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Islamophobia, liberalism and the dangers of Interfaith ignorance

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There has been much media discussion over the bitterly contentious exchange involving New Atheists Sam Harris and Bill Maher teaming up against actor Ben Affleck on the matter of Islam. In the wake of the controversy Sam Harris responded in pretty clear fashion on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program:

The Harris response shows us quite explicitly the dangerous pitfalls of Interfaith Dialogue and its fatally flawed process. Harris and the other New Atheists, following the lead of the Interfaith Dialogue movement, militantly isolate religion from its contexts. Instead, our understanding of religion needs to take into account the history, culture, and politics that has impacted its development.

It is worthwhile to note that Harris never discusses the political context of Western imperialism with its roots in Crusade and Inquisition.  There is no reference to Western violence based on resource acquisition, in this case oil, and the relentless attempt to “civilize” the Arab-Muslim world by the point of sword or a gun and the ultimately deleterious effect this has had on the organic development of culture and religion.

Reza Aslan has sketched out some of these points in his recent New York Times Op-Ed where he does indeed refer to history, culture, and politics but does not strongly emphasize the way in which the West has attempted to erase those elements from the discourse.  The West has also sought to minimize its own culpability in the ongoing violence and dysfunction that characterizes a Middle East whose political power structures have been closely tied to oil politics and colonialism.   This silence has choked any and all movement towards an adoption of Liberal values that would be able to successfully adapt classical Arabo-Islamic civilization to the challenges of Modernity rather allow the toxic values of the fundamentalists to fester.

We would do well to examine this cultural history.

The Arab tradition of Adab, the culture of manners and literary sophistication, fed the 19th century Nahda, the Renaissance of Arab letters discussed so brilliantly by Albert Hourani in his classic book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Famously, the Palestinian scholar-activist George Antonius presented this Renaissance in his work The Arab Awakening. Reza Aslan has edited a volume of Nahda writings entitled Tablet and Pen which, sadly, does not include any Jewish authors, an exclusion properly noted in Commentary magazine. More recently, the expatriate Indian writer Pankaj Mishra reviewed the movement and its parallels in the wider Asian culture in his excellent popular book From the Ruins of Empire.

When we look at the possibilities of modernization and liberalization at the close of the Ottoman Empire we get the sense that things are not nearly as black-and-white as might appear from a cursory reading of the media pundits.

In the Modern era Jews, Muslims, and Christians once again sought to raise the banner of classical Arab civilization.  It is worthwhile to note the participation of rabbis like Israel Moses Hazzan and Haim Nahum Effendi in this larger process; confirming once again the deep ties between Middle Eastern Jews and Arab culture. The great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz proudly embodied Nahda values and brought them to a global audience, and we should note the important contributions of the Egyptian Jewish writer Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff as well as the landmark novel The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. These Interfaith ties have also been carefully examined in Michelle Campos’ study Ottoman Brothers.

It is very unfortunate that such important resources are not being deployed in discussions of contemporary Islam, showing a distinct lack of knowledge of the region and its cultural heritage on the part of prominent media commentators. We can thus see the futility of Nicholas Kristof, who appeared on the Bill Maher panel with Affleck and Harris, attempting to answer the Islamophobes with an argument about Muslim diversity which once again plays into the hands of the religious hermeticists. By isolating Islam from its historico-cultural development, as embodied in Adab culture and the Nahda, and simply arguing that there are different variations and strains of the religion, Kristof falls into the trap set by the New Atheists that seeks to find the “pure” and “authentic” version of the faith which, inevitably, points to atavistic violence and fanaticism.

All religions, once they are forcibly stripped of their historical development, can be laid out and exposed to the charge of primitivism.  We do not see the ways in which this atavist religious primitivism has been transformed in “secular” Western Modernist ideologies into nationalist extremism and Imperialist violence.  The terms used might be different, but we continue to see atrocities perpetrated in a plethora of contexts; be it gun violence and mass murder in the United States, or drone attacks on civilian population centers in the ongoing attempt to destroy Muslim militants.  Religion has no monopoly on such violence.

Thus, it is interesting to read Peter Beinart’s article “Bill Maher’s Dangerous Critique of Islam” in The Atlantic. Beinart chooses to read the New Atheist Islamophobia in the context of Cold War politics rather than in the historical-cultural context of the Middle East and Western Imperialism.  It is unclear how this strategy serves to address the problems raised by the New Atheists and the uncomfortable way in which those vile attacks resemble the many centuries of Western condescension and persecution of Arabs and Muslims. The problem raised by Harris and Maher is indeed connected to the history of Western encroachment in the Middle East and the double standards that have become hard-wired into the discussion.  Rather than rely on historical arguments, Beinart deploys the same strategy as Kristof, which argues that we are not seeing Muslim diversity in its full reality.

