Tag Archives: Islam

All Aboard the Censorship

Charlie Hebdo's post-attack cover, representing a saddened prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo says "All is forgiven" above the depiction of Mohammed.
Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover, representing a crying prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) solidarity poster. Charlie Hebdo says “All is forgiven” above the depiction of Mohammed.

The recent terror attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris is yet another example of the fact that there are people who so strongly wish to impose their views on others that they will silence their opponents by any means necessary. By using terror and intimidation tactics, extremists have attempted to scare those who disagree with them into silence, overpowering even the strongest laws protecting free speech.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the Charlie Hebdo attack is its relevance to the modern American college, where the idea of “offense” as the ultimate danger runs deep. This problem prevents students who do not hold mainstream views from participating in discussion on controversial topics for fear of punishment by either their school or by their peer group.

Though students, faculty members, and guest speakers are generally free from violence of this sort on campus, there is no shortage of closed-minded people striving to cut off the voices of those with whom they disagree. This phenomenon is known as the “heckler’s veto,” wherein unpopular opinions are silenced by threats of harassment and bullying from those who oppose such views.

For example, Daniel Mael, a student at Brandeis University, recently found himself under attack after he republished a classmate’s controversial public tweets regarding the execution-style murder of two NYPD officers on a conservative website. Since publishing the article, Mael’s classmates have called for physical violence against him and for his expulsion from Brandeis. Additionally, Mael’s family members, including his parents and grandmother, have been threatened. Mael has been told by campus police that, upon his return to campus after winter break, he should expect his car to be keyed, his dorm room vandalized, and that other students may attempt acts of violence against him.

Similar acts have recently been perpetrated against Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan who wrote a satirical article about political correctness for the university’s conservative paper, The Michigan Review. After his article was published, Mahmood was fired from his job at Michigan’s institutional campus paper, The Michigan Daily, and his apartment was vandalized: students had thrown eggs at his door and left notes with messages such as “shut the fuck up” and “everyone hates you, you violent prick” as well as a picture of Satan.

In essence, students at Brandeis and Michigan, respectively, tried to suppress their schools’ stated commitment to free speech and punish Mael and Mahmood for their opinions in order to prevent them and others like them from saying or writing things they don’t approve of.

The heckler’s veto is frequently responsible for scaring controversial speakers away from colleges as well. In recent years, loud and disruptive protestors, including both students and faculty members, have prevented speakers invited to campus from effectively sharing their thoughts by interrupting and interfering with their speeches. This was the case at Brown University in 2013, when New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” was canceled half an hour in after protestors grew so loud that it became impossible for him to continue.

But even more troubling is the fact that many speakers withdrew from giving their lecture at all due to the threat of disruption. For example, Christine Lagarde, the first female leader of the IMF, canceled her commencement address at Smith College last year after a series of anti-IMF demonstrations created a hostile environment at the college in which Lagarde felt unwelcome. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was slated to give the commencement speech at Rutgers University last spring, canceled her lecture in response to student protests criticizing her role in the war in Iraq.

Last year also saw Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California system, back out of his commencement speech at Haverford College after students and professors demonstrated against him. Even Haverford’s president, Daniel H. Weiss, was upset that Birgeneau would not be speaking at Haverford, stating, “we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education. Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement.”

As Weiss stated, it is extremely important to note that recognizing controversial public figures’ accomplishments or providing controversial lecturers with a platform to speak does not necessarily condone support for all of their opinions or actions. It benefits students to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives and the people who hold them. In the incidents involving Lagarde, Rice, and Birgeneau, the students chose to censor themselves from ideas they didn’t like, and created enough of a threat to those who held such views to prevent them from speaking their minds on campus.

The use of intimidation to suppress certain opinions has no place in a free society. Protesters should seek to promote an increase in discussion and understanding rather than seeking to prevent the other side from articulating its views. There can be no debate or intellectual curiosity if only “acceptable” arguments are allowed. We can only hope that, even in the face of intimidation tactics, people around the world will not back down in fear and will continue to express their opinions, however controversial, freely. Whether in Paris, Claremont, or anywhere else, free speech is the single most important element of a free society. In order to maintain this freedom, we must stand up for the right to freely express all speech, whether we agree with it or not.

