Thursday, June 22, 2017

What do Muslims Believe?

Many believe that the moral guidance provided by religious belief makes us better people. Many also believe that Islamic religious beliefs are not to blame for the immoral actions such as suicide bombings, mass shootings, or the mass murders of cartoonists who lampooned Muhammad. Those actions don’t represent the real or essential Islam.

I argue that religious beliefs can also make us morally worse. And in fact, certain, central Islamic beliefs are making enough people morally worse, and in dangerous ways, that certain other vital, positive moral and political values we should all hold are threatened.

I argue for three claims:
1)  A wide range of dangerous, morally misguided beliefs are held by large percentages, sometimes large majorities, of Muslims.
2)  The holding of these beliefs by such large percentages of these populations contributes directly and significantly to people’s being willing to commit suicide bombings, mass shootings, honor killing of rape victims, assaults and murders of homosexuals, and other morally abhorrent acts.
3)  And perhaps most controversially, while there may be other social, political, and cultural factors that contribute to these behaviors, certain beliefs central to the ideology of the Muslim religion itself are making a significant contribution to people having these morally repugnant beliefs and acting on them.

Some of the evidence for 1): We have ample evidence that large percentages, sometimes significant majorities, of Muslims in Egypt, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Pakistan, Thailand, and many others hold these views:

Only one faith, Islam, can lead to heaven.
Sharia law ought to be the law of the land, even for non-Muslims.
Crimes such as theft should have corporal punishment such as whippings or cutting off of the hands.
Adulterers should be stoned.
Apostates should be executed.
Suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified.
Homosexuality is immoral and ought to be punished.
Violating the edicts of Islam, such as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed, should be punished.
Women should not have equal treatment politically, socially, morally, and religiously.
Women, out of religious morality, should not be exposed to the view of men other than their family members or their husbands.
Honor killings are justified for women who have had premarital or extramarital sex.

There will be this objection: there are many Muslims who hold more liberal, inclusive, and tolerant views; these are isolated, extreme views. There are always fringe views and extreme views in every movement, not because the central ideology itself is corrupt but because of a few bad actors. The problem with this objection is that such high percentages of Muslims hold these views; they are mainstream. The polls show that liberal, tolerant, and inclusive Muslim ideologies are actually fringe views, and intolerance, fundamentalism, and theocratic views are held by 50%, 70% or over 90% of these populations.

Some of the evidence for 2): When morally extreme views like the ones in Islam are held by majorities or even large minorities of the population, those popular beliefs contribute directly and significantly to people’s being willing to commit suicide bombings, mass shootings, honor killing of rape victims, assaults and murders of homosexuals, and other morally abhorrent acts. In any population, there are those outliers at the political, psychological, social, and moral extremes. But as the percentages of people in the mainstream who hold similar or facilitating views goes up, there will be a greater percentage of people holding comparatively extreme views, and being willing to act on them. In the deep south in the United States, when mildly intolerant, racist. anti-segregationist, and anti-civil rights views were more mainstream, more people held profoundly racist, hateful, and violent views, contributing to the KKK’s lynching blacks, for example. The mainstream beliefs serve as a sort of incubator for the more extreme versions of the views. Whereas a man who would be reluctant to beat his wife if it was widely condemned, having Iman’s endorse wife beating and describing the sorts of transgressions that make it appropriate, and having wide percentages of the population accept it clearly make it easier, safer, and more appealing for him to beat her.

Some of the evidence for 3): The ideology of the Muslim religion itself is spreading these morally repugnant beliefs. Clearly, Islamic religious doctrine, practices, and socialization fostering the beliefs in question. Furthermore, the people who hold the beliefs, the people in the surveys above as well as ISIS, Al Queda, and the Taliban themselves adamantly and consistently claim that they have these beliefs and pursue their actions because they are religious commandments. The people holding these views and acting on them maintain that their justifications, and their guidance is Islam. Do they not know their true motivations? Are they all lying? Who would be in a better position than them to judge?

The critic may argue that while there are extreme elements of Islam that are fostering these beliefs, they do not belong to Islam more generally. The true Islam, the real Islam, that these extremists have distorted and perverted is a religion of peace and is blameless. The problem with these sorts of objections, however, is that they run the risk of committing the No True Scotsman fallacy. The polling data above shows that the views in question are held by large majorities of people in a number of Muslim majority countries. The critic then has to concede that 78% of self-described Muslims in Maylasia, or 65% of self-described Mulsims in Indonesia, or Tunisia, or Nigeria are not, in fact, real Muslims. The critic will be forced to conclude that hundreds of millions of people who consider themselves to be Muslim, who pray to Mecca five times a day, who have organized their lives and their cultures around what they take to be the literal, perfect word of Allah from the Koran, are not, in fact, Muslims at all. The other problem is that the moving the goalposts on what counts a real Islam simply misses the most important point; even if they don’t represent real Islam, we still have the problem of what to do about hundreds of millions of pseudo-Muslims who hold these views. The preponderance of the beliefs doesn’t cease when we confine “Muslim” to only those people who don’t hold them, nor does the violence, the violations of civil rights, and the abuse of women and girls. There are hundreds of millions of people out there who hold them and who are acting on them, whatever label you wish to apply to their religious faith.

Critics may also insist that there are other non-Islamic factors making a contribution, it will be difficult to plausibly argue religion isn’t playing a direct role here. The critic who wishes to argue that the real reasons do not spring from Islamic religious ideology will have to argue that the actors themselves are wrong. They don’t actually understand how they came to have these beliefs, or why they are committing these actions. The critic will have to argue that some third person analysis that points to non-Islamic factors should be favored over the actor’s own account. While I would not deny that some other factors could contribute, it would be perverse, given the facts, to deny that Islamic ideology itself played a major role. Consider a case on the other side: suppose that a person such as Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King commits acts of great positive moral value and they report that they did it because they felt that God wanted them to, or that they were moved by the love of God, or they felt a responsibility to follow God’s commandments. Are we inclined in those cases to disavow their account of their reasons and motivations in favor of some non-religious account of their behavior that denies the religious belief component? No, we accept that they did it for religious reasons, and we do so largely and simply because they said so. Hundreds of millions of Muslims hold the beliefs in question, and they claim that they have those beliefs and that they act on them for explicitly religious reasons. This critic would have us ignore our clearest indicator of why someone holds a belief--they hold it for the reasons that they themselves cite for justification--and replace the explanation with some external causes, robbing that person of moral responsibility, moral knowledge, and agency for their actions.

Claiming that being religious helps people to be moral is a bit like a fraternity’s taking credit for one of its brothers getting good grades. There are certainly some cases where some of the direct efforts by the fraternity--study hall, tutoring, minimum GPA requirements--have a positive impact on a student’s grades. But there are certainly cases where the fraternity had a direct negative effect on a student’s grades with excessive drinking, too many parties, an anti-intellectual culture, encouragements to cheat, and so on. Religious ideologies can go either way, too. They can contribute to and bring out some of the better qualities and behaviors in us, but they can also foster profound evil. And this is what is happening with Islam.