What we need to do is to better understand history and culture.  In this sense the example of Sephardic Jewish civilization can be instructive: we too have suffered the depredations of Western elitism in the form of an Ashkenazi Zionism that has sought to mark us as primitives and boors, as we saw recently in the case of Golda Meir and the continuing legacy of the landmark Israeli film “Sallah Shabbati”.

There is in the end little question that a deep malaise and violent dysfunction has gripped the Arab-Muslim world.  There are rational reasons for this development that are connected to culture, history, and politics in a way that has led to a calamitous transformation of Islam which has been debilitated by centuries of oppression and military incursions. The great scholar of religions Karen Armstrong has provided a detailed examination of the process in her classic work The Battle for God. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has undergone a complex historical-evolutionary process that is intimately related to Western civilization.  Coming out of perhaps the bloodiest century in world history, the West continues to misapply its values to Third World states and create self-fulfilling prophecies such as the vesting of power in the hands of religious fundamentalists like the Saudi royal family whose control over oil resources has served to elevate their benighted religious ideology to a central place in the Arab world.  We then get ignorant demagogues like Harris and Maher who in turn mark Islam in terms of this atavism in a way that is chillingly reminiscent of how the Muslim fundamentalists mark Christianity as religion of Crusade and Empire.

Each side reduces the other to its most venal characteristics while at the same time the Interfaith Dialogue movement seeks to strip religion of its cultural character and the historical development that has transformed ancient religious values into a more productive liberal system.

Until we can understand the later Judaism of the Talmud and the philosophical movement of Kalam in the context of Islam we will not truly grasp the evolutionary aspect of these religions.  It is therefore ironic that the very proponents of Darwinian thinking deny the possibility of evolution when it comes to religion.  Such static thinking as we see in the New Atheists shows us that in the end they too are trapped in fundamentalism as they seek to read religion outside the context of history, culture, and politics in a way that serves to prop up Western interests by ignoring Western crimes against the Arab-Muslim world.

It is not that we should ignore ISIS or minimize their threat to us, it is that we should better understand where such radical extremism has come from and what role the West has had in helping to legitimize such brutality and barbarity in a region of the world which continues to be the cause of much violence and dysfunction.

David Shasha
About David Shasha

David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events. His articles have been published in Tikkun magazine, The American Muslim, the Christian Progressive and other publications. To sign up for the newsletter visit the Sephardic Heritage Google Group at

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15 Responses

  1. just
    October 15, 2014, 9:52 am

    David– thank you for this thoughtful and thought- provoking article.

  2. rp1
    October 15, 2014, 10:56 am

    “This silence has choked any and all movement towards an adoption of Liberal values that would be able to successfully adapt classical Arabo-Islamic civilization to the challenges of Modernity rather allow the toxic values of the fundamentalists to fester”

    But this is all very Middle East-focused. What about the rest of the Muslim world, specifically those countries that have largely escaped Western intrusions? Are any of them legitimately Liberal or Modern?

    • adele
      October 16, 2014, 12:42 pm

      It would be helpful to know which countries you are referring to.

      • rp1
        October 21, 2014, 3:14 am

        I’m not referring to any countries. The argument that David appears to be making is that oppression by outsiders is source of illiberal values. But the liberal Islamic democracy doesn’t exist anywhere. Especially where Islam has a legal role.

      • adele
        October 21, 2014, 4:21 pm

        So if you are not referring to any countries, then why did you initially ask:

        “What about the rest of the Muslim world, specifically those countries that have largely escaped Western intrusions? Are any of them legitimately Liberal or Modern?”

        Why pose the question if you already have all the answers wrapped up based on your historically myopic and selective pov?

  3. W.Jones
    October 15, 2014, 1:11 pm

    Speaking of progressives having cultural stereotypes of Muslims, there are some figures like anarchist nationalist Chomsky who did not seem to evince them. However, the anarchist nationalist Chomsky, in at least one of his discussions condemning Saudi Arabia repeatedly called them the “SaUdis”. I am not sure why he did that, since the pronunciation of the term is just supposed to be “Saudi”, and have heard him elsewhere pronounce it normally.

