheist leaders prescribe it. I will exhibit more caution and conservatism in my judgment, and here’s why:

  • I have too many personal experiences with Muslims who are precisely as kind, understanding, compassionate, and generous (or not) as Christians and Jews and other monotheists to truly believe that in effect, in terms of the wide population of the faithful, Islam is any more or less morally destructive than any other religion. The Christians I know – across denomination, whether Catholic or Lutheran or Pentecostal or Episcopalian — have almost precisely the same cultural mores and moral qualms as the Muslims and Jews I know, especially on the subject of women’s rights.
  • Islamic states might institute laws that violate human rights, but so has pretty much every other theocratic government in history, regardless of religion. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have employed that argument against Christianity in the past, but now they want to differentiate and say, “Well, but modern Islamic states are worse.” Really? Oliver Cromwell committed what amounts to ethnic cleansing and enslavement against the Irish Catholics. Or what about the Inquisition forcing Jews and Muslims to convert, leave, or die? The implication is that, somewhere along the line, other religions opted out of their inherently violent and exclusive beliefs about faith, salvation, and damnation. It’s not that Christianity changed and is now somehow dogmatically better or more acceptable than Islam, it’s that states changed to limit religious involvement in government, often in reaction to religious overstepping their bounds by attempting to influence the rule of law, economies, bureaucratic appointments, etcetera.
  • Sam Harris’s notion that feminists in America ought to set our sights on helping women in Islamic countries rather than focusing on access to abortion is just another iteration of the totally ignorant idea that women “over there” have it worse than us, so we should stop complaining. Make no mistake, I understand that women like Hamida Gulistani, who’s been fighting hard for women’s rights in Afghanistan and facing death threats for it for years, have less access and fewer resources than I do, and have a lot more on the line when they do their work. That doesn’t remove the fact that, yes, abortion clinics are bombed in America; that our access to abortions is eroding and we are thereby being forced into pregnancy; that women in America face death threats for their political ideologies and for demanding equal rights; that undocumented immigrant women in America face the same lack of access and resources and only last year became protected under the Violence Against Women Act; that our legal system enables discrimination against women, not least of all in terms of medical care. I don’t know how Harris can set out to prescribe a feminist agenda when he doesn’t even know that the American feminist agenda is so, so much larger than merely addressing abortion access.
  • I have no idea what women in Islam need. None at all. It’s not my religion, it’s not my culture, it’s not my expertise. It would be intellectually dishonest and extremely patronizing for me to assume that they “need” me and just suddenly switch my focus on subjects on which I do have background and knowledge to a subject on which I have no knowledge because I assume that I’m needed. What would it look and sound like for a white, middle-class, American woman to, out of the blue, start spouting off about women’s rights in Syria having never addressed it before? That’s not fear, that’s professionalism. I trust the critiques of scholars and journalists who have lived Islam to tell me what I need to know about the religion, about Islamic theocracies, and about human rights in the Middle East.

It should go without saying that, as a feminist, I stand by anyone anywhere who wants equal rights — but I will do it on their terms, not on the terms of white, male, secular American pundits.

[Sam Harris Blog]
[NY Times]
[Love, Joy, Feminism]
[Huffington Post]
[NBC Latino]
[Mother Jones]

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