Free to Speak Against Oppression?

There was recently a dispute at the University of California, Berkeley, similar to the George Will controversy at Scripps earlier this year, regarding the school’s choice of commencement speaker. Bill Maher, a well-known liberal comedian, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley’s December graduation. However, on his show “Real Time” a few weeks ago, Maher criticized the lack of freedom of speech and restricted rights for women and for people who are LGBTQ in many Muslim countries. Maher said, “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” Bill Maher contends that liberals should be critical of those who do not afford free speech and human rights to all. The question he asked was, simply: why don’t liberals care about these issues in Muslim countries as much as they care about them in the United States?

Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?
Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?

In response, many students at UC Berkeley protested the university’s choice to have Maher speak at their graduation, and started a petition to disinvite him. According to CNN, the petition stated that “Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for…we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a bigot is “a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group),” and a racist is “a person who believes that one race should control all others.” Maher’s comments were critical of the discriminatory actions taken by some Muslims in the name of their interpretation of Islam, not with the doctrine of Islam itself. He did not indicate in any way that he hated, refused to accept, or believed he should have control over Muslims. Maher’s words do not “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment”—he spoke out against those who are opposed to open-mindedness and freethinking. In other words, Maher spoke out against intolerance; therefore, his support of individual freedoms is the polar opposite of bigotry.

April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 93
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 93
See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 25
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 25

Under radical Islamic governments, as Maher pointed out, women and the LGBTQ community have very few rights. A 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center confirms this, stating that, for example, 92% of Muslims in Iraq, 93% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 96% Muslims in Malaysia believe that “a wife is always obligated to obey her husband.” Furthermore, the Pew study found that a substantial number of Muslims believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia, two moderate Muslim-majority countries according to Maher’s guest Nicolas Kristof (author of A Path Appears), the Pew survey found that 95% and 94% of Muslims, respectively, believe that homosexuality is morally wrong.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 54
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 54

As Maher also stated, a large number of Muslims internationally believe that it is appropriate to kill anyone who leaves the Islamic faith. According to the Pew Research Center, many Muslims believe that Sharia law, also known as Islamic law, should be the official law of their country. Even in “moderate” Indonesia and Malaysia, 72% and 86% of Muslims believe, respectively, that Sharia law should be the official law of the land. Of the Muslims surveyed who support Sharia law, a large number believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who convert from Islam, according to Pew. Many Sharia Muslims also believe in honor killings, and believe stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 55
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 55

It is important to note that members of the Muslim faith are not alone in holding some of these opinions—as one example, only 41% of American Protestant Christians believed that gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable, according to a 2012 poll by Gallup. Bill Maher merely pointed out the double standard that is present when we condemn the Christians who hold these beliefs while simultaneously ignoring the very same injustices in Muslim countries. He did not claim that Islam is the cause of the beliefs; rather, he pointed out a correlation.

Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, with approximately 1.6 billion people practicing the faith. Like any large group of people, there is tremendous diversity among the world’s Muslim population, and there are many different interpretations among the group, some of which look quite different from the picture painted by the survey. According to Aiman Chaudhary (PO ’17), a practicing Muslim who grew up in Pakistan, the results of the survey are caused by the cultures of the various countries studied, not by Islam itself. “This largely has to do with the sociopolitical systems in place in the areas that this research has been conducted in. I think a lot of theology is often grounded in the culture and not so much scripture, in my own experience. I don’t think it’s a matter of religion anymore, I think it’s a matter of socio-cultural factors that you have been exposed to.”