    Comedy Central, which tends to be progressive, put out a music video called “SaUdis in AUdis” that plays on this pronunciation and images of Saudis owning nice cars:
    I have mustache,
    I have shades,
    I have shiny new AAs

    Why are Chomsky and Comedy Central pronouncing “Saudis” like “SaUdis”?

    • RoHa
      October 15, 2014, 11:52 pm

      Why are Chomsky and Comedy Central pronouncing “Saudis” like “SaUdis”?

      Perhaps because in Arabic Saud is “sa9uud”. Two vowels with a consonant between them. Second vowel is long.

      • W.Jones
        October 16, 2014, 3:54 pm


        I thought it was weird how television reporters sometimes pronounced the words “Erahki” or “Erahnian”, as if they preferred the native prounciation, even though the reporters were basically attacking those countries WRT non-existent WMDS.

      • W.Jones
        October 16, 2014, 3:58 pm

        Here’s another one called “Don’t Dance” (Saudi version) by the same people:

      • W.Jones
        October 16, 2014, 4:03 pm

        But then what about the Penguin Dance?

  4. JLewisDickerson
    October 15, 2014, 5:04 pm

    RE: “Each side reduces the other to its most venal characteristics while at the same time the Interfaith Dialogue movement seeks to strip religion of its cultural character and the historical development that has transformed ancient religious values into a more productive liberal system.”n ~ David Shasha

    MY COMMENT: Quite true.
    That said, on my most pessimistic days, Christianity of late seems to me to be devolving rather than evolving.

    “A church that preaches the eternity of punishment has within it the seed of all barbarism and the soil to make it grow.” ~ Robert G. Ingersolll, “The Rev. Dr. Newton’s Sermon on a New Religion”

  5. MHughes976
    October 15, 2014, 5:31 pm

    I cannot see how the question of ‘authenticity’ is escaped here. If some forms of some religions are radical, extreme and barbaric then we either have to join with the ‘new atheist’ attack on those religions in totality or we have to explain that the bad forms are inauthentic.
    ‘Venal’ means ‘for sale’. ‘The most venal forms’ of religion would be those that are most influenced by money. These may be very unpleasant but that’s not the main issue here.

  6. oldgeezer
    October 15, 2014, 6:05 pm

    It would seem wrong to classify Maher as a New Atheist (had to google that. never heard the term before).

    Maher targets two specific religions primarily. He doesn’t attack all religion. He may be an atheist but he’s also a bigot due to that as far as I’m concerned. His humour is primarily of the nasty demeaning kind. That said I still watch his show half the time.

  7. Interested Bystander
    Interested Bystander
    October 16, 2014, 1:26 am

    Regarding the promise of culture and literary sophistication after the dismantling of the Ottoman empire, that would have been nice. Instead we got the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahabiism, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and ISIL; it’s not obvious to me why that Arab promise was so utterly broken, and why blame for this lies with the West.

    The main criticism here, that any response to Maher and Harris must be rooted in an understanding of the broader social political forces within Islam in the colonial and post colonial periods seems clearly correct. But I’m not sure that we can blame the West for the culture of manners and literary sophistication abandoning the field, seemingly without much of a fight.

    That is said from ignorance, of course, and I’m working on learning more. I’m sure there must have been a fight. But it strikes me like the collapse of Weimar Germany into the thuggery that was National Socialism: yeah the French and British had something to do with this, but I don’t think you can blame them for it.

    Maher and Harris are crying out for those champions of culture and literary sophistication. That much seems right. And whether we provide support to oil dictatorships or not, the Arabs will have to get this done from within; we can’t do it for them.

  8. MHughes976
    October 16, 2014, 1:02 pm

    I would reckon Maher a ‘New Atheist’ – his ‘Religulous’ film seemed to be setting the pattern for NA theology by praising Judaism with faint damns. In that theology Islam is, as is now being made so starkly clear, by far the most condemned.
    Atheist theology – consideration of what an ideal being would be like, if there were one; not that there is – isn’t entirely a paradoxical thing.
    NA has a strong affinity with Darwinism and is particularly against forms of theology that resist modernity in the sense of being opposed to scientific modes of thought. I think we have to concede that Judaism has done better than others on these terms. We on MW consider Zionism as an inauthentic form of Jewish culture and/or religion but Zionism is undeniably modern, permitting people who proclaim themselves atheists to remain involved in a culture still in many ways involved with religious tradition.

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