Had the survey included American Muslims, the results would have looked very different, Chaudhary said. “I think American Muslims would certainly answer the questions differently—anyone who has been exposed to Western influences and the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism will answer these questions very differently. If you ask Muslims in America whether or not LGBTQ rights should be recognized, whether there should be marriage equality, or whether women should have the right to divorce and inheritance, I think a lot of these questions would come across as ridiculous to a lot of Muslims in America.”

It is important to make a distinction between the Muslim faith and the politics of Muslim countries, particularly in countries like America where the two have little in common. In its 2013 Religion and Public Life Project, Pew Research states, “In their attitudes toward modern society and their relations with people of other faiths, U.S. Muslims sometimes more closely resemble other Americans than they do Muslims around the world.” The Pew Research Center assessed the beliefs of Muslim Americans in its 2011 report, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” It found that 90% of American Muslims either completely or mostly agree that women should have the right to work outside the home compared to 97% of the US population overall. It also found that 39% of American Muslims accept homosexuality while 58% of the US population accepts it. In contrast, 45% of American Muslims believe homosexuality should be discouraged compared to 33% of the US population. Regarding support for suicide bombing and other violent acts against civilians, 81% of American Muslims believe these acts are never justified and 8% that they are often or sometimes justified. In comparison, only 19% of Palestinian Muslims and 38% of Egyptian Muslims feel that suicide bombing and other violence against civilians is never justified, while 68% of Palestinian Muslims and 28% of Egyptian Muslims feel it is often or sometimes justified.

Though Maher’s opinions are not Islamophobic, a person unfamiliar with Islam or the differences in the attitudes of American Muslims and Muslims in the rest of the world could generalize Maher’s statements to the entire the Muslim community, which is Islamophobia. This, I argue, is deeply troubling. According to Gallup, there are only about 1.4 million Muslims in America (0.45% of the US population), which means that many Americans may not personally know anyone who practices Islam. The lack of interaction with Muslims makes it difficult for Americans to see and understand the difference between radical and non-radical Islam. The best way to gain a better understanding of the problems pertaining to radical Islam and the resulting Islamophobia that follows is to have an open dialogue examining multiple perspectives. Neither Bill Maher’s nor the UC Berkeley students’ criticisms are unreasonable, and for that reason it is important that both perspectives be respectfully considered. Much like Islamophobia, radical Islam is harmful and discriminatory, and protesting Bill Maher for speaking out against this is contradictory.

Berkeley released a statement in response to the students’ protest stating: “The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them.”

The Berkeley administration got it exactly right: Maher has the right to express his opinions, and the fact that Berkeley invited him to deliver the commencement speech does not mean that it agrees with him on this, or any other issue. Let the dialogue continue. As it does, let’s also ensure that college campuses educate students about Islam, and the manner in which it is practiced in different regions around the world, including the US. In this way, we might ensure that discussions about radical Islam do not propagate Islamophobia.

A Reality Check on the “Distortion of Islam”: A Rebuttal to The Student Life

The Student Life recently published an article, “On the Distortion of Islam and the Muslim World,” in which the author discourages the use of the name ISIS/ISIL since this “gang of fools is neither Islamic nor a state.” Not only does the author claim that Islam is not to blame for the atrocities committed in its name, but he goes on to state that ISIS/ISIL is not an Islamic group at all, an assertion which flies in the face of reality.

ISIS started as a splinter group of al-Qaeda, one of the most infamous Islamic extremist groups in the world. The stated goal of ISIS/ISIL is to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate. The areas it controls are ruled under strict Sharia law, and it threatens the non-Muslims in those areas with death if they do not convert to Islam. Its flag features the seal of Muhammad, underneath the words “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of God” written in Arabic. Strictly speaking, ISIS/ISIL is an Islamic group since it bases everything it does off of its interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an.

Yet, the author claims that because “hundreds of Imams, leaders in the Muslim faith, have disavowed them and pleaded that they not be linked with their religion,” ISIS/ISIL is not an Islamic group. The author fails to acknowledge, however, that there are hundreds of Imams who either support or are active members of ISIS/ISIL. But even if we ignore this fact, the author’s argument here still makes no sense. He states that we should “give the word of these Imams the respect we would give Pope Francis,” but allowing these Imams to claim ISIS/ISIL isn’t Muslim is akin to letting Pope Francis claim that Catholics didn’t instigate the Spanish Inquisition. We shouldn’t allow these Imams to disassociate Islam from its more radical factions any more than we should allow the Pope to separate Catholicism from the atrocities committed in its name in the past.

The author believes that referring to ISIS/ISIL as an Islamic group gives people a bad impression of the religion as a whole. This is a valid concern, but the way to prevent it is not to be disingenuous about the religious affiliation of the group, but rather to acknowledge it while being proactive in educating people so they know that the views of ISIS/ISIL are not representative of all of Islam.

Furthermore, the author goes on to claim that, despite the common view that Islam creates hostile environments for women, LGBTQ people, and non-Muslims, it is a more of problem of culture, rather than religion. However, the idea that you can separate Islam from the culture of many countries in the Middle East is simply absurd.

There are still 10 countries in which homosexual acts are punishable by death: Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. And there are vast cultural differences between. For example, look at the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Nigeria and Qatar. The major common thread between these nations is that they all have Muslim majorities. These are not all Arab cultures, as the author tries to claim. Admittedly, if you look at the list of countries in which homosexuality is a non-capital offense, there are a number of non-Muslim countries included, but Muslim countries are still overrepresented, as countries with a Muslim majority make up about one-fourth of the world as a whole, yet over forty percent of the countries in which homosexuality is illegal. Moreover, the fact that other cultures are intolerant of homosexuality does not preclude the idea that Islam itself contributes to homophobia. To claim that these backwards views are completely independent of Islam in countries in which Islam is the predominant cultural influence is naive at best and dishonest at worst.

The record of treatment of women in communities with Muslim majorities has not been much better, from the severe curtailing of women’s rights in Iran after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to the honor killings of the Egyptian women suspected of inappropriate relations with men. Although the men responsible were later arrested, the killing is not the only one of its kind and is indicative of a culture with a backwards and repressive view of women.

Finally, the author states that “culture, not religion, dictates these norms and gender roles, which will change, if they are meant to, at their own pace and in their own time.” This is, perhaps, the most disheartening sentence in the entire article. The phrase “if they are meant to” seems to suggest that these backwards practices don’t necessarily need to change, and that they shouldn’t be open to criticism from those outside of the cultures practicing them. The author seems unconcerned by the fact that these injustices are affecting real people and destroying real lives. I’m sure that the woman being stoned to death for riding in a car with a man who wasn’t her husband is comforted by the author’s reassurance that her country will join the 21st century in its own time. I’m sure the gay couple who is in jail for daring to kiss in public would much rather have cultural change come about organically in twenty years rather than see Islam questioned. We rightfully criticize Christianity’s contribution to homophobia in the United States, so why shouldn’t we criticize Islam for doing the same in the Middle East?

All of this is not to say that Islam can singlehandedly lead someone down the path of intolerance. The fact that most of these countries have poor, relatively uneducated populations, combined with a religion whose holy book does—to a certain extent—advocate intolerance, creates a perfect storm. Although it is not the sole contributor, Islam has played a part in creating the oppressive cultures which exist in much of the Middle East and North Africa. Islam is neither the first nor the only belief system to engender intolerance, but it is the one that is in the world’s spotlight at the moment, and it is not wrong to discuss or question it.

When the majority of Egyptians, Indonesians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, and Palestinians say that they support strict Sharia law, we need to acknowledge that Islamic fundamentalism is not only more common than we might care to admit, but it is also a significant factor in enforcing extreme social conservatism in a significant portion of the world. To suggest that we shouldn’t criticize and encourage the abandonment of these backwards and oppressive cultural practices, and instead should patiently wait for the people committing honor killings and putting gay people in jail to stop doing so in their own time, is insulting to every single person in a Muslim country who suffers as a direct result of the backwards social standards fostered by Islam.

Image Source: Wikipedia